Claire: We’re wading through our record collections this month and taking a look at opening tracks, middle tracks, closing tracks, penultimate tracks, with, as always, some musical nostalgia and High Fidelity references thrown in. The idea for this month’s theme started with both of us rereading High Fidelity, as all good ideas do.
So what makes a good album opener? A giant musical blast, or a soft hand-held intro? A song that hints at a great album and delivers, or song that cons you into listening to something subpar? We landed on all of the above.
“Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” by Arcade Fire, on Funeral
This song has the softest opening of any of the songs on this list, but like the album it begins, it swells to a grand and exhilarating scale. It positively exudes the childhood wonder that permeates this album: It’s like Win Butler dropped acid and mentally regressed to age 6 and wrote an album about it. The instrumentation of the song reflects that idea, with wide open, repetitive piano chords and simple, bass drum heavy drumming. This song made me listen to everything Arcade Fire ever wrote.
“Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine, on Lungs
I once told my brother Daniel I’d love to cover this song…if I only had a harp. It’s so infectious. I think it’s the clapping that causes this song to just stick in your head for months after you hear it. And Florence’s voice…Jeebos. Unfortunately, it has a level of promise that the rest of the album just doesn’t quite live up to. And the album is pretty damn good too, but this is a masterpiece, hands down. Just try to get it out of your head. Good luck. Side note: Florence Welch sings about horses all the fucking time.
“The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon, on Graceland
A perfect way to start what I think is one of the most perfect albums ever written. How Simon makes accordion so appealing, I’ll never know. And that bass! Oh man, I have dreams of being the bassist for this album like three times a week. The lyrical phrasing and timing of this song is great, too: it’s never quite on the beat, but either just behind it or just ahead of it. The song signals what’s to come in the album and glib and ironic ideas of what’s to come in America from 1986 on. And lasers! Bizzow!
“Testify” by Rage Against the Machine, on Battle of Los Angeles
I don’t think you can talk about album openers without talking about Rage Against the Machine. Every album they had opened with an insanely “up” song and this is no exception. And it’s tight. Tight like the whole album is, much more so than their other albums. It’s like the album was designed to be listened to start to finish each time, each song building on the intensity and message of the previous. It may not have been as caustic as the previous albums, but I think it’s their best, and this is the best way to open that album.
“Don’t Carry It All” by The Decemberists, on The King Is Dead
This is my favorite album opener on the list, hands down. Those of you familiar with the Decemberists know that their previous albums were all steeped in the tradition of British folk revival; that is, it sounded like their music was plucked out of a galley of a whaling ship in 1860. This is decidedly different: Big, open major chords, harmonica, beautiful mandolin and backing vocals. It’s the Decemberists’ take on classic Americana. It’s exactly what they sing about: A “turning of the season.” Let’s raise a glass!
“Bat Out of Hell” by Meat Loaf, on Bat Out of Hell: Almost all of his songs are about losing his virginity, except this one, in where he beefs it on a motorcycle. Bad. Ass.
“1816, the Year Without a Summer” by Rasputina, on Oh Perilous World: Sets the stage for historical epic as commentary on the Iraq war. But this song, as Melora Creager is oft to say at performances, is a song about the weather.
“Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, on Stop Making Sense: God, this was so close to making the top list. It’s amazing. The guitar work is impeccable.
“Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On),” by the Talking Heads, on Remain in Light
I owned “Remain in Light” for years before I listened to the whole album because I could not get past this song. Funky, bizarre, like if Brian Eno and Parliament Funkadelic made a new wave love child. It’s rare to have an album start to with a burst like this, but as you can see from Joshua’s Honorary Mentions, the Talking Heads excel at this: “Burning Down the House” was a track one, as was “And She Was” which, though not as rowdy or bizarre, begins with a jolting “Hey!”
If, like me, you spend part of your week writing about albums, and the bulk of it reading stuff about the War on Women, don’t be surprised when the line “…And I’m a government man” gets stuck in your head. And the reoccuring dream where Rick Santorum dances to “Born Under Punches”? Occupational hazard.
“Box of Rain,” by the Grateful Dead, on American Beauty
The first time I ever listened to the Grateful Dead by myself, outside of my parents’ cars or stereo, was when I was fifteen and suddenly obsessed with “American Beauty.” It’s not a creative first Dead album, but I fell into that deep musical love with it, the kind where you listen to an album on repeat for a whole year with very few pauses for other music. This was the song I replayed the most. Beautiful, gentle, and one of the very few times where Robert Hunter’s odd-quasi-poetic lyrics got under my skin.
“Miss You,” by The Rolling Stones, on Some Girls
Is it weird that I’m always embarassed to write about the Rolling Stones? Is it because every time I play the “What band does everyone like that you don’t?” game with people, The Rolling Stones always come up? (Top 5 answers to that question: Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, The Who, Radiohead) Anyway, great opening to a great album—tense, sonically interesting (shuffling from oohs to aahs, singing to lyrics, and a nice showcase of Jagger’s weird and limited range) (none of those sound like compliments, but really, it’s a good song. Jagger is okay too.), and a solid introduction to the feel of the album overall.
“6’1″,” by Liz Phair, on Exile in Guyville
The irony of the placement here is not lost on me. This was Phair’s first album, so who knew what to expect. But when the guitar starts, and then her funny flat-ish voice throws out a catchy balance of anger and snark and imagery—you want to sit down and listen to the whole record. Even now, when Phair has since sold out and sold back in, has made good albums and not so good albums, when we all know what’s up with her and have for a while, this song has that “I want to know this girl, and I want to hear what she says next” quality.
“Cooksferry Queen,” by Richard Thompson, on Mock Tudor
What can I say? I like a tense opener. Listen to the first few bars of “Miss You” and “Cooksferry Queen” and you’ll understand. This song builds—in speed, in lyrical content, in Thompson’s voice, which goes from smooth and steady to gruff and growling. And it has the classic Thompson song story— Boy named James/Mulvaeney/Insert-British-sounding-name-here meets redheaded/curlyheaded/pigheaded girl, goes on a heady adventure with his ill-fated love, encounters danger/far flung small town locales/psychedelic imagery.
“Welcome to the Working Week,” Elvis Costello on My Aim is True: I listened to this song so many times at a long ago terrible job that it will always remind me of crying while eating a sandwich. For all you pop-music-lovers or terrible-job-havers (or anyone looking for a good, upbeat sandwich cry), this is a great song. Enjoy.
“Blue Bird,” Bonnie Raitt on Bonnie Raitt: A happy, lovely opening to a sometimes happy, always lovely self-titled freshman album by Bonnie Raitt.
“Icky Thump,” by the White Stripes on Icky Thump: I completely forgot about this album. These things happen. Welcome to the honorable mentions category, White Stripes.