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Small but perfectly formed: a love letter to the EP, the unsung hero format of the music world

An album is about who an artist is; an EP is about who they want to be

No-one calls albums “LPs” any more, do they? Except your dad, maybe, when he remembers romancing your mum to all 10 saucy tracks from Rod Stewart’s magnum-oh-god-no-pus ‘Blondes Have More Fun’ back in 1978. Even the ugly term “vinyls” is now more socially acceptable than calling a record an LP, presumably as you slip on a burgundy roll-neck and puff contemplatively on your wooden pipe.

Yet the term ‘EP’ has remained in common parlance – and we’ve had some bangers this year alone, from Brighton wonk-pop purveyors’ Squid’s ‘Town Centre’ EP to the return of rap titan Missy Elliot, whose ‘Iconology’ EP served as a reminder of her boundary breaking approach to hip-hop. In the streaming age, when albums often come stuffed with as many tracks as possible, artists spreading their bets on the maximum number of different playlists, it seems more important than ever to celebrate the short-form record.

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So it’s cheering that Foo Fighters, themselves no strangers to a sprawling track length, having steamrollered out the double album ‘In Your Honor’ in 2005, continue to return to the format.

Dave and the gang surprise-released the four-track ‘01020225’ over the weekend, providing a fine example of an EP’s strength. It can be a great place to gather brilliant material that never found a home elsewhere (beloved B-sides ‘The One’ and ‘Win Or Lose’ are nestled in the tracklist) and to explore an artist’s more esoteric leanings. For the Foos, that means a cover of camp punk heroes’ The B -52s‘ ‘Planet Claire’ and a rendition of new wave legends The Psychedelic Furs’ ‘Sister Europe’.

The EP format first emerged in the late 1940s and, though it proved more popular over here than in the US, didn’t massively catch on, given that music fans on both sides of the Atlantic coveted hit singles over collections of songs that might not be as immediately exciting. It was in 1970s that punk (probably not having brushed its teeth first) breathed new life into a form that was cheap to produce, compared with a full-length record, but still offered room to convey a worldview and sense of identity.

Some great EPs from the ‘70s punk era: Buzzcocks’ self-funded ‘Spiral Scratch’ (1977), The Clash’s buoyant ‘Cost Of Living’ (1979) and – before their move into doomy post-punk – Joy Division’s spit-and-sawdust ’An Ideal For Living’ (1978). All are joyful and breathless records, giddy sprints into the unknown.

For the Buzzcocks’ and Joy Division, the EP offered an opportunity to create a short, sharp sonic explosion that would force the world to sit up and take notice. The Clash had already arrived fully formed in 1977 with their instant classic self-titled debut, and the truncated follow-up indicates another strength of the format: its potential to make space for atypical material. ‘Cost Of Living’ featured the band’s unlikely cover of The Bobby Fuller Four’s ‘60s hit ‘I Fought The Law’, which you might have heard once or twice.

Herein lies the strength of the small but perfectly formed EP. It’s a place for experimentalism and making a statement. One of my favourite bands, Modest Mouse, spent much of the ‘90s releasing EPs that were arguably even better than the albums that came between them. See 1996’s sparse ‘Interstate 8’ and 1999’s oddball acoustic collection ‘Night On The Sun’ (which paved the way for the mellow 2000 album ‘The Moon & Antarctica’). These are perfect examples of the format, having given the band room to explore sounds outside the constraints of a full-length record that would be considered a career-marker. An album is about who an artist is; an EP is about who they want to be.

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In fact, the format has made something of a resurgence in recent years, offering a wide variety of musicians the chance to flex their creative muscles without committing to a career-defining album. Noel Gallagher is putting out three wildly eclectic short records this year (two have been released already) and bright young thing Yungblud’s ‘The Underrated Youth’ is due later this week.

Kanye West – usually a divining rod for the zeitgeist – spent much of 2018 producing seven-track records that would traditionally be considered EPs: Nas’ lithe ‘Nasir’, Pusha T’s brooding ‘Daytona’ and his own scattered ‘ye’. The Nas record repositioned the trailblazing ‘90s rapper as accessible in the modern age, while the Pusha EP offered a textbook definition of attention to detail. ‘Ye’, meanwhile, offered Kanye a place to regroup and address what he understatedly referred to as “a shaky ass year”.

It might have taken some time to catch on, but there’s plenty of life left in the experimental and eclectic EP, the unsung hero of music. The EP represents a break from an established sound, an opportunity to roam unchartered terrain. It receives less love than the album and it’s less epochal than the single. It’s the weirdo in the corner, doing its own fascinating thing.

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