When albums depart from the beaten tracklisting

As Kendrick Lamar re-releases Damn, we ask if running orders matter in the digital age

Kendrick Lamar flipped the tracklisting of his current album in reverse to create ‘a full story and even a better rhythm’. Getty
Kendrick Lamar flipped the tracklisting of his current album in reverse to create ‘a full story and even a better rhythm’. Getty

Persuading fans to re-buy records they already own is a useful bonus for today’s music business: classic album reissues invariably offer remastered originals, extra tracks and extensive liner notes. But the recent re-release of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn was a little different. This collector’s edition emerged only months after the initial release, with exactly the same tracks, but in a different order.

Keen fans realised soon after Damn dropped that reversing the playlist offers a radically different mood than the more traditional original: initially up-tempo, then spiritual, Damn in reverse moves from laid-back to righteously furious. “It plays as a full story and even a better rhythm,” the rapper admits. “It’s something that we definitely premeditate while we’re in the studio.”

You may think that discussing an album’s running order now seems archaic, in the age of instant, voice-activated song-streaming. But the art of track-choosing can still cause arguments, angst and even occasional court cases.

This was not always the case. In pop’s early years, albums were throwaway collections tossed together by record labels to a formula: singles usually appeared early, as the selling point, followed by quickly recorded cover versions and forgettable filler tracks. Quality control was questionable.

That changed as those pop acts evolved; indeed, the album’s physical format could inspire its sound. Vinyl LPs dominated for decades, so forward-thinking acts would often create two distinct sonic sides; the Beatles’ Abbey Road famously features a themed, linked medley on the flip. That two-chapters approach resonated even into the CD era: Kate Bush’s classic 1985 album Hounds of Love features four hit singles on side one, then the ambitious Ninth Wave suite on “side” two. Did anyone turn the CD halfway through?

Compact discs emerged in the early 1980s and allowed consumers to easily pick, skip or shuffle tracks, but that perturbed certain superstars. Prince insisted that his 1988 album Lovesexy be listened to in order, so the initial CD release featured nine songs as one long track: even Prince fans winced.

Albums were previously restricted to less than 45 minutes running time because of vinyl’s limitations, but digital music changed the game. Rap albums particularly embraced the CD’s greater capacity by including dozens of tracks, many of them song-linking skits. But then R’n’B artists followed, and have begun to hit ludicrous extremes recently, with streaming in mind. Each time a track is listened to on a service such as Spotify, it helps the album’s chart position; hence Chris Brown’s new album Heartbreak on a Full Moon features 45 tracks. Rather than filter out the filler, they throw everything in.

For more earnest acts, the digital era took some adjustment. In 2010, Pink Floyd won a court battle preventing EMI from selling their tracks individually online, because they were originally composed for themed concept albums. Elsewhere, tracklists remain surprisingly fluid, even on classic records. Several Beatles albums featured different track listings in the United Kingdom and United States; Bjork’s hit 1993 film song Play Dead was added to her Debut album months after its release.

In truth, some artists care passionately about running orders; some much less so. According to Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, their biggest arguments involve sequencing, and he presented a radio documentary about the subject in 2013. Several of his interviewees took a more random approach, though: Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason admitted that they spend more time on an album’s title than its running order. And this is no new development. Even legendary song cycles by composers such as Schubert and Strauss were actually compiled by publishers after their deaths, which clearly worked out pretty well. Perhaps today’s pop stars could be a little less precious?


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Updated: December 11, 2017 11:37 AM


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