A Longish List of Long Songs That Are Totally Worth Your Time

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As you might have read yesterday, we’re going quietly bananas over the new Swans record, which is definitely our favorite album of August and quite possibly our favorite thus far of 2012. It’s also home to two tracks that clock in at above 20 minutes long, one other that’s just over 19 minutes, and a couple more that push 10 minutes. Songs that long are always a risky proposition — the whole idea of the ultra-lengthy epic is often associated with prog and its multitude of sins, but the realms of a 10-minute-plus song are also home to some of our absolute favorites. Here’s a nice long selection to get the discussion started — what did we miss? (If you say “Stairway to Heaven” we reserve the right to trace your IP and throw fish food at your window.)

Swans — “The Seer”

Ye gods, how long is it? 32 minutes and 14 seconds!

As we noted yesterday, the title track to the new Swans album is over half an hour long. It’s a brooding, slow-building epic that doesn’t waste a single second of its 30-minute-plus running time. Interestingly enough, the effect is most reminiscent of some of the electronic songs on this list, based more around rhythms and repetition and subtle variations on a theme than on any sort of conceptions of melody or traditional song structure.

Cat Power — “Willie Deadwilder”

Ye gods, how long is it? 18 minutes and 17 seconds!

This one-off outtake from You Are Free found Chan Marshall collaborating with M Ward, and as it didn’t exactly fit on the record, it eventually surfaced on the 2004 DVD package Speaking for Trees. We’re glad it did, because it’s one of our favorite Cat Power songs. It’s based on a loose narrative about the story of two characters, but by the end, Marshall has pretty much abandoned the thread completely — “This is a four-hour song/ And it will go on and on… Even if it is too long/ I don’t care” — and yet, somehow the song loses none of its charm. God only knows how poor M Ward’s fingers felt at the end of it, mind you.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — “Babe, I’m On Fire”

Ye gods, how long is it? 15 minutes and 10 seconds!

Cave isn’t averse to the occasional epic — there’s the gloriously blood-soaked “O’Malley’s Bar” from Murder Ballads and, further back, the likes of “The Carny” and “Saint Huck.” Our pick, however, is this song from the oft-overlooked Nocturama, which catalogues a whole lot of different people repeating the titular refrain. Like “Willie Deadwilder,” it devolves into freeform improvisation by the end — “Warren says it/ Blixa says it/ The lighting guy and the mixer say it” — and in doing so, provides a welcome example of Cave’s generally underrated sense of humor.

Kraftwerk — “Autobahn”

Ye gods, how long is it? 22 minutes and 43 seconds!

Fun, fun on the Autobahn (ad infinitum.)

Sonic Youth — “The Diamond Sea”

Ye gods, how long is it? 19 minutes and 35 seconds!

This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Moore/Ranaldo guitar wig-out, although this is really rather pretty compared to some of their other, more abrasive epics. Indeed, the gently undulating textures of “The Diamond Sea” would provide a template for the more reflective direction Sonic Youth would pursue during the late ’90s and 2000s. (Even if Moore and Ranaldo’s guitars do a pretty decent imitation of a wind tunnel at about 6:15.)

Isaac Hayes — “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”

Ye gods, how long is it? 18 minutes and 42 seconds!

Hot Buttered Soul is rightly acclaimed as a classic — it’s perfect, from the ultra-sampled intro to “Walk On By” to the picture of Hayes’ shaved head on the cover. You could choose any of the three epic tracks it contains — “Walk on By” or “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” would fit beautifully on this list — but at nearly 20 minutes long, it’s hard to go past closing track “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” It is indeed, as Hayes says during the extended spoken-word intro, a “deep tune.”

Spiritualized — “Cop Shoot Cop”

Ye gods, how long is it? 17 minutes and 14 seconds!

Spiritualized’s landmark Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space is precisely 70 minutes long, and just under a quarter of its running length is devoted to this noise extravaganza, wherein the emotions explored in the record — love, despair, jealousy, loss, anger — explode in a cathartic flare of white noise before receding into a gentle, gospel-inflected outro. Live, it verges on a transcendent experience — on record, it’s merely mind-blowing.

Matmos — “Supreme Balloon”

Ye gods, how long is it? 24 minutes and eight seconds!

There was a theory kicking round for a while during the 1990s in the more earnest corners of the electronic music world that “electronica” might evolve into the classical music of our time, a largely instrumental artform that focused on music qua music, rather than trying to convey any sort of narrative or message. This may well have been the sort of thing such theorists had in mind, an intricate suite of electronic sounds that is both immersive and remarkably beautiful. (Sorry about the dual links — we can’t find a complete version on YouTube.)

Fela Kuti — “Unknown Soldier”

Ye gods, how long is it? 31 minutes and nine seconds!

The master of the extended intro, Fela Kuti generally wouldn’t deign to even start thinking about actually singing until a good few minutes had gone by. You could choose many of his tracks, but we’re going with “Unknown Soldier,” the “other” track on his incendiary 1980 record Coffin for Head of State. We’ve written about the title track here, and this song covers lyrical similar ground, mocking the Nigerian president’s statement that it was an “unknown solider” who had murdered Kuti’s mother.

Iron Maiden — “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

Ye gods, how long is it? 13 minutes and 49 seconds!

Why yes, this is indeed a metal extravaganza based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem. We’re expecting miniature sailing ships to descend from the rafters any moment now.

Mogwai — “Like Herod”

Ye gods, how long is it? 11 minutes and 45 seconds (or 18 minutes and 32 seconds if you go with the truly epic Government Commissions version above)

Post-rock is well-stocked with epics — Godspeed! You Black Emperor, for a start, have several tracks that clock in at more than 10 minutes, as do Mogwai themselves — but if we’re only choosing one track from the genre, we’ll choose this classic. It’s relatively short, but somehow feels longer — and the bit where the long, pensive intro explodes into crashing, glorious noise is still one of the great musical jump-out-of-your-chair moments the first time you hear it.

Lindstrøm — “Where You Go I Go Too”

Ye gods, how long is it? 28 minutes and 58 seconds!

If the whole commercial space travel thing ever does take off, this will absolutely be the track we’ll be listening to as we head for the moon.

Pink Floyd — “Dogs”

Ye gods, how long is it? 17 minutes and seven seconds!

The obvious Floyd choice is “Echoes”, but we’re big advocates of Animals, an album that’s misanthropic even by Roger Waters’ standards. As its title suggests, this song describes the dogs of the title who, along with pigs and sheep, populate the album’s Orwellian menagerie. The dogs are the enforcers, the hired muscle of capitalism, and their ultimate fate isn’t a pleasant one — only Waters, you suspect, could turn “Just another sad old man/ All alone/ Dying of cancer” into a triumphant exclamation.

Arlo Guthrie — “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”

Ye gods, how long is it? 18 minutes and 16 seconds!

Now for a couple of lengthy narrative ballads, starting with a classic of the genre — Arlo Guthrie’s surreal Kafka-esque tale (based on a real incident) of being convicted by a blind judge of dumping garbage from Alice’s Restaurant, and of the conviction subsequently disqualifying him from being drafted for the Vietnam War. It plays out more like a short story than a song — and by the way, if you transcribe the lyric, it ends up about 2,500 words long. Now that’s an epic.

Gareth Liddiard — “The Radicalisation of D”

Ye gods, how long is it? 16 minutes and 12 seconds!

And while we’re on lengthy polemics, how about this remarkable piece from The Drones’ Gareth Liddiard? It’s the last track on his excellent 2010 solo record, and relates a story loosely based on the life of Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks — although really, it’s about how poverty and deprivation create the conditions that breed extremism — the particular flavor of radicalisation is rather beside the point.

Sugarhill Gang — “Rapper’s Delight”

Ye gods, how long is it? 14 minutes and 37 seconds!

Hotel! Motel! Holiday Inn!

Oneida — “Antibiotics”

Ye gods, how long is it? 16 minutes and 38 seconds!

If you were at ATP in New Jersey last year to bear witness to the Oneidathon, you’ll be unsurprised to find them on this list — for a band who can play for eight hours straight, a 16-minute song is barely getting warmed up. For the rest of us, it’s a weird psychedelic nightmare that’s unsettling but also pretty remarkable listening.

The Doors — “The End”

Ye gods, how long is it? 11 minutes and 40 seconds!

A mere moment in time compared to some of the songs on this list, but nevertheless, “The End” deserves a mention for being a relatively early example of the 10-minute-plus rock song. And for all that Morrison’s poetry can grate, the song’s great heart-stopping moment — “Father?/ Yes, son?/ I want to kill you/ Mother/ I want to…” — still has the power to command attention. Plus, it always makes us think of Apocalypse Now, which can’t be a bad thing. Still, The Doors weren’t the only ones making bewildering epics in the late 1960s…

The Velvet Underground — “Sister Ray”

Ye gods, how long is it? 17 minutes and 29 seconds!

A one-take 17-minute song with everything turned up to 10 and a lyric that narrates a heroin-fueled orgy involving drag queens, randy sailors, and an accidental murder… It’s no wonder that the studio engineer, aghast at what he was hearing, walked out during the recording of “Sister Ray,” eh?

William Basinski — The Disintegration Loops, generally

Ye gods, how long are they? Take your pick, really — they range from 10 minutes to over an hour.

If you’re not familiar with Basinski’s amazing Disintegration Loops project, it’s worth reading about it (Joe Tangari’s review for Pitchfork is a good place to start.) Basically, it’s the sound of old tape loops degrading over time — Basinski found a box of old tape loops in his attic and, in the process of transferring them to digital format, noticed that they were audibly degrading as they played. He recorded the process, and created a series of pieces that evoke mortality and decay. They’re remarkably moving listening, and well worth your time.