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When it comes to albums, how long is too long?

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Shawn Sensiba
November 2, 2012

For those who still listen to music albums, what is your ideal length? Is it 40 minutes? 50? Or 78?

When I started listening to music, longer albums were always, in my opinion, better. The long-playing record, or LP, could accommodate up to 50 minutes or so of music. If I was paying, I wanted 50 minutes or as close to that as possible.

A 33-minute album felt as though I was being shortchanged. Where's the other 12 minutes, my brain would demand. Part of this was a particular Midwestern trait of seeking good value: More of a good thing is a good thing.

Now I understand that reasoning isn't always correct. Sometimes more of a thing is just more.

If a song is great at 3 minutes, it won't necessarily be better at 5 or 8.

Likewise, if an album is 37 minutes long and wonderful, it won't necessarily be better if it is 55 minutes long.

This commercial music equation changed with the arrival of the compact disc. When CDs first arrived, about 74 minutes of music could be encoded into its pits. Suddenly, inevitably, albums began to get longer. If longer was better, then this had to be a good thing, right?

Wrong.

Titles did get longer. Discs had more tracks and individual tracks were longer. But certainly it is true that merely being longer did not make a work better. What it meant was that an artist might include several tracks on an album that previously might have been left behind on the cutting room floor. In addition, the tracks got longer. Three-minute songs became five. Five became eight. Artists were not bound by the same time limitation as before. And many artists were conscious that more tracks and longer runtimes sometimes seem to equal greater value. However artificial that 50 minute limit was, it might have encouraged discipline And so we end up with a lot of 70-plus minute CDs that contain filler. Sometimes it's a little filler. Sometimes it's a lot. Titles now often run 60 minutes or so.

Lately I have particularly noticed how much I enjoy a good, punchy, short album. Some of my favorites this year are below or just over 30 minutes. "Breakup Song" by Deerhoof is clever, witty, energetic and concise at 29 minutes. It works at 29 minutes and it's a pure pleasure. Why would I want any more?

"Lex Hives" by The Hives is another dose of intravenous adrenaline from the Swedish punk band. It clocks in at just over 31 minutes. Given the energy it expends, it would be absurd to demand more.

Jeff Lynne, the man behind the Electric Light Orchestra, recently released "Long Wave." It is only 27 minutes and change and yet it feels complete at that length. Why inflate it and risk its quality?

So what seems like the correct length of an album to you? Do you pay any attention to the length of songs and the number of tracks on an album? My guess is that many folks don't even buy albums any longer, preferring to pick up only individual tracks they particularly like. But if you do buy discs, does the length matter? Or, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A good album is a good album is a good album (no matter the length).

Please share your thoughts with us.

Follow Shawn Sensiba on Twitter @shawnsensiba.



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