Listen to the opening number from this album by Between the Buried and Me. This is a pretty long album, especially in today’s market, so I wouldn’t recommend listening to the whole thing just yet. The first song ends at 1:40 where a distant guitar riff slowly gets louder to introduce the rest of the album. Skip ahead now to 1:10:08, this is the last song on the album. Without listening to the whole previous 70 minutes you can tell this is in the same key as the opening song, and the singer even repeats the lyrical line again “goodbye to everything” (on a very satisfying PAC I might add). It comes full circle, and it lets the listener know this is the end, we have said everything we need to say now. I’m not going to talk about this album anymore in this post, but BTBAM are the kings of album structure and overarching themes in the metal world. I encourage you to set aside an hour and 12 minutes of your time to really appreciate the hard work these talented gentlemen put into creating such a record.
Let’s say we are making a full length album (none of that EP B.S.). We make some good songs, some ok songs, some songs full of feeling, and some songs full of fun. How do we decide what order to put them in? To make this easier lets split all songs into 5 categories: openers, hits, fillers, content, and finales. Everything in this post is assuming that the listener intends to listen to the album from front to back and have them be most satisfied.
A good opener is a song that really sets the tone for the rest of the album. Not all albums have an over-arching theme and sometimes the individual songs are all relatively different from each other. So how do you pick a good opener on albums like this? In my opinion, it is best to not give away the rest of the album, but instead pick a song that is tamer, has some pretty chords and some nice lyrics that won’t deter first time listeners. The way people discover music today is mostly on the internet through mass distributers like iTunes, Spotify, Vevo (on youtube) Last.fm etc. I don’t know about you but when I get recommended a new band or by other means land on a new band or album, I listen to the first song. What do you want a random listener in this situation to hear?
It has a nice intro section that isn’t always necessary for a song, but for the first song of an album is vital.
This features a sample of an orchestra tuning, and gradually builds upon itself using electronic effects that lead directly into the 2nd song of the album Doomsday. It is interesting enough to make you want to listen to the next song without giving too much away in terms of what style the rest of the album will be.
These are the songs that get played on the radio. These are the songs your fans know all the words to. There is really no bad place to put them on an album. In my opinion the biggest hit(s) should be 2nd or very near the beginning so that as the listener hears it early and gets hooked. The reason I don’t recommend putting the hit first is because if you do that, you gave away your best work right away and it’s all downhill. Putting it 2nd or 3rd allows the listener to have already heard something different so that they know there is more to the album than just the hit.
This song was p!nk’s ‘hit’ from the album “The Truth About Love.” See I’m not just making this stuff up
Also, discussed above was the opener from Nero’s Welcome Reality, which leads into the hit from that album Doomsday.
Almost every artist has a few of these on every album. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as there aren’t too many and they are spaced throughout the album. Fillers are songs that are relaxing to the ear, and often easy to produce. An example would be a song that sticks to a formula that has been used before, therefore the listener is in a comfort zone and knows what to expect as the song progresses. Usually these songs don’t stand out in the album and are easily forgotten. A good place to put these is directly after a hit or a content piece. This way the listener has some time to transition between two different themes or types of songs. This is assuming of course there are any fillers at all. Some artists avoid these all together and only have hits and content.
An example of a filler. What purpose does this song serve on this album other than a transition from Panic Station to Survival? I personally would never listen to this song by itself, but it fits in this context. Another example:
Nothing much really happens in the song, but its right after the emotionally charged song “A Media Friendly Turn For The Worse” and before “Blood Burner” which both have totally different thematic material. They decided to include a filler so as to let the listener have time to adjust for this change.
These are the songs that contain the thematic material. Often a hit is also a content song, but not all content songs are hits. If one song has a particular meaning and another has a different one, it is good to put filler in between. A way to avoid this is have a transitional period at the end of the song that leads into the next. Example of this method:
All they do is repeat the theme a few times at the end, but it is enough to avoid having a filler between it and “Too Afraid To Love You” which have totally different grooves.
Content songs make up the majority of most albums; they are really just songs that go somewhere in the middle and don’t have a particularly strong beginning or end. This leads me to the last type of song that every album needs.
Self explanatory, these songs usually have a good buildup and release which gives the listener a strong sense of resolution at the end of an album. In extreme cases they also are a summation of all the songs before it, but this is difficult to do if you have more than one prominent theme in your record. Finales are often longer than most songs, and usually have an extended “outro” or coda as described in my previous post. It has hard to describe the feeling of this grand resolution that finale’s should aim for, so I’ll use a few examples to help understand.
Not only is the the last song on their album Danza IV, Alpha and Omega, but it is now known this is their last album they will ever make as well. The lyrics specifically say “and so with every beginning, there is always an ending.” After all the chaotic polyrhythms and atonality throughout the whole record, it ends on this melodic progression. It really grabs your attention and gives you a feeling of resolution.
Asylum is mostly a dark angry album, as all Disturbed albums are. This song however is in a major key, and seems to be a love song/a song about searching your inner self. If they put it anywhere except last, it would have been like, what are you doing Disturbed? Due to it being last the listener can assume that they are supposed to take away from the album that despite all the rage contained within, this band still has deeper feelings. That’s another thing about finales; they give you the freedom to write a song in a style different to what you usually do.
There are many bonus tracks on this album, but on the original release this is the finale. Again, notice a more emotional and softer feeling than most of their work in this song. It simply repeats a 4 chord structure over and over while the vocals sing on “ooooo” but it is a great closing thought to end an album on. Then there is a “hidden track” called Rocks. The reason they included this afterwards, on the same track, is up for speculation. I think they did this to end the story that the album is telling. The lyrics are depressing, while the song is upbeat in a major key. This is to say that although “we fall apart” it isn’t the end of the world, it isn’t sad at all In fact, “why can’t I see what’s right in front of me?” They put this track after Nothing Left To Say to end on the brighter note that the artist feels about the situation, even though at first they were upset about it. This is why they combined the two completely separate songs as one track, they both are the finale of the album.
Now that you know not only how to write a pop hit, but also how to arrange these on an album for best effect, go make your millions just like the artists in this post. If only it were that simple. I feel like I have given myself some validation in these first 4 posts, so now it is time to share my opinions with the world. My next post will be dedicated to what makes music “good” what makes it “bad” in popular genres, while mostly focusing on the one true genre of music, heavy metal.