With the huge rise in digital music sales over the last few years, the power of YouTube and the prevalence of pre-release album streams, it is now possible to preview pretty much every song before you buy an album, or even purchase only the individual tracks that float your boat. The magic of ripping the packaging off a CD, sweaty little hands shaking in anticipation, lifting the shiny plastic disc out of its case and putting it into your CD player with absolutely no idea what will burst forth from your speakers, has, to some extent, been lost.
In some ways it is a shame that we no longer buy an album purely based on the strength of a couple of singles, a good live show or some amazing cover art. That said, album openers remain just as (if not more) important in showcasing a band’s music. Online streaming means that that first track is what decides whether we give the rest of the album a spin, and whether we’ll part with our hard-earned cash for a copy of our own.
There are so many different ways to start an album: an epic slow-builder or an in-your-face intro? An artistic statement or the album’s only good song? Hit the jump to get a taste of twenty perfect take offs.
Words by Confusion, Constant Gardner, Midas & Monster
The Rolling Stones – “Gimme Shelter” (Let It Bleed)
This one is a classic. “Gimme Shelter” can make anything feel huge. Play it during a movie and the scene instantly becomes epic. Play it during footage of a riot and it’s impossible not to feel like something historic is going on. Shit, play it first thing in the morning and your first move of the day is probably going to be filled with aspiration. Play it as track number one of Let It Bleed, and you can’t get much more of an iconic song–that is, until you get to the album closer, but that’s another post all together.
LCD Soundsystem – “Dance Yrself Clean” (This Is Happening)
James Murphy loves a good belter of an album opener (see “Daft Is Playing At My House”, “Get Innocuous!”) but it is the first track of LCD Soundsystem’s last album as a band that is a real slow-building masterpiece. Full of funkiness and world-weary lyricism this could be the soundtrack to both a contemplative night in alone sipping red wine or a debauched night out drinking anything you can get your hands on.
The Streets – “Turn The Page” (Original Pirate Material)
It is often the opening track of a debut album that makes the biggest impression as it serves as a statement of intent and a real welcome to a new band, and when that one track encapsulates the very essence of a new sound then it’s likely to stick in your head forever. This could almost perfectly describe “Turn The Page” – in one track all The Streets best qualities are evident. We get a bouncy mutant garage beat, Mike Skinner’s staccato, tongue-twisting, reference-heavy delivery, and a nice big helping of geezer on top. This is a classic album opener from a classic album.
The Strokes – “Is This It” (Is This It)
In 2009 NME gave The Stokes’ debut album Is This It top placement on its list of the “100 Greatest Albums Of The Decade”. A pretty lofty honor considering the roster of stellar releases that fell within that first 10-year window of the New Millennium. Whether the album was deserving of such a prestigious accolade or not is debatable, but the significance of its release for The Strokes and the influence it had on underground NYC garage rock is not. While there is nothing musically overwhelming about the title track, it does essentially sum up everything The Stokes are about… not giving a fuck. Whether genuine or a meticulously crafted charade, it’s been the band’s calling card since day one and “Is This It” is the musical embodiment of that attitude.
2Pac – “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” (All Eyes On Me)
With All Eyes On Me, 2Pac made the big step into a full-blown lifestyle change with his first album on Suge Knight’s Death Row Records. Throughout his career, the West Coast icon played contradicting roles ranging from sensitive poet to the definition of thug. “Ambitionz Az A Ridha” is the introduction to Pac’s new attitude. Tupac Shakur was a deep dude, a man that often seemed torn between conflicting ideologies and schools of thought. While his songs about struggle, pain, and injustice were among his most meaningful, there is something about his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude that resonates with people just as strongly. His attitude was “fuck it” and motherfuckers loved it.
The xx – “Intro” (xx)
The xx seemingly came out of nowhere. They just appeared one day, and no one seemed to know how to categorize them. The name of the band gave no hint as to what they would sound like. The album cover was even less helpful, the large, now iconic white “X” on a black square. “Intro,” followed the trend, an instrumental track somewhere between something for a movie score, a hip-hop track with some hauntingly spare guitar riffs and low, menacing synths. After listening to the opening track to xx, you still didn’t know what this band was, but you knew they were good, and you were going to keep listening.
Sublime – “Garden Grove” (Sublime)
“Garden Grove” kind of feels like the first hour of a road trip–a true “getting ready for something big” piece of music. It immediately sets a different tone than 40 oz. To Freedom with more crisp production and a less sloppy, reckless feel to it, but it still works in that West Coast, reggae tinged sound that the band is famous for. Without ever really breaking or introducing a big chorus that would make other songs on this album hit records, “Garden Grove” was the perfect way to kick off Sublime’s second album.
Common – “Be” (Be)
Kanye’s extremely well known for his intros. Every single one of his albums kicks off strong, and all of the track #1’s in his catalog are inarguably classics at this point. However, the best intro he ever created wasn’t on one of his own albums. “Be” builds something out of nothing; a huge, beautiful beat out of some random guitar strumming. Before Common even raps you’re already amazed by how good this track is. And when he does rap on it, things just get better.
Bon Iver – “Flume” (For Emma, Forever Ago)
Who would have thought the man who slowly and carefully crafted the fragile, often heartbreaking songs on For Emma, Forever Ago alone in a snow covered cabin in Wisconsin would some day be on stage with Kanye at Coachella? Certainly not me. Wherever Justin Vernon’s career takes him, and whatever new sounds he decides to explore in the future, “Flume” will always epitomize the sound of his exquisite first album with its acoustic guitar, hazy high-pitched vocals and haunting multi-layered soundscapes. Snow covered perfection.
Tyler, the Creator – “Goblin” (Goblin)
“Goblin” covers fairly familiar rap album territory of not being a role-model and trying to live up to expectations, but in an inimitably Tyler way, as it’s turned into a 6 minute plus cathartic roller coaster on an album opener. Much of OF’s output is defined by it’s violence, obscenity and aggression, but when that is combined with brutal honesty, a sparse industrial beat and a growling almost spoken-word delivery the result is truly potent.
Led Zeppelin – “Black Dog” (Led Zeppelin IV)
You never know when your favorite rock band is going to go soft. It happens to the best of them. For one reason or another, rock stars either lose their edge, go crazy, or die. With Led Zeppelin III, the band started showing off more of their acoustic side. They pulled it off well, and songs like “Tangerine” would become classics, but you had to wonder if this was the beginning of a slow mellowing that would eventually turn into easy listening collaborations with fiddle-playing country singers. On the opening song to Led Zeppelin IV, they proved that wasn’t happening–at least, not yet. The driving riff on “Black Dog” is the shit that can make a kid want to learn to play guitar.
Boys Noize – “&Down” (Oi Oi Oi)
You know up at the top there where I talked about an “in your face intro”? Well this my friends is what I was referring to. Alex Ridha aka Boys Noize has one of the best live shows of any DJ and “& Down”, the introduction to his 2007 album Oi Oi Oi, just screams strobe lights and sweaty, happy crowds of ravers. No slow build here, this is pure electro awesomeness from the get-go, and must be listened to at full volume.
Wilco- “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
Before Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, fans pretty much knew what to expect of Wilco. This album was a whole other story, and that was clear from the beginning. “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” keeps some of those classic elements that people expect from Wilco, but over the seven minutes of this song’s life, it falls apart several times, deconstructing the traditional body of sound that we’re used to hearing and giving a glimpse into the more experimental direction this album would take.
MGMT – “Time To Pretend” (Oracular Spectacular)
Using a rework of a two-year old track (that was also your first single) as your album opener might seem counter-intuitive, but I guess if your going to “move to Paris, shoot some heroin, and fuck with the stars” you don’t really give a shit. MGMT set out their psych-rock with a pop chorus stall with this album opener, and it really is a great thing to behold. From this masterful launchpad, the rest of the album carries onwards and upwards in a vein of hazy youthful innocence and killer melodies, but it is those first 261 seconds of “Time To Pretend” that are the sweetest.
Cannibal Ox – “Iron Galaxy” (The Cold Vein)
In the world of post-Y2K underground hip-hop, it doesn’t get much more iconic than Cannibal Ox’s The Cold Vein. Everything about this album–from the massive, chaotic production courtesy of El-P to the NYC slang spit by Vast Aire and Vordul Mega–fits. Up close, it’s almost overwhelmingly busy, but from a distance it all starts to make sense, like a helicopter view of the grid we call New York City. “Iron Galaxy” is the lift off.
Kings of Leon – “Closer” (Only By The Night)
The Followill clan may have lost a lot of their original fans and their rock and roll credibility (whatever that is) with their latest album, but “Closer” is never going to lose any of it’s slow-building power. Mmm, the spooky reverb-heavy guitar, ah those crunching drums and ooh the whiskey soaked vocals. I think I need to go and have a sit down and a nice cup of tea. Sure I’ve never been able to work out what the song’s about, but who cares when you can crank it up loud and imagine you’re standing in a desert howling at the moon.
Van Morrision – “Astral Weeks” (Astral Weeks)
Van Morrison will probably always best be known for his hits like “Brown Eyed Girl,” but the free-form jazz styling of his second album, Astral Weeks, has the Irish singer harnessing that voice of his in a completely different way. The free-form jazz/folk styling of the album is apparent right from the jump off, with the opening title track meandering through strings, woodwinds, and a strolling upright bass unchained by structure. Morrison later explained, “They were jazz musicians and the approach was jazz. They were able to follow me. I’d tell them: Just follow where I’m going…follow my vocal, and follow the best way you can, and don’t get in the way.” The result could have been disaster. Instead, a classic album was made.
Arctic Monkeys – “Brianstorm” (Favourite Worst Nightmare)
How do you return after releasing the fastest selling debut album in UK history, and being critically acclaimed as the savior of rock and roll in a post-Libertines musical landscape? Well, one way is to cram the power and punch of a five minute track into just under 3 minutes of brutally fast drumming and raucous guitars. Alex Turner’s very individual lyricism is still present with lines like “There’s not a net you couldn’t slip through/ Or at least that’s the impression I get, cause you’re smooth and you’re wet”, but this album opener is all about the raw power of guitars and drums. And boy is there is a lot of power in “Brianstorm”.
Air – “La Femme D’Argent” (Moon Safari)
Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel have a knack for creating some of the most lush, ambient, electornica music around. Known simply as Air, the French duo has released a slew of full length albums over the course of their 15+ year career, but perhaps none more impressive than their first. Moon Safari opens with a beautiful instrumental piece entitled “La Femme D’argent” that feels like it could serve as the soundtrack to a short romantic spy film. It’s sexy, playful, mysterious and most importantly void of lyrics, which affords the listener an ability to make the song be about whatever they choose. It’s this blank canvass quality that makes “La Femme D’argent” a perfect opener for one of Air’s most critically acclaimed albums to date.
N.W.A. – “Straight Outta Compton” (Straight Outta Compton)
“You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge” – and with those words so begins the seminal gangsta rap album that is Straight Outta Compton. The kicking beat and the raw-as-fuck lyrics can make the nerdiest World of Warcraft fan feel as if they should be standing and mean mugging the camera on that iconic album cover. Play this is in your Yaris and suddenly you’re cruising in Compton with some bad bitches in the back instead of stuck in a traffic jam in the rain. Wherever and whenever this timeless song is played there’s really only one thing to say: “Daaayyyuuumm that shit was dope”.