Every artist has thought about making a double album. Few have done it, and even fewer have even met any sort of success doing it. Why has the double album been so appealing, and what determines the success (or failure) of a double album?
I think that the reason why the double LP has been so popular is that it gives artists a great amount of artistic lenience with what they want to pursue. If they don't have a particular direction in mind, they can make a double album going every sort of direction! It's actually a pretty convenient solution. This sort of smorgasbord approach is likely the most common approach when it comes to double albums: there's too much to cut out to make a single LP, either due to egos (i.e. the Beatles, perhaps) or because maybe there's just too much good material there (also i.e. the Beatles). Basically, the problem (too much stuff) is resolved by keeping the problem (too much stuff? keep it)...like throwing everything and the kitchen sink at a problem. Sometimes, the extra space is needed to expound on an album concept (closely intertwining with the art of the concept album), like the Who's Tommy. This last iteration is much less common, but its validity cannot be dismissed.
It's necessary to break the double-LP into two categories because each has to be graded on very different forms. While all albums should still follow the general criteria I outlined much earlier, double-LPs gain some leniency in some quarters but generate some extra rules in return. The first, which we'll call the "sprawl" double-LP:
1. The "sprawl" double-LP must cover enough ground. If it doesn't, it's what we'll call the "under-sprawl" double-LP. If you do not have enough variation to cover two LPs, then don't do it. It may be bearable to go through the same shtick for one LP, but two is overkill. Simply put, you have enough room to tinker around, so do it! Don't waste the space on the same genre the whole time!
2. That being said, there is such thing as "over-sprawl," where you just cover way too much ground without stylistic focus and a core to what you're going for. This is typically the worst version of the double-LP, too much of everything, not enough of something. The "over-sprawl" double LP uses the extra space as room for experimenting. Do that in the studio! Don't release that if it's only use was to mess with that random studio effect! You're hurting the album in all quarters by going with the "over-sprawl" approach!
3. All Criteria established in my Mission Statement still apply, no questions asked. However, given the nature of a double-LP, flow can oftentimes be broken up LP by LP, or side by side, depending on the record. That rule requires the "double-LP exception," which I actually hinted at there.
The concept double-LP has a different set of criteria:
1. Does the concept deserve to be on two LPs? Is it really that expansive to require that second LP? Do you really need an extra 40 minutes to expound on your hero's walk from his garden to the grocery store? Probably not. But do you need an extra 40 minutes to talk about key events, themes, and motifs? If yes, then you need the second LP! Yes, this can apply to instrumental segues on a double-LP, which oftentimes are very capable of providing respite or a connecting piece to another section of a record.
2. Are all tracks thematically relevant? Related to the above rule but sort of distinct. It can musically fulfill the concept, or lyrically fulfill the concept, but if it doesn't, throw it out! It doesn't belong at all! This is basically a corollary to the "over-sprawl" rule with a specific application to double-LPs.
3. Same as the "sprawl" double-LP rule. Everything still applies. But with a concept double-LP, there simply is less room for flow problems, and flow separation (or lack thereof) becomes a much bigger issue.
Given the criteria, it's simply quite easier to craft a good "sprawl" double-LP than it is to craft a good "concept" double-LP. Here's a list of masterful double-LPs, and it's actually quite short (no order):
The Beatles - The Beatles
The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main St.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Electric Ladyland
The Clash - London Calling
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
Bob Dylan - Blonde On Blonde
Bob Dylan and the Band - The Basement Tapes
Miles Davis - Bitches Brew
The Who - Tommy
Derek and the Dominos - Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs
Bruce Springsteen - The River
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
The Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime
It's by no means the definitive list, but it's a good compilation of the good stuff when it comes to double-LPs. Each record I listed I would probably consider a must-listen at some point. Yes, it's going to be a full 70-90 minutes of your life to work through it, but I'll be damned if it won't be a 70-90 minutes very, very well spent. While it's definitely hard to apply my criteria to the Miles Davis record, really...who doesn't love that record (except the traditional jazz cats)?
I did want to mention what I consider to be the outer frontier of the double-LP: the triple-LP. Until this week, I was only able to think of two musicians who had even dared to compile a triple-LP: George Harrison and the Clash. And, coincidentally, they're both ridiculously good records...
George Harrison - All Things Must Pass
The Clash - Sandinista!
The only person since then that had even dared to venture into that territory just joined the field this week - Joanna Newsom - with the record Have One On Me. Maybe it should have been called Have Two On Me, because there's two extra LPs (and in this instance, yes, in the LP sense because the album spans over three LPs...meaning it is two hours long). Time will only tell if Joanna Newsom joins the ranks of the Clash and George Harrison as the only people to ever successfully produce a triple LP. Even daring to do it deserves many accolades...at least in my opinion.