Hey, remember the LP?
For the benefit of the youngsters, I should explain that this was back in the days when Casey was but a wee sprat. Back then, music was sold on large, flat disks made of vinyl about the size of a medium pizza. The music was recorded on both sides of the disk, so halfway through the album (that’s what we called them), you had to flip it over. The machine to play it, called a “record player”, wasn’t programmable, so the artist (or the artist’s recording label) chose the order of the tracks. That’s right, the artist not only recorded the music, but also built the playlist. Primitive, huh?
(Before the LP album, by the way, there were a variety of formats for recorded music. Most of them were limited to just a few minutes–essentially, one track, or in some cases, one track per side. “LP” stood for “Long Playing”: the very name of the format emphasized that it gave you more music than previous formats.)
A little later, technological improvement brought us the CD. That gave about the same amount of music as an LP, but the physical size of the disc decreased. From the size of a medium pizza, it dropped to that of a personal pizza at a really cheap pizza joint. Better still, you no longer had to flip the disc over halfway through! Best yet, the players were programmable. The artist still established the default playlist, but the listener was able to change it. The technology was fairly primitive: few players would remember the selected order from one session to the next, and even setting it up required a lot of button pushing, but it could be done.
Today, of course, we have streaming services and portable audio players that allow the listener to freely set the playlist, remember it from session to session, and online sellers that sell single tracks: it’s no longer necessary to buy an entire LP or CD with maybe a dozen tracks if you only want a few of them.
Back in the days of the LP, the order of tracks was critically important: the artist not only needed to grab the listener’s attention, but keep it strongly enough to ensure they flipped the disk over and listened to the second side–and don’t forget the need to leave the listener with a good impression so he or she would buy the next album as well. An art arose: the art of ordering the tracks. When the CD came along, everyone thought the art would get easier. Without the need to keep the listener’s attention through the disk flip, you could concentrate on the beginning and end of the album. Turned out it wasn’t that simple. About halfway through the disk, the listener’s attention would start to flag. They would get distracted and go do something else, or worse yet, eject the CD and listen to someone else’s music!
So track order remained as much of an art as ever. Is it still important today? Apparently so. Billboard has some fairly strong evidence that the order of tracks on the CD affects the relative popularity of the tracks on streaming services: essentially, listeners are still getting early exposure to new music via CD, and if they never get to a track on the CD, they’re not going to stream it either.
As I’ve said, track order is an art, not a science, but there are a few rules that are generally accepted:
1. The first track should be the one you consider the second-strongest, but it must be catchy, to immediately engage the listener.
2. The strongest track should be placed last on the first side of an LP, but for a CD it should come somewhat sooner: third or fourth on the disc.
3. The last track must “grab” the listener in some way: upbeat tempo, strongly memorable melody or lyrics, or an emotional peak.
After that, there are more arguments than agreements. Some artists favor a smooth flow from one track to the next (harmonious keys, similar tempos, etc.) while others insist on contrast (“Unless your name is Frank Sinatra, you don’t want three ballads in a row.”) to repeatedly grab the listenere’s attention.
Some artists recommend following a “story arc”, with an early emotional climax, then easing off, before building to a even bigger climax. In contrast, others follow strict rules of based on more-or-less quantifiable characteristics (tempo, key, and mood are most commonly cited.)
So there you go. Any albums you can think of that succeed despite violating the common rules? Any applicability for your personal playlists?