It’s easy to find lists of great debut albums, but personally I often prefer a band’s later records, where they stretch their wings, becoming more diverse and more comfortable in the studio. Bands’ debut albums are often the most pure, refined version of their vision, and as their careers progress, they become more interesting as they introduce new ideas to their sound.
A good case in point is Led Zeppelin – many fans love their debut, and it’s often cited as one of their strongest albums. But for me, it’s the least enjoyable of their first six records; it’s largely based around blues progressions, and it doesn’t captivate me as much as the genre-hopping on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, the band’s fifth and sixth albumsThis applies to plenty of other bands I enjoy as well – often I enjoy bands more as they get more confidence and bigger studio budgets to play with.
To test this theory, I went through the catalogues of bands where I’ve rated at least six consecutive studio albums, starting with their debut. There were 24 bands that I’ve covered on this site that meet the criteria – see the bottom of this post for a list of the groups used. I put the ratings on a spreadsheet, then averaged out the numbers for each album number. Here’s an example of a couple of bands’ ratings – the steady improvement then deterioration of Talking Heads, and the all-over-the-place journey of King Crimson.
Many bands that I enjoy didn’t even make six studio albums and weren’t eligible for the list – Pavement and The Smiths both stalled on five records, while the Velvet Underground only made four albums with Lou Reed. The definition of studio album can be a little nebulous when it comes to soundtrack work or previously released material, but for the record I included Pink Floyd’s More and The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, but excluded Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack. Please note that I don’t always review complete discographies – for example, I was so disinterested in the Talking Heads’ True Stories that I never bothered with Naked. One factor that might also throw the results is that there are some bands that I have covered on this site, but I haven’t bothered with their early albums – examples include XTC and Yes. These bands aren’t included in the graph.
Here’s what the final graph of collated scores looks like – so for example, my average rating for a band’s 4th album is 8.3.
As you can see, according to my ratings, bands peak with the fourth and fifth albums, while their next strongest are their second and third efforts. The most interesting data point to me is the dramatic drop-off in rating from the 5th album to the 6th – while I expect to see a lot of bands falter as they run out of ideas or as the members age and have their own families, the drop-off seems dramatic and may need more data for a firmer picture. I can think of examples of bands releasing a weak sixth album after their initial flurry of releases – U2’s Rattle and Hum and the Eagles’ The Long Run are good examples – other bands like The Beatles had yet to peak by the time of their sixth release. There’s also the cliche of the “sophomore slump”, of a weak second album – but it’s not borne out by this list – if anything it looks like the sophomore album is generally stronger than the debut.
The next step, and possibly a good topic for a post next week, is to go through the ratings for the same albums on a community aggregation site like RateYourMusic.com, and see how their scores compare.
Since I have the numbers in front of me, here’s a favourite album for each position from the list of bands used:
Favourite debut: R.E.M. – Murmur
Sophomore album: Wilco – Being There
Third album: The New Pornographers – Twin Cinema
Fourth album: Talking Heads – Remain In Light
Fifth album: U2 – The Joshua Tree
Sixth album: The Go-Betweens – 16 Lovers Lane
Thanks to Bruce from https://vinylconnection.com.au/, who suggested the idea for this post.
The Beatles, The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Decemberists, Eagles, Genesis, The Go-Betweens, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues (in this case, I forgot that Days of Future Passed wasn’t their debut, until after I’d run all the numbers and prepared this post, but I think it’s OK to count it as a debut as it feels like the work of a different band….), The New Pornographers, Pearl Jam, Pink Floyd, Prefab Sprout, Queen, Radiohead, Red House Painters, R.E.M., Roxy Music, Split Enz, Steely Dan, Talking Heads, U2, Wilco