Regardless of whether you think too much has been made of first impressions, it is an incontrovertible truth that you only get one shot at them. The needle hits the groove, and following the great cackle and hiss of anticipation that emanates from the vinyl, like an orchestra’s last fine tunings before the wall of sound that follows, the opening track is the gunshot that starts the race.
If listening to an album all the way through is a shortcut to shelter from the real world, then the opener offers the view from a window into the realm of sonic sanctity that awaits beyond. Whether it’s the album whispering the comforting mantra of relaxing into my arms or an adrenalised thundering intro that puts the war pigs of this world on instant notice when an album gets its handshake sorted it can have you chanting Gloria to the heavens in an instant.
Even in the modern age when a shuffle button is only a click away, the beguiling wonder of certain first songs seems to croon out let’s stay together for a while and freewheel through the rest of the album like a rolling stone high on the euphoric boon of a great record.
Whether it’s unwinding on a Sunday morning and regaling in the majesty of an otherworldly concept for the thousandth time in a five year period or eviscerating the Monday to Friday woes of asking “is this it?” in a boon of searing energy that surges you into the weekend like a bridge over troubled water, an album is a magnificent thing to behold. The opening track is a come-hither beckon that calls for unity like a chant of “come together” and with the right opening note it can have you chanting “this’ll be the day that I die” in no time.
Below, we’re diving into 15 of the greatest opening tracks of all time. And what’s more, we’ve wrapped them up in a playlist to boot.
The 15 greatest album openers of all time:
‘Gloria: In Excelsis Deo’ by Patti Smith from Horses
Patti Smith lent such a nurturing hand to punk that when the scraggly craze was christened, she was the Godmother present on the altar. She imbued the new art form with a profundity that, if anything, only sharpened its youthful visceral edge. This is a profundity that has remained throughout her career.
The opening stanza to her memoir concludes, “Men cannot judge it, for art sings of God and ultimately belongs to him,” and the first lyric she ever put forward to the world in the opening rap to her 1975 debut album, Horses, was “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” In this singular instant, she not only introduced herself to the world as a sui generis talent impossible to ignore but emboldened punk as a monolith of the zeitgeist.
‘The View From The Afternoon’ by Arctic Monkeys from Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
Speaking of first albums, first tracks, first lines, Arctic Monkeys put the indie world on hold with a blitzkrieg of pounding drums and attitude-laden guitars followed by the iconic utterance of: “Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment.”
It is an ingenious meta piece of lyricism that enshrined the Monkey’s introspective announcement of “don’t believe the hype” with a wall of intent. In short, here was a band who weren’t interested in hype, backlash or anything else that comes along with rock ‘n’ roll iconography, but they were a band about to cause a shake-up. Not a single second of disappointment followed; in fact, there was nothing but love and the occasional ruckus.
‘Into My Arms’ by Nick Cave from The Boatman’s Call
As though lassoed from the firmament of gilded lyrics, Nick Cave boldly begins The Boatman’s Call with: “I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but I know darling that you do.” If I were God, I wouldn’t have the heart to reveal myself after a first-line like that. I would lovingly stay well away to protect man’s humble, heartfelt demurring from my heavy-handed, all-consuming truths.
In my infinite benevolent wisdom, I would know that intervening at this late stage in the game would do nothing other than to reveal that all the little day-to-day travesties and bullshit that is eternally endured happens for a reason. In the process, I would make redundant the hopeful boon of art that offers salvation from suffering – art like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call, which opens with a love song that says to all others that would follow: Why bother?
‘American Pie’ by Don McLean from American Pie
Certain first songs threaten to trip up the rest of the album. Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ is one of those undoubted pieces of brilliance that is recognised by everyone as a masterpiece and doesn’t suffer for the ubiquitous approval one little bit.
There aren’t many songs in existence that would happily reside in the record collections of your gran, a metal-head, a 16-year-old SoundCloud rap fanatic and the conductor of a symphony orchestras record collection, but ‘American Pie’ is one of them. Simply put, it is an opener of perfect order, that tells the musical equivalent of the great American novel.
‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green from Let’s Stay Together
Nobody sings them like Al Green, that much is certain. Music just seems to come easier to some people and Al Green seems to perform vocal acrobatics with butter-cutting ease.
With ‘Let’s Stick Together’ he welcomes you into his world with sultry brilliance. If the soul music of the era was distilled down to one track then this would be it, and far from making it derivative or on-the-nose, it is actually a filigreed work of art that you could drop a stone into and never hear it hit the bottom.
‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath from Paranoid
While some openers coax you into position, ‘War Pigs’ doesn’t have a hair-raising second to wait. It smashes the saloon doors off their hinges and starts firing shots before asking any questions.
From the rumbling bass to the rafter rattling guitar, the pounding salvo of drums and no-holds-barred vocals, this song knows what it’s about and in doing so, it fills you with reassurance that what will follow is undoubtedly going to be an album of note.
This track is the Promethean force that all genres deserve to yield when they attempt to usurp the status quo, or at least shoulder out a small place to call its own amid the mainstream.
‘Sunday Morning’ by The Velvet Underground & Nico from The Velvet Underground & Nico
Calling something “ahead of its time” is an awful cliché, but the fiddly issue with such shopworn statements is that some barge into the lexicon of the masses clutching more than a grain of truth. ‘Sunday Morning’ is so far ahead of its time that it could be released tomorrow, and the cliché would still stand up.
In fact, you can take Brian Eno’s word for it: “I was talking to Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the first Velvet Underground record sold only 30,000 copies in its first five years. Yet, that was an enormously important record for so many people. I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band! So I console myself in thinking that some things generate their rewards in second-hand ways.”
It’s high-praise without even a hint of hot air.
‘Come Together’ by The Beatles from Abbey Road
If you were to play only the first two notes of this song, most music fans would know what follows. That sort of skill takes extreme knowledge of the craft and profound individualism so that both can be distilled down to a level of accessibility and an easily recognisable sound. As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
‘Come Together’ is a track so perfectly sophisticated that I don’t even feel pretentious by quoting da Vinci to say as much. The absurdist’s lyrics that follow are a high point of many in the back catalogue of John Lennon. And the song not only sets up the album that follows but helped The Beatles shape the sound of the future once more.
‘Baba O’Riley’ by The Who from Who’s Next
‘Baba O’Riley’ is the album-opening equivalent of the captain coming over the tannoy and announcing that he will happily break the sound barrier and any other scientific limitations to have you at your destination in five minutes flat. Such is the onslaught of adrenaline that the song induces; you do very well to get to the end of the album without landing in a punch-drunk slump.
If the record represented a transition in sound for The Who, then as an opener, it could not be better. It doesn’t even offer you a chance to have your say on the matter; it leaves you sock-less, opinion-less, but awestruck amid a maelstrom of euphoric rock.
‘Like A Rolling Stone’ by Bob Dylan from Highway 61 Revisited
An article of this sort really rams home the subjectivity of music. It is a realm with few concrete truths, and anything is up for grabs in its rambling undefined discourse. However, every now and again, a song presents itself with such unflinching brilliance and mercurial bravura that every living thing under the sun just has to stand back and regard it. Dylan turned electric with a force comparable to Thomas Edison’s second coming.
Wrath and rage have rarely met with such poignancy, and by the good grace of Dylan and whatever mystic figures of folk fate were weaving his back catalogue in this period, it’s all embalmed in an adrenalised sonic fuzz that figuratively slaps anyone half-listening into captivated submission. If Dylan was the Jesus figure of the counterculture movement, then this was his moment of caustic condemnation in the temple of his own creation, and it proved one thing beyond doubt: hell hath no fury like a Dylan scorned. Imagine the balls of knowingly having to follow this and yet still managing to do so?
‘Gimme Shelter’ by The Rolling Stones from Let It Bleed
At the height of the Vietnam War, bands were scrambling to make their voices heard. While ‘Gimme Shelter’ might not be as an exacting blow as some of the other anti-war dirges that followed, it inadvertently captured the zeitgeist all the same.
The reason that this song has been used in so many movies is the same reason that it is such a great album opener. In an instant, it reaches out from its sonic world, grabs the lapels of anyone who’s listening and rattles them about like a Skoda going over a cattle grid.
‘Is This It’ by The Strokes from Is This It
The first glitching little piece of guitar work that opens this record is engrained into the aural reserves of an entire generation, even now, I can hear its rapid acquiescence to Fabrizio Moretti’s steady opening drumbeat, and the song isn’t anywhere in earshot.
This spiritual crystalising is a measure of both the album that follows and indeed its titular handshake. It is a song of such singular generational poignance that it barely seems as though it was written, more so that the universe willed it into existence… and all that from the first little piece of production wizardry that welcomes the humming coming-of-age epic that follows.
‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell from Wichita Lineman
In the fickle notion of rock ‘n’ roll ‘coolness’, Glen Campbell has lost out. Swathes of people will pour scorn on his involvement in this list simply because he never tousled his hair before performing, but Bob Dylan once described ‘Wichita Lineman’ as “the greatest song ever written”, and that’s as good a middle finger as any to waft at all you naysayers.
From Carol Kaye’s opening bass notes to the scintillating strings, the soundscape for Jimmy Webb’s “unfinished” work flourishes into a cacophony of symphonic bliss. Therein a story unfolds with a crystalising encapsulation of the life of the American working class. Lines like “I know I need a small vacation / But it don’t look like rain” have more depth than many would care to admit, and Campbell himself doesn’t miss a beat in delivering them.
‘Five Years’ by David Bowie from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Concepts are brilliant on paper, but behind them, there must be an awful lot of clout. Bowie dazzles with the dallying magnificence of his imagination in crafting Ziggy Stardust and his escapist universe, but he punctuates his alien world with a humanised touch that proves transcendent and reaches out from the clandestine realm of a ‘clever idea’ and hurls you in by the heartstrings with lines like “And it was cold, and it rained so I felt like an actor / And I thought of Ma, and I want to get back there.”
With Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, David Bowie paved the path to a new bohemian way of living for anyone sensible enough to be converted by his mercurial ways. ‘Five Years’ is the first gilded yellow brick on that heavenly road of musical perfection, scarcely rivalled by anything else.
‘Scratchcard Landyard’ by Dry Cleaning from New Long Leg
When Jeff Bridges first watched Pulp Fiction, he likened it to the same cold splash of water to the face that Talking Heads first threw at him in a refreshing shake-up of sensibilities. Earlier this year, Dry Cleaning blasted the music industry with a very weird super soaker.
The song bursts into life with a swirl of kaleidoscopic sounds that simultaneously induces a stupefied silence and a rush of superlatives. About a minute into the record, and ‘Scratchcard Lanyard’ is already flowing like the thoughts of a totally mad woman sitting on a chaise lounge in a flat watching daytime TV and looking out of the window, reporting every passing thought as the world goes by. That woman is Florence Shaw, and she propagates the depths of a literary odditorium akin to the uber-subtle subversiveness of Russian absurdists like Daniil Kharms. “She’s definitely in a league of her own.”
Will I come to regret this inclusion over the likes of ‘Natural Mystic’, ‘What’s Going On’ or ‘Like A Bridge Over Troubled Water’ etc.? Perhaps, but I would rather die on the hill of championing this entirely original progressive future and live on with pie on my face than treading the safe pastures of long-heralded classics – besides, what else is an opening track for but introducing something new?