Lengthy songs that work

Most pop hits clock in at just over three minutes long. A good amount are more than four minutes but any longer than that and the scissors are brought in to chop it down to fit within the time constraints of radio – and our own attention spans. The last song longer than 4:30 to hit #1 on the Hot 100 was back in 2007 when Justin Timberlake topped the chart with a 5:13 radio edit of What Goes Around…Comes Around.

Justin is no stranger to lengthy songs. That #1 hit, in its original form, stands at 7:37. His new album The 20/20 Experience, where seven of the ten tracks log in at over seven minutes long, is one of the rare instances in pop music these days where even an album track is longer than just several minutes. The second single from that record, Mirrors, is 8 minutes 4 seconds, though the radio edit is only 4:37, still longer than most pop hits but nearly half its original length.

It could be argued that the edit of Mirrors removes portions of the original version that don’t take anything away from the song itself, suggesting that the additional three and a half minutes serve as filler. However, there have been many hits in the past that have been lengthy and have had every second count toward the overall final recording; to such a point that to take anything away would negatively impact the song. Bands like Pink Floyd and Queen, as cited by Justin himself, are known for this. Perhaps the best known such song is the Don McLean classic American Pie, which is 8:32 long and follows a basic verse/chorus form all the way through. The single version cut the song down into two halves for the vinyl but I have heard the entire song on the radio many times. Its length is almost as legendary as the song itself.

Recently, however, lengthy songs that make good use of their entire duration seem to be rare. The following is a small list of large hits from the last twenty years or so that shows the artform of epic musical masterpieces has yet to die.

Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell II

Album cover for Bat Out Of Hell II: Back Into Hell by Meat Loaf

Jim Steinman made a name for himself writing and producing most of Meat Loaf‘s biggest hits, many of which were epic dramatic compositions and full musical events. Meat Loaf’s last major hit came in 1993 with I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) where, in its original form the song totaled 12 minutes. The single edit was shortened down to 5:09 but the song tells a story so in theory, it’s all needed for the full picture. Several years later, another of Steinman’s songs was recorded and turned into a hit by Celine Dion, 1996’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now. Celine took it to #2 on the Hot 100 with a radio edit of 5:32, cut down from the 7:37 album version. A music video was produced to accompany both versions as well.

Dave Matthews Band‘s third record, Before These Crowded Streets, had five tracks longer than 7 minutes, two of which were released as singles, the first Don’t Drink The Water (7:01) and later, Crush (8:09). Obviously, both were chopped in half but in their original forms, they offer some majestic sounds.

Green Day - American Idiot

Green Day’s American Idiot album cover

In 2004, Green Day released their hit record American Idiot. The final single from that record was Jesus Of Suburbia, a recording that totals 9:23. The track is actually comprised of five songs that go together to tell the part of the story that fits into the album as a whole – a “nine minute rock opera”, as People Magazine puts it. Despite its length, it’s the highlight of the record and one of the best songs recorded by the band. The six and a half minute edited version works fine but the song isn’t complete unless in its entirety. Another track on the record, Homecoming, has the same multi-song format totalling 9:19.

Last year, Frank Ocean put out an album containing one of the year’s best recordings in the 9 minutes 54 second epic Pyramids. The track has two halves that come together in the middle, combining elements of R&B and electronica with a psychedelic electric guitar solo toward the end. The music video used just the second half of the song but it’s not complete with the entire recording.

There have been other hits over the last twenty years to take a chunk of listening time but those songs served as well as, or in same cases better, in their edited formats as the original album versions. Champagne Supernova by Oasis and Runaway by Kanye West, among others. It goes to show the rarity that a good, solid, long song is hard to find but in nearly every case above, when successful, they steal the show from the album and sometimes the entire discography of the artist who attempts and succeeds.

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