Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How to sequence a hit album (Hint: It's okay to save the best for nearly last. It worked for Eminem!)

Years ago, I read an interesting quote from Bonnie Raitt, in which she shared some advice given to her by Don Was, who produced her 1989 breakthrough album, Nick of Time, and its two multi-platinum follow-ups, Luck of the Draw and Longing in Their Hearts. It went something like this: Never save the best for last. When you're ordering the songs on an album, put the three strongest ones first, because that might be as long as you have to pull in listeners. Most people never make it to the halfway mark. Was obviously didn't always follow his own golden rule: "Walk the Dinosaur," the biggest U.S. hit by his band Was (Not Was), is the 13th of 16 tracks on 1988's What Up, Dog? album. (Coming soon: a post on albums that need to be shorter.)

Still, I've thought about Was's theory over the years, and it popped back into my mind the other day after I read someone's status update on Facebook. He'd been listening to Kylie Minogue's latest album, Aphrodite, all day long, but had yet to make it past the third song. He just couldn't get enough of the "All the Lovers"/"Get Outta My Way"/"Put Your Hands Up (If You Feel Love Tonight)" combo. I can't relate (the latter two, in my humble opinion, are auto-pilot Kylie, good for a mindless spin under the strobelights and not much more), but a friend of mine, a huge Kylie fan who, like her, hails from Down Under, can -- sort of. Aphrodite has been in heavy rotation on his iPod from the moment he downloaded it, but he hasn't given it the attention it deserves because he can't get past "Closer," Track 4.

Yes, "Closer" is spectacular, and it demands repeat listens. But to stop there would be to miss the best of Aphrodite: the title song (Track 6), "Illusion" (7) and "Cupid Boy" (10). I understand where my friend was coming from because when I first started listening to Aphrodite, I couldn't get over "Closer" either, but eventually, I moved on -- and I'm glad I did. Now "Illusion" gets the repeat treatment, but I force myself to let it go, because what comes after "Illusion" is twice as good as what precedes it.

Yes, Was's theory holds water, but it doesn't apply to any great album, not even his own. Nick of Time gets off to a powerful start with the title track and "Thing Called Love," but way down at No. 7 is one of its best songs and its biggest pop single. "Have a Heart" is just as great as "Thing Called Love," if not quite in the extraordinary league of "Nick of Time," the contemplative, meditative title song that begins that album and which, in my opinion, would have served the album better as its denouement.

Several years before Bonnie met Don, the Smiths were mastering the art of album sequencing. Meat Is Murder, the iconic UK band's second studio album, begins with one of the best one-two musical punches I can think of: "The Headmaster Ritual" and "Russholme Ruffians." But what would Meat Is Murder be without "How Soon Is Now," perhaps the band's best-known song (Track 6), or the epic, six-minute, carnivore-bashing album-closing title track?

Even after he went solo with 1988's Viva Hate, Morrissey continued to launch his albums with a sonic blast: "Alsatian Cousin" on Viva Hate (his solo album with the most sentimental value to me), "You're Gonna Need Someone on Your Side" on Your Arsenal (the best Morrissey album to work out to), "Now My Heart Is Full" on Vauxhall and I (his most accomplished solo album). But stop at "Now My Heart Is Full" or "Spring-Heeled Jim" or "Billy Budd," Vauxhall's next two songs, and you'll miss "The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get" (Morrissey's biggest solo single in the U.S, Track 6), "Lifeguard Sleeping, Girl Drowning" (8), "Used to Be a Sweet Boy" (9) and "Speedway" (11).

Do you see where I'm coming from? Classic albums, like great works of literature, are riveting and engaging from front to back. They pull you in, pique your interest and keep you wondering what's coming next. It pays to listen to them all the way through.

Was's advice to Raitt is fine if you're looking at albums as a means to sell one or two singles, mere receptacles for the hits you hear on the radio. It's a very pre-Thriller approach to record making, because before Michael Jackson launched seven Top 10 hits from his landmark 1983 album, pop records were mostly considered to be collections of unrelated songs, and they rarely produced more than a couple of Top 10 singles. With cassettes ruling the world for most of the '80s, we were all at the mercy of album sequencing. The good stuff had to be easily accessible. If the only way for listeners to get to the songs they heard on the radio was via fast forwarding, burying the hits in the middle of an album might result in people who wanted instant listening gratification just buying the singles and skipping the album.

But since the days of CDs, and even more so in the downloading era, song sequencing is less important. There's no reason to listen to an album in any particular order. Eminem understands this, or he might not have made "Love the Way You Lie," his current No. 1 duet with Rihanna, Track 16 on Recovery. So did Madonna way back in 1994: "Take a Bow," her longest-running U.S. No. 1 single, was the final song on Bedtime Stories.

If you're going to record three incredible songs, why not go all the way? Spread out the wealth. Give us seven more that are so good, that even though we'll want to stop and listen to Track 3 for hours non-stop, we won't. Why? Because we'll be dying to hear what comes next.
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