[28 July 2014]
It’s no secret that albums have structures. Songs rarely play in a randomly determined order; artists and bandmates often agonize over the playlist for weeks or months. Radiohead, for example, notoriously bickered about running orders during the final stretch of the recording sessions for Kid A and Amnesiac, nearly tearing them asunder. But it’s not for nothing. The song sequence is one of the most important facets of record-making, and it’s one that’s usually taken for granted.
Think of an album like a movie or a book. Directors and writers order their scenes and chapters in a very specific way to illuminate narrative and thematic content, and in any good film or piece of literature, each section builds off the others so that there’s a satisfying conclusion. But at the same time, it’s not something that calls attention to itself, since each part works together organically to make this seamless whole.
These same principles apply to the album. Artists have certain ideas they want to express to their audience with their albums, and listening to songs out of order corrupts the record’s purpose and the artist’s intent. After all, just like any structure, if a couple pieces are out of place, the whole thing could collapse.
Think of one of your favorite records. Is the first half all overpowering loudness? How about the second half? All soothing slow jams? I’m guessing the answer is no. But even for a genre like punk, where tempo and volume are likely on the right side of the bell curve, any good album shows a good sense of dynamics, taking care not to make songs appear one after the other if they are too similar in structure, tone or style. Even for something as homogeneous-sounding as the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks showed the good sense to match the thunderous roar of “Bodies” with the nearly melodic “No Feelings” and then go on ahead to the chugging “Liar” (on the 12-track version of the record, at least).
With that in mind, the first and last songs of every album—the intro and outro songs, as I’m going to call them—hold special importance. These are the tracks that introduce the listener to the artist’s world and compel you to come back again. A mis-chosen song could be a deal-breaker, and I’m sure there are more than a few albums I’ve reviewed that would have fared better or worse had the song sequence been changed up.
But I noticed something over the last few months. Since a lot of weight falls on these intro and outro songs, it follows that musicians use different approaches to maximize these tracks’ effectiveness. And I’m sure you’ve noticed it too, but maybe you’ve never really thought about it a lot because you, unlike me, have more important things to worry about.
I flipped through the albums in my iTunes library and came up with a conclusion: Just about every bookending track of an album fits into a specific category, regardless of when the album was released. I’m not saying that every song falls into one and only one category—some can easily slip into two or three categories if they happen to serve a couple of functions, but there most definitely is a pattern. So, I went through and made a list of all the categories of intro and outro tracks I could come up with. And then I gave them silly names.
Of course, these lists won’t necessarily apply to certain genres or every kind of record. Best-of compilations and live albums, for instance, aren’t often intended as major artistic statements. (Specifically, musicians base live albums and concerts around what would make for the best show, not necessarily what would make for the best statement, if you get me.) Also, movie scores, soundtracks, cast recordings, and their ilk are usually sequenced based on how the songs appeared in the corresponding show or film. Then we have those records designed like symphonies with two or three extended tracks, or those made up of improvised sets of some purposeful avant-weirdness… this probably won’t apply to those either. But I’m fairly certain that for 95% of any other sort of record, these categories fit the bill.
1. The “Intro” Intro
Let’s start off with the most obvious, shall we? The “Intro” Intros are just that: songs that are meant as nothing more than introductions. These are the ones often called “Intro” and are usually, but not always, short instrumentals or skits that act as overtures to the rest of the album, setting the mood before fading into the next song. For example, Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter begins with “Introduction”, a short, stirring piece that acquaints the listener with the sorts of instruments and moods that the record will explore.
Nick Drake - “Introduction”
Interestingly, the “Intro” Intro is now most frequently used on modern hip-hop records. Albums as diverse as Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique all make use of the device, giving a taste of what’s to come. Of course, its use in hip-hop is largely due to the preponderance of skits on modern rap records, a trend inspired by the recurring sketches on De La Soul’s 3 Feet And Rising, which itself had an “Intro” Intro. But the way De La Soul’s “Intro” spawns that series of game-show sketches that snake their way throughout the record also makes it an example of…
2. The “Part 1”
Often but not necessarily found on concept albums, the “Part 1″ is an intro song that correlates to other songs later on the album, mostly by sharing some sort of musical or lyrical motif. In a way, the “Part 1″ is very similar to the “Intro” Intro, but where the latter is disconnected from the rest of the album, “Part 1’s” perform a more conceptual and structural function within the album.
Consider The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Beginning with the title track, where the Club Band invites the audience to “enjoy the show” they are about to put on, the album plays with this concept before picking up this thread on a reprise of the title track, where the concert comes to a close. Roger Waters was also a huge fan of the “Part 1”, working them into several Pink Floyd albums. For instance, The Wall‘s “In the Flesh?,” like “Sgt. Pepper’s,” begins with talk of a “show” and lays out some of the album’s thematic concerns. Later, “In the Flesh” revisits the same musical structure but addresses the lyrics from a different vantage point, one of extreme ego and social disconnection. In a sense, a “Part 1″ serves to add cohesion to these sorts of ambitious concept records, which can otherwise come across as erratic or indulgent.
The Beatles - “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
3. The Big Single
The Big Single approach gives the people what they want right away, starting the the album off with a hit single (or, at least, a single the artist hoped would be a hit). It’s not always immediately apparent what albums employ this method since singles continue to trickle out months after an album is released, so this is a category that usually comes in to play after the fact. Unsurprisingly, pop musicians, whose songs have the most widespread exposure, most often take advantage of the Big Single, with albums ranging from Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time to George Michael’s Faith all featuring smash hits (and, coincidentally, title tracks) as their first song.
4. The Big Daddy
The Big Daddy is an intro song that is substantially longer than the rest of the tracks on the album, usually acting as the centerpiece of the record. Generally, these songs show up on more experimental and underground albums, where longer, challenging compositions are more common. Sometimes, Big Daddies are meant to be the focal point of the album, such as Brian Eno’s 17-minute “1/1“, which features on Ambient 1/Music For Airports. Other times, they are lengthy mood-setters that set the tone for the rest of the record (see “Metronomic Underground” from Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup or “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Either way, the sheer size of the Big Daddy, lends it an air of significance within the album’s playlist. A successful Big Daddy will blow your mind before the album even begins; a botched Big Daddy will make you shout in exasperation, “That was only the first track?!” as it draws to a close.
Stereolab - “Metronomic Underground”
5. The Lullaby
The Lullaby is a quiet or slow-tempo intro song that frequently sets up the second track, which is faster, louder or a Big Single. Though Lullabies can be album highlights in and of themselves, their primary function is often to provide a contrast to the next song so that it has a greater impact. Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, the gently propulsive “The Stars of Track and Field” unfolds into the wry, complex “Seeing Other People,” which is oddly louder and ever so more upbeat, though it’s still miles away from anything conventionally rocking.
Belle and Sebastian - “The Stars of Track and Field”
6. The Pump-Up
The opposite of the Lullaby, the Pump-Up is a loud, up-tempo or highly rhythmic track intended to get the listener excited for the rest of the album. Very often these songs are also Big Singles, but it needn’t always be the case: Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions begins with the jazzy funk of “Too High”, which bounces on slick synths and an elastic bass riff before settling down for the spacey ballad “Visions”. Elsewhere, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy begins with the sunny, proggy rush of “The Song Remains the Same”, while the revolutionary title track of John Coltrane’s Giant Steps starts things off with fiery, frenzied chord changes.
Led Zeppelin - “The Song Remains the Same”
7. The Warning Shot
The Warning Shot is an intro song that is stylistically divergent from the artist’s usual fare and is usually indicative of the rest of the album. In short, it signals to the listener that they are in for something new and different. This is relatively common, given that most musicians evolve throughout their respective careers, changing their sounds up at least once. Sometimes, Warning Shots aren’t that jarring: Frank Sinatra’s classic meditation on loneliness, In the Wee Small Hours, which begins with its title cut, is vastly different from much of his early work, but it’s something his fans can easily acclimate to. Yet, sometimes Warning Shots are purposefully startling, like how on Pulp’s “The Fear”, Jarvis Cocker cautions the listener that they’re in for a darker, heavier sound on This Is Hardcore and that “you’re gonna like it but not a lot”.
Pulp - “The Fear”
8. The Red Herring
Relatively rare, the Red Herring is an intro song whose sound, style or tone is substantially different from the rest of the album. Sometimes this song subverts the Warning Shot, having a sound fans associate with the band before the rest of the album switches to something new—try the simple, guitar-driven “Futile Devices” on Sufjan Stevens’ otherwise dense and ambitious The Age of Adz. More likely, though, the Red Herring will be a one-off genre experiment meant to show off the artist’s versatility. For example, for being one of the most highly touted punk bands to come out of CBGB’s, Talking Heads threw everyone for a loop with “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”, whose Motown rhythms and Caribbean inflections are decidedly out-of-place on Talking Heads: 77, even if the rest of the songs are similarly off-kilter.
Talking Heads - “Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town”
9. The Highlight
Well, this isn’t a formal category—I was going to write that one of the best songs on an album is quite often the first song on the album. And then I realized that’s impossible to prove since that’s extremely subjective. But go through your music library and tell me I’m wrong.
In the first section of this article, I described the importance of album structure and how artists routinely agonize over playlists so that their albums achieve the right momentum. But we are, as they say, in the Digital Age, where MP3s and streaming have largely replaced physical formats and cloud-based databases are threatening bookshelves of CDs. This has far-reaching implications, many of which I’m sure you’ve been beaten to death with every time you’ve opened up a music magazine (or webpage) for the last decade. For our immediate goals, I’m going to discuss one of these implications: the perceived “death of the album”.
To be a tad reductive, the “album is dead” theory posits that since digital music files easily allow for consumers to buy and listen to music on a song-by-song basis, no one is really listening to albums as a whole anymore.
On the surface, this argument makes sense. Singles were always available to buy in a physical format, but with the advent of digital music stores and file sharing, buying single songs became both cheaper and more accessible, so they sold better. Plus, for the first time, it wasn’t just limited to officially released singles: Virtually every song on every album became available for individual purchase (or streaming or, if you will, theft). Because of this, and because people are now making their own playlists and listening to albums in fragments, the concept of the album as a definitive artistic statement is supposedly in peril.
Well, it’s been nearly ten years since the iTunes Store was launched and changed the way people buy music, and the album’s still here. And I don’t think it’s going anywhere, at least anywhere in the foreseeable future. I may be in the minority here, and I completely understand and even agree with many of the arguments on the other side, but I have a dissenting theory I’d like to float instead.
The album isn’t dead; it’s just changed.
Because it’s no longer the dominant or sole way to consume music, artists are taking advantage of the Internet to release music in new, inventive ways. Some musicians, perhaps also assuming the album is dead, have toyed with the idea of putting out only EPs or singles rather than albums. But most notably, the Flaming Lips have really stretched the limits of how they release music, distributing everything from a 24-hour song to a flash drive lodged inside a gummy skull.
Yet, these instances are the exception; nearly all artists still churn out albums because nothing has successfully replaced them as vessels for major artistic statements. The fear the album is dead stems from the idea that all the kids these days are just picking and choosing what they want from albums, so they are listening to albums in a way the artist never intended. And while I’m sure that’s the case with a sizable chunk of people, I still don’t think that mindset is widespread enough to knock out the album entirely.
For one, there will always be diehard music fans willing to buy complete records, if for no other reason than to just own more music from the artists they love. Whether they are fans of Taylor Swift, the Melvins, or Big Boi, they will listen to these albums late at night, absorbing the music and words, and playing it in their cars for their friends. Also, since when is the ability to skip songs on an album new? CD players allow you to easily skip, shuffle and program which songs you want to listen to, something people were doing years before an iPod even existed.
Moreover, although singles sell better than ever, it’s singles that drive album sales: A casual Adele fan may have bought “Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You” when they heard them on the radio, but how many of those people went out soon after and bought 21? Well, I’m guessing a hell of a whole lot, considering that as of this date, 21 is certified diamond by the RIAA—and that’s not even counting all the copies illegally file-shared.
There are a lot of cool, gimmicky release methods out there, but given that these Intro and Outro categories I’m listing are still relevant to current records, it seems artists are still putting the time and effort into playlists and structure. They’re pledging their support to the album, which may be going through some stuff right now but isn’t down for the count quite yet.
Many of the outro song categories are similar or identical to the categories of intro songs they just worked out that way.
1. The “Outro” Outro
The “Outro” Outro is a song whose sole purpose is to downshift from the previous song to provide a proper closing to the album. You know, these are the ones sometimes titled “Outro” or some variation thereof and are short instrumentals or bits of dialogue that sum up the spirit of the album. Sometimes, the “Outro” Outro is a song with a marked “goodbye” tone in the lyrics and music, such as the Beatles’ “Good Night”. “Outro” Outros are much less common than “Intro” Intros but don’t tend to overwhelmingly dwell in one particular genre, appearing on everything from the Fugees’ The Score to Brad Paisley’s Time Well Wasted.
The Beatles - “Good Night”
2. The Bookend
Corresponding to the “Part 1,” the Bookend concludes some conceptual conceits or motifs that threaded their way throughout the album. In hip-hop albums, for example, this could mean ending the series of connected skits that broke up the record. More often, however, the Bookend ends up being more of a reprise of or sequel to a previous song on the album. Recently, on Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, “The Suburbs (Continued)” reworks the melody and lyrics from the title track, and ends the album on a haunting, regretful note. Essentially, the Bookend is a more specific version of the “Outro” Outro, ending the album in much the same way but having a more direct connection to the preceding songs in some fashion.
Arcade Fire - “The Suburbs (Continued)”
3. The Culmination
Often found on concept albums, the Culmination is a song that brings the themes explored on the album to a conclusion, either explicitly (for instance, The Wall‘s “Outside the Wall”) or by implying that the artist has leaned some sort of lesson or reached some sort of breaking point. The Culmination is often characterized by a distinct shift in mood or tone from the previous songs. On Sea Change, Beck mainly spends the album dissecting his recent breakup, asking questions without getting answers. Yet, he finishes things off with “Side of the Road,” which seems to end things with a positive sense of closure. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen’s characters languish in pessimism and desperation on Nebraska, but the Boss raises the curtain for “Reason to Believe”, where he admires the tenacity of those downtrodden folks who still look to the future with hope.
Beck - “Side of the Road”
4. The Pipsqueak
The Pipsqueak is a short, often lighthearted outro song that has enough of its own identity not to be considered an “Outro” Outro. Think of how Abbey Road ends with the miniature folk vignette “Her Majesty” or how the off-the-cuff singalong “Cripple Creek Ferry” closes out Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush.
Neil Young - “Cripple Creek Ferry”
5. The Triumph
The Triumph is analogous to the Pump-Up, a brighter, more anthemic song meant to bring the album to an exciting or satisfying close. “Brighter” doesn’t necessarily equal “optimistic”: Metallica’s eponymous record—the so-called Black Album—races to the finish with “The Struggle Within,” which thrashes faster than much of what precedes it. On the other hand, the Triumph is rarely sullen and is often hopeful or playful: Animal Collective decided to disrupt Merriweather Post Pavilion‘s aquatic flow with the ecstatic rave-up “Brother Sport”, in which Panda Bear encourages his brother to move forward after their father’s death.
Metallica - “The Struggle Within”
6. The Sigh
Finishing an album with a somber, ruminating song results in the Sigh. Unlike the Lullaby, the Sigh doesn’t necessarily have to provide an immediate contrast to the previous tracks, sometimes just acting as a quiet, charming coda to the record. The Shins, for instance, have used this approach on all of their records to date—”A Comet Appears,” the track that ends Wincing The Night Away, is a gentler Shins track than most. Sighs don’t have to be precious, hopeful tracks though: Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures concludes with “I Remember Nothing,” which is just as cheery as any other Joy Division song and twice as slow.
Joy Division - “I Remember Nothing”
7. The Monty Python
“And now for something completely different.” The Monty Python is an outro song very different in style or tone than much or all of the preceding album. Since it waits until to the end to challenge their audience’s expectations, the Monty Python is far more common than the Red Herring, which has the potential to alienate listeners from the get go. Sometimes Pythons are intended as a more profound artistic statement, like Revolver‘s groundbreaking “Tomorrow Never Knows”. (I’ve been trying to mix it up, so sorry to keep using the Beatles—they’re just responsible for some of the most well-known examples.) Yet, sometimes an artist uses a Monty Python to add diversity to their album. In 2011, Bon Iver divided critical and popular opinion when it chose to end its self-titled record with “Beth/Rest”, a Phil Collins-esque stab at adult contemporary that only had tenuous connections to the rest of the record.
Bon Iver - “Beth/Rest”
8. The Big Daddy
Identical to the intro song category, the Big Daddy is simply an outro song that is noticeably longer than the rest of the tracks on the album. They are occasionally cast as major statements or album centerpieces, but are most often used as ways to close out the record in grand fashion. The Doors notoriously closed out their eponymous debut album with the apocalyptic 12-minute “The End”, while Sonic Youth ended Washing Machine with one of their longest and most impressive noise-jams, “The Diamond Sea”.
The Doors - “This is the End”
9. The Big Single
Also identical to its intro song counterpart, the Big Single approach simply places a released or planned single as the final song on an album. It’s handy tool, once again primarily used by pop musicians, to end a record with a surplus of momentum. While it wasn’t the biggest song on the album, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul finished with “Ain’t No Way”, a later single that was a minor hit in the late 1960s. Lately, though, album outros have yielded some incredibly successful pop singles: Lady Gaga’s Born This Way finished with “The Edge of Glory”, while Adele’s 21 ended with “Someone Like You“.