10 Best Album-Opening Tracks
Albums have about three minutes to suck you in. Especially these days, when singles rule the market. If an album can’t pull you in from the very opening track, there’s no way anyone’s gonna stick around for 45 minutes or more. Who has the time? The best opening songs, not so coincidentally, launch some of the greatest alt-rock albums ever made. So don’t be surprised if our list of the 10 Best Album-Opening Tracks looks a lot like a list of classic records that belong in everyone’s collection.
The first cut on the Strokes' debut album begins with a few seconds of hard-to-pinpoint noise that devolves into robotic drum taps introducing the song. Within a half-minute, the Strokes' template is pretty much laid out: jagged guitars, distorted vocals and a frayed melody that envelops almost 40 years of underground rock.
The original version of 'Summer Babe' was released as a single a few months before Pavement's debut album came out. When a remixed version of the song showed up as 'Slanted and Enchanted''s lead track in 1992, it sounded like a perfect fit with those chiming guitars and faux-anthemic poses. We like to think it was supposed to be here all along.
It takes more than a minute for any sort of rhythm to get going, and almost two minutes for singer Ian Brown to appear, on the first cut on the Stone Roses' excellent debut album. The slow build and trippy ambiance would become hallmarks of the band's music, but here it sounds like the introduction to a significant part of indie rock history.
By 2002 Wilco had completely shed their twangy roots. The opening song on their best album is clear indication that there was no turning back. Filled with woozy instruments, tipsy sound effects and a sleepy vocal by mastermind Jeff Tweedy, 'I Am Trying to Break Your Heart' sounds like the opening chapter to a very deep, thoughtful book.
The rumbling bass that signals the opening track on the Pixies' second album sounds like something big and mighty is approaching on the horizon. After the jagged guitars and drums enter, Black Francis' apocalyptic vocals -- howling surrealistic nonsense inspired by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí -- sound like they're a natural part of the landscape by the time they show up.
Sonic Youth don't jump into 'Teen Age Riot' -- it takes a minute and a half for the fractured-guitar intro to make room for other instruments and the main riff. But the song has seven minutes to unwind, and it does so gloriously, piling guitars on top of one another and heralding the noise rockers' best album.
Radiohead's fourth album reinvented the way rock music was made and consumed in the '00s. And the digital loops that keep turning into themselves and then back again on the opening 'Everything in Its Right Place' sound like a revolution brewing. There's nothing retro about 'Kid A'; this is modern music set to future shock.
Appropriately, the opening staccato guitar notes of 'London Calling' sound like bombs dropping from the sky. It's a fitting start to one of the greatest albums ever made, a double-record epic that jumps from rock to pop to reggae to R&B like the fate of the world depends on it. 'London Calling''s opening title track makes sure you know the Clash were a punk band before anything else.
The four drum smacks that kick off 'Radio Free Europe' come off like urgent knocks at the indie rock door. And then the musical template for everything great about '80s college rock settles in: jangling guitar, shimmering production, mumbled lyrics that people still can't make out. Once R.E.M. got in, they redecorated things to their style.
The opening guitar riff still sounds like one of rock's most pivotal moments, an announcement that things will never be the same. And for the next 45 minutes, Nirvana proceed to uproot everything about terrible '80s radio rock and launch an alt-rock revolution. Bands are still ripping it off, 22 years later. And it all starts with 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.'