So you’re a rock star — congratulations. You’ve finally recorded your 10 or 12 songs, and you’re ready to finish the album and send it off to record execs everywhere. But wait — which song goes where?
Now, if you’re Britney Spears or Three Doors Down, you can throw all the singles in a row at the beginning. Whatever. You’ll sell millions anyway, and as long as you hear that one catchy tune, who cares if it’s a coherent or even listenable album? But this problem of poorly planned albums exceeds the top 40, and may even reach artists you like (see Beck’s Guero, Ratatat’s self-titled, or Modest Mouse’s latest for examples of albums that leave you bored by the halfway point).
On a side note, there aren’t many albums that fail in the reverse direction. Maybe musicians are scared that nobody will listen if they load up the back of an album with hits.
So, you’re planning your CD. What comes first? Ideally, it’d be an attention getter, but not the only hit. “Like Eating Glass” from Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm is one example. It’s jagged, angular, and quick, and sets the stage for the album. And, if you bought the album because you heard “Banquet” (track four) on the radio, you’ll keep listening.
Next, cool down a bit — right out of High Fidelity. I wouldn’t say add some filler, but maybe if you’ve got a couple songs that are pretty typical of your sound but not the greatest, tracks two or three might be a good place to put them. Another option is to lead off with a throwaway “intro” track (although this will annoy shufflers) and put the attention-getter at track two, as in the Foo Fighters album The Colour and the Shape (“Doll” followed by “Monkey Wrench”).
At around track four, drop the hit. There’s a lot of precedent here: Weezer’s blue album, Daft Punk’s Discovery, the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Californication, even the new Arcade Fire album. The ideal album would keep the next few tracks pretty strong, with something else interesting around eight to keep everyone listening.
By then, most of your best songs might be exhausted. How do you keep people interested then? If you’re making Talking Heads: 77, you just keep tossing on great songs. Fine. If not, you can switch gears; some great albums have kept interest because their second halves have been the deeper, moodier counterparts to the upbeat first halves (see Abbey Road and Of Montreal’s The Sunlandic Twins.) A contrast will help listeners break the album into chunks that they can easily absorb. And that’s the goal, right?
On the other hand, if you’re making a concept album, disregard this all entirely and follow your muse! Just, whatever you do, don’t put a “secret track” after 12 minutes of silence at the end.