Remember when it was a big deal for a new album to drop? The street date was always Tuesday, and you’d walk to your local record store and pick up the CD/cassette/LP/whatever and listen to it straight through, see what the artist was up to. To me, the best part was the moment I heard the the opening notes of the first song, especially if that track wasn’t the lead single. Those first notes set the tone for everything that would follow, gave you an inkling of the road the album was going to take you down.
My good buddy and fellow blogsmith Juan remembers the importance of those first notes as well as I do, and so he came up with the idea for the latest in our series of complementary blogposts (as we tend to do from time to time): listing our 10 favorite album opening songs. I adhered to rules similar to my Desert Island Albums guidelines (one song per artist, no live albums), and here’s my list. I admit that it’s going to lean toward classic rock, but that’s because, well, people just don’t make albums like they used to. I hope you enjoy it all the same. And when you’re done reading, go check out Juan’s list here.
Honorable Mentions: Sunday Bloody Sunday is a great beginning to U2’s hyperpolitical War, but didn’t make the cut; Look at Miss Ohio, the opener of Soul Journey and perhaps my favorite Gillian Welch song, didn’t quite crack the list either, although you can read a bit about it here; Smells Like Teen Spirit, because while I like Nirvana and Nevermind, I’m actually not all that crazy about that song (sacrilege, I know); Hell’s Bells, because cuts were hard, and I can live without AC/DC on my list; Needle in the Hay, because I already write about Elliott Smith all the time; Can’t C Me, because while I really want to write about 2Pac on this blog at some point, I figure I’ll save it for its own post; and Neutral Milk Hotel’s The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1, because I forgot about it until I’d already written this list. Dammit.
10. New York, New York, Ryan Adams
Adams’ Gold is the weakest album on this list, and isn’t even particularly strong compared to some of his other work (Heartbreaker, Cold Roses, Love Is Hell), and I say that as pretty much the biggest Ryan Adams fan in the world. And New York, New York isn’t even the best song on the album–that would be When the Stars Go Blue. But New York, New York is unique for its circumstances. Adams filmed the video for the song, which was the lead single for Gold, under the Brooklyn Bridge, with the Twin Towers looming right over his shoulder, on September 7, 2011. Yep. Four days before 9/11. The album came out a couple of weeks later, and New York, New York, a song actually about a broken relationship, became something of an anthem for my bruised and battered hometown, with the proud chorus, “Hell I still love you, New York.”
9. Southside of Heaven, Ryan Bingham
A number of the songs that made my list came on debut albums. It only makes sense that a new band would want to put its best foot forward, lead with its strongest material. That’s certainly the case for Ryan Bingham, who opened his 2007 debut album, Mescalito (which I’ve already written about at some length) with what remains, to this day, his signature song. Bingham had been writing, recording, and performing many of the songs that became Mescalito years before the album’s release, and he surely knew that Southside of Heaven was the one that best summed up his style: a long, bluesy, country tune about dusty roads, desperate circumstances, booze, trains, and the longing for a place called home, all sang in Bingham’s trademark deep, gritty rasp.
8. For What It’s Worth, Buffalo Springfield
Buffalo Springfield is one of the few bands with a legitimate claim to the title of “the first supergroup.” That’ll happen when you put Stephen Stills and Neil Young in a band together. Like many other supergroups, their run was short-lived–just two albums. But their work, in particular their eponymous debut album, rates right up there with the best folk rock ever recorded. And of course, their most well-known song is For What It’s Worth, which opens the album with its famous, distinctive chiming bell and a simple acoustic strum by Stills, who wrote the tune, leading to one of the most famous choruses in all of rock music: “Time we stop, hey, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down.” Written about a protest of a curfew imposed on the Sunset Strip by the Los Angeles city government in 1966, it quickly was adopted by the anti-war movement, and became an iconic protest song. It was also one of the first rock songs I ever loved.
7. Baba O’Riley, The Who
Oh that keyboard riff. You know the one I’m talking about, the first thing you hear when you play the Who’s great 1971 album Who’s Next. And then come those ringing piano chords, accompanied by Keith Moon’s assault on the drums. And then comes Roger Daltrey, “Out here in the fields …” and then Pete Townshend on the electric guitar. And then everything stops, and Townshend, a capella: “Don’t cry/Don’t raise your eye/It’s only teenage wasteland,” which gives way to a classic, inspired drum break from Moon that launches the band full force back onto the track. What a great song.
6. Free Fallin’, Tom Petty
There’s no sound that’s more “Tom Petty” than the riff that opens Full Moon Fever, that D-suspended chord progression (though Petty capos up to F) that is the first thing everyone who’s learning guitar plays. It’s simple, easy to play, and utterly beautiful–like so much of Petty’s music. A close second to the fame of the guitar riff is the song’s chorus, Petty’s soaring “And I’m freeee/Free fallin’,” and not far behind that is the opening lyric, “She’s a good girl/Loves her Mama/Loves Jesus/And America too.” Hell, the whole song is just impossibly great, and it’s the opener of arguably Petty’s best album. After the song was released in 1989, Axl Rose (then pretty much the biggest rock star in the world) famously called in to an L.A. radio station to say how much the song’s description of the Valley resonated with him. It’s stood the test of time too: To this day, when you go to a Heartbreakers concert, the whole audience sings along, so loud you can barely hear Tom himself.
5. Gimme Shelter, The Rolling Stones
We’re into the real heavy hitters now. The Stones opened their classic 1969 album Let it Bleed with perhaps their most haunting song. Keith Richards came up with the dark, threatening guitar riff while watching a storm roll in, and the song quickly came to represent the chaos of the end of the ’60s–so much so that the documentary about the Stones’ infamous performance at Altamont took the song’s name. Along with the guitar riff, the song’s defining trait is the contribution of onetime Raelette Merry Clayton, whose screamed “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” is probably the greatest backup vocal performance in rock history. That is not a backhanded compliment–when she comes in, she completely takes over the song, pushing the Stones to heights they hadn’t achieved previously.
4. Welcome to the Jungle, Guns ‘n’ Roses
As I said above, a really great album opener sets the tone for what’s to come for the album, for the artist’s career. And there may not be a song that sets the tone for an album and a band’s image better than Welcome to the Jungle did for Guns ‘n’ Roses and their 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction. The song starts with Slash’s famous distorted, delayed guitar riff and Axl’s scream, and everything that comes after is pure attitude, pure nastiness, pure GNR. You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby! And you’re gonna die!
3. Tangled Up in Blue, Bob Dylan
Highway 61 Revisited is my all-time favorite album, and its opener, Like a Rolling Stone, is Dylan’s most iconic song. But my favorite Dylan album opener is the first track on his 1975 masterpiece Blood on the Tracks. It’s an incredibly sad, sometimes angry album that Dylan wrote after divorcing his wife, and Tangled Up in Blue is a perfect introduction for what’s to come, an extended, kaleidoscopic narrative about loves lost, loves found, and the roads that we travel in between. There was a period in my life when I would lie in my bed and just listen to this song on repeat, and the lyrics–all seven verses’ worth–are permanently imprinted on my brain.
2. Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin
I thought hard about going for The Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin II) or Black Dog (IV), but there’s just no way to top the song that opens Led Zeppelin II. When they recorded Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin didn’t just write a killer song–they invented hard rock. To this day, there’s no riff more badass than the pulsing, driving lick Jimmy Page played on his Les Paul. Add in Robert Plant’s yearning vocal and John Bonham’s powerful drumming, and that long, odd interlude that leaves you gasping in anticipation until Page launches into his famous guitar solo, and you have a song that’s basically sex on vinyl. Which is sort of Led Zeppelin in a nutshell.
1. Purple Haze, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
When Jimi Hendrix launched into Purple Haze to open his 1967 debut, Are You Experienced, he wasn’t just plucking a few notes on his Strat. He was announcing his arrival, letting the world know that music would never be the same–especially not the electric guitar. Those first notes sound like a guy stomping down the hallway, and when he broke into the iconic riff, he was kicking the world’s door down. People had never heard a guitar make sounds like the ones Jimi was tearing out of it, and almost 50 years later no one can exactly duplicate them. Hendrix had to leave America and go to London to get discovered, but once people heard Purple Haze, they would never forget him.