According to research published last year, your average hit song clocks in at just three minutes and 30 seconds.
But despite this, patience has long been an important virtue in music. Just think about how many great tunes take their sweet time to get going, electing to gently go through the gears rather than starting full-throttle.
We’ve rounded up 15 of the best of these slow-burning bangers for your listening pleasure because, let’s face it, we’ve all got plenty of time on our hands to enjoy some slow and steady brilliance.
Death Cab For Cutie – ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’
Kicking off our slow-burning exploration is this eight-minute and 25-second offering from Ben Gibbard’s emo-indie collective, whose gradual yet insistent layer-upon-layer-upon-layer song structuring keeps the listener firmly on their toes (good luck getting that bassline out of your head, too).
It’s such an absorbing trip that it’s almost startling when Gibbard actually starts singing almost five minutes in (although the less said about his stalker-depicting lyrics the better). The Death Cab frontman once downplayed ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ as “five minutes of build and then a three-minute song”, but it still sounds pretty good to us, Ben.
Led Zeppelin – ‘Stairway to Heaven’
‘Stairway To Heaven”s world-renowned reputation as one of the greatest songs ever written naturally precedes it and, well, yeah: it really is just a slow-burning work of genius by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, isn’t it? Everyone already knows it — so let’s just kick back and listen to it for the 1001th time…
Foals – ‘Spanish Sahara’
Foals came of age in 2010 with the release of ‘Total Life Forever’, a record that was introduced to the world with the mesmerising about-turn of a lead single ‘Spanish Sahara’. Beginning with gentle guitars and Yannis Philippakis’ hushed vocals, little flourishes are gradually added in — a sprinkle of hi-hat here, twinkling synth keys there — until the full picture forms and Yannis eventually unleashes “the fury in your head“.
A decade on, the evocative gateway to the final euphoric section at the four-minute mark still manages to produce goosebumps.
LCD Soundsystem – ‘Dance Yrself Clean’
James Murphy is a bit of slow-burn songwriting champion. Numerous LCD tracks — ‘New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down’, ‘Yeah (Crass Version)’, ‘All My Friends’, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ — are designed to reward the listener’s patience, with surely the finest example being ‘This Is Happening”s ‘Dance Yrself Clean’.
Starting off so quietly that you’ll most likely find yourself turning the volume up (we’d advise against doing this if you’re wearing headphones, given what happens later), this near nine-minute creation bursts into life at the 3:00 mark with a dance party-starting snare drum fill, ushering in that synth melody, a strong serving of cowbell and Murphy pushing his vocals to the absolute limit. He told NME in 2010 that he lost his voice during recording as “it’s the highest register I’ve ever sung in”. Worth it, though.
Arctic Monkeys – ‘505’
‘A Certain Romance’, ‘That’s Where You’re Wrong’, ‘Dance Little Liar’: they’re all mighty fine slow-burning Arctic Monkeys tracks. But ‘505’ — once described by Alex Turner as “the first proper love song we’ve done… as in like, ‘Oh, it’s that one person'” — is surely in a league of its own.
Beginning with sparse organ chords — often performed live by Turner with Miles Kane filling in on guitar — the frontman coos about how he’d “probably still adore you with your hands around my neck” as the other Monkeys add their individual bits of flair. After a short pause, Turner welps “but I crumble completely when you cry” and ‘505’ bursts into a whole new life. It’s no wonder that, 12 years on from its release, it’s still a key fixture on the band’s set list.
Fleetwood Mac – ‘The Chain’
The thumping march towards ‘The Chain”s renowned instrumental outro — you’re humming that bassline now, aren’t you? — would’ve no doubt gone down as a classic Fleetwood Mac track had it been released on its own back in 1977. Thankfully, we live in a world where the two parts combined to create one of the finest moments on ‘Rumours’ — a record not exactly lacking in highlights.
David Bowie – ‘Station To Station’
The title track from David Bowie‘s 1976 album was the Thin White Duke’s longest-ever studio recording, clocking in at just over 10 minutes. Beginning with a re-creation of the clattering sound of a train which darts from right speaker to left (an effect inspired by Kraftwerk), the track eventually strides forward as various members of Bowie’s band tune up and join in the fun. What follows is a riot of invention as elements of funk, disco and pop theatrics combine in classic Bowie fashion.
Special mention, too, should go to Bowie’s ‘Slow Burn’ from his 2002 album ‘Heathen’ for its title alone.
Kendrick Lamar – ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’
Kendrick Lamar‘s stunning semi-autobiographical album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ vividly depicts the experience of growing up amid the gangs, guns and violence of Compton. Among its big crossover hits (‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’) and boastful hip-hop classics (‘Backseat Freestyle’, ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’) is ‘Good Kid…”s most breathtaking moment: the sprawling street storytelling that plays out over the 12 enthralling minutes of ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’.
Taking on multiple tragic perspectives of those who inhabit “this orphanage we call a ghetto“, Kendrick reels off affecting bars about religion, guns, demons, pyjamas, Boyz N The Hood, being “infatuated with death” and prayer — which is how ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst’ ends as the album’s troubled main characters are led in a recital of ‘The Sinner’s Prayer’.
The Horrors – ‘Sea Within A Sea’
A year before Foals gave us ‘Spanish Sahara’, The Horrors staged their very own stylistic about-turn with ‘Primary Colours’‘s lead single ‘Sea Within A Sea’. The five-piece announced their post-punk evolution with a glorious, eight-minute “Spacemen 3-meets-Neu! odyssey of ominous motorik rhythms, Faris Badwan’s mournful incantations and an expanding starfield of synths” — as NME noted back in March 2009.
Many of those who wrote off The Horrors following their 2006 emergence as Jack The Ripper-referencing garage-rockers (remember when Faris used to smear the band’s fans with black paint during gigs?) quickly came rushing back upon hearing ‘Sea Within A Sea’ — and with good reason.
Lana Del Rey – ‘Video Games’
Lana Del Rey‘s grandiose approach to songwriting first transfixed us with breakthrough single ‘Video Games’ in October 2011. A lush and assured modern pop masterpiece, the song achieves its stylistic poise not by gradually upping the pace but rather by letting its steady orchestral might pull the strings — and yet Del Rey’s arresting vocals (“I heard that you like the bad girls, honey, is that true?“) still manage to steal the show.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘East Hastings’
The experimental Canadian band don’t really conform to conventional time stamps: their four-track EP ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven’, for instance, contains two 22-minute songs and one 23-minute creation.
You certainly have to be willing to put in the time with GY!BE, but their sparse, bleak take on post-rock found its biggest-ever audience following the use of an edited version of their 1997 track ‘East Hastings’ in Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic nightmare-come-reality 28 Days Later.
The edit starts at 8:40 in the above stream, building to a frenetic climax (just imagine being chased by rage-infected zombies while listening) as guitars, strings and drums all desperately race to some imaginary songwriting finishing line. No-one really wins — but it’s an absorbing listen nonetheless.
Metallica – ‘One’
The first two minutes of ‘One’ don’t much sound like Metallica at all: smooth, soothing and melodic soft rock is the order of the day. By the four-minute mark, though, normal service has been restored: there’s Lars Ulrich’s thudding double bass drum, a more than ample use of distortion and, of course, James Hetfield’s throaty vocals taking on the persona of a gravely injured soldier during the First World War begging to be put out of their misery.
It all builds to a thrashing conclusion when Kirk Hammett first shows off his adept guitar tapping skills before then linking up with Hetfield to end proceedings in explosive fashion.
Radiohead – ‘Paranoid Android’
While ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ runs close, ‘Paranoid Android’ is our Radiohead slow-burner of choice — just for the fierce lurch into freak-out rock that the song goes into at the 5:38 mark alone.
Split into four sections, the ambitious ‘OK Computer’ track was described by Colin Greenwood as “wild and savage” in an interview with NME in 2011. “There were no rules,” the bassist recalled about the making of ‘Paranoid Android’. “The recording took a long time, but it wasn’t difficult. It was easy. It was a fun time.”
Pink Floyd – ‘Us and Them’
The longest track on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ is led by Richard Wright’s electric organ, contains not one but two saxophones solos and includes a humorous spoken-word sample from Pink Floyd‘s roadie Roger ‘The Hat’ Manifold: “Well I mean, they’re not gonna kill ya, so like, if you give ’em a quick short, sharp shock, they don’t do it again. Dig it?” We do.
The contrast between ‘Us and Them”s rolling verses and its explosive chorus remain as stirring as it no doubt was upon ‘Dark Side…”s release in 1973.
Daft Punk – ‘Giorgio by Moroder’
The best track on ‘Random Access Memories’ (sorry, ‘Fragments Of Time’) sees robotic duo Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo yield the floor to electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, who proceeds to deliver a monologue that recalls his rise from playing in German discos to writing songs with the help of his synthesizer — “the sound of the future.”
But that’s just the first two minutes: once the actual sound of a click on the 24-track stops, a dizzying synth-led section lifts proceedings before Giorgio comes back in to sagely note that “once you free your mind about a concept of harmony and of music being ‘correct’, you can do whatever you want.” A soaring string interlude then provides the briefest of breathers before everything bursts back into life – powered by some sublime drumming from John ‘JR’ Robinson – to blow out your speakers as the Giorgio-endorsed synthesizer goes into overdrive. If this is what the future sounds like, count us in.