In an era of digital streaming, the whole concept of listening to an album from start to finish might seem like an archaic pastime. But the impact of album sequencing – the order in which the tracks appear on an album – has not diminished for artists and their fans. Great sequencing can enhance and elevate an album, with each track complementing the other, adding dynamism and pace, and leading the listener smoothly on a musical journey.
Sequencing is the final creative decision before the album is mastered and will probably involve the producer and maybe the label or management. But it ultimately rests with the artist.
Sequencing should be fun and that’s how Nigel Pulsford, former guitarist with the band Bush remembers it. “It’s a fun problem to confront. In my old band we would write the song titles down on pieces of card and try to get the sequence right that way first.” But for many artists immersed in their own albums, it can be an arduous process.
“I never find it easy,” says singer-songwriter Robert Vincent, who has worked with producer Ethan Johns on his last two albums. “With my album In This Town You’re Owned (2020) Ethan had written the songs he thought were the strongest to record in no particular order with a back-up list, so the album pretty much went down as per the list, bar one song as far as I can remember. So that was pretty painless and also very organic.”
Sequencing an album is a subjective process
It’s worth noting that there are no rights or wrongs when it comes to sequencing an album. It’s a subjective process, driven by the creative aims of the artist. But there are guidelines that it’s worth observing when turning your collection of tracks into a coherent, single work of art.
The order should reflect the theme and emotion of the album and provide some kind of story or journey.
Whatever sequence you choose, the order should reflect the theme and emotion of the album and provide some kind of story or journey, whether that is lyrically, musically and/or emotionally. “I think it is important to try and take the listener on a journey, so pacing is essential to insert perspective into the flow,” says Pulsford, who released his second solo album, Losing Track in January.
It’s a view echoed by Vincent. “I’m always trying to hold some sort of narrative myself,” he says, “to create the best possible journey through the songs as I can.”
The album should have a natural progression
Pacing and dynamics are integral to successful sequencing. Too much of the same thing quickly becomes boring. In many ways, sequencing begins before you even record your first note, when you are selecting the tracks to include on the album.
Strident, pacey tracks should be complemented by more intimate, reflective songs, and there should be a mix of time signatures and tempos across the album. Interludes and fades can be a useful tool in breaking up an album, but overusing them can, equally, disrupt the flow. The album should have a logical and natural progression, with each song complementing the next in a manner that elevates the overall experience, as Robert Vincent explains.
The album should have a logical and natural progression, with each song complementing the next.
“Some songs need to be placed in a part of the album, say midway through the album, as you’re hoping by this time the listener is invested enough to handle a longer song or more in-depth song, and then take them back into something more upbeat or lighter. Light and shade I think is key.”
With vinyl now accounting for 55% of physical music formats in the UK, sequencing across two sides is also a consideration. The maximum running time of a 33 rpm, 12-inch album is 22 minutes per side. Anything longer than this will result in impaired audio quality. So anyone looking at a vinyl release will need to factor this in when sequencing their album.
“As it was all instrumental I tried to vary the feel throughout and approached it as a vinyl album as I intend to release it this way eventually,” says Pulsford of his album Losing Track. “I edited down a couple of pieces so it would fit onto a single album without compromising audio quality. So I approached it as two sides, which helped in the sequencing.”
The importance of the opening track
When it comes to discussion of sequencing albums, few subjects divide opinion quite like what to choose for your opening track.
Certainly, the first song can set the tone for the rest of the album, so it’s well worth spending time thinking long and hard about what your opening track should be. Music industry data suggests that the earlier a song appears on an album, the more likely a listener is to stream it.
The objective is to keep the skip rate as low as possible.
In recent years, the term ‘skip rate’ has been adopted to determine whether listeners make it through the first 30 seconds of a song. After that time, a stream will be registered for royalty purposes. So the objective is to keep the skip rate as low as possible. With that in mind, many industry sources advise artists to “lead with your hit” – although it may not make for the most creative or fluid sequencing.
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Grower or grabber - lead with whatever seems to feel right
“Opening with a hit seems a bit too easy and contrived to me, so I usually avoid that one,” says Robert Vincent. “I lead with whatever seems to feel right. I think openers can be something that brings you in gently. Being a Pink Floyd fan, with their five minute intros into songs or instrumental intros, I’ve never really felt the urge to lead with a hit or lead track.” But in an age of ever-shortened attention spans, it could make sound commercial sense.
“Of course, it’s totally dependent on the intention of the album, and the genre,” says Cameron Jenkins, producer, engineer, musician, songwriter and founder of Stranger Records, the first label to sign Lana Del Ray. Jenkins has also worked with Everything But The Girl, The Rolling Stones, The Verve, The Charlatans and John Cale among many others.
“A jazz album has different priorities to a pop album, which is going to top-load the singles. A singer-songwriter has a story to tell. But wasn’t it only ever thus? With the amount of noise on streaming channels that you have to cut through, then I’ll always put what I consider to be the best tracks at the top.”
In terms of the second song and packing a punch from the outset however, another option is to open with a strong track that really sets the tone of the album, then place the potential big hit as the second track. This is what Fleetwood Mac did on Rumours, leading with the opener Second Hand News before launching into what is arguably their greatest ever song, Dreams.
Albums as art forms
Like many, Robert Vincent recognises that the way people listen to records these days has changed with streaming. “And because of this the album has suffered as an art form in my opinion,” he says. “More and more bands and artists think more in songs than albums, so therefore not really thinking about an album as a body of work. Myself and Ethan are very old school on the album as an art form, so we share most of the same feelings in that way.”
On his latest album, Barrier, Vincent and producer Ethan Johns both worked on the sequencing. “Yeah, we passed it back and forth a bit,” says Vincent, “although he’s done it a few more times than me so I tend to heed his experience in the end.”
Mistakes to avoid when sequencing
One common mistake is having too many songs in the same key.
Most listeners will not be aware they are in the same key but they will notice it’s all starting to sound the same. Equally, it’s important to avoid using similar chord progressions on each track. “Always check the way one song goes into another,” says Pulsford.
“If one starts with the same chord that the previous song ended with then maybe the order should change. If you’ve got a long, intense song then it’s good to have something lighter or less intense after, or before, to give perspective and relief even.”