Forget about completing that discography, Getintothis’ Rick Leach argues that even your favourite artists have no more than three records worth paying for.
De La Soul were right. Three is the magic number. More than that, it’s an essential number. The only number that matters.
It’s a fact that’s slowly dawned on this writer, with years and years of listening to music, buying record after record, shelves groaning under the weight of hundreds of CDs and hard drives cluttered with thousands of mp3s.
All artists have at most, at the very most, only three good albums in them, irrespective of how long they’ve been around. It doesn’t matter if they’ve recorded 10 or 20 twenty albums or if they’ve been commercially or critically successful for a long time, then three good albums are all you can really hope for. Or expect. The rest are just filler.
This the way it goes. You might be able to listen to any one of a whole bunch of records by a particular artist yet you find yourself being drawn back to a very limited selection; usually one of three albums. This happens time and time again. And it’s always the “classic” records. You may step outside those three, but even while you’re listening to something different, you find yourself harking back and thinking “it’s ok, but not as good as…”
It’s taken us ages to realise this. But it’s true. For any artist there are only three albums worth your time. Anything else is superfluous.
Before I get deeper into this, I should explain that I’m talking about every artist. Every single one.
You can discount those who’ve only released one or two albums or those who’ve only made one great album and a bunch of dross; see The Avalanches for the former or The Sundays for the latter. In this instance we’re talking about those artists who’ve released at least five albums. They will only have three albums worth bothering with. It’s a very useful rule of thumb.
We have only picked seven artists. It’s as a fairly unscientific sample and pretty random. However, we figure that you could pick out another seven or another seventy and end up with the same results.
Here we go then…
It took the Purple One a while to release a truly great album, but when he did there was no stopping him.
Well, for three albums anyway. There might be an argument for 1999 or Purple Rain but really, 1999 is a bit long-winded, ham-fisted and, at times, naff. Purple Rain is ok, but of its time. No, the three albums where he came into his own and really hit the mark started with Parade. Then came Sign “O” the Times and The Black Album. This was the true voice of Prince and where he could do no wrong. Parade was spot on and left you wishing for more. You hoped that it wasn’t just a flash in the pan. One of those odd but great blips. It wasn’t.
If Parade was the perfect single album, then he went one step further with Sign “O” the Times. A double album that was breathtaking in scale. Every song was perfect, innovative and exciting. Starfish and Coffee could possibly count as one of the best pop songs that he ever wrote; pure pop, handclaps and a melody to die for, all the better for that and it was just sort of buried within the whole album. The title track was full of righteous and sad anger. It’s hard to think of Prince as a protest singer yet he nailed it totally. It would have been interesting if he’d carried on down that route. I could rattle through every single track on the record but I don’t really need to. It’s all good. Sign “O” the Times had that essential something that he’d been threatening to do for years.
Although The Black Album came and went in a flash (being withdrawn by Prince just before due to be released), a few copies leaked out at the time and if you were lucky enough to get hold of one in those pre-internet days you were in for a treat. (Having said that, even in this time of hyper-fast broadband, file-sharing, YouTube, Spotify et al you couldn’t readily pick Prince music up on line until his tragic death earlier this year. That’s what it took; death.)
The Black Album was a dark and heavy and very unexpected change of direction and proved how truly innovative he was at that time.
But after that (and where you might have expected it to have carried on) came the watered-down Lovesexy album. It was alright, but from the cover alone, you could just tell that the spark had gone a touch. The light had dimmed somewhat. Ever since then I waited for Prince to hit the heights of those three albums.
There wereodd tracks on every album that are good and almost (but not quite) get there. It’s as if you’re seeing glimpses and shadows of what went before. And it had us scurrying back to Parade.
The Velvet Underground
The first three albums.
That’s enough. No more. Forget Loaded, Squeeze and all the later compilations of unreleased stuff, all the expanded editions and the like. Interesting curios and all that, but far from essential. If the music was good enough at the time then it would have made it onto those three albums.
Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane from Loaded would have made a good single. A double A side. I’ll give them that.
The first album was tentative and faltering. The sound of a band understandably coming to terms with things and finding their feet.
Their hat-trick kicked in with Power, Corruption & Lies, Low Life and then Brotherhood.
Again, like Prince, they actually could do no wrong. Power, Corruption and Lies was such a sea-change from the hesitancy that was Movement it was akin to Robert Johnson heading down to the crossroads and making a pact with the Devil himself. Where had that come from? The confidence and sure-footed determination contained within those eight tracks is still staggering even now.
They really hit their stride with Low Life. Love songs and tenderness wrapped in a shell of toughness. This is not what you’d have expected from New Order, but that’s what you got. Love Vigilantes and The Perfect Kiss kicked the album off with not one, but two great songs. Two unexpected great songs. And Elegia! The most sad, and at the same time, most optimistic instrumental track imaginable. Echoes of Elgar’s Nimrod. Lump in the throat music. This was truly startling.
Brotherhood. Bizzare Love Triangle. If the rest of Brotherhood was crap then it would still be a brilliant album for that one track alone. But it wasn’t. The rest of it was breathtaking. It was if it was never going to end.
Three albums in a run and all of them giving you that special feeling where you have difficulty in believing that someone can make music that sounds so good.
But by the time they got to Technique-three years after Brotherhood– they’d left it too long and they were on the cusp of being irrelevant. Technique is the sound of a band trying slightly too hard, the sound of a band being “influenced” and the sound of a band jumping onto bandwagons.
This is invariably a bad thing. The essential creativity has gone and instead is replaced by listening too much to what is seen as cutting edge around them rather than from themselves.
After Technique, well, you needn’t really bother with anything else. And I wouldn’t be that arsed with Technique either. Even 2015’s Music Complete, despite garnering effusive reviews, was compared favourably to their earlier work and seen as a “return to form”. Kind of begs an obvious question really.
This leads us onto another factor. It’s not simply that there are three albums but they seem to happen chronologically. It’s not just a case of picking three random albums. They happen one after another and usually in a concentrated burst of activity. It’s as if this is what they’ve been waiting for, this is all they’ve got and this is all they’ve got to say of any significance. Three albums; three hours worth of music and that’s it.
Do you need another example?
Off the Wall. Thriller. Bad.
Anything solo prior to Off the Wall is largely disposable and everything after Bad is irrelevant…but… those three albums! Is there, or has there ever been since, a more perfect example of what pop music is all about? Was it a matter of Jacko hitting his stride or a fortuitous combination of great song writing and production? Was it down to more than just Jackson and having Rod Templeton and Quincy Jones an essential part of it all? Maybe it was the music that was needed at the time; the music that fitted with everything else that was going on in the wider world.
The more we think about this “three-album” thing, then the more it makes sense. It fits so many artists but we will mention only three more (because good things come in threes etc). Two of them are from fairly close to home.
Echo & The Bunnymen
I’ve never looked forward to an album being released so much and then being so disappointed with it than with Crocodiles. The dreadful cover kind of gave it away before I’d even played the record. It should have been perfect; I’d been waiting for it for ages. But instead of the fragile, tense and splintering sound that should have been there, all that I heard was a flat, overworked and frankly, obvious collection of songs. There was nothing fresh and no surprises. It was like a poor Greatest Hits compilation, yet because they hadn’t had any hits, it never even reached that low bar.
However, the rule of three kicked in with Heaven Up Here. It even had the sort of sleeve Crocodiles should have had. This was the Bunnymen album that defined them. Things got better with Porcupine; all woozy and dreamlike. It had the sort of coming out of the flu feeling. The final piece in the jigsaw was Ocean Rain. Possibly not “the greatest album ever made”, but certainly the best one the Bunnymen ever made.
But guess what?
After Ocean Rain it was all over.
The sound of rapidly diminishing returns. An irrelevant, sad and increasingly desperate hunt for a repeat of former glories. If there ever was a case for a band jacking it in after three great albums, then the Bunnymen are your men. But those three albums! They’ll do just fine.
So much has been written about the mop-tops that in this instance a Zen approach is called for here. Less is more and all that. And so…
Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Peppers. Just three albums. Forget all the box sets and complete discography nonsense.
Pre-Rubber Soul they were still shaking their Hamburg/Rock and Roll/Cavern chains off. Post-Sgt Peppers (a bit like the Bunnymen after Ocean Rain) they were a band ripping themselves apart. The White Album is overblown, overlong and a waste of time. Let it Be was a Phil Spector mess and Abbey Road is a collection of cutting room dregs cobbled together. Paul McCartney did the best thing by walking away when he did.
One last thing to hammer the point home.
This might be a bit of a tricky one. After all, Dylan’s been releasing albums since, well, forever. About 50 years or so and with not much sign of giving up. 36 studio albums. So to say that there are only three that are worth bothering with is not giving him much of a chance. I write this as a Dylan fan. Someone who has got all of his albums and has listened to them. A lot. And yet…
There are only three that consistently work and stand the test of time. All three were recorded one after another in a blaze of creativity and nothing he’s written since then has touched it. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. In the space of two years, Dylan was untouchable. Streets ahead of anyone else.
You move on past that and yes, there are some good albums and some albums with some great tracks, but nothing that works like those three. That hat-trick, that perfect triple.
I find myself listening to any of the other 33 Dylan studio albums and however much I might enjoy them or admire them, I still know in my heart that those three albums are the ones that matter most. The ones I always refer to in the “it’s good, but not as good as Blonde..or H61..or Bringing It…” I just know.
What can we do?
The sign of a great artist (as in “art” as opposed to music), is that they know when to stop. When enough is enough. When they don’t need to add another brushstroke. The trouble is, as can be seen from the serried racks of CDs in every record shop across the land, musicians just don’t know to call a halt to it all. They keep on making records. On and on and on.
The obvious and simplest solution is to make all artists stop recording the moment they’ve made three great albums. Have it written into their contracts. That’s it. No more. Times up. Go and do something else.
Wouldn’t it be good? We’d know where we stood. There’d be no prevaricating over which of the countless records to get hold of. No waiting with breathless anticipation for a “return to form” only to have our hopes dashed time and time again. We could just get the three albums, know that they would be good and be done with it.
But it’s not really going to happen, however much I dream about it. Maybe we should take matters into our own hands and de-clutter. Just keep the three best albums by any artist. Ignore the rest. Get rid of them. They’re not worth your time or effort.
Don’t buy any more than three albums by any artist. You’ll know which ones to get anyway. Start listening to new music.Start listening to different music. There’s stacks of it out there.