Asking the question ‘Is the album dead?’ has been at the heart of myriad think pieces written by professionals of the industry and amateur columnists alike. One facet of the traditional album that often gets overlooked by these pieces, or by album reviews in general, is the art of effective track sequencing. With the rise of streaming as the primary means by which music is heard, deftness in this sadly underappreciated aspect of music presentation will only go more softly into that good night.
The traditional, two sided long play record, or LP, emerged in the 1950s as one of two preeminent means of commoditizing recorded music, the other being the ‘45’, or single. 12 inch LPs rotated at 33 and ⅓ times per minute and held forty-five minutes worth of music, spread across their two sides. While the length of the traditional pop song — three to four minutes — emerged as a result of the playing time of early records in the 1920s, so did the length of the traditional album and the traditional number of tracks found on an LP. Restrictions and limitations have been known to breed creativity, and with two sides, forty-five minutes, and twelve tracks with which to make a statement, the art of using track sequencing to create a coherent project was born.
Sixty years later, track sequencing is still used to great effect on modern releases ranging from mixtapes to concept albums to traditional rock records. These effects vary depending on the theme and intention of the album, and I’ll walk through some of the strongest examples from the past decade of album releases in an effort to show that, as convenient as streaming album highlight after highlight is, the order in which the songs play on your digital CD is far from random.
Sequencing to Advance a Narrative: Kendrick Lamar, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City (2012)
Sequencing is tied most closely, and justly so, to concept albums. Those with a story or narrative most heavily rely on sequencing to tell them properly. Just like it wouldn’t make sense to read a novel’s chapters out of order, listening to Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City out of order misrepresents Kendrick’s intention and misconstrues the “short film” (as he puts it) that he wishes to show. Lamar’s studio debut tells the story of one day in the life of a teenage gangbanger in Compton, and includes interludes of dialogue, voicemails and firefights that allow for a tragic but beautiful narrative to unfold as the protagonist moves from scene to scene.
Kendrick is a world class rapper and musician, and the album’s most popular songs on streaming services are all bangers in their own right, but the songs’ meaning in and out of context of their respective placements on the album is startling. “Backstreet Freestyle” is as traditional a rap song as Kendrick’s ever released, covering the well-trodden ground of girls, homies, haters, drugs, drink and one’s own rapping ability. But in the context of GKMC, it represents the young protagonist developing his rapping ability in a backseat freestyle session with his fellow gang members on their way to rob a house. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” comes off as a relationship “fuck off” out of context, but its appearance following a missed call from the protagonist’s parents shows the youth attempting to distance himself from his family as he delves further into the gangster lifestyle. And, in context, the would-be drinking anthem “Swimming Pools” shows the protagonist attempting to make sense of his peers’ fascination with alcohol abuse as a means of escape from the hell that is their life in violence-wracked Compton.
Every track on GKMC is sequenced to perfection, guiding the listener through a series of problems in the first half — girls, drugs, money — that become orders of magnitude graver on the second half. The record is a masterpiece, but without the narrative, it’s merely twelve excellent songs.
Sequencing to Establish Symmetry: Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)
It’s no secret that albums have a natural ebb and flow to them. Slow burners aren’t picked as opening tracks, and an album’s best singles are rarely tucked away at the end. Phoenix’s landmark fourth record, however, established a mountain-like profile that allowed each song space enough to establish its position in the overall dynamic of the record.
The two opening tracks are the album’s two radio-ready singles, the bouncy “Lisztomania” and high energy “1901”. After establishing a softer, dancier sound in “Fences”, the record settles into low-energy, fully instrumental territory for the twin behemoths “Love Like a Sunset Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”, which build, swell and climax to a wonderful musical epiphany halfway through the record. The following five songs glide slowly back down, from the quick and catchy “Lasso”, to the heartbreakers “Rome” and ‘Sick for the Big Sun,” before the record ends on a high note in its fastest, highest energy track, “Armistice”. The placement of none of these songs is by accident; “Rome” and “Sick for the Big Sun” may have come across as melodramatic if sequenced as the openers, while “Lisztomania” and “1901” would stuff the album’s playfulness away on the backside.
The effect is one of symmetry; the first three tracks serve as the come up, the twin centerpiece is the summit, and the final half is the rolicking tumble back down the other side of the mountain, sprinting to the finish and ending so strongly that starting the album back again from the beginning feels both natural and compulsory. Like Good Kid, all of these songs can stand on their own, whether that be on the radio, a mix CD or a starred Spotify playlist, but together they create an idea that is far greater than the sum of their component parts.
Sequencing to Highlight Two Distinct Sounds: The xx, xx (2009)
Although albums are typically coherent statements with a common sonic element to them, there usually exists some kind of yin and yang of high and low energy, fast and slow, and fun and serious tracks. The xx’s self-titled debut was characterized by a constant spacey, minimalist production upon which lonely guitar lines drowned in reverb floated across the surface. But the two halves of the album each had a subtly unique feel that allowed them to coexist as a sonic representation of the male/female dynamic found both in the content of the group’s lyrics and between their vocalists.
The first half of xx is significantly lighter and more uptempo than the second half. Opener “Intro” can occasionally be heard on the dance floor as an introduction to electronic or house music, and fan favorites “Crystallized” and “Islands” have a bounce to them that almost moves them into indie rock, dream pop territory (but not quite). Lyrically, the tracks are sad but more optimistic and understanding in tone, from the subtle romance of “VCR” to the surprise of falling in love on “Heart Skipped a Beat”. The particular placement of “VCR” as the first track with lyrics is almost a red herring; it’s the most unabashedly positive and blissful piece on the record, but rather than serve as a harbinger of things to come, it sets the pace for a downward spiral into melancholia. These tracks also become progressively longer as the end of the first half is reached, leading up to some kind of natural give, ala Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
The second half, however, presents the listener not with a grand climax but instead a swamp. The music submerges into dark, underwater territory, beginning with the ambient “Fantasy” and sliding into the downtempo, barely-there “Shelter”. “Basic Space” is the second half’s most melodic take, but even its oddly pitched synths sit creepily within the darker follow ups “Infinity” and “Night Time”. By the time the stark emptiness of closer “Stars” comes around, the listener is left with only three repeating, haunting piano chords before the album ends. While some records end on a bang, xx chooses instead to progressively envelop itself in the silence to come.
The album as a format will never die, and with it, neither will sequencing. But every time we star a song or download a single, we are missing out on some percentage of the artist’s intention. Movies are meant to be watched in a theater. Topiaries are meant to be viewed in a garden. And songs are meant to be listened to within the context of an album. For every one-off “Hotline Bling”, there is a “Backseat Freestyle” that is solid on its own, but miraculous when understood as the artist intended it. An appreciation for this subtle skill, therefore, is not only respectful of the artist’s intent, but serves to further the listening experience into something far more sublime than a Spotify playlist.
Words by HR Huber-Rodriguez
Artwork by Miranda Hart