Thursday, 26 April 2012

Setting the Tone

Great opening tracks.
Sometimes the best kind of opening song not only sets the tone for an album, but also encapsulates it. For example:

The Smiths – ‘Reel Around The Fountain’ from The Smiths (1984)

Mike Joyce’s classic opening beat heralds a six minute long sigh, for me as good as anything the band ever recorded; lovelorn, clever, funny and unique, it not only encapsulates The Smiths; it encapsulates The Smiths.  Many (including the band) have criticised John Porter’s flat, bleak production, but they are wrong; it’s perfect. Bizarre though, that the lovely keyboard parts are played by bland rock antichrist, Paul “Mike & The Mechanics” Carrack!

 Pixies – ‘Caribou’ from Come on Pilgrim (1987)

Melody vs aggression and noise was always the trademark of the Pixies, and their debut mini-album set the tone with this beautiful lilting song, with Black Francis’ vocal ranging from the melancholy softness to raw rasping without falling into the cliché of soft verse/heavy chorus.

Beastie Boys – ‘Shake Your Rump’ from Paul’s Boutique (1989)

On paper, ‘Shake Your Rump’ seems to have many of the same ingredients that made Licensed To Ill a huge hit. But the sound of the record is completely different, replacing the crude hard rock of their debut with a funk backing which served as a base for the Dust Brothers’ genius layering of samples. Perfect.

The Beatles – ‘No Reply’ from Beatles For Sale (1964)

Four albums in, The Beatles were flagging a little as is suggested by the plethora of covers on Beatles For Sale, and the songs they did write were mostly surprisingly downbeat – and none more so than opening track ‘No Reply’ – a perfect blend of pop songwriting and downtrodden melancholy.

Belle & Sebastian – ‘The State I Am In’ from Tigermilk (1996)

Stuart Murdoch set out Belle & Sebastian’s wistful (some might say twee) indie pop manifesto on this collection of songs written while Murdoch was at college. Much of the album is good, but ‘The State That I Am In’ is easily the best of the bunch; catchy, wistful, funny and clever, a classic of its kind.

Black Sabbath – ‘Black Sabbath’ from Black Sabbath (1969)

Sabbath not only set the tone for their sound, but for the heavy metal genre as a whole with this monstrous dirge; the doleful tolling of church bells heralds one of the most effectively basic and elemental riffs in rock history, and Ozzy’s despairing yowl is the icing on the cake.

The Breeders – ‘Glorious’ from Pod (1990)

The Breeders’ debut has somehow become their least-known album, but it is by far their best, not least because of the unbelievably slow and languorous opening track which sounds like no-one else.

N.W.A. – ‘Straight Outta Compton’ from Straight Outta Compton (1988)

The album is patchy, but its highlights are undeniable classics; and what better way to kick off a gangster rap manifesto than with ‘Straight Outta Compton’? The young Ice Cube was (mullet aside) convincingly menacing while also being articulate and a great rapper.  As with the album as a whole Ice Cube & MC Ren put forward a believable account of violent behaviour as a necessary response to tough life on the streets/police harassment etc while the late Eazy-E somewhat undermines the picture of the persecuted kids by ranting in a slightly embarrassing way about guns and women. Iconic.

The Cure – ‘Plainsong’ from Disintegration (1989)

Two years on from the sprawling and frankly all-over-the-place double album of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, The Cure returned, darker than at any time since Pornography, with the epic Disintegration. Although the band’s way with a pop tune had not deserted them, the album has an immense, yearning sound, introduced by the lyrically minimalistic ‘Plainsong’. Massive, desolate, it relaunched the band as a truly unique stadium act.

Depeche Mode – ‘Leave In Silence’ from A Broken Frame (1982)

Although DM’s 1981 debut, Speak and Spell is in some ways an iconic album, it is, for the most part, a fairly embarrassing piece of electro pop, all-too-obviously (especially ‘Boys Say Go!’) a product of Vince Clarke of Erasure, who left the band shortly after the album was completed. Who could have expected that, in the place of the cheerfully camp pop of Speak and Spell, the band would become an altogether darker beast? ‘Leave in Silence’ begins the process with a mournful atmosphere, Dave Gahan’s newly discovered melancholy voice and some typically slightly crap Martin Gore lyrics. Perfect.

Burzum – ‘Burzum’ from Filosofem (1996)

Filosofem marked a radical change in sound from Burzum’s earlier works and the raw, but almost placid and ‘depressive’ tone of ‘Burzum’ (or ‘Dunkelheit’ ) is less metal, more idiosyncratic and far more atmospheric than almost anything that the black metal genre had produced up until that point.

The Milkees – ‘Lovelever’ from Lovelever (2010)

The Milkees’ punky celebration of kitschy 60s guitar pop is at its height in the opening track of their second album, Lovelever. It seems simple’ a gritty guitar riff, a sweetly romantic lyric and Berry’s beautifully squeaky voice; but somehow a special kind of magic is produced.

Cranes – ‘Watersong’ from Wings Of Joy (1991)

Wings of Joy is a largely unacknowledged masterpiece. At a time when UK indie was mainly divided into ‘shoegaze’, indie-dance and slightly ramshackle punky pop, Cranes introduced their third album with an almost chamber music sound with plucked strings and an oboe accompanying Alison Shaw’s ethereal, childlike voice. Although they continued to release worthwhile music they were never as beautifully bleak as this again.

Underworld – ‘Dark & Long’ from Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994)

Although they became boring soon after achieving mainstream success, Underworld’s first album as a dance (as opposed to pop) group was an innovative masterpiece and ‘Dark & Long’ with its Burroughs-influenced lyrical collage and distorted guitar and synth sounds is a timeless classic.

Killing Joke – ‘Requiem’ from Killing Joke (1980)

Killing Joke injected aggressive rock riffs into the dark post-punk tones of Joy Division, making for a cold, grim and yet thrillingly bleak anthemic sound. ‘Requiem’ sets the tone.

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