By: Elorm Nutakor
I had a realization recently while listening to Wale’s The Album About Nothing. I’d listened to the album’s 14 tracks a few times through, but felt like something was off about it. In this case, my gripe was about the way the songs were arranged. Before I started considering how I would have arranged it, I looked at the track listing in my iTunes and found that the last two songs were actually bonus tracks. This realization actually helped me enjoy the album more, but it also made me wonder why artists decide to throw bonus tracks on their albums at all. Sometimes they seem to just be half-assed filler tracks that coax fans into paying more, but other times they can be quality content that, for whatever reason, didn’t go with the rest of the album.
When it comes to bonus tracks, there are different types and different ways that they can be attached to the initial album. Sometimes the artist just gives out a couple deluxe edition tracks that were just collateral results of the creative process. Albums where this works well include Disclosure’s Settle, Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, and Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence. On the other hand, Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise & A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP could have done without the bonus tracks. To me these albums ended well enough, almost too well in Rocky’s case. The bonus tracks didn’t enhance the album in any way and there was no real satisfaction in having them, so I would have voted to just leave them off.
Artists may also choose to put their deluxe bonus tracks on another disc altogether, almost like an additional EP. This is often a good tactic for albums because the separation helps you better distinguish the difference between the two. In this case it really seems like an extra gift that the artist didn’t have to give but gave anyway. Check out SBTRKT’s Wonder Where We Land, Hozier’s self-titled, and J. Cole’s Born Sinner for some examples of this done well. While I’m pretty impartial to the bonus tracks on Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2, I appreciate the separation.
The bonus tracks could also be previous singles that were released long before the album. Logic utilizes this tactic on his debut album Under Pressure. Each of his deluxe edition tracks were previously released. Big Sean also did this on his Hall of Fame album, and let me tell you, it felt good to hear songs like “Guap” and “Mula” after that album. This is a technique I usually like, especially when the singles were good; it ties you back to the moment of excitement you got when that artist announced that they were releasing a new album, even if it kept getting pushed back. Bonus tracks may also become singles in the future, and a prime example of this is Drake’s “The Motto” from Take Care, the song that made YOLO what it is today. This strategy, usually, doesn’t bother me one bit.
A very hit or miss way to release bonus tracks is to make them something completely different from the album’s sound or maybe showcase a completely different side of the artist that fans have not seen before. I distinctly remember an interview in which Logic talked about considering this move and making some club banger bonus tracks. He decided against it, but Joey Bada$$ did do this on his debut album B4.DA.$$. One of the bonus tracks he chose to release was a collaboration with Kiesza called “Teach Me,” an upbeat, horn riddled jam where Joey talked metaphorically about dancing. To me this song felt right because it shows a lighter side of Joey Bada$$, and just all around felt good. Manchester Orchestra also orchestrated (see what I did there) this well on their album Cope by including two songs that are less aggressive than those on the rest of the album, but still provide a satisfying end.
One Instance when I thought the completely different bonus track move was a hindrance was on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (did I just criticize Kanye?). Just about everyone agrees how much of a masterpiece this album is, but no one talks about the bonus track, “See Me Now,” a song that features the likes of Charlie Wilson, Beyoncé, and Big Sean. This smooth upbeat song showcased production from Lex Luger, who was fairly new back then. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the song; the problem is that clashes with the darker tone of the rest of the album, and honestly I find it hard to listen to anything immediately after “Who Will Survive in America.”
Another type of bonus track is the remix, and I tend to enjoy this option based on the placement of the original song. Especially if the original song comes earlier in the album. This technique is well utilized by Jessie Ware on Devotion. She includes a remix of her song “Wildest Moments,” which features an A$AP Rocky verse and rounds out the album quite well in my opinion. In YG’s My Krazy Life, he includes a very necessary remix to “My Nigga” that put a smile on my face. In the case of the Weeknd’s Kiss Land, though, his remix of Kavinsky’s “Odd Look” and Pharrell’s remix of his song “Wanderlust” would have been better as straight online releases, rather than album bonus tracks. Regardless, though, remixes are a good way to go for bonus tracks especially when they don’t up the price of the album.
Simiar to a remix is when artists use demo versions of songs that are already on the initial album as bonus tracks (Like an Un-Mix… sorry). This move is like getting two cakes, one with icing and one without. Tasting the cake with icing first makes the other cake seem far worse than it actually is. Florence and the Machine does this on their album Ceremonials. They give out the demo version of “What the Water Gave Me,” which is probably the strongest track on the album. The rest of that album’s deluxe edition bonus tracks are fine, but the demo version throws it off. Maybe if you’re a mega fan it might be fun to look at the differences between demos and the finalized version, but when including demos, I’d say songs that haven’t been released are the way to go. It lets listeners know what could have been, but wasn’t.
When it comes to interspersing deluxe edition tracks within the album (Diddy-Dirty Money’s Last Train to Paris and Wale’s Ambition), I’d say don’t do it. It brings about an existential crisis in the mind of the listener as to which is the correct version of the album, especially when the order of songs in the regular version are also changed. Another absolute no for me is when other countries get better or more bonus tracks. I mean Japan may be a cool place but what’s wrong with giving nice things to everyone? It’s actually almost worse when foreign artists give U.S. fans different versions of their album with less content.
Sometimes the bonus tracks are so perfect that they deserve a spot on the initial album. One instance of this is in Kanye West’s Graduation. The iTunes bonus track is a song called “Good Night”, and it ends the album so perfectly that it deserves more than the bonus track life. The album even begins with “Good Mourning,” I don’t know if it was his record deal, timing, or just Kanye being Kanye, but that song really brings the album together even more so than the actual final track “Big Brother.”
When it comes to bonus tracks I like organization, and I also like to find out their purpose within the album from the artist’s point of view. They can be smartly placed or they can be unnecessary, but they exist, and I don’t think they should be inferior products. They have so much potential to elevate the creativity of already creative music projects.