The double album is a tricky thing to pull off (or at least it was, back when physical copies of albums mattered). They can come off as pompous, necessary, inflated and brilliant, and they challenge the listener to basically increase the amount of time they are willing to invest in a listening experience. Often, they are the result of a flurry of work by the artist(s) which necessitates the need to double down, as it were, and make the final product a beast that a single album couldn’t possibly contain.
There is also something more liberating, as a listener, to a double album. We get material that may not have been released (sometimes the quality of that is debatable) because a band wants to expand its sonic breathing room a little. They also tend to allow for a bit more experimentation, and often allows bands to venture in areas they might otherwise not have bothered, knowing the confines of a 60-90 minute single album.
After much internal debate over the past couple days choosing what albums to include, here are my top five studio double albums.
5. Nine Inch Nails: The Fragile
One of the last double albums I purchased brand new (not a reissue/used/ect.) was in 1999, when after a grueling five-year wait (for me anyway), Nine Inch Nails finally released the follow-up to its seminal 1994 release, “Downward Spiral.” That album was “The Fragile” and it was both exhilarating and exhausting to wade through. It still is.
It is a dense album, with a hell of a lot going on both lyrically and sonically. NIN’s Trent Reznor is not afraid of taking chances musically, which made this album even more of a delight. It isn’t as concise as what came before (or what followed, for the most part), and it didn’t have the singles for radio play that “Downward Spiral” had, but it certainly still had Reznor’s knack for pop hooks mixed with aggressive industrial music.
It wasn’t NIN’s best album, but it remains one of its most ambitious and impressive albums.
4. The Clash: London Calling
This is the album that convinced me that punk music can be more than three-chords and a snotty attitude. This album also showed that not only did the Clash have musical chops, but that the band was also ambitious in expanding its sound beyond what was the norm of the genre at the time.
It was also an album that alienated many Clash fans who were more into the first two (straightforward punk) albums. Even to this day, there remains debate among music fans weather or not “London Calling” is truly a punk rock album (I argue that it is, but that’s a whole other blog right there).
The band drifted between its punk roots, 50s rock and roll, dub, pop and reggae on this album, and it isn’t even the Clash’s most eclectic album (that would go to its follow up, triple album “Sandinista!”), but it remains not only one of the greatest albums of all time, but one of my personal favorites of all time.
3. Arcade Fire: Reflektor
While the art of the double album is usually considered mostly a 1960s-70s sort of deal, Arcade Fire came out and made one in the era of streaming music with 2014’s “Reflektor.” It was also the band’s follow up to their Grammy Award winning album, “The Suburbs.” So that adds a dash of boldness to the record.
This album took me by surprise. I saw the band perform a track from this on “The Colbert Report” and knew it was onto something very interesting musically. When I first streamed “Reflektor,” I was impressed with how it flowed and kept my interest from one track into the next. Suffice to say, it remains in pretty steady rotation for my listening pleasure.
This is a very ambitious record, filled with dance beats, various musical genres, indie rock boldness and psychedelic surrealness. It’s also a fun album to listen to.
2. Pink Floyd: The Wall
With “The Wall,” Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters had a story to tell. While the band’s previous concept albums mainly relied more on themes and symbolism, “The Wall” laid out a narrative story of a burned out rock star who goes insane and becomes a crazed fascist leader to his hordes of young fans. I love this album, but holy crap is it depressing.
It was also quite a turn for Floyd musically, because up to this point the band was more known for its extended songs. With “The Wall,” the songs became shorter and ran the narrative more like chapters. So that certainly was different for the band at this point (Floyd’s previous album, “Animals,” contained songs lasting up to 17 minutes). It also led to Floyd’s implosion (the following album, “The Final Cut” was Floyd’s last with Waters, and holy crap did that doubled down on the depression angle).
This was also one of the first double albums I ever really got into. In high school, between Pink Floyd, NIN, The Beatles, ect., I seemed to always have my headphones on (with the now-luggish portable CD player, you kids have it so good now) as I ventured just about anywhere. “The Wall” has so much going on with effects and the music that there seemed to always be something new to discover on it.
It remains a great concept album. Sure, some tracks are not the most interesting to sit through individually, but as a whole they all connect to make an incredible a listening experience.
1. The Beatles: The Beatles (White Album)
For me, The Beatles self-titled album (better known as “The White Album”) best represents the art of the double album. It is sprawling, innovative, jumps genres without losing its pace (sans “Revolution 9,” but kudos to the group for attempting that) and still somehow kept that signature Beatles sound. And what seems to be a trend for double albums, it was also what eventually brought the Fab Four to its breaking point.
It has been said this album was basically four Beatles solo albums in one, which sounds about right. Clashing egos among four songwriters and a lot of success leading up to the album probably made it inevitable that for the band to continue, an album like this was going to happen (my guess is that if the group had continued and not broken up, the albums would probably be more in the vein of “The White Album” than say “Abbey Road”).
I remember being floored by this the first time I heard it. It was so eclectic and weird and cool and, again, weird that it soon became my second favorite Beatles album (No. 1 is “Revolver”). Unlike, say “The Wall,” you can listen to “The White Album” in whatever damn order you please (though I do think how the songs are placed are excellent).
In 2009, I got the long awaited mono version of this (on the mono box set, and it contains different takes, mixes and versions of the songs) and I argue that the mono version is the definitive version of “The White Album.” It was like hearing it for the first time again, and I ate it up like the music nerd that I am.
It’s not perfect, but I love the “scars and all” approach to it. It holds some of the group’s best songwriting (Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” for example). It’s the band at pretty much the peak of its creativity as a whole.
I know I missed some classics (The Who’s “Tommy” of which I’m not a huge fan; Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” and Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” which was cut because I didn’t want all 60s and 70s bands on here; Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” which is amazing, but not something I can listen to all the time; Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” is fantastic, but not an overall favorite of mine, ect.). But these are the double albums that have hit me at some point in my life, and each one pinpoints me to a particular time and place.
What are some of your favorite double albums and/or my picks? Let me know in the comments section.
6 thoughts on “Double Down: Five Best Double Albums”
I’ve seen Chicago live, but haven’t delved into the band’s catalog too much. I’ll give that a listen!
The Minutemen “Double Nickels on the Dime” and Minnesota’s own Husker Du “Zen Arcade” put double records out, both on the SST label, that were both groundbreaking punk albums that showed incredible musicianship and creativity.
Love “Zen Arcade.” Now I wish I’d added it to this list.
Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs. Best Eric Clapton performance period.
I can’t agree with you more. It’s my favorite era of Clapton’s.