TOP TEN: Modern short songs

Shakespeare wrote that brevity is the soul of wit, and back in the day it often quite simply had to be. The capacity of vinyl technology meant that artists were once limited to 23 minutes per LP side, and so had to be brief with their compositions.

These days there are no such limits. So in this list, I want to honour those who continue to celebrate concise expression in the modern age. This isn’t purely due to our short attention spans; sometimes a couple of minutes is all you need.

Perfume Genius – ‘Otherside’ (2017, 2:40)

Before No Shape in 2017, Perfume Genius’ songs were often very spare in their instrumentation: which is probably why the explosion of noise on ‘Otherside’ sounds so ecstatic. Building from the quiet of minor piano keys and abruptly reaching a shimmering climax, it’s the sound of someone shattering expectations – and a mission statement for everything that follows. It made me jump out of my skin when I first heard it, and sends shivers down my spine each subsequent listen.

Okay Kaya – ‘Vampire’ (2018, 2:01)

Okay Kaya’s music pulls me in, trance-like. Her songs are incredibly minimal and often melancholy compositions, and the intimacy of their few chords makes you feel as if you’re in the room with her.

‘Vampire’, like many of the best short songs, is a simple affair: a few chords soundtrack a story about a former hook-up who turns up only to drain the energy out of a person with nothing to give. The echoing sighs that close out the song don’t so much provide a neat ending as give the impression of something evaporating back into the atmosphere it came from.

Mitski – ‘Washing Machine Heart’ (2018, 2:08)

As I described in our Valentine’s Day article last month, Mitski is a modern master of the brief pop song. Her Be The Cowboy album is especially full of terrific tracks which waste no time in getting to the crux of a subject.

‘Washing Machine Heart’ is, like many of the album’s tracks, a romantically turbulent affair. Mitski’s heart and feelings are being used for someone else’s benefit, as summarised in casually crushing turns of phrase (“I’m not wearing my usual lipstick, I thought maybe we would kiss tonight”, “I know who you pretend I am”). Danceably devastating.

Tyler, The Creator – ‘WUSYANAME’ (2021, 2:02)

‘WUSYANAME’ is quite clearly a pastiche of 90s R&B but its short length is testament to the accuracy in which its core elements are executed. Who needs 3 or 4 minutes when the beat, the sample and the chorus are so on the money with regard to the style you’re referencing that it sounds like a cover? Call Me If You Get Lost is an album best enjoyed by listening to it in full and letting it wash over you rather than picking out individual moments, but this is a very satisfying exception to that rule.

Blood Orange – ‘Birmingham’ (2019, 1:33)

A cut from Dev Hynes’ Angel’s Pulse mixtape which featured odds and sods not included on his Negro Swan album, ‘Birmingham’ is one verse long, and yet that’s all it needs to be. Recalling one of the worst atrocities in the Civil Rights Movement, Kelsey Lu’s vocals and words paint a vivid scene that needs no further expansion for impact. Ian Isiah’s ridiculous vocal range adds a gospel air to a track that is really too good to be left on a largely forgotten release.

Run The Jewels – ‘Blockbuster Night Pt. 1’ (2014, 2:32)

An aural assault of alliteration and aggressive energy, ‘Blockbuster Night Pt. 1’ is part of Run The Jewels 2’s opening salvo which saw the rap duo at their ferocious peak. Trading verses over a frenetic, heart-pounding beat, the wordplay and quotables are too much to do justice here (“top of the morning, my fist to your face is fucking Folgers”, “I deal in dirty work; do the deed and then dash, ditch ’em” etc). Just… reacquaint yourself with this one.

Odd Future / Frank Ocean – ‘White’ (2012, 2:03)

‘White’ appears on a pretty infantile Odd Future compilation released at the height of the collective’s popularity in 2012. But I think this unlikely context is to the song’s benefit, as it makes it stand out even more as a moment of serene calm amongst the shrieking noise.

It’s always struck me as a song borne of a quiet night, the stillness amplifying the present. It finds Ocean surveying his reality as a 23 year old, peacefully accepting that the moments he describes are fleeting, like similar ones in his past have been, and ones in the future will be (“I’ll forget 23 like I forget 17, and I’ll forget my first love like you forget a daydream”). It’s brief, it’s beautiful, and it remains one of my favourite Frank songs.

Earl Sweartshirt – ‘Azucar’ (2018, 1:26)

“Pedal to the metal lost footing / There was sugar in my gas tank / My cushion was a bosom on bad days / There’s not a black woman I can’t thank”

The first NINE SECONDS of ‘Azucar’ there, a song that Earl Sweatshirt enters as if he’s already been rapping full pelt for about five minutes and summarises a year of intense depression so succinctly and eloquently it seems impossible. Every time I listen to Some Rap Songs, I marvel at how he says so much in 24 minutes. His ability to craft sentences that have such layered meanings is nothing short of astonishing. Quite honestly this whole playlist could have been selections from this record.

Car Seat Headrest – ‘Joe Goes To School’ (2016, 1:18)

The closing song on an album which is 70 minutes long, ‘Joe Goes To School’ works brilliantly as a contrast to the ambitiously constructed songs that precede it. Teens of Denial is very clearly an album about the tortured emotions that come with growing up, as represented in the lyricism throughout the record, so I love that it ends with this abstract acoustic tale about Will Toledo staring at a horse. It’s a gentle and touching metaphor that bookends an album I revisit a hell of a lot.

Tierra Whack – ‘Waze’ (2018, 1:00)

I couldn’t finish this list without including Tierra Whack, whose 15-song, 15-minute Whack World album is a modern example of the greatness you can create in a short period of time. 15 self-contained ideas which somehow work perfectly despite their incredible economy, this album never gets old.

‘Waze’ is the closing track and is starkly minimal to the preceding songs, but like the Car Seat Headrest closer, it works because of that contrast. A barely-there instrumental soundtracks Tierra briefly affirming how, despite her lack of ‘GPS’, she’s finding her way in life. We’re still waiting on a follow-up to Whack World, but until then, like all of these songs it’s short and sweet enough to just hit replay.

Words by Tom Burrows

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