Recently, NME posted a blog pitching the question “What’s the best three song streak on an album?”, inspired a chat on the subject on Reddit.
Since reading them both, I couldn’t resist nosing around my iTunes catalogue for a few examples. ‘Best’ I can’t do, but ‘favourite’ is negotiable. Here are a few of mine.
DAVID BOWIE – “Heroes”
“Anyone who’s playing ‘Beauty and the Beast… you know they get erections.” – Robert Fripp
Fripp is rather proud of his work, and quite rightly so. While Low gets most of the critical glory of Bowie’s late 70s output, “Heroes” must not be frowned upon.
‘Beauty and the Beast’ has yet to be truly decoded. To this day, no one seems quite sure what Bowie is talking about. His drug addictions? Politics? With irrelevant lines such “someone fetch a priest” based upon Tony Visconti’s favourite expletive at the time, “someone fuck a priest”, it would be of no surprise to find that it were solely nonsense. ‘Joe the Lion’ is just as baffling, as sections were improvised with no predetermined lyrics. However, his manner, taking on a newsreader vocal style makes the nonsense work. It’s no simple feat to make lyrics that would usually be an almighty turn off, into such a great asset.
I maintain that David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ is one of the greatest songs ever conceived. Statements don’t get much bolder than that, but I stand by it. It is here that the union of four music legends spawns a legendary track. Bowie’s gradually building triumphant and desperate screams, Brian Eno’s Krautrock influences, Tony Visconti’s innovative production and Robert Fripp’s distinctive sustained guitar come together to create a romantic and political juggernaut. Not many songs can make that claim.
NINE INCH NAILS – The Fragile
Even if a band’s previous album was an hour-long concept album, closing with three minutes of cacophony, as was the case with The Downward Spiral, a two-disc follow-up with seven instrumental tracks is normally seen as several steps too far. It probably is. The general consensus of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile is that what became a good double album, could have been an amazing single album. Fittingly, the centerpiece of this track reflects upon the ‘what abouts’ and the ‘all that c-c-could have beens’.
‘The Frail’ might be less that two minutes long, but has a very significant role in this beast of an album. Aside from functioning as an eerie introduction for ‘The Wretched’, ‘The Frail’ is the inauguration of ‘The Fragile motif’, a short series of notes that pop back to say ‘hi’, albeit in a frighteningly pissed off manner in the album’s title track. It all goes to show that this introductory track is deserving of its own track. Some might call reprisals in an album that doesn’t have a clear narrative a bit pretentious, but either way, the album means business.
At over seven-minutes, ‘We’re In This Together’ is one of the longest tracks in Nine Inch Nails’ repertoire, yet Reznor cared little enough that, perhaps for the sake of scale, was released as a single. And an awesome single it was too, with screams so straining that it has been brought to the stage on just four occasions. Perhaps it was digging it up for the 2007 Tour that drove Nine Inch Nails into their touring hiatus.
I almost gave this to The Downward Spiral’s Reptile/The Downward Spiral/Hurt, but I hold The Fragile’s triptych dear. Why? Once upon a time, circa 2005, when studying GCSE Music, my class were set a pretty simple assignment: write a brief analysis of a piece of music. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? Holst’s Jupiter?
What they got from Nick Pollard was a short essay on ‘The Frail’ and ‘The Wretched’. Ner.
PULP – Different Class
The battle of Britpop has always been remembered as the “Blur vs Oasis Smackdown.” However, Pulp’s ‘Common People’ is a legendary reminder that there were some very eligible third parties in the running. A six-minute, entertaining, cultural commentary can’t be the easiest kind of song to assemble, but Pulp did a damn good job of it. Undoubtedly, this was the single of the 1990s.
‘Disco 2000’, another of their biggest hits, is a bit more focused than ‘Common People’s political moans, as Jarvis Cocker rants and raves about his failing attempts at winning over ‘Deborah’. Interestingly, unlike Noel Gallagher’s Sally, ‘Deborah’ is a real woman, and the tale is apparently based on a true story. Poor Jarvis.
Sandwiched between the two is ‘I Spy’, the brilliantly demonic ode to unhealthy obsession. As jolly as ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’, ‘I Spy’ is the only track of the three where Jarvis isn’t complaining, and his character growls from within his nirvana – creepily reminding one of his victims that he has been creeping in and out of his life, smoking his cigarettes and drinking his brandy. Oh, and sleeping with his wife for the last 16 weeks. As you do.
MUSE – Absolution
While times have changed for Muse since 2003, these tracks are the defining trio of the band’s style and substance of the first half of their career so far. ‘Butterflies & Hurricanes’ is a ridiculous and corny-lyric-ed air-puncher, garnished with an orchestral interlude and frontman Matt Bellamy showing off his stellar key-twinkling skills. On the other end of the scale, ‘The Small Print’ is a shorter and more raw stream of insanity and fury (and there is even the sound of a cat meowing at 2:51, so what’s not to love?).
Speaking of ‘Fury’, I’m cheating a bit here. You won’t find ‘Fury’ on every copy of Muse’s third album. You will have to pop to Japan for a copy of their exclusive version, featuring this excellent bonus track. Allegedly, this was Matt Bellamy’s choice to be track 11, in place of ‘The Small Print’, but was outvoted by his bandmates. Ten years on, it’s still an injustice.
Despite its elusive nature, once in a blue moon you might catch it live, as it is dug up every now and then.
But don’t lay any bets on it.
EDIT (23/08/13): Zepp Tokyo were lucky enough to get a performance of ‘Fury’ in a live rehearsal for Muse’s upcoming 20th Anniversary Tour. Perhaps it won’t stay quite as elusive as it once was.
RADIOHEAD – In Rainbows
NME surprised me a little on another of their blogs, as they ranked Radiohead’s albums from worst to best. Normally, I would expect OK Computer to rule over all, unless writers were in a more artsy mood, then Kid A might take the throne. Scrolling down, those albums passed at numbers two and three respectively, the top spot having been snatched by 2007’s colourful In Rainbows.
Written during the OK Computer sessions, it took over ten years for ‘Nude’ to finally get a studio release, and not a moment too soon. A track so cool, calm and laden with synth and effects, shouldn’t, in theory sound so isolated and minimal, but it does. The strings are dreamy, lush and (sorry, I can’t resist) gorgeous.
In Rainbows, while heavily layered in places, sounds raw enough that for the first time since Pablo Honey, however personal Radiohead’s 1995-2003 output was, it is easy to envision Radiohead in the studio, performing in real time. ‘Weird Fishes (Arpeggi)’ is a central example. It sounds casual while conventional, as if they are undergoing an experiment. More than anything, it sounds live.
‘All I Need’ on the other hand is far more serious. It sounds bizarrely intense and irritated, especially considering that Thom Yorke is expressing to somebody how he or she is ‘all he needs’. The brooding growl of Greenwood’s Ondes Martenot countered by a glockenspiel is inspired – like a suspenseful horror film soundtrack.
Considering that none of the three tracks are even my favourites on the album (a title snatched by ‘Reckoner’), I think that NME might have been onto something when they named it Radiohead’s greatest.
Honorable mention: Pink Floyd’s Animals – Dogs / Pigs / Sheep. After a bit of deliberation I decided against putting this here, considering they form almost the entirety of the album. That’s not to say they aren’t amazing though.