Back in the day, the average length of a single album rarely exceeded 45 minutes. Twenty-two-ish minutes per side and that’s it. For decades, artists were quite happy to work within those limits. The Ramones’ first album is 29:04. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper runs a little over 39 minutes. Led Zeppelin IV, Dark Side of the Moon and Thriller all said what they had to in about 42 minutes. If you wanted more than that, you had to release a double album (or, in rare cases, three-side albums, such as Joe Jackson’s 1986 album, Big World).
Compact discs were another story. Each CD could store at least 74 minutes of music. With that kind of available space, artists felt they had to fill it up. The result was often a couple of good songs and many, many minutes of padding. There was no need for 61:24 of music on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ One Hot Minute. No wonder consumers didn’t always equate more music with more value. (Point of trivia: The longest single CD I’ve ever heard of is Smoke That Cigarette (Pleasure to Burn), a country compilation featuring songs about tobacco. Sources say it has a listed running time of 87:26.)
Today, the album is losing its cache as more and more people go a la carte. The industry still wants us to believe that the only way to consume music is via albums. The public thinks otherwise. Yet for some reason, artists continue to release epic-length albums. Why? The Guardian has this story on the matter.
Judging from the gargantuan length of some of this year’s album releases, you might think our top hitmakers were hankering back to the prog rock days of yore, when musical odysseys spread across multiple discs were the order of the day. Kanye West (66 minutes), the 1975 (74 minutes) and James Blake (76 minutes) have all clocked in with albums that critics have accused of lingering like an unwanted house guest. Strangely, however, this expansive tendency is not to do with a newfound reverence for the album format, but instead industry contempt for it – a sign of its near-extinction.
Time was when an album wasn’t something you cherrypicked highlights from but experienced, uninterrupted, across two sides of vinyl lasting no longer than 45 minutes. It was greater than the sum of its songs, which were sequenced to provide a sort of cumulative dramatic arc. Occasionally, someone would feel sufficiently emboldened to make a double album: Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, for example, lasted 75 minutes. When it was over, you felt you were a long way from where you started.
To listen to Drake’s Views (81 minutes), by contrast, feels more like being caught in a gridlock, buttonholed by a bore in an open-top car, making the same point over and over. But there may be a reason he chooses to detain us for so long. A recent US Billboard ruling allows sales and streams of individual album tracks to count towards an album’s chart placing, encouraging artists to cram theirs full of as many songs as possible.