Tighten up: 21 good albums that could have been great EPs

Tighten up: 21 good albums that could have been great EPs

1. R.E.M., New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996)

Following a couple of accidental blockbusters (1991's Out Of Time and 1992's Automatic For The People), R.E.M. recorded 1994's Monster, a half-joking attempt to play the part of the arena-rock band they'd suddenly become. On that album's tour, a lot of things happened: Drummer Bill Berry suffered an aneurysm, Michael Stipe had a hernia, and Mike Mills had an appendectomy. No wonder the album the group conceptualized during the tour sounded so scattered. Fragmentation made it into the lyrics, too: The refrain of "Undertow" is "I'm drowning," and "E-Bow The Letter" droned on about the pressures of fame. (It was also the album's first single, a definitive shove at the marketplace; the group's commercial tailspin begins here.) It sounds bloated and shaky, but a five-track version makes it refreshing rather than windy, and captures the tour's turbulent vibe as well as the full 65-minute album does.

The EP version: 1. "Departure"; 2. "New Test Leper"; 3. "Undertow"; 4. "Be Mine"; 5. "Electrolite"

 

 

2. Prince & the Revolution, Around The World In A Day (1985)

How do you follow up the biggest blockbuster in a year full of blockbusters? In 1984, Prince's Purple Rain outsold the year's big-biz rivals: Born In The U.S.A., Private Dancer, Like A Virgin. Naturally, he waited less than a year after pushing 10 million copies of his ultimate pop statement to drop his ode to Beatles-laced psychedelia. Around The World In A Day did respectably well, selling three million discs and spawning two hits, "Raspberry Beret" and "Pop Life." But it was a tentative step into the airier stylistic terrain Prince would explore far more confidently with his next two albums, Parade and Sign O' The Times. Not only that, but Prince left two of the best songs from the Around The World era off the album—"Hello," a response to his critics following his no-show at the "We Are The World" sessions, and the charged rocker "She's Always In My Hair"—a wrong The A.V. Club can rectify by adding it to this imagined EP.

The EP version: 1. "Hello"; 2. "Raspberry Beret"; 3. "Condition Of The Heart"; 4. "Pop Life"; 5. "She's Always In My Hair"; 6. "Temptation"

 

 

3. Guided By Voices, Universal Truths And Cycles (2002)

Most Robert Pollard releases could benefit from some editing. But on classic Guided By Voices albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, all the disparate pieces somehow fit together perfectly, with noisy 60-second "filler" tracks connecting rockin' anthems with peerless pop. Pollard tried to get back to the eccentric ebb and flow of classic GBV records with 2002's Universal Truths And Cycles, but only got half the equation right—it contains some terrific straight-ahead rockers like "Back To The Lake" and "Eureka Signs," but finding them means digging past a dozen skippable fragments. Pared down to the essentials, Universal Truths goes from being a middling full-length to perhaps GBV's best-ever EP.

The EP version: 1. "Cheyenne"; 2. "Back To The Lake"; 3. "Storm Vibrations"; 4. "Everywhere With Helicopter";  5. "Pretty Bombs"; 6. "Eureka Signs"

 

 

4. Radiohead, Amnesiac (2001)

Amnesiac was recorded at the same time as Kid A, and the first half plays like a worthy continuation of the previous album's chilly deconstruction of Radiohead's guitar-heavy stadium rock. "Pyramid Song" and "You And Whose Army?" might be the best songs to come out of the Kid A/Amnesiac sessions, and the relatively straightforward "Knives Out" has perhaps the loveliest melody in Radiohead's repertoire. "Knives Out" comes at Amnesiac's midpoint, and things drop off considerably afterward—only "Dollars & Cents" stands out among unfinished-sounding leftovers in the album's second half. Cut them out of the record, and Amnesiac becomes the classic Kid A addendum it was meant to be.

The EP version: 1. "Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box"; 2. "Pyramid Song"; 3. "You And Whose Army?"; 4. "I Might Be Wrong"; 5. "Knives Out"; 6. "Dollars & Cents"

 

 

5. Blur, 13 (1999)

In 1997, Blur shed much of its Brit-pop skin in favor of a riskier, more American indie sound. (Remember, The Strokes were still in prep school then.) Instead of bombing, though, Blur yielded the group's biggest U.S. single, the woo-hooing "Song 2," and laid the groundwork for 1999's 13. Swimming in lo-fi grit, meandering arrangements, and the doped detachment of frontman Damon Albarn, it's a challenging and mostly rewarding record. But where Blur's previous three full-lengths were solid from start to finish, 13 nods off at the steering wheel a little too often: Tracks like "Bugman" and "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." are decent, though needless, "Song 2" clones, and some of the disc's electronica flourishes and sound collages feel forced and lazy simultaneously. Trimmed of flab, though, there's a tight set amid all the gospel choirs and droning echoes. Predictably, 13's three singles—topped by the redemptive sprawl of "Tender"—are the strongest of the bunch, but "Battles" and "Trimm Trabb" add just the right hint of hazy weirdness.

The EP version: 1. "Tender"; 2. "Coffee And TV"; 3. "Battle"; 4. "Trimm Trabb"; 5. "No Distance Left To Run"

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6. David Bowie, Diamond Dogs (1974)

Even David Bowie's overweening hubris is a thing to behold—as evidenced by Diamond Dogs, a concept album that suffers and benefits from Bowie's nascent superstardom. His first full-length after the rock-'n'-roll suicide of Ziggy Stardust, Diamond Dogs also features Bowie himself bravely (and bearably) taking over lead guitar from the godlike Mick Ronson. But the disc's most daring element is its premise: Mashing George Orwell's 1984 with coke-fueled, apocalyptic paranoia, Diamond Dogs is a dazzling wreck of science-fiction weirdness and hard-edged glam. Jettison sublimely silly tracks like "Future Legend" and "1984," however, and what's left? A lean EP that revolves around towering rockers like "Diamond Dogs" and "Rebel Rebel," as well as the Lennon-esque "We Are The Dead" and the spectral "Big Brother." The resulting EP wouldn't be as rich and tenuously cohesive as the original, but it'd save some wear and tear on listeners' skip buttons.

The EP version: 1. "Diamond Dogs"; 2. "Sweet Thing"; 3. "Candidate"; 4. "Rebel Rebel"; 5. "We Are The Dead"; 6. "Big Brother"

 

 

7. Ramones, End Of The Century (1980)

From the presence of Phil Spector to the sample of radio-dial twisting that kicks it off, End Of The Century was the first Ramones album to dive headfirst into retro kitsch rather than just tapping into it. Century's shaky but solid failed attempt to court mainstream ears sounds charmingly naïve today, and Spector's slick, layered production nurtured the band's passing flirtation with acoustic guitars, horns, and keyboards. Still, the disc's eclectic electricity can't disguise the stiffness (or is that Spector-inspired terror?) evident in tracks like "I'm Affected" and "Baby, I Love You." But a little pruning turns Century from good to great: The retro anthem "Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio" and the sing-along theme from "Rock 'N' Roll High School" provide the perfect frame for "The Return Of Jackie And Judy" and "This Ain't Havana," two songs that revisit the previous Ramones favorites "Jackie Is A Punk" and "Havana Affair." And while Century's version of "Chinese Rock" pales before The Heartbreakers' original—even though the Ramones co-wrote it—the song would make the ideal centerpiece to a killer EP.

The EP version: 1. "Do You Remember Rock And Roll Radio"; 2. "Danny Says"; 3. "Chinese Rock"; 4. "The Return Of Jackie And Judy"; 5. "This Ain't Havana"; 6. "Rock 'N' Roll High School"

 

 

8. The Replacements, Don't Tell A Soul (1989)

"We ain't much to look at, so / close your eyes, here we go / We're playing at the talent show," sings Paul Westerberg's in "Talent Show," the opening track of the band's sixth album, Don't Tell A Soul. The lyric was meant to be ironic in the face of the group's growing stature, but the joke was mostly on Westerberg: While Don't Tell A Soul is an underrated batch of downbeat tunes stuffed with his effortless wordplay and wry melancholy, it's hampered by cotton-padded production and overall listlessness. The almost-anthem "We'll Inherit The Earth" would have worked better minus the Bryan Adams-sings-The Joshua Tree vibe, but the proto-alt-country of "Achin' To Be" and the classic Westerberg-ism of songs like "Back To Back" and "I'll Be You" hold enough hooks and wit to soar. That is, for about 17 minutes.

The EP version: 1. "Talent Show"; 2. "Back To Back"; 3. "Achin' To Be"; 4. "Anywhere's Better Than Here"; 5. "I'll Be You"

 

 

9. Jeff Buckley, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk (1998)

To be fair, Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk isn't really an LP, but rather the most releasable batch of material left behind after Jeff Buckley's accidental drowning in 1997. However, there is an LP in here, albeit one that Buckley himself rejected. The 10 tracks that make up disc one are Buckley's recordings with Television's Tom Verlaine as producer and the same musicians that backed him on his revered debut Grace. Disc two is mainly demo recordings Buckley made alone after he holed away in an empty house in Memphis, dissatisfied with what came out of the Verlaine sessions. By most accounts, Buckley was struggling. Had he released these five fine songs from his abandoned album as an EP, he could have abated some of the growing impatience of his fans.

The EP version: 1. "New Year's Prayer"; 2. "Vancouver"; 3. "Witches' Rave"; 4. "Nightmares By The Sea"; 5. "The Sky Is A Landfill"

 

 

10. ZZ Top, Tres Hombres (1973)

ZZ Top was among a teeming horde of blues-oriented boogie bands that roared out of scattered American bar scenes as the '60s faded into the '70s, and by the time the Texas trio reached its third album, it had begun fusing that boogie with pop, hard rock, and Tex-Mex elements, then buffing the results to a dust-resistant sheen. Still, Tres Hombres, fine as it is, isn't a total triumph. Too many rote slow-blues workouts like "Hot, Blue And Righteous" and "Precious And Grace" keep ZZ Top tangled in its own roots, and keep the album from being the raucous, desert-futurist party record it should be. Trimmed down to the rowdy anthems, and seasoned with moody vision-quest droners like "Sheik" and "Jesus Just Left Chicago," the improved Tres Hombres provides a compact dose of what ZZ Top is all about.

The EP version: 1. "Move Me On Down The Line"; 2. "Waitin' For The Bus"; 3. "Jesus Just Left Chicago"; 4. "La Grange"; "Sheik"; 6. "Beer Drinkers & Hell Raisers"

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11. Journey, Escape (1981)

For all the knocks Journey has taken for filling the airwaves with overbearing "corporate rock" throughout the late '70s and early '80s, Steve Perry and company were actually a decent singles band, capable of executing some surprisingly graceful and affecting moves with the machine-tooled behemoth that was their sound. The closest the band came to a top-to-bottom enjoyable LP was the 1981 blockbuster Escape, but even that record is clogged with a few uninspired rockers and ballads, slapped together to give the disc "balance." Pared down to hits like "Who's Crying Now" and "Open Arms," combined with prog-informed anthems like the title track, the EP version of Escape becomes less exhausting and more focused, telling a miniature story of big dreams and the romantic entanglements that screw them up. The perfect way to end the new Escape is with the song that opened the old one: the newly Sopranos-approved "Don't Stop Believin'," which encapsulates Escape's romantic heart, arena-filling scope, and dramatic desperation.

The EP version: 1. "Escape"; 2. "Stone In Love"; 3. "Who's Crying Now"; 4. "Open Arms"; 5. "Don't Stop Believin'"

 

 

12. Fishbone, Truth And Soul (1988)

Why oh why couldn't Fishbone have spent its whole career pumping out EPs? With one solid EP to its credit—1985's eponymous six-song affair—the erstwhile L.A. punk-funk combo proceeded to record muddled LP after muddled LP, overwhelming its yearly handful of terrific songs with in-jokes and homages. Even the album that's universally acknowledged as Fishbone's best, Truth And Soul, contains throwaways like "Subliminal Fascism" and "Change," which find the band reaching too hard for a substance that its less heavy-handed songs already provide. A shorter Truth And Soul—one that packs bouncy pop-oriented material like "Ma And Pa" in its first half and heavier jams like "Bonin' In The Boneyard" in its second—wouldn't be just easier to love, it would be one of the signature records of the late-'80s L.A. rock scene, distilling Fishbone's frenetic energy and cross-genre mastery into a undeniable classic

The EP version: 1. "Question Of Life"; 2. "Ma And Pa"; 3. "One Day"; 4. "Freddie's Dead"; 5. "Pouring Rain"; 6. "Bonin' In The Boneyard"

 

 

13. Bruce Springsteen, The Rising (2002)

This comeback album for Springsteen and The E Street Band doubled as a meditation on loss and spiritual renewal in the wake of 9/11, which may have been too much for one bunch of rusty rockers to take on. Over 15 tracks, The Rising has a hard time maintaining the momentum of its best songs, and even moving sketches of perseverance like "Into The Fire" and "You're Missing" lose their impact when surrounded by losers like the plodding "Countin' On A Miracle" and the icky "Let's Be Friends (Skin To Skin)." At a third of its original length, The Rising is as profound as it intends to be, holding fast to its theme of unifying truths, and the way room-filling rock music can express them.

The EP version: 1. "Lonesome Day"; 2. "Into The Fire"; 3. "You're Missing"; 4. "The Rising"; 5. "My City Of Ruins"

 

 

14. Ryan Adams, Rock N Roll (2003)

People joke about how Ryan Adams records roughly an album a day, but a lot of that prolific output stems from the fact that Adams has a lot of ideas, and wants to explore as many of them as possible. Rock N Roll was Adams' attempt to pay tribute to radio-ready early-'80s rock and compete with bands like The Strokes and Hot Hot Heat, who were converting some of those same sounds into critical buzz and decent record sales. But Adams never really came up with enough decent songs to follow through fully on a not-bad impulse. He was saving his best material for the Britpop exercise Love Is Hell, a superior record that Adams' label neglected in favor of this more tossed-off effort. Rock N Roll would've been better served at a much shorter length, and with more focus on songs like "Burning Photographs," "Wish You Were Here," and "Do Miss America," which deal with the destructive impact of fast living and intense relationships.

The EP version: 1. "Boys"; 2. "Burning Photographs"; 3. "Wish You Were Here"; 4. "She's Lost Total Control"; 5. "Do Miss America"; 6. "Rock N Roll"

 

 

15. The Flaming Lips, At War With The Mystics (2006)

Although The Flaming Lips deserve credit for trying to expand their style after two consecutive albums of similar-sounding prog-pop, the excesses of At War With The Mystics don't have the relatable simplicity of The Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and some of the record's wilder turns—like the falsetto-wracked agit-prop of "Free Radicals"—are frankly painful. Also distressing: songs like "Vein Of Stars," which sound like Soft Bulletin retreads played louder and heavier. The best songs on Mystics split the three-way difference between bombast, pop hooks, and head-trip exploration, expressing the band's frustrations with the mayhem of a post-9/11 world without beating anyone over the head. An At War With The Mystics EP might not measure up to The Soft Bulletin, but it'd be more mature and musically complex than Yoshimi, and a good launching pad for wherever the Lips want to go next.

The EP version: 1. "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song"; 2. "The Wizard Turns On…"; 3. "Mr. Ambulance Driver"; 4. "The W.A.N.D."; 5. "Pompeii Am Götterdämmerung"; 6. "Goin' On"

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16. The Verve, Urban Hymns (1997)

By the time Richard Ashcroft's heroically druggy band hit its commercial peak with 1997's Urban Hymns, it had already seen its share of critical acclaim, but it had never tasted much commercial success, something the band's knack for overdosing and breaking up on tour certainly didn't help. Enter "Bitter Sweet Symphony," which topped the charts and led to a high-profile legal row with The Rolling Stones (followed by a second breakup) that made Urban Hymns a household name, eventually leading it to be fêted as the "16th greatest British album of all time" by Q magazine. All well and good, except that between the hypnotic opener "Symphony" and the Madchester rock of "Come On" there are plenty of wanking, self-indulgent ballads (beginning with the saccharine, mood-killing "Sonnet"), middling adult-contempo rock, and go-nowhere drone experiments that no amount of E could make tolerable. "The Drugs Don't Work," indeed. Cut those out, and the remaining songs comprise a hazy swan song that doesn't detract from the stone-cold-classic opener—though it still doesn't compare to the intensity of A Northern Soul.

The EP version: 1. "Bitter Sweet Symphony"; 2. "The Rolling People"; 3. "The Drugs Don't Work"; 4. "Catching The Butterfly"; 5. "This Time"; 6. "Come On"

 

 

17. The Streets, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living (2006)

Following a masterful concept LP like A Grand Don't Come For Free would be hard for any artist, but The Streets (a.k.a. British rapper Mike Skinner) didn't win any favor with his adoring critics or fans by releasing The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, the briefest—and most slapped-together—album of his career. While getting swept up in the ins and outs of being a success is almost always a career-killer (see also: Eminem, Jay-Z's Kingdom Come), Skinner took it one step further, rapping about tired rock-star tropes and bullshit minutiae like trashing hotel rooms, buying expensive cars, and dealing with bootleg merchandisers. The whining, "this is how your sausage is made" approach comes off as just plain uninspired. (Compare the weak songs to the hilariously detailed self-satire of the title track and the mean-spirited fun of "When You Wasn't Famous" to see where Skinner should have drawn the line.) Mike: Save that inside-baseball shit for your mix-tapes and stick to cocaine, ripping on Americans, and fucking up with girls, and you'll be fine, mate.

The EP version: 1. "Prangin' Out"; 2. "War Of The Sexes"; 3. "The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living"; 4. "All Goes Out The Window"; 5. "When You Wasn't Famous"; 6. "Never Went To Church"; 7. "Two Nations"

 

 

18. Andrew W.K., I Get Wet (2002)

The easy shorthand for one-man party/rage/philosophy machine Andrew W.K. is "the guy who writes all the songs about partying." That isn't exactly true, but those are the songs—most from his debut album, I Get Wet—that still ring proudest and truest. The positivity and super-production can be overwhelming, so compacting Wet to its bare essentials makes for an incredible, quick punch. ("I Love NYC" is plenty exciting, but it all gets to be a little too much.) Add the version of "We Want Fun" from the Jackass soundtrack to the party tunes, and you've got the perfect introduction to Andrew's wild world.

The EP version: 1. "It's Time To Party"; 2. "Party Hard"; 3. "Ready To Die"; 4. "She Is Beautiful"; 5. "Party Til You Puke"; Bonus Track: "We Want Fun"

 

 

19. 50 Cent, The Massacre (2005)

Production by committee, bloated run times, and shameless demographic pandering rarely lead to tight, cohesive albums, but in the hands of an artist with 50 Cent's sneering charisma, they can lead to at least an EP worth of terrific material. Trim the abundant fat from 50's wildly uneven 2005 solo sophomore effort, The Massacre, and it leaps from high to high, from the gritty atmospherics and hood-noir vividness of "In My Hood" (with its smoky saxophone and cinematic imagery) and "I'm Supposed To Die Tonight" to the woozy horns and lopsided aggression of "Gunz Come Out." The hyper-soulful "Ski Mask Way" chills things out before the mellow autobiographical sweep of "Hate It Or Love It" ends things on an appropriately reflective note. It's all killer with no filler, unlike 50's bloated, schizophrenic proper albums.

The EP version: 1. "In My Hood"; 2. "I'm Supposed To Die Tonight"; 3. "Gunz Come Out"; 4. "Ski Mask Way"; 5. "Hate It Or Love It (G-Unit Remix)"

 

 

20. Kanye West, Graduation (2007)

Graduation represents Kanye West's shortest, most stripped-down effort to date, but the super-duper-extra-special EP version strips it down even further, preserving the terrific singles "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger" while cutting the awkward introspection (and just plain awkwardness) of "Big Brother" and "Homecoming." After the chest-beating swagger of the first two singles, the lush, intimate "Everything I Am," "Flashing Lights," and "I Wonder" maintain the original album's bipolar swings from swaggering bravado to anguished soul-searching while cutting out the ambitious misfires (Chris Martin singing the hook on a song about Chicago? WTF?), clumsy choruses, and water-treading that keep Graduation from hitting the giddy heights of West's first two albums.

The EP version: 1. "Stronger"; 2. "Can't Tell Me Nothing"; 3. "Flashing Lights"; 4. "Everything I Am"; 5. "I Wonder"

 

 

21. The Afghan Whigs, 1965 (1998)

The Afghan Whigs' failure to get huge back when Nirvana and Lollapalooza were helping bands of their ilk blow up remains a mystery, but 1965 proves that the Cincinnati-born outfit went down swinging. However, unlike the group's preceding conceptual masterpieces—1994's Gentlemen and 1996's Black Love—its swan song doesn't beg to be listened to from beginning to end. Though leader Greg Dulli has said that it's his favorite Whigs albums and believes "there's not a stinker on that record," 1965 is one of the most top-heavy releases of all time. From the ecstatic opener "Somethin' Hot" to the bump-and-grind of "Crazy" (whose opening borrows the "Who's hot, who's not?" line from "Mo Money Mo Problems") to the heavily grooved "66," the first half burns with sexuality and big choruses, all triumphantly delivered by alt-rock's sexiest motherfucker. The other half—most of which finds guitarist Rick McCollum showing up as co-writer—doesn't lose that lovin' feelin': "I knew a girl, extraordinary / suggested something, unsanitary" goes "Neglekted." But musically, it feels tacked onto what could have been a perfect EP.

The EP version: 1. "Somethin' Hot"; 2. "Crazy"; 3. "Uptown Again"; 4. "Sweet Son Of A Bitch"; 5. "66"; 6. "Citi Soleil"