In 2011, Radiohead did something they had never done before. They put out an underwhelming album.
Not a bad album. Just underwhelming. Reasonable people can dispute the merits of The King Of Limbs — I’ll submit that “Codex” is gorgeous and “Lotus Flower” worthy of its ready-meme video — but still: Here was a Radiohead album that felt less like spinning plates and more like wheels spinning in place.
For some, the lingering sense of let down (sorry) seemed connected to the album’s relatively brief length. At 37-and-a-half minutes — and only eight songs — The King Of Limbs remains Radiohead’s shortest album by a substantial margin. Pitchfork’s review (positive, hardly gushing) noted up top that it’s “Radiohead’s first album to clock in under the 40-minute mark.” Rolling Stone’s critic described its brevity as “shocking, since it’s been more than three years since [In Rainbows].” So widespread was the unease with this album’s brevity that fans quickly latched onto a dubious theory that a sequel album was soon to follow.
That was eight years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. Think about it: Can you imagine anyone today getting worked up about a celebrated band putting out a 37-minute album? In the streaming age, critically acclaimed albums are growing shorter and shorter — and the Grammys are catching up with the trend. A year ago, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic (33 minutes, 28 seconds) became the shortest album to win Album Of The Year in half a century. Weirdly, it competed against Jay-Z’s comeback album, 4:44, which also clocks in well below 40 minutes. To grasp how unusual that is, consider that you have to go back to the 1981 recipient, Christopher Cross’s debut, to find another winner under 40 minutes. And you have to scroll way the hell back to 1969, when Glen Campbell’s 24-minute By the Time I Get To Phoenix won, to find a winner shorter than 24K Magic.
Let’s look at the last four Album of the Year winners: 24K Magic, Adele’s 25, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Beck’s Morning Phase. A striking thing these albums all have in common (besides mostly having numbers in their titles) is that they are each under 50 minutes. That trend is likely to continue this year, since the two frontrunners, Kacey Musgraves’ universally adored Golden Hour and Cardi B’s swagger-filled Invasion Of Privacy, are around 45 and 48 minutes respectively. Pretty normal length for an album, right? Yes. But compared to the peak of the CD-buying era, when albums longer than a Passover seder routinely took home the top Grammy prize, 45 minutes is almost spartan.