What’s the Point of Album Intro Songs?

| May 14, 2014
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Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

By Victor Beigelman

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about listening to an album for the first time. If it’s an artist you love, your anticipation for the moment you hit play on your Spotify/iTunes/Sony Walkman/dusty vintage record player is almost unbearable. Amazing or terrible, the music is just hanging behind an invisible trapdoor, waiting to fill the vacuum that is your earhole. So whatever comes out first should do its best to make a good impression, right?

I’m still of the opinion that the first listen through an album should be top to bottom, front to back, no interruptions. I think most people are that way too, but Shuffle CultureTM has changed the way we listen to music. Regardless, that first song is key. What’s the tone you’re going to set with track one? Are you going to ease into it or just dive right in? Filler or killer?

Wait, what? The first song is called “Intro” and it’s 67 seconds long?

Albums that open up with a song that’s literally titled “Intro” as a clear tease/lead-in are a phenomenon I’ll never understand. It’s not that the songs are bad – quite the opposite. More often than not, you’ll come across an “Intro” opening song on an album that’s just fire, but turns to smoke in less than two minutes. I’m not an authority on what the bare minimum for song length should be, but Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic (Intro),” at 1:59 just isn’t going to cut it, especially because it’s amazing. Why can’t this be a full song? Why does it have to build more anticipation? We’ve already done that ourselves before we jump in. We’re literally all ears.

Or take “Intro” by the xx off their first album, XX. This song has been remixed a thousand times, and for good reason. It’s amazing. Moody and potent, it sets an appropriate tone for the rest of the album. The problem is that the second you get into it, it’s over. What’s the point of its trimmed size? What’s the harm in building out this awesome track to a full-length song that can fully stand on its own?

A much more recent example (XX was released in 2009) is “(Intro) It’s Album Time” off Todd Terje’s debut album It’s Album Time. Terje likes to have a little fun with the way he names his work (after a Norwegian music executive called his music good for a strandbar a.k.a. a beach bar, he titled his next hit single “Strandbar”), and this one is no different. But, Todd, why is this killer track 1:41 long?! In a day and age where drops can take twice as long as this entire song to happen, this feels jarring. Terje himself follows the long-drop trend; on this album alone there are five songs exceeding six minutes. It’s strange to tease listeners with an amazing opening track that ends up being nothing more than a throat clear.

It seems trivial to complain (and in some ways it totally is), but hey, we’re here. Just because something happens a lot doesn’t mean it makes sense. Let’s talk about it. Beyond the three songs already mentioned, here are a few more culprits of the short album intro trend since 2000. As you can see, they’re all over the map:

  • Intro, Stankonia – Outkast
  • Intro, Confessions – Usher
  • Intro, Demon Days – Gorillaz
  • Be (intro), Be – Common
  • Intro, Curtain Call – Eminem
  • Feel Free (ft. Q-Tip) (Intro), Blue Collar, Rhymefest
  • Intro, Fancy Footwork – Chromeo
  • Intro, An Awesome Wave – Alt-J
  • Intro, Summer’s Gone – Odesza
  • Intro, Settle – Disclosure
  • Intro, Warpaint – Warpaint

The bottom line for all these tracks is that there’s no need for them to shout about being an intro. It’s like a restaurant serving you one third of a breadstick to let you know that dinner is starting. We know it’s starting. That’s why we’re here. It would be great to get a full mouthful to chew on right from the start.

Now, not everyone likes to start things in medias res. This is totally a matter of preference. You can argue that the intro to anything exists for a reason, and in general, an introduction is shorter than the body that follows. My argument is that for albums with “Intro” songs, you’re never seeing a “Conclusion” song at the end. So why is there a frustrating tease at the beginning? It’s not a seventh grade history paper. Let’s get to the point.

Better yet, bulk up the intro as a real part of the point itself.

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About the Author ()

KQED Pop is a daily blog edited by Emmanuel Hapsis that critically examines the social and cultural impact of music, movies, television, advertisements, fashion, the internet and all the other collective experiences that make us laugh, cringe and cry. We focus on local, national and international experiences with a Bay Area lens. We don’t do reviews.
  • Daniel

    How do you feel about the less common “Outro” track? Does it get you in the mood to listen to the album again? Give you a sense of conclusive respite until the next time you hit play?