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The Stories Behind 15 Albums Named After Numbers, Featuring a Lot of Van Halen

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When you think about it, most album titles are a little cryptic (Fiona Apple, I love you, but that's a lot of title). But there’s something especially intriguing about a record that goes by nothing but a few digits. Those digits are usually anything but random, so here are a few of those musical mysteries, unraveled.

1. The Beatles: 1. All 27 songs on the 2000 album were #1 hits in either the U.S. or the U.K. (though some made it as the B side of a hit single). You may have noticed the exclusion of two extremely popular Fab Four songs: “Please Please Me” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Both of those classics only made it to #2.

2. Pearl Jam: Ten. Before they were big stars, Eddie Vedder and company were just some young dudes with an affinity for basketball player Mookie Blaylock. In fact, they even named the band after him, until Mookie’s lawyers kindly asked them to cease and desist. Unwilling to give up the ghost, they named their first album after his jersey number.


3. Van Halen: III. It’s technically Van Halen’s 11th album, so what gives? The title actually represents the fact that this album was the band's third lineup, this one featuring Gary Cherone, the ex-lead singer of Extreme. It just goes to show you - the third time isn't always a charm.


4. Beyonce: 4. Released in 2011, the album was Beyonce’s fourth - but that’s not the only reason she named it 4. “We all have special numbers in our lives, and 4 is that for me,” she explained. “It’s the day I was born. My mother’s birthday, and a lot of my friends’ birthdays, are on the fourth; April 4 is my wedding date.”

5-7. Joan Baez, Lenny Kravitz and the Steve Miller Band all released fifth albums named after the accomplishment: Joan Baez/5, 5, and Number 5, respectively.

8. Usher: 8701. The Usher album featuring “U Remind Me” just happened to be released on August 7, 2001. You’d think that’s the end of the story, but you'd be wrong - the album’s release date was apparently a happy marketing coincidence, not the impetus for the title. The title actually marked the length of Usher’s singing career at that time: he started singing at his church in 1987, and ‘01 was the current year.

9. U2: 7. The explanation for this one is pretty simple: the Target-exclusive EP of rare B-sides and remixes contained seven songs. It was also a wink to their first-ever release, Three. That 1979 release consisted of - you guessed it - three songs.

10. Van Halen: OU812. If you say it out loud, of course, it sounds like “Oh, you ate one too?” Most people think it’s a rather crude joke, but another theory is that it’s a spoof on David Lee Roth’s previous album, Eat ‘Em and Smile. (It could also be both.)

One thing's for sure: whatever the album title refers to, other musicians have had a good time spoofing it. Boston punk band Gang Green came out with I81B4U the same year as the Van Halen album and an experimental band called Mr. Bungle released a demo tape called OU818 the following year.

11-12. Adele: 19 & 21. At the ages of 19 and 21, most of us are eating ramen noodles and drinking way too much crappy beer. Adele was busy writing a couple of hit albums, which she celebrated by naming them after her age at the time she wrote them. To be fair, it’s possible that she was drinking Keystone and eating ramen while she was writing them.

13. Van Halen: 5150. It’s the name of Eddie Van Halen’s home recording studio, where the album of the same name (and every Van Halen record since then) has been recorded. The studio got its name after Van Halen engineer and friend Donn Landee heard it come across on his police scanner: it’s the California penal code for “involuntary confinement of a person for purposes of psychiatric evaluation”.

14. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Twenty. On April 29, 1997, the Southern rock band released their ninth album but named it after another significant number. Twenty is a tribute to the six band and crew members who died in a plane crash two decades earlier.

15. Rush: 2112. If you’ve already listened to this album, you’ve likely figured out from the title track that “2112” refers to a year in the future. It’s just part of the whole concept album about a futuristic dystopian society. But you may not have known that Ayn Rand may have been its inspiration:

“It's difficult always to trace those lines because so many things tend to coalesce, and in fact it ended up being quite similar to a book called Anthem by the writer Ayn Rand. But I didn't realize that while I was working on it, and then eventually as the story came together, the parallels became obvious to me and I thought, 'Oh gee, I don't want to be a plagiarist here.' So I did give credit to her writings in the liner notes."

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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