Tuesday, October 22, 2013
My Top 10 Album Opening Songs
My boy, J-Oro and I, are at it again, coercing one another into drawing up yet another top 10 list. This time, we gave ourselves another difficult task: picking a mighty list of our favorite album openers. Check out his list here.
With over a century of recorded music to feasibly choose from, there is, inevitably, a galaxy of astounding songs I have never heard of—and never will—let alone songs that didn’t make my list. For this post, I found it helpful to think of it as a glimpse, a documentation of where I am at this point in my life—like those height chart markings cool parents make of their ever-growing kiddos.
In drawing up this list, I found myself biased toward opening ditties for great albums versus ones that are mixed bags, or otherwise lackluster. A great example of an outstanding opening song on a so-so album is Dokken’s “Unchain the Night” from Under Lock and Key. Great fucking song: George Lynch at the peak of his shredding might, strong vocals from Don Dokken, and a mindblowing solo. But the rest of the album, in my most humble opinion?: a shoulder-shrug egh. “Rusty Cage” from Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger is another example (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!)
I also found myself leaning toward openers that I could not imagine the album without. Some examples that didn’t make my list: The Doors “Strange Days,” “Planet Claire” from The B-52s debut album, or “A.I.R.” from Anthrax’s Spreading the Disease. In building my portfolio of top 10 opening songs (I am starting to sound like my work self), the ones that really rose to the top were songs that helped to define their album—songs that were an essential component of their sonic alchemy. For me, a great opener is like a perfect interlude (think “Sunday Morning” by The Velvet Underground, or, to a lesser extent, “Airbag” from Radiohead’s classic OK Computer), the Rickey Henderson of a potent line-up.
All fluff and bluster, aside, let’s get to my Fall 2014 picks (in no particular order)!
1) London Calling from The Clash's London Calling
The title track for The Clash’s classic album. “London Calling " does everything an opening song should do: it sets the underlying emotional tone for the rest of the album; it gets shit going. The song is infused with a foreboding seriousness that other more playful songs like “Clampdown” or their cover of “Brand New Cadillac” lack. “London Calling” is a dystopian anthem. Along with “Lost in the Supermarket,” I think it is the heart of the sprawling, eclectic album. And over thirty years later, the opening song still seems prescient, capturing an ominous tone that our civilization, including metropolises like London, cannot shake. Beatlemania is long, long dead. All that’s left is to howl at our inevitable doom like Joe Strummer does in this gem.
2) Holy Wars…The Punishment Due from Megadeth’s Rust in Peace
It seems fair to begin the write-up for this scorcher by thanking crank and alcohol and god knows what other drugs Dave Mustaine was consuming during the recording of this thrash metal classic.
This 6:33 humdinger of an epic starts off motoring with the classic Megadeth line-up of Mustaine, Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza at play. Like the following song, “Hangar 18,” Mustaine’s lyrics isn’t exactly the meat the listener comes for (though the opening verse: “Brother will kill brother / Spilling blood across the land / Killing for religion /Something I don't understand” encapsulates the song). Instead, of course, listeners like myself get drawn in by the virtuosity of Mustaine’s playing. Backed by Friedman, Ellefson, and Menza, he grabs our throats and compels us to listen with his unorthodox songwriting, the emotional despair and bite in his snarl, grunts, and wails, and his guitar playing. “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” almost always makes any list of top Megadeth songs (it’s usually #1) and one of the big reasons is his solo in this song. 4:56 – 5:40 is just—jesus fucking christ—jawdropping.
And from there, the final minute of the song just barely holds on. Like every astounding Megadeth song, “Holy Wars,” somehow or another, teeters on the edge of completely derailing from its manic, frenetic pace.
3) Fight Fire With Fire from Metallica’s Ride the Lightning
God I love this song for so many reasons: the lilting acoustic introduction, like a sunshiny day with not one cloud in the sky before 184 beats per minute of brute and doom destroys it. The intro is like Bambi Meets Godzilla, Metallica-style:
I dig “Fight Fire With Fire” because it is clear, from that song alone, that Metallica musically took leaps and bounds from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All to the classic Ride the Lightning a year later under Flemming Rasmussen’s producing. It is unimaginable to think of “Fight Fire With Fire” being a part of Kill ‘Em All, which is more raw and juvenile.
“Fight Fire With Fire” is a brutal, resoundingly mighty and grotesquely beautiful song which perfectly captures Metallica’s relentless power and precision; it’s a 4 minute and 45 second blitzkrieg of pounding double-bass notes, serious shredding, and grunting and shrilling. It’s Black Sabbath on high octane. I suspect it will always be a song that few can surpass in its savage, tightly-honed power.
4) Nutshell from Alice in Chains' MTV Unplugged album
“We Die Young” from their debut album, Facelift, could have made my list, but this song can really get to me.
Back when I was a squirt in high school, my favorite Seattle bands were in this order: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. In Life After Lymphoma, it’s now Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden (please don’t kill me, Soundgarden fans!), and Pearl Jam (please don’t kill me, Pearl Jammers!). Musically, I think, without question, Soundgarden was the superior band of the four but I think Alice in Chains was extraordinary because of Layne Staley (Jerry Cantrell’s no slouch either). From the get-go, when they were in their early twenties, Alice in Chains’ music revolved around death and self-destruction. Write it off to a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I find Staley to have been an extraordinary vocalist both for the power his voice wielded in its vulnerability and the darkness their songs delved in. There will never be another singer who will sound like him.
Few songs more nakedly show this heart and vulnerability than their acoustic version of “Nutshell.” I listen to Staley sing the opening verse and chorus and I can’t help but sense that he already knew he was done for, that his time was quickly extinguishing and yet, there he sat, boldly singing in a front of a crowd in an intimate setting without cracking. I’m still unsure how a human can do that—how they can sing their pain so plainly and not cry or crumble. But Layne did it here, and on several other songs on this album, notably “Down In a Hole” and “Would?.” (I still get the chills when I watch their recorded performance and he stares back at the camera.)
After listening to “Nutshell,” that live audience must have known they were going to be in for an enthralling, emotional purging. It was an extraordinary performance.
5) The Golden Age from Beck’s Sea Change
Though I rarely ever listen to Sea Change, I couldn’t think of a more perfect song to open the album, a melancholic, acoustic-heavy one that chronicled Beck’s breakup with his then-fiancée, whom he had been with for nine years. After Beck sings the opening line, who isn’t ready to slash their wrists? “The Golden Age” captures that numb, debilitating fog of sadness that envelops us when our hearts are broken—and in a lilting, almost lullaby fashion.
6) De Cara a La Pared from Lhasa de Sela’s La Llorona
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime singers, Lhasa de Sela is a voice we will never hear from again.
Like “Fight Fire With Fire,” “De Cara a La Pared” is one of those songs you can’t fucking believe exists when you listen to it the first time. It is a haunting, haunting song. Lhasa sounds more like a ghostly, not-of-this-world llorona than a human being in this song with the sheer beauty, grace, and emotional depth of her voice. I rarely listen to songs from her La Llorona or The Living Road albums, but when I do, sometimes I do wonder if she was not of this world. Maybe the breast cancer that took her at age 37 was some sick, humanly way of checking out of Planet Earth after she’d graced our species with her recordings, presence, and performances? When I listen to songs like “De Cara a La Pared,” “El Desierto,” y “Con Todo Palabra” I still question how a human could have such a beautiful, haunting voice.
7) Everything In Its Right Place from Radiohead’s Kid A
I still remember the evening I first listened to this song. I bought the Kid A CD (remember those?) at the Virgin Megastore (remember those?) that used to be on Market Street in downtown San Francisco. After I bought the CD, I popped it into my discman (remember those?), then walked down Market to the Embarcadero Center to watch Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. I remember being swallowed by the opening electric piano notes, the digitized scratching of Yorke’s vocals, thinking holy shit, this is not OK Computer, then hearing him sing “Everythiiiiiing” four times and being floored by his third incantation of that single word. It was just one word, one goddamn word, but with that hypnotic, drowning background that felt like the sonic replica of Stanley Donwood’s cover artwork, my heart dropped. I probably blinked hard as I slithered past all the people walking along the sidewalk, thinking I can’t believe what I’m hearing just as I looked up to the dark, overcast sky above the downtown skyline and thought, my god, this is it, our future, caught and recorded for us all to hear.
And the rest of Kid A—which Thom Yorke explained was partly about "the generation that will inherit the earth when we've wiped everything out"—never relents. Like any great, great album, Kid A is a timeless artifact of our time on this planet. (And that night in the city was a brutally bleak one that I might never forget.)
8) Little Child Runnin’ Wild from Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack
In its own way, this song can slay me, too. Curtis Mayfield’s voice just kills me; his voice was exquisitely beautiful in its falsetto range, clarity, emotional control but most especially in its vulnerability and sense of honesty. (Back when I was in my early twenties, singing Motown and disco songs to myself in my car as I drove around suburbia, I used to wish I could sing like James Brown or Jimmy Ellis from The Trammps. But now, no question, I wish I could sing like my boy, Curtis, if I could come back as a full-fledged soul brother.) Mayfield’s lyrics, singing, and his funky-soulful backing tapestry is an immaculate intro to this classic album that seemed to capture and define the rhythm, sadness, despair, frustrations, and beauty of the inner city landscape in the 1970s.
And the last minute of the song starting at the 4:30 mark: wow. It’s overpowering with the beautiful interweaving of the saxophone solo with the outro strings. Textbook example of how an opening song sets the emotional tone for the rest of the album.
9) Welcome to the Jungle from Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction
What an iconic song, man: the opening guitar notes, Axl Rose’s seemingly neverending howl, and then the nasty-crunchy opening riff. With “Welcome to the Jungle” as the opening act, Guns N’ Roses sets the tone for the debauched glamour that few, if any other albums, more perfectly captured than Appetite for Destruction. After this album—which could simply not be the same without its opening song—Guns N’ Roses was, without a doubt, atop the rock ‘n’ roll world in 1986. Rose’s snarl, his don’t-give-a-fuckness, along with Slash’s sheer bad-assery, was the face of mainstream rock.
And who can forget the song’s breakdown starting at the 3:21 mark?: the driving bassline, the percussion, the crescendo of distorted guitar notes ala the song’s beginning building up to Axl Rose’s singing the classic, classic “Ya know where ya are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiieaaaaah!” (According to legend, a crazed stranger said this to Axl Rose on a schoolyard in Queens years before Guns N’ Roses existed.)
Ever since I discovered this album in its entirety back when I was 28, I have quietly advocated that “Welcome to the Jungle” be played at pediatric wards across the United States for every newborn infant to hear. Few songs could be more bitingly forthright about what awaits.
10) Mouth for War from Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power
Que puedo decir, I love me some metal. It was oh-so-tempting to put “Brown Sugar” or “War Pigs” or “Purple Haze” here (great pick, Goldman!), but this song does a better job of capturing what my spirit is drawn toward lately. This song’s so bad I don’t even give a fuck if Phil Anselmo is a racist bigot motherfucker from Texas; this album pretty much rules. “Mouth for War” is delicious slaughter. Vulgar Display of Power captured Dimebag Darrell (RIP, brotha) at his absolute peak, synthesizing his distinctive groove metal leanings with some absolutely decimating thrash riffs. For that, you need look no further than the 3:06 mark of this opening song, which can be summed up with two words: HOLY FUCK.
No scientific study has been conducted to prove this, but I shit you not, every single time that part of the song blares through my iPod headphones, my pedaling pace or Elliptical speed at the gym significantly spikes. In my head, I always want to roar with my entire being but since I’m signed up to the Social Contract, I keep it inside (though I often thrash my head to get some of my energy out).
-“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
-“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Charles Mingus (a bedazzling kaleidoscope of sound)
-“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
-“Bonded by Blood” by Exodus
-"Mysterions" by Portishead
-“Achilles Last Stand” by Led Zeppelin
-“The Call of Ktulu” by Metallica from their S & M album