I’ve been involved in putting out a number of records through the years; sometimes I’ve had the responsibility of sequencing them. That, for the few of you who may not know the term, means putting the songs in a particular order: not what songs are included (that’s another problem), but how the album begins, end, and what the middle sounds like — how it flows.
I never gave sequencing much of a thought until I heard my first Beatles albums (“Meet”/”With”) in their U.S./UK incarnations. Pretty much the same songs, but the UK version flowed so much better. Whether or not anybody agrees with that assessment, it was clear that the order in which songs are arranged on an album can make a great deal of difference.
At least, it’s simply a matter of making sure that (as in a good live set), the audience doesn’t get bored. Not too many fast songs in a row; not too many slow ones (even more than the fast ones); not in the same key, one after another. The listener may not know exactly what’s going on, at least if not looking for it, but it can keep an album (or live set) from bogging down.
Front-loading — putting the “hit” single at the beginning of the album — never made much sense to me as a listener. It makes sense to labels and radio stations both; making sure that the “right” song is right there where it’s easy to find and not miscue.
All the albums I’ve put together have been compilations of previously-released material. My method, such as it is, forks off in two — maybe three — directions. The easiest is chronological. “Greatest hits” album often work best that way, if only because an act develops as years go by, and the sound changes along with it. Audiences (at least those who grew up with the band) probably heard I Want to Hold Your Hand before they heard Strawberry Fields Forever, and hearing the in reverse order would jar on several levels.
Still, on the occasions I have gone chronological, sometimes I’ll change the order slightly in order to keep the flow going. Though on one album I compiled, I used a pretty straight chronological order; the kick-off song was, conveniently, a real ‘rouser. Before the album was released, someone at the label decided to lead instead with the act’s biggest hit, which was lazy and slow. I won’t say it ruined the whole album, but (a) any disc jockey who played it would be some college-radio type who wouldn’t need to be guided to the hit, and (b) it really pissed me off — and though I didn’t say anything about it (nor was I consulted before the switch was made), I never worked for the label again. As the old joke goes: they weren’t paying me enough to treat me like that!
The most fun, for me at least, comes when a little creativity is possible (this is easier, admittedly, when the act’s sound is reasonably consistent). Then, I try to construct a record as I would a live set: opening and closing with something rousing or otherwise appropriate (A Beatles album might begin with Good Morning, Good Morning and end with Goodnight).
Those are generally the easiest choices; filling in the middle, for me, is more instinctive than intellectual: I put together various sequences until I find one that sounds “right” to me. Admittedly, that’s a matter of taste to some degree, but you can bet that three slow songs one after the other won’t sound “right” to you any more than it will to you — unless the act is one of those who find a groove and stick to it, a choice that in most cases would drive me out of the room.
I mentioned a possible third fork. That’s when you try to tell a story. So far as I can remember, I’ve only tried that once. While I was writing the liner notes to a “Hts” album by the Irish Rovers, bandleader George Millar mentioned in passing that he’d like to see “a real, Irish album.” Though the Rovers (Canada-based, though originally from Ireland) started doing traditional songs like their countrymen The Clancy Brothers, some of their hits — notably The Unicorn — had nothing to do with folk music (it was composed by Shel Silverstein) or Ireland.
When it came time to actually put together “a real, Irish album,” Millar was unavailable, and the song selection and sequencing were left to me (somebody else had done that on the “Hits” record). As I wasn’t compelled to put The Unicorn, Wasn’t That a Party or anything else in particular on the record, I assembled their earlier albums, listened to them all, and picked the songs I felt worked best.
As I listened, a story began to develop. Briefly, the album (compiled from several that the band had recorder through the years) begins with a number that (whatever its actual provenance) sounds very old — penny-whistles and percussion predominate — follows through with some traditional and traditional-sounding songs, continue into a sequence dealing with Irish emigration to North America (with one about the Molly Maguires, and builds to a bit, but traditional-sounding conclusion with a cute “encore” at the end. I like it a lot, and it’s still available. I’m very proud of it.