Saturday, December 25, 2010

The 32 Best Opening Tracks of All Time

OK, I admit it. I’m beginning to get tapped out. I know, hard to believe with a music obsessive like me, but it’s the truth. I’ve done as many “Father Knows Best” Box Sets of CD collections for my teenage daughter as I can think of without completely forcing the concept simply for the concept’s sake, rather than the music’s sake. (Best Foreign Language Rock Songs, anyone?)

So this year, rather than the usual collection of 10 personally selected CDs nestled under the umbrella of some arbitrary theme – Best Debut Albums, Best Live Albums, Most Underrated Albums – I’m delivering my now 15-year-old music-loving daughter one CD (OK, it’s a double CD) highlighting the 32 “Best Opening Tracks of All Time.”

What makes a great opening track? Well, obviously, it must grab you right away. There has to be a dramatic sense of lift off. And it sets the tone for the rest of the album. Some first tracks might be great songs – “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Achilles Last Stand” and “Where the Streets Have No Name” come to mind – but that doesn’t quite make them the best opening tracks. Those are a tune of a different color.

Some bands are particularly adept when it comes to opening tracks, consistently delivering in ways that few others can match. In my catalog of favorites, that would be The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. (Bob Dylan doesn’t do too badly either.)

Think about it. Every Led Zeppelin album except Presence began with a monster opening track – featuring some of the heaviest guitar riffs, drum fills and wailing vocals in rock history. (Ironically, Zep’s one opening misfire was “Achilles Last Stand,” quite possibly the band’s best song ever in my book, but not necessarily a great opening track.) Then there’s The Rolling Stones: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar,” “Rocks Off,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Miss You” and “Start Me Up” … What more proof do you need?

Of course, the whole concept of a great opening track is predicated on the idea of an album as a specifically sequenced series of songs: something that is quickly fading from public perception – except, perhaps, among us older folks – if not artistic consciousness. Nevertheless, once upon a time that meant something; and how albums began and ended was an important consideration (as was even how side two started in the pre-CD vinyl era).

So here is my “Best Opening Tracks of All Time” playlist:

• “Whole Lotta Love” II, Led Zeppelin The greatest rock riff of all time – OK, in close competition with “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – paired with the greatest lead guitar break, drum fill and vocal orgasm ever. Res ipsa loquitur.

• “Gimme Shelter” Let It Bleed, The Rolling Stones – The definition of “classic.” Totally anchored in the late ’60s, yet somehow still contemporary. Pulsing rhythm, menacingly intercedent lead guitar, wailing blues harp and killer background vocals … All that and one of the best maracas parts this side of Santana!

• “London Calling”London Calling, The Clash – Talk about kicking off an album with jaunty swagger! One of the great classics from the second generation of English rock musicians. Sounds as good today as it did in 1979.

• “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” De Stilj, The White Stripes – Raw force blasts out of the speakers like a slowed down Stooges giving way to an edgy, but understated, melody before bursting back into the ripping chords of the chorus. Proof you don’t need more than simple drums, simple guitar, sincere singing, a good arrangement and crisp recording. Great use of dynamics. Sounds loud at any volume.

• “Lively Up Yourself”Natty Dread, Bob Marley and The Wailers – The song that first bridged the rock-reggae genre and turned all the Brits on to reggae (Jagger/Richards, Clapton, Page, Parker, et al really took this to heart). The Live version is better, but it doesn’t kick off that album.

• “Subterranean Homesick Blues”Bringing It All Back Home, Bob Dylan – Right from the start, this song announced a “new Dylan.” The young troubadour was turning on, turning it up and channeling the spirit of Kerouac and Ginsburg, rather than Woody Guthrie. This song embraces the 1960s’ counter-culture while conjuring twisted images of the old-timey Midwest. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

• “Planet Telex” The Bends, Radiohead – One of the first great “post-modern” album tracks. Supremely original, yet still referential. The sound of the future arriving. This album, and the next one (OK Computer), would make Radiohead the biggest band in the word for awhile – until they decided, “Enough of that!”

• “Baba O’Riley”Who’s Next, The Who – The most famous synthesizer riff of all time sets up that classic, crashing entrance of three chords (you know, the ones that tell the truth). So much more than “teenage wasteland” … though that still resonates in many ways, too. A great start to one of the best sounding Who albums (thank you, Glyn Johns).

• “Rocks Off” Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones – This song doesn’t quite fit the criteria for great opening track the way most of the others on this list do. On the surface, it’s a straightforward mid-tempo rocker, but buoyant subtleties in vocals and instrumentation make it more than just another sprightly Stones song. The result is a perfect start to one of the band’s best albums. Great horns by Bobby Keys, and Nicky Hopkins’s piano jousts with Keith’s chords as the song gallops along. Some tasty Mick Taylor guitar licks buried in the mix, too.

• “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” Crosby, Stills, Nash, Crosby, Stills, Nash – It’s not easy for a predominantly acoustic song to make this list, but this is what had people seriously calling CSN “the American Beatles” for a short while in 1969-1970. Despite the acoustic feel, there is some perfectly understated electric guitar, too. Then, of course, there’s the ever-present, incomparable vocal harmonies. This song is the apex of Stephen Stills’ artistic accomplishments, and a fully developed template for what CSN would be as a band.

• “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” The Doors, The Doors – Another great riff that kick starts an album and sets the tone for all that follows. Urgent, with a hint of reckless abandon. It’s easy to focus on the guitar riffs and the organ rhythms, but it’s Densmore’s drumming that makes the track what it is. Interestingly, Morrison’s vocals are rather unremarkable on this one.

• “Immigrant Song” III, Led Zeppelin – Viking plunder meets hippie consciousness. That opening vocal wail, the funky shuffling drums and the leaden bass/guitar riff yield the sound of the “Hammer of the Gods.” Quite a start to the band’s … ahem … “acoustic” album. Ironically, this is the only Zep song with no guitar solo!

• “World Shut Your Mouth” Saint Julian, Julian Cope – Edgy 1980s’ pop at its best since The Clash’s pop dabblings. Radio friendly, but retaining some spunk. Great production, too. Sonically, kind of an English forerunner to Cracker in some ways, now that I think about it. The peak of Cope’s career, really – representing a small window of lucidity between acid casualty and eco-earth-mother-archdrude nutcase.

• “Smells Like Teen Spirit”Nevermind, Nirvana – I have to admit, I was never as smitten with Nirvana as many of my peers and those slightly younger seemed to be. Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that the slackers from Seattle did popularize a noteworthy new coalescence of influences in the form of “grunge.” And “Here we are, entertain us,” does pretty much speak to the attitude of a generation. Yet, ultimately, “Well, whatever, nevermind,” really says it all.

• “Come Together” Abbey Road, The Beatles – Lennon cops some Chuck Berry lyrics and pairs them with some funky organ riffs and alternately shimmering and piercing guitar fills. One of the best return-to-basics tunes of the mature Beatles’ career. Nice double-tracking on the lead vocals, too. The rest of Abbey Road followed the tone established on this one.

• “Fisherman’s Blues” Fisherman’s Blues, The Waterboys – Another of the rare acoustic numbers to make this list. Carried by exuberant Celtic fiddle and dream-filled vocals, this song is simplicity perfected (musically and lyrically), punctuated by a spirited delivery. Not just the namesake for the album, but a grand announcement that The Waterboys were serious about their stay in Ireland. The beginning of a lush and fruitful idea, indeed.

• “Trenchtown Rock” Live!, Bob Marley and the Wailers – One the greatest starts to a live album ever. Though rather than kicking out the jams right from the get go, this stays true to reggae form and eases into the spirit of things, gently setting the mood with a understated rhythm and laid-back melody. “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain. So hit me with music. Hit me with music now.” … Words to live by.

• “Don’t Bang the Drum” – This Is the Sea, The Waterboys – The last album airing “the big music” that The Waterboys built their early career on – before heading to the craggy terrain of Western Ireland and embracing the Celtic twilight. Roddy Lorimer’s opening trumpet solo provides a unique anticipatory lull before the band kicks into an epic sounding, mid-tempo rocker about “deliverance, or history, under these skies so blue.” Anto Thistlethwaite’s sax joins the trumpet, distorted guitars, keyboards, drums and Mike Scott’s hoots and Dylanesque chants for the clamorous climax: “Just let it come, don’t bang the drum!”

And kicking off Disc 2:

“In a Big Country”The Crossing, Big Country – Unfairly pigeon-holed as a band of plaid-wearing Scotsmen with bagpipe-sounding guitars at the dawn of the MTV-era, Big Country was nothing short of a great band for a few albums. This first song on their debut album set the stage. Yes, there were guitars with bagpipe-like effects, but plenty of others, too. And paired with Mark Brezecki’s huge drum sound and Tony Butler’s funky bass, there was something more sophisticated and emotive in this song than the stereotype suggests. Big Country were masters at interweaving ancestral melodies with modern pop-rock sounds, subtle-yet-spirited instrumentation and Stuart Adamson’s atavistic romanticism.

• “Rough Boys” Empty Glass, Pete Townshend – To this day, Empty Glass remains, to me, Townshend’s best solo album. In fact, this far surpassed what The Who were doing by this point (1980). I think Pete knew that, too. Sophisticated songwriting and arrangements – just as you’d expect from Townshend: nuanced and ripping at the same time. Sounds like he’s worked up some ire not heard since he’d venomously written: “Who the fuck are you?”

“I Will Follow” Boy, U2 ­– Like many lead tracks on great debut albums, this was an announcement of arrival, an auspicious start, yet one that now sounds quaint. As dated as it is, that ringing E string and the tinkling triangle remain uniquely engaging. There is a reason that this induced early ’80s’ pop audiences to frenetic pogoing.

“Shot of Love” Shot of Love, Bob Dylan – Apocalyptic and pleading, this was the fading echo of Dylan’s gospel period. But it’s also a great, funky, pseudo-gospelesque rocker that has the old bard spitting lyrics like he did at the height of the ’60s. He’s propelled along by Clydie King’s impassioned vocals and Fred Tackett’s rocking guitar.

“Young Man Blues” Live at Leeds, The Who – Not the start of the live concert from which it was taken, but the perfect start for the live E.P. that really helped The Who establish sound footing for their career in the U.S. Great as he was, Mose Allison (the song’s composer) never envisioned this!

“Search and Destroy”Raw Power, Iggy and the Stooges – Raw power, indeed! Wholly defined by the line, “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of nepalm.” It’s the quintessential counterpoint to the peace-and-love side of the equation in 1969. The bridge between Eddie Cochran, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols if there ever was one.

“Finest Worksong”Document, R.E.M. ­– A somewhat forgotten dose of R.E.M.’s early forays into harder rock, but this song and the album it leads off remain among my favorites by the boho’s from Athens. I played the grooves off this L.P. back in 1987 (and later the zeroes and ones out of the CD version). “What we want and what we need, has been confused” … and it often still is.

“Wait for the Black Out”The Black Album, The Damned – A powerful song, despite the now muffled sounding recording (or maybe it’s my hearing that is now muffled). This was the midpoint between the thrashing guitar and pounding drums of the seminal punk band’s early days and their later ultra pop ventures (before they concluded as a heavy metal band, of course). As such, it’s the perfect balance between musicality, unabated energy and something to say — with the boots on to make sure the point comes through loud and clear! The same goes for this entire album, which (recording issues aside) remains very listenable even today. And it leaves no doubt as to why Jimmy Page sought out Rat Scabies to play drums with him shortly after this was released.

“Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” Cracker Brand, Cracker ­– A catchy, classically rocking track, for sure, but it’s David Lowery’s clever lyrics that make this the keeper it is. No mere sardonic novelty though, the attitude and humor of this song are whipped along perfectly by guitarist Johnny Hickman’s raunchy melodies and clanging chords.

“Brown Sugar”Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones – What Keef can do with a five-string guitar is more poignant and groovy than most guitarists can do with 12 strings, much less six! This is one of Jagger’s best vocal performances ever (a lot of multi-tracking going on here). And, as is so often the case during this period, Bobby Keys’ sax is fast on the heels of the Human Riff.

“Debaser”Doolittle, The Pixies – A perfect example of the Boston band’s twisted take on punky pop rock. Propelled by Kim Deal’s heavy bottom end (bass, that is), Joey Santiago’s fluid lead guitar melodies glide in, out and around Black Francis’ choppy chords and manic vocals.

“Black Dog”IV, Led Zeppelin – Those first few seconds of understated guitar scratching are like an engine revving up before the full onslaught of Robert Plant’s a cappella verse vocal and the quintessential hard rock guitar/bass riff. A great performance and production that makes for a powerful start to an incredibly varied album that is also quite possibly the best rock album of all time.

“Zoo Station” Achtung Baby, U2 – The stark, steady snare, clanging toms and swirling synthesizer bracing against The Edge’s chiming guitar and Bono’s heavily effected vocals declared that the Irish quartet would be wielding a new sonic palette in the new decade of the 1990s. And indeed they did.

“Low”Kerosene Hat, Cracker – Simply a great rock song. One of the true highlights of this band’s long career. Strongly strummed acoustic guitar provides the ground floor, upon which are layered classic rock guitars and cinematic vocals. This is a model of how to do the whole verse/chorus dynamic, not to mention instrumental bridge.

That’s my list … at least for now. There’s another dozen or so songs that nearly made it. What would be on yours?

No comments:

Post a Comment