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See Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish

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If this story were a hard-boiled detective novel, the title might be The Case of the Mysteriously Shrinking Album.

Over the last few weeks, both Beyoncé and Taylor Swift unveiled projects that seemed to include every piece of music they had ever recorded for their respective albums: Cowboy Carter stretched out to 27 tracks, the complete version of The Tortured Poets Department to 31. But while critics and some fans grapple with that overload of material, another diametrically opposed trend is shaping up. For some modern pop artists, and a few veterans, nothing beats an album that can be digested during lunch hour.

Dua Lipa’s new Radical Optimism, the latest example, clocks in at 11 songs and joins a list of relatively concise recent releases: Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts (12 songs), Maggie Rogers’ Don’t Forget Me (10), 4batz’s debut u made me st4r (11), veteran Sheryl Crow’s Evolution (10), and even country songwriter Tyler Childers’ Rustin’ in the Rain (7). Billie Eilish’s upcoming Hit Me Hard and Soft, out next week, will be limited to 10 new tracks, while the new record by the Avett Brothers tops out at nine. One could easily listen to three of those in the same amount of time it would take to digest most of The Tortured Poets Department.

Of course, most classic albums from the Sixties through the Eighties stuck to those lengths because of the limitations of the LP format. To this day, record executives cite Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going on (nine songs each) as examples of perfect records that didn’t overstay their welcomes. Those restrictions flew out the studio window when the compact disc arrived in the Eighties. With running times that could extend to 80 minutes — twice the length of a typical vinyl album — the CD allowed artists to jam as many songs as they wanted onto a new album. If said artists wrote or co-wrote their own material, it could also result in a windfall of publishing income, which only encouraged self-indulgence. And in the streaming era, the more songs there are for fans to stream, the better an artist’s chart placement and revenue.

So, why are albums suddenly drawing the short end of a stick? The trend could have something to do with the ongoing revival of the LP, a physical format that generally can’t hold more than a half dozen or more songs per side; last year, 43 million LPs were sold, up 14 percent from the year before.

Joe Kentish, the Warner Brothers U.K. head who has been Dua Lipa’s A&R executive since her first album, says he and Dua always aim for a tighter statement, from her 12-song debut up to Radical Optimism. “With this album, she felt like she was there, conceptually and musically, really in the pocket,” he says. “She only wanted to have the songs she felt made a great record.”

Retaining listeners’ attention — with so many other distractions vying for time — may also be playing into the trend, according to one senior major-label A&R executive. “For this generation, the album experience is much different,” the executive says. “In the past you’d put on Dark Side of the Moon, turn off the lights and listen. It was an immersive experience. Now albums are just one part of their menu.”

Kentish agrees that more succinct albums are a way of combatting the behavior of some music listeners to bounce around streaming services, from one artist or album to another. “When you put music on a streaming service, there’s a lower chance they’ll be listening to it in that order,” he says. “In that environment, it makes people want shorter records. You’re trying to keep people’s attention. You own the environment of what someone is listening to, to some extent.”

The other label executive thinks that the ease with which new music can be recorded and released is also a factor: Dua Lipa and Rodrigo, for instance, rolled out expanded editions of Future Nostalgia and Guts, respectively, with additional songs. “Everyone is recording a lot of music, and they’re not calling a 10-song album ‘chapter 1,’ but it probably is,” says the executive. “You think it’s the whole meal but there’s another entrée after that. I don’t know if that’s cynical, but it’s the reality.”

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The move comes with some risks. When Guts arrived last summer, some Rodrigo fans, accustomed to long records, groused online about how supposedly little they were getting: “They really be calling anything an ‘album’ nowadays,” wrote one. “So, basically an EP,” posted another.

But fans may simply have to adjust. “There’s a real desire to keep creative consistency and only have the best songs,” says Kentish. “As they say, ‘All killer, no filler.’”

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