In defence of short albums: since when is 39 minutes not enough?

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When I was 17 years old, I fell completely in love with Fleetwood Mac. It’s immensely embarrassing to admit this came about via a particularly bad themed episode of Glee, but unfortunately, that was the case. I fell headlong into Rumours – that incendiary, brilliant album that was created in a furnace of crumbling relationships and spiralling drug addiction.

My mother initially thought the local ABC radio was doing some kind of recurring daily series on the record, before realising, with some bafflement, that I was simply playing the album on repeat for weeks at a time. It’s a sublime album, from the rattling anger of The Chain to Christine McVie’s delicate Songbird and the furious, elemental love that pours out of Stevie Nicks through everything she sings (the less said about Don’t Stop the better). Rumours is remarkable, an album that continues to capture the imagination of generations, and it clocks in at a smidge under 39 minutes.

Of course, that length was hardly notable 40 or 50 years ago, as vinyl records could only contain so much music. Nicks was famously forced by the album’s producers to strip back Silver Springs from an eight-minute recording to under five minutes (and in the end it didn’t make the final album, although it was a b-side for Go Your Own Way), such was the preciousness of the allotted time. Generally, each side of a vinyl record could hold about 18 to 20 minutes of music, a mind-boggling idea in today’s limitless stream of music.

Recently, US pop star Olivia Rodrigo came under fire for the length of her second album GUTS – which comes in at a thoroughly respectable 39 minutes, the same as Rumours. Fans were seemingly outraged at the short length of the record: “So basically an EP,” a fan wrote online. “They really be calling anything an ‘album’ nowadays huh,” said another. Some publications breathlessly claimed it was barely over the length of an EP, that it was “shockingly short”.

It’s a curious accusation for a few reasons. One is that album length absolutely has no bearing on the overall quality of a record. Some of the greatest albums in the history of music have been – in today’s viewpoint – “short” albums.

Fleetwood Mac in 1977, when they recorded their 39-minute classic Rumours.

The Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and Rubber Soul (in fact, most albums from the group); Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On; Joni Mitchell’s Blue; Nick Drake’s Pink Moon; Sleater-Kinney’s 1995 self-titled album; hell, Aretha Franklin’s 1968 masterpiece Lady Soul didn’t even hit the 29-minute mark.

It’s not just something from the bygone era, either: in recent years, we’ve received stellar short albums from Teyana Taylor (K.T.S.E), Pusha T (Daytona, a crisp 21 minutes), and PinkPantheress (her breakout mixtape To Hell With It). You don’t need a lot of time to make an impact.

In fact, you could very well argue that shorter albums have an advantage: they have little filler, and potentially more killer singles. They can be tighter and more cohesive, less tangential. It is much more difficult to maintain attention over a longer period of time – as George Costanza famously put it as he skipped from a meeting after telling a joke, it’s always good to leave on a high note.

This clamouring for more time, for more content, is a symptom of the streaming era. In recent years, artists have padded out albums to (sometimes) extreme lengths in order to game the algorithms of streaming platforms.

In the last decade, artists realised that by extending their albums to run times of well over an hour – such as Drake with Views or Migos’ Culture III – they could generate more streams which would potentially lead to higher chart positions, as chart counters had begun incorporating streams into their calculations. Drake has been a serial offender of album padding for a number of years, and – consequently – the decline in quality of his albums has been striking.

Country star Morgan Wallen’s recent One Thing at a Time album runs for an epic 112 minutes.

Morgan Wallen’s 2023 record One Thing At A Time contained a whopping 36 tracks, and ran nearly two hours. Billboard recently christened this trend “track creep” – and noted that the top ten albums on the 2022 end-of-year Billboard chart averaged 19.1 tracks and 69.9 minutes. In 2014, it was 13.2 tracks and 51.9 minutes.

At the same time as albums are getting longer, songs are getting shorter. The length of tracks has decreased drastically over the last five years – Billboard revealed that in 2016, four per cent of songs in the top ten were less than three minutes; in 2022, it was 38 per cent.

TikTok is surely a main driver, with the platform built to deliver punchy, viral moments; songs are created with one central hook in mind that can be repeated and duetted across the app ad nauseum. It’s a curious quirk of the internet age that we simultaneously want so much more, and so much less.

But if it’s a choice to listen to Rumours three times or Morgan Wallen’s One Thing At A Time, I know what I’m choosing. I might even do the deluxe edition, so Silver Springs gets a run.

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