This weekend, I paid to see Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray’s authorized biopic about pioneering gangsta rap group N.W.A. Two and a half hours later, I felt like I had been watching television — Straight Outta Compton is essentially a well-made homage to one of the least reputable film genres, the made-for-VH1 movie. Similar to Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story and CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, Straight Outta Compton artlessly re-creates the broad strokes of its subject’s history, underlining each career benchmark with dialogue that dispenses exposition and establishes historical context with the same subtlety that Ice Cube once applied to the word “motherfucker.”1 In spite of all of its studious box-checking when it comes to nearly every other major N.W.A talking point, however, Straight Outta Compton doesn’t address a subject near and dear to my heart: N.W.A’s place in the history of great Side 1, Track 1s.
Straight Outta Compton also references its subject’s most popular album in the title, a requirement for made-for-VH1 movies. If only it were affixed with “The N.W.A Story” for extra emphasis.
Given that albums are no longer automatically divided into opposing halves — or even consumed as albums, but rather as fodder for personalized playlists — it might not seem like a relevant issue. But, in fact, now that the art of sequencing songs has been democratized, finding just the right tone-setter is an even greater obsession for music geeks. And few groups set the tone better on their first album than N.W.A.
The album Straight Outta Compton begins, of course, with “Straight Outta Compton.” What makes “Straight Outta Compton” one of the best Side 1, Track 1s ever? For starters, it fulfills all four requirements of an excellent album-opener:
1. A dramatic entrance
2. A palatable sense of rising action
3. Simple yet direct lyrics that act as a mission statement
4. A climax powerful enough to compel the listener to play the rest of the album
“Straight Outta Compton” achieves these objectives with a potent mix of braggadocio (satisfying point three), police sirens (point one), a careful positioning of rappers that puts Eazy-E in the cleanup spot (point two), and more police sirens (point four). But what really pushes “Straight Outta Compton” over the top is how it tells you everything you need to know about N.W.A in the space of just four minutes and 19 seconds. You learn the name of each member, the town from which the group hails, and what Eazy will do to your mother and sister if you cross him. (Smother the former, cuckold the latter.)
“Straight Outta Compton” not only sets up the album perfectly, it instantly establishes the iconography for N.W.A and the entire gangsta rap genre. The storytelling is as economical as Dre’s breakbeats. “Straight Outta Compton” renders the movie redundant.
Let’s say we wanted to rank the all-time best Side 1, Track 1s, like we’re hanging out at Championship Vinyl. It’s not as much fun as it sounds.
Following the lead of “Straight Outta Compton,” we could start with title tracks: There’s Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” the Clash’s “London Calling,” Prince’s “1999,” Duran Duran’s “Rio,” and the Strokes’ “Is This It.” That’s 10 songs right there.
Then comes the next tier of no-brainers, which are opening singles that were clearly superior to the rest of the album: Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Isaac Hayes’s “Walk on By,” the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine of My Life,” Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough,” Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” Phoenix’s “Lisztomania,” and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” That’s 10 more songs. I’m sure you could come up with 100 more.
Here’s where the arguments start. Surely room must be made for the Replacements’ “I Will Dare,” Run-D.M.C.’s “Peter Piper,” and My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow,” but what about Hüsker Dü’s “New Day Rising” or Slayer’s “Angel of Death”? I’d feel as if a crime were committed if I didn’t include Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” but would it be a stretch to push for My Morning Jacket’s “Wordless Chorus”? Oh, I just remembered Queens of the Stone Age’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” — that song is all rising action! And what about “No Church in the Wild” from Watch the Throne? Or the National’s “Fake Empire”? Or Run the Jewels’s “Run the Jewels”?
Is it possible all of these choices are too obvious? Let’s start over: I want the Black Crowes’ “Twice As Hard,” Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept,” and Chance the Rapper’s “Good Ass Intro.” The Hold Steady’s “Positive Jam” also deserves a slot. To really liven things up, I’ll also include Laura Marling’s “Warrior,” from this year’s Short Movie, a true “sly declaration of classic status” move.
When it comes to ranking the best Side 1, Track 1s, a common pitfall is listing the opening tracks of every great record ever made. (A great record, practically by definition, must have a quality Side 1, Track 1.) It’s simply impossible to wade through all the possibilities. So, let’s winnow down our choices a bit — instead of counting down every worthwhile Side 1, Track 1, we’ll focus only on debut albums.2
This very topic came up once in a Grantland email chain, so I feel my coworkers judging me more intensely than usual.
First, some criteria: No skits, spoken-word interludes, or stand-alone instrumental passages. (This excludes most rap albums, including slam dunks like Nas’s Illmatic, as well as Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker.) Songs from debut albums preceded by EPs don’t count, either. (Say goodbye to Pavement’s “Summer Babe,” Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin’,” and R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe.”) This also excludes N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” — it’s the first song on N.W.A’s first LP, but a compilation, N.W.A and the Posse, came out the year before.
Here are the songs that made my list, preceded by songs that almost made my list.
20 Songs That Could’ve Made the List — I Won’t Explain Why They Didn’t in the Interest of Time
Boston, “More Than a Feeling”3
The Clash, “Janie Jones”4
Counting Crows, “Round Here”5
Daft Punk, “Daftendirekt”
Devo, “Uncontrollable Urge”
The Doors, “Break on Through (to the Other Side)”
Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze”6
Whitney Houston, “You Give Good Love”7
LCD Soundsystem, “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”8
Curtis Mayfield, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”
Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like a Hole”
Pearl Jam, “Once”
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”
Bruce Springsteen, “Blinded by the Light”9
Television, “See No Evil”
U2, “I Will Follow”
Van Halen, “Runnin’ With the Devil”10
Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”
Weezer, “My Name Is Jonas”11
Young Jeezy, “Thug Motivation 101”
My Top 10 Side 1, Track 1s From Debut Albums (in Alphabetical Order)
This song represented the epitome of recording technology in 1976, and in 2015 you only hear it when you get your oil changed. I wonder if this will happen to Skrillex in 2055.
If somebody else made this list, I would be angriest over this song being excluded.
Nearly every person who has made fun of me for (still!) loving Counting Crows has conceded that this is a great song.
An amazing song I have zero interest in ever hearing again.
This song isn’t dramatic and exhibits nothing that can be described as “rising action.” However, Houston’s self-titled debut sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, which means it killed the fourth requirement.
I like this song, but “Losing My Edge” should’ve been the Side 1, Track 1 on the first LCD Soundsystem album.
If Bruce had actually sung “douche,” I might’ve made room in my top 10.
I brought up “Runnin’ With the Devil” during that Grantland email chain, and Chuck Klosterman argued against its inclusion, citing the song’s lack of a guitar solo, the most Van Halen–y of all Van Halen sonic attributes. While “Runnin’ With the Devil” does have an admittedly brief solo, I still found this argument persuasive enough to leave the song just outside the top 10.
Sixteen-year-old me is no longer speaking to present-day me after this. However, when I do my “best album-ending songs” column, “Only in Dreams” will get its due props.
Beyoncé, “Crazy in Love”
This seems like cheating — 2003’s Dangerously in Love is technically Beyoncé’s first solo record, but she was already a known commodity from Destiny’s Child. But from the moment those horns kicked in, Beyoncé’s past was obliterated — she was only a solo artist at that point. In a year when people are straining to find a song of the summer, it’s worth remembering how undeniable “Crazy in Love” was when it dropped in May ’03. It wasn’t only the song of that summer,12 it’s the song of the summer of this century.
It went to no. 1 in early July and stayed there eight weeks.
Black Sabbath, “Black Sabbath”
The finest example of a group writing its own theme song, “Black Sabbath” is better than Bad Company’s “Bad Company,” Wilco’s “Wilco (The Song),” Iron Maiden’s “Iron Maiden,” the Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash,” and Big Country’s “In a Big Country.”13 “Black Sabbath” gets extra points because it not only fully defines the Black Sabbath sound, but it also outlines the doom-laden parameters of the entire metal genre. Not bad for a Side 1, Track 1 on a debut that took just 12 hours to record.
Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle”
It’s not quite as good as the Monkees’ “(Theme from) The Monkees,” but that one technically doesn’t count, because Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith didn’t write it themselves.
This list is in alphabetical order, because any of these tracks are worthy of being called the best Side 1, Track 1. But “Welcome to the Jungle” is a little worthier than the rest. It has all of the elements — the most dramatic entrance; the fiercest rising action; the simplest, most direct, most mission statement-y lyrics; and a landing that sticks straight into your cerebral cortex. It even says “welcome” in the title. No disrespect to the other luminaries on this list, but they can feel Axl’s serpentine.
Jay Z, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”
A sure sign of a classic table-setting Side 1, Track 1 is whether the title could be used as a clever Internet headline describing the artist’s exploits in 2015. This is certainly true of “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” a song recorded almost 20 years ago by the proprietor of Tidal back when he was just a rapper. “Can’t Knock the Hustle” is a classic from Jay’s pre–Manifest Destiny era — the live version from MTV Unplugged remains a personal favorite — but it lives on as a meme for the Rolling Stones of rap.
Madonna, “Lucky Star”
The discourse about great ’80s pop albums tends to dwell a little too much on Thriller and Purple Rain and not nearly enough on 1983’s Madonna, an LP that people are still trying and failing to remake in 2015. Put Max Martin, Shellback, Sia, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Rostam Batmanglij in a room with a crate of crystal meth, and not even they could collectively match the pop brilliance of Madonna’s Side 1 — this is from where “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Burning Up,” and “Holiday” all derive. Whatever Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” did for metal, “Lucky Star” did for contemporary pop.
New York Dolls, “Personality Crisis”
This is the primordial swamp from which “Welcome to the Jungle” and lots of other wondrous scuzz emerged. Whereas “Welcome to the Jungle” is like riding shotgun in a 1987 Pontiac Firebird with a cadre of strippers in the backseat and a platoon of screaming cop cars in the rearview mirror, “Personality Crisis” is a hot frying pan in the face after passing out on the floor of a crack house. The former sounds exciting in a seedy way, while the latter is just plain old seedy.
Oasis, “Rock ’N’ Roll Star”
The greatest called shot in rock history, “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” would still be great if Oasis hadn’t actually become rock stars. But the fact “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” was prescient makes it an all-time self-actualization anthem, an “I Will Survive” for drunken idiot lads. Now, if Oasis had only called the last song on Definitely Maybe “We’ll Blow It on Our Third Album.”
The Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop”
“Hey ho, let’s go! Hey ho, let’s GO! Hey ho, LET’S GO! HEY HO, LET’S GO!” Are you in love yet? Your heart would have to be made out of leather and denim not to be.
The Stone Roses, “I Wanna Be Adored”
There are dramatic entrances, and then there’s the opening of Stone Roses’ “I Wanna Be Adored,” which runs for nearly one-third of the song’s running time.14 While it’s true the Stone Roses were adored in their native England, that love didn’t translate in the U.S. beyond a cult of committed Anglophiles, of which I was a bloody member, mate. But still: American foreign policy was woefully off base vis-à-vis the Roses, whose arrogance is conveyed by that endlessly epic fade-in and Mani’s slowly creeping bass line, which leaves enough space to accommodate 50,000 people heartily clapping out the rhythm. I propose that public money be used to build a stadium for the Stone Roses to play “I Wanna Be Adored” as it was intended.
Wu-Tang Clan, “Bring da Ruckus”
This song proves that “Rock ’N’ Roll Star” would’ve been great even if Oasis had failed commercially, because the Stone Roses did fail, and yet “I Wanna Be Adored” remains an all-time Side 1, Track 1.
Everything that’s great about “Straight Outta Compton” is also true of “Bring da Ruckus” — it succinctly lays out all the core principles of the Wu-Tang universe. You have kung fu, the collective’s best MCs (Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Inspectah Deck, and GZA), and drums that come tough like an elephant tusk. It’s an ass-kicker that promises greater amounts of ass-kicking on subsequent tracks — precisely what a great Side 1, Track 1 should be.