The first thing you should is to make a list of all the songs, with their keys and their tempos indicated. Consider rating each song in terms of good, better, and best (or whatever scale you want to use). All these variables will help you come up with a compelling order (see example on right). Remember, not only do you want to grab your listeners from the beginning, you want to keep them engaged enough to listen through the whole album.
One thing that hasn’t changed since the days when albums were only on vinyl: The first song is the most important. Unless you’re a superstar, the first song may be your only shot to entice a potential listener to keep going. This is particularly true in situations where you’re using the album to get gigs or to impress a potential manager, booking agent, or record label. That means you need to put your best song first — or at least one of your best. The old cliche about having only one chance to make a first impression applies here in a big way. If the first song doesn’t grab the listener, that person probably will stop right there.
The only time I might make an exception to that rule is if your best song is a slow one, and you have others that are almost as good, but more uptempo. It’s been my experience that people respond better to fast songs, and that slower tempos are better used for a change of pace. Yes, these are generalizations, and a lot depends on the specifics of your music, but for the most part, it’s best to hit your listener over the head from the get go.
I was recently working on mixing someone’s album, and the artist’s initial song order started with an up song and then moved on to about three slow-to-medium songs. I suggested that he not put all of those back to back, because it would drop the energy too much too soon. He followed that advice, and substitued some more energetic tunes that were initially lower on his list, and I think it made for a better product.
In many ways, you're doing the same thing with your album order that you would when creating a setlist for a gig. You want to keep it interesting, and keep the pace as quick as you can. When you do have a slower song, you want it to act as a change of pace. You don’t want to stay slow for too long, or the listener might lose interest.
Another aspect of pacing is the space between songs. You can keep things interesting by not using an identical 1- or 2-second space between each song. (If you're using a mastering engineer, its best to have that figured out in advance so that you can give him or her instructions regarding those spaces.). Some might disagree, but I like keeping the spaces closer to 1 second, and I like having some songs practically running into the next. It’s another tool you have to keep things interesting.
Also consider the transitions from one song to the next. Does song A flow well into song B, and so forth. This is particularly important if you have eclectic material.
Varying the key also helps keep the listener's interest. Try to avoid putting songs in the same key back to back when possible. There will be times when you have to, due to other factors like tempo and song quality, but do try to mix it up key wise, whenever possible. While it’s true that a non-musician listener might not even realize when two consecutive songs are in the same key, they will sense a sameness between the songs that could bring them closer to that boredom point where they switch the music off or start looking at Facebook.
If you have minor key songs, try not to put them back to back, unless you're going for a dark and moody kind of vibe.
While we want every song on our albums to be great, we all have some that are stronger than others. Even many commercially released albums have a couple that might be considered “filler.” We already talked about starting off with your best, but then what? If you weren’t factoring in key, tempo, and how one song flows into another, then you might be tempted to follow your best song with your second best, your third best, and so forth. But because you do have those other parameters to consider, quality (or at least your perceived quality) of the songs becomes only one of several aspects to factor in.
Putting it all together
So now it comes down to decision time. With your list in hand, and with your best song already in the #1 slot, put together a rough order that as closely as possible follows the guidelines discussed in this story. In other words, you want the most exciting combination of tempo, key, and quality, possibly spiced up with some interseting spacing.
After you've chosen your initial order on paper, listen to it. Have friends or relatives listen, too, and get their opinion. You could even try a couple of different variations to see which works better. Then leave the project for a day or two and come back to it for some added perspective. If it's still working for you, you're good to go!