Saturday, 27 January 2007

Top 10 albums with better 2nd halves

Top-heavy albums are one of my biggest pet hates when it comes to music. You know the type of album I'm talking about. They're the ones that have all the singles front-loaded, and by the time you get to the back end of the album, you've got nothing to work with. They annoy me so much because most of the time they are so obviously a product of a record company executive decision rather than a creative one.

The temptation to front-load an album with all the good songs must be tempting one; after all, you don't want to put your listener off too early in the proceedings. And if your listener dies halfway through listening to your album, you want to make sure that the last sounds they hear will be sweet ones.

I'm of the opinion that if an album has to have a few dud tracks on it (and I'd prefer it didn't at all), then please scatter them throughout the album. Don't leave all the duds at end please! One dud track may not be enough to kill the momentum of an album, especially if the next track is a killer. But put a few dud tracks in a row and there's a great chance that my attention will be lost.

This list spins the top-heavy album around -- all of the albums here have a better second half than the first, in my humble opinion. For albums which were released in the vinyl era, the second half equates to side B of the original record, or the second record in a double album. For albums which were released in the CD era, I'll divide the album in half to create a "virtual side B".

An important note: I have excluded albums from this list which have obvious thematic differences between the sides -- e.g. one side is a standard album, the other side is a mini concept album where songs segue into each other. The reason for this is that often with albums like these, my mood dictates which side I like better. With Abbey road, side A is better if I'm in a rockin' mood, and side B is better if I'm up for a bit of fun with Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam. Some other examples of albums like this are Hounds of love and Aerial (Kate Bush) and Ogden's Nut Gone Flake (The Small Faces).

Any omissions? I await your comments.

10. The Wrens - The meadowlands
[2nd half: Boys, you won't - This is not what you had planned]

There are some stunning moments on the first half of this album, but there are also things which annoy me about it. Some lyrics approach generic emo territory (Happy and Hopeless), and other songs are a bit too "generic rock" for my liking (This boy is exhausted and Faster gun).

The second half is one I just get lost in. From the siren-like sound throughout Boys, you wont, to the fantastic melody of Ex-girl collection, to the sheer craziness of Per second second; this side never lets me down. The album ends very emotionally with the epic 13 months in 6 minutes and the almost a capella (with minimal piano accompaniment) quirky piece This is not what you had planned, where the vocalist just explodes with all his built-in tension. It feels like the end of an emotional roller-coaster.

MP3: The Wrens - 13 Months In 6 Minutes [Link Removed]

9. Doves - Lost souls
[2nd half: Melody calls - A house]

The first half of Lost souls is all about mood and atmosphere. There are some absolutely beautiful compositions there, from the opening instrumental Firesuite, to the catchy Here it comes and epic Sea song.

However, it's the second half where Doves find the perfect mix of atmosphere and melody. Their unique sound is still present, but there's a pop sensibility as well. Melody calls and Catch the sun are pop confection, The man who sold everything hints at what they would achieve on their second album, and The cedar room is simply epic. Then we come full circle with Reprise and the minimal A house.

MP3: Doves - The Man Who Told Everything [Link Removed]

8. The Replacements - Let it be
[2nd half: Unsatisfied - Answering machine]

In a previous post on the 'Mats, I commented about how they have yet to release a truly consistent album. But side B of what is widely considered to be one of their best albums is, in my opinion, the closest they have come to encapsulating their brilliance on a side of vinyl.

Unsatisfied is one of the most emotionally brilliant rock songs ever recorded, with one of the finest vocal performances in rock history. 'Nuff said. Seen your video is just pure adrenaline -- the first time I heard it, I had it picked for an instrumental, until the vocals eventually kicked in. Gary's got a boner is a trademark 'Mats throwaway -- even on their best run of songs they couldn't avoid one. Sixteen blue is a great pop song about being young and hormonal; a commonly recurring theme in their lyrics. Finally, Answering machine is one of the saddest songs they released -- just Paul Westerberg strumming a solo electric guitar, playing it like an acoustic, asking how is it possible to say goodnight to an answering machine. Brilliant stuff.

MP3: The Replacements - Sixteen Blue [Link Removed]

7. The Strokes - Is this it
[2nd half: Last nite - Take it or leave it]

There was a time when the Strokes really were an exciting band, and the whole "saviours of rock" term wasn't overused music critic hyperbole. Is this it was and still is a fantastic album; despite its obvious influences it felt strangely fresh then and still holds up well now, almost six years later.

Side A is not without its fair share of classics, from the killer rocker The modern age, to the catchy Someday. But side B is where the shit's really happening. Kicking off with Last nite (still a timeless rock nugget), it continues on with Hard to explain (still probably their best song to date), the bitter New York City Cops (unfortunately cut from the US version of the album after the 9/11 attacks), the underrated melodic gem Trying your luck and finishing off with the all-attitude anthem of Take it or leave it. You'd be hard pressed to find a better run of songs on any rock album released in the past ten years.

MP3: The Strokes - Hard To Explain [Link Removed]

6. R.E.M. - Murmur
[2nd half: Catapult - West of the fields]

This album (and to a slightly lesser degree, Fables of the reconstruction) is all about mood and atmosphere. Even though R.E.M. have been recording albums for 24 years now, they have yet to top Murmur, their debut album from 1983. There really isn't a sub-par track throughout (Moral kiosk would come closest if I had to choose), and side B is where they really hit their perfect recipe of burying Michael Stipe's haunting mumbling vocals so deep in that mix where it just becomes another instrument amongst the guitar, bass and drums.

It hurt me to pick out the second half of this album, as it meant ignoring the absolute beauty of side A closer Perfect circle, in additional to other early highlights like Talk about the passion and Laughing. But from Catapult onwards, it's got the mood, it's got that undeniable vibe, but more importantly it's got that toe-tapping thing happening that is so addictive that this album is illegal in some countries. Try to sit still during Sitting still; try to stop shaking when listening to Shaking through. We walk adds a dose of quirk to the mix, and while West of the fields isn't the strongest closer (I'd have saved Carnival of sorts from debut EP Chronic town for this prestigious position) it all works so amazingly well that you know these Athens lads would never have a hope in hell of topping this album.

MP3: R.E.M. - Shaking Through [Link Removed]

5. Pink Floyd - The wall
[2nd half: Hey you - Outside the wall]

This is the only double album on this list, but I feel that it deserves a special mention. The first record in this set is a pretty standard rock album for most of the time; it juxtaposes some excellent rockers with more introspective numbers like Goodbye blue sky, interspersing bits of the Another brick in the wall trilogy throughout.

The second record is where Roger Waters' world comes tumbling down; it's a mighty weird record, with only the immensely popular Comfortably numb and Hey you breaking the "I think he's gone crazy" vibe. I find it hard to follow the story on the first record, and while I admit that I still don't really know what's going on during the second record, I also feel that I don't need to know; in a strange way, the music speaks for itself.

MP3: Pink Floyd - Nobody Home [Link Removed]

4. The Cars - The Cars
[2nd half: You're all I've got tonight - All mixed up]

A strange choice -- at first glance, the debut album from The Cars seems like an incredibly top-heavy album. Just look at those first three cuts: Good times roll, My best friend's girl and the sheer bloody classic Just what I needed. All classic songs from the new-wave era. Unfortunately, the album loses a bit of traction in the middle with the dated and under-developed I'm in touch with your world and Don't cha stop.

Luckily, the four tracks from side B are utter gems, and they carry this album to an impressive finale. They're catchy, they're slightly glammy, they remind me of a less flamboyant Queen. Moving in stereo is also another absolute classic from the era. Best of all, all four songs blend together into a seamless whole; there's no thematic unity between these tracks that I'm aware of (which is why they are eligible entrants in this list), but to separate them would simply feel wrong.

MP3: The Cars - Moving In Stereo [Link Removed]

3. Elvis Costello - This year's model
[2nd half: Hand in hand - Night rally]

It's not very often that you can say a run of six songs straight can make you fall in love with an artist. This year's model was the third album proper of Elvis Costello's that I purchased; I started with The very best of, then moved into album territory with the superb country-tinged King of america (from 1986) and highly underrated All this useless beauty (from 1996). All of those albums made me want to get more of man they called Declan, and then I thought it was time to get one of his earlier albums with The Attractions. Some research indicated that his second album This year's model (from 1978) was the one to get, and to date this is still probably my favourite Elvis album.

It's a solid effort all the way through, but the run of six songs from Hand in hand to Night rally encapsulates everything that is brilliant about early Elvis: caustic and bitter lyrics (Lipstick vogue), undeniable melodies (the handclaps of Lip service, the riffage of Living in paradise), social statements ((I don't want to go to) Chelsea), and failed romance (Hand in hand). It may have been released in the first punk era, but calling this punk music is doing it an injustice; it's intelligent rock music that is sometimes too smart for its own good. Although he has come very close, Elvis has yet to match the consistency and quality he achieved on this album.

MP3: Elvis Costello - Living In Paradise [Link Removed]

2. The Cure - Disintegration
[2nd half: Prayers for rain - Untitled]

The first half of this album can be a bit of a red herring for the uninitiated listener. The dark and gloomy textures which dominate most of the album are still there, in the brilliant opener Plainsong, sparse Closedown and eerie Last dance. But then there's Pictures of you, which sounds like a pop song in comparison and was even used in a TV advertisement here in Australia! And Lovesong is a love song! What is Robert Smith doing putting a song like this on what is commonly considered to be one of The Cure's darkest albums and a favourite of Kyle from South Park?

The second half of the album is where the album starts to live up to its name; from Prayers for rain onwards, Robert Smith literally starts to emotionally disintegrate. The same deep water as you is the album's emotional centrepiece, a song which is so dark yet so utterly beautiful at the same time. He starts to fall apart on the title track, Homesick has the feeling of resignation, and the beautiful melodies of Untitled reprise some of the positivity of the first half of the album, with the man finally reaching the point of acceptance.

MP3: The Cure - The Same Deep Water As You [Link Removed]

1. The Beach Boys - Pet sounds
[2nd half: God only knows - Caroline no]

I've always considered this album to be pretty overrated, and I think the hit single cover of traditional folk song Sloop John B is partly to blame for this. It was a record company decision to put this song on the album, and they decided to put it right in the centre of the album, destroying all the thematic unity that Brian Wilson had built up on the first half of the album.

In all honesty, there are also some songs from the first half which have never really struck me as being anything brilliant -- for every romantic masterstroke like Wouldn't it be nice there's a less memorable song such as the Mike Love led That's not me that aren't exactly bad songs, but aren't exactly brilliant either.

Luckily, there isn't a single misstep on side B of this album. God only knows was and still is (over 40 years later) one of the most beautifully written and performed songs of all time. I know there's an answer and I just wasn't made for these times are some of the most personal songs that Brian Wilson has recorded; they feel like diary entries from a man who was simply too smart for his own good. Here today sounds to be like their Phil Spector/Ronettes tribute; it's got that wall-of-sound thing done perfectly. The title track is a fascinating instrumental, but it's only a lead-in to Caroline no which seems to act as a romantic bookend to opener Wouldn't it be nice.

I don't think even the Beatles released a side of vinyl as brilliantly consistent as the seventeen and a half minutes which make up side B of Pet sounds. That, my humble reader, is saying something.

MP3: The Beach Boys - I Just Wasn't Made For These Times [Link Removed]

UPDATE: MP3 samples added.
UPDATE: Song links removed.


  1. I can't vouch for all of them, but Lost Souls and Is This It are two excellent selections for this list. Another good post!

  2. Nice entry, one to think about... I've always quite liked the B-side of Meat is Murder by the Smiths (Nowhere fast to Meat is murder)... and yes, I can still like this album despite my subtle identity change.

  3. Nice name change Pete!

    Great call on Meat is murder -- I would put The queen is dead in the same category as well; with the exception of Vicar in a tutu (which I guess is a bit of fun really), it's a flawless run of songs. In fact, while we are talking of Smiths albums, their self-titled debut could also fit in this category -- Side B (Still ill through to Suffer little children) is a pretty fantastic run of songs as well.

    I don't think I'd give Strangeways the same kudos -- while there are some fine songs on side B, it also has one of their worst songs in Death at one's elbow. Nuff said.

  4. I can't believe I missed such an obvious choice - Closer by Joy Division. The fun of songs from Heart and soul to Decades is phenomenal.

  5. That should have said "the run of songs". There's nothing fun about Joy Division.


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