This post focuses on ideas for choosing the track order of an album.
You’ve completed your songs, all the details are done, the mixes are smashing, and you’re ready for mastering. But wait… we need to arrange these things somehow! An often overlooked and often very arbitrary step in the production process, track order can literally make or break a release. Countless albums simply run out of steam by having either too little variety or too many of the strongest tracks in the first half of the album. It’s very important to have a good variety of moods, keys, and tempos throughout. I’m going to organize this post by philosophy and general practices.
Things to Consider for the First Track
The first track is a proposition. If you’re at all planning on shopping your album around to labels or radio, make sure you choose a track that a) is upbeat b) is one of your stronger offerings and c) gets to the hook quickly. Many A&R reps will give an album 30 seconds to grab their attention. I’m willing to admit that my first release, Sonoluminescence, broke this rule by having a minute long intro. Generally this means that you should open it up with a chorus or prechorus – whatever section of the song contains the hook. If you’re not really a ‘hook’ kind of songwriter, this is the time to be one for a moment. Having an upbeat song in the first position will help push listeners to listen to the next track. Once that hurdle has been overcome it’s far easier to keep a listener’s attention until about half-way through (if we’re talking about an average length LP).
…the Second Track
While not a hard rule, it is, in my opinion, a good idea to have the second track be around the same tempo as the first. This consistency helps affirm to the listener that the album is underway and that there is plenty of time for things to evolve. It will make a mood shift later seem more dramatic and dynamic.
…the Third Track
I have noticed that a fair number of albums have their hit song in the third position. Just an observation. Examples: Counting Crow’s – Mr. Jones, Simon and Garfunkel – Cecilia, U2 – One, Bowie – Heroes.
Choosing the Order Based on Key
I have heard of folks choosing the order of songs based on their key. If the album, overall, is an upbeat album, it might make sense to order the album loosely from low to high as to create a rising feeling.
Alternatively, if the album is somewhat darker, going the opposite direction may be interesting to create a feeling of ‘going down’ into the album.
Choosing the Order Based on Tempo
This is probably the most common and first inclination of people. Alternating between fast and slow songs or choosing songs that have similar start and end tempos is an obvious choice for creating variety or enabling continuity. Ordering an entire album from slow to fast or fast to slow generally doesn’t work very well unless the intent of the album is to affect the listener explicitly in that way.
Choosing the Order Based on Sound
Many famous albums use sounds to create seamless compositions from track to track. While this isn’t appropriate for every album, it works very effectively for ‘epic’ sounding albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Boards of Canada’s Geogaddi or Banco de Gaia’s You are Here. If your goal is to impart a theme or tell a linear story, this may be a good choice. Ways to accomplish this without creating actual musical segues is to add a reverb tail or delay to an element of the previous song that will carry through to the end of the song. One thing to consider when choosing this method is that many devices such as iPods do not have true gapless playback and will introduce a skip in the music as it transitions songs. Also, more and more folks play their music on computers with ‘shuffle’, producing awkward transitions in their listening experience. It may be smart to create radio mixes that end definitively to make DJ’s jobs easier.
Ordering the Tracks Based on Mood
I’ve already mentioned that it’s best to lead an album with an upbeat track. The best place to add slower, mellower material is in the very middle and very end. The last song should leave an impression, either comforting or energizing and using a second round of upbeat songs to boost the energy right after the halfway point will keep listeners from hitting ‘stop’ out of boredom.
Sometimes when producers don’t know what to do in between songs, they’ll put in vignettes (little mini-songs or skits between songs). This can work really well, as in Boards of Canada’s gurgling synth skits, or really poorly as in Queens of the Stoneage’s Songs for the Deaf’s radio DJ yammerings. Use this technique sparingly and carefully.
A Few More Tips
Leave some of your best material for the end! You don’t want the album being lopsided. Create emotional peaks. Treating an album like a story is smart. Emotional material works well about 2/3 of the way through to give the album a satisfying sense of development and, then, resolution.
I hope these ideas help you create a satisfying listening experience through excellence in track order. When I finally finished my debut album, I freaked out because I had no idea how to order my tracks. But then I made a list much like this one. Considering the track ordering as another tool in your palette makes the process seem less arbitrary or intimidating.
On the other hand – bands are notorious for arguing about track order. If you’re working with a band… good luck!