I’ve been thinking a lot about the Black Keys’ 2011 album “El Camino.” That album is super-good, but there was always something missing, something mysteriously wrong. I finally figured out what it was: the track order is not what it should be.
Don’t get me wrong: as it is, it’s still a really strong album. But I get the sense that they intentionally front-loaded the best songs because, I don’t know, maybe they thought they’d get more record sales that way? Could be a number of reasons. The track order was clearly chosen carefully.
The main problem is that the best song of the album by a light year is placed fourth. “Little Black Submarines” is so brilliantly amazing that you almost don’t even realize it the first few times you hear it. But it is.
For those that don’t know the album, here’s a quick recap:
- “Lonely Boy” – great start to a great album of straight-up rock & roll. Lyrically, it could be sad and mopey, but the driving beat and the steady burn of the guitar take it much faster and higher than the lyrics would have you believe, and you know right away you’re in for more than you bargained for.
- “Dead and Gone” – a switch in tone from the previous track, but just as hard-drivin’. Whatever the first track left wanting, the second track picks up.
- “Gold On the Ceiling” – the breakout single of this album. A great, great, great rock song. Simple, accessible, but clever enough to switch gears seamlessly multiple times and keep you on your toes. If you listen more closely than your average radio listener, you get even more, because this song is secretly complex and beautiful behind its dirty façade.
- “Little Black Submarines” – by far the best song on an album full of great songs. It starts off slow and quiet, evoking both lyrically and musically a picture of a sad, pathetic man at a payphone. A haunting melody from an acoustic guitar leads the way. Then, all of a sudden, halfway through, for a split seconds it stops so completely you can almost hear the smoke clearing. And out of nowhere, the rockingest band since Led Zeppelin shows up and blows you back to the 70’s for a few more minutes of Rock Heaven before releasing you back to the present, back to “El Camino.”
- “Money Maker” – Back to the tone of the earlier part of the album, we are now faced with a fine tune, but it’s not strong enough to remove the memory of the track we just listened to.
- “Run Right Back” – by the end of the track before, we’re back in the zone and ready for some more hard drivin’, and that’s exactly what we get with this alternate hit single. Interestingly, there’s a pain we can sense by the end of the song, and it’s not resolved at the end. Which leads us into…
- “Sister” – one of the album’s more underappreciated tracks, this one takes the lingering whatever of the previous track and spins it into a dangerous-sounding beat. If this song is the soundtrack to your night, you are gonna find some trouble. Or else trouble is gonna find you.
- “Hell of a Season” – this track expands on the finghting tone of the previous track, but takes it down a notch from near-anger to near-introspection, and thematically, takes a broader view of time and whatever space the main character of our story inhabits.
- “Stop Stop” – lyrically, this song is fit for the poppiest top-40 radio station, but the fuzz and the drums of the Black Keys keep it away. This track also somehow carries the infusion of melancholy from the previous two tracks. At this point, the album is showing us its internal struggle, and we see where the arc may be headed but we don’t know what the outcome will be.
- “Nova Baby” – here’s that song that wraps most of it up. With one high note ever present above every sound in the chorus, watching over the Black Keys like some useless angel, this track makes a damn fine last chapter, but leaves plenty of room for an epilogue.
- “Mind Eraser” – Our final track here is where the problem always occurred to me. The previous four tracks do a marvelous job of getting the listener ready to be knocked out of his or her own lifetime, but this one does not do that. This one is fit for the middle of the album; it’s a good song on its own, but of this entire album, it may have the most forgettable outro. Thinking about it now, I can’t even remember what it sounds like as it fades out.
And the solution is so clear to me now. The entire journey peaks one third of the way through the album…the thing to do is switch the fourth and eleventh tracks. That would not only solve the problem of the strength of the ending, I believe that would elevate the album from “one of the best of 2011” to “one of the best of all-time.”
See the graph below:
See how you spike early and then the rest, though still good and better than most albums, simply feels like a letdown. Now see the optimized track order:
You can see from scientific evidence that with the optimized track order, “El Camino” would rock its listeners hard for a solid chunk of time, and then, for those who stay with the band for one more track, it would reward its most loyal listeners with an epic song unlike anything heard within a decade, and we’d exit the album on the highest of highs.
Track order matters, everyone. Track. Order. Matters.
If you’ve made it this far, go ahead and check out the official “Little Black Submarines” music video below. Do yourself a favor: turn the volume all the way up.