How many artists have made four straight great albums?

Posted: October 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while leading up to the release of Arcade Fire’s fourth album, Reflektor. Arcade Fire’s first three albums — 2004’s Funeral, 2007’s Neon Bible and 2010’s The Suburbs — have all been great. In my opinion, it’s one of the best three-album runs in pop/rock history.

What if their fourth album was also great? What kind of company would that put them in? I hadn’t really looked into it, but I figured there can’t be too many artists who have released four great albums in a row.

Well, after a Twitter discussion about this topic, I decided to finally look into it. As I suspected, there aren’t too many who have done it. I came up with seven who have definitely done it, and six more who could be argued against, but are probably still safe to put in the group. Then there are 33 more that are at least worth discussing, but ultimately don’t quite make the cut for me.

Unfortunately, Arcade Fire won’t be joining that elite group of 13 who have accomplished the feat. As much as I wish it was, Reflektor isn’t a great album. I’ve listened to it five times now, and I feel pretty confident saying that. I might eventually warm up to the shift in style enough to consider it a good album, but I can’t imagine ever calling it a great album. There are great moments for sure, but it tries to do too much and ends up being inconsistent as a result. Reminds me a lot of what The Clash fell victim to on Sandinista!

Anyway, here are the artists who have done it, and the ones who have come close.

DEFINITELY IN (7)

The Beatles- Assuming you don’t count Yellow Submarine as a true Beatles album (which I don’t since only half of it is Beatles music), The Beatles go 12 in a row from Please Please Me in 1963 straight through to Let It Be in 1970. Even if you want to be a jerk and count Yellow Submarine, they already had 10 great ones in the book by that point.

The Rolling Stones- Another no-brainer. The Stones’ run from Beggars Banquet in 1968 to Exile on Main St. in 1972 is the greatest four-album run in history in my opinion, and you can make a case for tacking Goats Head Soup onto the end of that run.

Bob Dylan- The only potential down album for Dylan from 1963 to 1967 was 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, but even if you don’t count that as great, you still have four in a row from Bringing It All Back Home to John Wesley Harding.

The Who- Not quite the same level of consistent excellence as the three above, but still five straight great albums from 1967’s The Who Sell Out to 1975’s The Who by Numbers.

Neil Young- Five no-brainers starting with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in 1969 and ending with Tonight’s the Night in 1975. And I wouldn’t argue if you added Zuma to the end of that run.

The Kinks- The Kinks remain criminally underappreciated, but their run from 1966’s Face to Face to 1969’s Arthur makes them more than qualified for this list.

Stevie Wonder- The four-album run from Talking Book in 1972 to Songs in the Key of Life in 1976 makes Stevie an easy choice. And you could tack one or two onto either end of that run if you wanted.

PROBABLY IN (6)

Simon & Garfunkel/Paul Simon- The only reason this is a probably and not a definitely is that there’s probably someone out there who would want to split this into two entries, which would be dumb. As long as you credit Simon for Simon & Garfunkel’s albums (which you should since he was the driving force), you get five straight — Simon & Garfunkel’s last three as a group and Simon’s first two as a solo artist.

Led Zeppelin- Five of Led Zeppelin’s first six albums were unquestionably great. The potential weak link is Led Zeppelin III, but even though it’s not quite as strong as the other five, I think it still qualifies as great.

Bruce Springsteen- Same sort of situation. Bruce has an easy five of six from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle to 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. The dip in the middle of that run would be The River, but it’s not enough of a dip to leave Bruce out.

Van Morrison- Van the Man did take a little bit of a step back after Astral Weeks and Moondance, but those two albums were just ridiculous. His next three albums after that were still great, even if they weren’t quite on that level.

The Velvet Underground- Three of The Velvet Underground’s first four albums are locks. White Light/White Heat is pretty weird and certainly takes some getting used to, but ultimately I think it qualifies.

The Hold Steady- We finally get to someone not from the 60s or 70s. 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys and Girls in America are definitely great. Their predecessor (Almost Killed Me) and successor (Stay Positive) are both right on that line between very good and great, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

MAYBE IN (16)

The Beach Boys- Everyone knows Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums ever made, but it’s easy to overlook the fact that The Beach Boys made a bunch of good-to-really good albums from 1965 to 1971. Still, I don’t think they ever had four in a row that were great.

The Byrds/Gram Parsons- The Byrds don’t really have much of a case — you could argue three straight with Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, but there’s no argument for a fourth. But if you give Parsons Sweetheart of the Rodeo (he was The Byrds’ leader at that point), he has an interesting case as an individual. His next two albums with new band The Flying Burrito Brothers and his first two solo albums after that were all really good. It might be a bit of a stretch to call Burrito Deluxe (the second Burrito Bros. album) or GP (his first solo album) great, though. Regardless, Gram Parsons is massively underrated.

Creedence Clearwater Revival- Green River, Willy and the Poor Boys and Cosmo’s Factory are all great. But is either Bayou Country (the one before those three) or Pendulum (the one after) great? I’d listen to an argument for Bayou Country, but my gut says it doesn’t quite make it.

Sly and the Family Stone- Stand!, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fresh are definitely great. The best argument for a fourth would be 1968’s Life, but I don’t think it qualifies.

David Bowie- I love Bowie, and he definitely has three with Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Would need The Man Who Sold the World to make it four. Don’t think he gets it.

Pink Floyd- They certainly get three of four with Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall, but Animals doesn’t quite cut it in my opinion.

Elvis Costello- You could make the argument for five straight to start his career. My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model definitely qualify, but I’m not so sure about Armed Forces and Get Happy!! I lean toward no, but I wouldn’t put up much of an argument if someone said yes.

Talking Heads- Based on critical reception, you could make the argument for six in a row to start their career. I’m just not a big enough Talking Heads fan to give it to them. Again, wouldn’t really argue with someone who did.

The Replacements- I give them three in a row with Let It Be, Tim and Pleased to Meet Me. Best argument for four would be 1983’s Hootenanny, but it doesn’t quite make it for me.

Pixies- Surfer Rosa and Doolittle definitely qualify. You could make the argument for Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, but those are closer to pretty good than great in my opinion.

X- Same sort of situation as the Pixies. Their first two albums (Los Angeles and Wild Gift) are definitely great, but their next two (Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World) come up a little short.

Sonic Youth- Based on critical reception, you could make the argument for their five-album run from 1986’s EVOL to 1992’s Dirty. Personally, I think 1988’s Daydream Nation is the only one that’s definitely great. The rest are borderline, and I’m not going to give them three benefits of the doubt.

Queen- Queen’s first four albums are all really good, but I’m not sure any of them are great.

Spoon- Similar situation to Queen, 30 years later. Four really good albums from Girls Can Tell in 2001 to Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga in 2007, but not quite four great ones.

Fiona Apple- Probably not one most people would think of since her career has been so spread out (four albums in 16 years), but all four of her albums have been very good. But much like Queen and Spoon, I’d stop short of saying they’re all great.

Metallica- I’m assuming most metal fans would say Metallica’s first four albums are definitely great. I’m just not a big enough metal fan to include them, though.

WORTH MENTIONING (17)

The Band- I love The Band, and I would love to include them. But while their first three albums are definitely great, their fourth (Cahoots) is definitely not.

Cream/Eric Clapton- Cream probably has a better argument than Clapton as an individual, but even if you consider their first three albums great, I don’t think there’s much of an argument for Goodbye, their fourth.

The Clash- There are probably quite a few people who would make the argument for their first four albums, but 1978’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope is just pretty good and 1980’s Sandinista! is too inconsistent (see the Reflektor comparison above).

Fleetwood Mac- Strong case for three straight with Fleetwood Mac (1975), Rumours and Tusk, but tough to argue for a fourth.

Prince- Could make the argument for four of five from 1999 in 1982 to Sign o’ the Times in 1987, but Around the World in a Day is smack dab in the middle of that run, and it’s not a great album.

Michael Jackson- His four-album run from 1979’s Off the Wall to 1991’s Dangerous is worth mentioning just because of how popular those albums were, but Bad and Dangerous aren’t great albums.

R.E.M.- They made more than four great albums, but never four in a row. Fables of the Reconstruction breaks up their mid-80s run, and Out of Time breaks up their late 80s/early 90s run.

U2- I’d give them three of five with 1983’s War, 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1991’s Achtung Baby, and I could maybe even be talked into 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, but 1988’s Rattle and Hum is a no-go.

Pearl Jam- Including them only because someone out there would probably bring them up. Ten is great, and Vs. and Vitalogy I could maybe be talked into, but you’re crazy if you think No Code is great.

Radiohead- They were one of the first bands mentioned when I brought this up on Twitter, and The Bends and OK Computer are two of my all-time favorite albums. But even taking out my personal dislike for Kid A and acknowledging that a lot of people think it’s a great album, I’m not sure how you could argue for Pablo Honey or Amnesiac to make it four straight.

Built to Spill- I give them three straight with There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, Perfect from Now On and Keep It Like a Secret, but I can’t give them a fourth.

Elliott Smith- I definitely give him Either/Or and XO, and I could be talked into the posthumous From a Basement on the Hill, but Figure 8 (which would be third in this four-album run) would be a stretch in my opinion.

The White Stripes- White Blood Cells and Elephant are great. I could be talked into De Stijl. But then you’d need either their self-titled debut or Get Behind Me Satan to make it four, and I don’t think either of those make the cut.

Modest Mouse- They came up on Twitter. I give them The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica, but that’s it.

Wilco- Also came up on Twitter. I’ll admit that I’ve never really been able to get into Wilco, but looking at critical reception, it seems like you might have a tough time getting to four. 1999’s Summerteeth, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and 2004’s A Ghost Is Born all got pretty good to great reviews, but the two on either side of that got some mixed reviews. Even if you factor in the two Mermaid Avenue albums with Billy Bragg, the second one saw mixed reaction.

The National- I was surprised they didn’t come up on Twitter. I think they’ve had four straight good albums from Alligator in 2005 to Trouble Will Find Me in 2013, but I don’t think I’d call any of them great.

Kanye West- You could make the argument that five of his six albums have been great (I’d argue against Yeezus, but whatever), but 808s & Heartbreak is right in the middle of that run and prevents him from getting to four straight.

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