Playlist curator Johanna Sommer takes us through a sonic journey of the greatest long-songs of all time, from Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar.
I rarely settle in and let a song longer than, say six minutes, wash over me, let alone songs whose minutes are in the double digits. After all, who has time for that? Well, now we all do.
It is understandable to feel that art can be a vain pursuit in a time like this, as, frankly, it’s almost impossible to tell if there is really any merit to continuous creation when it feels like the world is crumbling. But I’m also living in a state of confliction; I firmly know that art of all kinds helps me in coping, understanding, and healing, and I know it does so for countless others, so how can it be plainly useless? After all, music and art have an escapist element, allowing one to strip themself from the world around them and take a reprieve in a beautifully-curated creation.
Below are five immersive examples of songs over ten minutes. Some tracks tell captivating stories, where others find you drowning in a flawless sound— ultimately with the goal of escaping from the present to admire the artistic exploits of some purely great musicians.
1. "SINNERMAN" — NINA SIMONE (1965)
I pretty much say every other song is an all-time favorite, but “Sinnerman” really may be in the all-time top five. Simone discovered the song as a child when her mother, a Methodist minister, used it in church as a way for people to confess their sins. The song itself is a traditional African-American spiritual that describes a sinner trying to escape divine justice on Judgement Day. Simone’s rendition, like most of her work, is felt deeply as she directs every note that escapes her lungs with a purpose— in this case as a reference to her own conflict with religion and her passionate advocacy for civil rights.
Though “Sinnerman” largely consists of repeated verses and a mostly continuous rushed tempo, Simone’s earnest chanting and conjured energy never falters. Her skilled playing of keys creates the song’s captivating hook and disrupts the track when needed. The high-hat plays a crucial role as well, setting the steady rhythm with a mutual sense of unease; when it leaves the track, its absence is felt, and when it returns the song falls into place. There are two breakdowns in “Sinnerman,” one at 4 ½ minutes and one just over 8, which both help express the underlying energy behind the song’s history and highlight Simone’s ability as a musician, as well as giving contrast to the song’s primary arrangement, which is nothing short of perfect.
Simone is a preacher in how she expels her transparent soul in the form of song, and “Sinnerman” might be her most impressive sermon. She chants “power” more than any other word, and it’s hard to deny that her voice and song is power personified.
2. “DESOLATION ROW" — BOB DYLAN (1965)
Writing about Bob Dylan is almost a death sentence, as you are either repeating thoughts that have already been published more articulately or proposing a theory that has been disproven before you were born. “Desolation Row” is particularly hard to speculate on, considering the origin and location that the title refers to has yet to even be determined, and will probably be one of the thousands of mini-mysteries Dylan takes with him to the grave.
“Desolation Row” is the last song and only acoustic number on Dylan’s groundbreaking 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, as well as the longest he had recorded until then. Following the story within “Desolation Row” is fun in the same way as investigating a surrealist painting; you may never know what it actually means, but at least it’s amusing to try.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this song is the frequent name-dropping of fictional and historical figures alike, from a flirtation between a Bette Davis-impersonating Cinderella and Romeo; fellow Shakespeare character Ophelia; religious figures Cain and Abel; Einstein disguised as Robin Hood; and fellow poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. The acoustic guitar is over-worked in the song, aiding the words like a comforting storybook accompaniment before the harmonica finally comes in to relieve its duty.
“Desolation Row” is not a song about answers, but rather one for musings and questioning. Though the association of not knowing the meaning of something is generally frowned upon, it alternatively leaves space for the imagination that cannot be crushed with the burden of truth. I promise, no matter how long we are quarantined, you will never master “Desolation Row” or a fraction of Dylan’s discography. He has given us the gift of endless exploration.
3. “MAGGOT BRAIN” — FUNKADELIC (1971)
“Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time. For y’all have knocked her up,” are the first words you hear spoken by George Clinton on Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” before launching into one of the greatest one-take guitar solos imaginable.
Listen to “Maggot Brain” with headphones for the full experience. The lead guitars are split between left and right, making it feel like they are targeting separate areas of your brain as they engage in a wailing conversation.
This song is one of those glorious guitar moments where an acid-fueled Eddie Hazel is able to coax a moaning confession out of the fretboard, making one wonder if vocals even have a reason to exist. And let me be frank— I’ll need a cigarette when it’s finished.
4. LAST CALL — KANYE WEST (2004)
“Last Call” is the last track of Kanye West’s long-time coming, meticulously composed debut. The College Dropout elevated West from renowned producer to the next big rapper, showing the flawed characteristics that make him so personable. Despite some of the album’s flat verses and empty skits, West is able to take over with his producing prowess, making the album, and his work since, always listenable.
Fans are divided amongst “Last Call.” Some think it's an insightful, contextualizing biography of West’s beginnings and the music industry, while others agree with Pitchfork’s review that labeled it “once-interesting, twice-tiresome.” Within the 12:41-running closer, West breaks down his evolution from minor producer to signed rapper, outlining his fall-out with Capitol Records and return to Roc-A-Fella Records, with lots of dispersed dialogue throughout ranging from Jay to his mother.
It’s understandable to not frequently revisit this track, but, as a fan, to listen once is mandatory, as it carries many of West’s personal evaluations, like “Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams,” to classic witty-West one-liners like “Mayonnaise-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips.” Some claim that the production layers build and fall off with the highs and lows of West’s career, like when West announces he doesn’t get the deal with Capitol, the music stops completely as a way to show the blow of this breaking point.
“Last Call” has its ups and downs but it’s undeniably Kanye West through and through— by taking control over his narrative and sticking it to an infectious backing track. And don’t forget the line about his African-American Express.
5. “SING ABOUT ME, I'M DYING OF THIRST” — KENDRICK LAMAR (2012)
Where West prospers in production and entertainment value, Kendrick Lamar takes the
reins in lurid storytelling and gut-wrenching portraits of marginalized peoples. While his music is more than proficient in its own right, his writing is what makes him so culturally profound, echoing the lyricism and social commentary of the folk and early rap artists that came before him. His Pulitzer is deserved.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is Lamar’s opus. The 12-minute track off Lamar’s breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a polyvocal exploration of life in Compton, as Lamar inhabits multiple perspectives in navigating survival in urban ghettos.
“Sing About Me” is split into three verses. The first is dedicated to a late friend of Lamar’s describing the death of his brother to gang violence, ending his speech asking Lamar to tell his story before he is cut off by gunshots, symbolizing how premature death ends before the individual gives all that they can. The second is told from the enraged perspective of the sister of Keisha, a prostitute Lamar had previously written “Keisha’s Song” off Section.80 about. The unnamed sister blasts Lamar for putting her privacy into the open and defends what a woman has to do to survive in such an environment. Lamar then takes over to explain his internal war on how to do the right thing, rapping, “And you're right, your brother was a brother to me/ And your sister's situation was the one that pulled me/ In a direction to speak on somethin'/ That's realer than the TV screen.”
“I’m Dying of Thirst” symbolizes the religious salvation that his Compton community seeks in order to absolve a culture of vice and sin, tying the constant theme of mortality to a thirst for holy water. “So hop in that water and pray that it works” is the last line Lamar raps. It’s a cynical and near hopeless reference to baptism to overcome rigid institutional racism and a lack of unity that prevents one from prospering, and instead perpetuates a cycle of violence.
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” is a beautiful example of Lamar’s capacity as an artist. He recounts these events with complex lyricism and brutal realism, bridging the gap between an isolated, habitual community and the rest of society. It is understandable to sympathize with Keisha’s offended sister when Lamar raps their private tragedy to the masses, yet there is also the prospect of change and increased awareness that comes along with each new Lamar album, broadening a sense of humanity for all. ✰
You can listen to the whole playlist below:
Johanna Sommer is a young music appreciator and obsessive fan from Buffalo, NY. Currently, she attends Purchase College as a freshman journalism major. Johanna loves nothing more than to write about music’s universal capacity, and how it can unite people of all backgrounds.