In visual art, it's called a triptych -- a piece divided into three connected sections or panels. The individual panels could, in theory, stand on their own, but each adds meaning and significance to the other two, creating a single work that is more than the sum of its parts.
We don't have a name for this concept in music, but we should, especially in the new digital landscape, dominated as it is by singles rather than albums. Three songs is the smallest unit of musical arc, of emotional progression, the midpoint between the song and the album. Two songs only creates a straight line from point A to point B; three allows for a curve, for a complete musical thought.
With that said, here are five great rock triptychs. If we missed your favorite, leave it in the comments.
The Beatles: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "With a Little Help From My Friends," and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
If you had listened to this for the first time in 1967 (and maybe you did), the crowd noise in the opening seconds of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" would have tipped you off that the Beatles were up to something new, something bold. As the song nears its end and Sir Paul introduces Billy Shears (a.k.a. Ringo), something funny happens -- "With a Little Help from My Friends" emerges not from the customary silence between tracks, but in one fluid motion from the song before it.
Although this technique may be common now, at the time it was essentially revolutionary -- multiple songs could really be part of one larger thought, despite being listed separately. Conceptually, this was a leap.
Moving forward, the Beatles lead us on a continuous journey, rather than hopping from track to track. In "With a Little Help from My Friends," for example, the line "I get high with a little help from my friends" seems a bit odd in what is otherwise a sugar-sweet song, but it works as foreshadowing for the alternate universe ahead in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."
When "Lucy" ends, we find ourselves firmly entrenched in the Beatles' dream world, which is the profound achievement of this triptych -- it begins by asking us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy a fictional band and ends with us down Sgt. Pepper's rabbit hole.
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