There is a good reason why it has taken 347 editions of my Tuesday Ten series to get ’round to doing my favourite opening tracks – mainly because I didn’t want to come across all Rob Gordon and Barry Judd in High Fidelity.
But then, last week, the Steve Lamacq show announced they were doing the Album Opener “World Cup” this week (a listener-vote “knockout” of sixteen songs on a subject), and frankly, the list is a bit obvious. Which gave me extra impetus to find among the suggestions from my friends – and a few of my own – that really nailed down why the opening track on an album is so important to “set the scene”.
In addition, I’m well aware that this is something of a nostalgic list this week. Is that, perhaps, because the album format isn’t quite as important anymore? Or simply that I can’t think of anything really great that is newer. Probably a bit of both. Anyway, thanks as ever for your suggestions, and next week I’ll be looking at great closing songs.
A quick explanation for new readers (hi there!): my Tuesday Ten series has been running since March 2007, and each month features at least ten new songs you should hear – and in between those monthly posts, I feature songs on a variety of subjects, with some of the songs featured coming from suggestion threads on Facebook.
Feel free to get involved with these – the more the merrier, and the breadth of suggestions that I get continues to astound. Otherwise, as usual, if you’ve got something you want me to hear, something I should be writing about, or even a gig I should be attending, e-mail me, or drop me a line on Facebook (details below).
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The pitch-dark masterpiece that is Mezzanine (and which perhaps unsurprisingly gets a twentieth anniversary tidy-up and re-issue next month) has an appropriately ominous, colossal opening track. It enters the fray by way of a bass rumble that seems to be suggesting armageddon on the horizon, before Horace Andy’s impassioned vocal rises it out of the murk…and then the drums and guitars crash in, making for a dramatic storm of a track that eventually returns into the murky, bass-led shadows that it came from in the first place.
Probably one of the greatest garage-rock artists of the modern age, Jon Spencer has released album after album of electrifying rock’n’roll, but as far as I’m concerned none of them come close to Orange, and in particularly the freewheeling groove of Bellbottoms. It is so astonishingly simple – Judah Bauer on bass, Jon Spencer on guitar and slogans (yea-uh!), and Russell Simins on pummelling drums, but has such power and force that for many of us, this was the track that dragged into worship at the altar of the Blues Explosion. The album version (a full two minutes longer than the single version) makes you wait for it, though, as the first couple of minutes provide a kinda warm-up intro complete with a string section. It’s worth the wait, though, as Bauer’s bassline cuts through the room and heralds the beginning of the raw bones of the song.
Packs of Three
“It was the biggest cock you’d ever seen,
But you’ve no idea where that cock has been.”
I think it’s fair to say that this is by far the most striking opening line featured this week – especially when those words are the first things you hear on this album. It is also probably the most sparse track featured here – rather than the intensity and rage on many of the tracks, this is a cheap drum machine, a strummed guitar, and Aidan Moffat’s vocals…and that’s basically it, as he reels off another of his tales of infidelity and heartbreak. But Arab Strap were never meant to be complicated. They got across the shitty side of relationships – and self – so well that you can dip into most of their albums and find truth, but on this album, it’s better than ever.
My Mind Still Speaks
Misery Loves Co.
Metal – and particularly industrial metal – has a long history of opening albums with tracks that hit like a sledgehammer, and I’m featuring two of those here this week. The first is the opening track from recently-returned Swedish industrial-metal band Misery Loves Co., who while they were perhaps better known later in their first incarnation for evolving their sound into a moody, atmospheric take on industrial metal, in the first instance were bludgeoningly heavy. This track shows that neatly, as Patrick Wiren roars his vocals (you can almost feel the physical effort in his delivery), and the mechanical beats that work in lockstep with the guitars – and this song starts a brutal run of powerful songs in the first half of this album, where aside from the lengthy intro to the industrial fury of second track Kiss Your Boots, it barely takes a breath.
Mr Self Destruct
The Downward Spiral
I remember this track absolutely blowing my mind the first time I heard it, on a friend’s Walkman in sixth form, the year it came out. A simple, almost mono kick drum that picks up pace over the first thirty seconds introduces things (accompanied by a sample of a prison beating from THX 1138), before everything else in the mix appears at once, and the result is quite the shock. The track is, of course, brutal, dense industrial electronics, with everything coming together to provide one of the most shockingly aggressive opening tracks I can think of, and sets the tone perfectly for what remains Trent Reznor’s greatest work as Nine Inch Nails.
Paradise Lost are one of those bands that have often put their best-foot forward – by putting the best track on the album first (curiously, their local peers My Dying Bride do this perhaps even more) – but they never got better than the majestic Enchantment that opens probably their career peak Draconian Times. It was also important as a sign of how fast the band were evolving. As they began to introduce more electronics into the mix over subsequent albums, it became ever more divisive (see more about that on Talk Show Host: 045 earlier this year), but here the electronics are used to enhance to doomed atmosphere and to supercharge songs that were brilliantly written in the first place. This song, too, is a perfect example of a song that teases out a relatively lengthy intro, setting the scene to come, before the soaring glory of the main body of the track takes over.
I had intended on ensuring that I didn’t feature any of the bands that might be featured on Lamacq’s fun “knockout” competition this week, but I love this song so much that I couldn’t not feature it – particularly as Lamacq’s list mystifyingly includes Airbag instead, which isn’t half as good as this. This song was perhaps the point where we should have realised from the off that Radiohead had far greater ambitions than the limited guitar rock of Pablo Honey. The swirls of synths introduce this song like a fog around the knees, and the treated piano and guitars that create a woozy, unsettling atmosphere only add to the cryptic mystery of a song that I’ve never quite understood, but adore all the same. The Bends took many of us some time to seep in, but the perseverence was worth it, as it is still a brilliant album – and this track is the perfect place to start.
Not all opening tracks need a dramatic intro, as The Jesus Lizard prove. Here, the effect is like the entire band crashing through the door all at once. Or, as Pitchfork memorably put it:
“The start of “Boilermaker” is like coming out of a blackout to find yourself in the middle of a bar fight“. They aren’t wrong, either. The Jesus Lizard, at their best, were never particularly subtle, their songs lasting only a few minutes and almost always of shocking intensity and insanity – in fact, much like the two minutes-and-change of Boilermaker. In fact, pretty much the only competitor to this entry here was the similar jet-engine blast of Panasonic Youth, by The Dillinger Escape Plan.
Album of the Year
I was not short of choice for Faith No More openers – I could just as easily have included the charge of From Out of Nowhere from The Real Thing, for example – but I decided to feature the brilliance of the opener from their oft-overlooked “last” album before they split at the turn of the millenium. Album of the Year is a whole lot better than many will have you believe – and continues with the genre-busting variety of songs that FNM had by this point made their own. Like The Jesus Lizard’s Boilermaker, this blasts out of the traps with no warning whatsoever, but rather than keeping the throttle to the floor, it alternates between more considered verses and the absolute blast of the chorus. It also rather cleverly wrongfoots the listener, too, as you might expect the full force of the band’s sound for a few songs after this, too – but instead the melancholy, elegant Stripsearch follows (and is one of my favourite FNM songs, too).
Burn My Eyes
Finally, arguably the only song in this list to be not only an opening track on an album, but also to be the first track of the band many of us heard, and probably remains their best-known, too. Davidian is a monster of a track that does the job of the opening track so well – it has the opening riff, the pounding, heavy intro…then that massive chorus hook, and finally the seemingly endless breakdown. Machine Head may have gotten more critical success later in their career – with some missteps along the way – but for me it’s difficult to top this as an opening. And as Machine Head appear to be coming to an end, maybe this will remain the song they are forever remembered for. Or as far as I’m concerned, it should be, anyway.