Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
A still from Beck's "Loser" video

1. “Little Thing Called Love,” Neil Young, Trans (1982)

As an unexpected excursion into vocoder-enhanced electronica from a folk-rock star, Neil Young’s Trans is confusing. Mashed together with a few songs from a tropical-themed project recorded months prior in Hawaii, though, it becomes absolutely confounding: The two distinct projects have no business appearing on the same release. “Little Thing Called Love” (no connection to Queen), is a pleasant-enough bit of country-pop ear candy, but its placement at the start of the record suggests a frustrating lack of confidence in the Trans material—as if listeners might need to ease into the robotic clicks and clacks with something a little more comfortable. Trans remains a fascinating record decades later, but its opening cut drives home the communication-breakdown theme only too well. [Zach Schonfeld]


2. “Airportman,” R.E.M., Up (1998)

“Airportman” feels like a statement of purpose from a band that had just lost a founding member (drummer Bill Berry) and wanted to reinvent itself. Unfortunately, the opening song from 1998’s Up didn’t make the right statement: It’s a gentle, electronic dirge with no guitars, no drums, and no hooks. Michael Stipe doesn’t even sing on it, but rather sort of speaks in a low monotone. It’s a shame, because the first track could’ve set the tone for this vastly underrated record, but instead it acts as a sort of barrier to entry—along with track two, “Lotus,” one of the worst R.E.M. singles ever. But beyond that, Up is a gorgeous melancholy listen. If only it had started with “Daysleeper” or even “Why Not Smile,” perhaps more people would have been won over. [Josh Modell]

3. “One Of These Days,” Pink Floyd, Meddle (1971)

Though somewhat overshadowed by the soon-to-follow The Dark Side Of The Moon, Meddle is rightfully remembered as Pink Floyd’s dreamiest disc, with beach-ready outings sung by Roger Waters (“San Tropez”), David Gilmour (“A Pillow Of Winds,” “Fearless”), and even a talented dog (“Seamus”). So why does it wind into gear with “One Of These Days,” the band’s most charging instrumental? The song, with its galloping bass figures and ring modulator effects, is an unabashedly heavy one; the band wouldn’t produce anything quite this hard-hitting again until 1977’s Animals. All told, it’s at odds with the remainder of the album to a degree that would be maddening if it didn’t make for such a memorable opener—Floyd is easily forgiven for not wanting to hold onto it until whatever came next. [Zach Schonfeld]


4. “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone),” U2, Songs Of Innocence (2014)

U2’s back catalog is absolutely littered with awkward attempts to mine the territory of bands that rock a lot harder than U2 (“Get On Your Boots” and “Vertigo”), but perhaps none so blatant as the opening of the band’s latest, Songs Of Innocence. There’s a big, blaring “Whoa-OH-OH” chorus, an overdriven-to-the-point-of-ridiculousness guitar blast, and a chugging drum pickup—and that’s all in the album’s first 30 seconds. The track eventually synthesizes these elements into a plodding, generic stab at a rock tribute, and if nothing else on Innocence quite sounds like this (save maybe the much better “Volcano”), that’s merciful. The U2 of 2014 is wise to stick to the steady, soaring cuts on songs like “Song For Someone” and “Iris (Hold Me Close) that flow more naturally to the group. [Zach Schonfeld]


5. “Black Hearted Love,” PJ Harvey & John Parish, A Woman A Man Walked By (2009)

For a minute there—or the four minutes and 40 seconds of opener and first single “Black Hearted Love”—PJ Harvey tricks fans into heralding a return to the driving, anthemic rock of 2000’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. “I’d like to take you to a place I know,” she sings over layered guitar squalls. But it’s a false flag. A Woman A Man Walked By, the artist’s second album with collaborator John Parish, goes on to mine pointier and more eccentric folk-rock territory; when it does rock, as on the title track and the relentless “Pig Will Not,” it does so on Harvey’s jarring, unforgiving terms. A Woman is a willfully difficult album from an artist who excels at doing nothing else; shame on such a great opener for suggesting otherwise. [Zach Schonfeld]


6. “Tubthumping,” Chumbawamba, Tubthumper (1997)

The A.V. Club can personally attest to the shout-along energy of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping,” after being recruited as the backing chorus on They Might Be Giants’ Undercover version of the song, first on video, then later onstage at a TMBG concert. The song is supposedly meant as a caustically ironic anthem for drunken British hooligans “pissing the night away” on self-congratulation, self-delusion, and whatever liquor crosses their lips. But in practice, it was irresistibly hook-filled and bouncy enough to be embraced, becoming a Top 10 hit in America and the U.K., among many other countries. It’s a strange lead-in for an otherwise darker, softer album that more thoroughly and directly engages Chumbawamba’s usual political messages and social critique. Many of the other songs on the album have fast and complicated electronic dance-rhythms, but none of them have the same simple repetition or faux upbeat emotion. Drunken British hooligans looking for more bleary bar hits no doubt had a hard time getting the rest of the pub going on bitter songs like “One By One” and “Creepy Crawling,” with their accusatory messages about union-busting, police brutality, income inequity, and class distinction. [Tasha Robinson]


7. “Radio Song,” R.E.M., Out Of Time (1991)

Sometimes, the first track on an album will raise hopes up too high; listeners become disappointed when the songs that follow fail to live up to an initial spike of inspiration. No such problem plagues Out Of Time, the chart-topping, Grammy-winning seventh album by R.E.M. The opening track is a false alarm, and blessedly so. A misguided slab of early rap-rock, “Radio Song” finds Michael Stipe spitting anti-FM rhetoric over a plodding funk groove, with KRS-One dropping in for a few hype-man interjections and a painful guest verse. Stipe later defended the song as a satirical jab at commercial songwriting, including his own, but none of R.E.M.’s previous singles sounded as cravenly trend-driven. Thankfully, dread quickly turns to relief when the tune closes and the first jangly chords of “Losing My Religion” arrive. None of the rest of the record, which is made up mostly of mid-tempo ballads, sounds anything like “Radio Song.” In retrospect, the sequencing seems downright genius: The band courts disappointment, only to exceed the lowered expectations it’s set with 10 vastly superior cuts. [A.A. Dowd]


8. “Blue Orchid,” The White Stripes, Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

The White Stripes’ fifth album begins with a characteristic blast of bratty primitivism: A helicopter-blade hum gives way to buzz-saw guitar, Jack White’s falsetto yelp rising above the roar of the riff. Then something unexpected happens: With raucous lead single “Blue Orchid” out of the way, the frontman largely retires his trusty electric. Most of the remaining dozen tracks find White seated instead at a piano, pounding out broken-hearted laments like “Forever For Her (Is Over For Me),” or plucking acoustic strings on the bluegrass-inflected “Little Ghost.” The shift in approach actually proves how sturdy the White Stripes formula was. The duo subtracted the most prominent element of its sound and still managed to make a record that was intrinsically, unmistakably White Stripsian. Pity Jack and Meg had to break up so soon afterward. Think of what other instruments they could seamlessly incorporate and substitute. [A.A. Dowd]


9. “Futile Devices,” Sufjan Stevens, The Age Of Adz (2010)

In the half decade that elapsed between Illinois and its belated full-length follow-up, The Age Of Adz, Sufjan Stevens kept plenty busy—offering his own Amnesiac, performing a live ode to the Brooklyn-Queens expressway, recording covers for compilations, cooing guest vocals, cutting an EP, and bombarding listeners with discs upon discs of yuletide spirit. These various projects all hinted at a different direction for the multi-instrumentalist, teasing his increased interest in sprawling electronic soundscapes and epic song suites. Still, nothing could quite prepare fans for the severe departure that was The Age Of Adz—especially given that the album’s opening track, “Futile Devices,” sounds very much in keeping with the wistful folkie routine that made Sufjan an indie-rock sensation. Just when he seems to be bringing the old acoustic magic, on comes the blips and bloops of the second track, “Too Much”—the true introduction to this 75-minute belch of laptop music. “Words are futile devices,” Sufjan sings in that red herring of a first song. But judging from the rest of the thing, it’s traditional brass and string instruments he now finds useless. [A.A. Dowd]


10. “Loser,” Beck, Mellow Gold (1994)

In a decade marked by improbable mainstream success stories, Beck’s 1994 major label debut, Mellow Gold, is near the top in terms of unlikely ones. Buoyed by the abstract hip-hop pastiche “Loser”—an accidental hit that came to embody the so-called ’90s slacker ethos—the album went platinum and launched his career. The rest of the album, however, is hardly MTV Buzz Bin material; its songs are a loose amalgamation of mush-mouthed beat poetry, cracked psychedelic folk and lo-fi blues, and even fuzzy metal. Naturally, Mellow Gold starts off with “Loser” (and, for that matter, puts the lucid acoustic number “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” second), The effect is a bait and switch—lulling listeners into a false sense of security by having the “pop” hit first, before devolving into weirdness. Then again, making the unexpected move has always been Beck’s way, and so Mellow Gold starting off with an anomaly actually makes perfect sense. [Annie Zaleski]


11. “Drive My Car,” The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965)

Before the group’s catalog was released on CD, there were two versions of The Beatles’ pre-Sgt. Pepper catalog. For crassly commercial reasons, U.K. label Capitol cut two tracks from each of the band’s early releases, and then cobbled together the leftovers into additional albums like Something New or Beatles ’65. For this reason, the U.S. versions were usually considered abominations by serious Beatle fans, with one exception. The U.S. track listing of Rubber Soul is an across-the-board improvement over the U.K. version, most of all because Capitol cut the leadoff track. “Drive My Car” is a great tune on its own, and it’s peppy, uptempo rock would have fit nicely onto A Hard Day’s Night, but here it sticks out like a sore thumb among meditative numbers like “Michelle” and “In My Life.” The U.S. edition opens with “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” which sets the album’s tone perfectly, and then builds through a few slow songs until it gets to side one’s uptempo numbers, “Think For Yourself,” and “The Word.” Even those are mellow compared to “Drive My Car,” however, which would be out of place no matter where it appeared on the album. Rubber Soul marked a turning point between the jangly, three-chord pop songs of the band’s early days, and the more mature songwriting that came later, and “Drive My Car” wound up on the wrong side of the line. [Mike Vago]


12. “Army Of Me,” Björk, Post (1995)

Björk’s has traveled all over the map, stylistically, over the course of her long career, but most of her solo albums have staked out a particular sound and at least stayed within that neighborhood. Her first post-Sugarcubes album was built around dance-inspired tracks like “Big Time Sensuality” and “There’s More To Life Than This,” and her second around ambient, measured songs like the meandering “Possibly Maybe” or the soaring “Isobel.” But the album opens with a wallop, with a hard-driving buzz saw keyboard riff and wailing vocals. Starting off an album with the lead single makes some sense from a record company’s perspective, but the whisper-quiet “Hyperballad” barely registers with “Army Of Me” still ringing in the listener’s ears. The equally up-tempo “Enjoy” works just fine in the middle of the track listing, because the album has a chance to build up to it; maybe Post should have started soft and worked its way up. [Mike Vago]


13. “Clap Your Hands!,” Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)

The self-titled debut by Hype Machine casualty Clap Your Hands Say Yeah was the surprise of summer 2005, an album that synthesized years of indie-rock favorites (echoes of Talking Heads, The Cure, Modest Mouse, and Destroyer abound) into a songwriting confidence beyond the band’s years. It was also a surprise because none of that is in evidence on the opening track: Goaded on by an especially nasally Alec Ounsworth, “Clap Your Hands!” sets up a version of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that’s all broken-down carousels and secondhand Elephant 6 impressions. And yet, including “Clap Your Hands!” at the top of the record might be the canniest move the band ever made. Already good tracks like “Let The Cool Goddess Rust Away” and “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth” could only sound better in comparison to the lunatic circus music that came before them. [Erik Adams]


14. “[Untitled 1],” Mudhoney, Piece Of Cake (1992)

Mudhoney pulled up to the bank still laughing with its Reprise debut, Piece Of Cake, ready to cash in on the mainstream’s desire for all things grunge and angst-ridden with… a goofy techno track. “Untitled 1” kicks things off with Mark Arm yelling, “Act now!” over a house-music keyboard vamp that must have proved pretty confusing to newcomers giving the CD a spin on the recommendation of Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. If they stuck around, they were rewarded with an album full of snarling, Stooges-inspired blues-punk that demonstrates why Mudhoney remains one of the most vital bands to emerge from that picked-over Seattle scene. But first it had to get through a 40-second piss-take that demonstrated why the band was also the funniest. [Sean O’Neal]


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