Best album-opening one-two punches
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Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Scott Tobias asks: In a classic Scharpling & Wurster bit called “Kid eBay,” the last track on their album Hippie Justice, Wurster calls in as the eponymous online auction whiz-kid. Eventually, the conversation turns to this question: What is the best one-two punch to kick off an album? Wurster’s character submits “Don’t Give It Up Now” and “Help You Ann” from the Lyres’ 1984 album On Fyre. Other possibilities include the one-two that opens The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. (“Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint”) and The Clash’s London Calling (“London Calling” and “Brand New Cadillac”). Where do you stand? And why?
There are too many one-two punches to name, but my favorite album-openers are the ones that spring right out of the box: “Graveyard Shift” from Uncle Tupelo’s first album, or “No Action,” which gets Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model off to such a purposeful start. With that in mind, I love the one-two that opens The New Pornographers’ The Electric Version, because the songs, “The Electric Version” and “From Blown Speakers,” sound like they were conceived together, barreling into each other in a fit of infectious energy. They’re two of the shortest songs on the record (under three minutes apiece), and the high energy of “The Electric Version,” which brings the A.C. Newman/Neko Case double-vocal harmonies front and center, shifts beautifully into the chugging guitar and keyboard of “From Blown Speakers.” To quote Newman on the latter: “It came out magical.”
For many years, one of my favorites was Booth & The Bad Angel, a one-off 1996 collaboration between James frontman Tim Booth and Twin Peaks composer and periodic David Lynch partner Angelo Badalamenti. And yet I often never got past those first two tracks, “I Believe” and “Dance Of The Bad Angels.” The former is a triumphant, positive pop-rock declaration of faith—in God? In a lover? In the power of positive thinking? Could be all of the above. Then the second track, “Dance Of The Bad Angels,” dives into murkier territory, still with that positive bent, but with a darker, smokier reaction. The one-two punch sounds like a man who’s fallen in love and is celebrating the world in the first song, and then finds out in the second that all that giddy emotion just makes sex deeper and better. “I long to lead the world in ecstasy,” Booth sings in “Bad Angels,” and the two tracks back-to-back sound like he’s accomplishing just that, in two different ways.
It’s easy to think of “Hors d’Oeuvres” and “The Same Old Rock” as being of a piece. On the original vinyl version of Roy Harper’s 1971 masterpiece Stormcock, the two lengthy songs comprise the entire first side of the LP. But the duo of delicate, epic, folk-rock ballads share more than mere proximity. Sounding skeletal yet sumptuous—and backed on acoustic guitar by friend and champion Jimmy Page—Harper makes the eight-minute “Hors d’Oeuvres” and the 12-minute “The Same Old Rock” feel like flip sides of an eroded, careworn coin. The former is the darker of the two, with a descending melody and a shimmering chorus that can raise the dead, or at least the memory thereof; the latter is more forceful and intricate, as Harper and Page traverse rootsy soil and wispy ether in pursuit of some ancient state of consciousness. Just to drive that complement home, the final whispers of “Hors d’Oeuvres” fade into the opening jangle of “The Same Old Rock.” The dozen seconds in which they overlap feel like haunted hours.
Oh man, there are so many great ones… I was about to start writing about the first few minutes of Pearl Jam’s Vs., which encompasses “Go” and “Animal,” but then I remembered the first two songs on Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet. In a way, Mr. Wilkes-Krier painted himself into a corner with the a double dose of party jams, because how could he possibly follow “It’s Time To Party” and “Party Hard”? He certainly tried, and he’s done an admirable job over the years of stretching out his sound while still partying, but those two songs on his debut album defined him. Oh, and another honorable mention: The first two songs on the greatest EP of all time, Archers Of Loaf Vs. The Greatest Of All Time, are the unstoppable “Audiowhore” and “Lowest Part Is Free!”
This question immediately reminded me of that scene in High Fidelity where Rob gives his list of side-one track-ones, and instantly gets ridiculed. So do I go with “a sly declaration of new classic status” or fall back on “old safe ones?” I think I lean a little closer to the former than the latter in choosing the first two tracks off Interpol’s debut record, Turn On The Bright Lights. I wasn’t paying attention when it first came out late in the summer of 2002, but I did go to my local alternative radio station’s summer kickoff festival in June 2003. One of my friends advised that I check out Interpol for a mid-afternoon set out in the parking lot of Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, which is one of the better suggestions I’ve ever taken. The band opened with “Untitled,” and I was so close to the stage that Carlos D’s bassline rattled my lungs. It was effortless, rib-crushing cool, and once the set ended with “Obstacle 1,” my only goal for the rest of the day was tracking down a copy of the album. That one-two punch is still intoxicating, and so much better when taking full advantage of a forcefully loud sound system.
A while ago, I took to Twitter to pose a pressing question. Which is the better Kyuss album: 1992’s Blues For The Red Sun, or 1994’s Welcome To Sky Valley? A rush of responses (read: two) flooded in, siding with the band’s later record. While it’s hard to deny that Sky Valley probably is, pound for pound, a better album, I have a hard time liking it more than Red Sun. Mostly this has to do with the album’s killer one-two opener of “Thumb” and “Green Machine.” The leisurely, twangy fade-in of “Thumb” sets the tone for the album with John Garcia’s snarling post-grunge vocals (“You don’t seem to understand the de-yeal! / I don’t give two shits on how you fee-yeeel!”), while the abrupt pivot into “Green Machine” (one of the better known Kyuss tunes) brings Josh Homme’s guitars and Nick Oliveri’s fuzzy bass playing front and center. Taken together, “Thumb” and “Green Machine” capture everything of the tighter, ostensibly more radio-friendly Kyuss, at least in the sense that both songs clock in under five minutes. As for the more expansive, desert-rock jams, there’s always Welcome To Sky Valley’s epic, side-long “movements.”
I know our readers want nothing more than to hear about Jawbreaker one more time, so I’ll oblige. “The Boat Dreams From The Hill” and “Indictment” from Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy are the most powerful opening five minutes of an album that I can imagine. They aren’t just delightfully catchy, they’re a statement of intent. On 24 Hour, the band shifts from the anger of its second record to a full embrace of failure. Singing about a boat longing for sea and a pop song the band would never write, that’s futility. By 24 Hour, Jawbreaker’s members accepted that they were never going to get huge and they were never going to get happy, and they learned to revel in it. Two years later, they signed to a major label, got cast out of their community, and broke up. But on this album, these first two tracks, they manage to bury a deep, dark core of hopelessness at the center of two of their hookiest songs, and it’s perfect. Everyone on this staff has heard me argue that 24 Hour is Jawbreaker’s best record, and no one has ever agreed with me. These two songs are my entire case. It’s not a record for the disenfranchised, like Bivouac. It’s a record for people who never expected the world to be better, but find something beautiful in all that misery anyway.
One of my favorite one-two punches is technically a one-two-three punch. Rocket From The Crypt’s Scream, Dracula, Scream! commences with 62 seconds of white-hot pandemonium, which seamlessly gives way to another two-plus minutes of melodic chaos: “Middle” and “Born In ’69” are technically two different songs, but my brain has always pasted them together to form the album’s frantic opener. Then comes the hit—or as close as RFTC came to having a hit—“On A Rope,” the band’s triumphant sing-along that should have made it a superstar. But if I’m going to play by the rules, I’ll go with “If I Were Going” and “Gentlemen” from The Afghan Whigs’ tortured-soul masterpiece, 1993’s Gentlemen. Greg Dulli prepares us for the impending doom during the slow, menacing opener, which plays over what sounds like a hive of angry bees and sports lines like, “Still I think she believes me / Every word I say / I think I’m starting to believe it all myself / Go ask the gentlemen who play it / but hate to pay.” With the bees still swarming, it overlaps with the title track, which opens with Steve Earle’s iconic (at least in my world) drumbeat, jangles and swaggers its way through the verses, then explodes with vigor and vinegar during the anthemic chorus and bridge, perfectly capturing a guy in the middle of a situation—of his own creation—that sounds pretty excruciating. And Gentlemen only gets more intense from there.
I often get intimidated talking about music with the rest of you, since times like this usually offer up a chance for me to demonstrate how mainstream my tastes are. I leaned initially toward the debut album from Garbage, since “Supervixen” and “Queer” pinned me to the back of my dorm wall when I first heard them. Then I thought about the first two tracks from Green Day’s American Idiot, with the title song and “Jesus Of Suburbia” instantly marking that album as something new and vitally different to my ears. But ultimately, in terms of a one-two punch that totally took me by surprise, I’ll opt for Bloc Party’s 2005 album Silent Alarm. The first track, “Like Eating Glass,” sometimes sounds like what enacting the title might feel like. The brittle guitar and hyperactive drums threaten to drown out Kele Okereke’s impassioned vocals. After that, “Helicopter” kicks in with one of the best interlocking guitar melodies I’ve ever heard, with Okereke and lead guitarist Russell Lissack seemingly mimicking the sound of propellers sending the song into the stratosphere. The album ebbs and flows from there, but these two songs set the scene for one of the better debut albums of the past decade.
There’s no shame in mentioning something mainstream; I know that in my headiest days as a music fan, I could never match the breadth of knowledge my fellow A.V. Clubbers. And now, with middle age encroaching and my memory for these sort of things fading, the mainstream instances are what sticks in my memory, which is why, when I read the question, I couldn’t get the first two tracks of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” out of my head. We’ve all heard them: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which came on like a blast of alterna-rock refreshment, whose grinding but melodic, poppy sound surprised even the most hardened fan of alternative music in 1991, followed by “In Bloom,” with its sing-songy refrain that adhered itself to your brain and confirmed to you that Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl were not one-song wonders. The combination of the two has gotten so ingrained in my memory over the last two-plus decades that I often can’t hear the end of “Spirit” without the first notes of “In Bloom” automatically popping into my head.
I’m sure there are a lot of technically “better” or “cooler” records than this one, but for some reason, the first LP that comes to mind is Weezer’s “Blue Album.” Precious few songs are more anthemic than “My Name Is Jonas,” (“The workers are going hooooome!”) and “No One Else” keeps that momentum going with its solid wall of guitar sounds and angst-laden take on jealousy.
Well, screw it, since I don’t want to repeat Scott (This Year’s Model ftw), I’m going to go full cliché: the title track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Over the years, I’ve read a lot of criticism pointing out that the much-touted “concept” part of what’s probably the Beatles’ most famous album isn’t so much a concept as a suggestion, but those first two songs make it a moot point. Paul kicks it off, John names the group, and then some cheery trumpeting and drums leads from “Billlllyyyyy Sheeeeeears” into Ringo’s droning, chummy anthem of togetherness and group drug abuse. With that in place, it wouldn’t matter if the rest of the album was just a bunch of disparate singles and George Harrison noodling on the sitar; the mood is set, and while it isn’t as epic or satirical as the albums it eventually inspired, Sgt. Pepper’s always makes me feel like I’m sitting on a park under an elm tree’s shade, listening to music pouring out of the gazebo down the hill. (It is music that makes me think of gazebos. I have no idea why.) Between them, the two tracks seem to invent the idea of a concept album whole cloth, implying a continuity and cohesion that makes everything else more than the sum of its parts. There are songs on the album I love more (“A Day In The Life” is, for my money, the greatest pop song ever recorded), but it wouldn’t work without the opening handshake and hug which lets you know what you’re in for.
Joni Mitchell’s Court And Spark was a huge step forward for the singer-songwriter, both musically, in that it incorporated more elements of pop and jazz into her lilting folk-rock, and lyrically, in that her confessional style became more impressionistic and allusive. The new lyrical approach is evident in the album-opening title track, which seems to describe a romantic encounter with an activist the singer can’t fully bring herself to embrace wholly, since that would require too much personal sacrifice. Then, before the last note of “Court And Spark” fades, Mitchell’s hit “Help Me” begins, repeating the same theme—a delirious love affair, cut short because the two parties don’t want to lose their respective autonomy—over one of the catchiest and lushest tunes Mitchell ever wrote. These two songs (and the one that follows, “Free Man In Paris”), are mature and sensual in their sound and their subject matter, as they describe worldly pleasures undercut by banal everyday concerns.
You could pretty much pick any Converge album and it would work for this question, but I’m of the mindset that none of them starts stronger than Jane Doe. The record kicks off with “Concubine,” 79 seconds of ferocious blast beats and Jacob Bannon’s nearly indecipherable yelping. The track closes with looming feedback, leaving no dead space between the song’s end and the first notes of “Fault And Fracture.” It isn’t until “Fault And Fracture”’s final downbeat that there’s a moment of reprieve from Converge’s nihilistic energy, making it an introduction to one of the most difficult—and beautiful—albums in aggressive music.
Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick made life a little easier for himself and his band by writing the perfectly titled, perfect kick-off song in “Hello There,” the monster anthem that opens the group’s career-making 1978 live album Cheap Trick At Budokan. On the album, the song comes off as a thundering declaration of purpose, and it’s followed by an equally awesome power-pop gem in the equally hard-driving “Come On, Come On.” And those aren’t even the best songs on the album! That would be “Surrender” and “I Want You To Want Me,” the delirious live version of which annihilates the studio version, which feels tepid and overly glossy by comparison. “Surrender” and the live “I Want You To Want Me” are perfect songs, and while the one-two punch that kicks off the album isn’t as flawless, it’s nevertheless the perfect way to kick off the album.
Maybe it’s just because I’ve been involved in discussion all morning about the merits of this man and which of his albums would be a good gateway drug to his music, but I’m suddenly drawn to suggest Richard Thompson’s 1991 album Rumor And Sigh, which kicks off with the rumble of “Read About Love,” a reminiscence of learning about lust that features a soaring chorus, and follows that with one of the most perfect pop songs of Thompson’s career, “I Feel So Good.” Granted, a number of old-school Thompson fans have little patience for the glossy edges of Mitchell Froom’s production, but one track leads into another perfectly, and if you’re an RT newbie who’s receptive to catchy singer-songwriter stuff, before you know what’s hit you, you’re wondering where Richard Thompson’s been all your life.
As Josh mentioned, how do you choose? A quick skim of my iPod produced half a dozen contenders, from N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Fuck Tha Police”) to Operation Ivy’s Energy (“Knowledge,” “Sound System”). But I’ll go with one of my favorite albums of all time, Don’t Turn Away by Face To Face. That kicks off with singer-guitarist Trever Keith shouting, “One, two, one, two, three, four” and the rest of the band jumping into “You’ve Done Nothing.” Then it segues into one of my favorite songs of all time, “I’m Not Afraid.” It doesn’t stop after that: The only stumbles when it reaches track 11, “Walk Away” (which always struck me as a little generic), but Don’t Turn Away’s 12 other songs are gems. Those first two set the tone, and it barely relents after them: simple, no-frills, catchy punk. Then again, Fugazi’s In On The Kill Taker starts off pretty amazing too…
This is probably the most cliché answer I could give, but I can’t think of anything better. “Thunder Road,” from Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band’s Born To Run, is just a magnificent song, a whole movie in under five minutes. Springsteen so perfectly conveys the longing and wish for an escape from a go-nowhere town that he turns the whole thing into something that feels romantic, instead of just kind of boring and pointless. (My wife once wrote a piece that garnered a headline for our school newspaper that included the phrase “town full of losers,” and the student body assumed she was talking about them, instead of getting the reference. Now that I think about it, it was impossible for them to have heard the song, because the second you do, you want to get on the nearest wheeled vehicle and drive immediately into the night, in pursuit of nothing in particular.) That the song is then followed by the joyful bombast of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” which is even better; here’s the better future Springsteen was promised if he could just get out. The rest of Born To Run keeps exploring that freedom, but “Tenth Avenue” is all the fun the narrator of “Thunder Road” isn’t having.