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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Out Of Order

In the age of the CD, where you skip and shffule tracks, song order matters much less.

We are also witnessing another age of the single, thanks in large part to the Internet. The days where people were willing to spend $16 or more on a 12-song CD just for one or even two songs are coming to a close.

Those of us who still own numerous CDs treasure those discs that can be listened to all the way through, from start to finish, as a complete unit, designed by the artist or group. I find myself generally enjoying those more than "Greatest Hits" collections of discrete individual songs. (Of course, in certain genres of popular music, the single really is the proper unit by which to judge a disc; though there are great "albums" in the history of R&B and soul music that stand as a unit, most Motown and Stax/Volt recordings were intended exlcusively as singles.)

Most of the truly great albums of the classic rock era paid close attention to song order, how to arrange the different songs on the album. They had to be designed for the turntable, since it was more of a pain to jump from song to song on a record player than it is with more modern means of audio listening.

Working long nights in an office alone with headphones makes one truly appreciate a well-put together album. The first one that comes to mind is "Who's Next." There was only one serious choice to open the record, "Baba O' Reilly." There were two options for closer, "Song Is Over" and "Won't Get Fooled Again." The latter thankfully won out, and the former closed Side 1 on the record. Relatively lightweight songs "Love Ain't For Keepin'" and "My Wife" are paired nicely, nestled in between the intense "Bargain" and the powerful "Song Is Over." Likewise, the so-so rocker "Going Mobile" fits perfectly in between proto-power-ballad classics "Getting In Tune" and "Behind Blue Eyes," and feeds off the intensity of those songs so it doesn't sound too insubstantial. (Even more amazing, these songs were mostly culled from an abortive rock opera.)

Compare with most Led Zeppelin albums. Zep is a great band, but often their albums just don't flow that same way. There are song great song pairings on Led Zeppelin albums, but there are some changes that make no sense.

10 examples of classic rock albums that have the wrong song order for my taste:

1. Led Zeppelin, Untitled (a.k.a. IV/Symbols/Runes/Zoso) - Side 1
I'd switch "Battle of Evermore" and "Rock And Roll."
"Black Dog" works great as an opener, "Stairway To Heaven" a great side closer. It's not that "Black Dog" to "Rock And Roll" doesn't work, or that "Rock And Roll" into "Battle" doesn't work. My issue is with "Battle of Evermore" and "Stairway to Heaven" back to back. I think it's suboptimal to have two fairly lengthy down-tempo tunes ("Stairway" picks up of course, but not for over five minutes in) consecutively. "Black Dog" into "Evermore" works, "Evermore" into "Rock And Roll" works, and "Rock And Roll" into "Stairway" makes perfect sense.

2. Led Zeppelin, Houses Of The Holy - Side 2
The order here is "Dancing Days," "D'yer Maker," "No Quarter," and "The Ocean," three midtempo rockers and a slow-burning ballad. "The Ocean," with it's unusual coda, is a great parting shot. The three hole is the right place for "No Quarter," but it needs to follow something that leaves it momentum, and "D'yer Maker," while pleasant and somewhat catchy, doesn't do that.
"Dancing Days" does sound marginally better on a CD following "The Crunge" than "D'yer Maker" would. But, really,"The Crunge," is so awful that nothing would flow into or out of it well. When they made the four disc box set, "Dancing Days" set up "When The Levee Breaks" and followed "No Quarter." It actually sounds even better feeding into the brooding "No Quarter."

3. Genesis, Selling England By The Pound - Side 1
"More Fool Me" is, no doubt about it, a weak link on the album. It's position at the close of the side has the advantage of being able to take the record and simply turning it over after "Firth of Fifth" ends. But if you're going to try to make the album flow better, and hide the short weak track, you're better off sticking it between "I Know What I Like," which is strong if a bit slight, and "Firth of Fifth," the album's true classic, and a damn fine way to close an album side.

4. Eagles, Hotel California - Side 1
The title track, that opens the side, is of course an all-time classic. But I think "Life In The Fast Lane," batting third, makes for a stronger lead-off track. That's the kind of riff you can use to kick off a concert or an album. "Hotel California" is the kind of song, like "Stairway," in my opinion, that should be built up to, possibly as a side closer. "Wasted Time" wouldn't suffer following the title cut any more than it does following "Fast Lane," and you can say the same (in reverse) about "New Kid In Town," perhaps the best thing ever for which Glenn Frey is mostly responsible.

5. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours - Side 1
So you've got "Don't Stop" and "Go Your Own Way," two quinessential album openers. And they're buried in spots 4 and 5? For shame. The obvious move would be to switch two of the Lindsay Buckingham songs - putting "Go Your Own Way" as the opener and "Second Hand News" - which works just as well between "Don't Stop" and "Songbird" as "Go Your Own Way" does fifth. The other option is open Side 2 with "Go Your Own Way" and instead lead off in an ominous fashion with "The Chain." But you'd have to change a lot more than that, since they got one thing extremely right; "You Make Lovin' Fun" is the only song there that can follow "The Chain," since everything else is either a let down or too close in tempo for a good transition.

6. Rush, Permanent Waves - Side 1
This one's pretty minor by comparison to most of the other ones on the list. "Free Will" is a better way to close a side than "Jacob's Ladder," and it feels aesthetically better to split an album's two killer tracks ("Spirit of Radio" and "Free Will") up a bit. It's a minor point because either one leads fine into "Entre Nous" (first track on Side 2) and both sound good after "Spirit of Radio." But this is a change I always program when I can.

7. Police, Ghost In The Machine
This one needs a complete rearrangement, weird considering how their previous effort, "Zenyatta Mondatta," almost totally masked its relatively shallow bench. The big hit songs "Spirits In The Material World," "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," and "Invisible Sun," are 1-2-3. The album's middle is dominated by a horn section, in which many of the songs start to blur together in a mass of mediocrity. Then keyboards and guitars take over for the last three tracks. "Spirits" is a good opener, but you have to get "Every Little Thing," which is that rare jewel that sounds great wherever you plug it in, out of there to break up that middle bloc. "Demolition Man," with its long and often inspired jam, works to close Side 1, but get it away from "Hungry For You."
1: Spirits - Rehumanize Yourself - Hungry For You - Invisible Sun - Demolition Man
2: Too Much Information - Every Little Thing - One World - Omegaman - Secret Journey - Darkness

8. Def Leppard, Hysteria
This album doesn't have anything with killer opener potential - the best candidate of the lot, "Pour Some Sugar On Me," is best left where it is, behind power ballad "Love Bites." The big problem is breaking up "Women" and "Rocket," which sounds too similar - even for Def Leppard - to be placed alongside each other. It might also help to put "Armageddon It" on Side 2. "Rocket," though a bit overlong in its album version, isn't a bad way to open things up. Switch "Women" to Side 2, and take one of those songs and put it in the #2 slot, between "Rocket" and "Animal." Take another of the Side 2 songs, and switch out "Armageddon It." Whatever you pick will gain some power from batting behind "Sugar," and it will need that help more than "Armageddon" does.

9. Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
One minor quibble - I'm of the opinion that opener "Sympathy For The Devil" is the kind of song that needs some buildup in front of it. Side 2 opener "Street Fighting Man" is a better choice for leadoff, as would be "Stray Cat Blues." (Note that "Let It Bleed" is an exemplar of song order perfection in my mind.)

10. Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run
It works pretty well untouched, but I've always thought Side 1 should be Side 2 and vice versa. Why? "Born To Run" was born to be an opening cut. Period. Nothing against "Thunder Road," but "Born To Run" shouldn't be Track 5 on a CD.


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