One important decision artists and producers have to make when recording a new album is the order of the songs on the record, or what is know as “sequencing.” Even as a huge music nut, a class I count myself among, you may not spend a whole lot of time thinking about album sequencing, but it is absolutely crucial to the sound and feel of an album as a whole. I’ve had passionate arguments with friends of mine about the order of a tracklist on an album or the placement of a particular song or two, and truth be told, sometimes fans think the order of the songs can really make or break an album.
But even if the situation is less extreme, at the very least the sequence of songs is going to sometimes radically alter your experience of an album. Just imagine, for example, how different Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would feel if it began with the upbeat, sleazy funk tune “Money” rather than the slightly disturbing, crawling, melancholy “Speak To Me / Breathe.” Or, in the case of Joe Bonamassa: what if he had chosen to begin Different Shades of Blue with the R&B inflected, piano soaked ballad “So, What Would I Do” and concluded the work with the rollicking, groove heavy rocker “Love Ain’t A Love Song?” We’ve only shifted two songs and yet the album would have a completely different feel to it. If we went further and completely randomized the tracklist so that it was thoroughly different from the way it ended up on the album, it would be as if we were almost listening to a wholly different record.
In the era of iTunes shuffle, album sequencing may really seem like an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be. True, with the touch of a button we play albums in a completely different order than the artist intended, if we even listen to it as an album at all. We may not even be able to recall what the album actually sounds like when played in the song sequence listed on the back of the jacket. But this can seriously impact the aesthetic experience of an album and may contradict an artists’s intentions. As Joe says in a recent interview with Digital Trends, “I tell people, “Look, do me a favor, listen to it in the order it’s intended.” It’s very easy to import an album into a computer and make it any order you want, and just mix and match records. Sequencing is a lost art.” I really appreciate the fact that Joe puts thought into the album sequencing, because it demonstrates to me that he takes the album format seriously as a medium and even more importantly, shows how much he really cares about the music he’s producing.
On the other hand, album sequencing can sometimes be less about artistic intuition and more about sales maximization, as Billboard accurately details in an article from a few years back. Quoting Glassnote founder and president Daniel Glass, Billboard explains, “Glass agrees that it pays to place a hit or potential single early on an album, a practice that, he says, has roots in in-store play (i.e., better to nudge shoppers toward the counter as quickly as possible). ‘In general, we advise our bands not to bury their singles and most commercial tracks toward the end of an album,’ he says. ‘I heard Paul Simon speak once to audience of producers and songwriters. He said, ‘Start out with your hit’,” Glass remembers. ‘In other words, don’t be too smart for the room. Captivate people quickly. Then, they can dive into the rest of the record and find out more nuances and subtleties as they go.'”
The Billboard article further notes, however, that this may be more crucial for up-and-coming artists trying to get their music to catch on with potential fans than for an established artist. The latter has a built in fanbase who may be more willing to take a journey with a familiar, beloved band even if the record begins with more subtle, moody music that isn’t instantly commerical.
The less established musician will have to decide for herself which concern should remain paramount when it comes to album sequencing – artistic impulse or audience creation. On the one hand, an artist needs their music to be heard in order to keep doing what they love to do, making music. On the other hand, it would be a true shame if the next Dark Side of the Moon had it’s artistic flow ruined because an artist was more concerned about getting a single more plays on streaming platforms than they were about making their mark with a potential modern masterpiece.
– Brian R.