Blame it on John Cusack, blame it on High Fidelity. This isn’t a top five as such, so there’ll be no Beatles, Clash or Marvin Gaye here; nor is it in any order.
Although if it were, the first one would be at the top.
Instead, here are five album openers that have maybe been overlooked by list compilers in favour of Welcome To The Jungle and Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The Night – Morphine, The Night (2000)
Morphine should never have been interesting at all. Mark Sandman sang in a spartan baritone accompanied by a bass guitar (typically played with a slide) and a saxophone plus drums. Chords and even particularly complex arrangements weren’t a possibility with such a setup although they did utilise a wide variety of instruments in their studio mixes.
But they rehabilitated the saxophone from the Kenny G wilderness, and between that, the voice and the bass (3 monotonal instruments) and a properly decent drummer they proved that alchemy does in fact exist.
Call it a tone poem if you will; a series of strangely evocative images wrapped in a pleasing cadence. But in its vaguely meaningless way the song conveys a sense of profound emotions deeply felt, of longing for something that’s never entirely clear – Lilah is possibly a person, or perhaps it’s metaphorical. In fact it’s possible that Lilah refers to the sound of the song itself – deep and dark, bittersweetly melodious.
The name Lilah means seductive, languishing, lovelorn, night beauty.
Mark Sandman died before the album could be released, which means that the song almost inevitably feels like something of a parting gift, a final distillation of his talents into what in my opinion is his most accomplished song.
Five Years – David Bowie, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust (1972)
If The Night makes me want to dust off florid superlatives, Five Years inspires the opposite.
Traditionally, side 1 track 1 is supposed to excite you and serve as an introduction to the sounds and themes of the rest of the album. But aside from the rather tenuous thought that 5 years represents the longest possible shelf-life for the majority of pop groups, Five Years at first seems to have little to do with the rest of the album. Moreover it doesn’t throw down the gauntlet so much as disinterestedly drop it.
In many ways the song is standard pop fare – 3 or 4 chords bashed around in 4-4 time with a hook-laden belter of a chorus. But it subverts the typical structure by lumping all the verses together and following up with an extended chorus that would go down a treat at your average sporting venue.
In that sense it comes off as pastiche, opening the album with a desultory drumbeat leading into precisely the sort of prosaic, middle-of-the-road pop for squares that the Ziggy Stardust character seemed designed to reject. In fact by the end of the verse section you might find yourself feeling bored (unless you’ve paid attention to the unsettling lyrics).
And then the song cranks into life as Bowie bellows out the chorus, sounding increasingly unstable as it progresses. Bowie’s voice teeters on the edge of control, as though the singer is peering into the abyss wondering when he’ll hurtle into it.
And in that vein – the conflation of plastic popstar and sense of heading for a fall – it’s the perfect primer for the themes of the album.
Flatlands – Chelsea Wolfe, Unknown Rooms: A Collection Of Acoustic Songs (2012)
Moving back to another artist who remains criminally underexposed, Chelsea Wolfe is a singer-songwriter and band leader whose music is described as a drone/metal/art/folk hybrid. But despite that she’s actually pretty good, with a startling voice and strong songwriting chops.
Her 3rd album, Unknown Rooms, is not an album so much as a gathering together of songs old and new that have failed to find a home on ‘proper’ releases. Between them they convey a sense of sadness laced with menace, the sparse production and quiet arrangements creating an intimacy that is faintly uncomfortable at times.
It also serves as a solid platform for her reverb-accented voice, which (again) is chills-up-the-spine sublime.
Flatlands opens with a simple fingerpicked acoustic guitar and builds to an unhurried peak, an elegiac rejection of the attendant baubles of modern life. As a statement of intent it’s calmly powerful, although (as with The Night) the rest of the album feels lacking by comparison.
I find it oddly reminiscent of the Smashing Pumpkins during one of their more reflective moments (such as the first track of Adore, appropriately enough), which might be reason enough to leave well alone for non-Gen Xers or those who managed to get over the 90s.
But you’d be missing out.
Gold Lion – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Show Your Bones (2006)
A good opening track might be the song the artist feels is best placed to grab the listener’s attention. It might be a statement of intent setting the tone for the album, or it may seek to summarise the themes – CliffsNotes for the band.
In the case of Kurt Cobain, the first track of In Utero served as a caustic rebuke to the label, the fans and indeed the world at large.
Gold Lion is very much a statement of intent, but not just for the album. Their debut Fever To Tell was critically lauded as a jagged slice of glitzy, sleazy New York ‘punk’ – following a long tradition of achingly cool, camp New York outfits from the Velvet Underground to the New York Dolls and beyond.
I call it lipstick grunge.
And like all zeitgeisty, terribly fashionable bands they were expected to have the lifespan of your average mayfly. They were also expected to follow up with more of the same – shiny but shallow, like a person who’s fun to date for a while but who won’t ever break your heart.
Instead they produced an album which is largely led by the acoustic rather than electric guitar. And nowhere does the acoustic feel quite so prominent as it does on the opening track, which puts me in mind of a night round a campfire, albeit with a drummer somewhere off in the distance keeping the wolves at bay.
The band would repeat the trick with their next release It’s Blitz!, yet again receiving critical acclaim for reinventing themselves without distancing themselves from what came before.
I’m A Fool To Want You – Billie Holiday, Lady In Satin (1958)
Even soundtracking a Chanel perfume advert couldn’t detract from Holiday’s take on I’m A Fool To Want You.
Today Billie Holiday is most famous as something of a tragic figure – a supremely talented jazz singer beset by the demons of a neglected childhood, heroin abuse, racism and domestic violence.
It may be confirmation bias that leads us to attribute extraordinary talent to extraordinary pain – that the likes of Van Gogh, Holiday and so on wouldn’t have shone so brightly without the darkness. And each iteration of the artist who’s too sensitive to live reinforces the archetype. But this seems too mawkish to my mind, too romanticised a view; perhaps even a little brutal in the way that the pain of others is waved away so easily.
Whatever, by the time Holiday came to record her penultimate album, Lady In Satin, the years had chipped away at her voice. There’s a cruel irony that it was towards the end when her voice had lost its power and lustre that she returned to the orchestral arrangements of her Decca years. The weary, scratchier tones would have seemed more at home with the smoky jazz accompaniments she’d mostly performed and recorded with.
But great music is as much about flaws as it is polish, and however much Lady In Satin’s chocolate box orchestral flourishes should cloy, however much the production would seem to be geared towards hiding her vocals, the contrast elevates the material to something wonderful.
I’m A Fool… isn’t exactly subtle lyrically, but Holiday delivers it in a way that imbues it with the feel of a more profound truth than the song really warrants. Tired old Billie should know better after a lifetime’s worth of heartbreak and sadness. She wears her scars on her sleeve so that when she sings that she’s a fool for her feelings of longing for a wrong ‘un, she really can actually understand what she’s banging on about.
Other versions of the song may be better sung technically, but as with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, this is an old dog’s love song, not a gauche young pup’s.
I live in constant dread of the day this pitches up as an X Factor winner’s Christmas single.
So there’s your lot – as a challenge why not try and come up with 5 side 1, track 1s that don’t routinely feature in top five lists and share in the comments below – see if we can’t all spread the love around.