Top Ten Albums on Which the Sequencing Is Lost on CD
h, vinyl. The tactile sensation of the needle touching down in the groove. The snaps, crackles and pops that make each copy of every album unique. The big, pretty album covers, to have and to hold.
And, of course, the sides. Nowadays many albums are just seventy-minute monoliths, whereas separate sides once offered so many more creative possibilities. You could write two opening numbers, and two closers. You could create two miniature albums which, when heard together, complemented each other to form a whole greater than the two halves. Simply put, there could be more to the sequence than just a list of tracks. And, if you've ever read one of our Playing God features, you know how obsessive we here at Stylus can be about sequencing.
Below is a list of albums which, when heard on CD, lose a bit of their character. Most have an overarching theme for each side, but a couple just have openers or closers that deserve to stand alone at each end of their respective sides, not run together like so much filler.
You could make an argument (and some of my Stylus colleagues did) that just about any double, or even triple, album should be included on this list on the grounds that separate sides are necessary simply to break up the daunting sprawl (Exile on Main Street, Sandinista!, Blonde on Blonde). Valid, sure, but I'm more concerned here with where and why the breaks occur, not just that they happen at all. I've also steered clear of albums that contain a single side-long epic (Meddle, Millions Now Living..., um, Blonde on Blonde). Again, valid, but in this case too obvious. Finally, I decided that vinyl-specific tricks like lock-grooves aren't really what this list is about, which is why you don't see any Trans Am albums here.
There are a few albums about which it could be argued that vinyl is a hindrance, and that the sequencing might be different had the artist not been forced to break up certain songs due to time restrictions. Wish You Were Here springs to mind. Thick as a Brick, perhaps? But that's another list.
David Bowie, Low
"A New Career in a New Town"/"Warszawa"
This one almost doesn't belong on this list, because the two sides are so completely distinct that even cramming them together on a CD can hardly blur the contrast. On Side A we have a handful of brief pop songs, only one of which goes on for more than three minutes. Organic sounds like harmonicas and pianos mingle awkwardly with synth doodles and heavily treated drums. Had the album been released five years later, this would have been called "new wave." On Side B Bowie and Eno let their synth jones run free, creating a suite of droning, percussion-free mood pieces. Had the album been released twenty years later, this would have been called "post-rock."
Jane's Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual
"Been Caught Stealing"/"Three Days"
Believe it or not, this was a single album on vinyl. Side 2 is like, a half-hour long. Another fairly obvious side division here: they bring the funky good times on Side 1, kicking off with one of the strangest singles ever released. Side 2 is crammed with dreamy epics, probably the most ambitious work by any major artist of their generation without the word "Pumpkins" in their name. Pity "Of Course" has to drag the whole thing down, but "Three Days" remains just as brilliantly realised as it was when you first heard it. In short: Side 1 is for your car (taped off the record, natch), Side 2 is for your headphones.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces
"Party Girl"/"Goon Squad"
This one's just a simple case of a perfect side closer and a perfect opener trampling over each other and losing their intended effect in the process. Side 1 ends with the pleading "Party Girl," one of Elvis' most desperate ballads. It seems almost unfathomable that this one isn't the closer for the whole album (at least until you hear the undeniable "Peace, Love and Understanding"). Listen as he tries to drown out the pain in his heart by making his throat hurt even more. Note the shameless theft of the Beatles' "You Never Give Me Your Money" as we fade out. Relax. Take a moment to think about what you've just heard. When you're ready to move on, get up, flip the record, and make like Andrew Unterberger. Smile a bittersweet smile.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland
"Voodoo Chile"/"Little Mis Strange"
"Burning of the Midnight Lamp"/"Rainy Day, Dream Away"
"Moon, Turn the Tides... gently gently away"/"Still Raining, Still Dreaming"
Most of the side breaks here don't really matter. I mean, "Voodoo Child" could just as easily be a side opener as it is a closer. So could "Watchtower," which is neither. But with Side 3, Hendrix creates an acid-rock concerto that really must be considered on its own to be fully appreciated. Indeed, I became familiar (very familiar, but that's another story) with this album on CD, and the framing of the dream sequence never occurred to me until it was pointed out. Now it seems plain as day.
The scene: the recording studio on a rainy afternoon. Jimi and some musicians hang out, jam a little, pass a joint around (listen closely, you can actually hear one being lit and toked). Slowly, Jimi's mind begins to wander, and soon he's off on a wild journey to the bottom of the sea, where he defies the laws of nature and the will of God to become a mermaid. He swims about, exploring his new habitat and his new body, then heads off into the moonset as the side ends. At the start of Side 4, he awakens with a jolt. No time has passed (the song begins at the same point where it faded out before the dream), and the album continues on as before. (Keep in mind, this was the 60s. There was a lot of corny psychedelic shit going on back then, and it probably didn't seem nearly so silly at the time.)
Also worth noting here is the division of sides between records: one record has Sides 1 & 4, the other Sides 2 & 3. This isn't the only double album I own like this, either; I can't think of any others offhand, but I'm pretty sure the ones I've seen have all been from the same era. I've never come across any explanation for this, so I have my own theory: I like to think it's designed to encourage you to play the album over and over again. When it ends, you don't have to change records, you just flip over the one on your turntable and you're back at Side 1 again. Granted, you have to change the records twice in the course of a single listen, but you're more likely to do that when you're right in the midst of the album, right?
Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
"Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"/"Mr. Tambourine Man"
Keep in mind, this was before the Newport Folk Festival, before the "Albert Hall" concert; this was the first time anyone had heard Zimmy go electric. Imagine you're a Dylan die-hard back in '65, a folk purist, dismissive of the clattering bubblegum of the Beatles and their ilk. You've been consistently pleased by four fine albums of just Bob and his guitar. You drop the needle on the eagerly-awaited fifth, and suddenly "Subterranean Homesick Blues" punches you in the side of the head. Here comes Bob spittin' mad abstract lyrical science all up in y'area, with Mike Bloomfield squealing and shrieking behind him like he's Chuck Fucking Berry. Why, Bob, why?!?
So then you finally work up the courage to flip the record and guess what? Over on Side 2 there's good old acoustic Bob, but he's different now. No more simple protest numbers and love songs; his lyrics have become more vague and impressionistic than ever. You try to understand what he's on about, but he never lets you get comfortable, and you never quite get over the shock of Side 1.
The Velvet Underground, White Light, White Heat
"Here She Comes Now"/"I Heard Her Call My Name"
The 'Vets darkest hour, with no remote competition for that honour, is one of those albums where the band either breaks up or loses a significant member afterward, and listening makes it seem inevitable in hindsight. After opening with a fairly conventional (at least by the conventions established on The Velvet Underground and Nico) drug rocker, the album presents a pair of sonically restrained vocal experiments, and closes Side 1 with the quiet drone of "Here She Comes Now." The mood is tense, with Cale and Reed's differences perfectly encapsulated in the out-of-synch vocals of "Lady Godiva's Operation." Throughout the side, they politely entertain like the married couple who smile and make nice for the guests at their dinner party while periodically sneaking off to the bedroom to argue in hushed tones.
Side 2 opens with Lou throwing his plate against the wall in the middle of dinner, and the evening never recovers. Following that outburst, the band launches into a grueling, prolonged battle of wills, on which, as J— once remarked to me, "they sound like they're trying to hurt each other with their instruments." As "Sister Ray" grinds interminably on, it becomes painfully clear that the partnership is unsalvageable. No, Jim, this is the end.
Nevermind came out right on the cusp of the CD takeover, and stands in my memory as the first major album that pretty much everybody had on CD. I first heard it on cassette, though, and found the distinction between the sides quite noticeable. I remember mentioning this a few years later to K—, saying that I much preferred Side 2. He replied he had never considered the separation, whereas to me it seemed obvious. For one thing, you've got an acoustic closer on each side. That's the tip-off if you've got a CD.
But on a more subtle level, the openers are setting the tone for each side. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has the quiet-verse, loud-chorus dynamic that would soon become cliche, and the formula is followed by most of the other songs on the Side 1 (i.e., the singles; the exception is "Breed," which clearly sounds like it belongs on the other side). Side 2 opens with "Territorial Pissings," not only the token let's-make-sure-we-play-this-one-at-every-televised-appearance-so-no-one-thinks-we're-sellouts number (an honour that would be inherited by "Rape Me" for the next album's promotional stint), but also the manifesto for Side 2: loud, fast and relentless. Again, the other songs follow suit. Gone are the medium tempos, the mumbled verses; now we're really gonna rock.
Led Zeppelin, untitled (aka IV; Runes; Zoso; etc.)
"Stairway to Heaven"/"Misty Mountain Hop"
You know damn well why this is here. Misty Mountain what? Do you know what we've just heard? As the immeasurably wise Bill Simmons so often writes, "I will now light myself on fire." I don't wanna talk about this one anymore, it just gets me riled up.
Pavement, Wowee Zowee
"Serpentine Pad"/"Motion Suggests"
"AT & T"/"Flux = Rad"
When I first heard this album (on CD), my initial impressions were that (a) I didn't really get where they were going with this one, and (b) it was one of the most poorly-sequenced albums I'd ever heard. They might have done better drawing songs out of a hat, I said. At one point in the process of listening repeatedly and gradually absorbing the album's brilliance, it occurred to me to wonder where the sides broke. I found that the only way I could imagine it was in three parts, but who would make a three-sided album? Pavement, that's who. When I had a chance to look at the record in a store a few days later I was not entirely surprised to find that the LP is indeed divided into three sides, right where I had imagined it to be. And then the sequencing made perfect sense.
Side 1 introduces the album's themes, but they're too disparate to make sense together right away. On Side 2, they slowly cohere over the first three tracks. Once the mood of the album is successfully established, it takes a sudden left turn right in the middle of the side. It never for a moment occurred to me while listening to the CD that "Best Friend's Arm" could be the opening track of Side 2, even though that would be perfectly reasonable for any other album. On Wowee Zowee, and Wowee Zowee alone, it could only be right in the middle of the middle side, where it suddenly warns us not to get too comfortable, there's gonna be some turbulence ahead. "AT & T" closes the side by reminding us that Pavement could have been the best pop band of the 90's had they felt like it, and indeed they may have been anyway. On Side 3 it all starts coming apart at the seems [pun intended]. Each song on this side could be the closing number its own distinct type of album. Except, of course, for the actual closing number. Which, if you think about, makes it the only one that really could be the closer. Repeat after me: "Huh?"
The Beatles, Abbey Road
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)"/"Here Comes the Sun"
And finally, the one that's got it all: devastating closer on Side 1, gorgeous opener on Side 2, and two completely different sequencing styles. First and foremost, there is the legendary "agreement" between Lennon and McCartney that each would sequence one side. The story seems a bit doubtful when you try to imagine John enthusiastically calling dibs on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus's Garden" for his side, but the sides display a radically divergent character nonetheless. Simply put, Side 1 is composed of whole songs, Side 2 of fragments. From "You Never Give Me Your Money" onward, the songs on Side 2 fold into each other seamlessly, borrowing and echoing themes to create a kind of pop symphony.
On top of that, Side 2 begins with the ideal opener, a pastoral daydream perfectly positioned as an antidote to the preceding nightmare. Which leads us to the most important reason to separate these sides: "I Want you (She's So Heavy)," a harrowing cry of despair and dependence whose sudden ending, for many years, made me think that the record was simply too long for my turntable. That is, I thought the record player's automatic return mechanism was picking up the needle before the end of the song. The silence it leaves in its wake is overwhelming, and is best not broken by "Here Comes the Sun" until the listener decides he or she is ready to step out from the darkness.
OH YEAH, and the surprise of "Her Majesty" works much better on the record because your turntable has no clock display. Remember after Nirvana did it, when everybody was tacking half-assed hidden tracks onto their CDs? You always knew it was comi—
By: Bjorn Randolph
Published on: 2004-09-03