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27 Aug 2017

The lead single: can it sink an anticipated album before it's even dropped?

𝕴've been blogging a lot this summer about Arcade Fire's lead single from Everything Now. It's an instantly-catchy, room-grabbing hit. (Or it would have been, if radio had picked it up - I still think it'll be an indie party classic for years). But it was a strong lead single, something which seems to be a rarity, or a fluke for albums over the years. Why do artists/record labels have such a hard time picking a lead single?
Take the latest release from Queens of the Stone Age, The Way You Used to Do. It's their first new work since 2013, and follows up their gargantuan album, ...Like Clockwork, but it is just so ...meh. There's no guttural riffs, like My God is the Sun, or stirring melody like I Sat by the Ocean. It's a serviceable enough track, but it just feels like a deep cut filler track, rather than a storming lead single.

And this is from Josh Homme, a titan of 21st century rock music. He produced Arctic Monkey's on their barnstorming AM, whose lead single was the career-defining R U Mine. That was a song that grabbed the listener by the larynx and shouted, 'we are the best British rock band of the decade, and we have a new song out.' Needless to say the album sold bucketloads and was on year-end lists everywhere.

And this applies to other genres too. Kanye West is many things, but chief among them is that he is a great hip hop producer - look at the power of his lead singles throughout his career: Through the Wire; Diamonds from Sierra Leone; Stronger; Love Lockdown; Niggas in Paris; Black Skinhead. Powerful tracks, portraying a range of moods and showcasing the direction of the album, all massive hits that satisfied an expectant audience. In other words, he delivered a string of classics as the leading single off his albums, not to mention the other singles that he released as well.

Then compare highly anticipated albums that had weak lead singles; Dani California from Red Hot Chilli Peppers' Stadium Arcadium, a by-the-numbers RHCP by that point, which precipitated a largely phoned-in album wth only a few standout tracks; Oasis' follow up to Be Here Now, an album that had Gas Panic, Where Did it All Go Wrong?, Sunday Morning Call and Fuckin' in the Bushes, and they lead with the dirge-y and uninspiring Go Let it Out? It's no wonder the album itself is denigrated among the general public as a flop, despite being better than much that came after it. Oasis have form in this regard too, Lyla, The Hindu Times and arguably Some Might Say, were not the standout front end singles off the albums they were plucked from.

It could (and likely will) be argued that the era of the lead single is over. An artist drops an album, and streamers pick their favourites having gone through a few listen-throughs - see Ed Sheeran's, Drake's and Justin Beiber's chart dominance in the last couple of years. But there still needs to be a track that leads the promotional charge, particularly with the Radio Industrial Complex, where the radio stations will put one track on rotation for a few weeks, and listeners will know band X has a new album out, will probably be touring to their nearest city and have updated the merch store on the website. It needs to be bombastic, even if it's downbeat, it needs to make noise, even if it's quiet and it needs to be sing-a-long, even if it's shouty.  In other words, it needs to be strong, so why are so many artists releasing safe, middle of the road curd as the lead off single?

The best example of what can happen if you have a strong lead single is one that immediately propelled the band to the mainstream, preceded a mulit-platinum album, effectively ushered in a new genre, while killing off all other genres before it, changed fashion, art and pop for the guts of a decade, still gets played profusely in parties, bars, clubs, radio and guitar shops, and was the subject of an impromptu 80,000-person sing-a-long by a hip-hop artist at a pop festival in a former Soviet Republic.

Here we are now, Entertain us.