10 Essential One-Track Albums

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The definition of an album has never been 100 percent concrete. Roughly speaking, it’s at least two sides of a 12-inch vinyl release’s worth of music, but that doesn’t dictate how long the songs are or how many there are supposed to be. Some 10-track albums are only 10 minutes long. Some hour-long albums are simply one track. Today we look at the latter, albums that in their original release feature no track separations, delivering one solid, uninterrupted piece of music meant to be heard as a whole. The funny thing we discovered, however, is that particular genres seem to do this more than others (not unlike those who specialize in side-long tracks). Metal, jazz, ambient, minimalism and post-rock are all represented, but we could have chosen just one genre and each of them could fill all 10 slots. Those in search of marathon listening, look no further than our Essential One-Track Albums.

one-track albums John ColtraneJohn Coltrane – Ascension

(1966; Impulse)

Once John Coltrane had achieved new spiritual heights with 1965’s A Love Supreme, he just kept on soaring higher. Ascension, released the following year, showcased an ambition well beyond the already monumental heights the jazz legend had reached in the preceding half-decade (of which there are many). Recorded with a massive 11-piece ensemble that included four saxophonists in addition to Trane himself (Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Marion Brown and John Tchical), Ascension does everything its name suggests, moving skyward into a place of pure expression and impassioned, deeply moving performances, unbound by track separations or individual movements. It’s all one massive piece of emotional, fiery sound. A first listen might suggest chaos; a second reveals groove and rhythm; a third opens up the cosmos. Whatever one chooses to call it—”free jazz,” “fire music”—it’s a transmission from deep within the soul. – JT

one-track albums Pharoah SandersPharoah Sanders – Black Unity

(1972; Impulse)

Black Unity wasn’t the first time Pharoah Sanders stretched out a composition over two sides of vinyl. His spiritually profound, deeply psychedelic Karma did just that with the 30-minute “The Creator Has a Master Plan” (though it featured a second, shorter track). “Black Unity” is, then, where Sanders goes the distance and covers both sides of vinyl with an epic session that has all the intensity of free jazz but with a more spacious, sci-fi and even funky foundation. Rhythm is what drives Black Unity, and it’s what drives the players here, coming together in a piece of work that’s no less moving than an album like Karma, but with a grittier drive and even the surprising presence of sustained synthesizer notes to push that groove deep into space. – JT

Steve Reich one-track albumsSteve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians

(1978; ECM)

Minimalism produces a long of these one-track substantial performances. Where a piece like Terry Riley’s In C had the most crossover appeal, touching on everyone from prog to electronica to even some rap producers, Music for 18 Musicians (originally released as one continuous piece of music on two sides) is the one that sidles up closest to the landscape of orchestral music. A euphoric piece, it highlights how the slow-moving evolutionary textures of something as seemingly wallpaper-esque as ambient music contain within them a vastness of rhythmic and harmonic interplay. If you’ve ever wondered why music critics seem to universally go gaga for ambient music, be it electronic or orchestral, regardless of the genre of their critical interest, Music for 18 Musicians reveals in its taut micro-scale looping measures precisely the tensions that are buried within that form. A masterpiece of orchestral music. – LH

Manuel Gottsching E2-E4Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4

(1984; Inteam/MG-Art)

You normally hear the band Ash Ra Tempel (later called Ashra) mentioned only in advanced discussions of Krautrock, yet their influence and creative cross-pollination touches Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and other titans of the genre. Legend has it that late in 1981, co-founding guitarist Manuel Göttsching recorded some musical ideas so he could listen to something in his Walkman during a Berlin-Hamburg flight. Three years later he would release that single take as E2-E4, his first solo album. The title references notation for a common opening chess move, and as the album’s sound and concept snuck up on Göttsching, so it goes with listeners: Nine continuously-mixed sections of deftly handled drum machines and simple synthesizer figures, joined later by his guitar improv, form a hypnotic 111 BPM groove-cocoon over the span of an hour. This is accidental alchemy turning space rock into early techno, with elements lifted and homage paid far into the future by the likes of Daft Punk, Ricardo Villalobos, LCD Soundsystem, and Basic Channel. – AB

one-track albums Brian EnoBrian Eno – Thursday Afternoon

(1985; EG)

Thursday Afternoon isn’t the only recording of its kind in Brian Eno’s catalog. The recently released Reflection, which is also an endlessly looping (yet still changing!) app, also found the electronic music pioneer using one track to fill the space of an hour-long album. But Tuesday Afternoon was unique at the time as it made use of the length of a CD to deliver a work of soothing, sparse ambience. Its algorithmic composition makes it feel both repetitious and seemingly random—like a screensaver perhaps—but it’s a lovely piece of music throughout.  – JT

one-track albums LysolMelvins – Lysol

(1992; Boner)

So, a caveat: Like Music for 18 Musicians, if you managed to find a copy of Lysol today, it won’t be a single track. Both records saw their original format broken for one delineated by track markers. Hell, if you find a copy of Lysol today, it’ll most likely be titled Melvins instead, following the fairly-foreseeable lawsuit. But that doesn’t detract from the original 30 minutes of glory that Melvins released, their heaviest record, featuring their downright apocalyptic cover of Flipper’s “Sacrifice.” as part of its uninterrupted epic. Melvins have always worn their inspirations on their sleeves, from KISS to Butthole Surfers, but here on Lysol they manage to tap into post-punk doom and find a Sabbathian core and, in the process, make one of the most profoundly heavy and necessary records in the world. By the way: this is my favorite Melvins record by a country mile. – LH

one-track albums Edge of SanityEdge of Sanity – Crimson

(1996; Black Mark)

If you’ve ever wondered why so much progressive rock substrate works itself into extreme metal far and wide, you can thank Dan Swanö. He wasn’t the sole figure, sure, but his work across numerous bands, as well as his friendship with people like Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt (who makes an appearance here) certainly helped push that ship out to sea. Crimson is a 40-minute progressive death metal tour de force, a masterpiece of the genre. While Incantation and Cannibal Corpse may have focused on the decrepit extremity of the genre, Edge of Sanity takes one part Morbid Angel and one part Mike Oldfield to craft a ship designed to explore the artistic edge of death metal at the time. Edge of Sanity expanded on the taut fusion-inspired prog excursions of early 90s death metal and, with Crimson, proved that the progressive wing of death metal was not a flash in the pan but a viable creative space. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this record in the world of metal. – LH

essential one-track albums BorisBoris – Absolutego

(1996; Fangs Anal Satan)

In their 26 years as a band, Japan’s Boris has shown themselves to be one of the most innovative artistic forces in the world, constantly reinventing themselves and crossing new territory with their sound. They have touched so many corners of the musical map that it is sometimes easy to lose track of their origins—creating void-gazing, earth-moving, knock-you-flat-with-a-single-note drone-metal band. All the reminder you’ll ever need can be found in the hour long, aural assault Absolutego, released in 1996. With this ear-shredder of a debut, it’s no question how they became the prolific, esteemed, legends of metal they are now. – LA

Sleep Dopesmoker best stoner rock albumsSleep – Dopesmoker

(2003; Tee Pee)

Sleep’s Dopesmoker is edging close to becoming a meme. Henry Rollins once played the entirety of its 60-minute span on his KCRW radio show (which means that was half the show). The album plays on a loop in the bathrooms at San Diego-based metal-loving vegan restaurant Kindred. And simply saying its name brings a certain kinship among those who appreciate it. The Bay Area doom metal trio certainly went for it on this release, an hour-long, riff-churning ode to the sweet leaf that, following its recording, their then-label (sort of) London Records didn’t want to release in the form they had turned in. It went through several rounds of releases, none of them quite right with what the band envisioned, but the journey it took to get here made it legendary. Oh, and it’s also a fucking phenomenal hour-long doom metal track, so there’s that. – JT

one-track albums Jim O'RourkeJim O’Rourke – The Visitor

(2009; Drag City)

The entirety of Jim O’Rourke is contained within The Visitor. His American primitivism influences, his experimental tendencies, his penchant for lushly arranged beauty and his outright weirdness—it’s all contained in this continuous, 38-minute piece of music. Meant to be heard on a proper sound system rather than on headphones, The Visitor occupies the space of the room it’s played in, with what’s reportedly more than 200 different instruments moving in and out of the breathtaking instrumental composition. It’s maximalism that somehow never seems like overkill, but always evades predictability. It’s an experience more than an album. – JT

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