In this day and age, with downloadable music, iPods and such, it seems at least quaint, and at most obsolete, for me to discuss the concept of The Double Album.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, and into the ’80s, artists typically released new music as single albums — i.e., somewhere between seven and 14 songs that fit nicely into the 40-minute limitations of a two-sided vinyl LP.
But now and then, artists found it necessary to release a double album — twice as much music, on two discs, spread over four sides.
Sometimes, these packages were bloated, self-indulgent and full of filler. They were testaments to a band’s overinflated egos winning out over the common sense of the record label, who no doubt pleaded, unsuccessfully, for the artist to pare down the abundance of material to something more workable and consumable…like a single album.
Often, these double albums were “Live in Concert” affairs. The artists defiantly claimed that, to duplicate the experience of a live show, the recording had to be of comparable length — closer to two hours rather than a mere 40 minutes. The problem was, they often didn’t have enough great songs to fill two hours, in concert or on record, so they would take a decent 4-minute tune and turn it into an interminable 12-minute track full of excessive soloing and irritating crowd applause (think Humble Pie’s “Rockin’ the Fillmore,” Dave Mason’s “Certified Live” and Peter Frampton’s mega-seller “Frampton Comes Alive!”). Sometimes this was acceptable if you were attending a show, but at home, on the album, the listener often found it grating and quickly lost interest.
The real rarity was the double album of new studio recordings that was truly worthy of its length. It was hard enough for many bands to create enough quality stuff to fill a single LP. Seriously, how many albums in your collection were great from beginning to end, with nary a dud song? Maybe 10-15% at best? For a band to think they could come up with 90+ minutes of great music in one fell swoop was not a challenge to be accepted lightly.
As always, these lists I come up with here are extremely subjective. Some of the double albums I feel are unworthy of their length are classics to others. But I call ’em the way I see them:
I happen to think that Bruce Springsteen’s double LP “The River” (1980) is, by and large, a disappointment. Out of the 20 songs, I think there’s only a half-dozen or so (“Point Blank,” “Hungry Heart,” “Ramrod,” “Jackson Cage,” “Sherry Darling” and the title song) that compare favorably to his repertoire up to that point.
The wondrous Joni Mitchell had a marvelous run of eight single albums from 1968’s “Song to a Seagull” up through 1976’s “Hejira,” packed with top-shelf melodies and incisive lyrics. But her 1977 double LP “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter” had everybody scratching their heads, asking “What the hell…?” She clearly jumped the shark, as they say, with this release.
Universally panned was 1972’s “Some Time in New York City,” a meandering, boring double album from John Lennon and Yoko Ono that was all the more glaring in its awfulness because it came on the heels of the classic “Imagine” album. A similar fate awaited the release of 1979’s “Tusk,” Fleetwood Mac’s tepid follow-up to one of the most successful albums of all time, “Rumours.” There were a few very fine tracks — “Sara,” “Brown Eyes,” “Think About Me,” “Sisters of the Moon,” the title song — but way too much filler.
Chicago had the cojones to release a double LP as their debut (1969’s “Chicago Transit Authority“), and although there were a couple of tracks that should’ve ended up in the studio trash bin, it was a groundbreaking achievement fully worthy of its length. Cocksure of themselves, the group followed it up with two more double LPs (1970’s “Chicago II” and 1971’s “Chicago III“) that were far less consistent, and then, believe it or not, they had the audacity to release a four-album monstrosity, “Live at Carnegie Hall.” Reviews were so scathing that their next release,”Chicago V,” was smartly scaled back to a conventional single-length album.
And then there’s Yes’s preposterous “Tales of Topographic Oceans” (1973), probably the prime example of double album self-indulgence. On its four sides, there are a total of four songs, each running about 20 minutes long. Seriously? Even the diehard Yes fans I know roll their eyes and wince when asked to justify this overstuffed, pretentious LP.
And yet, some of the truly gifted artists gave the double album a go and, lo and behold, successfully pulled it off. Here are my picks for the Top Ten double albums of the rock era:
“The Beatles (The White Album),” The Beatles, 1968
When the band returned to the studio in the summer of ’68 after nearly six months off, they brought a treasure trove of songs they’d been working on, mostly independently. Lennon and McCartney rarely collaborated on their songs anymore, but each was writing amazing stuff, as was Harrison, who had been quietly developing his songwriting skills in their shadows. Producer George Martin was chagrined that they insisted on recording and releasing all 30 songs in a massive double album. “I encouraged them to whittle them down to 14 or 15 titles and make a really great single album, but they wouldn’t hear of it. Some people think it’s the best thing they ever made, but that’s not my view.” Me, I’m in the camp that says it’s one of the most superb, eclectic, wide-ranging, varied collections of genres ever assembled: “Revolution 1,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Dear Prudence,” “Blackbird,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” “Julia,” “Back in the USSR,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “Yer Blues”…
“Electric Ladyland,” The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1968
Hendrix had burst on the scene with the phenomenal debut “Are You Experienced?” in 1967, followed quickly by the impressive “Axis: Bold as Love” only eight months later. By then, he was in the process of building his own studio (Electric Lady) in Manhattan, where he literally lived for weeks at a time, laying down astonishing tracks with the help of bassist Noel Redding, drummer Mitch Mitchell, and a revolving door of guests like Steve Winwood, Dave Mason, Jack Casady and other virtuosos. The result was a cornucopia of music that ran the gamut from tight rock songs like “Crosstown Traffic” and his incendiary take on Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” to mesmerizing jams like “Voodoo Chile” — and its more accessible counterpart, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” — and psychedelic forays such as “Still Raining, Still Dreaming” and “House Burning Down.” It was clearly ahead of its time; critical reaction was mixed at first, but the album is now considered Hendrix’s finest work.
“Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Elton John, 1973
The songwriting axis of Elton John and Bernie Taupin was just about unstoppable in this early phase of John’s long career. He was churning out two albums a year in 1970, 1971 and 1972, and by September of 1973, “I figured, ‘oh, the hell with it, let’s just put out one double album instead,'” he explained in a Rolling Stone interview that autumn. And true to form, he didn’t disappoint. Recording sessions begun in Jamaica proved problematic, so the project was moved to Chateau d’Herouville in France, where he’d recorded “Honky Chateau,” among others, and the songs just flowed out: Ballads like “Candle in the Wind” and “Harmony,” stompers like “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “Grey Seal,” story-songs like “All the Young Girls Love Alice” and “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” and majestic epics like “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” and the title track.
“Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs,” Derek and The Dominos, 1970
Eric Clapton was deep in the throes of a painful, unrequited love for George Harrison’s wife, Pattie, when he gathered his new bandmates Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon and Carl Radle at Criteria Studios in Miami in the summer of 1970. He’d been pouring his heart out in songs he co-wrote with keyboard player Whitlock (“Bell Bottom Blues,” “Any Day,” “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?”) and heartbreaking blues classics like “Have You Ever Loved a Woman?,” “Key to the Highway” and “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out.” In the middle of these sessions, the band decided to attend a concert of The Allman Brothers Band in order for Clapton to see Duane Allman perform, and afterwards, he invited Allman to join the group in the studio. Allman ended up playing slide guitar on 11 of the 14 tracks, and even came up with the unforgettable opening riff to what became Clapton’s signature song, “Layla.” The icing on the cake of this gaggle of legendary tracks is an incredible cover of Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
“Tommy,” The Who, 1969, and “Quadrophenia,” The Who, 1973
Pete Townshend had been writing amazingly powerful singles since 1965’s “I Can’t Explain,” “Substitute” and “My Generation,” and British listeners ate them up, but American record buyers weren’t as impressed, and this frustrated not only Townshend but the rest of The Who as well. Townshend had a grand vision to write what he described as a “rock opera,” using hard rock elements within an operatic structure to tell the story of a deaf, dumb and blind boy and his struggle to break free of his limitations. “Tommy” was an unqualified success, establishing The Who as a major force to be reckoned with, and its enduring nature in ensuing years — on film, on Broadway and in Who concerts — speaks to the excellence of its songs (“Pinball Wizard,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Go to the Mirror,” “Amazing Journey,” “I’m Free”). Incredibly, Townshend and the boys would nearly match this feat four years later with “Quadrophenia,” another ambitious rock opera that was sonically leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor, with memorable songs like “The Real Me,” “5:15,” “Drowned,” “The Punk vs. the Godfather,” “Doctor Jimmy” and “Love Reign O’er Me.”
“Songs in the Key of Life,” Stevie Wonder, 1976
After nearly 10 years of hit singles beginning with “Fingertips” at age 12, Little Stevie Wonder reached 21 and took total control of his career, emerging from the vise-like grip of Motown mogul Berry Gordy. He wrote, produced, sang and played virtually every instrument on every track of his albums from that point on. Uncontrolled ego run riot? Nope, not in his case — 1972’s “Talking Book,” 1973’s “Innervisions” and 1974’s “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” all won multiple Grammys, spawned iconic hit songs, sold millions of copies and influenced dozens of R&B artists who followed in his footsteps. His crowning achievement, though, was “Songs in the Key of Life,” a double LP (plus a 4-song extra 45) full of 21 joyous tracks like “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Sir Duke,” “As,” “If It’s Magic,” “I Wish,” “I Am Singing,” “Love’s in Need of Love Today” and “Summer Soft,” all of which combined to earn Wonder another Album of the Year Grammy.
“All Things Must Pass,” George Harrison, 1970
The dueling egos of Lennon and McCartney, both gifted songwriters, kept Harrison’s work buried for nearly all of The Beatles’ recording career, until their swan song, “Abbey Road,” where George’s classics “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun” were arguably the album’s finest songs. By the time the band split, Harrison had built up a huge backlog of quality songs that yearned to be shared with the public, so he dove in head first with producer Phil Spector and a host of supporting players — Eric Clapton and the other Dominos, Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, Dave Mason, Klaus Voorman, Alan White, Gary Wright, Pete Drake, Peter Frampton and Gary Brooker. The result was not a double album but in fact a triple album (although the third disc was made up of largely forgettable instrumental jam sessions) overflowing with fantastic pop songs, country ditties and spiritual numbers, all anchored by Harrison’s singing and slide guitar –“My Sweet Lord,” “Isn’t It a Pity,” “Awaiting on You All,” “What is Life,” “If Not For You,” “Let It Roll” and the shimmering title track, among others.
“Blonde on Blonde,” Bob Dylan, 1966
This is considered the first double album in rock music, and it completes the trilogy of seismic, earthshaking albums that Dylan wrote and recorded in 1965 and 1966 (preceded by “Bringing It All Back Home” and “Highway 61 Revisited”). Sessions in New York had been unproductive, so he took keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson, and producer Bob Johnston, and reconvened in Nashville, where he also recruited some of the best session musicians there. The environment inspired Dylan to write such iconic songs as “I Want You,” “Just Like a Woman,” “Absolutely Sweet Marie, “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” “Rainy Day Women,” “Visions of Johanna,” “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and the 12-minute paean to his new wife, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” It would be nearly 10 years before he put together even a single album’s worth of songs as strong as this huge collection.
“At the Fillmore East,” The Allman Brothers Band, 1971
The only live double album on my list is this indispensable masterpiece recorded over two days in New York’s Fillmore Auditorium in March 1971. The band had been honing its chops for four years, touring incessantly but not selling many copies of their first two studio albums. Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson were operating on all cylinders at this point, and this album captures the band at its best on exemplary blues standards like “Stormy Monday” and “Statesboro Blues” as well as extraordinary original tunes like “Hot ‘Lanta,” “Whipping Post” and “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed.” Three tracks here clock in at more than 13 minutes each, but they don’t waste a second, offering astounding solos and ensemble playing that are unmatched in the history of live-in-concert rock recordings.
Honorable mention: “Chicago Transit Authority,” Chicago; “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” Genesis, 1974; “The Wall,” Pink Floyd, 1979; “Physical Graffiti,” Led Zeppelin, 1975; “Exile on Main Street,” The Rolling Stones, 1972; “Wheels of Fire,” Cream, 1968; “Four-Way Street,” Crosby Stills Nash & Young, 1971; “Everybody’s in Showbiz,” The Kinks, 1972