Recorded music is dominated by two formats: the single and the LP. Singles are designed to deliver a quick hit straight to your aural pleasure center. A great single can launch careers. Other times a single completely overshadows whatever artist happens to be attached to it. With a single, the song is king; the artist is secondary.
A lot of people know and love this song. But I bet you most wouldn’t even be able to name the artist. They certainly wouldn’t be able to name the album from which it came (Can’t Stop the Bumrush).
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the LP. Even as record sales have plummeted to cataclysmic levels, the LP still remains the golden standard by which we gauge an artist’s worth. A good LP doesn’t provide a quick high, it creates an alternate universe that you can hang out in for awhile. Great albums cement legacies and inspire cults. A great album allows bands to headline festivals twenty years later without ever having a hit single (My Bloody Valentine, Young Marble Giants, Neutral Milk Hotel).
But there’s another format. That most overlooked and neglected of formats, the EP. The EP occupies that vast no man’s land between the single and the LP. Usually they’re around four or five songs, fifteen to twenty minutes.
EPs have always had a second-class status. Consciously or not, EPs are perceived as ill-equipped to deliver the distinct set of pleasures provided by the formats on either side of it. They’re too long to deliver the focused burst of a single and too short to fully immerse yourself in it like a good LP.
That’s a shame. EPs aren’t revered like singles and LPs, but they have a distinct set of charms and advantages that aren’t necessarily inferior to the popular formats on either side of them.
Most bands don’t even bother to put out an EP during their career, especially after they start putting out albums (I’m talking about true stand-alone EPs, not just glorified singles with three B-sides). It must seem like a waste of time and resources to create something that, by its very nature, people won’t give their full attention to.
EPs are a good way to get to know an artist.
Although we tend to view relationships within the dichotomy of long-term commitments vs. casual flings, there’s a phase in between, a purposefully vague phase that I might call “seeing someone.”
Listening to an EP is like “seeing someone.” Just because you’re interested in someone doesn’t mean you should become their boyfriend right away. And just because you’re interested in an artist doesn’t mean you should invest your time, money, and effort into their album.
Any idiot might be able to strike gold with one great song. But one great song does not necessarily indicate a worthwhile artist (see Kreayshawn). No more than a night of satisfying sexual acrobatics necessarily indicates a viable long-term romantic partner. Sick of this metaphor yet?
A good EP is proof positive that an artist has more to offer than the quick lay of a good single. If you don’t like what you hear, you can bail without too much time or money lost.
Some poor sap invested millions of dollars in this artist.
One-offs and stylistic detours.
EP’s are primarily seen as stopgaps between more significant releases. No one expects an EP to sell well (only one EP has ever hit #1 on the Billboard 200: Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies in 1994). And no one expects them to be an artist’s definitive statement.
Because they are subject to less commercial and critical pressure, artists often use them to explore bold new directions or indulge wild stylistic tangents. It’s not surprising that the aesthetic risks found on EPs often end up more compelling than the conservative approach generally taken on albums.
The Dum Dum Girls are a group who followed up two lackluster LPs with EPs that easily rank as their best work. Following their monotonous debut, the LP I Will Be, they upped the production value and writing ambition for the fantastic He Gets Me High EP. Following their boring sophomore effort Only in Dreams, they delivered the sprawling and psychedelic End of Daze EP.
Girls followed up their lo-fi debut, Album, with Broken Dreams Club, an EP that featured a concise preview of the expansive sound that would explode on their sprawling follow up, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It also includes my favorite Girls song:
Mat Cothran makes great albums (we produced one) but he’s an artist who thrives within the limits of the EP. He’s taken advantage of the format’s brevity to quickly hopscotch between a wide range of styles, building one of the most diverse discographies of any songwriter today in the process. He’s responsible for some of my favorite EPs under a variety of monikers.
There’s a ton of bands that have made revered, classic albums that have also made fantastic EPs that are relatively forgotten. The Magnetic Fields loop song experiment House of Tomorrow. My Bloody Valentine’s You Made Me Realize and Tremelo. Beck’s Deadweight, Pavement’s Watery, Domestic, and probably a million others that I haven’t heard of due to their underrated nature.
They’re easier to do right.
As much as I enjoy a good EP, I think that the LP format is deservedly the primary format by which music is judged. There’s nothing as sublime as a flawless album. The Velvet Underground and Nico, Paul’s Boutique, Exile in Guyville, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Blood on the Tracks, Screamadelica, Endtroducing. These will forever be among the pinnacles of recorded music to me.
These albums aren’t simply collections of great songs—they are cohesive pieces whose individual components complement and amplify each other. They may have standout tracks, but the sign of a truly great LP is when isolating any one of the tracks actually decreases its impact.
Take “I’m Waiting For the Man.” Alone, this song stands as one of the greatest rock songs ever. But when you listen to it as part of the day in the life of a party-addled New York drug addict, the itchy counterpart to the woozy hangover introduced in the previous track “Sunday Morning,” it becomes something sublime.
The fact is that most artists simply don’t have what it takes to put together a good album. And that’s not surprising because putting together a great album is really fucking hard to do.
A lot of bands will record twelve great but similar sounding songs that become tedious and predictable over the course of 45 minutes. Other artists will over-correct and present an extremely diverse set of tracks that lack focus.
In between these two poles lies the thin stretch of real estate that truly great albums occupy. Great albums have songs that are similar enough to establish a cohesive personality, yet diverse enough to encompass a wide range of emotions and ideas. Achieving this balance is extremely hard to do.
Here lies the EP’s greatest advantage. Unlike with an album, four or five great songs do make a great EP. Even if the songs sound similar, at that length, the similarity helps define an artist’s style without giving them the chance to overstay their welcome. Plus it’s simple arithmetic: If you narrow your collection of twelve good songs to five, you’ll end up with the best ones.
Reviews of mediocre albums often lament how they could be edited into great EPs. One of my personal music consumption hobbies is playing amateur A&R guy and doing just that. Cut The Strokes’ newest mediocre album down to six songs and you’ve got something that stands up with their best work.
For those playing at home, here are my picks—perhaps not coincidentally, almost exclusively the songs that sound the least like “classic” Strokes.
What sucks is that even if the Strokes themselves agreed with me, they’d never actually put out an EP because a great EP won’t even get 1/4th of the critical or commercial attention as a mediocre album. That’s just the culture we live in.
They’re perfect for short car trips.
The “road trip album” is a revered institution, but most of the time you drive you probably aren’t making road trips. You’re probably driving to a friend’s house. EPs are the perfect format for small trips. Theoretically, if albums deserve to be consumed in one sitting, you’ll be doing them a disservice when you listen to them in start and stop bursts over multiple car rides. EPs are just right for when you want to listen to a cohesive work in the time it takes to drive back and forth from the grocery store.
A few great EPs:
Just by virtue of them being so ignored when discussing the discography of great bands, so many great EPs have probably flown under my radar. Nevertheless, here is a list of some of my other favorite EPs that wedged into my heart.
Majical Cloudz – Turns Turns Turns
Wise Blood – +
Colleen Green – Cujo
Pizzicato Five – London, Paris, Tokyo
Computer Magic – Spectronic
Attica Basement – Don’t Hate Fuck
Yohuna – Revery
Washed Out – Life of Leisure
Minutemen – Tour Spiel
Elite Gymnastics – Ruin 1