The Best Sequences in Album Rock and Beyond

Honoring the art of the mix with Springsteen, the Stones, Prince and more

Dig our picks for some of the most well sequenced albums in rock, punk and beyond (Images: Amazon)

[Sequencing] is a very important process, because one tune can ruin another.

“Sometimes, you can have a nice track that sounds good, but … well, simply, if you have two slow songs, sometimes it gets boring … putting them in order is like putting a show together, a Broadway show … It is one of the most painful processes because sometimes you think you have a great track or song and you put it next to something and it sounds disgusting … it is like a jigsaw puzzle, only there is no answer.” – John Lennon in Lennon, the Mobster & the Lawyer by Jay Bergen. (Trial transcript, Oct. 1974, Morris Levy’s Big Music Corp. v. John Lennon.)

Rock ‘n’ Roll fans of all stripes, consider, if you will, the (mostly) lost art of song sequencing, a strategy of some import in the glory days of LPs – when they were our primary music delivery system – and, to a lesser extent, CDs. 

The topic is sparked by a realization that the world in which we now live is a far different one. Songs come out one at a time and are first (only?) heard on-line. People, whose attention spans have gotten shorter with so many other diversions to occupy them, listen in mini-bursts and jump around like a Kris Kross song. Curated mixtapes on Spotify rule. Algorithms guide your path. Streaming dominates. Owning albums is a thing of the past.

As much a fan of the longplayer as I am, that’s often enough my world, too. I’m not immune to the quick hit/short attention span mode of modern listening. And the habit goes back in time. I was weaned on The Beatles 45s as a kid (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” my first two musical purchases) and re-weaned on same 7-inchers during the 1976-77 punk wave. (I was, though, pleased when Buzzcocks put all those fabulous A and B sides together for the cleverly titled album, Singles Going Steady.) 

But what I’m talking about here is the album as a complete experience, one you not only had the patience for, but the desire to listen to all the way through. The songs on any particular album may have been written during songwriting sessions for that album or at any point in a band’s career, banked, and pulled off the dusty shelf. But they most certainly weren’t written sequentially as we heard them spool out and they all were, as the saying goes, “new to you.”

And weren’t tossed together randomly. More often than not there was thought process in that sequencing, considering the arc of the album, the flow from song to song. How one mood set up, or expanded upon, another. Or made a sharp, smart contrasting shift. You liked both the “hits” and the “deep cuts.”

Of note: I’m not so much talking about how CDs selections are ordered. They are front-loaded – best first, worst last, all told, too many damn songs, mostly – and the option to pick “random” is always there. I’m taking more how those eight-to-ten track 32 to 38-minute LPs were shaped. They tended to have the best two cuts at the end of each side, which I’m thinking worked best for both DJs and listeners. (I was both; DJ in college, listener for life.) But the middle tracks weren’t necessarily filler. Sure, sometimes, but not always, or, I’d say, that often.

Around 2010, I was talking with Peter Wolf about the new world of how music is consumed and how he approached what he created as an old-school album guy. He realized people were starting to release songs track by track, not make albums per se. 

“With all the technological developments, music is still being absorbed,” Wolf said. “It’s just the way it’s getting to people that’s dramatically different. I come from the base of how important records were and how they affected my life. I feel it’s obligation to the tradition that I come from to continue to make the work that respects that tradition – and also be aware of the new changes that are taking place and embracing that. It’s an approach I’m comfortable with. … Because when the candlelight goes out it’s the work that remains.”

“I remain obsessed not only with sequencing but with the actual spacing between songs,” says The Dream Syndicate singer-guitarist-Steve Wynn. “All of that matters—if you still believe in the 45-minute art form of albums. Best sequenced album? Dunno—but London Calling sure does it right. And here’s a question—which is the ‘right’ or better version of Big Star 3rd. I go with the PVC version even though it’s wrong since it’s what I heard the first time. So, there you go!”

Dave Martin, singer-guitarist with O Positive said, “We had many a heated discussion about sequencing Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat [their major label debut]. Not just the A side and the B side and how to make them both worth listening to equally. It’s really an art and a science.”

Elijah Wald – a friend and former Boston Globe colleague, a blues musician, music historian and author of Escaping the Delta, Dylan Goes Electric and How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll – says sequencing of an album is not that different from developing a set list. Over time, a band figures out what works best for its purposes. “Every live performer/band thinks about this every time they perform,” Wald says. “Albums are just an extension of that process.”  

This can be true, although they’re different animals, which we know from bands that have staged we’re-gonna-play-the-first-whole-album-straight-through concerts. You may hear a lotta mid-set clunkers.

“I don’t mean to suggest you program an album with the same songs in the same order as for a live set,” Wald responds. “The logic of any program begins with considering the audience and the situation and an album is different from a coffeehouse set, which is different from a bar set, which is different from a festival set. But most performers have programmed hundreds of sets before they program an album, and have a highly developed sense of the process of shaping separate songs into something that works as a whole.”

Of course, as with anything, some bands are better at this than others.

“Sequencing is important,” says former Mission of Burma singer-guitarist Roger Miller. “Though when Burma released ON/Off/ON we encouraged (on the CD anyways) random-play because it more approximated our live performances, every set order being different. Perhaps we were an anomaly.”

 

 

I put up a Facebook post asking music buffs for their choices and was pleasantly flooded with a lot of good suggestions, some which make the cut here as they burst into my consciousness once again. I also realized I had to separate non-concept albums and concept albums, the latter being very consciously sequenced in order to tell a story. 

One caveat, which also comes from Miller. He has done some sound-tracking in his day and says that “in soundtrack work, it is not uncommon for directors to fall in love with ‘the temp music’ just because they heard it so many times.” That is, the working backing tracks. Extrapolating a bit, that, too, may be the case for record producers and, yes, those of us on the outside: Familiarity breeds content. “The question,” says Miller is, “Did you just get used to it that way and think it was the perfect way?’”

One of the most astute commentators on the Facebook post was a friend, former Boston Phoenix colleague and Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism (1994) Lloyd Schwartz, who wrote: “Almost every Beatles album beginning with Rubber Soul. The English Revolver album. The White Album, and of course, Sgt. Pepper. It’s what they intended to do and it was a revelation!”

Add Abbey Road to this and The Beatles get their own little mini-listicle (I’m sure this makes Paul and Ringo ecstatic; and the ghosts of John and George blissful in the spiritual world.)

Caveat: While I listen to soul, R&B, funk and jazz, it’s not my wheelhouse, but it certainly was for Greg “Ironman” Tate, one of the Village Voice’s sharpest critics back in its heyday and a prolific author up through the present time. Tragically and shockingly, Tate – cofounder of the Black Rock Coalition along with Vernon Reid – died not long shortly after he posted these picks to my thread. So: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Dark, Funkadelic’s Let’s Take It to the Stage, Labelle’s Nightbirds, Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together and Wayne Shorter’s Native Dancer.

My choices follow. And before you wail and moan and yell “Whatabout?!” keep in mind these are my personal picks right now and, like any list, could change given another day or two of thought. They are by no means right or wrong, no more than any listicle is in our listicle-obsessed age. Subjective. Highly subjective. And mostly, it’s meant to stimulate you into compiling your own sequencing best-of.

 

The Best: (Non-Beatles, Non-concept albums)

 

 

Bruce Springsteen Born To Run (Columbia Records) The Boss has spoken of these songs as chapters in a book and that they are – short stories with memorable characters, whose lives are take diverse routes. Some of the ride is exhilarating (tittle track), some a little more wistful or melancholic (“Meeting Across the River”) and then flat out jubilant (“Jungleland”).

David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (Parlophone Records) Some people consider this a concept album and it loosely may be that – Ziggy’s rise and fall – but there are various mid-album diversions that aren’t really part of that story tracks and that path is delightfully zig-zaggy. Critic Paul Trynka calls it a “collection of snapshots thrown together and later edited into a sequence that makes sense” – and that makes sense to me. 

Elvis Costello This Year’s Model (Columbia Records) A series of short, sharp shocks, each setting up the next, all of equal value. Heart punch after heart punch. “No Action” kicks it off and it’s all action from there on.

Prince Lovesexy (Warner Bros.) Coulda chosen almost any early-mid period Prince disc, but this was put together with the idea of one, ever-evolving track and the flow was delicious. Lovely. Sexy.

The Clash London Calling (Epic Records) Just perfect. The album the truly showed us The Clash were, if you will, more than just a punk band. A double album with exquisite sonic weaving and juxtaposition, from the scary opening hard rock salvo onto reggae, ska, R&B, ‘50s rock and even lounge jazz. With punk at the core or ethos.

Golden Earring Moontan (MCA) Maybe it’s a shock if all you know is “Radar Love,” but this five-song (long song) album has a sexy/eerie pair that follow the hit, the dark and twisted tales of “Candy’s Going Bad” and “Vanilla Queen.” Then, the two on side two shift moods, temps and tones, hitting a prog-hard rock nirvana. (In September 2021, Moontan Remastered & Expanded was released – a new double CD edition of the 1973 album – remastered original album, six bonus tracks, and nine previously unreleased mixes/different versions.)

 

 

Blue Oyster Cult Blue Oyster Cult (Columbia Records) There’s no better hard rock/metal album for song quality, variety and flow. It’s heavy, but not all heavy. It opens with a pounding and ominous tale of outlaw biker violence (“We’re pain, we’re steel, a plot of knives”) and later there’s a soft foot fetish paean, then a foreboding tale of a drug deal gone bad … later songs about rock dreams, sex and drugs, and the destructive celebratory power of the music (“Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”).

Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. (Virgin Records) Much has been written (at the time and in retrospect) about the Stones only studio double LP and it’s the Stones at their most expansive, starting off with the full-tilt “Rocks Off” – no ambiguity there – keeping you wondering where it’s headed next. Into some pretty cool off-beat territory it turns out, “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Ventilator Blues” the best/weirdest of that. Like my pal Bill Janowitz (Buffalo Tom, Stones writer, plays in great un-named Stones cover band) wrote: “a seemingly infinite amount of subtle (and not so subtle) variations on rock and roll – a form that had seemed to be severely limited to basic, guitar-driven music.”

Alice Cooper Love It to Death (Warner Bros.) “Caught In A Dream” might start the album, but “I’m Eighteen” really kicks it off, a classic Coop-style single (or what would become that), but the way the album mutates from hooky compact stuff toward the long and weirding road with “Black Juju,” “Ballad of Dwight Fry” and “Sun Arise” is a slithering magic curveball. The more traditional songs set up the unconventional ones perfectly.

Tangerine Dream Stratosfear (Virgin) Is all-instrumental album cheating? I’ll say no and say most any TD album might make the cut, but this one especially, a transition from the out-there synth experimentation of the early years into something more melodic, yet tense and melancholic. Also, a merger of synths with more organic instruments, lending a musical and mood variety. Four tracks: Hypnotic at times and, yes, fearful.

 

 

The Best, Concept album division:

Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon (Capitol Records), The Wall (Columbia Records) Masters of the art. You know all about these. Madness, despair, ego-mania, evil teachers, 

The Who Tommy (MCA), Quadrophenia (MCA) Aces all the way with both for reasons you also most certainly know. Messiah/faux messiah, holiday camps, mods and rockers clash, trying to find oneself and fit in as a teen, the wish for love reigning o’er all.

Lou Reed Berlin (RCA) most harrowing of albums where Reed (through his main man, Jim) touches all the decadent bases – drugs, debauchery, love, callousness, suicide and apathy. Bob Ezrin’s ornate production fits perfectly – crying kids and all.

The Kinks Preservation Act 1 and II (Arista) Sometimes derided as the worst Kinks albums by certain fan segments, I rank ‘em among the best. A twisted tale of a society that’s lost its moral center, fought over by corrupt politicians, right and left, and dominated by avaricious developers, who abandon the common man and leave us with a police state.

Original Cast Recording, Jesus Christ Superstar (Decca) You may have heard about this Jesus fella. But not in such conflicted, human detail. All the drama, all the angst, no pie in the sky resurrection. Judas (Murray Head) is the best – and most complicated – villain ever.

The Coolies Doug (DB Records) The one you probably don’t know from an Atlanta band about Doug the skinhead who kills a drag queen cook, steals his recipes, becomes a celebrity chef, indulges himself way too much, singing “It’s a hot night on my crack pipe/And I’m wound tight” and ending up destitute. A rock ‘n’ roll kick like The Who.

 

AUDIO: The Coolies “Doug!”

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

7 thoughts on “The Best Sequences in Album Rock and Beyond

  • April 30, 2022 at 5:29 pm
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    I’d add Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump to this list. It’s about the changing of times from the 20th to the 21st Century..but not a concept album. It’s a very beautiful piece of work that, from the first minute, transports you into its landscape and it deposits you 40 minutes later a bit more enlightened than when you began. Perfectly sequenced, every note fits in exactly the right way, and it’s a singular piece of work.

    Reply
  • April 30, 2022 at 10:45 pm
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    I don’t know all the albums listed here, but ones I do are terrific choices. Born to Run, Abbey Road, and Dark Side of the Moon being especially choice.

    A few others I’d include: the Grateful Dead’s Anthem of the Sun and American Beauty. I’d put Blues For Allah on their too.

    Billy Joel’s The Stranger, and his underrated (IMO) River of Dreams. The latter album is something a song cycle, and it flows especially well.

    I really like the sequence and flow of the Allman Brothers Band’s debut album too.

    Sgt. Pepper, of course.

    And, when it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV. 🙂

    Reply
  • April 30, 2022 at 10:49 pm
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    Two more: Who’s Next is just exactly perfect.

    And for a really unusual, but dead serious, pick: The Monkees HEAD soundtrack. That album’s a trip (As is the movie)!

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  • April 30, 2022 at 11:23 pm
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    Pink Floyd, yet again with Umma Gumma.

    Not that I’m a fan, but I never thought that Chris Cross’s albums jumped around.

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  • May 1, 2022 at 9:25 am
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    Props for including The Coolies “Doug”. A shame more folks aren’t aware of this masterpiece.

    Reply
  • May 1, 2022 at 11:06 am
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    Great Doug reference …. but lyrics are “Its a hot night and I’m wound tight, and my crack pipe is burnin my hand.”

    Reply
  • May 1, 2022 at 2:47 pm
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    Dear Jim–thanks for quoting me! It would still be exactly what I’d say (except that I’d also add Abbey Road). But all the best albums are the most ambitious and in some way the most coherent. I’d add the first (I think it was the first) Jefferson Airplane album to this list. It was exciting–thrilling–the way each cut bumped up against the next.

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