It's such an obvious thought that nobody seems to bother thinking about it: If a band can theoretically make its music as long or as short as it desired, why do most songs tend to fall in the three to six minute range? It's easy to point out individual artists who make temporally unconventional music -- especially if you're into post-rock -- but only the Internet's most contrarian music geek would argue that there's no such thing as an "average pop-song length." You see a 15-minute track on the new Titus Andronicus album and you think: "Damn, that's long." You see a three-minute track on the new Deerhunter album and you think nothing of it at all. Because that just makes sense.
The same, of course, is true for plenty of other mediums afflicted with running times: Avatar, at three hours, is a long movie. Infinite Jest, a 1,084 pages, is a long book. But certainly there are short films and short stories -- Hemingway took it to the extreme with his six-word "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn." So should the "short song" -- not the conventional three minutes but less than a minute -- be a recognized art-form? To consider that question further, we've compiled a list of what we think are the ten greatest examples of that rare ultra-short song that stands on its own merits. The fact that Napalm Death's record-holding contribution to the genre, the 1.316-second "You Suffer," doesn't show up on this list is not to disregard its importance. But even in this case, shorter isn't always better.
Black Flag, Damaged [SST, 1981]
"Spray Paint" pretty much is a normal-length song -- just played at top-speed. It's one of the two songs on Damaged co-written by Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, two men with a notoriously fraught relationship. (The latter would be kicked out of the band shortly after Damaged's release.) Here, their rage-fueled interplay provides the perfect backdrop for the newly recruited Henry Rollins, who sounds like he's drowning in his own venomous spit while conducting a rioting mob of epileptics.~Daniel Kolitz
"Elizabeth My Dear"
The Stone Roses, The Stone Roses [Jive, 1989]
The lengthiest track on this list doesn’t require its full running time to splatter its point across the face of the listener. Its true period can be found at the 40-second mark, when an upending sample of a silenced pistol signals the fade-out into “(Song for My) Sugar Spun Sister.” Manchester rock quartet The Stones Roses were notorious for anti-monarchy statements, but "Elizabeth My Dear” sees them at their most economical and delectably toxic. It makes sense that it was the cornerstone of their renowned 1989 bow. The Stone Roses’ deceptively hushed re-configuring of "Scarborough Faire"’s half-millennium-old descending melody still acts as a swift kick to the groin of establishment. And it somehow makes Simon & Garfunkel’s version sound even more like a stroll in the park. ~Kyle Lemmon
"It's So Obvious"
Wire, Pink Flag [Harvest, 1977]
Wire was probably more influential on 2000s rock music than any other first-wave punk band, and "It's So Obvious" provides a good indication why. With a sense of humor that put their righteous peers to shame, Wire needed just 53 seconds to break down the hackish commentary on the rise of punk, using a 1-2-3-4 drumstick intro, intentionally bad, vague wordplay, and a snarky take on the sanctity of 1977 in rock music (before the year was halfway over). In a time when everyone was trying to make music more important than life by doing more with less, Wire reminded punks it was only rock 'n' roll in under a minute, and over 30 years later, some still have yet to keep up. ~Ethan Stanislawski
Minor Threat, Minor Threat EP [Dischord, 1981]
"Straight Edge" may only be 45 seconds long, but its brevity didn't stop its anti-drinking/drugging message from catching on with thousands of hardcore kids. Ian MacKaye has publicly stated that he was in no way trying to start a movement with the song. But with music as forceful as Minor Threat's, he could've been railing against breakfast and still turned it into an inadvertent revolution. ~Daniel Kolitz
The Beatles, Abbey Road [Capitol, 1969]
Here's an example of the under-one-minute-song as jingle: You could use McCartney's fun-with-stereo ditty to market your product, and that product would have sales in the millions (although if you paid to use the song in the first place, you probably wouldn't be making much money back). Notable for being one of the first-ever hidden tracks, "Her Majesty" has just as much apocrypha surrounding it as any other Beatles track. Allegedly, it wasn't at first deemed fit to be on Abbey Road -- and yet it still was the first song every Prefixer mentioned when asked to pitch ideas for this list. ~Daniel Kolitz
“Between Hard and a Rock Place"
Public Enemy, How You Sell Soul to a Souless People Who Sold Their Soul??? [Slam Jamz, 2007]
The virtues of Public Enemy are manifold and have been exhaustively chronicled. Yet while Chuck D and Flava Flav remain household names, it’s worth remembering the musical brilliance of PE in the form of the Bomb Squad. Comprising producer’s Hank and Keith Shocklee, G-Wiz, Eric Sadler, and Chuck D himself, the groundbreaking crew could take a single bar of music and turn into a tempest of sound, layering sample after sample until a single beat sounded like the violent explosions that inspired the Squad’s name. The late-career entry “Between Hard and a Rock Place" from 2007’s How You Sell Soul to a Souless People Who Sold Their Soul??? concentrates the essence of Public Enemy into a 59-second wallop, laying out the band’s mission statement and reminding listeners of why the group was so powerful in the first place. ~Nate Knaebel
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless [Sire, 1991]
Unlike some of the other songs on this list, "Touched" isn't a concise pop nugget. The only thing this could plausibly soundtrack would be footage of a pissed-off dragon trying to escape its cage. "Touched" happens to be the only song on the immortal Loveless not composed by Kevin Shields, yet in 57 seconds it manages to distill My Bloody Valentine's whole aesthetic: ethereal, inhuman, oft-grotesque noise made oddly beautiful. ~Daniel Kolitz
“It’s a Boy”
The Who, Tommy [Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, 1969]
As creators of the rock opera, the Who, for better or worse, brought to rock 'n' roll a previously unheard-of level of composition, ambition, and grandeur. “It’s a Boy,” the first track after the overture in the Who’s legendary 1969 rock opera, Tommy, perfectly (though quite ironically) signals the start of this new era in rock music. Though only 38-seconds long, “It’s a Boy” introduces the idea of rock lyric as libretto. Lyrics could now be used to set the stage for epic tales of would-be messiahs with other-worldly pinball abilities! Additionally, the song is also a wonderful example of Pete Townshend's striking ability to transition from sensitive melodies to total bombast in a matter of seconds. ~Nate Knaebel
"You're Not an Airplane"
Guided by Voices, Bee Thousand [Scat, 1994]
This song sort of echoes "Her Majesty," in the way it pans in and out of the left and right speakers. Except in Guided by Voices' case, the effect probably came less out of aesthetic choice and more out of technological necessity. Still, this is a ballad done the Guided By Voices way: teasing us with a heartbreaking, melancholy fragment before trailing off into nothingness. This, like "Her Majesty," was its album's closing track. ~Daniel Kolitz
The Minutemen, Bean Spill EP [Thermidor, 1982]
The Minutemen were educated on punk, and that education proved to be remarkably fruitful. On "Futurism Restated" (based on an earlier "loud, fast" movement), the Minutemen cited Marshall McLuhan for the song's sole lyric ("the wheel is an extension of the foot!") The 56-second closer to 1982's Bean Spill EP is no less intense than the Minutemen's early paranoid hardcore punk, but showed a band burgeoning with ideas that was able to make a full rock song without any need for verse-chorus-verse song structure. In two years the Minutemen would produce their masterpiece Double Nickels On The Dime, a concept album that mocked Sammy Hagar for "I Can't Drive 55." "Futurism Restated," as good a getaway song as any, shows why the band was able to mock and take inspiration from their metal lords in equal measure. ~Ethan Stanislawski