The Art of the EP: 10 Great Non-Debut Short Releases


How time flies. It’s been over a year and a half since our own Judy Berman commemorated the end of a cold, bleak February by looking at some of her favorite EPs — short albums for a short month, and all that. As she noted at the time, “these minimalist, economical mini-albums have introduced us to countless new acts that couldn’t muster the cash or didn’t have the material to record a full-length [release].” But while most bands record a debut EP and move onto more weighty records as soon as they can, some musicians remain enamored of the shorter format. So to celebrate a month where cracking mid-career EPs seem to be coming thick and fast — there are EPs due out this month from Future of the Left, Brian Eno, and Kurt Vile amongst others — here are some of our favorite non-debut EPs. What are yours?

Radiohead — My Iron Lung

Any recording is a snapshot of where its creators were at a certain point in time, but this EP is particularly fascinating because it seems to embody Radiohead’s past, present, and future in the course of just under half an hour. The past: the acoustic version of “Creep” that was tacked onto the end of the EP (not, we’re guessing, by the band) and stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. The future: the title track, both a huge sonic leap forward and a bitter meditation on, yes, “Creep,” its central metaphor of the iron lung an allusion to how the band’s megahit had come to be as much a prison as a sustaining force. And the present: six largely excellent songs that fall almost exactly into the middle ground between Pablo Honey‘s comparatively conventional alt-rock and The Bends‘ expansive, dynamic sound.

The Birthday Party — The Bad Seed

Speaking of pointing the way to the future, the name of this final release by The Birthday Party rather presaged where Nick Cave would be heading next. In the meantime, it functioned as a document of The Birthday Party’s last days — it starts with Cave yelping “Hands up who wants to die!” and proceeds to take you on a 15-minute descent into the band’s peculiar sonic hell. Sometimes, a short journey is more than enough.

Dirty Projectors — New Attitude

The use of the EP as a vehicle for exploring new sounds hasn’t been constrained to Radiohead, of course. Dirty Projectors’ New Attitude reflected exactly what its title suggested, the first stirrings of a musical reinvention that’d manifest itself further on the band’s Black Flag covers album Rise Above and reach its full realization with the much-praised 2009 opus Bitte Orca.

Suede — Stay Together

It’s rare to find an EP that contains what’s arguably the band in question’s best-ever song, but then, Suede had a penchant for hiding away some of their greatest tracks in obscure locations (cf. “Killing of a Flash Boy,” which could for years only be found on a B-side). Anyway, Stay Together‘s title track is an eight-and-a-half-minute epic that’s both insanely romantic and somehow desperately sad, a high water mark that even the masterful Dog Man Star never quite surpassed. And for good measure, the EP also contains perhaps Suede’s saddest ever ballad, junkie lament “The Living Dead.”

Jens Lekman — Maple Leaves

Lekman is one of those rare artists who seems to prefer the EP to the full-length album — indeed, we could have sworn that he resolved only to put out EPs at some point after the release of his debut album When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, although now we can’t for the life of us find any quotes to this effect. But anyway, while he’s only made two full-length albums, Lekman’s put out a bewildering array of short-form releases over the years. This means that choosing just one as our favorite is difficult, but if pressed, we’d probably plump for Maple Leaves, if only for these lines from the title track: “She said it was all make-believe/ I thought she said, ‘Maple leaves’/ And when she talked about about the fall/ I thought she talked about Mark E Smith/ I never understood at all.”

Cocteau Twins — Love’s Easy Tears

Cocteau Twins also put out a slew of EPs — 11 of them, to be precise. As with Lekman’s work, deciding which of them you like best is really a matter of personal taste, but we’ll take some convincing that any of the ten other EPs the band released are better than this one. As ever, we have no idea what Liz Fraser’s singing, but it doesn’t really matter — the title track (and the four other songs that accompanied it) have an unearthly beauty that transcends silly things like words.

Swans — Time is Money (Bastard)

Another EP that represented a turning point in the band in question’s sound, this 1985 EP represented the first appearance of Jarboe on a Swans release, and a shift away from the eardrum-shattering sound of their early work to a slightly more accessible sound. Of course, Michael Gira’s idea of “accessible” constitutes sampling a nailgun, so it’s not exactly ABBA.

LCD Soundsystem — All My Friends

This is a curious piece of work, in that two of the four songs here weren’t even by LCD Soundsystem — or, at least, they weren’t performed by James Murphy et al. Instead, they were reinterpretations of the title track by Franz Ferdinand and John Cale. While the former was perfectly competent, it’s the latter that makes this pretty much compulsory listening — it’s one of our all-time favorite cover versions, and a rare case of an already fantastic song being somehow made even better by another performer.

Aphex Twin — Come to Daddy

Surely the least radio-friendly hit ever, this managed to make it all the way to #36 on the UK singles charts, largely on the strength of the frankly terrifying video for the title track. Apart from three mixes of “Come to Daddy” itself, this EP contained a pretty fascinating spectrum of music, from the remarkable “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball” (apparently made by sampling the sound of a ball bouncing and then twisting it into all sorts of sonic convolutions) to the surprisingly delicate and breezy “Flim.” And, y’know, Robert Christgau hated it, so it must be good.

Boards of Canada — In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country

Actually, it seems that Warp artists have a penchant for releasing EPs — Autechre have released loads of them, as have Boards of Canada. It’s the latter we’re including here, if only because we really, really love “Kid for Today,” the first track on In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, a four-track EP that was apparently inspired by the story of David Koresh and his Branch Davidian lunatic fringe. The conceptual undercurrent might be strange and frightening, but the music is consistently sublime.