Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who has 2016's longest album of them all? James Blake's The Colour in Anything was 17 songs long (clocking in at 76 minutes), and Drake's Views capped off at 20 (over 80 minutes). Zayn Malik's Mind of Mine, with bonus tracks included, made it to 18 tracks. And while none of these records was a failure, each seemed to suffer somewhat under the weight of its tracklist. The longer the album, the more pronounced the weak spots seemed to be: The high of Zayn's "LIKE I WOULD" couldn't help being dragged down by bummer, boring piano balladry on superfluous songs like "fOoL fOr YoU," and Drake's sleepy, immature style felt more and more like a slog when stretched across so many minutes. In an age when the full-length album is becoming increasingly unimportant, it's harder than ever to justify a lengthy record. So why does it keep happening?
Ever since iTunes and Napster came along, giving music fans the ability to buy just a few tracks at a time, death knells have rung (and re-rung) for the traditional album. Yet this sea change has had some counterintuitive effects, leading many artists not to abandon albums, but to stuff them with even more tracks. The RIAA, for instance, recently upped the incentives for lengthy albums when it announced new streaming rules that count 1,500 song streams as one album purchase. That means that even if fans only listen to Drake's wildly popular song "One Dance" a million times and ignore the rest of Views, those plays count toward the album's march to gold and platinum certifications — and more tracks per album makes it easier for that to happen.
Retail outlets, fighting for space in a post-file-sharing market, have put additional pressure on artists to pad out their albums long past the point of reason. Target, for example, has released exclusive deluxe albums for artists like Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, and Adele with bonus tracks you can't easily find elsewhere. 1989 had both a Target deluxe release and an iTunes deluxe release; the former included extra tracks like the sleeper hit "New Romantics," and the latter included original voice memos Swift recorded when she was first writing the album. While some bonus tracks, like "New Romantics," go on to become official, wide-release singles, for the most part they're cutting-room cast-offs included to satisfy the terms of deals with iTunes, Google Play, or Target. On streaming services, though, bonus songs get folded into albums' track lists without any clear differentiation — driving Ariana Grande's Dangerous Woman or Meghan Trainor's Thank You up from a respectable 11 or 12 tracks to a patience-testing 15.
So does it actually matter how long an album is in 2016? For sales and album-certification purposes, the answer is no, it really doesn't matter. The album as we know it doesn't exist anymore: It doesn't come out on schedule, it might be too long for its own good, and in the case of Beyoncé's Lemonade, it might not even come out as music in the first place. In some cases, the too-long album can be a move of confidence, one that suggests that like Lemonade, which had to be watched and listened to in sequence first, the artist has created an uncompromising, indulgent universe that dictates the terms of its enjoyment. Kanye West's 19-track-long album The Life of Pablo is one of these universes — when he debuted it in full at Madison Square Garden, letting those without tickets live-stream the event from their computers at home, it was a bold demonstration of his power to command our attention. Joanna Newsom is another artist who's used oversize albums to make a creative point: Her massive 2010 triple LP Have One On Me (18 songs, 124 minutes) and her 2006 masterpiece Ys (just five songs, ranging from seven to almost 17 minutes long) both playfully subvert traditional album structure, demanding that listeners engage with them in unusual ways.
This move can backfire, though. Take Kanye: Once he started tinkering with Pablo after that Madison Square Garden gala, citing a desire to make the album a living and breathing object, it started to seem like he could have used some more time to edit and perfect his vision before releasing it. For many artists, then, making radically shorter albums can be an even more confident move — and a less stressful one, at that. Robyn began releasing EPs and "mini-albums" instead of full-length albums starting with her 2010 Body Talk series, which allowed her to create music when she actually felt inspired. "When you do 16 or 13 songs in one go, you kind of empty yourself, and it takes a while to fill back up and have new things to talk about," she said in an interview. In the end, fans got pieces of Robyn that felt wholly refined and absolutely essential all throughout the year and mini-tours in between, all of which added up to an insanely well-curated 15-song compilation. Six years later, we've reached a point where people expect music from artists on a sped-up cycle; Drake filled up the time between proper full-lengths with singles and mixtapes like If You're Reading This It's Too Late and What a Time to Be Alive. Rihanna's string of "FourFiveSeconds," "American Oxygen," and "Bitch Better Have My Money" last year, meanwhile, might have seemed scatterbrained at first, but it enabled each song to develop a unique personality — and none were included on Anti, which helped that album exist on its own as one of Rihanna's most cohesive records to date.
The genre-hopping, lengthy album pumped with bonus tracks might look strong on the page, but the way people buy, stream, and listen to music online today supports the less-is-more model. The short, streamlined mini-album proves that a pop artist doesn't need to bombard audiences with too many songs to haphazardly find that hit. The shorter the album, the more it seems to be sure of its overall hit potential. The four- or five-song album that stands alone, then, might be the ultimate power move. In an era when artists are constantly changing the structure of the modern full-length album itself, keeping it simple might be the smartest idea of all.