Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published June 9th 2020
Beginning with the greatness
I received some interesting feedback concerning my columns here at WeekendNotes recently: Have you noticed how the albums that are considered classics or great always open with a great track? What do you reckon are the best opening tracks on albums? And, well yes. That is a great double barrelled question.
First, the whole concept of an opening album track is possibly lost on the modern music listener. With Spotify selecting distinct tracks for you (I believe that's called a "curated listening experience") and people just downloading individual tracks as opposed to whole albums or getting their music from YouTube playlists, even the concept of "albums" is dying. But, "back in the day", people bought albums with the idea of listening to the whole thing and making their own decisions, not letting their taste and likes be decided by some algorithm that examines the pressure of your keystrokes, what you had for lunch last Wednesday and how often you watched Season 3, Episode 6 of The Simpsons and decides that you need to hear Britney Spears and Simple Plan remixes for the next week.
Sorry, I digress.
Anyway, for people who do listen to full albums, that opening track does two things first, it sets the tone for the album as a whole, and, second, it puts your mind into the mood the album wants you to have. Often-times it was the best track on the album, or one of the best. That opening album track was so incredibly important.
And, for the reason that it was the last thing a listener would hear, and so the impression of the album that would last in the mind would come from it, the last track on the album was also pretty important as well. But that is by-the-by.
So, what I've done is gone through my collection of albums to find the best opening tracks from rock albums. These might not be my favourite tracks from these albums, but they really stand out as opening songs that draw the listener in and tell them that the album is going to be great.
1) I have to like the album. So an opening track that is the only song on the album I like is not going to make the cut. That does include 'Bittersweet Symphony' by the Verve; Urban Hymns is a mediocre album to me. 2) One song/album per artist in the main list. This was done so this list was not 50 tracks long. Seriously. It's bad enough there's almost 50 songs if you include the honourable mentions. 3) Rock albums. By whatever definition pop-rock, punk-rock, pop-punk, southern-boogie, blues-rock if it's rock, I'll consider it. Not pop (sorry, Adele)! And no comedy albums.
4) Studio albums only not greatest hits albums, live albums, compilation albums.
So, first, here's the honourable mentions:
'Highway To Hell' by AC/DC from Highway To Hell, 1979
'Let The Night Roll On' by The Angels from Beyond Salvation, 1990
'Back In The U.S.S.R.' by The Beatles from The Beatles (The White Album), 1968
'Amanda' by Boston from Third Wave, 1986
'Poison' by Alice Cooper from Trash, 1988
'After The Fire' by Roger Daltrey from Under A Raging Moon, 1985
'Telegraph Road' by Dire Straits from Love Over Gold, 1982
'Day By Day by Doug And The Slugs from Popaganda, 1984
'And We Danced' by The Hooters from Nervous Night, 1985
'Foxy Lady' by The Jimi Hendrix Experience from Are You Experienced?, 1967
'You May Be Right' by Billy Joel from Glass Houses, 1980
'Turbo Lover' by Judas Priest from Turbo, 1986
'Mascara' by Killing Heidi from Reflector, 2000
'Black Dog' by Led Zeppelin from Led Zeppelin IV, 1971
'Bat Out Of Hell' by Meat Loaf from Bat Out Of Hell, 1977
'Tucker's Daughter' by Ian Moss from Matchbook, 1989
'You Got It' by Roy Orbison from Mystery Girl, 1989
'Free Fallin'' by Tom Petty from Full Moon Fever, 1989
'Blue Suede Shoes' by Elvis Presley from Elvis Presley, 1956
'Let's Go Crazy' by Prince from Purple Rain, 1984
'Radio Ga Ga' by Queen from The Works, 1984
'Gimme Shelter' by The Rolling Stones from Let It Bleed, 1969
'And She Was' by Talking Heads from Little Creatures, 1985
'Give Blood' by Pete Townshend from White City: A Novel, 1985
'Owner Of A Lonely Heart' by Yes 90125, 1983.
The album that kept AC/DC relevant into the 90s, even against the onslaught of grunge. One of the better Johnson era albums, this is a consistent album with a slew of great tracks. But this opener that is one track that just does something to me.
'Enter Sandman' by Metallica from Metallica (The Black Album), 1991
The album when Metallica moved away from their thrash metal beginnings and entered a bass-heavy, more commercial brand of heavy metal opens with a track that in the early 90s you could not escape. The fact that this remains their best-selling album and entered the charts at number one all over the world showed that maybe the risk of alienating their hardcore fans did pay off. But what an opening track.
'More Than A Feeling' by Boston from Boston, 1976
I'm surely not the only one to blow out his vocal cords trying to sing the falsetto part of this song. But the album is not a one-track piece of music. There are great, unknown tracks throughout. It is accused of being too easy-listening, but the guitars and vocals are really under-rated across the whole thing.
One of Bowie's best songs from one of his most consistent albums. Stunning tracks across two sides of glory, and this opener a depressing song I didn't understand until I was in my 20s is just wonderful. I had an argument when I did my David Bowie column that this is not the best song on the album apparently that would be 'Life On Mars?'. It's that sort of album greatness everywhere.
'Standing On The Outside' by Cold Chisel from East, 1980
A brilliant opener to one of the best Australian albums ever released. Not a bad track on this one, and the opener lets you know that this is not going to be hard to listen to. This is one of those albums you can put on and just revel in its glory.
'In The Air Tonight by Phil Collins from Face Value, 1981
Despite one or two dodgy tracks, this debut solo album from the lead singer/drummer from Genesis showed that here was a talent that we should probably take note of. Some other great songs, but the opener is clearly the album's highlight (even if people know it for a gorilla nowadays). And the album has a decent Beatles cover song on it.
To my mind, the best album to come out of New Zealand. Sorry, Split Enz and Crowded House. Again, not a bad track; in fact, so many great songs. But this opener is one of the finest tracks ever. This is such a great track, and it is one where the album version is better than the single version.
'Like A Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan from Highway 61 Revisited, 1965
That opening crack on the snare drum and then the organ heralded a change in music whose effects are still being felt. This was the album where Dylan "went electric". And this song was a statement. From now on, lyrics were allowed to be intelligent and songs long (check out 'Desolation Row') on a popular music album. One of my very favourite Dylan albums, and my very favourite Dylan song opens it.
'Hotel California' by The Eagles from Hotel California, 1976
An album filled with great tracks, led off by one of the greatest, this is the epitome of the laid-back, easy-listening California rock that grew out of The Byrds and others of that ilk, an adjunct to country rock. But this track set the tone for an album easy to listen to and easy to love.
'American Idiot' by Green Day from American Idiot, 2004
The pop-punk-rockers who gave us Dookie suddenly hit the world with a protest album that was also a concept album, looking at the nihilism in the world due to voting in Bush v 2.0. This gave us some of the best music of the year. And it opens with a bang and a statement of intent. And it does it superbly.
'Beds Are Burning' by Midnight Oil from Diesel And Dust, 1987
What was it about this album? The Oils had been playing politically charged rock for years. But with this opener the only song to make a dent in the USA, so much so that this is considered their "one hit wonder" track and 'The Dead Heart' opening side 2, they hit a more consistently melodic musical form that makes this possibly their most accessible album to that date and this song still stands up today.
'Don't Stop Believin'' by Journey from Escape, 1981
This is one of those albums, like Boston's earlier, where this one song tends to dominate everyone's memory of what is a fine piece of early 80s pop-rock. And in 'Open Arms' they have one of the great album closers as well. No-one listens to the whole album; they are missing out on something. But, yes, the opener is the best track here.
'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin from Led Zeppelin II, 1969
Led Zeppelin's first album told the world that there was a new band in town. This opening track from their second album told the world that this was like no other band before them. Taking old blues riffs and lyrics and turning it into proto-heavy metal was the mark of what was to come. But the rest of the songs are also right there, including monumental instrumental 'Moby Dick'. What an album.
This amazingly wonderful Jim Steinman-penned track opens what most consider Meat Loaf's comeback album. The album is filled with amazing tracks, but it opens with one of the very best Mr Loaf has ever put out. Stunning track to open an awesome album.
'Smells Like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana from Nevermind, 1991
Very few songs can be said to individually change music. Dylan's 'Like A Rolling Stone' is one; and this opening track is another. Grunge might have started elsewhere, but this was its day zero, when it hit the world with a bang. It is just a shame that the effects of grunge on music and song performance were soon eclipsed by computers and anodyne dullness.
One of the finest albums ever opens with a 15 minute track that showcases instrumentation and delivers everything in spades. The fact this whole album is magnificent is an added bonus. You don't just listen to this opener; you listen to the whole thing and revel in the glory that is Pink Floyd.
'We Will Rock You' by Queen from News Of The World, 1977
Queen were so full of confidence in 1977 that they opened their album with a song which starts with drum beats and claps and voices until a guitar solo closes things out. They did not care, and neither did the public, elevating this whole album to iconic status. Some brilliant tracks can be found on this album, but that opener! Another statement of intent. And one they lived by to the end.
'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones from Ramones, 1976
From the opening count-in, The Ramones' debut album opens with this song that describes their music perfectly. Short, sharp, shiny bursts of punk rock the way it was meant to be played, and it all starts right here. The album is fourteen tracks long and yet goes for only half an hour. This song opens things with an explosion of guitars and drums and the singing that fans would come to know and love.
'Sympathy For The Devil' by The Rolling Stones from Beggars Banquet, 1968
An incredible song to open one of the harder albums The Stones made. There is blues here and rock and they sound like they don't care. This is like they looked at The Beatles and decided to go as far in the opposite musical direction as they could. But this opener, from the point of view of the Devil himself, is a magnificent way to open the album and set the feel of the whole record.
And to end this list, let's look at one of the very best in this list of magnificence. Who's Next is a brilliant album from top to bottom, with another outro song that is magnificent, but the opening impact of this track and "Teenage wasteland " sets the tone for an album that is complicated and yet still one of the greatest rock albums ever produced.
A long list, but some awesome music. Opening an album with an absolute banger of a track is an art that is all but forgotten in this day and age. And when you look at a list like this you have to ask, "Why?" Yes, the modern musical landscape does not lend itself to this quite so much, but does that matter?
I also know that even with such a long list, I would have missed out many, many songs. So, please, feel free to add your own in the comments section below. But, remember rock. I don't know enough about pop to comment (but Adele has had 2 corkers).
Anyway, hope you enjoyed some of the tracks here.