I am an absolute sucker for a good list. As anybody who knows me is aware, one of the great passions of my life is music.
As such, while I recognise that it is isn’t a weighty piece of literature, one of the books that I identify with most greatly is Nick Hornby’s ode to musical geekery, “High Fidelity”, a book that puts the art of making “the list” at its heart.
As a consequence, when I was asked to compile a selection, I was drawn to a passage where the central character and his music store cronies attempt to pick their top 5 “Track 1, side 1”s of all time.
As such, when faced with a loaded gun to my head, held by our very own Mr Green, I used this as the basis for my task.
I fully accept that this is an impossible exercise, and due to my own fickle nature, the list will undoubtedly change by this time this is published.
I am also painfully aware of how arbitrary and personal these particular lists are; one man’s list of classics most often proves to be another man’s list of dross.
I don’t expect the editor of Rolling Stone Magazine will be the next person to ask for my mobile number based on this, but as I was asked so have I answered.
These are my personal favourites, and this, for what it’s worth, is my (by no means definitive) Top 20 Album Opening Tracks Of All Time.
- Reflektor – Arcade Fire (From Reflektor)
In the aforementioned book, Rob selects “Radiation Ruling The Nation” from Massive Attack’s “No Protection”, a choice described by his frenemy Barry as “a sly declaration of new classic status pushed into a list of old safe ones.”
In this vein, I’m going to get it out of the way, and choose the opening single from Arcade Fire’s album of the same name. Like so many others, I’ve been captivated by Arcade Fire since “Funeral”, but this is amongst the most breath-taking of their songs to date, which given their back catalogue is no small praise.
While I would hesitate to call any track a little over 3 years old a classic, with its menacing Voodoo groove coupled with a jaw dropping David Bowie cameo, history may yet prove this description to be justified.
- Harborcoat – REM (From Reckoning)
If push comes to shove, I would always say that my favourite band is REM.
It’s easy for people to unfairly dismiss them on the basis of their inconsistent post 1992 output (although I would caveat this by stating without fear that “New Adventures in HI-Fi” is as good as anything they produced in their heyday), I can’t think of another band that has released as many astonishing records as REM from “Murmur” through to “Automatic for the People”.
It’s a tough choice, but if pushed to select a favourite REM opening track I would have to go with “Harbourcoat”. Between Michael Stipe’s lead and Mike Mills’ backing vocals and the blistering nature of the chorus, this is REM at their most thrilling.
- Coyote – Joni Mitchell (From Hejira)
Joni Mitchell has been a staple of my parents’ listening for as long as I can remember, but it’s only been relatively recently that I’ve truly started to appreciate what an astonishing artist she is.
One of the greatest factors in this particular Road to Damascus was hearing her sing this at The Band’s “Last Waltz” concert.
That concert, by the way, is, as a result, now up there with Celtic winning the European Cup and MLK’s “I have a Dream” speech as the historical event that I would most liked to have attended!
That’s how highly I rate this piece of work, and how much I have come to love it.
While I would tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that Mitchell’s finest album is “Blue” by a comfortable distance, part of the reason I love this song is the way that it’s so different to the way that you would tend to characterise her.
It’s light, it’s meandering, it’s almost funky. In short, it’s fucking brilliant!
- Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones (From Sticky Fingers)
Its became hard to listen to this song without thinking of the moment in “The Wire” where Prez cracks a case on the basis of a code derived from Brown Sugar. It was one the great moments when he became a fully accepted member of the unit.
I’ve certainly never gained anything as enlightening as Prez from listening to it, but it certainly does everything that an album’s opening track should and crystalizes exactly what we’ve grown to love about The Stones. Raucous. Soulful and seedy. Class.
- The Sick Bed Of Cuchulainn – The Pogues (From Rum, Sodomy and the Lash)
Some of the greatest nights of my life have been spent watching The Pogues.
I always think that it’s a great tragedy that with the exception of the annual blast of “Fairytale of New York” at Christmas and “The Irish Rover” on St Patricks Day, they have been dismissed as a gang of drunken hooligans.
When you look a bit closer, you can see that Shane MacGowan is a poet on a par with Dylan and Springsteen, with a sharp wit and an incomparable understanding of music, literature and culture.
In some ways, this song gives you an understanding of why people would come to this conclusion (“They took you up to Midnight Mass and left you in the lurch, so you threw a button in the plate and spewed up in the Church”) but when you strip away the blackly hilarious comedy from it and consider the references that he gives to Cuchulainn (the ancient Celtic Warrior) John McCormack (the legendary Irish Tenor) and Frank Ryan (a post Easter Rising Republican leader), you start to appreciate the fact that MacGowan is a truly unique frontman to a truly unique band.
- Holes – Mercury Rev (From Deserters Songs)
I can still remember the first time that I listened to Mercury Rev and thinking that it was the best stuff that Neil Young had done in years.
It might well have been their Jools Holland performance of “Holes” when I realised that it wasn’t actually Neil Young that I had been hearing! As fantastic as that performance was, nothing could have prepared me for the brilliance of the album itself, and for me its crowning glory is its opening track.
While the live version is a fairly straight down the line band performance, the studio track is a sweeping orchestral number which, for me is truly timeless.
It could have been written and revered at any other time in the history of recorded music and been considered a classic that Neil Young himself could be proud of!
- Yes – Manic Street Preachers (From The Holy Bible)
I’ll declare an interest with this album and state that it will always hold a special place in my heart as it was my first purchase with my first paper round wages.
It’s one of those fantastic albums that I don’t listen to as much as I should but every time I take a notion for it, it still hits the 27 year old me clean in the face in the same way that it did when I was 13.
It’s this song that grabs you by the throat, and it doesn’t matter how many times I hear it/ The day I stop being shocked by hearing James Dean Bradfield screaming “He’s a boy, you want a girl so cut off his cock, tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want”, is the day that I should probably consider going into therapy!
Disturbing but totally compelling.
- Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken – Camera Obscura (From Lets Get Out of this Country)
I remember reading Bono (or it might have been the Edge, or alternatively it might have been somebody else entirely!) talking about the making of an album and stating that they were trying to capture the feeling of joy, which he said was the hardest emotion to capture in music.
Despite the title, I can think of very few examples that I have ever heard that nail this as firmly as this song.
From the moment of the organ in the intro to the strings that carry the song through, the Glasgow band certainly achieve the so called hardest emotion in music.
- Airbag – Radiohead (From OK Computer)
The perfect way to kick off the album which is, for me, music’s equivalent of the Taj Mahal or the Sistine Chapel.
While Radiohead had already made the solid, if relatively unspectacular “Pablo Honey” and the excellent “The Bends”, “OK Computer” was the album that brought them onto another level entirely.
The opening riff is an absolute monster and like the rest of the album, I’ve listened to “Airbag” a thousand times and will listen to it a thousand times again and always notice something that I’ve never picked up on before, such is the complex layering of the guitar, which creates a slice of fin de siècle terror that is quite unlike anything that I’ve heard before or since.
- Rock ‘n’ Roll Star – Oasis (From Definitely Maybe)
I think every music fan can identify with the moment they discover a band that stands apart from both the music that they’ve heard from their parents and disposable pop (not to belittle the importance or value of either, for the record!). For me that band was undoubtedly Oasis.
From the first time I was ever exposed to them on a campsite in Kirkcudbright as 10 year old in 1996, it would be no exaggeration to say that they were the band that changed my life.
Although the first of theirs that I heard was “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory”, an album that will always hold a special place in my heart, I think there is a lot of value to Noel Gallagher’s continued insistence that for sheer hunger “Definitely Maybe” is the record that best captures the talent, brashness and self belief that we grew to love about Oasis.
To put it this way, how many bands can you think of with the balls to put a statement as clear and unambiguous as this as the first track of their opening album?
- Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan (From Highway 61 Revisited)
It’s difficult to think of any individual in the history of music, nay, in the history of Art full stop, where the term “maverick” is more justified than it is with Mr Zimmermann.
If “Bringing it All Back” was the album where he ripped up the rule book by turning his back on the folk world and going electric, Highway 61 is the record where he perfects the formula.
It’s not for nothing that the famed author Michael Gray argued that the “60’s started with this album”. He also poured the acolades on the song itself. The genius of the track is reflected in the fact Rolling Stone Magazine rated it the best song of all time. It’s an iconic record, by an icon.
Think of it this way; even today, a 6 minute opening track (particularly one as loaded with bitterness and resentment as this) would be considered risky.
In 1965, it was very nearly relegated to the “graveyard of cancelled releases” due to its sheer audacity.
However, it’s a testament to Dylan’s snarling vocal, biting lyrics and the swirling organ that make it one of the most compelling songs in musical history.
- What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (From What’s Going On)
While by 1971, Tamla Motown had gained a formidable reputation for creating a collection of pop classics, this was the album where the label and Marvin Gaye as an artist came of age by releasing a wondrous collection of soulful but politically and socially aware anthems.
While this mood is sustained throughout the album, the title track sets the tone of this manifesto perfectly.
Gaye takes a critical yet beautifully humane approach to criticising the Vietnam War, yet while the song is propelled by the soulful delivery of the vocal, it is also expertly underpinned by the musicianship and arrangement of the Funk Brothers, whose criminally under reported contribution to the Motown sound is fascinatingly portrayed in the excellent 2002 documentary, “Standing in the Shadow of Motown.”
- The Queen is Dead – The Smiths (From The Queen is Dead)
Even as a self confessed Smiths obsessive, I would be the first person to recognise, especially based on any number of arguments with friends and family, there is no greater “Marmite” figure in the history of popular music that Stephen Patrick Morrissey.
However, it is the contrary and biting nature of the delivery and lyrics of this song (some of the funniest in popular music in my opinion) that sum up everything I love about him as an artist and The Smiths as a band.
Who else could come up with a line like “So I broke into the Palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner, She said ‘I’ve heard you and you cannot sing’, I said ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano’ ” for Christ’s sake?
That’s poetry, not simply a song lyric!
- Only Shallow – My Bloody Valentine (From Loveless)
I have to confess that while some of my favourite albums have grabbed me by the balls from the first time that I heard them, there are others that have taken that little bit longer to grow on me.
“Loveless” is a perfect example. I’ve heard it described as “The sound of God sneezing”, a peculiar but oddly accurate summary of their unique and powerful sound.
However, once I had got my head around the complexity of their music (so intricately produced that it famously came close to bankrupting Creation Records) it’s an album that has stayed with me ever since. It’s the call to arms of “Only Shallow”, with its larger than life guitar effects and ethereal vocal harmonies that capture the essence of this album.
- Natural Mystic – Bob Marley and The Wailers (From Exodus)
I’m not somebody who would tend to regard himself as overtly religious and I’m certainly not laying to claim to being Haghill’s sole Rasta.
Yet, I’ve always believed that there is a lot to be said for spirituality in music.
Along with my previous nominee Marvin Gaye, there can be few better examples of this than Bob Marley. He exuded it, his music exudes it, and this is a wonderful example of that.
This is just a wonderful song; tight Caribbean instrumentation, married with soulful and righteous vocals to thrilling effect. I love it.
- Holidays in The Sun – Sex Pistols (From Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols)
Often imitated, never bettered, there are few purer examples of raw energy and aggression than on this album, and Holidays in The Sun is a perfect example of this. It’s also a great example of the distinctive Sex Pistols sound.
These guys were real trailblazers, and this was, and remains, an album with power.
From the vaguely unsettling goose stepping intro to the roaring guitar and bass, “Holidays In The Sun” is bristling with “don’t give a fuck” attitude and sets the tone for the record that changed music forever.
No amount of Country Life Butter ads can diminish the snarling and sneering power of Johnny Rotten’s vocal and its impact is one that doesn’t lessen with age.
- Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen (From Born to Run)
Springsteen’s great gift is his ability to tell a story and Thunder Road is like a feature length movie compressed into a song of under 5 minutes.
As somebody who grew up in a relatively small town, I can strongly identify with the narrative of this song which perfectly captures the feeling and the youthful longing for the freedom of the outside world while stuck in a relatively humdrum existence.
He finds a way to connect with his audience in a way that few other writers can match.
Springsteen himself accurately describes the piano and harmonica intro as an invitation, and the way that the E Street build to a crescendo throughout the song is testament to why it is considered one of his finest works and such a staple of his legendary live performances.
- The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths (From Meat is Murder)
The Smiths are the only band that I’ve included twice in this list.
Part of the reason for that is that I just fucking love The Smiths (as anybody who has ever been stuck next to the jukebox in the Crown Creighton in Dennistoun will testify).
Yet, it is also due to the fact that while I have very deliberately focussed on Morrissey’s contribution to “The Queen is Dead”, the star of the show in “The Headmaster Ritual” is undoubtedly the musical force behind the band, guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr who, even more than Morrissey is the reason that I first fell in love with the band.
While I was attempting to get my own creative juices flowing to write this, I came across a quote from Marr describing the inspiration for “The Headmaster Ritual”, where he states that “I fancied the idea of a strange Joni Mitchell tuning, and the actual progression is like what she would have done had she been an MC5 fan or a punk rocker.”
It captures much of what I love about the Smiths as a band, with a softness and sensitivity at their centre but with a titanium enforced edge.
- Sunday Morning – Velvet Underground (From The Velvet Underground and Nico)
Looking back through my other choices, it should come as no surprise that the majority of songs on this list are what would be described as “calls to arms”. It is curious then that I should choose a song like “Sunday Morning” at this position on the list. While this is no ordinary album opening song, The Velvets are no ordinary band.
While other songs on the list seek to kick off the record by grabbing your attention, “Sunday Morning” creates the same effect by attempting to hypnotise you with its otherworldly beauty.
There can’t be many songs (let alone opening songs on debut albums) that would use a celesta (as I now know is the correct name for that weird music box-y sound) but it is that blend with Lou Reed’s otherworldly vocals that make this so mesmerising.
- Born Under Punches- Talking Heads (From Remain In Light)
After much deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that my favourite is “Born Under Punches” by Talking Heads, but paradoxically, it’s one of the hardest to write about because it is so weird. It sort of defies description.
This had wild Bass, disjointed poly-rhythms and total disregard for conventional form and structure.
Therein lies my love of Talking Heads; it’s an epic collaboration between a maverick band, brought together by Brian Eno, arguably at the height of his powers.
Writing this article actually brought to mind a quote from Michael Stipe of REM, in the inner notes of the reissue of Talking Heads excellent “More Songs About Buildiings and Food” album, where he praises their “sharp observation, combined with familiar and unfamiliar arrangement, production and instrumentation, which could scramble reach the heart and brain and scramble, challenge and thrill both. And you could dance to it.”
These observations might not have been with “Born Under Punches” in mind, but it’s the way that they combine the cerebral with the funky that sums up why I’ve chosen this song as my number one album opening track of all time.
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