Reviewing “Head of the Hawk” made me remember this article I had written a year ago on my old blog. Despite a minor bit of editing, I think the article’s point is valid and indicative of what I see as an unfortunate trend in music, in which the playlist is replacing the album.

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 being a staggering 29 years ago. I’ll admit to being more into the age of the LP than that of the CD, yet what I have been noticing is the tendency for bands to create albums that are longer (not to mention louder, more trebly and with worse production), 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 74 minute-long album. It was given solid reviews – four stars on average. There’s no bad song on the album, but for a nine track album, all of its tracks are just too long. It loses cohesiveness. It becomes tedious to listen to, particularly without any overarching theme, and simply becomes a playlist put to CD. 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’s very hard to create a long album that is full of amazing songs, so why try to? Some and indeed most of the greatest rock albums, made by the The Beatles, The Band, Pink Floyd etc, 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 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 release a staggering thirty songs across two separate CDs, clocking in at over 140 minutes; the length of two “double albums”. Why they couldn’t have released 80-100 minutes of material across two CDs, consolidating the stronger tracks and chucking out the filler, who knows.

This isn’t to say that better albums were made before CDs were introduced (although I do consider that to be the case), but that the issue of length is one that needs to be highlighted and for all recording artists to realise. 75-minute-long non-double albums are often lacking in direction, almost always lacking in consistency, and ultimately disorienting for the listener. Whether it involves more concise songwriting (think British 60s 2-minute singles), or simply recording less filler, it remains an imperative to strongly consider the utility of the album as more than a playlist if we are to avoid an age of musical mediocrity.