The album is a weird artform. Instead of being defined by structure or aesthetic, its most unique characteristic is time – 25 to 50 minutes for an LP, which of course is short for long-playing phonograph, a century-old bit of physical technology that has absolutely nothing to do with how music is consumed by the vast majority of people today. But artists still release albums, which for pop artists who make tunes that are probably not exceeding 5 minutes in length means an album better have a bunch of songs.
There are plenty of concept albums, where the songs are all purposefully tied together, and albums are generally supposed to have an overarching theme or mood (at least they better, or critics lose a crucial thing to talk about). But what I’m interested in here are the songs on albums that are not specifically conceived and are not the hits, not the single or singles the artist or their label is prepared to really push into the larger world. In a bad album these are filler tracks, but in a good one these can stand out for how they add to or diverge from the album as a whole or just because they have something unique on their own. The singles will show up out in the world but an album track is something to be uncovered, or to learn to appreciate.
So here are five songs that have nothing in common other than being great and existing as album tracks. But a quick definition and limitation of “album track” beforehand: I’m defining this as a track from an album with officially released singles that is not one of those singles OR a since-singled song. Is the Butthole Surfers’ “I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas” a great song? Of course, but album Hairway To Steven has no singles, so it is disqualified. Perhaps more germanely, let’s look at The Clash’s London Calling album. It does have official singles in “London Calling” and “Train In Vain,” so the album itself qualifies while those songs are ineligible. But I think several other songs have moved into single territory, i.e. you hear them on the radio or at the CVS or in other popular arenas; “Lost In The Supermarket” absolutely fits this description and I think “Death Or Glory” and “Spanish Bombs” do so as well. So they’re also out in my view, and I’m the one writing this. (The best actual album track on London Calling is “The Card Cheat.”) So in no particular order here we go, and list your own favorite album tracks in the comments. Perhaps we can combine them into some kind of long-playing song collection, like a playlist.
“Disposable Heroes,” by Metallica
Master of Puppets the album qualifies here, it had a single, “Master of Puppets” the song! It’s heavily edited down but I’ve heard the album version on the radio as well, and I’ve also heard non-single “Sanitarium (Welcome Home)” far more than either version of “Puppets,” which is not surprising considering its use of quiet acoustic dynamics in the verses and blaring chords for a chorus that speaks to badass rebellion. “Disposable Heroes,” on the other hand, is 8+ minutes of relentless pounding and thrash about a soldier realizing he is going to die and his only point in life was only to be used as cannon fodder by forces beyond his control. It is grim and ferocious, even by Metallica standards, and its symphony of rage and fear and powerlessness is the centerpiece of the album.
“She Wants To (Get On Down),” by Bill Withers
Withers’ Menagerie is warm R&B, relaxed without being vapid and smooth but not frictionless. It takes its general vibe from opening track and lead single “Lovely Day,” one of the most calming and welcoming songs out there, and while other single “Lovely Night For Dancing” speeds things up a bit the mood is generally not that excited. Except for “She Wants To (Get On Down),” which is pure disco – its boiling bass and repetitive mantra of a chorus (complete with modulation toward the end) comes midway through the album and insists you get on down alongside her. It’s an outsider in the LP but that’s why it’s such a fun track, still within Withers’ range and very well-sequenced in the album as a whole but a brief glimpse of something different.
“Sweetness Follows,” by REM
Automatic For The People has a track like “She Wants To (Get On Down)” – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” the third of six singles (fully half the tracklist) of R.E.M.’s smash. “Sidewinder” is a delightful celebration of goofery that still somehow fits on an otherwise downbeat and mournful album, which is reflected in the other singles, particularly “Everybody Hurts.” “Sweetness Follows” distills that overall sadness into something nearly unbearable, “Readying to bury your father and your mother / What did you think when you lost another?” opens the floodgates and the dark, lowing strings are the undertow. This is not a song to encounter unexpectedly, it’s one to find when you need it because you know it’s waiting.
“Daly City Train,” by Rancid
The three singles from …And Out Come The Wolves all land in the first half of the album, culminating with “Ruby Soho’s” blast of energy. And then comes the plaintive strumming and earnest singing of “Daly City Train,” and for years as a kid I would just stop the CD there. I hated it! This isn’t punk! And it’s a bit more ska-leaning, yes, but it’s also a great song that moves into a classic Rancid shout-along punk chorus anyway. I don’t know what I was thinking then, what I know now is that this is both a chill breather and a lovely tribute to a friend, a song that was fine with me having to catch up to it.
“No. 13 Baby,” by the Pixies
This is the song that inspired this piece in the first place. Doolittle is another album with singles both official (“Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone To Heaven,” “Debaser”) and unofficial (“Wave of Mutilation”), and every song here is catchy. “No. 13 Baby” is no exception there, in many ways it’s a typical Pixies track of abstract vocals and quiet verses and loud choruses. But instead of coming to a climax, it spirals out at the end – the mystery of its lyrics is given space to stretch in a new, menacing and unresolved rhythm as Joey Santiago’s guitar skirls overhead. It’s a path that’s too weird for the mainstream and can only be found on an album, beckoning the listener to return again and again.