Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Third Song

Three is a Magic Number - Blind Melon (mp3)
International Bright Young Thing - Jesus Jones (mp3)

So you walk into one of those record stores where you can sample any album, but you're only allowed to sample one single song from any particular album. Which song to pick?

It's a no-brainer, really.

The third song is and should be the cornerstone for any modern album.

A vast majority of modern music albums are formed in a way similar to a baseball batting order. Your first song is the one you hope has the best chance of getting on base and making its way around. It's gotta be speedy and efficient. The second song aims to be a slightly beefier and slower version of the first. The third song is supposed to be the heart of your lineup. Yes, "3-4-5" is called "The Power Alley" because the fourth and fifth batters also need to be able to knock one out of the park, but almost all lineups place their best batter third to maximize the number of at-bats that dude can get in a game.

This entire analogy holds true for -- oh, let's say at least 75% of modern albums, at least those with any aspirations for "popular" success.

Don't get me wrong. Sometimes the third song strikes out. Sometimes it doesn't clear the bases like it should. It's not fool-proof. But when it comes to albums in the post-60s world, if you had to pick a single song that had the best chance of representing the entire album's hopes and intentions, you absolutely have to go with Song #3.

U2 - The Joshua Tree
Song #3: With or Without You
(This is perhaps the greatest baseball line-up album ever made)

Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream
Song #3: Today

Hall + Oates - Private Eyes
Song #3: I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)

Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad
Song #3: Don't Stop the Music

Black Crowes - The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion
Song #3: Thorn in My Pride

Pearl Jam - Ten
Song #3: Alive

Bruce Springsteen - The Rising
Song #3: Waitin' on a Sunny Day

Radiohead - The Bends
Song #3: High and Dry

Oasis - What's the Story Morning Glory
Song #3: Wonderwall

Counting Crows - August and Everything After
Song #3: Mr. Jones

Aerosmith - Permanent Vacation
Song #3: Rag Doll

Queen - Jazz
Song #3: Jealously (comfortably snuggled between "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race")
("Another One Bites the Dust" is the third song from The Game, proof that they'd become utter slaves to the pop album arrangement)

Go try it with your CD collection. If, um, you still have albums or CDs, that is. Any REM album. Dave Matthews Band's Crash. Tonic's Lemon Parade. Stereophonics, Rilo Kiley, Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union, Tegan and Sara, Matthew Sweet, Taylor Swift, Spoon, Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction. Even when the third song isn't their breakthrough hit, it's a song you like a lot if you like the album.

Its not a perfect science, I grant you. Just like some baseball teams do odd strategic things with their lineups, sometimes artists place their power hitters in different spots in the lineup. I mean, you look at Led Zeppelin IV, for instance, and it's next to impossible to find a problem with any possible lineup they could have arranged. "The Battle of Evermore" might not be the cornerstone of the album, but it's also not a bad test point. If for some reason you find that song not to your liking, then the overall album could be a bit of a chore.

If you don't have a good third song, it usually means you blew your musical wad on the first two songs, hoping to God people never actually listen to anything past those first two before they get home, having already wasted their cash to get an album that's only worth the first two songs.

Maybe none of this matters much in the 21st Century, when albums only exist in the sense that they have the same album title in your iTunes category, when even music lovers like myself, who buy entire albums far more often than I buy singles, still rarely if ever actually listens to an album all the way through without stopping.

But just like Grandpa Simpson, I'll stubbornly cling to my conviction about the power of that third song even when they've put me in a rest home and I have to crank the volume up to 11 just to hear it. It's a love story, baby, just say yes.

The Blind Melon song is from the collection of Schoolhouse Rock! covers. "IBYT" is the third song from Jesus Jones' 1991 album Doubt, an album that, while forgotten, still kicks butt.


Jason said...

Finally a music post that I really can comment on with some knowledge! I actually know most of those CD's and songs!

Going through U2's collection of CD's further confirms this theory. I have always had the 3 theory as being that if there is not a decent song by the 3rd song then the album would get roasted by critics and fans alike.

cinderkeys said...

Track 5 tends to be relatively strong, presumably because track 5 used to be track 1 on the album's second side. It amuses me that the track 5 trend continues when albums haven't had sides in a very long time.

BeckEye said...

So, since you mentioned Oasis, I thought I would give equal time to Blur. But they must have existed solely to screw up your formula. With the possible exception of Song #3 on 13, "Coffee and TV," I don't think any of their other albums' #3 song is a "power hitter." Not that they're not good songs, because they are, but it seems like they save the real power for the clean-up spot.

And their first two albums don't seem to follow any kind of distinguishable pattern. Strange.

Billy said...

Jason -- Totally with you. If an album can't wow me in the first three songs, it better be a convincing "concept album" or an orchestral movie soundtrack.

Cinder -- I agree that 4 & 5 have a place in the debate. If this were put up for Regis to "Ask the Audience," I suspect those two would get a lot of votes. But was track 5 really the first song on Side B a lot? That was true of my Rush albums and other prog rock stuff, but with pop albums, it was usually more like song #6 or 7...

Beck -- My use of Brits to support my argument wasn't as compelling, I must admit. Nor was BOTG fave Springsteen, although one could claim he was never too focused on commercial formula.

Hank said...

Optimally, a team should send their batters up in descending order of on-base percentage. Although this is not the standard practice, numerous studies have shown that this lineup will produce the most runs over the course of the season. I wonder if the same is true for albums.

Daisy said...

The first album I picked up was Bodeans "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams." Track # 3 is "Still the Night" my all time favorite Bodeans song.

I feel pretty much the same way about CDs that I do about newspapers. I know they are becomeing an endangered species, but sometimes I feel the need to buy them anyway just on matter of principal.

jed said...

on a great album, #6 will never miss. try it. it's usually the real core of an album.

Tockstar said...

I agree with Jed about Track 6. In fact, I remember sitting down one winter night in college to make a mix tape ('member those) for an old bf and realizing that I had a cassette full of 6's.

As for Track 3s, you MUST check out the song "Number Three" on They Might Be Giants' first album. It's a riff on this whole idea: "There's only two songs in me, and I just wrote the third."