Focal Curve

Track 3

On any given album, more often than not, the third track is one of the album’s best songs. Assuming, of course, it’s a decent album and a decent band to begin with. I can’t speak for lame songs on bad albums by crappy bands because I don’t listen to them. But in the realm of what I do listen to I’ve definitely noticed a pattern. Some examples of great third tracks from my modest collection:

  • Fugazi, Repeater – third track, “Brendan #1.” Awesome percussion instrumental.
  • Skin Yard, 1000 Smiling Knuckles – third track, “Words on Bone.” A haunting song from an obscure grunge band.
  • Ali Farka Touré, The Source – third track, “Roucky.” West African delta blues at its very best.
  • Lard, The Last Temptation of Reid – third track, “Mate Spawn and Die.” Music to pump a fist to.
  • Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon – third track, “Money.” Overplayed, and a somewhat overrated album in my opinion, but still a clear standout.
  • Tool, Undertow – third track, “Sober.” Their first mainstream hit also happens to be one of their best songs.
  • Dead Kennedys, Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death – third track, “California Über Alles.” Will always stand as one of DK’s great anthems of outrage.
  • The Cure, Pornography – third track, “The Hanging Garden.” I think this is a better song than the more famous “One Hundred Years” (track 1).
  • KMFDM, Naïve – third track, “Go To Hell”. I defy you not to thrash.
  • The Clash, Combat Rock – third track, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Sing along, you know the words.

So why is this? When the artists, producers, engineers and/or suits are mixing the album and choosing the order in which the songs should appear, they seem to reserve the third slot for what they feel is one of their strongest tunes. It happens too often to be coincidental. Why does that position in the queue garner such special attention? I have a theory:

Imagine an album performed as a live set. Picture a dim, brickwalled club, the air thick with smoke and the musk of a few hundred twenty-somethings sweating out cheap beer, waiting for the show to start. And nobody has ever heard of this band plugging in their instruments and telescoping the mic stands. That first song needs to be a strong opening, to let the audience know The Band has taken The Stage. But a single song isn’t enough data to judge a band on. The second song will be a transition, probably not as good as the first, but setting up for the third. By this point both the band and the crowd have warmed up. They have some history now, some familiarity. And now it’s time to make a real impression. Song number three is where The Band will either win The Crowd or lose them forever. That song needs to, as they say, rock this joint. From there on it’s all just filler until the big closing number. Nobody remembers the seventh song a band peforms, but they’ll remember the first three.

By the time that band goes into the studio they’ve done plenty of usability testing on the road. They know which songs in their repertoire get the best response, and most likely some music biz suit has told them which songs will make the most profitable and radio-friendly singles. They’ll arrange their album the same as their best set list, with a strong opening, a really solid third song, and a good finale. Makes sense to me.

There are exceptions to the Third Track Phenomenon of course. None of this theory applies to classical music, which doesn’t really have “songs” per se. Electronica is also largely songless, but even so I’ve noticed a tendency for DJs to ramp up the energy level with the third track in their mix. Operas and stage musicals are telling a story, so the third song follows a different plan. I don’t have enough jazz or blues albums to build a frame of reference, and obviously soundtracks and compilations are exempt. As for country or hip hop… well, I already said I don’t listen to bad music.

Some sweeping rock concept albums don’t fall in line with the Third Track Phenomenon either, because the sequencing of their tracks is part of a deeper album experience. Such albums are best appreciated as a cohesive whole, rather than a collection of individual songs. Examples:

  • Pink Floyd, Animals – third track, “Pigs (Three Different Ones).” Quite simply impossible to isolate any track from this album, the album must be treasured in its entirety. Besides, there are only five tracks to begin with.
  • Tool, Ænima – third track, “H.” Great song, but not a standout. This album moves in waves, rising and falling at several points. Track three is the trough between the crests of “Eulogy” and “Forty Six & 2.”
  • The Cure, Disintegration – third track, “Closedown.” Not necessarily a concept album, but it’s definitely one of The Cure’s more complex releases, and really does work best as a greater whole. Track three comes between two standout singles, “Pictures of You” and “Lovesong.”

Even within the subset of “good rock albums” there are numerous exceptions at either end of the bell. There are plenty of good records whose third tracks don’t particularly jump out at you. E.g. The Cure’s Bloodflowers, an excellent album overall, but track three (“Where the Birds Always Sing”) is powerfully overshadowed by track four (“Maybe Someday”). At the other end of the curve is the rarest edge case — good band, good album, weak third track. Allroy’s Revenge, arguably the best album All has ever released, features the disjointed and grating “Check One” in the coveted third slot, pretty much the worst song on an otherwise exceptional record.

While scouring my malnourished CD rack for examples to cite it dawns on me that my music collection really is quite limited. Anybody else have some outstanding third tracks that bear menton? (Note shameless solicitation of comments… I need to acquire more new music).

4 Comments on 'Track 3'

  1. George W. Bush said:

    Very astute observation. I’ll add a few.

    Black Flag, Damaged – third track, “Six Pack.” One of, if not the classic Black Flag song from thier finest work.

    Deep Purple, Made in Japan – third track, “Smoke on the Water.” Like your Dark Side comment, overplayed but for sure a classic.

    Judas Priest, British Steel – third track, “Breaking the Law.” The song that broke the Priest to the big time.

    Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power – third track, “Walk.” One of the most powerful and angry compostions by any band; ever.

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  2. Craig said:

    I never would have pegged Bush as a Pantera fan.

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  3. Stefan Hayden said:

    I’ve heard this 3rd track theory in the past and have never fully bought it.

    In general when thinking about Albums I think of High Fidelity with good old John Cusack. His theory? He says:

    You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.

    I’ve always believe this more then then the 3rd song theory. In general I’d love to hear more bands talk about how they order their songs. there has to be so much more to it then the music industry lets on.

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  4. Dayngr said:

    Amazing and so true. I never thought about this until I read your blog but it rings true to me. WOW

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