Friday, August 28, 2015

Best First Songs Ever

Grantland music critic Steven Hyden recently wrote an interesting piece about how discussing the greatest Side 1, Track 1's ever is much less interesting than discussing the greatest Side 1, Track 1, Album 1's ever. It compounds the interesting question of how an artist chooses to open their work to how an artist chooses to open their career. 

I like it. Let's dig in to this. 

Hyden lists four requirements to an excellent album opener: 

1. A dramatic entrance
2. A palatable sense of rising action
3. Simple yet direct lyrics that act as a mission statement
4. A climax powerful enough to compel the listener to play the rest of the album

I'll personally quibble with the importance of #4, and even #3 under certain circumstances, but still, we'll start here. Now I'll add a #5: Acts as a sonic mission statement for the artist's persona and aesthetic. 

Okay, first we'll tackle Hyden's list. He gives 20 honorable mentions:

Boston, “More Than a Feeling”
The Clash, “Janie Jones”
Counting Crows, “Round Here”
Daft Punk, “Daftendirekt”
Devo, “Uncontrollable Urge”
The Doors, “Break on Through (to the Other Side)”
Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”
Whitney Houston, “You Give Good Love”
LCD Soundsystem, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”
Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
Pearl Jam, “Once”
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”
Bruce Springsteen, “Blinded by the Light”
Television, “See No Evil”
U2, “I Will Follow”
Van Halen, “Runnin’ With the Devil”
Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”
Weezer, “My Name Is Jonas”
Young Jeezy, “Thug Motivation 101”

I like most of those picks enough to at least not argue with them being honorable mentions, though I think some of them should be much higher. (We'll get to that.) 

A few of those songs he lists I just don't find good enough to be on a top 30 list--those by Counting Crows, Curtis Mayfield, Devo, Weezer, Daft Punk, Whitney, and Young Jeezy. (Note: It's not that I dislike any of these songs, just that I don't think they're Top 30 worthy.) I don't think "...Baby One More Time" is good enough either, but concede its necessary inclusion as an honorable mention. And while I love the listed songs by Springsteen and The Doors, I think they fail rule #5. "Break on Through" actually sounds very little like the rest of The Doors' discography in that it's short, accessible, and more obviously rock 'n roll than poetry set to music. Meanwhile, the "Blinded by the Light" version of Springsteen is way too preoccupied with its Dylan and Van Morrison influences, and doesn't really highlight his eventual sonic persona. 

So now we have 9 free spots for our perfect Top 30. 

Hayden's Top ten is the following (alphabetically): 

BeyoncĂ©, “Crazy in Love”
Black Sabbath, “Black Sabbath”
Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle”
Jay Z, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”
Madonna, “Lucky Star”
New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis”
Oasis, “Rock ’N’ Roll Star”
The Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”
The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored”
Wu-Tang Clan, “Bring da Ruckus”

There's a lot to love there, and the only track I can totally argue as belonging outside of the Top 30 is "Bring Da Ruckus," mostly because eI don't think it has a hook as good as most of the other songs on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and if you're not in the conversation for best song on the album, you can't be in this conversation either. 

So 10 slots to make up for. 

First, I'll add these 6 tracks to the honorable mentions list:

Motley Crue, "Live Wire" --Before any scandals, overdoses, playmates, or vehicular homicides, Motley Crue actually started as a really good band that blended punk playing with the metal and leather aesthetic of Judas Priest. "Live Wire" captures that perfectly, and it really only misses out on the top ten because of everything we know about Motley Crue since then, which sadly can't be extricated from thinking about them. 

Massive Attack, "Safe From Harm" --Probably their second most gorgeous song after the luscious "Teardrop," and a great kickoff to an innovative new sound. 

The Band, "Tears of Rage" --In the rock landscape of 1968, which was all guitar solos and psychedelic blues, The Band announced themselves with a slow organ and pleading vocals. It misses the top ten because it's definitely not the best song on the album, but has to be here because of the stark contrast with which it announced itself. 

New Order, "Dreams Never End" --Not the best example of a band's sonic ethos, and probably closer to Joy division (especially in the vocals) than prime New Order, but the speed and quality with which these guys regrouped after the death of Ian Curtis remains incredible. 

Steely Dan, "Do It Again" --Still might be their best song, and has the advantage of having come out before anyone could hate their studio pretentiousness. 

Phil Collins, "In the Air Tonight" --It loses major points because it's by Phil Collins, but still, how can it not be included? The term "slow burn" was invented because people were struggling with how to describe this sonic masterpiece. 

Final note before the top ten: Boston's "More Than a Feeling" was the last song that missed the top ten, just because it doesn't have an awesome intro. Cuts had to be made. 

And now for The Perfect Top Ten!

10. AC/DC, "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock "N" Roll)" 

The only reason this one is so low is because it's technically cheating. It wasn't the first song on their first album, just the first song on their first album released outside of Australia. But I refuse to let Australian record releases block The Perfect Top Ten from being actually perfect.

9. Crosby, Stills, & Nash, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"

The promise of this band was their beautiful harmonies, and the best example of that is still the first song on their first album. Sometimes you never top your first try. 

8. The Ramones, "Blitzkrieg Bop" 

It misses being higher only because it's so ubiquitous to the point that you start liking the Ramones songs more simply out of spite. But that's not a good enough reason to miss the top ten entirely. 

7. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Breakdown"

For a band who consistently wrote some of the best rock and roll choruses for almost twenty years (Free Fallin', Refugee, Mary Jane's Last Dance, The Waiting, etc.), this is still the most exhilarating one to sing along to. 

6. The Stone Roses, "I Wanna Be Adored" 

The pleading necessity of this song still gets to me. It sort of rewrites and definitely trumps Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," but The Stone Roses were audacious enough to open their career with it. 

5. Oasis, "Rock 'N' Roll Star" 

Hyden made this point perfectly, so I won't bother. Rock's greatest self-fulfilling prophecy. 

4. U2, "I Will Follow"

U2 has spent 35 years getting to this height of rock transcendence quite regularly, and certainly more often than most people give them credit for. They definitely got more interesting as they reached their prime, but they never topped this opening track for the way they attempted to turn rock choruses into quasi-religious experiences. Whether they succeeded is a decision for the individual, but this remains their best stab at it. 

3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, "Purple Haze"

Hyden knocked this track down to honorable mention status because he said he never wanted to hear it again. I do not have that problem. 

2. Guns N' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle"

As perfect a musical thesis statement as has ever been delivered. And just like your high school English teacher (erroneously) taught you, they led with it. 

1. The Beatles, "I Saw Her Standing There" 

It's virtually unforgivable that this missed Hyden's list. It begins with the perfect "1-2-3-4" shout, kicks into a great beat/riff/lyric, has a blast of a singalong chorus, and launched the greatest career in the history of pop music.