This week’s Q&A was sparked by a question that recently made the rounds on social media, prompting debate in the A.V. Club office:
Because I’m a total dork, this is a question I’ve actually spent some time thinking about over the years. And while there are plenty of answers that would certainly be more hip, I can’t honestly suggest anything other than the monumental three-track run at the heart of the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller: After an early high of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” and “Baby Be Mine,” “The Girl Is Mine” sends things cratering with its brutally schmaltzy duet, but with that out of the way, Jackson kicks off a run of immortal hits: “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.” I think “Billie Jean” has aged the best of the bunch, likely because it’s nowhere near as adventurous as the other two tracks, which, between their cinematic ambitions and stylistic deviations, sound like nothing Jackson had attempted before. Really, it’s the sound of an era-defining superstar being born, and I think it’s pretty unlikely we’ll ever see a run quite like that assembled again.
I feel like I’m cheating by picking Nas’ terse, ten-track debut Illmatic, which doubles as the strongest 10-track run I’ve ever heard on an album. But I’m not sure any musical career has started with a statement of purpose as fully formed and technically dazzling as “N.Y. State Of Mind,” which crams a lifetime of lived existence into one sun-blasted sprint through Queens. That’s followed immediately by the buttery smooth “Life’s A Bitch,” which sandwiches another crystalline rap from Nas between AZ’s star-making guest verse and a sax outro from Nas’ own dad, and then the Pete Rock-led revolution of “The World Is Yours.” You could probably make a strong argument for any three-track stretch from the record, but two stone-cold classics and one of the best guest verses of all-time is a heck of a trifecta.
As Clayton feels about Illmatic, I feel about Kate Bush’s seminal 1986 album Hounds Of Love, an outsize, unprecedented vision of pop music that melds synth pop, rock, and global influences into a brilliant world all Bush’s own. Its first three tracks—“Running Up That Hill,” “Hounds Of Love,” and “The Big Sky”—were all rightfully chart hits and could apply here. But I tend to favor the darker half of this album, and nothing comes close to the narrative arc played out across “Jig Of Life,” “Hello Earth,” and “The Morning Fog” on side B, “The Ninth Wave.” The perilous reckoning of “Jig,” the breathtaking view of “Hello,” the shimmering rebirth of “Morning Fog”—these are gorgeous, inventive, high-stakes works that take listeners through a dramatic range of emotion and leave them transformed (and kiss-the-ground grateful to have survived) on the other side.
I can think of several David Bowie albums where this would apply—Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Low all have some unassailable chunks—but I’ll name the one I have practical experience with. Back when I used to DJ (i.e., play songs in a bar, to hipsters who mostly didn’t want to dance), there was more than one occasion where I would just let side two of Lodger spin while I went out back for a smoke. From the glassy-eyed funk of “DJ,” through the theatrical sweep of “Look Back In Anger,” to the sashaying glam stomp of “Boys Keep Swinging,” it’s a uniquely powerful run through ’70s Bowie’s mastery of various styles—all uniformly great, yet distinct enough from each other that no one would really notice (or mind) if someone just let them all play in succession while they were supposed to be mixing it up.
Given that my sensibilities tend to run more toward whiny/heartfelt folk-rock, I’m as surprised as anybody that I’m opting for a hip-hop album here. But that’s a testament to just how undeniably great Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—and specifically, the run that contains “Power,” “All Of The Lights,” and “Monster”—really is. “Power” is my personal favorite; besides being the perfect distillation of West’s self-loathing bluster, it’s also just a fucking jam from start to finish. But that’s not to diminish “Lights,” a masterpiece of elaborate production and big, fearless swings, or “Monster,” which merits inclusion for Nicki Minaj’s lightning bolt, career-announcing verse, if nothing else. The craziest thing, though, is that you could make an almost equally strong argument for a couple of other runs closer to the album’s back half, too; the only thing shooting “Runaway,” “Hell Of A Life,” and “Blame Game” in the foot, for instance, is that fucking Chris Rock skit at the end.
William having cruelly taken the same answer a couple of us had, I’ll go more personal. I’m not going to argue with anyone about whether Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy belongs in such august company, but few albums have impacted my life as much as it has. It is a front-to-back classic, and if I had to pick the strongest three-song run of its 11 tracks, I’d go with “Condition Oakland” into “Ache” into “Do You Still Hate Me?” The trio perfectly captures a sampling of Jawbreaker’s charms at the peak of their powers: “Condition Oakland” is the gritty, dissonant-yet-melodic postcard of the old Bay Area, buoyed by a sample of Jack Kerouac reading poetry with Steve Allen on piano; “Ache” is a classic Jawbreaker ballad, born of desperation and longing; and “Do You Still Hate Me?” is a rager, propelled by Adam Pfahler’s awesome drumming and singer-guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach’s chiming guitar. If these three songs don’t do it for you, Jawbreaker may not be your thing.
As far as I’m concerned, The Pixies’ first three albums are so nearly perfect, you could extract three sequential songs from any point in Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, or Bossanova and have a meaningful set. But forced to choose, I’d have to go with the three opening tracks from Doolittle. The album starts off “Debaser,” an enthusiastic ode to Luis Buñuel’s 1929 surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou—most famous for a truly disconcerting scene of a woman’s eyeball being slit open by a razor. The song’s upbeat tempo carries over, then curdles, with “Tame”; a ragged, increasingly unhinged freak-out by Black Francis, punctuated by his persistent, hoarse breathing. That energy immediately drops away with “Wave Of Mutilation,” a languid and meditative song about either surfing, or the promise of death and eternal life. Maybe a little bit of both.
I’ve probably heard the whole album a million times, but I don’t know if a better three-song pop-powerhouse kickoff exists than the beginning trifecta of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. He starts out confused—the first line of the album is “I don’t know where I’m gonna live”—then improbably crafts a pop ode to a deity to help him out in a time of crisis. “Divine Intervention” is a risky proposition that works due to the swaggering hook, complete with a fake ending that stays away just long enough to make you think it’s not coming back. Then “I’ve Been Waiting” smoothly offers a jangly sweet pop confection, with Sweet layering his own vocals as harmonies. The album then veers yet again with the manic title track, a hard-rocking romantic plea that turns from plaintive to menacing on a dime, with guitar solos so seductive no mere mortal could resist. The rest of the album is also amazing, but no one could blame you if you got stuck in these three tracks in a near-eternal loop, as I have many a time.
I spent an embarrassing amount of time scouring my albums to respond to this question, and I’m still not certain which of the dozen-plus candidates I drew up should take the top spot (two of them are represented above, happily), but I’m more than happy to share the one that feels right: The opening three-part gut-punch of Pearl Jam’s Ten. It’s hard to underestimate just how revolutionary that record sounded to me when I was a kid. It took the angsty crunch of grunge music and filter it through a classic rock sound, with just the right amount of dreamy ambience. It was the best of both worlds, and it helped me slowly make the adolescent transition into admitting that, hey, maybe all those records made by old guys from before I was born actually have something to them. “Once” into “Even Flow” into all-time killer rock anthem “Alive” is a trio of songs that accompanied me well into my third decade on this planet, and if I make it to subsequent decades without nuclear war destroying us all, they’ll continue to be a source of constant wonder.