We were lucky enough to score tickets to PJ Harvey earlier this week at Terminal 5, and were rewarded with one of the best shows we’ve seen in ages. She played every track off her new album Let England Shake , and it got us thinking about how consistently excellent her career has been, save for a slight dip in the early 2000s. There have been plenty of artists who’ve had one or two good albums in them but found it ever more difficult to maintain that level of quality once the initial rush of ideas is gone. Artists who’ve been able to put out a string of great albums without intervening stinkers are few and far between –- so we’ve rounded up ten of our favorites. We’ve set our bar at four consecutive great albums, which rules out a surprisingly large number of artists -– it’s tough to turn out nothing but goodness over a number of years! Feel free to add your suggestions in our ever-accommodating comments section.
The excellence of Let England Shake has often been described as a return to form for PJ Harvey, and while Polly Jean’s never made a genuinely bad album, even her most ardent fans would find it difficult to argue that her 2000s output represented something of a drop-off from the groundbreaking series of albums she made during the 1990s. The primal power of Dry frightened men the world over, and that album’s coruscating atmosphere was taken to even greater extremes on Rid of Me, not least due to the presence of Steve Albini on production duties. To Bring You My Love -– Harvey’s first proper solo album, without the PJ Harvey trio -– was less intense but no less powerful, and the stately and intoxicating Is This Desire? continued a shift toward more atmospheric, less abrasive music. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was a relative disappointment -– although by no means awful -– stopping this streak at four in a row.
Sonic Youth’s early ’80s output was pretty fine in its own right, but as we discussed a couple of days back, their shift to SST Records coincided with the start of a purple patch that lasted for six fertile years. The streak began with EVOL, home to the epic “Expressway to Yr Skull” and kicked into full swing with 1987’s Sister. The crowning achievement was Daydream Nation, the remarkable 1988 double-album that in our opinion still represents the apogee of the band’s career. There was also The Whitey Album, recorded in 1988 under the tongue-in-cheek moniker Ciccone Youth, and the band’s grunge period, which produced two fine records in Goo and Dirty, as well as some of the band’s most well-known singles, including “Kool Thing” and “Dirty Boots.” The streak was finally broken in 1994 by the relatively mediocre Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, although the band quickly made up for it a year later with Washing Machine.
Actually, we could just write “Brian Eno, 1970-1980” here to save us typing out his entire discography. Eno’s 1970s were an astonishingly creative period, even by the standards of a man who’s been pushing the sonic envelope for over four decades. As well as his trio of solo albums –-Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Another Green World –- he made two beautiful albums of instrumental guitar music with Robert Fripp (No Pussyfooting and Evening Star), collaborated with Cluster on 1977’s Cluster & Eno, produced records by John Cale, Nico, and David Bowie (another who had a great run during the ’70s), and also invented ambient music with Discreet Music. And this is all after his work with Roxy Music. Ye gods.
While we’re on the Eno front, he was also a key contributor to the series of fantastic records released at the start of Talking Heads’ career, handling production duties on More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light and also collaborating with David Byrne on the wonderful 1981 album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. There’s rarely been a more assured start to a career than this: five classic records in the space of six years, a sound that stretched from CBGB’s to the singles charts, encompassing everything from post-punk to African-influenced polyrhythms and sample loops. Even the lesser albums that followed Speaking in Tongues were pretty darn good, but for the first glorious phase of their career, Talking Heads were untouchable.
You could argue that we’re cheating a bit here by including Come On Pilgrim, but we do think it qualifies as an album -– it has eight tracks and runs for nearly as long as the first Ramones album, so it’s more a mini-album than an EP. And anyway, enough quibbling over designations -– what’s not in doubt here is that the Pixies barely recorded a bad song between 1987 and 1990, let alone a bad album. Even the serially underrated Bossanova is pretty much all killer, no filler. It wasn’t until 1991’s final album Trompe Le Monde that the cracks started to show, and even that included some of the band’s best songs (“Alec Eiffel,” “Letter to Memphis,” “Subbacultcha”). We kind of hope they don’t record anything new, because it’ll be very, very difficult to get anywhere near the standards they set themselves in the first part of their career.
In today’s (relatively) enlightened climate, it’s easy to forget what an impact Public Enemy had when they first bum rushed the show in 1987. A group of angry, fiercely literate black men, railing against what they saw as the continued oppression of the African-American community, backed by several heavy-set met in military uniforms and a gold-toothed lunatic with a clock around his neck — the PMRC and conservative talk show hosts took one look at them and nearly had a collective fit. As well as one of the most controversial groups of the late ‘80s, Public Enemy were one of the best, barely misstepping through four albums that married The Bomb Squad’s innovative productions to Chuck D’s politically charged lyricism, with occasional comic relief from Flavor Flav.
There are musicians out there who just seem unfairly talented, and none more so than Prince Rogers Nelson. These days, unfortunately, he’s prone to releasing pretty much everything he records, putting his songs out on labyrinthine albums with strangely spelled titles and no semblance of quality control. Even then, there’s plenty of goodness to be had, but still, it’s worth remembering just how flawless his early-‘80s output was. Combining a pop sensibility with jaw-dropping musicianship and a decidedly randy lyrical streak, Prince created classic after classic, hit after hit, proving the worlds of chart music and musical innovation don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Tom Waits’s great creative rebirth catalyzed a string of gravel-voiced classics, starting with Swordfishtrombones and finishing with Bone Machine nearly ten years later. This streak is particularly interesting because many artists have their purple patches at the start of their careers, whereas Waits had been kicking round as a sort of Bukowskian barroom balladeer for over a decade before Swordfishtrombones. Throughout the ’70s, he made a series of albums that were perfectly competent without ever approaching the sort of unconstrained creative freedom that seemed to suddenly possess him in his mid-30s. Nearly three decades later, he’s still making strange, crazy music that sounds like absolutely no one else.
The Rolling Stones
With the amount of hoo-ha last year over the Exile on Main Street reissue, you’d think it was the greatest thing that anyone had ever recorded, ever. It’s not -– but it is a most excellent record that represented the peak of the purple patch the Stones hit as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. Moving away from the ill-advised flirtation with psychedelia of Their Satanic Majesties Request, they recorded a string of great albums over the years 1968-1972, before slowly winding down throughout the rest of the 1970s and evolving into the slowly dessicating tour monsters we know them as today.
If there were an award for Best Female Solo Artist of the 1990s, Björk would be PJ Harvey’s great rival for the gong. She announced her post-Sugarcubes career to the world with the appropriately-named Debut, hooking up with Massive Attack producer Nellee Hooper to create a sound that was distinctive and unique, both musically innovative and commercially appealing. Post built on Debut’s ideas and also cemented Björk’s status as a commercial force, breaking into the US Top 30 and hitting #2 in the UK. Homogenic famously got a 9.9 from Pitchfork supremo Ryan Schreiber, but our favorite is the gorgeously lush Vespertine, which amongst other things contains “Pagan Poetry,” the song with that video. You could argue for Medúlla continuing the streak, but either way, these four albums constitute a remarkable body of work.