The rise of the compact disc is a
surprisingly detested revolution — audiophiles the world over
still speak glowingly of the warmth and sound quality LPs
possessed. Almost as frequently discussed is the lost art of the
album cover. And where audiophiles may be drastically
underestimating the convenience of not having to put down your beer
to hear the second side of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric
Ladyland, they’re harder to argue with on album art. The
rise of the CD and — God forbid — the MP3 has left
artists with a drastically reduced surface on which to visually
draw in the listener.
So while there’s little debate to be had over the quality
of album art, there is an underrated — if not crucial —
component of albums that should be discussed: album titles.
Musicians have more or less been stumbling over album titles since
someone decided to try and sell more than one song at a time.
Of course, the main reason no one — not even the
relatively unoccupied audiophiles — talks about album titles
is the following: They are absolutely inconsequential. Whereas a
grand cover, say Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
Band, can announce with ringing finality the existence of a
fine piece of art, an album title means virtually nothing. Surely,
if Dave Matthews, an endless well of awkward lyrical constructions,
can come up with something vaguely intriguing like Under the
Table and Dreaming, then a finely worded, lyrical title
can’t mean much, can it?
Similarly, a terrible title is no guarantee, either. Led
Zeppelin simply numbered their first four albums, the Beatles
didn’t bother naming one of their best (The Beatles)
and The Rolling Stones managed to drop whoppers like
Goat’s Head Soup. The Who, another of rock’s
venerable institutions, kept giving us “clever” titles
like Who’s Next and Who Are You? Such evidence
would seem to rend any conversation on this topic useless.
Absolutely inconsequential, right?
In some ways, yes. On the other hand, a fine album title can
draw listeners in, adding yet another element to a realized piece
of art. One of the reasons titles get talked about so rarely is
because there are no guidelines by which to judge them. Whereas
album art can be evaluated on a purely visual aesthetic, and albums
themselves can be judged on the music, album titles play such a
minor role in the “art” of popular music that no one
has bothered to evaluate them.
Of course, the main qualification of an album title is that it
should properly evoke the mood, ambience and construction of an
album. Of course, this is purely subjective, and something more
rigorous is necessary. First, an album title must be more than a
utilitarian name of a long-player. This rules out almost everything
before the ’60s, where fans were treated to gems like
Sinatra Sings … of Love and Things and The Gospel
Soul of Aretha Franklin. Hell, even more traditionally
“artistic” performers, such as The Beatles and Bob
Dylan, ended up naming their early albums Meet the Beatles
and Another Side of Bob Dylan.
Album titles should be more than simply a rehash of one of the
song titles. While it’s true that there are some fantastic
album titles — Sgt. Pepper’s, White
Light/White Heat — named after songs, and that these
songs often evoke the mood and themes of the album well, songs are
generally named before the album, and most instances of rehashing
can be chalked up to a lack of creativity. Extra lame points are
given for naming your album after your hit song — thank you
Hotel California and Wish You Were Here.
So with those guides in place, it’s high-time to take a
look at some of history’s best album titles. The best, of
course, will not only follow the rules listed but cement the
album’s place in history. The Rolling Stones struck gold with
Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers, perfectly
capturing the dirty, isolated essence and dark sexuality of their
best work. Dylan was able to use his non-sequitur wordplay to make
Blonde on Blonde one of the most recognizable titles in
More recently, New York’s Liars have made a name for
themselves with clever titles such as They Threw Us All In a
Trench and Stuck a Monument On Top.
Hip-hop, despite it’s relatively brief history, has
managed to produce a surprising amount of fantastic album titles.
Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us
Back and Fear of a Black Planet are both classics, as is
De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising.
Of course, for every example of a master wordsmith, there are
just as many classic artists who never really cut it naming their
classics. Lou Reed, both as a solo artist and as the ringmaster of
the Velvet Underground, never came up with a transcendent
All of this is still highly subjective and somewhat ridiculous.
But the point of this column wasn’t to provide the definitive
discourse on album titles, but rather to bring to light an argument
that isn’t had nearly enough, even among notoriously
contentious audiophiles: the best album titles of all time. Come
on, you know you want them: my five favorite album titles, in no
particular order: Astral Weeks (Van Morrison), It Takes a
Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Public Enemy), Slanted
& Enchanted (Pavement), Remain In Light (The Talking
Heads) and There’s a Riot Goin’ On (Sly and the