I’m a shuffler. I carry huge amounts of music around in my pocket, plug it into my ears and shuffle. I used to be able to tell you exactly what track one was, what track two was, what track three was on any album in my collection – these days I might struggle to tell you what the album is even called. Partly, this is down to my life and mind becoming bogged down by the accoutrements of modern life – social media, sourdough, mortgage repayments and nappies (not my own) – and clearly there’s not as much room in my grey matter for the sort of trivia that sustained me in my teenage years. However, this apparent memory loss can also, to paraphrase the Jackson 5, be blamed on the shuffle. Don’t get me wrong, I totally get the appeal of “random play”. There was a time when, apart from breathing in and out, I more or less exclusively made mix tapes, so shuffle mode to me is really just the logical conclusion. But since we started listening to collections of music this way, essentially chucking everyone from Rod Stewart to Fela Kuti in the “various artists” pile day after day, and downloading tracks in ones and twos, it makes me wonder: have we lost touch with the idea of an album as a continuous suite of songs?
The classic albums are often considered great because they work so fantastically well when played non-stop from beginning to end. The sequence of songs is perfect; they flow from one to the next and there may even be **cough** a narrative arc. We lose that in a snap once we press the wiggly shuffle button. On the plus side, if we’re only buying and listening to our favourite tracks, we can bypass the filler, those dodgy album tracks that are the musical equivalent of chick peas. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed album tracks – hey, I like chick peas too – and it seems a shame our listening habits might be killing them off. Would I buy The Beatles’ music concrète mash-up “Revolution 9” if it was 99p in the Apple Store and, if I did, would I be able to resist skipping it if it interrupted my morning commute? No, probably not, but if it was sandwiched between “Cry Baby Cry” and “Good Night”, where it rightfully finds a home on the White Album, then I’d probably let the music play …
Sales of albums, digital and physical, are falling. Streaming of music is increasing (to the tune of 500% when compared to 2013). However, major labels are not giving up on physical formats – or the album – just yet. “You still can’t really gift streaming,” explained David Hawkes, MD of Universal Music UK’s Commercial Division, speaking to Music Week. “Christmas will still be very physical heavy.”
And vinyl, the original long playing medium, is making a comeback. 3.2 million vinyl records were sold in 2016, a rise of 53% on the previous year, according to the BPI. To put that in context, that is still less than 3% of the overall music market but it does point to a growing number of people who are wanting to physically reconnect with recorded music and – unless they’re getting up every five minutes to disturb the stylus – presumably listening to albums from start to finish.
So with this in mind, as the new year gets underway, we wanted to celebrate that moment when the needle first hits the vinyl, the moment you hear that initial warming crackle and then … track one, side one. Boom! What do you hear? How do you open an album that sets you up for the next 30, 40, 50 minutes? Here’s our latest playlist with some of our favourites.
– Stephen Bloomfield
Our Track One Side One Playlist
Check out our Track One Side One playlist below and find out who chose what and why further down the page.
Arcarsenal, from the album Relationship Of Command (2000)
– At The Drive In
This album is massive and if I’m ever feeling a bit lethargic or lacking in motivation, then this record kicks me out of it. The opening track is like an audio boot around the face. Marvellous.
– Phil Catchpole (Programme Manager, Selector Radio)
Some Other Sky, from the album Camouflage (2004)
– Acoustic Ladyland
This isn’t just a great track one, side one; it’s track one, side one on album one for this incredible London jazz group. The introduction funks along as if quietly ushering in a fairly straight-forward contemporary jazz group but the track and album progress into something altogether more terrifying. There are so many mini highlights on this one track alone: the four piano chords that lead to Pete Wareham’s altissimo pleading, the sudden drop down to E to bring us ‘back to the top’, the displacement in the drums in the final lap ... Acoustic Ladyland won Best Band at the BBC Jazz Awards in 2005; I still don’t know why they didn’t get a Mercury nomination in the years afterwards. Unfortunately, they split in 2010 but you might have come across the splinters: drummer Seb Rochford’s Polar Bear and Tom Herbert’s band The Invisible have both received Mercury nominations; saxophonist Pete Wareham’s latest band is the riotous Melt Yourself Down.
– Stephen Bloomfield (Communications Manager, Music)
First We Take Manhattan, from the album I’m Your Man (1988)
– Leonard Cohen
I liked this song before I even knew anything about Leonard Cohen. As usual with Cohen, the thrust of the lyrics captured my imagination; this grizzled narrator blending menacing vocals with wryly geopolitical lyrics and 80s synthpop. I didn’t know what to make of it. I had to find out what it meant. Later, I found that it segues perfectly into the rest of the album. There’s a lot of synth, a glossy production, but the vague feeling of menace and fatalism from the lyrics underlines everything (and has ensured it’s aged better than many other late 80s synth-laden albums!) Even the album cover carries this same vein of dark humour: a well-dressed Cohen chomping on a banana. As Cohen himself said: "it seemed to sum me up perfectly. 'Here's this guy looking cool,' I thought, 'in shades and a nice suit. He seems to have a grip on things, an idea of himself.' And it suddenly occurred to me that's everyone's dilemma: at the times we think we're the coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana."
– Tom Boughen (Music, Literature, Theatre & Dance Hub Assistant)
Overture: Sinfonia, from The Pulcinella Suite (1920)
– Igor Stravinsky
This is one of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, based on pieces attributed to the early 18th century Italian composer Pergolesi. It's arranged from the music he wrote for a ballet on the Commedia dell’arte figure. I can't really explain why I love it so much. It was my getting up music while at university (never been good at getting up). It’s so energising with its taut rhythms and the occasional grit in the classical harmonies. I recommend the whole suite.
Toccata, from Orfeo (1607)
– Claudio Monteverdi
My second choice is the Toccata which opens Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo from 1607. A great piece of music for weddings if anyone’s looking. All those trumpets and drums – exhilarating.
– Cathy Graham (Director, Music)
Jesus Alone, from the album Skeleton Tree (2016)
– Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“You fell from the sky, crash landed in a field.” What an opener for an album. “Jesus Alone” embodies grief, hope, and a grappling with shaken faith following the tragic death of one of his teenage twin sons. The ghostly and hypnotic instrumentation reveals a dark, brooding and deeply unresolved anxiety. One More Time With Feeling is a must watch companion film, throwing a weighty emotional punch, while simultaneously proffering delicate insight into how the tragic personal events influence and find expression through artistic work. This track and album also shine a gentle glowing light on the enduring artistic relationship between Cave and Warren Ellis, whose creative input increasingly receives the attention he deserves.
– Joel Mills (Senior Music Programme Manager)
Untitled, from the album, Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)
It’s quite remarkable to think of “Untitled” as the starting point of a band’s career but such is the maturity, the swagger, the effortless cool Interpol exude with each passing bar. Not only “track one, side one” but album one too; it’s nigh on unrivalled as an opening statement. The siren-like, shuffling guitar intro builds ominously into seismic bass, its physicality anchored expertly by Sam Fogalino’s pummelling drums. Paul Banks’ vocals, at once deadpan and heartfelt, repeating the refrain “surprise sometimes, will come around”, augment an underlying feeling of longing. It’s simultaneously bleak and rousing, emotionally complex while exercising masterful musical simplicity and restraint. I’m going to say Interpol never bettered Turn on The Bright Lights and that’s no great slight; it’s as formidable a debut record as they come, and “Untitled” encapsulates why.
– Jacob Silkin (Music Programme Coordinator)
More playlists from the British Council
- Listen to our live shows of 2016 playlist here
- Listen to our words and music playlist here
- Listen to our journeys playlist here
- Listen to our film and music playlist here
- Listen to our hidden gems playlist here
- Listen to our cover versions playlist here
- Listen to our whistling playlist here