July 20, 2011

The Big 5 and the 5-Album Test

Any measure of "greatness" when it comes to music comes with risks and, ultimately, devolves into personal opinions about what's good and bad. Nevertheless, trying to find a way to measure that kind of thing makes for some interesting arguments, if nothing else. Thrown into the mix now, from Steven Hyden at the Onion AV Club, is what he calls the 5-album test.

Emerging from a heavy rotation of Queen's 5-album run (Queen, Queen II, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, and A Day At The Races), it's a measure of sustained excellence. As Hyden puts it:
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 he admits, some heavy hitters, and some of his personal favorites (Dylan, the Stones) can't make the grade. So, I thought I'd apply that test to the Big 5 of the Prog world - King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, Yes, and Pink Floyd - and see if they can make the grade.

First off, Hyden includes Floyd in his list of 5-album wonders for the run of Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. I'll take that one as a given, since I'm only partly familiar with Meddle and Animals and can't really argue with him. I will point out, however, that after Meddle actually came the soundtrack album Obscured by Clouds. Whether that needs to be dealt with, I can't say.

While I've always found Emerson, Lake, & Palmer to be the most frustratingly inconsistent of the Big 5, there's no denying that for classic albums, they hit their stride right out of the gate with their self-titled debut, Tarkus, Trilogy (my favorite whole album), and Brain Salad Surgery. After that, however, things went downhill. I don't think anybody, when pressed, would call Works, Volume 1 a classic, although it has its charms. And nothing afterwords would come anywhere close to classic. So, sorry, ELP, but you fail.

Given their leading role in the prog world since the beginning, you'd think Crimson would easily pass the 5-album test, but I don't think so. Granted, I'm not that familiar with the work between their debut and Islands, but I think at least that one would keep the first five from passing the test. What about what came after? Lark's Tongues in Aspic? Absolutely classic. Starless and Bible Black? Arguable, but let's say yes. Red? A classic, no doubt. Next up would be Discipline, which, while completely different from what came before, is a classic in its own right. Unfortunately, they fall at the fifth post with Beat, arguably the least impressive of the early 80s trilogy. So, I'd say "fail" to Fripp and company, but I could be convinced otherwise.

Yes suffers the same fate, although whether you agree depends wholly on your perception of 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans. There’s a consensus that the three albums before that one – The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge – are classics. Most would agree that Relayer, which followed it, is, too (I certainly would). But opinions are split on Tales, a sprawling 4-sided opus inspired by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe’s fascination with some Hindu holy book or another. It’s either a pretentious, bloated, confused work that's the epitome of all that prog's detractors said of the genre, or it’s a pretentious, bloated, confused work that's the epitome of all that prog's fans love about the genre. I fall into the group that things it falls short of what came before and after, though it has lots of strong bits. Regardless, I wouldn’t call it a classic, which means Yes fails the 5-album test.

That just leaves Genesis, of the Big 5, to potentially join Floyd in passing that test. Do they? With room to spare, as they band went on a run of classics from 1970 to 1986: Trespass, Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot, Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. That’s actually seven albums, so you could lop one off from each end and still make it. I wouldn’t necessarily argue with that. I love Trespass, but it’s still very proto-Genesis in parts, and while Wind and Wuthering has some great bits, it also has “Your own Special Way,” which sort of hinted where the band could end up in the next decade.  Regardless, it's a hell of a run, particularly considering Gabriel's departure along the way.

So, there we go. Two out of the Big 5 make the grade, although they all come close. Not that it matters, of course. Still fun to kick around, though.

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