10 Essential Triple Albums

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It’s an impressive enough feat to make a double-length album that holds together well without falling apart under the weight of its ambition. All you have to do is look at our regular Remake/Remodel column to see that double albums often need a trim. But when it works, it can be downright stunning (if you have the time, of course). But the best triple albums? That’s a much narrower field—triple albums that are short on flaws or filler are a particularly rare sort of breed. There are, however, at least 10 examples that come to mind when discussing the best of marathon-length six-siders. Since we’ve already once weighed in with a list of the 10 best double albums, and a few extra long gems arriving since then, it now seems like an appropriate time to add that extra disc. Go long with our list of 10 essential triple albums.

best triple albums George HarrisonGeorge HarrisonAll Things Must Pass
(1970; Apple)

The breakthrough release from the Taciturn Beatle is one of rock music’s best emancipatory statements. Harrison’s third solo album (following two experimental releases) commenced recording when the ink was barely dry on the Beatles’ breakup announcement. All Things Must Pass was a three-record study in compassion, acceptance and release that countered the bitterness and blaseness of Lennon & McCartney’s breakup friction. Phil Spector, still getting blame for botching Let It Be, was much more suited for co-steering Harrison’s defining work, full of warm echoes and brassy largeness. Harrison’s songs are so exhiliarting they’re practically aerial, from the net-positive lament in the title track to the nearly giddy “What Is Life?” and “Wah Wah.” The meditations have both heft and brightness—so much so that the third, all-star (Clapton, Ringo) jam session disc becomes a more animated harvest festival. Just like that Harrison shed the asterisk from his back and produced the first great Beatles solo album, and it still hasn’t been surpassed. – PP

best triple albums YessongsYesYessongs
(1973; Atlantic)

Yes had already proved themselves as future legends by the release of Yessongs. Though great years (and albums) lay ahead, their best were behind them: they had already notched their belts and turned heads with four excellent records fusing classical, jazz, rock, pop, folk and psychedelia (with a little country thrown in there for good measure now and again). Oh, and perhaps the crown jewel of all of progressive rock itself in Close to the Edge. So, what does Yessongs do? Simple: Take up every one of the greatest songs of this period, including most of the tracks from their already-classic The Yes Album and Fragile, as well as the entirety of the recently-released Close to the Edge, performed live, proving that it wasn’t studio trickery that made their jaw-droppingly complex and deftly composed music come to life but the fact that at the end of the day, they could play. Further: Yessongs, being a live record, proves that Yes and by proxy all great prog rock is still at heart rock music—music meant to be played loud, live, and in the flesh. – LH

best triple albums Metal BoxPublic Image Ltd.Metal Box
(1979; Virgin)

Where 1978’s debut Public Image: First Issue found John Lydon trying to figure out where his antiestablishment messages would head next, Metal Box the following year was a fully formed post-punk beast incarnate. A landmark of the genre, PiL hit on a magic formula of sprawling rhythm parts from funk and reggae (“Death Disco”), alongside snaggletoothed guitar (“Poptones”) and dour, nebulous lyrics (“Careering”) lifted from so many Teutonic performers. You may know the album better via its re-release, Second Edition. The original Metal Box packaging—a 16mm film canister—wreaked havoc on the triple LP, damaging so much of the vinyl over time that intact copies are now pricy collectibles. In typically difficult Lydon fashion he made Schrödinger’s album, one that simultaneously exists and does not exist. – AB

best triple albums SandinistaThe ClashSandinista!
(1980; Epic)

Released exactly 364 days after their charter document London Calling, the Clash’s fourth studio album dismantled punk’s blocks of insulation so thoroughly it almost sounded as if the original, 1977-era Clash had been fired and filed away. If London Calling had expanded their vision within the confines of rock and roll (and a little reggae), Sandinista! was a reckless investigation into the rest of the earth that rock and roll had excluded, intentionally or otherwise. And initially it was disorienting: There was never a riskier side-one-track-one in punk history than “The Magnificent Seven,” a sleek funk-disco song that seemed to update the sadsack of “Lost in the Supermarket.” What follows are nearly two and a half hours of unpredictable but disciplined genre-surfing between jazz, folk, R&B and heavy doses of reggae and dub. For some it was all too much at the time—especially the third part, an unformed blast of experimentalism and dub that might have seemed extraneous. But in retrospect it didn’t just unlock the doors of influence to the punk ethos: It showed how the rebel music of other cultures was, in spirit and sometimes practice, cut from the exact same stone. – PP

Prince EmancipationPrinceEmancipation
(1996; NPG Records)

With 2016 now coated in an ever-present purple shroud, the need to discuss some of Prince’s less talked about creations feels more urgent. In ‘96, the man then known as O(+> was rid of the Warner Bros. label that made him a star, gaining absolute creative freedom. Un-tethered and newly wed, he took advantage of this profound moment to release R&B’s first triple album. Emancipation isn’t the cream of the crop like some better-known 3xLPs and is slightly blemished by cover songs and awkward tunes here and there, but it was Prince’s last really notable release. Given the tender care given to it, the album is inevitably scattered with bonafide bangers. The best of this generous outpouring are amongst his most God-like: “New World” provides a cool bare-bones funk and a gender-bending message of positivity, “In This Bed I Scream” is passionate as hell, and “The Human Body” is Prince in rare and spectacular Chicago House form. There’s more: “Face Down” is sassy Prince in hip-hop mode (with a resurrection theme that’s particularly eerie now more than ever), and the title track is as irresistible and triumphant as “1999.” With a totally raw and intimate production, Emancipation provides anyone willing to sift through it the amazing opportunity to hear Prince still spilling with creativity, yet no longer with anyone to filter it. – RR

spring albums magnetic fieldsMagnetic Fields69 Love Songs
(1999; Merge)

Just to reinforce how steadily this 3-CD set has grown in stature since its release a mere 16 years ago: This is the second time in less than a week that I’m writing about it. Stephin Merritt will tell you that his simply-rendered opus isn’t about love—it’s about the love song, and he’s right. Each neatly arranged 23-song volume extracts melodic principles from literally every style and era of popular song: country, Spector-pop, disco, folk, the Brill Building, Hawaiian ukulele music, medieval ribaldry—look, there’s 69 of them. Just dive in. If nothing else 69 Love Songs made rock critics use the phrase “Cole Porter” again, as Merritt’s lyrics were a treatise in interlocking wit, cleverness, imagery and, if he wasn’t careful, genuine emotion. His rotation of lead singers, including chief collaborator Claudia Gonson, was a great way to explore the unified idea of love songs across all gender and identification boundaries. But the amazing thing is that anybody of any stripe could sing any one of the 69 Love Songs, exactly as written, and it would still work. Perhaps the last great master course on songwriting we’ve had, and still one of the most cost-effective.- PP

top 100 albums of the decade so far newsomJoanna NewsomHave One On Me
(2010; Drag City)

Young artists grow richer, more complex and more themselves with time. They test themselves and become more sure of their gifts. Sometimes they overreach and other times they transcend, but all said, Joanna Newsom passed through these lacunae of maturity more assuredly and safer than most. Her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was a musically spare and lyrically rich and deeply, wonderfully inventive folk album while her second, Ys, showed her blossoming into the full-blown progressive song structures and symphonic accompaniment (written and directed by no less than Van Dyke Parks, for free, by his own insistance!) that her first had always suggested. So then, on her third: An explosion of talent, a cornucopia of song, featuring songs long and short, complex and simple, served over three discs. If Ys proved that hers were capable hands to hold together the historically-fickle form of extended progressive song structures, Have One On Me proved that she could do anything at all. And, like all truly great multi-disc albums, it could be resolved to a near infinite variety of sterling perfect single-disc treasures but instead is delivered to us hoary and overgrown, knowing that only by its excess could it deliver the beautiful transcendent thing it became. Have One On Me was the enunciation of a modern songwriting and musical master. – LH

The Knife - Shaking the HabitualThe KnifeShaking the Habitual
(2013; Mute/Brille)

You have to hand it to The Knife for not holding back on their final album. The climax of an increasingly ambitious series of albums that went from the darkened house jams of Silent Shout to the experimental electro opera in Tomorrow, In a Year, 2013’s Shaking the Habitual found the Swedish brother-sister duo abandoning all sense of safety and unleashing a monster of an album. Held against their more accessible albums of years past, it’s a marathon work of abrasion, abstraction and outright weirdness, juxtaposing polyrhythmic pop with grinding industrial EBM, creeping trip-hop dirges with extended ambient drones, or in the case of “Fracking Fluid Injection,” piercing noise. It’s a political album, tackling ideas about feminism and distribution of wealth through pop songs, if you can even call them that. It’s not an easy or comfortable album, but it’s the one most likely to leave an impact. – JT

Swans To Be KindSwansTo Be Kind
(2014; Young God)

The songs that Michael Gira & Co. brought together in this massive endeavor were all taken from live jams that developed while touring in support of 2012’s The Seer.  At the time of the release, I never thought of this as a triple album when I first downloaded, as it was in two folders, but for those of you who collect vinyl then it would amount to a triple album. The songs split the difference between the classic Swans sound from White Light and the Mouth of Infinity and are coupled with the post-hiatus era that began with My Father Will Guide me up a Rope to the Sky that finds them indulging in more rough sonic brawn. With songs like the angular ”Oxygen” which is little upbeat for them, Gira leans more toward maniac ranting than his baritone croon, yet proves he is just as ground breaking in 2014 as he was in 1983, even if it feels like he is speaking in tongues at a Pentecostal tent revival. Older and perhaps even louder than the Greed days, Gira holds court in the chaos, conducting madness like a post-apocalyptic Frank Zappa. Swans upheld their legend once again. – WL

best albums of 2015 so far The EpicKamasi WashingtonThe Epic
(2015; Brainfeeder)

It’s right there in the title, up front, offering absolutely no ambiguity about what kind of experience it offers: The Epic is just that. A remarkably ambitious work for any artist, The Epic holds the added distinction of being Los Angeles-based saxophonist and bandleader Kamasi Washington’s debut album. First recording out of the gate? A concept-based triple album of spiritual jazz with strings and a choir. No biggie! Just this little project he’s been working on. Yes indeed, The Epic is an awe-inspiring sprawl, transitioning from brash and brassy post-bop tracks (“Change of the Guard”) to soulful vocal-based numbers (“Henrietta, Our Hero”) and some Latin-tinged funk (“Re Run Home”). As with any triple album, it can be listened to in parts or experienced as a whole, but just make sure if you choose the latter that you’ve got a good chunk of time carved out to fully absorb it. – JT

View Comments (2)
  • I believe you meant to say three excellent albums by Yes before the release of Yessongs not four. Most people don’t usually include Time and a Word as being on the same level as the ones that followed(in my opinion it isn’t but still very strong in it’s own right). Still, I get the feeling you didn’t have that one in mind and meant to say three instead of four.

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