Choosing Sides: the lost art of the album side

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Aside and Beside

I recently sent out a call for thoughts and reminiscences about the album side, for an essay I am considering writing for the Huffington Post.  Not sure when I’ll get the chance to write my HuffPost piece, so I wanted to share the comments of those who have generously submitted so far.

If you have your own “side A/side B” memories or musings, please submit them at the bottom of the page.

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Eugene Edwards

Singer/songwriter, www.eugeneedwards.com

The first sides that come to mind are side one of Springsteen’s Born To Run album and side two of Led Zeppelin IV.

I’m not sure that “Thunder Road” has ever been topped as an album opener, “Tenth Ave. Freeze-Out” and “Night” describe an urban landscape for the too-desperate-to-last relationship of “Backstreets” and we’re out.

Zeppelin manages to touch upon all the stuff that made them great in four songs.  The humor of “Misty Mountain Hop, the pastoral acoustics of “Goin’ to California,” the menacing to symphonic crunch of “Four Sticks,” and then the Mississippi Delta zen of “When the Levee Breaks.”

I realize that both of these sides contain four songs each and it seems as though that would decrease the odds of there being a clunker.  But it’s not so easy to have a song over five minutes in length that remains compelling.  Springsteen manages it with sheer drama while Zeppelin does it because John Bonham was such a great drummer that you just stay tuned for the next fill.

As far as the worst sides…I think side 4 of the Who’s Tommy drags and shows Townsend’s  eventual disinterest in the story.  This side breaks the concentration of the listener and that’s not a good thing when you think of the overall pretense of the album.  Big, big let down.  Also, side 4 of Cream’s Wheels of Fire album has the quarter-of-an-hour long “Toad,” a painful Ginger Baker drum solo.  Oy!  Clapton proves for three sides of an album that a soloist can go long in rock and then Ginger tries to argue, apparently.  What do 7 Eleven coffee and Ginger Baker have in common?  They both suck without cream.

Are album sides over?  Well, of course.  Album sequencing in general is becoming less and less important with every download.  Is this bad?  Only in a nostalgic way.  The long play album had a 50-year life span, that’s all.  Some of us tend to react to these changes as if we’re no longer allowed to have birthdays.  Baby boomers particularly go off the rails when something relevant to their childhood/adolescence becomes obsolete.  Though many artists still release albums on LP, they’re nearly all double-LPs and the sequencing seems to reflect the uninterrupted form of the CD.

This is not say that sides couldn’t hurt.  I recall an album by Semisonic released in 2001 that had 14 tracks.  Tracks 1 through 7 were all politely bland pop rock.  Then track 8, “I Wish,” grabs you by the heart and for the rest of the album you can’t believe that it’s the same band at all.  These guys really put together a magnificent string of tracks that would have been an excellent side 2 if there were such a thing by 2001.

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Michael Martin

Graphic designer

Of course, Abbey Road was the Beatles lp that had the biggest switch in feeling from side to side. Side one was a loose arrangement of songs, some of them classic, but incredibly different tom one another, while Side two had the feel of a symphony with different movements. It was a great, schizophrenic album.

Another thing to explore would be the idea that we put on a vinyl lp for 20 minutes of listening, or if we were motivated to flip it, 40 minutes at best.  For us short attention span listeners, we were rarely bored by the now average or expected length of 70 minutes (featuring extra tracks and remixes and every godforsaken thing they can dredge out of the studio trash can. I mean, do we REALLY need twenty remixes of Madonna’s latest?)

There were the occasional attempts at pushing the vinyl format, like Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, which was 40 minutes long…a single song over two lp sides with an incredibly clumsy fade out/fade in.

The worst lp multiple sets:

The Concert For Bangla Desh
(sorry, Ravi Shankar fans, but that side was torturous)

All Thing Must Pass
(what should have been “passed” on was the third album…an atrocity called Apple Jam)

Inconsistent or Schizophrenic splits between Side A and Side B:

Cat Stevens – Foreigner
John and Yoko – Live Peace In Toronto
Beatles – Yellow Submarine soundtrack

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Ron Mura

Webmaster for Loudon Wainwright III, lwiii.com

I have a hard time even remembering the vinyl divisions, it’s been so long.  One side I remember as being phenomenal was side 2 of Springsteen’s album _The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle_.  It had three songs:

Incident on 57th Street
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
New York City Serenade

Dylan’s _Blonde on Blonde_ had an interesting division.  “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” was on the last side all by itself, even though it’s less than 13 minutes.  It wasn’t labeled Side 4.  Both discs in the double album had a Side 1 and a Side 2.

For me, on Dire Straits’ “Making Movies”, the seven songs are arranged in descending order of “greatness.”  There isn’t a bad song on the album, but having the songs sequenced that way naturally makes side 1 much stronger than side 2.

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Daniel Davis

A&R, Atlantic Records

My vinyl memories are sketchy at best. To give you an idea..I used to listen to vinyl on my fisher price record player.

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Greg Williams

Artist, Blogjam and Wikiworld Comics, blogjamcomic.wordpress.com

In trying to think back to the vinyl era, very few examples of bad/good album sides have occurred to me. I’m sure I could come up with something to say about the “White Album” – but I’m not sure I have the energy.

Two albums that are forever linked in my mind: The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Harry Nilsson’s 1971 remix album, “Aerial Pandemonium Ballet.” And it’s Side Two of both albums that were most memorable, for me.

When Nilsson was becoming fairly well known, someone decided it would be a good idea to re-release a collection of tracks from his first two albums, which were recorded in the mid-to-late ’60s (“Pandemonium Shadow Show” and “Aerial Ballet”). But instead of simply plucking out random tracks and reordering them, Nilsson reimagined those early albums – dramatically remixing many cuts and even recording fresh vocals.

On the first sides of both “Abbey Road” and “APB,” we get a somewhat disjointed collection of decent songs, with an overall feeling of offbeat creativity. Each album has distinctive and recognizable standout tracks (“Come Together,” “Something” and “Everybody’s Talkin’ “), joined by some likable but undeniably quirky tunes (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Octopus’s Garden” and “Good Old Desk,” “Bath”).

But on Side Two of both albums, we’re presented with a collection of songs that work together in an unexpected fashion, flowing into one another in a seemingly organic manner.

On “Abbey Road,” we’ve since learned, this breathtaking audio collage was made up of unfinished song fragments (from “You Never Give Me Your Money” through “Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam” to “The End”). But on “APB,” Nilsson was retooling old songs and crafting stylistic links that would allow them to flow smoothly into one another, with lyrics that seem to make emotional connections where none apparently existed before (“Don’t Leave Me” leads to “”Without Her,” then on to “Together” and “One” – which was famously covered by Three Dog Night, and which also makes a surprise appearance in new backing vocals for “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song” on Side One).

Both of these unique “song collages” have stayed fresh for me through the years – despite some dated references on the Nilsson album, which includes the phrases “groovy times” and “it grooves like a clock.”

The ending tracks on both albums are short and unusual musical bits that are worlds away from standard rock ‘n’ roll fare: The Beatles’ old-timey novelty song “Her Majesty,” and Nilsson’s brief circuslike “Closing” melody, complete with the sounds of dancing feet and accompanying vocal noises.

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Mike Loprete

Actor/writer

This will make you laugh but… I always thought the first side of Rush’s “2112” was pretty awesome – and the second side not as much.  The first side is devoted to one whole concept – it’s the future and planet earth is run by this oppressive group called the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx (maybe you know this, but I’d be shocked if you do).  Anyway, the whole side follows one guy’s story who finds a guitar in this world colorless, music-devoid world…  The second side has nothing to do with any of that – it’s just songs – which aren’t too bad, if you like Rush, but it pales to the first side.    I actually like the idea of only one side being devoted to a concept – as opposed to a whole album – and now with CDs, you can’t do that, because there’s obviously no side to end the concept.  You’d just end somewhere around, what? – track 5?

As for best and worst… wow, that’s hard… I gotta think… again, I’m probably not much help because I really didn’t start collecting music until there were CDs… I know… I’m a total pretender…

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Jim Summers

Director, TreePeople Reforestation Initiative

So the following may be the equivalent of admitting I own an Alan Jackson CD, but I have owned a few cast albums from musicals.  They were usually divided by first act on one side and second act on the other.  Having the big first act closing number finish one side meant turning over the album was like having an intermission.

Interestingly, I am not gay.

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Jeff Tobin

Engineer

As for albums, its been a while.  I can’t think of any that I thought were horrible in a side A vs. side B sense, but the one side that sticks out in my mind more than others is the first side (of four) of London Calling.  This side had: 1. London Calling, 2. Brand New Cadillac, 3. Jimmy Jazz, 4. Hateful, 5. Rudy Can’t Fail.  Why I like this album side so much is that all of the songs are unmistakably the Clash but they each have a very different feel, different tempos, different subjects but all are excellent (at least to me) and the change in rhythm and overall sound between makes the whole side more interesting yet somehow more coherent at the same time.  Another one I love but I feel misses because of one song is the first side of Abbey Road.  If it wasn’t for She’s So Heavy, this would be close with London Calling for me.  It has the same type of variation as London Calling, but doesn’t seem as coherent, more of a collection of varied but excellent songs.

So what makes a good album side?  Each song has to be good or excellent in its own right.  The songs have to have sufficient variation yet be similar enough to be distinct yet part of a larger whole.  London Calling as my example has the gritty punk theme throughout the first side, but each song brings its own energy and vibe that fit into a (the only word I can think of is) mosaic painting a bigger more vibrant picture.  The rest of the album goes on to support this.

So what do we lose today?  Nothing from some artists, a whole lot from others.  Some people just make individual songs and when they have enough of them collected they put them out as an album.  Others actually make albums that work only as a whole.  I think Dark Side of the Moon fits this category.  Rarely will you here a hit single played from this album, “Money” usually, and sometimes “Time” will get airplay.  Yet as a whole, this is an incredible album.  Bruce Springsteen albums are also greater than the individual songs they comprise.  Born to Run is a great album and a great song, but I think the first side of the album sets it up so that when you get to the song Born to Run, it is better than just hearing it in isolation.

So what we lose is the chance to communicate a greater artistic vision. What would we lose if all of the movies became a collection of 3 minute vignettes?  We already lose a great deal in a movie because it can’t be 6 hours long and explain everything the same way a book can.  Not that rock songs were ever that much more than 3 minutes, but still, the greatest albums had themes and were much more satisfying to listen to than 30 minutes of unrelated songs. A common theme tied everything together and made the sum greater than the parts.

What did we lose with the advent of the CD?  I don’t know if we lost much there.  It just changed the size of the number of songs from ~4-6, to ~10-12.  But even that is debatable.  There were 30 minute album sides and there are 30 minute CDs.  I guess there aren’t too many 16 minute CDs, though.  I think it really means that artists just adjusted the flow of the music to the CD length.

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Tom Matthews

Writer

My memories/references are too obscure.  The first Cheap Trick album had Side A and Side 1.  Left to random choice I spent my entire teen years first playing the side which DIDN’T open with the track “ELO Kiddies,” which of course is one of the great album openers of all time and which is now the official opening track on the CD and which was the song they played first when they performed the whole album live.  I was not too bright.  (Although Wikipedia reminds me that the track listing on the album suggested the other order.  I was just easily influenced).

My drop off in interest from the first to second sides of “Damn the Torpedoes” is dramatic.  All the great cuts are on side one.

And only because I blew a young rock fan’s mind with this knowledge recently:  You know about the way “The Wall” butts together from the end of side 4 to the beginning of side 1, right?  I find most people do not.

There are actually a fair number of albums from my youth on which the latter tracks on side two are markedly less familiar to me when I revisit them now.  I know I went to bed a lot listening to albums on headphones, and I can only assume I slept through great hunks of side twos.  I was such an exciting teen.

If you play any of the KISS solo albums backwards, they all still suck.

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Norm Brennan

Science Instructor, the Mirman School

Queen-A Night at the Opera- side 1- love the variety offered on this side vs side 2 which is a headphones must-listen…

worst would be anything circa 1972 bread, america, seals and crofts…so much sap the needle barely traveled through the vinyl…

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Lee Schmidt

Advertising copywriter/creative director

Sinatra and his producers were masters at creating album sides. They carefully sequenced songs to create a mood and keep the listener deep in that mood well after the record was over.

A favorite side is the first from “Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie and the Orchestra.” Frank, in the prime of his baritone, starts with “Come Fly With Me.” Uptempo and playful, it was a big crowd pleaser that hooked any audience. With the second track, Francis Albert gets serious. He sings the Gershwins’ “I’ve Got A Crush On You.” Like a lot of torch songs, once Sinatra sings it, it’s his. It just doesn’t sound right by another singer. The third track, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is arguably Frank’s best live recording. Period. You’ll get no argument from me. From soaring to subtle, the voice has never been better. The side could end right there. But he continues with a beautiful reading of the ballad “The Shadow of Your Smile.” I don’t know if the side ends after this track because I own the entire live recording as a “two record set on one disc.” Anyway, I never grow tired of listening to this side. And I’ve heard it dozens of times. A lot of “live” recordings are sweetened in the studio. But this album sounds real and pure and captures an intimacy that has, in my book, no rivals.

Other great sides: Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” side one. Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” side one. And of course, side one of Zeppelin Four (with thanks to Mike from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Worst sides: Did Paper Lace (“The Night Chicago Died”) ever cut an entire album? How about Terry “Seasons in the Sun” Jacks? Those would suck.

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Bill McCloskey

Graphic designer

One of my perfect albums is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road:

Great artwork front and back, with illustrations on every song as well as lyrics. Could be held as a book when listening to the record player, I used to sit in front of my turntable, foldouty kind, speakers on each side and yell( sing) right back into the spininng vinyl.

Side 1 Begins with Funeral for a Friend blends into Love Lies Bleeding, Candle in the Wind, Bennie and the Jets. A very strong 3 song side, that isn’t Pink Floyd.

One thing I have talked to a lot of people about is just how skilled one became at hitting tracks with their thumb on the stylus, that was the only way to hear a favorite song again and again.

And I think our generation will always think of albums in sides and how record players could play stacks of albums in a row, but you had to pick a side to play, which may or may not have a hit on it.

I want back to that world.

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Den Shewman

Writer/editor

One word: cassingles.

That’s all I have to add. Unfortunately, my mind sucks at lists.

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One thought on “Choosing Sides: the lost art of the album side

  1. A favorite side is the first from “Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie and the Orchestra.” Frank, in the prime of his baritone, starts with “Come Fly With Me.” Uptempo and playful, it was a big crowd pleaser that hooked any audience. With the second track, Francis Albert gets serious. He sings the Gershwins’ “I’ve Got A Crush On You.” Like a lot of torch songs, once Sinatra sings it, it’s his. It just doesn’t sound right by another singer. The third track, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is arguably Frank’s best live recording. Period. You’ll get no argument from me. From soaring to subtle, the voice has never been better. The side could end right there. But he continues with a beautiful reading of the ballad “The Shadow of Your Smile.” I don’t know if the side ends after this track because I own the entire live recording as a “two record set on one disc.” Anyway, I never grow tired of listening to this side. And I’ve heard it dozens of times. A lot of “live” recordings are sweetened in the studio. But this album sounds real and pure and captures an intimacy that has, in my book, no rivals.
    +1

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