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How Fantastic Programming, Sequencing and Tracklisting Can Define an Album
THE way an album is arranged and organised is not…
something many of us thinks about! Maybe it is a side-effect of the Internet generation; perhaps we do not listen to albums in their entirety. This piece was sparked by Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. There are few near-perfect albums in this world: this would certainly be one of them. It is a rare record where you cannot fault the quality of the songs – there is not a weak track on the album. I am amazed the record was made, let alone sounds so good – the band were going through arguments, break-ups and serious drug abuse during the recording and release. Even though leader Lindsey Buckingham exerted most productive control; the music was from the entire band and it is the effort of each person in Fleetwood Mac that makes it so special. Whether it is Stevie Nicks’ Dreams – a song the band were not too keen on; she was given little time to record it, considering her ex-boyfriend Buckingham was guiding things – or the incredible Songbird (Christine McVie); the group togetherness of The Chain; Buckingham’s Go Your Own Way or the hopeful Don’t Stop (another McVie song) – so much wonder and treasure! I adore the album and never feel like it has Buckingham’s spit and fingers in every corner. It is a group recording and one that sounds astonishing considering the circumstances and times. What struck me – when listening to it – was how the album’s best moments are in the first half.
You have Dreams, Go Your Own Way and Don’t Stop near the top (Songbird in the opening half); The Chain is, debatably, the strongest cut on the second side. I was wondering whether the album would benefit from a slight rearrangement – the nerve of someone like me saying that! I feel The Chain is that huge song that you are exhausted after hearing it. It seems like a finale and the culmination of everything that has come before; the final chapter in the book and the bright and redemptive ending. How about having something as entrancing and spectral as Gold Dust Woman coming up behind Dreams (track three); shifting Never Going Back Again nearer the end?! There are two Buckingham songs in the opening trio of songs – Second Hand News and Never Going Back Again – with Dreams in the middle. I wonder whether Rumours starts too mellow and acoustic. Thinking with fresh eyes and I realise the tracklisting is spot-on! You could not have Gold Dust Woman that high because it is like the twilight and night coming in; Oh Daddy, just before it, is another sexy and alluring song; You Make Loving Fun another saucy and sexual song – it was written by Christine McVie and was about the lighting technician she was having an affair with (she was married to John McVie at the time).
The album is brilliant as it is and all the tracks are where they should be. Aside from Dreams; the first half of the record seems to be the daylight and the sort of awakening emotions and tensions that would have been present in the band; the latter half is the night and encroaching darkness – and all the tease, temptation and duplicity that comes with it. Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut produced with the band and, between them, the record was released to an unexpected audience in 1977. I have been thinking, if the tracks were in a different order, would our enjoyment be different?! We can argue whether the listing is perfect but I feel the emotional and sonic distribution is right. There is a stronger first half but the final songs are more brooding and deep – the bigger hits near the top and those detailed and nuanced songs at the end. If you were to randomly shuffle the songs then, even though they are the same songs, the listening experience would be vastly different, Imagine opening Rumours with You Make Loving Fun and then having The Chain; ending with the one-two of Dreams and Second Hand News?! You can quibble whether Rumours is the greatest album ever – there are some who claim it is – but one cannot deny how essential the flow and movement of the music is to the overall whole. A badly arranged record can be a disaster for a group...
Many felt U2’s Pop (1997) did not get as many great reviews as it did because its biggest songs were nearer the top. Although the band do not play the album’s songs anymore – and were dissatisfied with the final product – there are some who feel the record is too weird, bold and wild. Some critics felt it represented nadir and a lacking inspiration – it would be three years before U2 released All That You Can’t Leve Behind. I feel Pop fails because it is too scattershot and fragmented. Songs are all over the place and it as though the producers tried to make something as trippy and disconnected as possible. Spending more time with the band, and working out a more sensible and logical tracklisting, would have created a more cohesive and less abrasive album. An interesting article from Billboard asked whether we dispose of albums after a few song – how important it is to get the hits near the top:
“…Such data suggests that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely a listener is to stream it. At the same time, a music consumer's attention span may be even shorter than any artist wants to believe. "Everyone's doing 20 different things at once: listening to music, watching TV, and probably while on their iPad," Rdio content marketing manager Kelli Fannon says. "When it comes to taking an hour to listen to an album in its entirety, I have all the best intentions in the world myself. But, ultimately, I can only get through the first three or four songs before the phone rings, or someone asks me a question, or I have a meeting I have to run to…”
When the article used Mumford & Sons’ Babel as an example; this point was made:
“The best lesson to take from studying albums' track sequences may be that even in an era of streaming, in which listener behavior seemingly reflects a tendency to sample only portions of releases, the album format appears to have a bright future. Per the Oct. 13 On-Demand Songs chart, the 11 cuts that debuted from Babel each totaled robust sums of between 555,000 and 330,000 on-demands streams, according to Nielsen BDS. Says Spotify chief content officer Ken Parks, "The fairly even distribution of listens across all the tracks on that record means that people are enjoying that music as a cohesive collection."
There are two points that we need to consider when thinking of modern albums and streaming: how people will digest an album when downloading and streaming it; how those who buy a physical product will view it. Musicians, when putting an album out today, often have to market it to two different audiences. Back when there were only vinyl and cassette options; the music had to fit on one a couple of sides. Artists knew how they wanted to end the first half before the listener flipped over the vinyl/tape. Not only was there no Internet but it was harder to skip forward a record or tape – the latter involved precise fast-forward and guessing when it came to locating specific songs!
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There are those who buy vinyl and C.D.s but more and more of us are getting our music through services like Spotify and Apple Music. Before I carry on with my piece; I have been reading a 2008 piece from The Guardian that brought A&R man Hugo Turquet into the argument – and asked about getting the order right and whether good sequencing was important...
“According to Turquet, bands choose tracklistings themselves - aided by their manager - although they'll usually have heard a record company voice saying "we want the strong songs first". However, he warns against "front-loading" an album with big singles - if you play all your ace cards too early, the listener might not make it to the end - perhaps the reverse of the Fratellis.
Looking at a couple of classic albums, Turquet's formula seems about right. Nirvana's Nevermind opens with Smells Like Teen Spirit. Come As You Are and Lithium appear fairly early, and the strong kidnap-song Polly ends side one. The dark, lengthy Something In The Way similarly provides an epic album closer. Blur's Parklife also opens with smash hit Girls And Boys; the Phil Daniels-sung smash Parklife appears four tracks in, while the huge, melancholy ballad This Is A Low appears just before the end (the actual closer is the one minute long organ whirl Lot 105 - another occasional theme, the novelty-track ending).
The opener isn't always a big hit single. The Smiths' classic The Queen Is Dead opens with the rampaging title track ... but imagine it kicking off with the playful Vicar In A Tutu? The whole album just wouldn't have had the same momentum. Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order - responsible for sequencing a fair few classic albums in their time, aided by manager Rob Gretton - compares choosing an album's track listing to pacing a live set. "Build up ... slow down ... with a big finish."
So do record labels ever intervene? According to Turquet, really heavy record company involvement only occurs when an artist asks them to, or submits something that is clearly disastrous.
"I've had people come in and they've forgotten to put the singles on the album," he says. "They used to do that in the 60s when singles sales were much bigger. Oasis didn't put Whatever on their album, but nowadays you're so desperate to sell albums you want everything on there."
And ideally, in the most artistically and commercially beneficial order. But perhaps bands like the Fratellis shouldn't get too hung up on sequencing. Downloading means it may soon be a dying art - we can cherry pick the tracks we want and, with iPods, order them how we like. I couldn't get a comment from the Fratellis camp to justify their selection, so took the liberty of shuffling Here We Stand around, making it ten minutes shorter and kicking off with Babydoll. I'm not sure if it's a classic, but I much prefer it”.
There are some interesting points raised at it seems there are some universal truths. Those committing to listening to an entire album will want one of the strongest numbers at the top; the finest songs should not all be crammed near the start – there should be an equal distribution. You need to end with one of the stronger songs and ensure any similar-sounding numbers are not close together. In effect, you want to have an equally solid start and end but make sure you build up to a great finale. There are classic albums with a dodgy song on them – even The Beatles suffer that! – and it is important to make sure that song comes near the middle (so you are not disappointed early but build to an improvement). I have heard some incredible albums where there are some duff tracks nearer the top. Although The Libertines’ eponymous record was marred by fights and a band on the precipice of destruction; the music – like that on Rumours – is heightened because of the tensions and urgency in the studio. I am not sure how Don’t Be Shy made it onto that album to begin with - having it third in the running order takes a lot of wind out of the album. The fact The Man Who Would Be King arrives swiftly to restore order is no excuse. I wonder what the band was thinking and why they felt that song needed to be in there. I feel Don’t Be Shy should have been stuffed after tracks ten or eleven.
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One can debate whether terrific albums with a bad track should are ruined by that inclusion – or a simple rejig would have made that omissions forgivable – but I feel artists, if they have a bad track on their album, need to think about where it appears. The term ‘bad’ might be subjective but it is vital ensuring those big hits are not all together and near the start of an album. In an age where we are downloading/buying songs, as opposed to full albums, I wonder whether there are few records that hold attention from beginning to end. Bands/artists can put out an incredible set of songs but if the finest numbers are right at the end – and the attention has wandered before then – or the orgasm has come too soon; are people going to stick with streaming and handpick their favourite songs?! I feel this year’s best albums have been established as such because they have fantastic songs on them – but manage to arrange them perfectly so critics and fans are hooked right the way through. I come back to Rumours and realise what a different album it would have been was it not for a sage and sensible tracklisting. Having that genius on a record does not mean no matter what order the songs are in, it will be a success. Every classic album is capable of faltering for a number of reasons. I have heard some potential-great albums this year and they have been let down by their tracklisting and balance – packing all the best songs near the top and not considering listeners who want to listen to the album in one go! Even in a time when people are listening to albums in bits; unconventional ways and inorganically; it is paramount ever artist takes the trouble to get…
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THE sequencing just right.