The opener is perhaps the most important part of an album. It has to excite listeners, set the tone and sell the artist. A lot of people, whether they mean to or not, will make a judgment call based on the first track alone. The track itself may be loud and punchy, seeking to shake the foundations right from the word go, or it may be calm and collected. It can be indicative of what is to come, or or an early curveball to keep the listener guessing. Regardless of the way the opener is presented, many artists understand that it is key to the overall narrative; a consideration which separates the experience of the 'album' from a mere set of songs. These are some of our favourites.
King Crimson - 21st Century Schizoid Man
Album: In The Court of the Crimson King - Genre: Progressive
The fact that Kanye West recently sampled this should be testament enough to its popularity, but the dark lyrical themes about the potential dangers of society live on (quite literally, given the title). The unique, heavy nature of the track, in a genre that wasn't particularly known for that sound at the time, is also of interest; its a waystone for what would become one of the most experimental progressive rock albums ever recorded.
Interpol - Untitled
Album: Turn on the Bright Lights - Genre: Post-Punk
Turn on the Bright Lights is considered by many to be a modern classic – a standard that Interpol set so high that they haven’t quite been able to reach it in the decade-plus since its release. There was an air of mystery surrounding the album and the bleak sound it made, and a whole host of comparisons were made from Joy Division to Moby. It was a bold, emphatic move to have the album open on a song with no name, and the song itself acts as the perfect introduction to Interpol. With wiry, expansive guitars and Paul Banks’ meandering voice, ‘Untitled’ subtly holds your attention with its dark, dreamy tone and sets you up for one of the most impressive debuts since the turn of the millennium.
Radiohead - Everything in Its Right Place
Album: Kid A - Genre: Indie / Electronica
What started as a track Thom Yorke conjured up late one night on his new piano finished as the catalyst for Radiohead's return to full functionality. After a tumultuous year of disagreement on the band's direction, 'Everything In its Right Place' was the watershed moment they'd been looking for; the first successful manifestation of their new, experimental approach to songwriting. The track did away with the organic guitar and drum sound they'd been so acclaimed for previously, and instead featured electronic drum loops, vocal manipulations and guitar samples. It was the perfect way to mark the transition from OK Computer to Kid A, and remains one of my favourite openers ever penned.
The Antlers - Prologue / Kettering
Album: Hospice - Genre: Indie / Alt
Album structure is of paramount importance for concept albums where a narrative or overarching theme is present. In 2009, The Antlers broke hearts into pieces with their first release as a full band, Hospice. The record is a powerful, emotionally demanding 51 minutes, but it’s the opening ‘Prologue’ (which ebbs into ‘Kettering’) that lets you know what you’re getting yourself in for. Three minutes of chilling, rising ambient synths lift the hairs on your neck before the hushed falsetto of the opening lyric: “I wish that I had known in that first minute we met / The unpayable debt that I owed you.” Full of sad, desperate intrigue, the song escalates to give us a glimpse of how vast the album is in its scope and heartache.
Mobb Deep - Start of Your Ending (41st Side)
Album: The Infamous - Genre: Hip-Hop
One day I'll write an entire feature on this album, but for now I'd like to bring attention to the opener. Featuring sparse basslines, odd piano loops and a simple, hi-hat laden beat, Mobb Deep's original production style matured here (which felt as weary and detached as the lyrical themes that follow) and helped lay the foundation for an entirely new form of Hip-Hop. A lesson in less is more, and a track that has that rare ability to pull you in and live the story vicariously, even though I shouldn't be able to relate at face value.
The XX - Intro
Album: XX - Genre: Indie / Electronica
This entry is somewhat of an anomaly in this list in the way that we’re not entirely in love with the album that follows it. That being said, there is no denying that ‘Intro’ is the best song to come from The XX. The opening reverberated guitar is instantly recognizable, the crisp electronic beat that comes in is so infectious, and the soft chants that accompany the main melody are wispy and delightfully smoky. It’s an opener that really sets itself apart from the rest of the album and stands on its own merit, and if the rest of the album had followed in a closer vein, it would likely be a modern triumph.
Talking Heads - Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Album: Remain in Light - Genre: Electronica / Post-Punk
A clinic on how to open an album. Despite every chasm of this masterpiece being filled with variety of guitar twangs, tribal drums and assorted funk rhythms, the steely focus of Bryne's weary and cynical lyrics about 'preaching, shouting and ranting' are still allowed ample space to resonate. Eno once again handles the production masterfully, making 'Born Under Punches' worthy of every piece of critical acclaim it has received over the decades. Still fresh, still ahead of its time and still the perfect first way to setup the rest of Remain in Light.
Fuck Buttons - Surf Solar
Album: Tarot Sport - Genre: Electronica
The 2012 London Summer Olympics kicked off with the sound of ‘Olympians’ by Fuck Buttons as the camera zoomed down the River Thames. Danny Boyle, who directed the sequence, has always had quality soundtracks with his films, and the sprawling nature of the song combined with its apt title made it the perfect choice. Tarot Sport, the duo’s most acclaimed album, has a very cinematic quality, and it opens up with the ten and a half minute ‘Surf Solar’, a blinding blend of a myriad of synth layers and pounding drums. The whole song repeats itself over its duration, but it builds in a fantastically tense, imposing way, setting up for a very noisy, grandiose journey.
TV on the Radio - Halfway Home
Album: Dear Science - Genre: Indie / Alt
TV On The Radio have been heralded as one of New York’s most revered groups, touted as an art-rock band based on their offerings from the Young Liars EP through to Return To Cookie Mountain. Their songs were spacious, intimate and often experimental. Though their 2008 album Dear Science wasn’t a huge shift in their sound, opening track ‘Halfway Home’ launches you right into the foray. It really showcases the production skills of band member Dave Sitek, who injects multiple layers of handclapping into the song to give it a real flavoursome rhythm. Nothing ground-breaking, just a gutsy release of energy.
Refused - Worms of the Sense / Faculties of the Skull
Album: The Shape of Punk to Come - Genre: Hardcore / Punk
A lot has been said about 'The Shape of Punk to Come' as an album. It shook the core of hardcore punk and paved the way for so many, and what better way to set out your stall than to open it with a shape-shifting Juggernaut of a track utilizing elements of traditional punk, hardcore, post-hardcore and even electronica. Coming in at over seven minutes long, the track is very much a statement that the album is not going to tread the same path as those which came before, and the sheer diversity is but a taste of what was to come.
The Microphones - I Want Wind to Blow
Album: The Glow Pt. 2 - Genre: Indie / Alt
‘I Want Wind To Blow’ seems to roll up all of the aforementioned qualities of a good album opener into one. It starts quietly and serene, acoustic guitar accompanied by Phil Elvrum’s soft voice and the surrounding silence. Creaking percussion joins in, as does several added layers of vocals and guitar, leading to one of the catchiest demi-riffs ever recorded repeated over and over as the song builds before crashing, distorted, speaker-breaking cymbals batter the track like a giant wave, quite literally snatching the breath from your lungs. It’s all so effective as an album opener and really begs your utter immersion.
Mew - Am I Wry? No
Album: Frengers - Genre: Indie / Alt
Despite not leaving the same legacy as some of the other tracks on this list, the opener to Mew's alt masterpiece Frengers still remains one of my favourites. The delightful combination of Jonas Bjerre's impassioned falsetto and the infectious stop-and-start drum and guitar rhythms create an almost ethereal atmosphere one which is carried on throughout the rest of the album with due sincerity. Indeed, the power it holds as an opener is significant; it's the hardest hitting track on here, and the catchiest. A deliberate lesson in grabbing your listener's attention from the first, loud note.