Album sequencing: where would you put your hit song, and why?

You’re a a musician with a record deal. You’ve just finished work on your most recent LP, and all that remains is to sequence the songs. You think it’s an all-around strong album, but there’s one song that you think clearly stands out as superb. Your producer and the people at the record company all agree, as well: everyone thinks this song is going to be a hit.

So, all things being equal, where on the album would you like the song to land? Why?

Personally I’d like to put it second. The first track is reserved for a tone-setter, and I do want it somewhere up front because people don’t always listen through to latter part of an album (I imagine this will be the most common reason for putting it up front). Mostly, I don’t know, the 2nd track just feels like the money track.

In the book world, anthologies normally put their best stories as the first one in the book and the last. Mickey Spillane once said something like, “the first chapter gets them to buy this book and the last chapter gets them to buy my next book.”

People have the ability to sample a zillion things. If they aren’t grabbed by the first piece of it to hit their eyes (or ears) they can go on to something else. Putting your best track anywhere but first loses you a percentage of your potential audience, maybe a critical percentage. The only possible exception is when the track is an obvious ending. The best example is Sgt. Pepper’s, where the title track has the be first and “A Day in the Life” has to be last.

I voted for the middle (#5-8).

If the song is first, there’s little incentive to listen to the rest of the album after you hear the first song.

If the song is second, ditto.

Also, if this is a big hit and gets radio airplay, etc. people are going to get sick of it, and not want to even put the album in the CD player. I mean, why bother when it’s prolly playing on a radio station or video channel or something anyway?

But when you put a song behind 6 or 7 other songs, a listener has a chance to get to know stuff that isn’t on the radio, all while building anticipation for the song that got them to buy the album in the first place.

Putting your hit song last on the album, tho, is taking that idea too far, and can sometimes be seen as a snub to fans.

The his songs become hits independently of the albums, so that’s not a factor. It makes sense to have strong opening and closing songs, but that doesn’t mean they will (or have to) become hits.

Revolver, for instance, starts out with “Taxman” and ends with “Tomorrow Never Knows”; the hits from it are “Eleanor Rigby” (Song #2) and “Yellow Submarine” (#6). Rubber Soul starts out with “Drive My Car” and ends with “Run for Your Life”; hits were “Norwegian Wood” (#2) and “Michelle” (#7). Abbey Road started out with the hit “Come Together,” but ended with the definite non-hit of “Her Majesty.”

The Beatles, of course, could do what they pleased, but the Kink’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround had the big hit (probably the group’s biggest) and title tune as #6. Creedence’s biggest hit, “Down on the Bayou,” was the sixth song on the album.

So, while I would try to have a strong song at the start and finish, the hit single really can come from anywhere on the album – and it wouldn’t be my decision anyway.

In my experience, my favorite songs on albums are usually #1, #3, or #7. I voted for #3. I probably like a great album opener better than anything else, but I would put my second best song there. The hit I’d like at #3. The third best song, somewhere in #6-#8.

It would totally depend on the flow of the album, but I’d be inclined to make it either first, second or last. I agree that the first song should set the tone of the album; if the hit song does that, first it’ll go, but if not probably second. I could also see closing the album with the hit song. If it fit the flow, it would be cool to end the album with a real bang.

Completely depends on what the hit sounded like.

Let’s say for the purposes of this exercise that I’m a pop singer and the hit is uptempo, I would put it second on the tracklisting, and put the second single (which would coincide with the album’s release and also be uptempo) first. That way when someone looks at the tracklisting they see a brand new single that they may have heard a few times followed immediately by a big hit that they know well, and “bam”, straight away: two reasons to be interested.

There are so many other situations in which that strategy might not work though:

  • concept album
  • the hit is a sad ballad and the rest of the songs are uptempo
  • the genre isn’t pop
  • the hit is unrepresentative of the rest of the album
  • the album and first single are released at the same time

Aaaand so on.

Assuming it’s coming out on vinyl, third track of side one, or the first track of side two. I don’t want it at the start, and the ends of sides don’t sound as good. I wonder if on the records RealityChuck mentions, tracks 6 and 7 are the first tracks of side two.

Third. Fastball first, curveball second, money shot third.

I chose the conventional answer, which would be first.

You want to put your best known song in the most prominent position. After all, it’s what people come for, so you don’t want to be messing them around. After you’ve scratched their itch, they might be in a mood to give the rest of your album a listen.

Also, the song chosen for a single tends to be singled out for special attention in the studio, so it’s quite likely to sound different – more polished and slicker – so its probably the best candidate for making a good first impression.

The second most prominent position on your album is the last song, which will be the last thing your audience hears, and so, the thing that is fresh in their minds as they put the CD away in its jeweled case and go about their business (assuming they made it all the way through). For this, I’d use the same song I’d use to close out the live set; i.e. the most energetic kick-ass song you have. You want to go out with a bang not a whimper.

I think it would be better to describe “that” song as the single rather than the hit. Because you never quite know what’s going to catch the public’s imagination.

But there’ll be a guy in a suit from the record company with very firm ideas about which song he wants to release as a single (and consequently, which song’s going to attract the record company’s marketing dollars, and therefore becomes the song that everyone knows). This song will be chosen, not on its own merits, but by how well it conforms to the various metrics and formulas calculated by other guys in suits who do market research.

Here are some examples of the sort of things that go into these metrics:

  • Would this song appeal to a twenty-something woman stuck in traffic during the morning peak hour?

  • Does this song conform to one of the standard compositional song-structures?

  • Do the lyrics of this song make the narrator sound like a creep or a loser?

  • Is this song in the style of something that’s already a hit?

In short, it has nothing to do with artistic integrity and everything to do with lowest-common-denominator appeal. And the A&R guy who’s job it is to decide has no job security of any kind at all, so he will never take a risk on anything ever. He’s going to stick to the metrics and formulas religiously, so he can blame poor market research for his failures.

Record companies like to blame piracy for the decline in music sales, but I think this kind of stuff is much more to blame.

I love the fact that you and **pulykamell **both arrived at #3, which is what I voted for before I read the thread (to avoid biasing my going-in position). And yeah, I found that my mindset drifted to a baseball line-up as well, with a key notable exception…

  • Track 1: that’s your set-the-table song; either a catchy piece of pop like Drive My Car or song you KNOW will rock the house as your intro number at a gig, like Hit the Lights off Metallica’s Kill 'em All or AC/DC’s Hells Bells

  • Track 2: that’s your mix-it-up-while-maintaining-momentum song - for some reason Father Figure off Faith comes to mind, or Eleanor Rigby.

  • Track 3: that’s your hit single - boom, pow - you win.

The remaining tracks can be follow-on singles or deeper cuts, with the last track being the place you park your Big Statement if you have one to make, a la Bohemian Rhapsody or Tomorrow Never Knows - and why Kashmir wasn’t the last track on Physicial Graffiti I will never know…

I’m old-fashioned - I listen to albums from the beginning to the end, and for that reason, I’d put the ‘hit single’ where it fits in terms of the the overall flow.

That’s what I would do. A buddy of mine who works both in TV editing and music said you also want to avoid putting two songs back to back that are in the same key, because it can make an album seem boring. I personally have no idea what he’s talking about, but I’ve never really noticed what’s in what key.

I’ve noticed a pattern that the hit songs are usually #1 and #8.

Funny thing is, we didn’t do it on the Yell Co.'s first record. We didn’t agree on what the theoretical “single” was, and mostly just ordered them just to keep like-sounding songs apart, etc. Maybe the 2nd one will be different.

Third. But the second best song has to be last. I love it when albums have awesome last tracks.

Was that their follow-up to “Born on the Corner”?

It kind of depends why it is the hit. If it is because it is lighter, poppier and generally more commercial than the other, more serious stuff on the album, probably first. If it is truly the best and deepest song, then last (other things being equal). (I voted for last.)

Of course, these days people choose their own order anyway.