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.”
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