How To Sequence An Album

So you’ve got a batch of songs recorded now, and it’s time to sequence them. For the sake of explanation, I’m going to make up the details, since I don’t know who you are. Use your imagination to substitute your real details for my fake placeholder ones.

Your record is called Temple of the Monkey (great title, buddy). Here’s a list of the songs you’ve recorded for it, in no particular order:

  • Standing In Line
  • My Mother-in-Law Is A Freight Train
  • Let’s Do The Swivel
  • Tyler’s Hammer
  • Heaven Is In Your Lunchbox
  • Turtle Politics
  • You Hurt My Heart (Ow, Oh Jeez, Ow)
  • Costco Samples Boogie
  • The Tarantula Woman
  • How Did This Happen? (I Was Just Looking For The Cheese Aisle)

Wow, this is a great record. I can tell. The problem is, you have no idea what order to put the songs in. Does it even really matter?

Yes

People notice when you don’t put enough effort into your track order. It’s frustrating, and it can kill the vibe of a great batch of songs. Take this Reddit user’s evaluation of Daft Punk’s album, Random Access Memories, for example:

A poorly sequenced album is annoying. Let’s look at an example of a well-sequenced album.

Rumours is generally considered to be a great “album”. By that, I mean that even if you don’t necessarily enjoy the music, the art of the album format is clearly represented here. I’m going to use this album as the example, but there are many other records that are regarded as well-crafted albums, so let’s list some of them:

Nirvana – Nevermind

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Strokes – Is This It?

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On?

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Think about what these albums have in common, in terms of how the songs are ordered. Is there a pattern that’s being followed? For now, let’s examine Rumours.

The Opening Track

There are no rules in music. You can do whatever you want to with your album, Temple of the Monkey, as long as you enjoy it. With that being said, you might want to consider these things about your opening track.

If it’s not great, most people will turn it off right then and there. This is the listener’s first impression of what the next 40 minutes of their life is going to feel like. If it’s painful, why would they stick around for more? Listen to Second Hand News, the first track on Rumours. A nice short fade in, followed by a strumming guitar, bass and drums, and a nice powerful voice. Seven seconds in, you can see what this album is going to be like.

I generally try to consider the One-Two rule when sequencing an album: your opening track has to set the scene, and hook the listener; but it’s your second track that will be the real clincher. This is where the listener will get an idea of the range of your material, and whether it holds up to the promise that your first track promised them. I think of it like a nice controlled jab, that sets up the head for the perfect right hook in the face.

The Right Hook

The second track on Rumours, Dreams, is considered to be one of the greatest songs in Fleetwood Mac’s catalog. That’s a hell of a right hook. Imagine the album starting with this song, and then going on to Second Hand News. Not the same, right? Two great songs that just feel like they were put in the wrong order. But let’s look at what the correct order sets up: this song is slower and moodier. There’s a new singer here. The first song is confident and upbeat. This one is hurt and seeking. We’ve invested only five minutes of life into this album, and we’re already seeing where this could all go.

The third track, Never Going Back Again, is again upbeat, but this time there is literally no beat. It’s just an acoustic guitar and a voice. It’s a great song, but can you imagine if they put this at track 7? An afterthought! It would get buried. Let’s peek ahead and see what they put in that position instead… The Chain! Strong! How did they do that? Oh right. They set out to create a great album with no filler, and they spared no expense. Now it’s your turn.

Building the Temple

Okay, it’s time to take a look at Temple of the Monkey. How do we open this album? Oh yeah, we learned that! We want to hit the listener, and convince them to stick around for the rest of the songs. Obviously, we want to start with ‘How Did This Happen? (I Was Just Looking For The Cheese Aisle)’. That will give them just enough to keep them intrigued. Now let’s go for the right hook. ‘Let’s Do The Swivel’. BAM. There it is. They know what this is all about now. Your timeless classic. We’re going to hang onto ‘My Mother-in-Law Is A Freight Train’ until at least track 7 or 8.

Here are a few more “rules” to keep in mind:

  • Don’t put more than two slow or sad songs next to each other, or the album will sag in that spot.
  • Try not to put two songs in same key next to each other, unless you want them to sound connected. It can be hard to tell when one song has ended, and the next has begun. If you have to, consider fading out the first song.
  • Your closing track should be the one that sounds like the most definitive ending. It can be fast or slow, loud or soft, but it needs to feel like the album is over, or it will come across as abrupt. When I’ve got a batch of songs, I can usually tell which ones feel like the opener and the closer. They kind of reveal themselves that way. Trust your instinct.
  • Don’t be lazy. Play around with different track listings. How do you know when you’ve got your tracks in the correct order? When I was younger, I used to ask my parents what it felt like to be in love. “When you’re in love, you’ll just know it,” they told me. They were always difficult like that.

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