Getting in

31Dec09

While talking with TK this week about our favorite albums of 2009, we got into a discussion about the merits of Phoenix’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. We each had similar experiences with the album. Because the first two tracks are both so great (“Lisztomania” and “1901“), we each had this preconception that the album was very top-heavy. The first two tracks are great, then it falls off after that. We put it aside soon after its May 26 release because we had decided that those top two tracks were so great that there was no way the rest of the album could be that solid.

Oops.

When it came time to make our lists, we dug up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix again and realized that track three (“Fences”) was also a great song. Then came the two-track “Love Like a Sunset” interlude, which turned out to be solid. Then we discovered how great “Lasso” was. I hope you’re sensing a pattern at this point.

No, not that kind of pattern.

The reason we were thrown off by Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was not that the first two tracks were by far the best songs on the album. We were thrown off because after such a strong start, we assumed that the rest of the album wouldn’t live up to the standard set by that pair of singles. We were wrong, and our top 10 lists each reflect that.

In retrospect, Phoenix put together an album with a deceptive start. The first two tracks are so good that they can overshadow the rest of the equally-solid record. If Wolfgang had started with, say, “Girlfriend” and “Lasso,” would it have been tossed aside by each of us back in May/June? Hard to say.

What’s easier to determine is what we expect as listeners after hearing the first few tracks of an album. For example, when “The Reeling” dropped as the first single from Passion Pit’s 2009 album Manners, I couldn’t wait for the record. Certain tracks were leaked throughout the spring, including tracks two and three, “Little Secrets” and “Moth’s Wings.” Since these were all solid tracks (even garnering praise from John Mayer), I had hope that Manners would be a solid record (which, by the way, it was).

The way we acquire music has changed significantly in the last decade. It’s no longer the sequence of radio single – radio single – album release – full album, and we’re getting even further away from the sequence of 7″ single+b-side followed by the full album release. We do tend to see singles released first, but after that, all hell breaks loose. An entire album can leak months before the release date, before final mixes and sequencing takes place. A deep cut or live favorite can surface, which either gets fans whipped into a frenzy or very disappointed before they can give the full album a chance.

I’m glad I was wrong about Phoenix, and I think it’s important to be conscious of how we get into new records. If a single blows us away, it’s important to take that with a grain of salt. It’s equally important to temper our feelings of letdown if the first single from an album is lousy. Who knows; the rest of the album might be good enough to make it one of your favorites.

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