There’s an art to the album opener — it doesn’t necessarily have to be the best or most commercially appealing song on the record, but it needs to grab the listener’s attention. It’ll often also serve as an introduction to the themes and/or sound of the album in question, a sort of preview of to what’s to come. And so it is that at Flavorwire central, we’ve been having one of our unabashedly nerdy music conversations about what are, in our collective opinion, the best examples of the form. Here’s a bumper list of 50 to talk about (and yes, sure, go on, tell us what we missed).
Arab Strap — “Packs of Three” (Philophobia, 1998)
As far as attention-grabbing opening lines go, “It was the biggest cock you’ve ever seen/ But you have no idea where that cock has been” is a pretty good place to start. It also provides a perfect introduction to the world of Arab Strap, a world of grimy bedsits, squalid sex, and grey, dirty morning light.
At the Drive-In — “Arcarsenal” (Relationship of Command, 2000)
The perfect opening track — not necessarily the best song on the album, but one that provides the perfect lead-in to what you’re about to listen to. The deceptively quiet shaker, then pounding drums, a dextrous riff slicing through the top end of the mix… and then Cedric Bixler-Zavala howling lyrics that are as cryptic as they are arresting.
Black Sabbath — “Black Sabbath” (Black Sabbath, 1970)
Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath,” from the album Black Sabbath. Perfect. Heavy metal starts here.
Blur — “Beetlebum” (Blur, 1997)
When Blur was released, the last the world had heard from Damon Albarn et al was the bleak suburban Reggie Perrin fantasy of The Great Escape. That album finished with “No Monsters in Me,” one final la-la-laden tale of a quintessentially English oddball who bathes in Listerine and dreams of “dirty Frauleins and nasty Nazis.” This couldn’t have been more different — from the first moment of Graham Coxon’s sliding, buzzsawing guitar riff, it was clear that Blur were heading in a new direction. Gone were the character studies and the arch wit, replaced by an ode to heroin, a song that was as darkly seductive as it was discomfiting.
David Bowie — “Five Years” (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 1972)
Bowie has plenty of great opening tracks to choose from — the epic title track of Station to Station, the instrumental “Speed of Life” from Low, “Changes” from Hunky Dory — but this is the best of the lot, laying the scene for the crazy space-age fantasy that was to come: “News had just come over/ We had five years left to cry in.” The drum intro is so iconic that Bowie himself referenced it on The Next Day, using the same pattern to close the album instead of opening it.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Tupelo” (The Firstborn Is Dead, 1985)
The apotheosis of Nick Cave’s Southern Gothic phase, “Tupelo” is insanely dramatic — it starts with a thunderclap and Barry Adamson’s ominous three-note bass riff, and then Cave enters to relate a biblical fable that touches on the Flood, the apocalypse, and the birth of Elvis Presley. The mid-’80s were, erm, a strange time in Cave’s life — he never sounded quite this gloriously deranged again, which is probably just as well for him, but a shame for everyone else.
Chance the Rapper — “Good Ass Intro” (Acid Rap, 2013)
One of the most aptly named tracks of the last few years, “Good Ass Intro” was indeed a good-ass intro to Chicago prodigy Chancelor Bennet’s melodic and decidedly psychedelic approach to hip hop. One imagines that synesthesics would see all sorts of whacked-out colors if you stuck this on the stereo (and so would you, if you’d consumed the appropriate hallucinogens first).
The Clash — “Janie Jones” (The Clash, 1977)
It’s the opening track of the UK edition of The Clash’s debut album, which only goes to show that the band got it right the first time. It’s pretty much everything there was to like about early Clash in two concise minutes — no-frills guitar riff, sardonic lyricism, and Joe Strummer’s inimitable vocal delivery. Really, the only complaint is that it’s too short.
Betty Davis — “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up Tonight” (Betty Davis, 1973)
Betty Davis remains one of the more under-appreciated and influential artists of the 1970s — you can trace the lineage of her disinclination to give any fucks, and her frank depiction of female sexuality, in everyone from Beyoncé to Nicki Minaj. The opening track to her debut was a fine demonstration of both those qualities — and really, you get the sense that the only reason she wouldn’t get picked up is because every Y chromosome in the room was too terrified of her to try.
Dead Kennedys — “Kill the Poor” (Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables, 1980)
The Dead Kennedys experience encapsulated in one song: sarcastic, inflammatory and uncomfortably topical. And funny, in a suitably dark kind of way. You can’t imagine that someone in the corridors of power hasn’t joked along these lines: “The sun beams down on a brand new day/ No more welfare tax to pay/ Unsightly slums gone up in flashing light/ Jobless millions whisked away.” But they’re only joking. Of course. Sure.
Dinosaur Jr. — “Freak Scene” (Bug, 1988)
Pretty much the definitive Dinosaur Jr. song, and the opening to their definitive album, 1988’s Bug. “Freak Scene” captures pretty much everything there was (and is) to like about J Mascis and co: the balance between noise and melody, Mascis’ remarkable guitar playing, and the air of disaffected slackerdom that hung large over everything they did.
The Drones — “Jezebel” (Gala Mill, 2006)
The sound of barking dogs, then Gareth Liddiard’s voice saying, “We’re recording! Shut up!” And then this. “Jezebel” is decades of world history compressed into eight intense, white-hot minutes. The lyric encompasses nuclear testing, the war in Iraq, the murder of Daniel Pearl, and in Liddiard’s own words, “horror.” It’s a hell of a way to start an album.
EMA — “The Grey Ship” (Past Life Martyred Saints, 2011)
A seven-minute, three-part meditation on death and depression isn’t exactly the most cheerful way to start a record, but it’s the perfect intro to EMA’s masterful Past Life Martyred Saints. “The Grey Ship” starts and ends on a silent, windblown prairie, but in between those poles it bursts into life — a visceral, powerful introduction to its creator’s talent and one of the best albums of the 2000s.
EPMD — “Strictly Business” (Strictly Business, 1988)
Brentwood’s finest were strictly business, alright — their name is an acronym for “Erick and Parrish Making Dollars,” and this title track to their classic 1988 debut found them shouting out their various business associates. It’s brazen in its use of the Bob Marley song “I Shot the Sheriff,” too, something that the duo would probably never have gotten away with these days.
Eric B and Rakim — “I Ain’t No Joke” (Paid In Full, 1987)
Also on the old-school hip hop front, the finest DJ/MC combo of the ’80s proved that they were no joke from the very first moments of their classic debut album — Eric B chopped up a sample of James Brown’s “Pass the Peas” over the rawest of hip hop beats, and Rakim let loose with his smooth freestyle rhymes. Nearly 30 years later, it still sounds fresh.
Fever Ray — “If I Had a Heart” (Fever Ray, 2009)
One of the underrated joys of Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo album is its relative simplicity, and nothing embodies that virtue more clearly than the album’s opening track: one ominous loop, a simple bassline, one kickdrum, and Dreijer’s voice, run through her customary array of weird vocal filters. It’s a brooding and suitably strange opening to what is in your correspondent’s opinion the best Dreijer-related project.
Flipper — “Ever” (Generic Flipper, 1982)
“Ever looked at a flower… and hated it?” There’s an argument to be made that grunge started right here: in a storm of feedback and a bleakly funny brand of nihilism. It’s probably the second best song on Generic Flipper, too, after the mighty “Sex Bomb.”
John Frusciante — “Before the Beginning” (The Empyrean, 2009)
Frusciante’s answer to “Maggot Brain” (of which we’ll speak shortly), this is a ten-minute instrumental that’s a showcase for its creator’s guitar genius. It’s not as dark as “Maggot Brain,” though — the experience this evokes is less psychedelic freakout and more celestial journey. Which is fine, obviously.
Guns N’ Roses — “Welcome to the Jungle” (Appetite for Destruction, 1987)
Before Axl Rose was a walking cornrow punchline, he was the leader of a hell of a good rock ‘n’ roll band. Guns N’ Roses brought a certain Midwestern grit to the spandex silliness of ’80s hard rock, and this song catalogs their arrival in LA, the “jungle” of the title. It was a statement of intent, a tale of living day-to-day as they scraped for position on the Sunset Strip — a strip of which, for a brief moment in the 1990s, they ended up as the unchallenged kings.
PJ Harvey — “Rid of Me” (Rid of Me, 1993)
Harvey’s second album isn’t exactly easy listening, and she sounds flat-out terrifying on this title track, which is right up there with Portishead’s similarly discomfiting “All Mine” as music’s most effective depictions of love bordering on obsession. The lyric switches back and forth between need (“I beg you my darling/ Don’t leave me/ I’m hurting”) and violent obsession (“I’ll tie your legs/ Keep you against my chest/Oh, you’re not rid of me”), and listening makes you very, very glad it’s not you she’s singing about.
Isaac Hayes — “Walk On By” (Hot Buttered Soul, 1969)
The strings, the horns, the 12-minute running time — this sprawling, epic rendition of Burt Bacharach’s song is surely the most gloriously grandiose and dramatic opening track you’ll ever hear. Remarkably, it wasn’t even the most epic track on Hot Buttered Soul — that title goes to the 19-minute rendering of Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” that closes the album.
Hüsker Dü — “Something I Learned Today” (Zen Arcade, 1984)
The intro to Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü’s conceptual rendition of the story of an alienated kid who runs away from home and finds the real world to be a whole lot worse (spoiler: it’s all a dream), does a fine job of setting the scene for what’s to come. In particular, there’s something genius about using the imagery of traffic signals to convey suburban discontent: “Something I learned today/ Yield to the right-of-way/ Stopping at a four-way sign… Someone else’s rules, not mine.”
Michael Jackson — “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” (Thriller, 1983)
An album doesn’t sell 60 million copies worldwide by starting off on the wrong foot, y’know.
Manic Street Preachers — “Yes” (The Holy Bible, 1994)
The Manics’ best and bleakest record starts with the disembodied voice of a pimp: “You can buy her… this one here, this one here, this one here and this one here. Everything’s for sale.” It’s a sign of what you’re in for. “Yes” is related from the perspective of a prostitute, and it introduces the themes that characterize Richey Edwards’ lyrical masterpiece: self-abuse, alienation, disaffection, despair. And, as ever, James Dean Bradfield somehow manages to compress the flood of words into a taut whipcrack of a song.
Massive Attack — “Angel” (Mezzanine, 1998)
A slow builder if there ever was one, based around the sort of bassline that reduces subwoofers to quivering puddles of electronic despair. You really have to listen to this on a gigantic stereo to get the full effect — get the bass to the point where the walls are shaking and you feel like your guts are about to fall through the floor. That‘s how you know you’re doing it right.
mclusky — “Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues” (mclusky Do Dallas, 2002)
Quite simply the most thrilling two minutes of rock ‘n’ roll you’ll ever hear, a listening experience that’s roughly akin to sticking your head in a wind tunnel and keeping it there to see what happens. The last verse, where Andy Falkous shrieks, “I’m fearful, I’m fearful, I’m fearful of flying/ ANDFLYINGISFEARFULOFMEEEEEE,” is like having your head blown off entirely. Sorry, head.
The Mountain Goats — “Tallahassee” (Tallahassee, 2002)
A masterpiece of scene-setting, and home to some of John Darnielle’s most beautiful imagery: “Window facing an ill-kept front yard/ Plums on the tree heavy with nectar/ Prayers to summon the destroying angel/ Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector.” It’s all the more bittersweet for the fact that the scene it’s setting is the location for the bleakest relationship story since Lou Reed’s Berlin.
My Morning Jacket — “Mahgeetah” (It Still Moves, 2003)
This song is home to what’s arguably the most anthemic and uplifting chorus of the 2000s, and one of that decade’s most air guitar-friendly guitar riffs. The rest of It Still Moves couldn’t quite live up to the promise of this song, which is understandable given that “Mahgeetah” is pretty much as good as My Morning Jacket got.
Nas — “The Genesis/NY State of Mind” (Illmatic, 1994)
This is cheating a bit, perhaps, but these two tracks really meld into a single experience — the sound of the train to Queensbridge, the sound of Wild Style on the TV, the echo of Nas’ earliest recordings on an old stereo… and then the dark, brooding beat of arguably the finest rap song of the 1990s. “I don’t know how to start this shit,” Nas confesses, and then drops into his dense, lyrical narrative. He described the choice of “NY State of Mind” to start his masterpiece as deciding to “take [the listener] straight into hell.” That’s how it feels — but it’s so good, you can’t help but want to stay.
Neu! — “Hallogallo” (Neu!, 1972)
The world’s introduction to Neu!: a slow fade into an instrumental that sounds like it’s already been playing forever, and will continue playing long after you’re gone. Klaus Dinger’s iconic motorik beat is as driving as it is relentless, a gleaming highway with no start and no finish, and listening feels like being in some sort of futuristic car, watching the telephone poles and trees fly by you.
Nirvana — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nevermind, 1991)
Kurt Cobain may have grown to loathe it, but it’s still one of the most instantly recognizable songs in rock ‘n’ roll, and it makes for a thrilling start to Nevermind. Two repetitions of that four-chord riff, deceptively clean and quiet… and then the drums and bass and distortion kick in, like someone’s just dropped a palette of bricks into your headphones.
NWA — “Straight Outta Compton” (Straight Outta Compton, 1988)
The title track from an album that terrified conservative radio hosts and worried parents the nation over — which, no doubt, is exactly how NWA wanted it. “Straight Outta Compton” the song wastes precisely no time in getting down to business — Dr. Dre notes that “You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge,” and then the beat drops and Ice Cube arrives in your headphones, young and angry and full of fire: “Straight outta Compton, crazy motherfucker named Ice Cube/ From the gang called Niggas With Attitude/ When I’m called off, I got a sawed-off/ Squeeze the trigger and bodies are hauled off.” Yikes.
Outkast — “Gasoline Dreams” (Stankonia, 2000)
Also on incendiary openings, Outkast go straight for the jugular with this dissection of America’s national mythology, featuring the sort of chorus that would have had the PMRC going insane a couple of decades ago: “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline?/ Well burn, motherfucker, burn American dreams/ Don’t everybody like the taste of apple pie?/Well, snap for your slice of life — I’m tellin’ you why.”
Parliament — “Maggot Brain” (Maggot Brain, 1971)
An opening track so good that it pretty much overshadows the rest of the album. “Maggot Brain” isn’t especially representative of what you hear on the rest of the album to which it gives its name — but who cares, really, when all you’re going to do is play track one again and again and again?
Pixies — “Bone Machine” (Surfer Rosa, 1988)
This is right up there with “Down On the Street” as far as deranged openings go — the world had never heard anything quite like Black Francis before, a strange man alternately howling in Spanish and shouting lyrics like, “You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me!” It’s a shame what the Pixies have become, but for a stretch between 1987 and 1991, they basically didn’t release a bad song, and this is one of the best.
Radiohead — “Airbag” (OK Computer, 1997)
Radiohead have a way with opening tracks, and you could easily plump for “Planet Telex” or “Everything In Its Right Place” here — but OK Computer is their best record, and this curious story of surviving a car crash embodies the album’s themes of pre-millennial discontent and technological ambivalence. “In a fast German car, I’m amazed that I survived,” marvels Thom Yorke, “An airbag saved my life.” The car nearly kills you, the car saves you. Welcome to the late 20th century.
The Ramones — “Blitzkrieg Bop” (The Ramones, 1976)
One two three four!
R.E.M. — “Drive” (Automatic for the People, 1992)
Automatic for the People marked a turning point in R.E.M.’s career, so it seems appropriate that it starts with a track that sounded like nothing they’d done before (or since, really). “Drive” is a pensive, unusual way to start an album, a song with no real chorus and an abiding air of tension, which isn’t really broken until Peter Buck’s electric guitar arrives two minutes in, like light finding a crack in the clouds.
The Rolling Stones — “Gimme Shelter” (Let It Bleed, 1969)
If you’ve seen the excellent 20 Feet From Stardom, you’ll know the story of how the Rolling Stones, deciding that this song needed a female vocal, summoned singer Merry Clayton to the studio at 2am — she recorded her part in her dressing gown. And it’s perfect, elevating an already dramatic song to an entirely new level. The song itself is arguably the best thing the Stones ever recorded, a sort of apocalyptic depiction of the end of the 1960s, when peace and love were giving way to disillusionment and the despair of the Vietnam war.
Shellac — “Prayer to God” (1000 Hurts, 2000)
Why yes, Steve Albini has always been a very angry man.
Smashing Pumpkins — “Cherub Rock” (Siamese Dream, 1993)
This soundtracked a gazillion teenage bedroom air-guitar sessions back in the 1990s — those drum rolls, the guitar… and then the distortion and Billy Corgan’s distinctive sliding riff. For all that Corgan and his bandmates have become, when they were good, they were really, really good.
Patti Smith — “Gloria” (Horses, 1975)
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ But not mine.” Possibly the best opening line ever, and certainly the one that absolutely demands your attention.
Spiritualized — “Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” (Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, 1997)
Spiritualized’s enduring masterpiece follows a loose narrative that traces the trajectory of a love affair, and its title track presages what’s to come with a declaration of both loneliness and hope: “All I want’s a little bit of love to take the pain away,” observes Jason Pierce with heartbreaking lucidity. The song originally incorporated a lyrical nod to Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and it shares that song’s air of fatalism — you know that falling in love is eventually going to lead to hurt, but you do it anyway.
Sonic Youth — “Teen Age Riot” (Daydream Nation, 1998)
A song about J Mascis running for president, although you wouldn’t really know it from the lyrics, which are more about evoking a kind of general discontent than anything else. The song is heavy with imagery and atmosphere of a country sleepwalking toward some unspecified catastrophe, a feeling embodied in the line “Daydreaming days in a daydream nation” (which, of course, gave the album its title.) It’s Sonic Youth at both their most accessible — this is a song that you can sing in the shower, with a melody that’s amongst the most infectious they ever wrote — and also their most oblique.
The Stone Roses — “I Wanna Be Adored” (The Stone Roses, 1989)
All those schmucks who didn’t watch the Stone Roses at Coachella last year missed out, because their debut album is still one of the best things that the ’80s ever gave us. It’s bookended by two of the more epic rock songs of the decade — at the end of the record, there’s “I Am the Resurrection,” and at the start there’s this, a slow-burning declaration of intent. “You adore me,” insists Ian Brown — and in 1989, at least, he was right.
The Stooges — “Down on the Street” (Funhouse, 1970)
God only knows how this must have sounded in 1970, because even now, 44 years later, the opening of “Down on the Street” is arresting and mildly terrifying: Scott Asheton hammering on his bass drum, his brother Ron churning out a riff that sounds like some awful relentless war machine, and then Iggy Pop, howling and yelping like a madman. It’s clear you’re in for a hell of a ride, and the rest of Funhouse doesn’t disappoint.
Scott Walker — “The Seventh Seal” (Scott 4, 1969)
In which Scott Walker condenses Ingmar Bergman’s film of the same name into four minutes and 21 seconds of weirdness because, well, because he’s Scott Walker. A sign of things to come.
Kanye West — “Good Morning” (Graduation, 2007)
“Good Morning” is, along with “Hey Mama,” Kanye at his most unabashedly sentimental — and while the latter is a moving tribute to his mother that’s tinged with sadness given her death less than two years later, the atmosphere here is sunny and largely optimistic. (It’s also West at his most ridiculous: “I’m like the fly Malcolm X,” indeed.)
The Wu-Tang Clan — “Bring Da Ruckus” (Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, 1993)
Wu-Tang ain’t nuthin’ ta fuck wit’, people.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs — “Rich” (Fever to Tell, 2003)
Karen O and co. never really sounded better than they did on their debut album Fever to Tell, and this opening song was one of its finest moments. (And that finger-twisting harmonic riff was the 2000s LES answer to “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”)