Classic Openers & Closers

Not all classic albums have classic opening tracks. Very good openers, sure, but not genuinely arresting, heart-stopping brilliant ones. The same is true – truer, even – for final songs. And then there are those strange few classics that have bad last songs.

Why is this? Well, part of what makes a record a classic is its overall shape: the play of one song into another, how a low-key opener explodes into an incredible second song, or how a tumultuous album goes out on a calm, understated note.

An opening or closing song might absolutely do its job but not be, outside the context of the album, a classic. Any rap record that begins or ends on a skit or audio collage (I immediately thought of Illmatic, but insert your own favourite) would, I suppose, be an example of this phenomenon. Or records where the opener or closer is very good, but just not quite stone-cold brilliant: hi there, Second Hand News (Rumours) and Something in the Way (Nevermind).

Or perhaps the artist just didn’t quite sustain their brilliance all the way through to the final track, like Joni Mitchell, who frequently ended her records on a ponderous note*, or Judee Sill, whose debut album is still the best record of all time (yes, it is) even though her usual lightness of touch deserted her on closing track Abracadabra. Or maybe the artist wilfully chose bizarre final songs, like the Byrds so often did.

Perhaps a classic album begins or ends on a track that loads of people think is classic, but actually is really overrated (You Can’t Always Get What You Want from the Stones’ Let it Bleed is my choice, but as I’ve said before, I feel the same about Taxman and the title track from Sgt Pepper as openers).

So, here’s my highly personal, completely-off-the-top-of-my-head, not-entirely-serious, definite-not-exhaustive list of classic (or semi classic) records with amazing opening and closing tracks. As I think of more, I’ll add them.

  • Pet Sounds – Beach Boys (Wouldn’t it Be Nice; Caroline, No)
  • Liege & Lief – Fairport Convention (Matty Groves; Crazy Man Michael)
  • Time (The Revelator) – Gillian Welch (Revelator; I Dream a Highway)
  • One World – John Martyn (Dealer; Small Hours)
  • Red – King Crimson (Red; Starless)
  • IV – Led Zeppelin (Black Dog; When the Levee Breaks)
  • What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (What’s Going On; Inner City Blues)
  • Dirt – Alice in Chains (Them Bones; Would?)
  • The Boatman’s Call – Nick Cave (Into My Arms; Far From Me)
  • Small Change – Tom Waits (Tom Traubert’s Blues; I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work)
  • Dust – Screaming Trees (Halo of Ashes; Gospel Plow)
  • Happy Sad – Tim Buckley (Strange Feelin’; Sing a Song For You)
  • The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest (Excursions; Scenario)
  • Loveless – My Bloody Valentine (Only Shallow; Soon)
  • A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night; I’ll Be Back)
  • Please Please Me – The Beatles (I Saw Here Standing There; Twist & Shout)
  • Talking Book – Stevie Wonder (You Are the Sunshine of My Life; I Believe (When I Fall in Love it Will Be Forever))
  • The Band – The Band (Across the Great Divide; King Harvest Has Surely Come)
  • Music from Big Pink – The Band (Tears of Rage; I Shall be Released)
  • Inside Out – John Martyn (Fine Lines; So Much in Love With You)
  • Bert Jansch – Bert Jansch (Strolling Down the Highway; Angie)
  • Bringing it all Back Home – Bob Dylan (Subterranean Homesick Blues; It Ain’t Me Babe)
  • Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (Like a Rolling Stone; Desolation Row)
  • Younger than Yesterday – The Byrds (So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star; My Back Pages)
  • Songs for Swingin’ Lovers – Frank Sinatra (You Make Me Feel So Young; How About You?)
  • Workingman’s Dead – The Grateful Dead (Uncle John’s Band; Casey Jones)
  • Sail Away – Randy Newman (Sail Away; God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind))
  • Never for Ever – Kate Bush (Babooshka; Breathing)
  • Melt – Peter Gabriel (Intruder; Biko)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water – Simon & Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water; Song for the Asking)
  • There Goes Rhymin’ Simon – Paul Simon (Kodachrome; Loves Me Like a Rock)
  • Gaucho – Steely Dan (Babylon Sisters; Third World Man)
  • Forever Changes – Love (Alone Again Or; You Set the Scene)
  • Nat King Cole Sings/George Shearing Plays – Nat King Cole & George Shearing (September Song; Don’t Go)
  • Everybody Knows this is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazy Horse (Cinnamon Girl; Cowgirl in the Sand)
  • Harvest – Neil Young (Out on the Weekend; Words (Between the Lines of Age))
  • MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana (About a Girl; Where Did You Sleep Last Night)
  • Doolittle – Pixies (Debaser; Gouge Away)
  • Murmur – REM (Radio Free Europe; West of the Fields)
  • OK Computer – Radiohead (Airbag; The Tourist)
  • Scott 3 – Scott Walker (It’s Raining Today; If You Go Away)
  • Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga – Spoon (Don’t Make Me a Target; Black Like Me)
  • Veedon Fleece – Van Morrison (Fair Play; Country Fair)
  • There’s a Riot Goin’ On – Sly & the Family Stone (Luv & Haight; Thank You for Talking to Me Africa)

5 thoughts on “Classic Openers & Closers

  1. Derek

    So the list is good openers but bad closers? Or a bad opener but a classic closer?

    I haven’t heard every album on your list but, to me, many of those are both a good opener and a good closer.

    Reply
  2. Frank Hudson

    Arbitrary and subjective like all lists, but knowing most of these, I agreed with your list; and also your Taxman and Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club band examples of being just a cut below brilliant (or at least they seem so to me most of the time I listen to them.)

    In a related things: I’ve enjoyed mixtapes and albums that follow what I always thought of the the “Eno sequence” where the opener grabs you by the throat and then by the end of side 2 you’re drifting off into some equitable and calm place.

    Reply

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