Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose
“Gonna trade in my snakeskin boots
Gonna trade in my rhinestone suit
‘Cause I’m in cahoots with the ‘Artisans’
Who just happen to be my favourite band
At the best, all the rest are just ‘also rans’
When compared to the fabulous ‘Artisans’”
This post may piss a few of you off.
Most decent bands, and solo acts for that matter, release 2 excellent albums in their lifetime. 3 if they’re really good. Take the Big Guys out of the equation (Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, etc), analyze the remainder of your record collection and you’ll see I’m right. Your modern legends, too, take them out of the picture. Elvis Costello, for instance, released 4 perfect albums in a row. There are others as well, but my time is limited, so I’ll leave that debate to you.
Most bands ‘ramp-up’ to their masterpiece, and it’s usually the one prior or the one immediately following that comes in at a close second as the best album in their discography. Oh, just for kicks, let’s take on the Beatles. If you’re a Revolver nut, then I bet you think Rubber Soul is their second best, maybe Sgt. Pepper. If you’re a White Album fanatic, then it’s most likely Abbey Road. But hey, aside from the lackluster Let It Be and the weird hodge-podge sountrackery of Yellow Submarine, rating/ranking the boys is an exercise in futility. Even The Beatles had very few perfect albums. History has taught us to grant 5 stars to anything that has the Beatles brand on it, but let’s be realistic. There’s filler on Peppers, The White Album, Let It Be (‘natch), Mystery Tour, and everything prior to Help! Not a very popular notion, but absolutely true.
Beatles aside, most mortal bands blow their wad all at once, or get all serious, or too coked-up, or too experimental/artsy, or die after they release their Holy Grail. Some, after years (or decades) of releasing crappy records, find their way back, but by then their original fan base has usually moved on. Nick Lowe, after two phenomenal albums (Jesus Of Cool, Labour Of Lust) did it. Joe Jackson did it. Elvis Costello’s stuff, I have to admit, hasn’t really excited me since 1982. He hasn’t tarnished his reputation the way that Rod Stewart has, say, but in my opinion he’s turned out some pretty bland stuff over the years.
So what are some examples of rock and roll’s great “two-fer’s”, you ask? Oasis released Definitely Maybe and What’s The Story (Morning Glory?), then spent the next 15 years or so releasing unadulterated dog-shit. The Boo Radleys, even though I praise them constantly here, ran out of ideas after the underrated Wake Up! album (which followed the unimpeachable Giant Steps). Primal Scream, another favorite here on The Nightmare, has just Screamadelica and XTRMNTR as examples of great albums. Happy Mondays released Bummed and the great Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches. Then died by falling into a massive pile of cocaine and heroin. How about The Flaming Lips? Only The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots are really, really great, enduring classics. They released good albums before, and after, but they didn’t reach the heights of those other two. Mercury Rev only really released one classic album, the fantastically rural Wizard-Of-Oz sonic wonder that was Deserters Songs. My Morning Jacket had Z as their moment in the sun.
Moving back a couple of decades: The Smiths, although extremely prolific and a true legend, could have used an editor. Only the debut and The Queen Is Dead stand up as true masterpieces.
Paul Weller is a weird exception. With The Jam, Sound Affects remains the only real classic (although the other albums and singles make for one hell of a great compilation!). I really have no time for his Style Council days, but his first two solo albums were certainly classics. He lost his edge for a while but came back strong with the rambling experiment-in-sound that was 22 Dreams and the back-to-basics Wake Up The Nation.
How about the 70’s? Any consistency past 2 albums there? The Sex Pistols only released one, Never Mind The Bollocks. The Clash released two (The Debut and London Calling). The Cars first two records were great power pop, but they soon degraded to being a barely passable AOR band. The Ramones, another exception, released three great ones, although the second, Leave Home, is the runt of that particular litter. Lou Reed’s Transformer is perfect, but the others left me cold. David Bowie had Hunky Dory and Ziggy, and although his Berlin albums are hugely applauded I think they are a bit overrated.
What do you think?