Introducing The Five-Plus Albums Test: Is Spoon The Most Consistently Great Rock Band Ever?

03.16.17 1 month ago 38 Comments

Matador Records

On Friday, Spoon will release its ninth album, Hot Thoughts. It’s really great. Of course it’s really great. This is what Spoon does — every three or four years, Britt Daniel produces another dozen or so songs and every single one of them is good. Everybody knows this. “Spoon” is practically synonymous among indie partisans with “consistency.” If you’ve ever read a Spoon album review, you also know that this is a “problem,” as it makes Spoon averse to convenient narratives for journalists. What can possibly be said that hasn’t already been said about a great band making another great record?

How about this: Most bands have one, maybe two phases. They start out as one thing, perhaps evolve into something else, and that’s it. At that point, the band either starts to fade, or it settles into a formula. Spoon, however, has had four different phases. It started out in the late ’90s with 1996’s Telephono and 1998’s A Series Of Sneaks, which marked an “indie-rock traditionalism” phase — this is a fancy way of saying that Spoon sounded a lot like the Pixies and Guided By Voices. Then, with 2001’s Girls Can Tell, Spoon shifted into a far more fruitful “indie-rock deconstructionist” phase, culminating with my personal favorite Spoon LP, 2003’s Kill The Moonlight, an austere masterwork in which the guitars, bass, and drums sound like they’ve been recorded on separate malfunctioning tape decks and then put together in slightly the wrong order. (But in a good way.)

The release of 2005’s Gimme Fiction heralded Spoon 3.0, the “indie-rock classic rock” phase, in which Daniel set about writing some of his catchiest, most straightforward, and ultimately most enduring songs. With 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon even flirted with mainstream popularity. But then Spoon capped this trilogy with its most polarizing release, 2010’s Transference, a dark, disorienting album in the mold of “the party is over” classics like the Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup and Pulp’s This Is Hardcore.

After Transference, it seemed like Spoon was going to enter the “fade away” portion of its career. But four years later, Spoon returned with They Want My Soul, which amazingly introduced Spoon 4.0 and the “indie rock after dark” phase. Like Soul, Hot Thoughts essentially discards the guitar and most other forms of rock convention for a groove-oriented approach that flirts with full-on funk and disco on a collection of bedroom indie-pop songs. While Daniel’s songwriting remains as sharp as ever, Hot Thoughts is primarily a “sounds” record, with a particular focus on Alex Fischel’s swirling keyboard textures and Jim Eno’s John Bonham-esque drum beats. For all his fidelity to rock history, Daniel is no purist — few indie musicians of his vintage are as willing or able to explore new sonic territory in such (here’s that word again) consistently engaging ways.

Let’s talk about Spoon’s unyielding greatness from a different perspective: By my count, Hot Thoughts is the eighth consecutive very good-to-great Spoon record in 19 years. Many Spoon fans mark the start of the band’s hot streak with Girls Can Tell, but as a songwriter (if not quite yet sonically) Daniel began hitting his stride with A Series Of Sneaks. I submit this song as my Exhibit A.

Spoon is so good so often that it bores people sometimes. (To make a sports analogy, Spoon is Tim Duncan.) But make no mistake: Producing at a high level for nearly two decades is pretty much unheard of in any discipline, and it’s especially rare in popular music. To illustrate this, we must utilize about The Five-Plus Albums Test.

But before we utilize The Five-Plus Albums Test, let’s discuss The Five-Albums Test, which was devised by yours truly in 2011 in order to measure musical steadiness. The Five-Albums Test is simple: Did the artist or band in question release five very good-to-great albums in a row? If they did, they pass. If they didn’t, they fail.

You’d be amazed by how many people fail.

Now, this is obviously a subjective test. No two listeners will apply it in exactly the same way. (Also, not passing this test obviously doesn’t mean that you automatically suck. Lots and lots of lots of great artists don’t pass. Please don’t pretend that I’m saying otherwise, Angry Twitter Egg Guy.) However, I submit that The Five-Albums Test is the best way to measure which artists were best at being good for extended periods of time.

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