The Most Popular Song on Every Album
My friend and I try to figure out if track 3 is always the most popular song on an album
I’m going to see Taylor Swift this weekend. While I was listening to her latest album Midnights in preparation for the show, I noted to my friend that the third song “Anti-Hero” was the most popular on the record. He told me that’s not shocking. The third song is always the most popular. I was skeptical, so I decided to look into his claim.
Is the Most Popular Song Always Track 3?
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how difficult it is to determine what the most popular album is. To show that, I put together a dataset of the 50 most popular albums in Spotify history. I decided to start my investigation on the most popular track on an album with that dataset.
There are two takeaways from this chart. First, among the 50 most popular albums on Spotify, track 4 just ekes out track 3 as the most popular. So, my friend was almost right. Regardless, the most popular tracks are always near the front of the record. Why? Every album has a track 1, track 2, and track 3. Not every album has a track 10. In short, the earlier songs have an inherent advantage.
My friend wasn’t satisfied with this answer, though. A sample of 50 albums is small. Plus, the most popular albums might be very different from the average album. I agreed, so I decided to grab some more data.
This time I dipped into the millions of albums that have been uploaded to Audiomack. When I scanned across every upload with more than 8 songs (i.e., an album), track 3 was most often the most popular. My friend was vindicated. But then I noticed something odd. The most popular track changed depending on how many streams the album had.
When you look at all albums and albums with at least 1000 streams, track 3 is the most popular on average. Then when you look at albums with at least 100,000 and 1,000,000 streams, the most popular shifts to track 1. If you set the minimum at 10,000,000 streams, the most popular shifts to track 2. Then it goes to track 6 when you move the threshold to 100,000,000 streams. What’s going on here?
Can’t Get Much Higher is made possible by subscribers like you. Consider a paid subscription to keep this newsletter alive.
People listen to albums differently based on how popular the album and the artist are. For the unknown artists of the world (i.e., artists whose albums are getting fewer than 100,000 streams), listening is focused on singles. Track 3 is the most common place for a single to be located among those albums. Interestingly, we see the same thing with the most popular artists (i.e., artists whose albums are getting more than 10,000,000 streams). Among albums with more than 10,000,000 streams, track 2 is the most common location for a single. Among albums with more than 100,000,000 streams, track 6 is.
I actually don’t think this is that shocking. If you come across a super small artist, you’re probably going to play a single before you play an album. It’s a great way to get a taste of what the artist is about. For superstars, singles can be genuine hits. By definition, people listen to hit songs a lot.
But something strange happens for mid-tier artists (i.e., artists whose albums are getting more than 100,000 streams and less than 10,000,000 streams). These are artists who you might be familiar with, but who don’t have massively popular singles. Because of this, listeners are invested enough to click play on that album, but not invested enough to listen to a single endlessly. Since not everyone is going to make it through your entire album, track 1 is going to be inherently advantaged.
So, was my friend right? Kind of. But as with all things you explore in enough detail, the truth is often quite messy.
A New One
"Prescription" by Remi Wolf
2023 - Soul Jam
In an interview with i-D, Remi Wolf described her music as “funky soul pop” that pulls influence from her relationships, mental illness, and Prince. That Prince-ian influence is on full display in “Prescription”, a sensual jam that Wolf stretches out for over 7 minutes. It’s a direct descendent of Prince’s slow jam “Adore”, the final track from his masterful album Sign o’ the Times.
An Old One
"Movin’ on Up" by Primal Scream
1991 - Psychedelic Rock
The other day I came across a tweet that caught my eye:
can we bring back whatever that genre is from the '90s that's like rave music meets the Rolling Stones and all the lyrics are about finding Jesus through drugs
What this man was asking for the revival of was Primal Scream, the British group that smashed together Rolling Stones-esque rock and club music on their 1991 album Screamadelica. The first track on that album, “Movin’ on Up”, is a delicious romp that somehow sounds like it’s from the 1960s and 1990s. I agree with this tweeter that we should bring back this sound.
Are you looking for some non-English music? I wrote a piece about Albanian hip-hop for the Substack Songletter.
Want to hear the music I make? Check out my latest EP, You Know I Can Be Dramatic.
This is ridiculous. I’m sitting here reading about Track 3 while listening to the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach. The third track is Mellisa!!
Now I need to revisit some other seminal albums to check further! Down the rat hole.
I’m interested in why the most common placement of singles is different in albums with different numbers of streams. Is it just some fluke that lesser streamed albums more often have a single in the track three slot but for bigger albums it’s track six? That seems odd.
Moving’ On Up is a great song and,as part of the soundtrack to my teens, comes with a big dose of nostalgia, so of course it’s my favourite. Genuinely surprised by how much I liked the Remi Wolf track though.