Dec. 18, 2016: Music Formats: Length, Genre, Attention
Somewhat related to yesterday's post—and to continue what constitutes my 2016 year-end music musings (a list will be coming soon)—I was thinking about how, while I have long believed that all albums should be shorter than they are (and that, in general, very few albums warrant runtimes over 40 or even 35 minutes), my favorite albums of 2016 were more often than not quite long. Yesterday I mentioned Graham Lambkin's Community, Sean McCann's Music for Public Ensemble, and Kanye West's The Life of Pablo, all of which stretch over 60 minutes in length. Add to that a host of other records with what-could-be unwieldy runtimes: Babyfather's BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow, Bonnie "Prince" Billy & Bitchin Bajas' Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties, Frank Ocean's Blonde, Laraaji & Sun Araw's Professional Sunflow, Solange's A Seat at the Table, and most of all, Roy Montgomery's RMHQ, several of which will be in my Top 10 for the year.
It's something I've thought about before: because albums exist primarily as digital entities even when they receive physical releases, they're less strapped to the temporal restraints of physical media. This isn't a new phenomenon. When the CD came out, artists responded accordingly, taking advantage of its 80 minutes of space now that it didn't require two large slabs of vinyl to release more than 40 minutes of music at a time. One thing I've always thought—maybe others have, too—is that hip-hop albums tend to be longer because hip-hop's rise was more or less contemporaneous with that of the CD. While hip-hop 12"s were undoubtedly prevalent and important, the genre is tied to the CD in ways that rock, pop, and R&B aren't. Hence, rock, pop, and R&B albums more often run within the LP's shorter time window.
Anyways, right, like I was saying: albums built for digital consumption can technically be any length (they can also afford to be shorter than physical releases, given that there's no "space" to "fill" either). This, to me, even though I tend to prefer shorter albums, is cool. It renegotiates the way we listen and the way albums function. Another facet of listening in the streaming age are of course playlists and other forms of song-selecting; indeed, many people don't listen to albums at all, just a few songs they like best. So, why not load your album with as much information as you can, giving song-selectors a huge reservoir from which to choose? A long album is a handy guide, in that case; it can also be seen as a challenge to our generational attention deficit. I like challenges. So, maybe in 2016, we finally decided to lose some of our attachment to the temporal manifestations of physical media, throw caution to the wind, and simultaneously challenge and appease listeners. I don't have a great reason or theory behind this, but ultimately I feel like I was more prone, this year, to listen to a long album all the way through than I ever was before.
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