Monday, June 08, 2009

The "Less-Than-10-Song" Phenomenon

This is a topic that I've wanted to touch on for awhile and with my latest purchase of Blind Faith, my interest in this topic resurrected itself.

As most of you know, I grew up a Beatle fan, so I was completely unfamiliar with the idea that an album could have less than ten songs. (In fact, there are only two solo albums with less than 10 songs, Wings' Wild Life and George's Dark Horse.) As I became more familiar with the world of music in the mid-to-late-1960s, it became pretty obvious that there was this strange movement of making rock albums with just eight or nine songs - sometimes even just seven. Jazz artists had been releasing albums with only a few songs on it for years (like Miles Davis's Kind Of Blue, which only has five tracks...and is something I desperately need to free up the cash to buy) but the idea of popular, main-stream rock artists doing this seems kind of odd to me. First of all, don't more songs mean more royalties? I mean, if you only have seven songs, don't you only get your royalty rate seven times? The rate for a three minute song is the same for a ten minute song (like how on iTunes you pay the same for a three minute track as you do a ten minute track). Of course, as writing became more and more important and as the focus went from the 45 to the LP, songs grew longer and longer, to the point where seven songs would fill up 42 minutes of vinyl.
Another reason why the idea is strange is that there would be less songs for a record company to take advantage of, so why record companies in the 60s and 70s allowed for this to happen is strange. Even stranger is that unestablished acts were even allowed to do it. One of the best examples I can think of is Springsteen's first three albums. Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ has nine depressing, heartbreaking songs although a few could easily have been singles ("Blinded By The Light" and "Spirits In The Night" particularly), but why Columbia let Springsteen release the seven song The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is beyond me. Granted, it is one of the best albums ever, it sold poorly, with no singles issued. (Despite both "Sandy" and "Rosalita" on it.) Born To Run has the great title track, but that is the only obvious single, since practically all of the songs (especially those on side one) sound out-of-place when not surrounded by their neighbors on the album. It just seems a little bizarre that, in a part of music history when the record companies were so controlling (unless you were an established artist), they would allow for such a trend to take over.
Where did this trend start? As far as I know, probably one of the first successful nine-song album was Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited in 1965. The album lasts almost an hour, coming to a dramatic head with his eleven minute masterpiece, "Desolation Row". Now, by 1965, Dylan was clearly established, so I don't think there is any issue with Columbia releasing that. However, by 1967, acts like Vanilla Fudge were releasing seven-song debut records, even before they had a hit single. In 1969, Cream released their final album, made up of six songs (Goodbye, which I still don't have) and Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker left to Blind Faith, where they release just one album - of only six songs. That same year, Led Zeppelin releases their first album, which only has nine songs. In their entire career, they only released two albums with more than nine songs - LZIII (with 10) and the double LP Physical Graffiti (with 15) - and their last two records (Presence and In Through The Out Door) only have seven.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the trend was all but gone. Granted, there were still artists who did release nine song albums, but by the time the CD came around, it became a rarer and rarer sight. Album lengths didn't shrink, though, they just got longer. Artists began releasing hour long albums and putting out different single mixes for practically every song. On top of that, seemingly every song has to go over five minutes, even if it isn't really necessary.
I'm not saying that only albums with more than ten tracks can be good - in fact, some of the best albums ever only have seven to eight tracks. It's just that the artist should know how to do it right. For instance, if you only plan on eight songs or less, you have no room for error. Let's go back to The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, with it's seven songs. There is no filler. For close to 45 minutes, you are given a pure shot of adrenaline, with no point to say "Oh, this is a throwaway." Every single second is there for a reason, whether it be to set the mood for the song (David Sanacious's long piano piece that starts "New York Serenade" is not only beautiful, but an essential part to put you in a state of mind) or to call attention to the multi-faceted talents of Springsteen's writing that we have seen in the decades since the album was released. A good example of a bad album with just five songs is Steve Miller's horrid Circle Of Love. I'm not going to reiterate how terrible that is, so you can read my full review of it.
So, that's the good, the bad and the ugly parts of the "Less-Than-10-Song" Phenomenon. If there are other albums I didn't mention that have less than 10 songs that needs to be discussed, let me know. I probably haven't mentioned it because I either don't have it or forget to mention it.

1 comment:

Nik said...

I do think there's just wayy too much filler now on albums. Some of my personal favorite 9-song or less discs:

Peter Gabriel, "So"
David Bowie, "Station to Station" (only 6 tracks on the original album!)
Led Zeppelin "IV"
Richard and Linda Thompson "Shoot Out The Lights"