This summer, I’ve been listening to Reunions quite a bit, the new album from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. There are some great songs on this record, including the triumvirate of “Dreamsicle,” “Only Children,” and “Overseas.” I love it when an artist stacks the deck with a trio of great songs — probably because it makes the vinyl listening experience even better.
Listening to these songs repeatedly got me thinking about my all-time sets of back-to-back-to-back songs. Regular album cuts only; no greatest hits or compilations. Here are some of the contenders.
U2, The Joshua Tree
Going with the GOAT right out of the gate. No record will ever be able to top the Hall of Fame trio of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.” The rest of the album is fantastic, but it kind of feels like a letdown after that opening set. This is Aikman-Smith-Irvin right here. Pure rock perfection.
Chris Stapleton, From A Room, Vol. 1
Stapleton’s long-awaited follow up to Traveller kicks off with “Broken Halos” / “Last Thing I Needed” / “Second One to Know.” I can explain the appeal of Stapleton using those three songs: radio-ready soul; late 70s Willie heartbreak; and Hank Jr. outlaw-rock swagger. It’s perfect.
The War on Drugs, A Deeper Understanding
No surprise that I’d choose songs of this album, seeing as how I consider it the finest rock record of the new millennium. The opening salvo of “Up All Night,” “Pain,” and “Holding On” is some of the most sonically arresting music to my ears. Love it.
Radiohead, OK Computer
Take your pic: “Exit Music (For a Film)” / “Let Down” / “Karma Police” or “No Surprises” / “Lucky” / “The Tourist.” Can’t go wrong either way.
It’s a shame these guys aren’t a household name. The now-defunct band went for broke here on this 2014 self-titled release — give it a listen if you’ve never heard of them. Start with “Weary Eyes” and roll right on to “Don’t You Look Back.” But put the headphones on for “Walkabout,” one of the most moving rock songs I’ve ever heard. It’s truly epic.
Billy Joel, Storm Front
I’ll never understand why Joel chose the forgettable “That’s Not Her Style” to hit leadoff in this lineup. But 2-3-4 is a powerhouse pop trifecta: kids like me learned American history by memorizing the lyrics to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — which eases into the haunting “Downeaster Alexa” only to elevate the energy once more on “I Go to Extremes.”
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
On this stellar album, I love the move from “Keep It Between the Lines” to “Sea Stories” to Sturgill’s cover of “In Bloom.”
Hootie & the Blowfish, Cracked Rear View
“Hold My Hand” to “Let Her Cry” to “Only Wanna Be With You.” Evers to Tinkers to Chance.
Garth Brooks, No Fences
Every other song on Side A is a smash hit: “The Thunder Rolls,” “Two of a Kind (Working on a Full House)” and “Friends in Low Places.” But the second song on the record is one of my favorite Garth songs: in an alternate universe, “New Way to Fly” is recognized as the best song on this album…which it is. Wedged between “Thunder” and “Two of a Kind,” it completes this amazing set of songs.
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
This isn’t a perfect record, but sanding off the band’s rougher edges never sounded better than these three: the title track, “January Wedding” and “Head Full of Doubt.”
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
The first four songs on this album are all-timers: “Cover Me Up” is the most romantic song I’ve ever heard; “Stockholm” is a freedom anthem, while “Traveling Alone” is a mournful ode to road loneliness. Then you come upon “Elephant,” a rip-your-face-off tearjerker. Hands down the best back-to-back-to-back-to-back set of all time.