December 28, 2010

First Four Albums

Which rock musician/band has had the most remarkable career-beginning string of four albums, taking into consideration the quality of writing and playing, evolution of musical styles, and simple "wow" factor?

My answer has long been Talking Heads: starting with the crisp, angular new wave of '77, moving onto a broader palette of sounds with More Songs About Buildings And Food, to the post-punk, disco and darker sonic sounds of Fear Of Music, and reaching their peak with the African polyrhythms and samples and loops of Remain In Light.

I have been on a bit of a Clash kick lately -- the 30th anniversary of Sandinista! was two weeks ago -- and have been thinking their first four albums -- The Clash, Give 'Em Enough Rope, London Calling, and Sandinista! (which actually show a very similar pattern of growth and expansion to Talking Heads) -- might rightfully belong in the top spot. The Clash also have a massive edge in sheer quantity of songs: they followed a double album with a triple album in less than one year's time!

Some live stuff:


kokaku said...

Not quite his first four albums, since he started with Genesis, but Peter Gabriel - Car (Solsbury Hill, Here Comes the Flood), Scratch (On the Air), Melt (Games Without Frontiers, Biko), Security (Shock the Monkey, I Have the Touch)

Jere said...

Nirvana boy here to make my predictable case for Kurt Cobain. Starting out with Bleach, the album notorious for being made for about 600 bucks: I just got the 20th anniversary remaster and it's sounding as heavy and dirgey as ever, but with those hints of pop sensibility that go beyond just "About a Girl." Between bouts of outright wailing, you can hear some of the voice lots of people would come to appreciate later.

Then you've got the breakthrough Nevermind. Now granted I was only 16 years old when it came out, but when I bought it, I was shocked that an album could consist entirely of good songs. Up to that point I'd bought albums (meaning cassette tapes) for one song. I'd wonder what the hell all the other songs were for. But the Nirvana tape, I'd almost never fast forward or rewind. It would just play in a loop in my car. Vig produced the shit out of that album, but so what? Good songs are good songs. It really did change the face of pop music--suddenly the wussiest of slow songs had a driving guitar in the background.

In Utero was much anticipated, and it delivered. It seemed like it had much more to discover than Nevermind. Kurt was still filling songs with desperate screaming, while sounding like an angelic lullaby in other tunes.

This is where Kurt dies, so the streak ends at 3, however, I could mention the collection Incesticide, which came out after Nevermind, and I think embodies the full scope of Cobain. But it would be more logical to consider the Unplugged in New York performance as the "fourth album." Stripped of all the distortion, you could hear Kurt's voice at the forefront, and you realize how much he could do and how he could have taken his career anywhere he wanted. He was even making obscure Meat Puppets songs sound like masterpieces.

I think this fits the criteria--listen to one of the heavy tracks on Bleach and then one of the Unplugged tracks to see the evolution of style, and the whole Unplugged album shows the quality of writing. "Playing," technically speaking, isn't really spectacular, but when considering he played his guitar like a drum (Novoselic's words), nobody's really done it better since. The guy himself would tell you how much he ripped off the Pixies, 70s rock, and original punk rock, but I think he did the best job of taking all that in and spitting out something that captured the essence of it all. The timing of it all was pretty perfect, too.

allan said...

I would consider Elvis Costello (Aim to Get Happy), but his stuff was too much the same (though fucking great!!!). Springsteen traveled a long way from Greetings to Darkness, but I don't much like the first album at all.

James said...

I'm going abroad for my submission: Gilberto Gil!

Here is a list of his first six albums:

1967: Louvação
1968: [self-titled] (with Os Mutantes)
1968: Tropicalia ou Panis et Circensis (with Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Os Mutantes)
1969: [second self-titled album] (Cérebro Eletrônico)
1971: [third self-titled album] (Nêga)
1972: Expresso 2222

I still find it hard to believe he cranked out these beauties at the beginning of his career. They are amazing examples of Tropicalia, and still stand up. Definitely worth a listen.

Check out the songs "Roda," "Domingo No Parque," "One O'Clock Last Morning, 20th April 1970," and "Expresso 2222" if you want to get into him. I feel like an evangelical with his music - I want everyone to listen.

James said...

The Velvet Underground and Outkast jump to mind. You could make a case about Archie Shepp, though his discography is full of live stuff and stuff that's been rebranded as an Archie Shepp release in the years after he became more of a presence. But Four For Trane/Fire Music/On This Night/The Magic of Ju-Ju is a pretty fantastic and diverse progression.

allan said...

Non-rock people, I would have no idea about.

I played Sandinista while cleaning the house yesterday and was thinking that a 2-LP version of that sprawling monster might have rivaled London Calling for awesomeness. I had not played it in many years and there is some amazing stuff on there.

Ryan said...

Tough question, this. I lean towards the Velvet Underground, though both of your choices are certainly valid. All four Velvets albums are essentially perfect, and they show growth and maturity across the four. I'd like to echo Elvis Costello as well. There is also something to be said for the numbered albums of Led Zep.

By the way, if this question was for, say, six albums, I would lean towards Dylan

nick said...

Gilberto Gil, VU, Outkast, and Archie Shepp. Who is this James fellow?

Dunno if it could withstand all challenges, but the first band that came to mind was ZZ Top.

Run-DMC kept moving straight up through their first 3 LPs. The 4th isn't quite in that league, but has a few decent tracks on it--enough to merit a nod here.

Leads me to thinking of the Beastie Boys. Bolting out with License to Ill, the groundbreaking Paul's Boutique (though that owes as much to the Dust Brothers as anything), followed by the funky Check Your Head and then Ill Communication. Heck, they beat out ZZ Top and Run-DMC for sure.

allan said...

Good to hear Nick weigh in. (Where is efd?)

The Beastie Boys is a good pick, but I don't see enough of a range of styles (and mastery thereof).

REM deserves consideration, with Murmur, Reckoning, Fables Of The Reconstruction, and Lifes Rich Pageant. (But do we count the Chronic Town EP?)

James said...

There seem to be 2 James. I only recommended Gilberto Gil - who has HUGE rock DNA in his music. That's what made Tropicalia so popular - it was essentially a fusion of samba and rock.

Patrick said...

They Might Be Giants kicked off their long musical career with 4 gems in their self titled, Lincoln, Flood, and Apollo 18.

Lots of hits between the 4.

nick said...

I'd say musically the Beastie Boys had a fair range over those four albums as well as lyrical development to some degree.

As long as Led Zeppelin is getting mentioned, I'll throw out Pink Floyd--I don't know what their proper 4th album is, though.

I'd put in a push for Can who put out Monster Movie, Soundtracks, Tago Mago, and Ege Bamyasi from '69 to '72. Yowsa!


How 'bout the Holy Modal Rounders? 2 albums of the great Anthology songbook with keening oddities already hinted at, flipping the gonzo switch with Indian War Whoop, and flat flipping out on The Mooray Eels eat...

wardo said...

I'm a big fan of the "first four" concept. Once upon a time, you could have a band's/person's first four albums on two Maxell 90-minute tapes, and be able to kill three hours on a car ride. (Then you've got the First Two, where someone's work is neatly contained on one Maxell, like Jane's Addiction.)

Anyway, a couple of favorites with good First Fours that haven't been mentioned yet are Dire Straits, REM, Joni Mitchell and Brian Eno. And you can read all about them on my blog!

R said...

As I read through the comments looking for REM, I'm glad to see them mentioned. We ignore Chronic Town because it's an EP. The band's first 4 albums, Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Life's Rich Pageant are thier best work, and wonderful. I'm a tremendous Clash fan, but I feel, looking at the first 4, REM's and the Velvet Underground's work exceeds the Clash's. London Calling may be better than anything REM or the Velvets ever did, but looking at the first 4 albums as a whole I'd put the Clash behind. Just my opinion. I appreciate the argument for Nirvana, but imho Bleach and In Utero are not quite strong enough to put the band at the top.

And, damn, those first four Led Zeppelin albums were awesome. We would be remiss if we didn't mention the first 4 Beatles albums. Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, and Beatles for Sale are outstanding and filled with #1 hits, though the band went on to greater things subsequently.

While not as popular as the bands above, Wilco's first 4 are very solid albums: A.M., Being There, Summerteeth, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Same is true for Uncle Tupelo.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

Gilberto Gil is a good choice, IMO. Talking Heads, REM, Clash, all fit. Los Lobos.

I was going to name Elvis Costello, but Allan has a point about the early albums - although great - being much the same sound.

I can't see my idol Joni Mitchell being part of the discussion, as her earliest albums were much the same as what many other female singer-songwriters were doing. Four consecutive albums from almost any point in her career, yes - but on the first two, her innovations hadn't started yet.

Velvet Underground, although hugely influential, basically did one thing very well, no? Did they do a lot of different things - four albums' worth?

I love Wilco, but I don't see them as innovative at all. Great solid rootsy-country-ish rock, some of which I really love, but no new ground broken.

First four is tough. There are many great "first two", but sustaining it is often the problem.

allan said...

Considering different styles throws a wrench into the discussion, I think. If you consider only quality, then someone like Costello would rate higher for me.

(Looking at the Stones, it took to LP #4 for them to really start writing their own stuff. Aftermath was #4 in the UK, but #6 in the US.)

Either way, of course, everyone's personal preferences re musical styles complicates things. I have serious problems with Gabriel, Nirvana, VU, Zep. (Plus, I am only looking at rock.) Your mileage will absolutely vary.

Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, and Life's Rich Pageant are thier best work

No question. However, unlike Costello (for whom you could send everything he did after Get Happy (or Taking Liberties*) into outer space, and I'd be fine), I need scattered post-'86 REM (plus the whole New Adventures album).

*: Not a proper album, per se. Only old farts will know this one, since all that stuff has been tacked onto CD reissues.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

Stones can't count in first four, and IMO Beatles don't even warrant a mention.

Ryan said...

You know, I am not a huge Pablo Honey fan, but I think we could throw Radiohead into this conversation. The Bends and Kid A are both amazing albums, and OK Computer may be the best album in 20 years, both in terms of songs and progression as a single piece.

James said...

Agree with you about Elvis Costello except his latest album. National Ransom is a masterpiece. T-Bone Burnett must have waved his magic wand.

allan said...

L and I were talking about this tonight. She is sticking with TH.

I wondered about the opposite - bands that went from good/great to horrible/shitty over their first 4 albums. ... The Cars?

Roone said...

hollywood town hall. by the Jayhawks.

every song awesome and one of the best production values ever.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

hollywood town hall. by the Jayhawks.

I like this album a lot, but did you read the post?

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

I wondered about the opposite - bands that went from good/great to horrible/shitty over their first 4 albums.

I'm thinking "first to worst" kind of thing - great debut, seemingly lots of potential, then a hugely disappointing second album.

Steve Forbert came to mind. The Cars is a good example, too.

My rock references are old because I lost interest in new rock (or, could no longer find rock that did anything for me) and started exploring classic jazz about 10 years ago.

R said...

I wondered about the opposite - bands that went from good/great to horrible/shitty over their first 4 albums.

The list of bands/performers that fit this category is extremely long. Many times, a first album represents a life's work and there's not much else there.

laura k (aka L-girl) said...

Many times, a first album represents a life's work and there's not much else there.

I frequently say the same thing. But sometimes after the pressure of having to produce the second album, the band finds their voice again and carries on. Many fit that pattern, too.

MacLeodCartoons said...

BTW the BBC's 'Old Grey Whistle Test' is one of the all-time greatest rock n roll TV shows, no? That old footage of fellow-Scot David Byrne before the big baggy suit is hilarious!

Zenslinger said...

I am a serious Peter Gabriel fan and appreciate his first two albums, but ultimately bow to the conventional wisdom that he did not hit his stride until his 3rd (and believe he would agree.

It may or may not be related that many "prog" bands like Yes and Genesis needed until their third album to break out -- in those days record companies apparently offered those kinds of honeymoons.


Zenslinger said...

Though I'm not a huge fan, I don't think you can take anything away from Zep on terms of starting on top.

The band I haven't heard of is The Police. Their fifth album was Synchronicity -- not their best. 2nd and 4th are masterpieces, and their 1st and 3rd were pretty strong. They weren't youngsters just learning when they began.