When you think about it, there are very few notable songs that are less than two minutes long. It’s just not done very much in modern music. So much of music is about repetition, about building themes and expanding on them, or emphasizing them. Less than two minutes isn’t enough time to go verse chorus verse chorus bridge verse chorus chorus.
But less than two minutes is still enough to hook you, with the right song. Here are 18 tracks that weigh in at under two minutes, yet are pretty hefty in their own right.
1. Tea For The Tillerman / Cat Stevens / 1:02
I’m guessing there’s an age line for people who know this song from the Cat Stevens album and people who know it from the credits to Extras. I’m one of the latter. What I love about this song is that even with how short it is, it still has a great buildup. That opening piano riff sets the tone, and when the somewhat solemn little ditty evolves into stride piano and then the choir kicks in to cap it off, it makes it seem like a complete statement even though it’s just 1 minute long.
2. Vincent of Jersey / Big Head Todd and the Monsters / 1:13
Here’s something that feels like more of a random thought. It still paints a pretty evocative picture, but it’s a still picture. It’s a short “slice of life” peek into a character. The fact that it’s a solitary guitar, a bit meandering and arrhythmic, really reenforces this tone. Of course, the sentiment of the last few lines is something that can hit you pretty hard, too, if you happen to be in a bit of a blue mood.
3. The Next Time You Say “Forever” / Neko Case / 1:45
I mean, it’s Neko Case, right? I’m sure it means something. I always get a kick out of the line, “The next time you say forever, I will punch you in your face.” I’m a big fan of the end, too. The chord progression of those last two lines really gives it an ominous kick.
4. Prelude / Bonobo / 1:18
For something called “Prelude,” this stands on its own really well. It’s hard not to get swept away in those strings and gentle piano riffs.
5. Victory Rag / Doc Watson / 1:46
One of my all-time favorite guitar licks. A cheerful little ditty that hides some cool technical sophistication. It’s nice, because you can casually listen to this and it’s pleasant, but the more you focus, the more you appreciate its nuance.
6. Mystery Dance / Elvis Costello / 1:36
This song packs a great punch for a minute-thirty. I’m not sure exactly why I flashed to this, but it could easily be a replacement for “Johnny B. Goode” if they ever remake Back to the Future. Most of the time I like Costello’s more somber songs (“Deep Dark Truthful Mirror ” is an all-time favorite), but this one I always come back to for a fun little jaunt.
7. Cheap Day Return / Jethro Tull / 1:23
A John Stewart special, who drew my attention to the sublime stutter-step Tull pulls off on the line “the way she sh-should.” It’s amazing how catchy this song is for being so short. It also actually builds a theme and then plays with it, and has a real conclusion. It’s basically like if you condensed a Yes song into 90 seconds.
8. Last Year / Akron/Family / 1:40
I like simple songs, but that are simple in an interesting way. Repeating one line over and over shouldn’t work, but it does. Somehow.
9. Dygnet Runt / Detektivbyran / 1:05
Now here’s a strange one. Probably the most simple song yet. This isn’t trying to build any themes or do anything beyond one single thought, but it’s basically a lullaby, so no problems there. It’s beautiful like a music box, and about as precise.
10. The 59th Street Bridge Song / Simon and Garfunkel / 1:50
I’m sorry, I like this song. WHAT? WHAT? YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? I like other, better things, too. Whatever. This song is absurd. I like how they just give up on the idea of lyrics halfway through and start making noises. I can’t really defend why I like this, but I do. It’s also simple enough that two average-ish musicians can reproduce it in about 10 minutes and it sounds passable, which is a bonus.
11. Tame / The Pixies / 1:56
Because it’s kind of a microcosm of why the Pixies are awesome. You don’t want to access this mental space at all times, but when you do, it’s hard to top a good Pixies song to do it. In true Pixies fashion, it always seems 2 steps away from dissolving into pure noise, but never does.
12. I’m Still Here / Tom Waits / 1:49
One of the most sad/beautiful songs ever, in my opinion. No one does “evocatively broken” like Waits. No one. I wrote a whole 10-minute play just to work towards an ending where I had a character who’d just been dumped play a few lines of this at a piano as the lights faded, and I have to say, it worked pretty damn well. The ending just destroys me. The way the chords are set up (most of the song is anticipatory, leaving you hanging, but the end is firmly a resolution) makes it walk the line between optimistic and just pure heartbreak. I love this song. Love it.
13. Lady of Rome, Sister of Brazil / Al Di Meola / 1:46
I’ve listened to this song, according to iTunes, more than any other song I have, and over 100 times. It does something pretty amazing. It tells a story without words. That moment at :45 where the meandering, wandering guitar finally breaks into rhythm just totally melts me every time. I get the biggest smile. My only quibble is that it fades out; I’ve always thought that was kind of a bullshit way to end a song.
14. Song for George / Eric Johnson / 1:50
Kinda reminds me of a Stephen Stills lick, in a good way. Just an incredibly skilled guitarist taking a musical thought and polishing it up.
15. HC / Plants and Animals / 0:52 (!)
Though it’s the shortest at less than 60 seconds, this one might be the best of the lot. I’m blown away by this song, and how it manages to do so much with so little. 3 freakin’ lines. Short lines. And yet so evocative. Might not quick pack the emotional punch of Hemingway’s famous six-word short story, but it’s damn close. The instrumental backing is just perfect as well.
16. Fugue from Prelude/Fugue No. 20 in A minor, BWV, 889 / Bela Fleck & The Flecktones / 1:51
Because the things these guys can get their instruments to do are pretty amazing.
17. Comrade’s Twenty-Sixth / Beulah / 1:54
At just under 2 minutes, this one feels like a full-length song. The thing I’m drawn to is that brass lick that repeats throughout the 2nd half. It has such a good buildup as the song drives to the end.
18. The Gold Finch and the Red Oak Tree / Ted Leo / 1:54