(In a year that never ends, here’s a quick look at the greatest long-playing musical efforts released during The Year of Our Dreadfulness.)
In our era of decreasing focus & attention, where the prominence of playlists, singles and algorithmic shuffling have defeated the sustained artistic arc of The Album, long songs offer a halfway house between the sugary blink of Spotified-pop, and the shabbiness of sofa-sitting for a sustained LP listen on some oldster’s dusty turntable.
Long songs naturally skew to jazz releases and experimental wonkery; male artists more than female; and egoists who want the world to admire their wingspan. This year, looking at long(er) songs of six minutes or more might be a way of reckoning with the year that will never end (until it does).
Here’s to pretending I listen to more (new) music than I do, by highlighting a few songs that bent my ears, while surprising me into thankfulness and optimism for what’s to come.
The 13 Best Long Tracks of 2020
Beyond Categorization: Lonnie Holley — So Many Rivers (The First Time), off “National Freedom” [11min17sec] — Recorded in a single day, composed extemporaneously in the studio in 2014, So Many Rivers feels like a message from the broken past to a future we just eclipsed: spring 2020.
Holley’s song sits above and beyond the rest in that it was recorded six years ago and has an entire passage (again, created on the spot) about masks and how they cover faces, while incorporating prescient themes and end-of-times references seen in some of the same songs on this list.
According to the documentary (especially here at the 5m30s part) this song was the first time in Holley’s life he seriously played a real piano. Lonnie Holley is tapped into the source of something, beyond.
Best of the rest:
- Pharoah Sanders — Love is Everywhere, off Live in Paris, 1975 reissue — Sanders’ last track has much in common with Holley’s, but reminds listeners not only of the joys of live performance in front of an actual audience, but of how Sanders’ tributary of jazz was generationally underappreciated here at home, and found its fire and sustenance from thirsty European audiences. If you listen closely, you might hear his vocal exhortation that “Love is Everywhere” as an urging, or of hope-filled desperation. Sometimes you have to repeat yourself when faced with the knowledge of what might not be true.[8min25sec]
- Lianne La Havas — Weird Fishes, off “Lianne La Havas” — “I get eaten by the worms — and weird fishes” is the familiar, existential line of dread I didn’t know I needed to hear, 13 lucky years after Radiohead’s original, harmonized to life-affirming perfection by La Havas, with an instrumental section as thunderous and dystopian now as then. [6m1s] (<- this “official video” does not contain official audio, fwiw.)
- Mac Miller — Good News, off “Circles” — Though the shortest effort of this list, the spiritual lethargy of Miller’s song sounds like the ethos of a lifetime packed into 5m42s. Unfortunately (and prophetically) it was.
- Etran De L’Air — Tarha Ebouse Dighe Mane, off “Music From Saharan WhatsApp 01” — The most original idea for an album series (ever?) that launched back in January from the brilliant Sahel Sounds, this track, like many from the Agadez region of Niger, is music to disappear to. Lower-fi than a 4-track, recorded on a cell phone seven days before its release, this music, with its looping and circuitous riffing (reminding me of the foot-tapping fire found in old-time fiddle tunes) makes me stop and forget myself. [6m26s]
- Soccer Mommy — yellow is the color of her eyes, off “color theory” — “Loving you isn’t enough / You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done…” Just discovered this was released at the end of 2019? Who knew?[7m15s]
- Bob Dylan — Murder Most Foul off “Rough and Rowdy Ways” — The only thing that would have made this song more perfect for Our Humble Year of Constant Conspiracies is if it theorized whether or not Woody Harrelson’s dad knew the guy on the grassy knoll with the umbrella. [16m55s]
- Sufjan Stevens — America, off “The Ascension” — There’s a scrambly section between the 3rd and 5th minute that builds into “don’t do to me like you’ve done to America,” which feels like a dot-release update to a Tom Petty-ism, and the perfect encapsulation of this past summer’s very rational fear of four more years of Trumpism. Wave that flag! [12min30sec]
- The Microphones — Microphones in 2020 — A 44-minute long auto-biographical song journey album video art-piece thing, or in other words, “powerpoint karaoke slideshow lyric demonstration music display photo flip audio book”. OK! [44m44s]
- Father John Misty — Leaving LA off 2020's “Off-Key in Hamburg” — When you release a live album to benefit musicians and an industry suffering from Covid–19, you deserve a hat-tip for your live “10-verse chorus-less diatribe” with strings. Both kiss-off and love letter, you have to admire a song released in 2017 with a title that presaged Los Angelenos fleeing to Austin, Nashville, and wherever else they’ll find fewer flames and lower taxes. Here’s handheld video from an audience member that night last year in Hamburg. [12m30s]
- Angel Bat Dawid — We Are Starzz, off “Live” — Here’s a live, shortened version of the same song, and when I saw it, it filled-in the gaps where my imagination failed to reconcile what I was hearing…the sheer improvisational drama in this incredibly original music. You are a glowing star, shining bright![14:14]
- Howe Gelb — Phantomly Exquisite, off “Cocoon” — Sometimes I daydream an entirely different, Covid-less now, one in which we live in Tucson, and there’s dust and the scent of something like cinnamon in the dry air, and the guy who lives down the street is playing his old piano, and you can hear his tune gently blowing past palms when you walk the dog late at night, under stars. [6m13s]
- Lambchop & David Kilgour play Yo La Tengo’s Georgia considers the two blue ones (Thursday) on the Merge records compilation in support of two blue candidates for US Senate in Georgia. Warnock your Ossoff! Saying this cover is better than the original is like saying the movie is better than the book, but it is. [10m40s]