The observant will note that I sort-if-did rail on The King of Limbs for having an extremely weak opening track. While coincidental that this entry follows, there is no cause-and-effect to it, as I've been thinking about this issue for awhile.
So...how does one start a record off right? It's a few things. Personally, I think the key ingredient in a good opening track is a sense of direction, a sense of momentum. It's got to pull you in and get you hooked, and nothing does that like imbuing the listener with a sense of direction. It doesn't necessarily have to be, you know, a song that blazes at 250bpm with only power chords or something (i.e. punk), but it does have to feel like it moves and it has to move you.
Which brings up the second point. It has to move the listener, and at least imbue the listener with a sense of feeling. You've got to identify with it...you've got to FEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL it. Or something like that. On the whole, though, I think the former criteria of direction is more important than feeling/catharsis. The best songs have heaps of both, but there are some cases where catharsis can trump direction as the go-to effect. So to discuss some examples:
1. Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited
So it probably figures that my favorite record ever also has the best starting track to ever grace mankind? Yep. No coincidence there. I don't need to elaborate on the title track. Because if I do, there is a serious problem. "Like A Rolling Stone" is the best song ever. Period. But why is it so good? Because, quite simply, it changes your world. It says "HERE COMETH I, THE SPIRIT OF ROCK" or something cheesy like that. It executes a bombing raid on your brain and leaves it in ashes and rubble. And after it completely resets your brain, the rest of the album continues the blitz. And that's why this record is the best ever. But of course, you don't believe me. But let Bruce Springsteen convince you:
"The first time I heard Bob Dylan, I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind ... The way that Elvis freed your body, Dylan freed your mind, and showed us that because the music was physical did not mean it was anti-intellect. He had the vision and talent to make a pop song so that it contained the whole world. He invented a new way a pop singer could sound, broke through the limitations of what a recording could achieve, and he changed the face of rock'n'roll for ever and ever."
2. Ramones - Ramones
There are a lot of punk records that start off with a bang (The Clash and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols certainly spring to mind), but I have to tip my hat and use the Ramones as an example. How ubiquitous is "Blitzkrieg Bop"? You tell someone to name off a punk song and anyone who's anyone has a 64.37% chance of saying "Blitzkrieg Bop." That's the sort of effect it had. As a title track, it's a blunt instrument that serves as the rallying call of all punk rockers everywhere (of course, it likely attracted more nihilists than activists, but on the whole probably they're one and the same). The insistent beat, the chugging chords all embody the force of nature, the armament of sheer simplicity and the power of punk music at its finest. It sets up the breakneck pace of the rest of the record, alongside the sheer brilliance of the Ramones as a whole.
3. Funkadelic - Maggot Brain
This record most closely embodies how catharsis can easily trump direction. The opener and title track is simply a Eddie Hazel solo over some solemn and arpeggiated guitar. Which is weird, because Funkadelic is a funk band (obviously). But the track simply is a masterwork, and it sets the stage for the revival that occurs on the rest of the record. The legend is that Eddie Hazel was told to play the solo as if he had heard his mama just died, and then at one point to change it so that he found out the rumor wasn't true. What resulted is the stuff of legends, completely face-melting, cathartic, barn-burning goodness that can only come from true feeling. I can't explain the song more than that. Listen for yourself. But then notice how "Maggot Brain"'s sense of doom finely segues into the feelings of revival evidenced by the rest of the record, and be wowed.
That's all I have the energy for today. There are modern examples (namely, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" on Arcade Fire's Funeral and "Everything In Its Right Place" on Radiohead's Kid A), but they're hard to come by these days, which breaks my heart.