Double Albums: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

finishedIf you’ve ever been on a forum of a band who has released a double album, you’ll definitely be familiar with those topics that involve fans compiling their own single album out of the whole material. And I’ve played this exercise before with some records – in fact, I even created playlists with the selected songs and played them to see if they work better than what was originally released. And this got me wondering – do double albums usually justify their length or would they all work better with some edit?

But first of all, let’s discuss this from a technical point of view. A double album originally referred to the necessity of splitting the songs on two LPs (so we get 4 sides instead of 2) because the length exceeded the 60-minute limit. As soon as the CD replaced the LP, the limit grew up to 70 minutes (later even 80) so some albums changed their form during the transition, from double to single. Just to be clear, what I’ll talk about here are studio albums that were originally released as double.

But what is the point of these albums anyway? Just a platform for artists to be indulgent and not have to worry themselves with the task of selecting? Well, maybe sometimes, but usually no. A common type of double album is the so-called ‘rock opera’, which is exactly what is sounds like – a storyline unifies all the songs. The Who set the template for rock operas presented in the double format with their 1969 ‘Tommy’ and some of the most famous works such as their own ‘Quadrophenia’, Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ or Genesis’ ‘Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ followed. In many of the cases, the story-line is simply too long, the events too many for them to be told within only 40 minutes of music. Sure, I can see the aforementioned albums shortened by 2 or 3 songs, but cut in half? No way. All those bands used the double format to carry us through sounds and emotions, to create the needed tension and then, to finally end it all on a big scale. And you need time and space in order to do all that properly.

Another type of double albums is what I like to call the ‘encyclopedic’ type. Here, the accent is put on diversity, with the artist jumping from genre to genre, from mood to mood and the result is usually an eclectic collection of songs. To say that albums such as Bob Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’, Clash’s ‘London Calling’, Elton John’s ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ or Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ would work better as single albums is to completely miss their point, in my opinion. The objective was not to go high as much as wide, to highlight every face of the band and to sum up all of its influences and strengths. Or much simply put, to offer a representative, quintessential view of the band. Approaching this type of albums is not an easy thing to do – first of all, because you got to know when in your career to do it and second, because the material has to be strong enough, not just diverse. You gotta write songs that measure up with your ambition and if you don’t, things can go pretty wrong (see Guns N’ Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums).

All in all, if used adequately and executed properly, the ‘double album’ is a great concept that can totally work in favour of the artist and the listener. That some bands missed the point of it is unfortunate, but not strong enough of an argument to change my thumbs up verdict.

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Categories: Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?

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8 replies

  1. That’s a tough question, because it really depends on the album and the artist. And it’s a question with a very different context now that new music is being created in a more singles-oriented industry. It’s obviously a good deal for fans, if there is very little/no filler. Two that I don’t think you mentions — The White Album and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness — I can’t imagine being a single album. But the question on those would be the benefits of having two separate albums vs. a double album. The material is there, but would it have been better to package it differently. That is more of a marketing question, I think, than an artist one.

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  2. Looks like it 3-0 in favor so far. You have to say “yes” considering all the great doubles over the years, but as you say if an artist doesn’t the material to match the ambition you end up with things like ELP’s “Works, Vol. One.” As Creem magazine once put it, “‘Works’–but only as a Frisbee.” (two Frisbees actually).

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  3. I think I love most doubles because of their sprawling nature – sure they’d be more concise as a single LP but I don’t think they’d be more potent.
    The White album is the benchmark record for me, any less than 4 sides would as you say, miss the point.
    I have to disagree about Use your Illusion I/II – I do agree the quality doesn’t keep up with the quantity but with the exception of the horrendous closing track (my world), it’s a glorious, sloppy mess that I wouldn’t want any other way!

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    • I really wish I’d enjoy the Use Your Illusion albums more as I am a big fan of their two previous ones. And I have given them many chances, but it’s just too much for me – 2 and a half hours of music with only 8-10 songs I really like. How do you feel about The Spaghetti Incident’, usually another polarizing album of theirs?

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      • At the risk of having my GNR fan status revoked, I don’t actually have the spaghetti incident. I had lost interest at the time and based on the less than sterling reviews I read, I was never inspired to see for myself. Some day perhaps!

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  4. I only have a couple and I don’t really enjoy listening to them. That’s not to say that I give all of them the thumbs down … but I’m probably more thumbs down than thumbs up as a result.

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  5. In general I don’t like them, unless they are double-live. I usually get bored by the second record. Tommy is an exception, but the Wall falls into that category of too long. I think it’s artistically fine as a way to explore – people can do whatever they want, I just don’t have that much stamina usually.

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  6. A very clear Thumbs up from me, some of my most loved albums are Double.
    The White, The Lamb, Physical Graffiti and the mysterious Ummagumma.
    Not to mention that the “Double” also made room for the “Illustration” of a full concert on great live albums, sometimes one of the bands best albums. Janis Joplin – In Concert, Deep Purple – Made in Japan, Supertramp – Live in Paris and Jethro Tull – Bursting Out.

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