Saturday, August 1, 2009

History of the Double Album

The very word ‘album’ goes back to the early days of vinyl, when 78 rpm records were capable of holding little more than about four minutes per side and so, when documenting longer musical productions, had to be collected as groups of four or more records inserted in a book-like package that resembled, say, a photograph album. Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads is one of the more well-known examples of this kind of release.

The ‘album’ itself, then, has its origins with multi-disc sets. But by the 1960s, when the album started to be appreciated within the rock world as a medium of its own as opposed to a collection of singles, an album was very clearly a single 12” record running at 33 and a third revolutions per minute, clocking in at somewhere between thirty and forty-five minutes and containing 12-14 songs in the UK, 10-12 songs in the US. That was the medium that came to dominate rock music toward the middle of the decade: the medium on which an artist could expand his creativity as far as it could take him. By the end of the 60s, thanks to Frank Zappa and Bob Dylan, even that was not enough, as artists took to proclaiming the depths of their muses by doubling the length of their statements of creativity. Thus the birth of that most magnificent and most heinous of things: the double album.

The 1970s were, among other things, a decade of excesses. As rock became a big business, concerts filled stadiums, tours travelled continents, and the largeness of the spectacle simply had to be documented on vinyl. The glut of multi-disc sets in the 1970s was in many cases merely records of so-and-so’s latest crowd-filled live sets: documents of hubris. What interests us, the studio double, also existed, much the way that those initial releases at the end of the sixties did: as a display of the artist’s uncontrollable, unstoppable creative flow.

The 1980s saw the birth of the Compact Disc, a medium whose maximum length of 74 minutes (slowly, somehow, expanded to 80 minutes over the following decade) was allegedly decided in order to accommodate Beethoven’s 9th symphony but also served the purpose of approximating the typical length of a double-album (give or take a few minutes: some early 2LP, 1CD combos had songs shortened or removed to squeeze onto the single CD). Somewhere around 1990 or so, the CD’s playing time became the industry’s norm, so that 75 or so minutes, once a rare expression of an artist’s creativity, became de rigueur album length. This lead, of course, to the monstrosity of the double CD, an unparalleled exercise in hubris that would run two and a half hours or so. By the end of the 1990s, the rap world in particular was swamped with these padded monstrosities.

By now, of course, the ‘album’ as a whole is really dying, and as we enter the world of non-physical media, it’s tough to know just what, if anything, a ‘double album’ would represent (unless it’s something like the very strange album I am… Sasha Fierce by Beyoncé, which puts a single album’s worth of material onto two CDs for no reason I can comprehend). Thus, most of the releases we’ll be looking at will be, how do you say, old. What can I do? I discuss a dying medium…

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