When you are the most powerful and popular artist in the world, you can insist on anything. And so Adele persuaded Spotify to hide her shuffle button, to encourage listeners to listen to her new album 30 – and, presumably, every other album – in the order the artists intended. âWe don’t create albums with such care and thoughtfulness in our track list for no reason,â Adele said. âOur art tells a story and our stories should be heard as we intended. “
I’m of the generation that still clings to the notion of albums as the largest and most convenient expression of a musician’s imagination: those 40 minutes are about the perfect amount of time to explore most. things, musically and lyrically, that an artist could have to say, without the risk of boredom. With an album, I get what I say to myself is the least publicized version of the artist’s vision. My natural inclination is to follow Adele’s line.
I think of those albums that are perfectly sequenced and marvel at them: how Sgt Pepper opens with his mind-blowing title and goes to its weird and deep ending, with the vast fading piano chord that concludes A Day in the Life. I think about how Radiohead got so mired in sequencing Kid A that they almost broke up on it. I think of the commanding brilliance of Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, in its two-sided LP version – the first ending with Racing in the Street, his emotional centerpiece, before starting over with The Promised Land. , then to end for good with his devastating title song. I don’t think a reorganization can improve these albums (except by removing Within You Without You from Sgt Pepper’s, but that’s by the way).
Paradoxically, the real genius of sequencing is often clearer when the artist is not trying to tell a story through music, and the sequencing itself has to do the heavy lifting, which is usually found on a most popular compilation. great successes. The obvious thing to do with hits is to sequence them chronologically, which suits the trainpotter, but rarely makes the album the most complete. Think instead of Queen’s Greatest Hits, which is not the best-selling album in the UK just because a lot of people love Queen, but also because it’s a perfectly sequenced album that starts and ends with a triumph. – Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions – and that never lets its momentum falter, but never turns into a boring churn. Unusually for bigger hits, compilers weren’t afraid to let deeper cuts – that four-track streak from Now I’m Here to Flash on side two – do a lot of work, which gave it ( whenever possible) a sense of discovery, especially for young listeners.
Good sequencing can mask weaknesses. Take The Queen Is Dead by the Smiths, an album that should, really, be horribly unbalanced, torn between overwhelming and throwaway epics. The positioning of the big emotional chunks – first and third on side one, fourth on side two – gives the whole an emotional weight that it shouldn’t really have. (It’s also a record with a very unusual streak: its two hit singles are both opposite two, to support a side that has to face Vicar in a Tutu and Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others).
The truth is, however, that Adele is fighting a losing battle. The reason Spotify allows listeners to shuffle songs in the first place is because people like to do it, and understanding listeners’ habits has encouraged artists and labels to sequence albums differently. In fact, some long, musically diverse albums like Drake’s Certified Lover Boy almost seem to hand the sequencing work over to listeners, tacitly acknowledging that they’ll pick their own favorites from a lighter playlist.
Once upon a time there was a formula for sequencing. As soon as albums became the lingua franca of pop, people realized there was a way to maximize their impact: open wide, keep the mood for a few songs, slow down, close the face with a statement track. Repeat on side two. Nowadays, the formula is even simpler. For almost any artist trying to compete commercially – that is, all but the highest echelon of the stars, and those for whom business imperatives don’t matter – albums should be loaded up. -first. Labels now have access to unimaginable data, and the âjump rateâ has become vital: does the listener listen for the 30 seconds it takes for the song to earn royalties from streaming? It’s now in the best interests of labels (and artists) to get the most captivating, catchy tracks at the top (a process that has also changed the nature of songwriting, forcing writers to do everything. throw at the opening).
As music director Barry Johnson told Rolling Stone about an album by his EarthGang conductors, âWe had this whole concept album with skits and everything, and we had some of our greatest songs at the end of it. the album. They [Interscope] were just like, ‘What if people don’t get to the end of the album? The attention span is so short that if you don’t catch people right away, they might not hear the punches at the end. So how about putting the biggest songs forward? “
This is what Adele fights against by defending the primacy of the album as a full listening experience: the right for artists to make the albums they want. 30 starts off moody and sad, and it’s only on track four that we get an uptempo number – an eternity in modern pop album sequencing. It’s not just about telling listeners to eat their greens. It’s a reminder that in a world where the boss of Universal can earn more in a year than all the British songwriters put together, there would be nothing to promote and sell without the storytelling and imagination of the artists. themselves.
What are the best examples of album sequencing? Share your opinion in the comments below.