Saturday, November 5, 2011

When the First Cut Is the Deepest: 10 Great Album-Opening Tracks

"Call me Ishmael."

"Four score and seven years ago..."

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."

Do I have your attention now? Good.

Ah, the power of famous first words. They do more than reel in an audience. They live forever, in books, in speeches and in music, where an album's first impression might not always stick, but a powerful opening statement -- Track 1 to both the iTunes and CD generations -- grabs your attention and gives you reason to believe that what comes next might be worth sticking around for. It also can raise your expectations to an irrational level so high that disappointment in what follows is inevitable. Or it can herald the arrival of a life-changing musical force.

Here are 10 great albums that got off to the best possible starts.

1. "Begin the Begin"/R.E.M./Life's Rich Pageant It's the opening song on the first R.E.M. album I ever bought, so technically, it's the one that launched my love affair with the band. (Though "South Central Rain," from Reckoning, two albums earlier, was actually my first taste of R.E.M.) From this to "Feeling Gravity's Pull" (Fables of the Reconstruction) to "Radio Song" (Out of Time) to "Drive" (Automatic for the People), no band made grander entrances...

2. "The Queen Is Dead"/The Smiths/The Queen Is Dead ...except for the Smiths. All of the band's studio albums from Meat Is Murder on, as well as Morrissey's first few solo albums, featured a grand entrance. And although a few came close -- namely "Alsatian Cousin" (Song 1 on Viva Hate, Morrissey's 1988 solo debut) and "You're Gonna Need Someone on Your Side" (from Your Arsenal, 1992) -- none of them could top the title track from the Smiths' third studio album for sheer now-hear-this bravado.

3. "Destination"/The Church/Starfish When I bought the cassette -- yes, cassette -- of the Church's U.S. breakthrough on Oscar day in 1988 (years before iTunes allowed us to sample musical goods before buying them), and I liked the opening track better than the one I'd bought it for ("Under the Milky Way," of course), I knew I'd made a far better decision than the Academy would that evening (Cher in Moonstruck over Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction!).

4. "Dinosaur Act"/Matthew Sweet/Altered Beast In a decade that gave us mediocre stars like Hootie & the Blowfish, Blind Melon and Spin Doctors, I've never figured out why the Sweet smell of major mainstream success was never Matthew's for the taking (or Joe Henry's, or Grant Lee Phillips', or Michael Penn's, for that matter).

5. "Somewhere Only We Know"/Keane/Hopes and Fears The upside: First impressions don't get much better than track one on Keane's debut album. The downside: From there, there were only two ways to go -- sideways, or straight down. Fortunately for Keane fans like me, the band has since mostly taken the former route.

6. "The Sensual World"/Kate Bush/The Sensual World It's a wonder that I eventually managed to listen to the entire cassette -- yes cassette (again) -- enough times to review it for my college newspaper. For the first few hours of my listening enjoyment, I only remember pressing repeat over and over and over after that final "mmm, yes."

7. "Politik"/Coldplay/A Rush of Blood to the Head After the wimpy, whiny "Yellow" and all those other singles from Parachutes that I still never need to hear again, this was the moment when I finally loved Coldplay.

8. "I Might Have Been Queen"/Tina Turner/Private Dancer "What's Love Got to Do With It" may have made Turner's 1984 comeback, but for me, her return to prominence wouldn't have resonated so forcefully without Private Dancer's opening track, which perfectly summed up Turner's very existence while blowing me away.

9. "Leave Them All Behind"/Ride/Going Blank Again Someone once described this song to me as being better than sex. Who was I to argue?

10. "Being Boring"/Pet Shop Boys/Behaviour Quite possibly the strongest opening statement in the history of synth pop. I could listen to/watch it all day -- and I have.

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