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When Do Bands Peak?

Brian Eno Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy

It’s easy to find lists of great debut albums, but personally I often prefer band’s later records, where they stretch their wings, becoming more diverse and more comfortable in the studio. In my perception, band’s 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 – a lot of 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 albums. I realised that this 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.

some-discographies

Plenty of 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. 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.

when-bands-peak

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. While I certainly see some bands as 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.

Bands Used

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

27 thoughts on “When Do Bands Peak? Leave a comment

  1. Interesting. Very scientific of you. I find that sometimes a first album by a band is the most invigorating, especially if they’re a great “live” band, especially blues-oriented. Usually that first album is them playing their live set that – in a sense – they’ve been practicing for years. Then comes the sophomore slump where they’ve burned through everything. To your point, maybe it’s not real. I still prefer first albums by Zep and Aerosmith maybe because of the This Is Where I Came In theory. But who in their right mind would pick the Beatles’ first album over Sgt. Pepper? Anyway, never thought about it much one way or the other. I guess I always expect bands’ catalogs to have peaks and valleys. And there are very few bands where I own or have listened to a lot of their albums. Stones, Zep, Allmans, Springsteen, etc. Many of the rest I only own one or two anyway and then listen to sporadically.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great idea for a post! While I suppose one can always find exceptions and it’s subjective, intuitively, it makes sense to me that a band’s debut rarely is their best work and that their peak usually comes prior to their last record. But similar to Jim, while for most artists I like I know music from different stages in their career, it’s mostly specific songs rather than entire albums.

    In those cases where I’m well familiar with most or all of a band’s or artist’s records, my favorites fall in-between the first and the last record. Some examples: The Beatles (Sgt. Pepper), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin IV), Deep Purple (Machine Head), Steely Dan (Aja) and John Mellencamp (The Lonesome Jubilee)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Man that was a lot of work! CB applauds the effort. I guess with me I dig so much about the various releases a band or musician cuts. Most of the people I listen to have pretty good track records as far as putting out quality material. Like you I do enjoy the stretches in what they do. Zep for instance. ‘Graffiti’ and the first album are the same band playing at different times with different vibes. I enjoy both of them. But it’s hard for me to shake the initial response to music that grabs me the first time I hear it. It’s like a gut shot. It grabs my ear and moves me. Then it’s into anticipating what’s next. Some bands can maintain that for me and some i drift.

    Liked by 3 people

      • Presence is a good example of CB wanting more Zep music and not being disappointed. This is an album that keeps getting better with me. You made some good points when you reviewed it.
        (My next take is a combo of two artists that I like. Where the album fits in with their others is up to the individual. I know it’s high on my spin list)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting. I’ve never subscribed to the whole difficult second album syndrome… especially cause I like so many second albums. Thinking about bands I like / liked and those in my collection, the results are varied – some I don’t listen to beyond the first few albums, while some produced their most vital work later on… that being especially true with those artists who have long careers and a whole load of albums!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This is exceptional!
    Fabulous post – interesting to see the overall peak around 4/5, that would definitely be true for Canada’s beloved Tragically Hip.
    I’m now interested to see how the graph would look for my other favourites!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I started working on a followup post where I use ratings from rateyourmusic.com to compare, but I’ve been pretty sick this week so I haven’t finished yet (which is also why I’m replying to this post at 4am NZ time while having a snack). According to RYM, the Hip’s first 6 albums are their most highly rated, specifically their 4th.

      I’m also wondering if 24 bands is a big enough sample size, or if I should get more in the control group from RYM. Feels like it’s going to vary a little based on era – some early 1960s bands would put out a string of albums with lots of covers, and take a while to peak (Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys).

      Liked by 2 people

      • A good point about the era making a difference – did you read the 1971 book, Never a Dull Moment? There was the argument in there that the albums from that era were so good because they weren’t over-thought, have the idea, record it, move on to the next one!
        Hope you’re feeling better!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Certainly a discussion starter, this one. (And thanks for the shoutout!).

    Reckon you’d need a huge database to drawn any reliable conclusions. The RYM idea is solid, though the statistician in me want the data analysed by age as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I do think there was a different pattern in the early 1960s with bands like The Stones, Beach Boys, Beatles releasing cover heavy albums and taking a while to find their stride.

      I don’t know how many bands I’d need to put data for to get reliable results, nor how to get an unbiased sample, but there are some pretty strong trends there I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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