Welcome to another installment of Ask A Music Critic! And thanks to everyone who has sent me questions. Please keep them coming at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What are the best album-opening lyrics ever? — Andrew from Chicago
Great question, Andrew! And I appreciate your pithiness. We might not have much time, so let’s get right to the point.
I’ve actually given this one a lot of thought over the years. What is it exactly that makes an album-opening lyric great? I feel like it comes down to the following criteria:
1) It must be implanted permanently on your brain. This is a given.
2) It must exist on a classic album. This is also a given. (Well, maybe this one is less of a given. But I think it will make more sense after I tell you the other criteria.)
3) It must be an actual good lyric. Many great albums have classic opening lines that aren’t actually very good. This is true of pretty much every Led Zeppelin LP, for instance. (The exception is “Immigrant Song” from Led Zeppelin III, which qualifies as stupid good: “We come from the land of the ice and snow / From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow / The hammer of the gods.”)
4) It must set the tone from what is to come, and immediately make it clear that what you’re about to hear is a masterpiece. A mission statement, in other words.
With those four points in mind, here are my top five best album-opening lyrics.
5. “I’m a street walking cheetah / with a heart full of napalm” — The Stooges, “Search And Destroy,” Raw Power.
Probably the most Iggy Pop lyric of all-time, from the Stooges’ best album. It’s impossible to stop listening after hearing that line.
4. “I am an American aquarium drinker / I assassin down the avenue” — Wilco, “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart,” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
What does it mean? I have no clue. Is it evocative? Absolutely! Also, it appears that I have an affinity for album-opening lyrics that start with “I am.”
3. “Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland / got a head-on collision, smashing in my guts, man” – Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands,” Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
You remember the album before this, where Bruce was singing epic, fanciful songs where kids flash guitars like switchblades? Well, dreamtime is over. Welcome to Bruce’s nightmare. With this lyric, you’re in the middle of it immediately.
2. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” — Patti Smith, “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo,” Horses.
This isn’t just a brilliant album opener, it reads like the first line of a classic novel. An ideal tone-setter for perhaps the defining “literary” rock album.
1. “Teenage angst has paid off well / now I’m bored and old” — Nirvana, “Serve The Servants,” In Utero.
Funny, sad, self-referential, self-mocking, autobiographical, media-baiting, mythical, anti-mythical. For me, no other album-opening lyric comes close.
Let’s say that a long-running, famous artist has been in a pronounced skid. Their last album definitely wasn’t great or well-received, and maybe that’s one of a few in a row that trended worryingly downward. It’s now possible for this artist to make a Competence Album. Not quite the Late-Era Classic, but proof that the artist can still sound like themselves. It’s enjoyable but usually kind of a second or third tier album. Examples include Pearl Jam’s self-titled, Interpol’s El Pintor, Weezer’s Everything Will Be Alright In The End, Oceania by The Smashing Pumpkins, and R.E.M.’s Accelerate. What are some other examples? — Blake from Cincinnati
My goodness, Blake. I feel like another music critic just hijacked this column. Maybe I should be the one asking you questions. Here’s my first one: Can I steal this idea for myself?
You have correctly identified a common phenomenon for legacy acts. We’re all familiar with the Good-Bad Album, which is the post-peak effort that is deeply flawed in a profoundly interesting way, illuminating how and why that act’s classic work is great by offering a less-than-great contrast. And then there’s the rare but oft-discussed Late Career Masterpiece, the unicorn release that only a precious few legacy acts ever achieve.
Meanwhile a Competence Album is a far more common occurrence. Like you said, this is where you do that thing you do in a way that displays to your fanbase that you “still have it,” though let’s be real you don’t still have it that much. Most legacy bands ride out the rest of their careers making albums like this. U2, for instance, has been doing it for 20 years, since 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind.
Along with the examples you already mentioned, I feel like special mention must be made of Steel Wheels by The Rolling Stones, which is among the earliest instances of a Competence Album. Steel Wheels was accompanied by a massive tour in 1989, the Stones’ first such campaign in several years, and was generally regarded as their “pretty good and solidly professional” comeback after two misfires, 1983’s Undercover and 1986’s Dirty Work. (Though, in retrospect, those two albums are more fun to revisit than Steel Wheels.) That same year, Neil Young put out Freedom, his first album since the ’70s that seemed most reminiscent of his ’70s albums after an odd and misspent period in the ’80s. Actually, Freedom might be slightly too good for a Competence Album, given that it includes one of his most famous songs, “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Though I’m not sure it quite deserves to be considered a Late Career Masterpiece. (Neil made two of those, Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon, soon after Freedom.)
Do we need to make up another archetype here? Perhaps a “Rolling Stone 4-star Semi-Classic”? Give me another idea I can steal, Blake.
What’s the best album by a band that had been together at least 25 years at the point of release? — Tom from Minneapolis
Wow, lots of questions about oldsters this column. I get it — we’re all worried about our elders in these trying times.
It’s interesting that you specified band here, because I think it’s much harder for a band to put out something really great later in their career than it is for a solo artist. Just keeping a band together for more than 25 years is an accomplishment. As we just discussed, merely receiving competence from our aging bands seems like the best we can expect. However, there are examples of bands putting out really excellent LPs well into their advanced years. In fact, more than I expected before I started brainstorming.
The most recent to pull it off is Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, who might very well be the grand champions of late-career masterworks. In 2019, they put out the luminous Ghosteen, which arrived 35 years after the band’s 1984 debut, From Her To Eternity. (You could also count two other Nick Cave albums from the 2010s, 2013’s Push The Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree.) Another band that performed strong in their later years was Rush, which delivered two later-career gems, 2007’s Snakes And Arrows and 2012’s Clockwork Angels, 33 and 38 years respectively after the band’s 1974 self-titled debut. And then there’s Yo La Tengo, who put out the strangely beautiful There’s A Riot Goin’ On in 2018, 32 years after the release of their 1986 debut, Ride The Tiger.
If I had to pick the best record out of that bunch, I’d probably go with one of the Nick Cave albums. But in terms of my favorite, I’m going with something totally disreputable: Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell, released 27 years after their debut. Yes, I know Roger Waters was long gone by then. And, sure, that album is more remembered for the massive tour that followed. But as a sucker for David Gilmour guitar tones, I can’t resist “High Hopes.” This album is underrated, I’m telling you! Brilliant competence!
This seems fairly prescient with The Last Dance — there is a huge discrepancy between what musicians can recall and what athletes can about their shows and games, respectively. Michael Jordan is able to essentially give play-by-play of fairly obscure games from early in his career and then of course continues to do this throughout the documentary. I’ve seen this with baseball players and football players, too. Yet I’ve read about musicians saying that shows blend together and they can’t recall set lists and shows. Why does this disconnect exist? — Andrew from Milwaukee