Arcade Fire’s new album, Reflektor, might grow on me yet, but as it stands right now, it’s yet another good double album that could have been a great single album. This isn’t an uncommon criticism, finding the marvelous buried in the meh, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent double albums (two CDs) out there. In fact, here are 10 from the past 20 years, with two caveats: no live albums and no compilations.
Oh yeah, and no triple albums, either: there’s 69 Love Songs, and then there’s everything else.
1. Being There by Wilco
For a very brief time in history, Jay Farrar was the more successful former member of Uncle Tupelo. Son Volt’s Trace, released in 1995, is a far better, far more poignant debut than Wilco’s A.M., led by Farrar’s former-bandmate, now-rival Jeff Tweedy. The critical dominance lasted all of two years, or until Being There came out and Wilco, having left alt-country behind, began its journey to becoming one of America’s best rock bands. It’s a modest, raw presentation of Tweedy’s concise abilities as a songwriter and band leader, dipping into folk, rockabilly, power pop, psychedelia, and bluegrass. Only two members of the Being There-era Wilco remain with the band, Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt, but whenever the current-day lineup launches into “Outtasite (Outta Mind),” it still sounds great.
2. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by Outkast
The albums on this list aren’t ranked, but if they were, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, an Outkast album in name only, split between Big Boi’s country-fried hip hop and André 3000’s a little-bit-of-everything, would be number one. It’s as essential and important as any “classic” double album ever released, with an all-time classic song (“Hey Ya,” maybe the greatest pop single of the 2000s to date) and a built-in conversation starter (André or Big Boi: who you got?). It’s one of the last I Was There the Day Of albums, having come out in 2003, when people still said sentences like, “I went to the record store and bought Speakerboxxx/The Love Below the day it came out.” Outkast never released a bad album, but Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is the best of the best.
3. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by the Smashing Pumpkins
Get 10 people who grew up in the 1990s together in a room, and you’ll find five people who think Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the best Pumpkins record and five who think it’s an overwrought, overextended self-serious fart of indulgence. They’re both right. Billy Corgan’s third attempt at convincing the world he’s the most important rock god there ever was and ever will be is so many things — loud, soft spoken, catchy, infuriating, boastful, humble, audacious, emotional…the list goes on and on — to so many people that it’s somehow both underrated and overrated. It’s not the masterpiece those first five want it to be, but it’s certainly not the disaster the other five say it is, either. No, Mellon Collie is somewhere in-between: it’s really good, when it could’ve been all-time great with some editing. Just don’t tell Corgan any of this. Dude’s still stroking it to that Time review.
4. The Seer by Swans
In my “best of 2012” write-up for The Seer, Swans’ 12th and best studio album, I wrote, “It’s a two-hour challenge, full of double-digit-length drones and spiritual murmurs, with an occasional acoustic respite in the form of a song that ends with ‘Use your sword/Use your voice/And destroy.’ But it’s worth the commitment.” Or better yet, to quote frontman Michael Gira, The Seer is the “culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.” Yes. The album cover will haunt your dreams, too.