“Too Late For The Intro” — What makes a great opening song?

Why the first track might make or break an album.

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Think of one of your favorite albums.

From memory, name the fifth song.

Now, name the first song.

I would wager that the latter was much easier to recall than the former. While seldom the best song on an album, the first track might be the most important.

These sonic first impressions have fascinated me since I purchased my first album. How does an artist choose which song to begin with? Are tracks recorded with the intention of being intro songs? Most importantly, what makes a great opening song?

As playlist-driven listening continues to grow, the art of album structure has nearly gone extinct. The RIAA considers 1,500 streams the equivalent of one album sale, which has led artists to release records loaded with north of 25 tracks to boost their numbers and, in turn, their position on the Billboard charts. As a result, these records have little-to-no narrative structure, the progression from song to song is random, and they often contribute only 3–4 playlist-worthy cuts.

To avoid the onslaught of angry audiophiles, I want to make something very clear. This is not my quest to find the best opening track of all time. Put simply: that can’t be done. Instead, I want to figure out what makes a great opening track, give a few examples, and highlight some favorites contributed by some of my closest melomaniacs.

On this day, seven years ago, my friend Dan (@dlen_wcu) and I sat in my 2003 Honda CR-V, in the parking lot of my mom’s housing complex. It was quiet, but only for the moment. At midnight on August 8, 2011, Kanye West and Jay-Z released their collaboration album Watch The Throne. Just like that, the parking lot was quiet no more.

Who better to first experience this project with than my best friend? The guy who used to trade bars of Late Registration with me in the back of a high school biology class and who would later accompany me to see the Watch The Throne tour in Philadelphia.

The anticipation swelled immeasurably as we waited for the album to finish downloading. After months of speculation, one would think we would have been ready for what was to come. But nothing could have prepared me for what I felt as I pressed play on the opening song, No Church In The Wild.

A driving guitar riff. Relentless drums. Then, Frank Ocean layers in the first chorus, his smooth inflection contrasting the powerful beat.

Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?

The imagery is biblical, the sound, colossal. Before hearing a word from either Ye or Jay, I was hooked. Even now, the song puts me right back in the driver’s seat, sitting with Dan, on that summer night.

No Church In The Wild is one of many opening tracks that transport me to a place and time, a scene in life, scored by a specific album. What makes this possible? In my opinion, a great intro song has to do four things.

  1. Grab the listener’s attention

Before an opening song can fulfill it’s purpose, it needs you to take notice. Whether it be a propulsive bassline, powerful lyrics, or swelling, emotional strings, there needs to be something that demands your focus. A great opening track creates a desire to listen closer, hear more of whatever you’re given, even if what you’re given is completely unexpected.

After what sounds like a TV jingle, some ambient talking, and a number pressed on a phone, Father John Misty begins the opening, titular track of Pure Comedy as such:

The comedy of man starts like this/
Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips/
And so nature, she devised this alternative/
We emerge half-formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end/
Is kind enough to fill us in.

He turns a perceived, evolutionary paradox into a metaphor for our helplessness as a people. After hearing this, I restarted the track. My first thought was disbelief. Why would someone begin an album that way? My second thought: I need to know what follows.

2. Be decisive

A musical first impression, like all first impressions, is a lasting one. The themes, sounds, and emotions of the opening track gives the rest of the album its direction. An opening track has to set the stage for what’s to come.

After a four-year hiatus, Adele greeted her fans with stripped-down piano and a one word, “Hello.” What follows is five minutes of distilled, concentrated heartbreak. The remainder of 25 matches that emotional intensity, in sound and in content. Self-proclaimed Adele stan Dana McGlone (@danamcg25) says, “It’s an album that shows emotional growth. Her previous record was very much about a breakup and this is more nostalgic, about her moving on and finding peace.” If this wasn’t enough proof, the single went 7x platinum and the album went diamond.

The opening song can’t stand in stark contrast to the rest of the album. It is the foundation that the rest of the record is built on. This point is especially vital for concept albums. The first song establishes the narrative that will be played out over the remainder of the album and if the listener doesn’t buy-in to that story, the album is doomed to fail.

3. Emotionally prime the listener

The opening song Old Friends from Pinegrove’s 2016 album Cardinal poses the question: “How come every outcome is such a comedown?” The song is an introspection into regret: taking old friends for granted, getting caught up in your own problems, grief and “solipsistic moods”. It’s difficult to listen to this song and not ask yourself the same questions.

In my opinion, this is no accident. Cardinal touches on many similar topics, the struggle to express your feelings, love lost and love found, and the fear that you’re the only real thing in the universe. Starting the record with a track like Old Friends allows the listener to enter the head space that the album is best experienced in.

Whether it’s unbridled joy, a psychedelic stupor, or while wiping tears from your cheeks, every album is best enjoyed in a certain state of mind. It’s up to the intro track to get you there. See also: Smoke Signals by Phoebe Bridgers.

4. Be memorable

The final aspect of a great first track is hard to quantify. An opening song has to be both innovative and nostalgic at once. While we want to hear something new from our favorite artists, we don’t want it to stray too far from the sound that we know and love. These songs still need be stamped with the artist’s signature.

Creating a memorable opening song is only partially in the artist’s control. The song has to have qualities about it that will stick out in the listener’s mind: a sonic departure from the last record, a previously-unheard sound, or a personal touch (simliar to the voiceover that begins SZA’s Supermodel).

The other side of the memory equation is up to the listener. An album that changed your life might not have affected you whatsoever if you listened to it a year later. The events of your life, the emotions you feel, and the memories you make sometimes coincide with the release of an album, resulting in that elusive, unforgettable moment. This indelible quality is easy to identify, difficult to define, and impossible to deny.

Do your favorite opening songs fit the criteria I’ve outlined? Let me know on Twitter — @bybobbyscott. Also, I’ve created a Spotify playlist that includes all of the songs mentioned above, as well as dozens of other notable intro tracks.

This project was incredibly fun to work on and made even better by the people I worked with. A very big thank you to Dana, Dan, Alex, Skye (@skypelemon), Meghan, and my dad.

starting to think my dad was right about that philosophy degree.

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