August 18, 2011

The five-albums test (Steven Hyden July 19, 2011, AV Club)

In practically every discussion that's taken place about pop music over the past 40 years, two rubrics have been used to assess an artist's greatness. The first is "popularity," which is the sum total of record sales, radio airplay, television appearances, social-media prominence, bedroom wall posters, and T-shirts worn by attractive high school girls and/or thirtysomething male burnouts. On this scale, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin (along with Bon Jovi and/or Iron Maiden) are the greatest bands of all time.

The second rubric is "critical respectability," which is the accumulation of positive record reviews, mentions in other bands' reviews as an important influence (often with the "-esque" modifier), and descriptions by Rolling Stone's David Fricke as "seminal" or "incendiary" in books and documentaries. Here, the greatest artists ever, again, are The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, along with The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, David Bowie (in his Berlin phase), and possibly Can or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

I'd like to humbly suggest a third rubric: the five-albums test. Here the ranks of great bands include, yes, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin ... and the MILF-serenading, one-hit-wonder Fountains of Wayne. [...]

My three favorite musical artists ever are Bob Dylan, Guided By Voices, and The Rolling Stones, and as much as I want them to pass the five-albums test, I'm not sure they deserve to. Let's look at GBV first: Everybody who cares about Robert Pollard's voluminous musical output pretty much agrees that he hit his peak with 1994's Bee Thousand, 1995's Alien Lanes, and 1996's Under The Bushes Under The Stars. In order to get to five straight records that are at least very good, we either have to include 1992's Propeller (which is great) and 1993's Vampire On Titus (which I like but it's not exactly great), or 1997's Mag Earwhig (great) and 1999's Do The Collapse (like it, not exactly great).

As for Dylan and the Stones, as much as I love almost everything they put out, if I'm thinking objectively, I don't think they pass, either. Dylan's epochal early run of '60s folk-singer records is marred by his-not-quite-not-there-yet self-titled debut and the preachy The Times They Are A-Changin', while his blazing late-'60s output falls just short with the pretty but slight Nashville Skyline. (Again, I love all of these records, but to preserve the sanctity of the five-albums test, I can't ignore their inherent weaknesses, even if I suspect that this will cause strangers on the Internet to make patronizing statements about my intelligence.)

With The Stones, there's a possible consecutive streak that begins with 1968's brilliant Beggars Banquet and ends with 1973's Goat's Head Soup. But Goat's Head Soup is really the first great "bad" Stones record, kicking off a series of great "bad" Stones records that includes 1974's It's Only Rock 'N' Roll and culminates with one of the best "bad" records ever, 1976's Black And Blue.

(Not to get sidetracked, but I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great "bad" record is: It's a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that's palpable in the music. That makes it "bad." But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this "badness" actually makes the album more fascinating--so long as the artist in question is a genius--because it provides insight into what makes the artist's "great" records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan's infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great "bad" albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams.)

I'm not saying the five-albums rubric is the superior measure of a musical artist's greatness (I'm not an idiot) nor am I saying that Dylan and the Stones don't deserve to be ranked among the greatest rockers ever. (Seriously, I'm not an idiot.) I just think that the five-albums test is an interesting lens through which to examine music history. But why five albums, instead of four or six? First of all, it's a nice round number, and nice round numbers are helpful for arbitrary (but fun!) discussions about music. Second, it just feels right, perhaps because there's a handy parallel with TV shows, which generally have to survive for five seasons in order to reach 100 episodes, which is the magic number for syndication.

Now, I realize that being widely syndicated isn't a perfect standard for TV quality--otherwise Becker would be a more important show historically than The Prisoner--and there are plenty of iconic shows that only lasted for a season or two, just as there are plenty of great bands that flamed out early but still burn bright in retrospect. You can liken the U.K. version of The Office with the Sex Pistols, Arrested Development with Nirvana, Freaks And Geeks with The La's, Deadwood with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chappelle's Show with The Notorious B.I.G., The Honeymooners with Elvis Presley's Sun period, and the pioneering first season of NYPD Blue that starred David Caruso with the original 1969-70 incarnation of Neil Young and Crazy Horse that included the late guitarist Danny Whitten. But generally, the greatest and most beloved TV shows in history--Gunsmoke, Bonanza, 60 Minutes, All In The Family, M*A*S*H, Saturday Night Live, Cheers, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, ER, The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Friday Night Lights, and so on--held it together at a high level of quality for at least five seasons.

Huh? We'll concede The Simpsons and Gunsmoke, but, revealingly, MASH was unwatchable after Henry and Trapper left at the end of Season 3 and Cheers had peaked by the time Diane dumped Frazier at the end of Season 3. Three would seem the maximum you can get out of a show (The Wire, wisely, had finished its story arc by the end of Season Three and changed to different stories), though two looks optimal (see Life on Mars and Crime Story) and Lost was essentially done after the first episode of Season Two.

As for bands, only a handful of albums have ever had more than about four decent songs and it might be that no one has ever had five consecutive with as many as four, though we could be convinced otherwise.

Posted by at August 18, 2011 11:40 AM

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