Are Albums Sometimes Too Long for Their Own Good?

(Note: This post has been on my personal blog for some time, but in light of having recently read two columns about this topic, I figured, “Perhaps it’s not just me” and decided to share it here)

There’s one thing that seems to be common among most albums I listen to these days:

Most of them are long – certainly longer than the albums of my youth – and that’s not always a good thing.

Believe me, I’ve never taken an album’s length into consideration before purchasing and don’t plan to, but I’ve come to realize that the longer an album is, the greater the possibility that it won’t be one that’s treasured by this listener.

For most prog/rock/pop albums I truly love, the total running time isn’t a consideration, but when I think about the landmark albums of the last 40 years – especially progressive rock albums, being my favorite genre – you figure that many of them were recorded back when LP’s and cassettes were the norm and, by design, resulted in shorter-length albums unless a band thought they needed a double album to get the point/concept/noodling across.

I’ve posted elsewhere about this phenomenon of albums sometimes suffering from being too long and was usually met with some ridicule from a few respondents, though I should have polled their ages to see if they were even alive before the CD format; did they know anything other than a physical format that could hold over 70 minutes of music?  

Perhaps it’s conditioning. Perhaps it’s a shorter attention span on the part of this author.

However, I kept thinking there was something to my point.

That point was driven home for me by Rush’s latest album, “Clockwork Angels.” As with pretty much all of their albums since “Test For Echo,” I haven’t liked more than, say, half of the tracks, whereas I adored 75-100 percent of everything they did through “Counterparts.”

After numerous spins of “Clockwork Angels” and finding that I was skipping through several tracks every time – just as I was doing with most of their work since “Test For Echo” – I began to wonder how long the album was and how long it’d be if the tracks I didn’t like weren’t on it. In turn, that again got me thinking about the trend of albums more or less getting longer since the advent of the CD – do bands really have that much great music in them every time out?

To illustrate, I’ll “pick on” my all-time favorite band and their album lengths since 1976 (according to Wikipedia):

2112 – 38:46
A Farewell To Kings – 37:37
Hemispheres – 36:14
Permanent Waves – 35:35
Moving Pictures – 40:07
Signals – 42:18
Grace Under Pressure – 39:23
Power Windows – 44:44

(CD format taking hold around this time)

Hold Your Fire – 50:21
Presto – 52:11
Roll The Bones – 48:04
Counterparts – 54:17
Test For Echo – 53:25

(following the five-year break)

Vapor Trails – 67:15
Snakes And Arrows – 62:45
Clockwork Angels – 66:04

Now, if I take out my least favorite tracks from “Clockwork Angels” – the ones I will likely skip over every time – the album would be around 46 minutes.  That’s with me losing “The Anarchist,” “Carnies,” “Seven Cities Of Gold,” and “BU2B2.”  That’d put the album length near “Power Windows” and “Hold Your Fire,” and then I’d likely say that “Clockwork Angels” was their best effort since “Roll The Bones,” which so happens to be their shortest-length album between 1987 and 1996 (and my favorite from that time span).  Then again, I’d be killing the concept of “Clockwork Angels” as released.

There should be little argument among fellow progheads that Rush’s “landmark” period was from 1976 to 1981.  The first three albums, while progressing in scope each time, aren’t spoken of with the reverence that the “2112” through “Moving Pictures” albums are. Some of you may wish to add albums around that period to that list, but as we all know, “2112” was the turning point in Rush’s career and the epic-length tracks were gone starting with 1982’s “Signals.” I’ve enjoyed all of Rush’s albums since then, but not treasured them the way I do the ones from, in my case, 1977 through 1981 (sorry, gang, I’m not the biggest “2112” nut).

Okay, I’ll stop picking on the recent Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees…how about some other prog bands and popular albums they made?

  • Yes’ “90125” came in at 44 minutes while “The Ladder” (randomly chosen) was 60…and for those who can’t believe I cited a “YesWest” release, it bears noting that “The Yes Album” and “Fragile” were under 42 minutes, and “Close To The Edge” was under 37 minutes.
  • Dream Theater’s “Images & Words” was 57 minutes while “Systematic Chaos” (randomly chosen) was 78.
  • Saga’s “Worlds Apart” was 43 minutes while some of their latest efforts have been over 50…okay, not a big difference there.
  • “Beware of Darkness” by Spock’s Beard was 58 minutes…”X?” Nearly 80 minutes. Their new album is generating glowing reviews (and new fans, judging by some reviews) and it clocks in at a “mere” 55 minutes.

You’ll undoubtedly cite some worthy exceptions to this premise but like I said, we all have favorite albums and pay no mind to how long they might be. I randomly chose five of my “Albums Of The Year” from the last 10 years and the average length was exactly 60 minutes – nearly an album side longer than the LP format.

Now that digital downloads have become more popular than physical sales, it’ll be interesting to see if, in the future, album lengths contract, stay the same or expand due to an artist having no physical media restraints.

9 thoughts on “Are Albums Sometimes Too Long for Their Own Good?

  1. carleolson

    Great post, Kevin, on a topic not often discussed. I see the same thing in jazz, in large part, I’m sure, due to technological limitations of the past. Classic albums from the 1950s, for example, will run 30-35 minutes, while many jazz albums today reach twice that length–but are not often the better for it.

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  2. Thanks, Kevin. Excellent post. Lots to consider. I’m all in favor of getting as much music as possible–but it would be nice if at the end of an album proper, the singer makes an announcement: this album is now over. Everything from this point on is extra b-side material. Also, Kevin, when you get a moment, can you email your proper email address again. I can’t find it.

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  3. Nick

    Interesting.

    I guess there’s been a subtle pressure on bands to make albums longer during the CD era so they don’t leave themselves open to accusations of offering poor value for money. If they are under contract to release albums annually or whatever then this could easily result in too much filler or b-side material being included.

    If releasing shorter albums leads to more frequent releases from my favourite bands then I’m all for it!

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    1. Nick et al
      I think the reverse was true back in the 70s/early 80s, irrespective of the limitations of the vinyl medium i.e. pressure from record companies on bands NOT to release albums that were too long as it didn’t make commercial sense. Some bands in this era produced at least one album per year, sometimes two.
      Its all about quality not quantity and I for one hate ‘filler’ tracks…as you may know i’m a great vinyl lover partly because the length is suitable for my lifestyle (and short attention span !)
      Ian

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  4. It’s hard to argue with your analysis, Kevin. I think as digital downloads become the norm, though, we will see fewer and fewer people buying “albums”. I know my high school students aren’t interested in them. By the way, this may not be true, but back in the early 80s I remember reading that the cd length was set at around 72 minutes, because that’s how long it took to perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

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  5. Pingback: Classic Albums – Rush – 2112 & Moving Pictures | mostly music

  6. segue90myles

    I tend to agree…

    I adore Rush. But my reasons for not enjoying the albums from T4E through to Snakes and Arrows lies, less with the album length, and more with the song quality. Prior to Clockwork Angels, all the albums after the very enjoyable Counterparts are tiresome dirges. I still like them…but yeah…reduced number of songs wouldn’t really improve them that much.

    As for Clockwork Angels, I love the whole thing! Only the sound quality lets it down.

    Newer albums that bug me length wise are all of Alter Bridges albums (believe me..all great albums, rarely a duff track…but hard to get through 14 tracks before then indulging in three b-sides!)

    Nightwish, on the other hand, release very long albums. But they are untouchable masterpieces!

    To be honest, I think it depends entirely on the quality of the album. Clockwork Angels is enjoyable for me from start to finish. As for Vapor Trails and its remix…well…same kind of length but absolutely not impressed. Same for Snakes and Arrows. I like T4E more than most. Its underrated. But then again, maybe not if we were to judge it against the greats such as 2112 or A Farewell To Kings (my own personal favourite).

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  7. Richard Weitekemper

    I’ve been to music most of my life and I guess I feel by limiting bands and Artists to shorten up their songs works for maybe certain Genres of music….but not for all of in my opinion …….example A country or Pop track should work fine, now let’s do the flip side of this Progressive Rock or Metal or Progressive Stoner Rock maybe and I would hate to see some of these incredible musicians be limited.
    My son is in a Stoner Rock/Grundge Band called Spacetrucker they just came out with their second CD it’s taking off decently. But they are facing the length thing, they are trying to figure out a way to get it on Vinyl it would have to be a double.
    See I grew up with KSHE where Clsassic and Progressive Rock ruled they had a lotta balls in those days these stations now days don’t want to take a chance what’s a shame.

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