It’s becoming glaringly obvious that the responsibility of this generation of music listeners is to give The Album it’s final honor stab through the chest before claiming complete victory over the major record labels. Surely, it must be done for the greater good, but the beauty of an album is that it gives artists a platform to tell a story and set a distinguishable perspective with each separate work. My personal favorite aspect to an album is the leadoff track. The ideal leadoff track isn’t necessarily the highlight, but it’s the table for everything to come.
Because these past 20 years have lead to the complete detriment of the album as we know it, I figure a fitting game to play while on the home stretch of its death march is to select 20 of the finest leadoff tracks from albums of the past 20 years. Artists like Outkast, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott aren’t on here because each of their albums feature half-minute long interludes that precede absolute classics. Because of that technicality, making this list was made a lot easier. Enjoy!
1. “Wesley’s Theory” – Kendrick Lamar
The only reason why this list is ranked from best to worst is to make sure everyone knows that “Wesley’s Theory” is the best of the bunch. Seriously, 2-20 couldn’t be more interchangeable. Re-rank them however you want, I don’t care. Just make sure you keep “Wesley’s Theory” at the top. Not only does Kendrick improve upon the disillusioned-by-fame theme from songs like Nirvana’s “Serve The Servants” and Weezer’s “Tired of Sex”, but he sets the table for his sprawling commentary on the absolute disaster storm of a situation that is race relations in 21st Century America. He’s also the first big name rapper to let Flying Lotus produce his album. How it’s taken this long for a high profile act to give Kendrick a shot is beyond me, but he made the most of it. The solemn funk grooves and George Clinton’s presence put the bow on Kendrick’s beast-out. So again, while reading this, I want you to take every numbered spot with a grain of salt. Except for this one.
2. “One Beat” – Sleater-Kinney
Hey, did you know that before her successful stint as an American Express spokesperson, Carrie Brownstein was part of the best punk rock band in the world? Weird, right? Whatever, it’s annoying to spew the unwritten rules of punk on one of the scene’s most important bands. There’s no denying that “One Beat”, the track (and the album) has a politically charged message that still rings true 14 years later. We’re still fighting with old billionaires to give their power up! Over a decade later, and nothing’s changed! Go us! And oh yeah, be sure to shop using American Express. Accepted at retailers nationwide.
3. “Dark Fantasy’ – Kanye West
Even after a string of absolute killer singles through his G.O.O.D. Fridays releases, a lot of fans were still uncertain about what to expect from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye did a phenomenal job demolishing the goodwill he had built amongst a major portion of his fanbase between the release of Graduation and 2010 — some of it was deserved, and a lot of it was myopic in hindsight. But a lot of the Kanye fanatics came flocking back because of the G.O.O.D. Fridays songs. And though he claims MBDTF was him pandering to those fans, having Nicki Minaj’s shaky-at-best British accent be the first thing these apprehensive folks hear doesn’t seem like the safe move to be make. Kanye was still challenging the fanbase to hate him. But when he’s dropping classic “Family Matters” based punchlines, it’s impossible.
4. “Dance Yrself Clean” – LCD Soundsystem
“It’s the end of an era, it’s true.” Except, not really, because now they’re back for that sweet, sweet festival headliner money! I’m legitimately happy that LCD Soundsystem is back, though. It messes with the whole storybook ending they had at MSG 5 years ago, but it isn’t going to make “Dance Yrself Clean” any less cathartic to hear live again. Because once the song explodes at the 3:07 mark, none of that dumbness matters. Just shut up and dance to the hits.
5. “Did You See The Words” – Animal Collective
“In The Flowers” is probably the Animal Collective leadoff track with more significant stakes to it, but there’s a consistency in how ebullient “Did You See The Words” is from start to finish. This song has a certain charge to it that seems to be missing from “In The Flowers”. It’s the peak of Animal Collective’s run of making songs with a true childlike spirit without compromising their exploratory nature musically. This type of artistic silliness was rampant on Feels and it’s what made “Did You See The Words” such an epic welcome wagon to a Neverland that’s got all the old can records.
6. “Since I Left You” – The Avalanches
Sampling finally started getting the respect it deserved as an art form in the ‘00s. I think the way Bad Boy used it as a crutch in a lot of their hits left a sour taste in the mouths of more snobbish listeners, but Since I Left You is one of the albums that helped those fans see the light. This is probably because everything about the album’s eponymous track has an undeniable air of likeability to it. From a futurist’s standpoint, you can see the greatness of this song and wonder if there’s no reason to create anymore since all you have to do is reshape what’s already been created. To that, I say: newness is a myth and get over it.
7. “Prime” – Marnie Stern
Because she’s able to create all this intricate lunacy with her guitar on “Prime” and keep it within the confines of a two minute song, Marnie Stern will always be one of my favorite guitarists. She also gets plenty of help from half-man, half-octopus Zach Hill here, thus maximizing the wreckage left. It’s unclear why she’s seldom mentioned by Rolling Stone and other publications whenever they trot a revamped version of the ‘Greatest Guitarists Ever’ list. I’m joking, it’s very clear. The people at Rolling Stone are very ancient and probably still call Eddie Van Halen a ‘foolhardy whippersnapper’.
8. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” – Arcade Fire
It’s strange that Arcade Fire was ever considered an indie band. Seeing them playing a song as epic as “Neighborhood #1” at smaller venues must’ve been like watching Cam Newton the year he had to play for Blinn College. But now, Win Butler is fully enrolled in the Bruce Springsteen Mentorship Program and all’s right with the world.
9. “Randy Described Eternity – Built To Spill
So many indie rock bands from the past either have a contentious relationship brought on by bigheadedness, or they’re too drugged out to even care either way. Built To Spill, on the other hand, continues to tour and release new material regularly. Not only are they a constant, but the rugged and ever-wandering guitars on “Randy Described Eternity”, paired with Doug Martsch’s melodic metaphysical musings, took them to new heights.
10. “Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes/ “One More Time” – Daft Punk/ “Crazy In Love” – Beyonce
This is cheating putting these three together like this, but each of these songs are similarly enormous hits that would easily top this list based off narrative alone. And even without that, they’re each great songs worthy of being on here, however each of these songs have gotten over-saturated to the point of no return. Drunk Miami Heat fans chant the opening riff to “Seven Nation Army” every time their team hits a big shot. It’s a little much. So to split the difference and give love to less ubiquitous songs, I’m grouping them all up at the midway point.