The Album Order Challenge

Among a few friends last night, I got into a somewhat heated discussion as to the best way to order tracks on an album. We agreed that track 1 isn’t the ideal location for the best song on an album, the real “knockout punch” if you will. However, my esteemed colleague, one Mr. Gray, insisted that track 2 was the place for it, whereas I preferred it to be buried a little deeper, at track 4.

Before I start, let me make sure I have the particulars of the argument straight.
My point of view: Track 4 is probably the best spot for your best song. It’s the centerpiece of the album, it really should show off the best of what you’ve got and what you’re offering to the audience. Track 1 should be an attention-getter, but tracks 2 and 3 should sort of warm up to the big hit at track 4. If you put your centerpiece at track 2, it’s too front-heavy, and the end of your album will lag a bit.
Brian’s view (and correct me if I’m wrong): Track 2 is the spot for such a song. While that doesn’t mean that the best song goes at track 2, it does mean that track 2 should set the tone. Often, track 2 would be the single. Track 4 is less than good because it’s too late; people have already judged the album by then, and some people don’t even get to track 4.

With that somewhat vaguely defined, I’ll put forth the format of the experiment: I’ll pick 20 random albums from my itunes (…by a random shuffle; yes, that does favor bands that have more songs on the albums, but it’s usually pretty close shut up shut up). For each album, if it’s a great album, I’ll examine the track ordering (particularly 2 and 4) to see what makes it great, and if it’s not so good, I’ll look at tracks 2 and 4 for an example of what not to do. Obvious “concept albums” are excepted; if we’re talking about The Wall, say, Pink Floyd can do whatever they want with the track ordering, fine. All tracks, including short intros, will be counted as songs (after reflection, I’ve decided this is the way to go, because pretty much the only thing that intros and interludes count for is the album as a whole.)

So if an album is in favor of the track 2 theory, it gives Beej a point if it’s good, and a negative point if it’s bad. If it’s in favor of track 4, the same holds for me.

Let’s begin!
1. iTunes is a piece of crap. It keeps freezing on me. Let’s try this again. Okay.

1. Illinois, by Sufjan Stevens. Nice! Okay, this is clearly a great album. And the track order is clearly well-thought-out. Track 2 has a track name that is so long, I can’t even find the whole name online. It starts with: “The Black Hawk War, Or, How To Demolish An Entire Civilization And Still Feel Good About Yourself In The Morning, Or, We Apologize For The Inconvenience But You’re Gonna Have To Leave Now, Or, ‘I Have Fought The Big Knives And Will Continue To Fight…'” It’s nice, but it’s definitely a warm-up. I mean, it’s instrumental. Track 4, on the other hand, is “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.”, which may not be the centerpiece of the album, but is one of the most-commented songs on it, and one of the best. Interestingly, the centerpiece would have to be track 3, “Come on! Feel the Illinoise”, where the single, “Chicago”, is stuffed away at track 9. The only thing that my colleague can say to counter this point is that it’s an unusually long album. POINT: ME

2. Daisies of the Galaxy, by Eels. I don’t love this album; I don’t think it’s Eels’s best. But then, toss an acoustic guitar in front of me and I’ll run screaming. I feel like it sort of folksy-wanders through 14 tracks of ehh. Track 2 is “Packing Blankets”, nothing special. Maybe weightier than “I Like Birds” at 4. Neither is stellar. The real star on this album is “Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues”, the last song; what a baller. Although, I’d argue, that was a gutsy move that didn’t turn out too well on his part, because it’s a pleasant surprise, but it means the rest of the album is boring. INCONCLUSIVE

SKIPPED: Live at Winterland ‘68, by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Co., because I’ve never actually listened to it. That’s embarrassing! I sorta pride myself on actually knowing all the music that’s on my computer (as opposed to bragging “I have 89237 gigs of music!"), and I think I am at about 90%, but I’d rather it be 100.

3. Steve Goldberg and the Arch Enemies, by Steve Goldberg. Hah. Well, I think it’s a good album, and he is not the kind of guy who would just toss songs onto the album in any old order. Track 2 is “February Third”, a fun song, but it takes a few listens to actually stick in your mind. At track 4, “The Spy Part 1” hits, and any song with Part 1 and Part 2 is going to be a focal point of your album. POINT: ME

4. D-D-Don’t Don’t Stop the Beat, by Junior Senior. I’m tempted to say it’s inconclusive, because the only song that matters (“Move Your Feet”) is at track 3, but I think they tried to release “Rhythm Bandits” (track 2) as a second or third single, and it’s more fun than the embarrassing gay-straight-haha “Chicks and Dicks” throwaway at track 4. And this isn’t a good album. NEGATIVE POINT: BEEJ

5. The Futureheads, by the Futureheads. I hate this album! (despite the pretty good critical review, I think) It’s 15 songs, each 2:30, each with a British accent and nothing interesting. Track 4, “Decent Days and Nights” is actually one of the standouts, but really, every song is the same. INCONCLUSIVE

6. More Adventurous, by Rilo Kiley. Eeh, it’s too folksy for me, and it got a 75 on Metacritic. Is it good? Well, my favorite songs are 1, 3, and 9. (actually, track 9, “Love and War 11/11/46” is really good!) You know what, on that point, I’ll say this is a well organized album. 2 or 4? Track 2, “Does He Love You” is no prize, but I really don’t like track 4, “Ripcord”, so I’ll say 2 is better here. “Ripcord” is a two minute throwaway. POINT: BEEJ

7. Waiter: “You Vultures!”, by Portugal. The Man. I say this is a solid album! Think a bit of the Mars Volta, except listenable, and Linkin Park, except not sucking. It’s no “best of”, but it’s good, and they keep the hits coming throughout (1, 8, and 10!). Track 2, “Gold Fronts”, is the song I’d play on my radio show, I think, and track 4, “AKA M80 The Wolf”, is not so good or important. POINT: BEEJ

8. Winter Women, by Matthew Friedberger. Man, a Fiery Furnaces album would be tough enough, and Matt without his sister Eleanor to rein him in is just experimentally noodling all over the place. It’s not a bad album, but it’s a thick 16 tracks, and if you’d care to make sense of this album’s structure, go for it; I sure haven’t. INCONCLUSIVE

9. Discovery, by Daft Punk. Your call: “Aerodynamic” (2) or “Harder Better Faster Stronger” (4)? POINT: ME

SKIPPED: Mugimama is this Monkey Music?, by Mugison. This is retarded. Come on.

10. Lincoln, by They Might Be Giants. Great album, but I don’t know this track order at all, because I’ve only heard these songs on “Then: The Earlier Years.” Let’s take a look! Okay, “Ana Ng” is far and away the best on this album and probably the second best thing TMBG’s ever done, and maybe in my top 20 songs of all time. It’s track 1. After that, a cool-down is in order, so “Cowtown” is a goofy, relaxing track 2; “Lie Still, Little Bottle” brings you through track 3 to this album’s third best song, “Purple Toupee”, at track 4. Props to them for saving “They’ll Need a Crane” all the way at 14. POINT: ME

11. Liquid Tension Experiment 1, by Liquid Tension Experiment. Crazy instrumental supergroup, including a bunch of Dream Theater, I think. Good album, but the centerpiece is a five-part “Three Minute Warning” at the end, plus “Paradigm Shift” at track 1. 2 and 4 are both interludey throwaways. (the fact that the interludes are 3:26 and 2:00 points to this album’s reckless indulgence) INCONCLUSIVE

12. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, by PJ Harvey. Great album. Ergh; but it’s sort of a big mood, not a bunch of ups and downs. (except “The Mess We’re In”, at 7, which is cool) “Good Fortune” (2) and “One Line” (4) are both good… I’d argue “One Line” fits more with the theme of this album, so I’ll give myself a weak point. POINT: ME

13. The Sunlandic Twins, by Of Montreal. One of my favorites ever. Tracks 1-7 are a stream of sonic gold. But I’d say the graph of awesomeness vs. track goes like this:
Track 2 is a little better than track 4. I’ll give you this one. POINT: BEEJ

14. CSS, by Cansei de Ser Sexy. Damn! There’s only one good song, and it’s “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death From Above,” and it’s track 4. NEGATIVE POINT: ME

15. The Real Thing, by Faith No More. While FNM is a respectable band (listen to the album Angel Dust), and some of Mike Patton’s other stuff is even cooler, this album is still sorta a touchstone for rap-rock. Singles are tracks 2 (“Epic”… you know, that “you want it all but you can’t have it” song) and 3 (“Falling to Pieces”). Responsible for Linkin Park -> Not a good album. NEGATIVE POINT: BEEJ

SKIPPED: Push Bar Man to Open Old Wounds, by Belle and Sebastian. It’s a collection of old EP’s and B-sides, so the track list isn’t really relevant.

16. Talking Heads 77, by Talking Heads. Great album, but the hits are, in my mind, all in the second half (“The Book I Read”, “Don’t Worry About the Government”, and of course “Psycho Killer.") I give them credit for that. “New Feeling” at 2 is a lot more important to the album than “Happy Day”- it gives you that goofy jerky Talking Heads feel, and “Happy Day” at 4 doesn’t do much. POINT: BEEJ

SKIPPED: Frank’s Wild Years by Tom Waits. It’s on my iPod now, honest!

SKIPPED: Boat of Confidence by the Pathways. This album is no good, I don’t know why I ripped it, I’ve listened to it like twice, and I always mean to delete it. Okay, it’s deleted now.

17. Let Me Introduce My Friends, by I’m from Barcelona. One, maybe two good songs, and they’re #3 and #4. Treehouse (4) is the better of the two. But this is a bad album. NEGATIVE POINT: ME

18. Everything All The Time, by Band of Horses. I’m not a big fan of this album, but the critics kinda like it. Track 4 (“Funeral”) is really the centerpiece, and the only really notable song, though. I like “Our Swords” (3) better. POINT: ME

SKIPPED: Thought for Food, by the Books. I think they’re a concept band. Don’t ask me what concept that is.

19. Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, by Tally Hall. Didn’t we already discuss this? Well, it is good, anyway. The songs, individually, are hit or miss, but they manage to space it out well so there’s no dead stretch. It’s frustrating that we’re debating “Taken for a Ride” (4) vs. “Greener” (2), when they’re surrounded by “Good Day” (1), “Welcome to Tally Hall” (3), and “The Bidding” (5). But given those two, “Taken for a Ride” is really the better song. “Greener” is straight out of Yellowcard or, I dunno, Dashboard Confessional or something, while “Taken for a Ride” is a good dose of Tally Hall with a couple punches of the Polyphonic Spree. POINT: ME

SKIPPED: Geogaddi, by Boards of Canada. Sorry to skip so many! I don’t know each individual track on this one well enough to comment. I just know I really like this sound.

20. Bows and Arrows, by the Walkmen. Aargh! Screw the Walkmen! This album sucks a lot. Besides “The Rat” (2), every song is a bunch of whining to death. NEGATIVE POINT: BEEJ

So, add them all up, and what do you get? 7 - 2 = 5 for me, 4 - 3 = 1 for Beej. Hey, surprise, I did a little survey by myself, on my own rules, and I won. This is not how science works. Or even criticism. But I did convince myself, and if I didn’t convince you, well, I welcome thoughtful critiques!


brian -

Dan, your blog is really good. Thanks for writing it.

Anonymous -

Glad I could help out.

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