There's a song on every album that holds it all in place, but it's not necessarily the hit single, the opener or the denouement. It's the anthem--the mini-epic--and without it, a record isn't complete.
A true epic takes the listener on some sort of "journey," stretching out over 10 minutes into some god-awful Floyd-ian lunar landscape where bongs are not optional. But a mini-epic is less of a journey and more of an event--a climactic, emotional burst of grandiosity, all wrapped up in a tidy, bite-sized package. It's the populist song, the one that can satiate an indierocker's classic-rock aspirations without approaching the masturbatory. It's a celebration. It's the song to which you and your drinking buddies shout along, verbatim, when it blares on the dive's jukebox. It's the song that makes you run outside in pouring rain and perform a joyous jig in puddles in the street, while your friends shake their heads in embarrassment. It's the song that opens the floodgates and releases a torrent of tears from behind your fragile, weary eyes and exposes your quivering vulnerability. It's the song that MAKES YOU FEEL.
It is because of these mini-epics that people love U2 and Coldplay and alternately adore and despise Radiohead. When we cried along to "Let Down," Thom Yorke was our hero. When we heard him sing through a vocoder, we thought he was a pretentious asshole. Matt Pond PA's "Summer is Coming" is the ideal mini-epic, building up from glockenspiel and cello to a gigantic, passionate waltz that sounds like a smarter, prettier cousin to Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight." It's an intense emotional surge that leaves you drained, but with a smile on your overwhelmed mug.
An even better example is Elliott Smith's "Happiness." This song alone would have been reason enough for owning Figure 8, on "Happiness" Smith took his songwriting to new, incredible heights not heard on his previous four-track recordings. When he sang "all I want now is happiness for you and me," he projected his optimism onto the listener. And after Lou Barlow sang its unforgettable coda along with a thousand devastated fans at All Tomorrow's Parties last year, the song was lifted up as it reached critical mass, transcending for its communal expression of anguish.
Without the mini-epic, record collections would suffer immensely. Without "Poor Places," Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have ended too early. Without the title track, Heroes would have just been Bowie's weird ambient record. And without "The Queen is Dead," the classic Smiths' album would have opened with "Frankly, Mr. Shankly." And that, as Morrissey would say, would have been "absolutely vile."