Growing up in the 1970s I used to listen to a countless number of records. That’s the time when albums were short and sweet. Almost all albums we had consisted of well-crafted songs that you would never suspect were made just to help fill up an album.
Songs on the more finely made albums seemed to have a common theme, like they all were meant to fit together. For example, Elton John’s 1970s albums such as Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player, Honky Chateau, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic, etc. each seemed to have their own unique setting, uniformity, or subject matter. Hence, a song from Don’t Shoot Me… wouldn’t seem appropriate if it were on Honky Chateau or vice-verso.
Many artists’ albums seem to have their own theme as well. That’s the way I saw it anyway. Maybe that was my imagination.
The Thrill of Buying an Album Disappeared
Buying or receiving record albums as gifts was such a thrill back in my teens. Whenever I’d see a thin, square-foot item wrapped up with my name on it, or even just in a plain, brown, shopping bag, it was obviously a record. When shopping for an album, especially a big seller, it seemed like I just had to have that album, as if it would change my life drastically for the better. If I didn’t get it right away, it was like, I never will in my whole lifetime. I couldn’t wait to tear it open and play it. And it was like I didn’t want to wait to hear it any longer than I had to.
During my teens, I spent a lot of time listening to records. I liked music so much that I drove my siblings, mother, and friends crazy. Yes, my brothers and sisters would razz me about the excited behavior I would display when getting an album. Not only was listening to an LP fun, but checking out the artwork. Sometimes an LP would have a pleasant unique smell of its own, as if it was the cardboard or the inks used to make the pictures. Following along with the lyrics was great, especially when you come upon a line that made you stop and say, “Is that what they’re saying there?”
Now, it is no big deal. Why? I feel this was a thrill I’ve outgrown. Today, an album is just an album and you have to have some patience and open-mindedness to get to enjoy it. No album will ever change my life, no matter how good it is.
LP’s Once Dictated an Album’s Content
Before 1985, most albums were still predominantly available on LP. As we all know, the typical record holds up to 45 minutes worth of music or less, but sometimes a little more. While some albums had as little as 28 minutes, the average I would say was between 33 and 36 minutes in length.
In the days of LPs, each artist had to have enough songs to fill whole disks-either produce a single album or a double album, but not an album and a half. On some releases, a band might have had about an hour’s worth of songs, which was too many for one album and not enough for two. Either the artists must ditch a few these songs or create more to fill a second disk.
When mixing greatest hits albums, the limitation of the LP created difficulties for some artists. For the more popular bands, a single album was barely long enough for all the material they wanted to include, but a double album was like, so long that they would have to throw in extra songs from somewhere just to fill it up. Buying a 2 record set often meant paying almost twice as much as a single album, and the higher cost alone may lose many fans’ interest. Therefore, many greatest hits releases crammed in almost an hour’s worth of music onto one LP, causing them to omit tracks and/or make shorter versions of their popular hits.
I could think of a few albums where time was a limitation. For example, when Led Zeppelin released In Through the Out Door in 1979, the group had to leave out some songs. Those excluded songs appear on their much later Coda album. That same year, the Eagles released The Long Run which they wanted to be a double-album, but did not have enough songs.
Still, somehow, Deep Purple managed to make their release: The Deepest Purple (a greatest hits album) that clocks in at almost 64 minutes. This was a single LP of 12 songs that held over an hour’s worth of music. I never thought they could fit that much music on a single LP. Add an extra three minute track to the Deepest Purple album and it will have a total running time similar to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street album (approx 66 min on a double LP set). Strange huh?
Since the late 1980s, albums have expanded greatly in length. Since the LP was dismissed, artists were free from its time limitations, especially since cassettes and CDs could hold more material. Now, an album could be any arbitrary time length and can include exactly as many songs as the band chooses without major time restraints. Still, this is not necessarily more entertaining for music listeners.
Short Albums Vs. Long Albums
However, the shorter albums had one little downfall: once a side of an album ended, it was time to flip it over. Although each side typically held 15 to 25 minutes of music, the music seemed to last only a few minutes. That meant that a listener had to stop whatever he/she was doing and flip the LP or tape over and continue playing the other side. What an inconvenience that was. Those who had record changers could listen to six albums at once, but before the days of auto reverse cassette decks, tape listeners had to stop to reload their players.
Over the last three decades, rock music has phased out as it has been replaced by R & B, rap, alternative, heavy metal, etc. Without the restrictions of the LP, artists have been free to make their albums as long as they desired. Since the 1990s longer albums have become a popular trend amongst musicians. Hence, single albums over 25 years ago usually contained 8 to 12 songs, rarely ever more. Now a typical album rarely contains less than 15 tracks and has an average playing time of 50 to 70 minutes.
Modern-day, long albums usually suck. Just listening to one band play for over an hour becomes monotonous. Trying to listen to some of these albums (or CDs), all in one sitting can seem to be torturous. It’s like, if you want me to listen to an entire album you’ll have to tie me down to a chair. The total material on some of these newer albums seems to be watered down and extra long. When it comes to content, more is not necessarily better.
On the other hand, when you’re playing a game, working on a project, doing chores around the house, or what have you, you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you’re less likely to pay total attention to the music. While that may seem to be OK with old albums, that still doesn’t justify the boredom and monotony of newer releases. Instead of well-crafted tunes, some of these post 1990 albums contain some songs that were haphazardly thrown together with mediocre melodies and excessive instrumentation. Even though you’re really busy, this music will tend to drive you nuts sooner or later.
Examples of Over-Long Albums
I don’t like to do any finger-pointing to upset my readers, but I feel the need to provide some examples. In 2008 I purchased the Counting Crows Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings CD which rambled on for about an hour. Toooooooooooo long. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Counting Crows, but this album didn’t measure up to their earlier material. I could never listen to that whole album in one sitting. That’s just mental torture.
What’s with all these long albums anyway? Does one musician make them just because all the others are doing it? Are record companies motivating their bands to make long albums? Is there a specific ploy somewhere that an album must contain over 55 minutes of music (if that’s what you wanna call it)?
Along with long albums in the early 1990s came another silly perk: 10 minutes of silence. That means right before the last track begins, there is a long period of nothing, no sound at all. I’ve had two CDs with this nifty little feature: Nirvana’s Nevermind and Cracker’s Kerosene Hat. OK, I get to what I thought was the last song and instead of stopping, the CD continues spinning on and on. Did the CD player not know the CD was over or is something wrong with the disk itself?
So I inserted Kerosene Hat into my portable CD player. It gave me a listing of 99 tracks at 72 minutes and 51 seconds. What? Ninety-nine tracks? Its label only says 15 as songs 13 and 14 are silent. Whew, this CD has almost 73 minutes of music on it, but what’s with the 99 tracks? Actually, there are only 62 minutes of material here, but that is still long.
What’s with the 10-minute silence before the last track? Apparently, this has been done on other releases from the early to mid 1990s. It’s just one of those perks that tells the listener something like, “Hey, there’s a hidden track at the end of the CD. If you’re patient enough to wait for it, you’ll get to hear it.” So what do you do during these 10 minutes? Well, you can flick the track advance buttons or play something else in the background as you wait.
It’s like saying, there’s an extra room linked to your house that you may not know about. The only catch is, you have to walk 10 miles underground to get to it.
OK, I could have made this post 10,000 words long but I didn’t. I could have included a lot of petty details about excessively long albums and rambled aimlessly, repeating myself. Would that make this article more interesting? Absolutely not! Who wants to read a ten page insert whose subject matter could be covered in two? Nobody! That’s how I feel about overly long albums.
- Does it still make sense to buy music? (reviews.cnet.com)
- Drip.fm: Record club for the 21st century (reviews.cnet.com)