This is something I’ve been thinking about, inspired by Munch’s thoughtful piece of a few weeks ago. Call it the bell curve of rock and roll. That is, rock and pop as we know it has been around about 50 years now. And I’d argue that its quality breaks down across a pretty recognizable arc of standard deviations.
Let’s just accept the usual five-star rating system used by Rolling Stone/All Music/etc. What’s interesting isn’t the vast majority of discs that fall in the middle, around three stars. What is interesting is who lives out way out on the thinnest part of the curve–the truly terrible discs (we’re talking Pat Boone and Shatner territory) and the truly great.
So think about this: how many actual, no-argument, five-star albums can you think of? Albums where you wouldn’t change a thing, that were absolutely perfect for their moment in time.
I’m admittedly venturing far, far into subjective/opinion territory here, but in trying to make it as objective as possible, I think there are some general characteristics that five-star discs display. First, they’re usually not niche. Their very greatness transcends genre, and even taste to a degree. That is, if you’re not a reggae fan, you can still probably agree that Bob Marley’s Burnin’ is a five-star effort. Ditto with jazz and Kind of Blue. Secondly, they’re rarely debut albums, but usually the product of bands that have honed their writing and recording chops for several years. Some exceptions: Velvet Underground & Nico, Van Halen, Music from Big Pink.
There are a whole host of truly great bands that, in my opinion, never delivered a five-star disc: Pearl Jam, The Police, Tom Petty, The Ramones, even Led Zeppelin (lots of four and a halfs, no fives). A few other great bands only got there once: REM (Automatic for the People), Nirvana (Nevermind), Pink Floyd (Dark Side).
The list of multiple winners is short and, to me, is the easiest way to quantify rock greatness. Here are a few, off the top of my head:
- The Beatles: Help!, Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Abbey Road (you can quibble with the choices, but they’ve got more than anyone, which is why they’re the Beatles).
- Neil Young: Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps
- Radiohead: The Bends, OK Computer
- Rolling Stones: All the Mick Taylor-era discs
- U2: Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby
You can go on, but you’ll be surprised how quickly you run out of bands with multiple five-star efforts.