First impressions have always been important in pop music, but in an era where bands seems to outnumber people, it's become our primary currency. In three minutes you can go from reading about a band, to typing their name in Spotify, and writing them off permanently. These are strange times, a utopia gone wrong, and it doesn't seem to be slowing down. Pray for the thinning moments of contemplation for our future generations.
But that doesn't have to be a death knell, at least not all the time. An album's killer first impression can serve as some of the most memorable experiences of music listening, a flashpoint realization that the reason you claw through all the middling vibes is to stumble on sublimity. With that in mind, we've collected a few of our favorite one-two punches, when a record turns its track one track two sequence into a clarion call.8. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - "Lisztomania" into "1901"
The music industry is often too complex to make definitive, metaphysical statements, but the meteoric rise of a certain French rock band in the dying embers of the 21st century's first decade can be entirely chalked up to seven minutes, and 15 seconds. "Lisztomania," whimsical in its skybound synths, and then "1901," an accidental movie-trailer anthem that captured sunbeam romance so efficiently it still doesn't feel like cliché. There's audacity in putting the two best songs you've ever written back to back at the front of the album, knowing full well that the rest of Amadeus Phoenix would begin to decay as soon as "1901" careened off into the ether. But I like to think Phoenix saw this as an opportunity to make a first impression that could sustain an entire career. When you know you've struck greatness, modesty only gets in the way.
How do you follow a song called "The Ruler's Back?" What more is there to say after you've so clearly won? It isn't Jay-Z's best song, it's not even in the top five, but in terms of introducing an album? In summing up the entire flossy, self-promoting ethos of The Blueprint? Nothing could ever come close. It takes approximately one and a half freewheeling verses to ball up that old can't-tell-me-nothing adage and throw it in the world's face. "The Ruler's Back" bleeds into "The Takeover," perhaps the most flat-out disrespectful songs in the entire catalog of pop music. Jay-Z is a smart man, he keeps the elegance behind the venom, the bongos behind the Jim Morrison snarl, the "don't only talk it, walk like it - from the bricks to the booth," behind the "you little fuck I got money stacks bigger than you." As Jay-Z reclines into his Shawn Carter era, we should be keen to remember that in 2001, his legend walked among us.6. Justice - Cross - "Genesis" into "Let There Be Light"
I don't know what tipped us off that Justice had a flair for the dramatic. Maybe it was the Daft Punk association, or that giant glow-in-the-dark cross on the album sleeve and live shows. But mostly, it was probably that "Genesis" was the Star Wars imperial march named after a creation myth. Crafting music out of laser fights, space junk, drills, a faint whiff of a keyboard, and just as you think the insanity is going to let up, in struts "Let There Be Light" with potency real enough that the deified namesake actually feels like a legitimate claim. The Christians might call it sacrilege, the public might yawn at its confrontational pomp, but Justice shoved you into their world, where the Gods are only four on the floor away.5. Pavement - Brighten the Corners - "Stereo" into "Shady Lane"
It's hard to think of a group of people that wanted to be in a band less than Pavement throughout the late '90s, so it is surprising that one of their encompassing statements of vision came with Brighten the Corners, just a couple years before their ugly implosion. Maybe it's the weed, or the fact that Stephen Malkmus took on the brunt of the songwriting, but if you wanted to define Pavement, you'd probably play the first two songs from Brighten the Corners. There's "Stereo," the goofy, Geddy Lee-referencing stomper that packed enough of a feedback punch to bust its way into FM rock radio. Then "Shady Lane" in all its languid introspection, the watery guitars and out-of-range falsetto that Malkmus always made affectionate. Pavement were either saying too much or trying to not say too much, it's what's made the whole generation empathetic.4. Rhye - Woman - "Open" into "The Fall"
I don't remember the other eight songs on that Rhye record. I'm not saying they're bad either, but when you've latched onto the internet under the power of two incredibly strong pre-release singles, sometimes that's where the memories remain. Soft-focus, probably computer-generated strings and coos, a rollicking creamy-white piano, and the adult-contemporary revival was on in full force. I like this one-two-punch because it teases. "Open" passes by and you think "is this all about sex?" And then comes "The Fall," and you say "yeah, okay, this is all about sex."3. Led Zeppelin - IV - "Black Dog" into "Rock And Roll"
It's impossible to write intelligently about "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" because "Black Dog" and "Rock and Roll" are the quintessential songs not to write intelligently about. That isn't even all Zeppelin's fault, sure they're responsible for the very principles and practices of "rocking out," and I'm pretty confident a version of IV is encoded into the Ten Commandments, but the strident holiness of these songs come from your Wayne's Worlds and Almost Famouses. Those movies weren't wrong, not at all, "Black Dog" is so powerful, so emotionally validating that it actually feels like you're the one playing the guitar. Don't tell me you've never had a moment like that. In fact, it's impossible to imagine a better song than "Black Dog" right up to the moment you start hearing the opening cymbal rush of "Rock and Roll." So if all the piousness makes you tired, it's good to remember the source material you're dealing with.2. The xx - xx - "Intro" into "VCR"
I tried to avoid putting any songs called "Intro" on this list, because frankly, that feels like cheating. When you're writing a song specifically to introduce the elements and tones your listener will be bathed with over the next 45 minutes it's more a work of marketing than musicianship. But The xx's "Intro" has begun to take on a life of its own. I hear it every day foregrounding the AM sports radio chatter, these pallid English skulk-rockers sitting nicely right across from Sam Bradford's ruptured ACL. Mostly, "Intro" just feels like a real song. It's something The xx still use to open shows, and how dissolves into the absolute silence of the stalactite "VCR?" That's what music is supposed to feel like.1. The Cure - Disintegration - "Plainsong" into "Pictures of You"
I wasn't around in 1989 to properly witness Disintegration, but I often wonder what it must've felt like.
Here was a man in Robert Smith in the harrowing depths of a musical identity crisis, with labels and commerce breathing down his next. He responds with one of the biggest-sounding albums of all time, fronted by "Plainsong," a mystic, polychromatic grown-up that dwarfed everything that came before it by pure scope. Then, "Pictures of You," one of Smith's trademark pining love songs blown up into a 7-minute titan, something that feels more cosmically melodramatic than every whiny broken heart combined. It's been said that Disintegration was The Cure's effort to create something with lasting resonance, something that will forever stand the test of time. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but from its first moments it's clear you're listening to a band trying their hardest to cement their legacy.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!