There’s a scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity where the three employees at the record shop in which the book is primarily set have a debate about the top five opening tracks of all time. It’s one of the funnier moments in the book, with all the characters panning each other’s choices for either being too obvious or too obscure, and it references The Clash, Marvin Gaye and Nirvana amongst others. Best opening tracks is a classic pop music debate and, whilst I won’t make any attempt to rank the best of all time (Come Together, Space Oddity and Subterranean Homesick Blues are a few of the classics), I’ll add ten of my favourites to the list.
Along with Pale Blue Eyes, also on the band’s third album, Candy Says is one of the most quietly beautiful songs that Lou Reed ever put his name to. The barely-there guitars and drums provide a perfect backing for the softly-expressed existential angst of the lyrics. Candy, the song’s protagonist, has become weary with the weight of human life and the burden of moral responsibility, reflected in the line, “I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world.” But the song more than anything is about our desire to feel like others feel, to transcend ourselves and know that others share our experiences, with Doug Yule singing, “I’d like to know completely, what others so discreetly talk about”. Aldous Huxley wrote in The Doors of Perception, that “every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude” and that ultimately is the anguish at the heart of Candy Says – as Yule sings through the character of Candy, “What do you think I’d see, if I could walk away from me?”
Bruce Springsteen once described the snare drum at the beginning of Like a Rolling Stone as “like someone kicking open the door to your mind”. A similar thing could be said for the synthesiser at the beginning of Everything in Its Right Place. The follow-up to possibly the most critically acclaimed rock album of the previous decade instantly signals its intent to be nothing like what it was expected to be, as beds of synths and disembodied vocal snippets build to a deafening crescendo, before releasing in a moment of devastating clarity. It’s been said countless times how bold it was for Radiohead to make an album of experimental ambient-influenced electronica after the mainstream success of OK Computer, but Everything in Its Right Place shows that they didn’t lose any of their melodic sensibilities or their knack for building a mood when they made the decision to (temporarily) ditch the guitars.
Probably the most accessible song, both lyrically and melodically, on Neutral Milk Hotel’s heralded second album, King of Carrot Flowers is basically a story of two young friends finding escape from their dysfunctional family lives in their love for each other. The vaguely disturbing images of a violent, loveless marriage painted in lines like “Your mum would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder” and “Dad would dream of all the different ways to die” only serve to further pronounce the beauty in the innocent, adolescent love shared by the two teenagers, with Jeff Mangum singing “This is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you, and from above you how I sank into your soul”. It is, more than anything, an ode to the innocence of youth, and the consistency of tone as Mangum moves seamlessly between those sweet, childlike images and the darker descriptions of a mother who “drinks until she [is] no longer speaking” creates an eerily beautiful feeling over the gorgeous guitar and organ backing track.
The slowly-fading in beat at the beginning of Five Years is surely one of the most iconic beginnings to an album ever recorded. From the moment that huge piano chord comes in, and Bowie starts singing, the song is pure melodrama, as wonderfully ludicrous and ludicrously wonderful as any track on the seminal album. The imagery that Bowie paints of a world doomed to destruction is so vivid it’s almost cinematic, with lines like, “A soldier with a broken arm, fixed his stare to the wheels of a Cadillac” weaving a rich tapestry over the rising pianos and guitars. However, what always stands out for me over anything else is Bowie’s delivery, with his tone becoming more anguished and more impassioned as the song progresses, culminating in the despairing screams of “Five Years!” in the song’s final minute.
Very few bands have such a well-defined and distinct sound on their debut album, and xx’s opening track serves as a perfect crystallisation (sorry, couldn’t resist) of that sound. Intro sets the tone for the record, building the intimate mood and airy atmosphere that remain over the course of the album. There’s nothing more than a simple guitar line, a drum machine, and some wordless backing vocals, but the song is beautiful in its minimalism, and it was the perfect way to introduce one of the most important and best-loved bands of our generation.
The sunny, psychedelic pop of Andorra is a million miles away from the off-kilter electronica of last year’s Our Love, but then Dan Snaith has never been one to stick with one sound for too long. Melody Day remains one of the best and most underrated songs he’s ever written and it’s a clear standout on the album. There are some signature Caribou touches on it, like the wailing flute in the chorus, and the instrumentation is as rich as on any of his songs. The chorus is brilliantly euphoric, with Snaith singing “Bejae” (apparently the name of a girl with whom he was infatuated at school) over a cacophony of clattering percussion and guitars.
Wayne Coyne’s voice and lyrics have an incredibly innocent, almost naïve, feel to them, even if the actual content can sometimes be somewhat darker than it first appears (The Soft Bulletin speaks pretty eloquently about the death of Coyne’s father). Race for the Prize is ostensibly a tribute to the scientists who sacrifice their lives attempting to cure serious human diseases, but more broadly it’s about extraordinary will and achievement from ordinary people – “they’re just humans with wives and children”. The Flaming Lips can be hard work at times, but this is easily one of their most accessible and immediate songs. At the centre of the song is the dreamy melody in the chorus, played on slightly detuned strings and accompanied by drums turned up unusually high in the mix. It’s a wonderful introduction to one of the finest alternative albums of its time.
Four Tet is at his best when he’s making beautiful music – 2003’s Rounds remains one of the best albums of the last fifteen years, and Angel Echoes has much in common with the idyllic sound of that album, even if it does veer away from its jazz and hip-hop influences and closer towards electronica. The cut-up vocal samples are wonderfully ethereal, interplaying beautifully with each other and creating a blissful, euphoric centrepiece, around which synths, bells and little clicks and stutters fade in and out.
On their first two albums, Roxy Music made some of the most thrillingly original music of the 1970s, and the first track on their self-titled debut is one of their best, bursting with energy, and showcasing Bryan Ferry’s fantastically strange and unique voice. Re-Make/Re-Model is Roxy Music at their best, occupying a perfect middle-ground between Ferry’s melodic and pop sensibilities and Brian Eno’s tendency towards the experimental. Undoubtedly the highlight of the song is the stretch towards the end where they riff for several bars, allowing breaks for each different instrument to solo. There are few songs that are quite such fun to play at unreasonable volume.
Lovely Head may just be the greatest Bond song that never was. The track has featured in various films and TV programmes, including the critically panned Guy Ritchie film Swept Away, but it sounds like it was just made to play in the opening credits of a Bond film. The song manages to sound both retro and futuristic at the same time, combining the sultry, seductive feel of late-night soul with an outrageous, other-worldly synthesiser to create a mood not dissimilar to that of Air’s Moon Safari.
LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean (This Is Happening)
Trentemoller – Take Me into Your Skin (The Last Resort)
Radiohead – 15 Steps (In Rainbows)
Bjork – Human Behaviour (Debut)
The Strokes – Is This It? (Is This It?)
Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Day (Wakin on a Pretty Daze)
Bob Dylan – Tangled Up in Blue (Blood on the Tracks)
Daft Punk – One More Time (Discovery)
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Into My Arms (The Boatman’s Call)
Pantha Du Prince – Lay in a Shimmer (Black Noise)