Want proof that Coldplay is not a “special” band? Their 3rd album X&Y
Want proof that U2 is a transcendent/ rock pantheon band? Their 3rd album War
Want proof the Beastie Boys are somewhere in between? Their 3rd album, Check Your Head
Want proof M.I.A. isn’t quite the pantheon artist we thought she would be? Her latest (3rd) album. But, give this one time. It (and she) may be.
Want proof Arcade Fire is either a transcendent/ rock pantheon band or merely a really good band? Wait until next Tuesday and buy The Suburbs, their 3rd album. It will tell you (early reviews are looking good).
While it has been rolling around my head for a long time, the sharing of this idea is precipitated by the fact that many bands were coming out with 3rd albums this year, albums that could define them because they had the potential for greatness or really goodness, bands like: Frightened Rabbit, gaslight Anthem, Blitzen Trapper, and the aforementioned M.I.A. and Arcade Fire.
For a number of years I have subscribed to a musical premise that I call The 3rd Album Theory. The above examples stand as proof of this hypothesis, irrefutable evidence of my conclusions that the truly great musicians have created a masterwork by album 3. In fact, they have usually already given indication that such a work is just around the corner after a phenomenal debut and avoidance of the dreaded sophomore slump (or, if there is a slump, it is only in light of the perfection attained on 1 and 3).
Some brilliant bands like Radiohead have already attained a masterpiece by album 2 (The Bends), yet do not retreat into the safe confines of re-creation on the next go around, pushing the boundaries beyond the listeners' comfort level to attain a level of artistry unexpected, even by those with high expectations. The yang to Radiohead’s ying is Coldplay. After a well received first album communicating high levels of potential they dropped the brilliant #2 record on audiences, A Rush of Blood to the Head before retreating into the dreaded attempt at re-creation instead of inspiration. It is tantamount to a potentially brilliant director heading into the comforts of big money sequels instead of pushing himself to new heights.
Christian bands are the worst about following success with failure. The Christian band DC Talk gave us Jesus Freak, a brilliant album (#4) before doing what Christian bands do upon creating a commercially successful crossover hit that is critically respected. They retreat into the safeness of re-creation of the album without the same level of passion or ambition (see Switchfoot, Amy Grant as further proof).
Sure the theory has exceptions. Dave Matthews Band’s 3rd album was Beneath these Crowded Streets. They have never come close to attaining such an artistic, critical high in the aftermath. I feel the same about The Decemberists so far, after the heights of #3 (Picaresque) but that is open to debate. Also, bands that were discovered late and created their first albums with no production help can attain greatness later. The Roots, Regina Spektor and Beck fall into this category or have the potential to. They are like a brilliant pitcher relegated to the minor leagues a little too long.
The other caveat is the 60s. We must remember that until the mid-60s, the album was merely a receptacle for individual songs. Aside from jazz musicians, popular musicians were not thinking cohesively about albums on a regular basis. This is why Bob Dylan (early albums were great, but not cohesive until #5 Bringing It All Back Home), The Beach Boys (I would argue that Pet Sounds is really their 3rd album) and The Beatles (I would argue that Rubber Soul is really their 3rd album), along with the Rolling Stones (again, either Aftermath or Their Satanic Majesty’s Request is 3rd), Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder (Talking Book is the 3rd album he had the power to create) did not perfect the art of the album until they had the power to create art out of their singular vision as opposed to the record company execs concerned merely with singles and the quick buck (Oh my goodness, history is cyclical in nature). Only when they realized that the album gave them a higher profit margin and kept the artist happy did executives yield to the new art form.
However, since the advent of the album as the definition of self sustained musical vision, a number of artists have attempted to create perfection, with some attaining it numerous times (U2, The Beatles, Radiohead and Prince), while others have merely given listeners one perfect album for which we should be grateful (Wilco, Jeff Buckley, Public Enemy and Lauren Hill).
Sadly, the future does not look good for albums. With iTunes and downloading singles, along with pirating, we have re-entered the era of singles. However, it is my hope that other artists will be inspired by the great works of the past to create their own singular albums... just know that if they ain't done it by #3, they ain't going on Mount Olympus.
tomorrow, exceptions to the rule