Pillbox

TURNTABLE: 2nd half of cd always bad

Andy Francis. [ITALICIZE ALL ALBUM NAMES-asg]

I listen to the CDs in my record collection a lot. At work, in my car, at home — it doesn’t matter. The stuff that I like, I really like and I listen to that stuff probably a lot more than I should. Furthermore, I really think the best way to enjoy rock, electronic, rap, and other popular music is by listening to an entire record straight through. (Yes, I know rap is a singles genre. Bear with me). It’s ultimately a more rewarding experience to listen to a solid album instead of firing up your two or three favorite tracks every so often on your iPod. There are two key problems with this approach to musical enjoyment, one of which is that 40 minutes is typically at the high end of most of our attention spans and/or available free time. The second, and more vexing problem, is the fact that the second half of virtually every album I’ve ever heard is not as good as the first.

Go ahead, look through your collection with me, and pick out a few of your favorites — I’ll get a handful of mine. I’ve got Nirvana’s Nevermind, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole — not bad, right? Look and see where all the true landmark tracks lie. (Do it - interactivity is fun. At least do it in your head.) Hmm ... “Smells like Teen Spirit,” “Paranoid Android,” “Nuthin’ but a G Thang,” “Block Rockin’ Beats,” and so on, all within the first 20 minutes of their respective discs. This isn’t always a bad thing — sometimes you don’t want to wait all day before hearing an old favorite, but the fashion in which even great albums are frontloaded is remarkable. This is not to say that second halves of albums are necessarily bad, it’s just that even on the mightiest of records they almost always tend to pale in comparison to their counterparts. The second half of Guns 'n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction has “Sweet Child of Mine” on it, for crying out loud, but who ever bothers to listen past “Paradise City”? As we slide down the quality scale, this naturally means that on mediocre or bad albums, you’re not doing yourself any favors slogging through to the bitter end. Spice, the debut album from those world-renowned masters of song craft the Spice Girls, finds its first three singles: “Wannabe,” “Say You’ll be There,” and “2 Become 1,” in the first three slots on the album. This is not an accident.

In fairness, there are a few exceptions to the rule, most of which appear in the Rolling Stones’ catalog (see Some Girls or Exile on Main Street for a primer on how to close out a set). In recent times, though, it’s become almost impossible to find an album as strong on its B-side as its A-side. There’s a definite lack of such records from the last two decades, although the luminous 3-song codas on Radiohead’s The Bends and R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People are refreshing counterexamples. More common are records that are nicely modulated for almost their entirety but slip up on the last track or two — couldn’t Billy Corgan have closed the book on Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream after “Silverfuck” rather than dragging on for two more tracks?

There are any number of explanations for this phenomenon, all of which I buy into. One is a band either really early or really late in their career that simply doesn’t have the depth of material to construct an entire record. I’m not even going to bother citing examples here, considering how easy it is to find a band that doesn’t have 10 good songs. If I make a record, you had better believe that (a) it will have lots of filler and (b) that filler will be relegated to the very end. Another clear example is established bands that get that urge to record experimental tracks in an effort to realize some sort of artistic vision. Yes, Perry Farrell, I am talking about the end of Ritual de lo Habitual. However, at risk of sounding like a cynic, I think the main reason albums are put together the way they are is just good business sense. People are going to start listening at the beginning, and when you play a record for your friend, it’s those first few sounds they’re going to come away with and perhaps build interest from. That’s just how it goes. So why not put the radio-friendly tunes right up front and leave the remainder of the record to the die-hards? Well, I think that you and I, as music fans, just need to exercise some judgment on our listening habits. It’s not hard to tell the difference between a gradual drop-off and a phoned-in conclusion, so embrace the good ones as a whole and don’t be afraid to Just Say No To Filler. Be strong.