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The Lost Art of the Album

December 4, 2010

The more and more I look at it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’re proving rather inept in the transition from LP to CD, despite its invention 28 years ago. I’m not a huge listener of music made in the last two decades, yet what I have been noticing is the tendency for bands to create albums that are longer (not to mention louder and for those of you into the “Loudness War” business), particularly amongst older rock bands – Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, but it seems to be a rather constant thing.

Having 60 minute records isn’t necessarily a bad thing – time itself is no reasonable judge of a record’s quality. But it’s no small coincidence that some of the better records of the CD era, of roughly 1987-onwards, have generally been less than an hour in length. Look at Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind, OK Computer – indeed all of Radiohead’s albums run for around 50 minutes, and they’re all the better for it.

The issue with longer albums is that they tend to be more sporadic than shorter, tighter creations. Taking Death Magnetic as an example – a solid, 74 minute-long album. Pretty well reviewed too – four stars on average. All the tracks are strong. There’s no bad song on the album, but for a nine track album, all of its songs are just too long. It loses cohesiveness. It becomes tedious to listen to, it lacks any overarching theme and becomes purely a collection of songs. Similarly, take AC/DC’s Black Ice – a solid return to form, yet there is no way that their fifteen songs could ever be more than a sporadic effort. Simply put, it is very hard to create a long album that is full of amazing songs, so why try to? The strongest albums, such as your Beatles, Band and Pink Floyd, all utilised the constricted space of an LP to their advantage, by crafting a set of thematically unified and carefully constructed songs. In many cases, it’s better to have ten good songs rather than eight good ones and five filler tracks.

Of course, going back to LP days, most bands had the obligatory double album – The White Album, Physical Graffiti, Exile on Main St, London Calling, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, The Wall – mostly seen as fluctuating and more experimental records, or contrastingly united by concept. Yet this was exactly why such long records, often 70-90 minutes length, remain so revered. Sure they were crazy, long and ridiculous, but that was the entire point. Their experimental and wide-reaching nature allowed them to draw upon many influences and create truly unique music, or alternatively create an overarching story or concept – they were anything but a collection of songs. Paradoxically, these bombastic records are seen as the epitome of the band’s collective work, its chaotic nature ironically providing structure.

The line between single albums and double albums has been blurred ever since the popularisation of the compact disc. More and more, longer albums became increasingly common. Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusions are an unfortunate example of this. I’ve frequently expressed my frustration at their poor decision to simply release thirty songs across two separate CDs, effectively two “double albums”, instead of release one double album (two CDs) consolidating the stronger tracks, creating an undeniably solid work showcasing their increasing instrumental and song-writing ability, and either chucking out the other half (there was considerable filler) or saving them for a future release.

This isn’t to say that better albums were made before CDs were introduced, although I certainly would argue that, but the issue of length is one that needs to be highlighted and for all recording artists to realise. 75 minute long single albums are often lacking in direction, almost always lacking in consistency, and ultimately disorienting for the listener. Whether it involves higher quality and less quantity, or simply being more selective with the album construction process, to avoid mediocrity it remains an imperative to strongly consider the utility of the album as more than a simple collection of songs.


From → Music

  1. Horatio Hufnagel permalink

    Amnesiac wasn’t really an ‘album.’

    Also, I quite like how Kanye West’s new album is more of an ‘album’ than most other things released this year.

    • Yeah Amnesiac was a bit of a left-overs album but it was still pretty solid, and I liked it almost as much as Kid A – they both have their strengths and weaknesses, just because they’re such experimental works.

      I’ve been meaning to listen to it, I really have, everyone keeps mentioning it and my metalhead brother loves it as well which is quite surprising.

      Plus it samples 21st Century Schizoid Man. Amazing.

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