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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Top 15 Long Songs

Every now and again, an artist feels restricted by the expectation that a song will last somewhere between three and five minutes. Often, musicians (some more than others) will fight this sense of constriction by crafting works significantly lengthier than average. Such songs must be approached by the listener in a different manner. Depending on the style, exceptionally long tracks can put added emphasis on certain aspects of music. Some marathon-like songs are intended to build up and up to an ultimate cathartic release; some are supposed to drift along, allowed the listener to let his or her mind wander blissfully; still others consist of several different parts, indicating that the performer had plenty of ideas to fit into one piece.

Today, I will be looking at these sort of songs, and listing what I consider to be the best among them. In order for a track to qualify for this countdown, it needed to be at least seven minutes long, a length I chose because it's roughly twice as long as a typical pop song and also because it narrowed down the field substantially. Some songs that just missed the cut due to their sub-seven-minute runtime but would be considered otherwise include My Bloody Valentine's "Soon," "Whirring" by the Joy Formidable, and Radiohead's "Paranoid Android." The song's listed runtime on iTunes was the data used. The selection and ranking processes was based on a combination of my personal taste and general cultural recognition and importance. I limited the choices to one entry per artist as well. Additionally, in keeping with the extra-long theme, I've decided to make this countdown a top fifteen rather than the usual top ten. Enjoy.

15. "Wasted Days" - Cloud Nothings

Back when I reviewed Attack on Memory, I talked about "Wasted Days" as one of the album's standout moments. The fast-paced guitar riff melts away after a few minutes into the wild instrumental midsection, complete with cataclysmic drums and eerie atmospheric noise. Dylan Baldi's primal screams during the finale mark a violent end to a visceral track, one you'll hardly notice lasts nine minutes.

14. "I Am the Resurrection" - The Stone Roses

"I Am the Resurrection" starts as a typical 'Madchester' single, with a march-along drum beat, echoed vocals, and sunny guitars. However, once the vocals disappear and the funky bassline takes over, the song transforms into a part-jazz, part-Britpop instrumental breakdown that lasts over four minutes. Congas join the standard drum kit as John Squire gets a little experimental with his guitar playing, which remains some of the flashiest found on any Stones Roses record. Switching between quiet and loud on several occasions, the outro is a major reason why this track is one of the most famous to come of the Manchester scene.

13. "Pictures of You" - The Cure

The spacey "Pictures of You" one of The Cure's most famous singles, and fits perfectly on their atmospheric Disintegration. A cascade of guitars is joined by a pulsating bass riff and Robert Smith's enveloping musings. It's a pretty straightforward love song, and a dreamy one at that. "There was nothing in the world/That I ever wanted more/Than to feel you deep in my heart," croons Smith. It still stands as one of The Cure's finest, and its length and production make it all the more memorable.

12. "Hey Jude" - The Beatles

The Beatles become the third straight British artist with an entry on this list with their world-famous "Hey Jude." A simple piano piece and vocal melody combine magically, as this song has reached and entertained so many ears over the decades. At first known for their sub-three-minute ditties, The Beatles gradually grew more and more experimental. Part of that experimenting included longer runtimes, employed most proficiently on "Hey Jude." Once you hit the "na-na-na" section, the song becomes a group effort, one of the most famous sing-alongs in music. A huge song historically, this Beatles ballad really has held up in the forty-six years since its original release.

11. "Limousine" - Brand New

I wrote about this extremely emotional track back when I ranked my favorite guitar solos, and its multi-part structure suits the song's eight-minute runtime well. It depicts the true story of a young girl who was killed by a drunk driver from the perspectives of both the girl's mother and the driver who killed her. Naturally, the track is noticeably morose, with lyrics such as "I've one more night to be your mother" not exactly lightening the mood. However, it's the song's darkness and anguish that make it so poignant, so genuine, and so fantastic. The repeated reprisal leading up to the guitar solo is particularly powerful, as the increasingly chaotic roar of guitars, cymbals, and horns gets louder and louder. The guitar solo acts as the culmination of every emotion that's been represented throughout the song, and closes the track with a mournful bang.

10. "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" - The Joy Formidable

Walls of sound seem to be a common theme for Welsh rockers The Joy Formidable, as made clear by their album-opening "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie." The verses follow reverbed vocals and a galloping drum beat. but its the chorus that's truly uplifting. The previously hushed vocals break out into a shout, and the instruments respond with an eruption of their own. After the second chorus, the trio give a hint at what's to come in the instrumental break just before the bridge. Ritzy Bryan's perky vocal hides the fact that she's about to unleash a furious few minutes of guitars on the listener, as the increasingly frantic instrumentals really let loose for the final two minutes. The tempo picks up and continues to get faster and faster in a high-speed race to the finish, as the wondrous track concludes in a wash-out of noise. The Joy Formidable are no foreigners when it comes to writing longer songs, and "The Everchanging Spectrum of a Lie" showcases their expertise in this regard.

9. "A More Perfect Union" - Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus' genre has been labeled by some fans as "history-core," a pretty fitting moniker for their style of music: the band is named after a Shakespearean play, and their Civil War-themed concept album The Monitor opens with a recitation of a speech given by Abraham Lincoln. This narration is found at the beginning of "A More Perfect Union," one of five tracks on the record to surpass the seven-minute mark. Once the actual music begins, it's a full-fledged punk rock romp, complete with Patrick Stickles' nervous singing and an anthemic, almost Springsteen-like hook; "No, I never wanted to change the world/but I'm looking for new New Jersey/'cause tramps like us/baby, we were born to die," the frontman shouts. Halfway through the bombastic track, it slides gracefully into a patriotic war march, complete with shouted, bleeding heart vocals. The song manages to both convey a meaningful message and take the listener on a wild, fun ride, all at the same time.

8. "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns" - Mother Love Bone

Seamlessly linking together the two seemingly incompatible genres of hair metal and grunge, "Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns" is the crowning moment in Mother Love Bone's far-too-short career. Later found on the best-selling Singles soundtrack, the song starts with a romantic piano riff with the late Andy Wood lamenting love lost. "Dreams like this must die," he admits sadly. Soon, guitars chirp in softly as a light ride cymbal pattern backs Wood's increasingly full vocal. The band generate more force during the chorus, as the refrain of "this is my kind of love" is introduced. The track slowly but surely builds and builds, but never spills over the top, remaining contained and composed throughout. Mother Love Bone and their self-titled album were huge catalysts to the grunge movement, and this masterpiece stands out above the rest of their catalog.

7. "Champagne Supernova" - Oasis

Moving from Seattle to Manchester, Oasis and the epic What's the Story (Morning Glory) closer "Champagne Supernova" nabs the number seven spot on this countdown. The song is a masterful fusion of psychedelia and Britpop, with its swirling guitars, ambient noise, trembling drums, and Liam Gallagher's compelling vocal performance. The verses are calming and introspective, and contains the famous repeated lyrics of "slowly walking down the hall/faster than a cannonball/where were you while we were getting high?" The chorus kicks it up a notch, as Gallagher declares in one of the most famous choruses of the nineties, "someday you will find me/caught beneath the landslide/in a champagne supernova in the sky." The midsection is an all-out blitz of guitars, with harmonies of "ahh"'s and "ooh"'s providing the background. The song returns to its blissful state for the final minute or so, before peacefully fading away. Despite the track's length, it still managed to become a radio hit, which speaks volumes to the sheer quality of the music.

6. "Wakin on a Pretty Day" - Kurt Vile

Kurt Vile had somewhat of a breakout year in 2013, with his marathon-length Wakin on a Pretty Daze garnering plenty of critical acclaim. That album's nearly ten-minute opening track is the one I find myself coming back to the most, probably due to its warm nature, excellent guitarmanship, quiet yet desperate mood, and pleasant murmur. Vile's delivery sounds lackadaisical, but the lyrics suggest the situation isn't quite as careless as it would appear; "phone ringing off the shelf/guess he wanted to kill himself," he hums. Much of the track is built around Vile's guitar playing; the solos and riffs are impressive without being flashy, shy without withdrawing, and friendly without being docile. Vile was correct in calling his 'daze' 'pretty' if "Wakin on a Pretty Day" is any indication.

5. "Reflektor" - Arcade Fire

I made my love for Arcade Fire pretty clear last year, as I named "Reflektor" and its album compatriot "Here Comes the Night Time" two of my top tracks of 2013. "Reflektor" is 450 seconds of disco drone, and I love it. The cheesy synths, Butler and Chassagne's vocal trade-offs, the conga beats,  David Bowie's guest appearance, and the song's earworm-inducing melodies all combine into one glorious, bouncy, downright fun song. I won't go on too much longer on this one, seeing as I've already written plenty about it in the past, but I'll end off by saying this one song you don't want to end.

4. "Free Bird" - Lynyrd Skynyrd

Moving the list back towards some more iconic pieces of music, the number four slot goes to Southern rock's biggest offering to the world, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird." It's up there with "Smoke on the Water" and another song to be seen later on this countdown as one of the quintessential guitar anthems. "Free Bird" is essentially split into two halves: the first is a slow-burning, country-tinged, standard classic rock ballad, and includes that world-famous guitar riff; the second is a fiery, furious flurry of triplets and guitar virtuosity. The four-minute guitar solo is arguably the most impressive and certainly one of the most recognizable in history, as Gary Rossington and his fellow axemen make their instruments squeal in perfect harmony. "Free Bird" is often recognized as one of the greatest examples of classic rock, and much of its legacy is based on its length.

3. "Dream House" - Deafheaven

2013 sure was a good year for longer songs, wasn't it? "Dream House" and its mix of black metal, shoegaze, and post rock make it by far the heaviest entry on this list, and also the least accessible. There's something about those shimmering chord progressions and ethereal drum patterns that makes the song sound almost heavenly, directly offset by the growled vocals of George Clarke. The San Francisco trio have crafted something magical here with Sunbather, something supremely unique and beautiful, and "Dream House" is the perfect example of how. The combination of different elements from the genres mentioned above somehow form this incredible hybrid of metal's emotional and physical power and shoegaze's stunning dreaminess. Like other selections lower on the list, the song can be split into two parts; one a ferocious onslaught of heavy instrumentals at hyperspeed, the other a more composed post-rock breakdown. I can't think of another modern song that utilizes an extensive runtime quite as well as "Dream House," which is why it gets beaten out only by two classics.

2. "Stairway to Heaven" - Led Zeppelin

People tend to see the title "Stairway to Heaven" on countdowns and immediately demand that it be listed as #1, regardless of context. While it is an obviously fantastic song, one of the greatest of all time no doubt, I still think there's one track more deserving of the top spot here. But first, I should explain what got it to number two. Simply put, "Stairway" is a staple in music history,  a song that took the multi-part structure and made it its own. Similarly-put-together songs in the years following were commonly referred to as "band x's 'Stairway to Heaven,'" showing just how famous and celebrated the track has become. The slow build from simple acoustic guitar and softly sung vocals to full-out riffage from Jimmy Page and screaming by Robert Plant is legendary and superb. The guitar solo, like "Free Bird"'s, is one of the most famous of all time. At eight minutes long, it never bores, getting more and more exciting as it goes on. So, you might ask, what exactly beat it out here? Well, look no further, because my choice for the best epic track of all time is...

1. "Light My Fire" - The Doors

As good as "Stairway to Heaven" is, it has become a bit cliche and is slightly overwrought, while The Doors' classic "Light My Fire" still sounds fresh forty-seven years later. Jim Morrison's haunting vocal, Robby Krieger's creeping guitar, John Densmore's sturdy drums, and Ray Manzarek's iconic organ playing have all stood the test of time so magnificently well that I had to place this track at #1. Much of the song is composed by two equally amazing instrumental solos, one from Manzarek and one from Krieger. The organ takes the lead first, providing an eerie, almost Halloween-like feel before Krieger and his Gibson step in for their own turn in the spotlight. The psychedelic, middle-eastern flavored performance was also featured  on my aforementioned countdown of my favorite guitar solos. Morrison's fantastic singing on the track is the clincher, as he croons away to fill the space before and after the instrumental break. There were other Doors songs to choose from, too, most notably "The End" and "Riders on the Storm," but at the end of the day it was no contest, with "Light My Fire" being not only the best long song in The Doors' catalog, but possibly of all time as well.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
The Doors - "The End," "Riders on the Storm"
Guns 'N Roses - "November Rain"
The White Stripes - "Ball and Biscuit"
The Beatles - "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"
The Who - "Won't Get Fooled Again"
Foo Fighters - "Come Back"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Modern Romance"
Metallica - "One"
Led Zeppelin - "Since I've Been Loving You,"  "Kashmir"
Green Day - "Jesus of Suburbia"
Radiohead - "Everything In Its Right Place" (live version off of I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings)
Daft Punk - "Around the World"
Smashing Pumpkins - "Drown"

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