In practically every discussion that’s taken place about pop music over the past 40 years, two rubrics have been used to assess an artist’s greatness. The first is “popularity,” which is the sum total of record sales, radio airplay, television appearances, social-media prominence, bedroom wall posters, and T-shirts worn by attractive high school girls and/or thirtysomething male burnouts. On this scale, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin (along with Bon Jovi and/or Iron Maiden) are the greatest bands of all time.
The second rubric is “critical respectability,” which is the accumulation of positive record reviews, mentions in other bands’ reviews as an important influence (often with the “-esque” modifier), and descriptions by Rolling Stone’s David Fricke as “seminal” or "incendiary" in books and documentaries. Here, the greatest artists ever, again, are The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, along with The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, David Bowie (in his Berlin phase), and possibly Can or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
I’d like to humbly suggest a third rubric: the five-albums test. Here the ranks of great bands include, yes, The Beatles and Led Zeppelin … and the MILF-serenading, one-hit-wonder Fountains of Wayne.
Before I get around to explaining Fountains Of Wayne’s enduring greatness, let’s talk about Queen. The five-albums test was devised when I was recently listening to reissues of Queen’s first five albums—1973’s Queen, 1974’s Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack, 1975’s A Night At The Opera, and 1976’s A Day At The Races—that were released this past spring. Queen is remembered for many things: the showmanship of Freddie Mercury, the pioneering studio excess of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the instantly legendary performance the band gave at Live Aid, and how its varied body of music has inspired Vanilla Ice, Guns N’ Roses, Lady Gaga, and millions of people clapping in unison at sporting events. But one thing Queen isn’t recognized for (and should be) is releasing five consecutive albums that range from very good (Queen and A Day At The Races) to flat-out excellent (Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, and A Night At The Opera.)
Actually, when you factor in 1977’s News Of The World (probably my favorite Queen record), 1978’s Jazz, and 1980’s The Game, Queen released eight B+ or higher albums in a row. That’s an incredibly impressive level of sustained excellence that puts Queen in a rarefied category of great rock bands. Lots of artists have five or more classic albums (not including EPs or live records), but the ability to string them together back-to-back means being in the kind of zone that’s normally associated with dominant college women’s basketball dynasties.
As previously stated, the mighty Zep passes the five-albums test (from Led Zeppelin through Physical Graffiti), as do The Beatles (whom I’d argue never put out anything less than very good in their entire career, though it helps if you don’t count the Yellow Submarine soundtrack). But lots of otherwise storied artists don’t.
My three favorite musical artists ever are Bob Dylan, Guided By Voices, and The Rolling Stones, and as much as I want them to pass the five-albums test, I’m not sure they deserve to. Let’s look at GBV first: Everybody who cares about Robert Pollard’s voluminous musical output pretty much agrees that he hit his peak with 1994’s Bee Thousand, 1995’s Alien Lanes, and 1996’s Under The Bushes Under The Stars. In order to get to five straight records that are at least very good, we either have to include 1992’s Propeller (which is great) and 1993’s Vampire On Titus (which I like but it’s not exactly great), or 1997’s Mag Earwhig (great) and 1999’s Do The Collapse (like it, not exactly great).
As for Dylan and the Stones, as much as I love almost everything they put out, if I’m thinking objectively, I don’t think they pass, either. Dylan’s epochal early run of ’60s folk-singer records is marred by his-not-quite-not-there-yet self-titled debut and the preachy The Times They Are A-Changin’, while his blazing late-’60s output falls just short with the pretty but slight Nashville Skyline. (Again, I love all of these records, but to preserve the sanctity of the five-albums test, I can’t ignore their inherent weaknesses, even if I suspect that this will cause strangers on the Internet to make patronizing statements about my intelligence.)
With The Stones, there’s a possible consecutive streak that begins with 1968’s brilliant Beggars Banquet and ends with 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup. But Goat’s Head Soup is really the first great “bad” Stones record, kicking off a series of great “bad” Stones records that includes 1974’s It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll and culminates with one of the best “bad” records ever, 1976’s Black And Blue.
(Not to get sidetracked, but I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great “bad” record is: It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan’s infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great “bad” albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams.)
I’m not saying the five-albums rubric is the superior measure of a musical artist’s greatness (I’m not an idiot) nor am I saying that Dylan and the Stones don’t deserve to be ranked among the greatest rockers ever. (Seriously, I’m not an idiot.) I just think that the five-albums test is an interesting lens through which to examine music history. But why five albums, instead of four or six? First of all, it’s a nice round number, and nice round numbers are helpful for arbitrary (but fun!) discussions about music. Second, it just feels right, perhaps because there’s a handy parallel with TV shows, which generally have to survive for five seasons in order to reach 100 episodes, which is the magic number for syndication.
Now, I realize that being widely syndicated isn’t a perfect standard for TV quality—otherwise Becker would be a more important show historically than The Prisoner—and there are plenty of iconic shows that only lasted for a season or two, just as there are plenty of great bands that flamed out early but still burn bright in retrospect. You can liken the U.K. version of The Office with the Sex Pistols, Arrested Development with Nirvana, Freaks And Geeks with The La’s, Deadwood with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Chappelle’s Show with The Notorious B.I.G., The Honeymooners with Elvis Presley’s Sun period, and the pioneering first season of NYPD Blue that starred David Caruso with the original 1969-70 incarnation of Neil Young and Crazy Horse that included the late guitarist Danny Whitten. But generally, the greatest and most beloved TV shows in history—Gunsmoke, Bonanza, 60 Minutes, All In The Family, M*A*S*H, Saturday Night Live, Cheers, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, ER, The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Friday Night Lights, and so on—held it together at a high level of quality for at least five seasons.
Using the five-albums test, the only ’60s bands other than The Beatles that deserve to be considered great are The Kinks (who knocked it out of the park consistently from 1966’s Face To Face to 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies), The Byrds (who stayed splendid from 1965’s Mr. Tambourine Man to 1968’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo in spite of significant line-up changes), and The Who (a band that, from 1965’s My Generation to 1975’s The Who By Numbers, tells you everything you need to know about the arena-ification of rock music).
The ’70s, meanwhile, are the glory years of stellar five-album (or more) runs. Along with Zeppelin and Queen, you have Neil Young (Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to Rust Never Sleeps), Bruce Springsteen (The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle to Tunnel Of Love), Steely Dan (Can’t Buy A Thrill to Aja), Pink Floyd (Meddle to The Wall), and Cheap Trick (Cheap Trick to Dream Police). Even genres not known for artists producing consistently terrific LPs did well in the ’70s, like R&B (Stevie Wonder from Music Of My Mind to Songs In The Key Of Life, Al Green from Gets Next To You to The Belle Album and Marvin Gaye from What’s Going On to Here, My Dear), country (Willie Nelson from Shotgun Willie to Stardust and Waylon Jennings from Lonesome, On’ry And Mean to Dreaming My Dreams), and punk/new wave (Ramones from Ramones to End Of The Century, Elvis Costello from My Aim Is True to Imperial Bedroom, and Talking Heads from 77 to Speaking In Tongues.)
It gets scarcer in the ’80s, with R.E.M. (Murmur to Automatic For The People), U2 (Boy to The Joshua Tree), and The Replacements (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to Pleased To Meet Me) passing the test. Prince might also belong on the list, though that depends on whether you think 1981’s Controversy and 1985’s Around The World In A Day belong in a run with Dirty Mind, 1999, and Purple Rain. In the ’90s, the only worthy examples in my mind are Pavement (from Slanted And Enchanted to Terror Twilight) and Yo La Tengo (Fakebook to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out), as well as two indie-rock institutions that may in fact be the same band: Spoon (A Series Of Sneaks to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga) and Wilco (Being There to Sky Blue Sky).
(I have not forgotten Radiohead, I’ve merely chosen not to include them. Radiohead’s five-albums standing depends entirely on your feelings about 2001’s Amnesiac. I think it’s half of a good record; lots of passionate people feel differently. I don’t feel like arguing about this, so if you like Amnesiac, and place it in the series from The Bends to In Rainbows, you’ll hear nary a discouraging word from me.)
In the 21st century, where sustaining a musical career is a much bigger challenge and releasing five albums at any level of quality is an achievement, the reigning king of the five-albums test is Kanye West. Not only is the run from The College Dropout to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy the only body of work from the last decade that satisfies the standard, it might be the best five-album run in hip-hop history. Outkast comes close (but Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is too spotty), as do The Beastie Boys (though Hello Nasty seems like the beginning of the group’s decline). Public Enemy has probably the best three-album run in hip-hop history with It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Fear Of A Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black, but nothing else in the group’s discography seems worthy enough. Ice Cube actually beats Kanye if you count N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and the Kill At Will EP. But I don’t, so he doesn’t.
Some other groups are just one album away from five-albums contention (The National and Animal Collective seem like they’re on the verge), but the next band to do it could very well be Fountains Of Wayne. Which is funny, because Fountains Of Wayne barely registers on the scales for popularity (other than “Stacy’s Mom”) or critical respectability (except among the whitest and dweebiest sub-section of rock writers). To pick up the TV analogy from before, Fountains Of Wayne is sort of like How I Met Your Mother, in that you have to convince snobs to look beyond the dopey name and light-hearted surface in order to grasp the depth underneath that makes it worthwhile.
I’m not ready to declare the forthcoming Sky Full Of Holes a very good or great record just yet, and 2007’s Traffic And Weather was just iffy enough to render this whole discussion moot. But if FOW superficially resembles CBS’ hippest sitcom in appearance, in form the group’s albums are like a top-shelf premium cable drama, telling one long story over the course of many seasons. Just as 1996’s Fountains Of Wayne had a whiff of childhood nostalgia, 1999’s Utopia Parkway delved into teenage ennui, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers chronicled post-college malaise, and 2007’s Traffic And Weather did the same for thirtysomethings, Sky Full Of Holes is a record about the onset of adulthood, with songs like “Action Hero” and “Dip In The Ocean” reveling in the mundane details and lingering disappointments of parenting and middle age. The five-albums test isn’t perfect, but a rubric that finds room for this discography must have something going for it.