Music

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

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.

In order for The Five-Albums Test to work, you must truly be honest and fair about the which albums by your favorite musicians are actually great and which ones you think are great simply because your fandom has blinded you. For instance, I love every album Oasis has ever made. If you come over to my house, I will put on Heathen Chemistry and talk about how it is a work of genius. But I know Heathen Chemistry isn’t actually genius — I’m just an idiot who likes Oasis albums that other people have wisely avoided. Similarly, I personally feel like Black Sabbath made 10 awesome LPs in a row, from 1970’s Black Sabbath to 1981’s Mob Rules. But am I prepared to enter a court of law and testify on the record that 1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 1978’s Never Say Die are top-to-bottom perfect albums with no filler? No, I am not.

I’m just saying that the test hurts me as much as it might hurt you. I really want to make the case that The National has already passed The Five-Albums Test, but to do that, I have to include 2003’s Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, and as much as I love “Available,” I just can’t do that. (I feel confident that The National will finally sail through whenever it decides to release its next album.) Does Outkast pass the test? I would include the duo’s 1994 debut, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik with the unimpeachable trilogy of 1996’s ATLiens, 1998’s Aquemini, and 2000’s Stankonia, but 2003’s scattershot The Love Below/Speakerboxxx has never been played from beginning to end in one sitting by anybody ever. I’m sorry, but OutKast doesn’t pass.

How about the White Stripes? (I like Get Behind Me Satan, but it breaks the four-album hot streak from 1999’s The White Stripes to 2003’s Elephant.) The Beastie Boys? (Is Hello Nasty great? I’ve thought about this question for almost 20 years and still don’t know the answer.) Iron Maiden? (I need to revisit Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.) Queens of the Stone Age? (Era Vulgaris is better than you remember!) A Tribe Called Quest? (Is The Love Movement better than I remember?) My Morning Jacket? (Damn you, Evil Urges!) Deerhunter? (Still waiting for Fading Frontier to grow on me.) Kings Of Leon? (All Kings Of Leon albums are equally good and equally terrible.)

You get the point. But if The Five-Albums Test is a doozy, then The Five-Plus Albums Test is a treacherous gauntlet through which only the truly exceptional can survive.

Spoon enters the uber-prestigous Eight-Albums Level with Hot Thoughts. How exclusive is this? Let’s work backward.

Six-Albums Level: Neil Young (1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to 1975’s Zumaand 1989’s Freedom to 1997’s Broken Arrow); Stevie Wonder (1971’s Where I’m Coming From to 1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life), Rush (1976’s 2112 to 1982’s Signals), Tom Petty (1976’s Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers to 1985’s Southern Accents), Wilco (1995’s A.M. to 2007’s Sky Blue Sky), Yo La Tengo (1990’s Fakebook to 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out), Beck (1994’s Mellow Gold to 2002’s Sea Change) Kanye West (2004’s The College Dropout to 2013’s Yeezus), Mastodon (2002’s Remission to 2014’s Once More ‘Round The Sun)

Let me address some possible points of contention: Some might argue that Kanye West should be at the Seven-Albums Level, but I’m not prepared to call The Life Of Pablo “great.” (I would instead use at least 39 other adjectives.) Some Wilco fans might dispute the inclusion of Sky Blue Sky, but those people simply haven’t learned to appreciate Nels Cline. Tom Petty fans complaining that I haven’t included Full Moon Fever clearly don’t remember 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). (I have a feeling Tom doesn’t remember that one, either.)

About Neil Young: You could argue that he actually had a nine-album run from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps. But in order to do that, you have to give more credit to 1977’s American Stars N’ Bars and 1978’s Comes A Time than those albums deserve. (Though I love American Stars N’ Bars! Homegrown is a good thing!) However, Young is the rare artist with two six-album runs. Nineties Neil is some of the best Neil! My pro-Sleeps With Angels advocacy will eventually been vindicated!

Seven-Albums Level: The Beatles (1965’s Rubber Soul to 1970’s Let It Be), The Kinks (1966’s Face To Face to 1972’s Everybody’s In Show-Biz), Joni Mitchell (1969’s Clouds to 1976’s Hejira), Steely Dan (1972’s Can’t Buy A Thrill to 1980’s Gaucho), Willie Nelson (1973’s Shotgun Willie to 1978’s Stardust), David Bowie (1975’s Young Americans to 1983’s Let’s Dance), Bruce Springsteen (1973’s The Wild, The Innocent, And The E Street Shuffle to 1987’s Tunnel Of Love), Prince (1980’s Dirty Mind to 1987’s Sign o’ The Times), Sleater-Kinney (1996’s Call The Doctor to 2015’s No Cities To Love).

The most interesting entry in this category is David Bowie — depending on your point of view on his ’70s work, specifically 1974’s Diamond Dogs, his consecutive albums run could be much longer. I’m a huge fan of the stretch from 1969’s Space Oddity to 1973’s Aladdin Sane — that run alone puts Bowie in the five-albums class. Then comes the covers album Pin-Ups, which is okay but minor, and then Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s worst album of the ’70s by a mile. But I’m sure there are devotees of canine-related conceptual albums about cocaine and the apocalypse who would vehemently disagree.

Eight-Albums Level: Led Zeppelin (1969’s Led Zeppelin to 1979’s In Through The Out Door), Queen (1973’s Queen to 1980’s The Game), U2 (1980’s Boy to 1993’s Zooropa), Spoon (1998’s A Series Of Sneaks through 2017’s Hot Thoughts)

This is the part where my admonishment to “be honest with yourself” could easily be thrown back in my face. To accept Led Zeppelin into the Eight-Albums Level, you must believe that In Through The Out Door (also known as “the one with ‘Carouselambra’“) is great. To accept Queen, you must excuse 1978’s Jazz, an album with nothing to do with jazz and everything to do with songs about girls with large backsides. To accept U2, you must buck convention and insist that Rattle & Hum is great because it includes “All I Want Is You” and not awful because it also has “When Love Comes To Town.”

You also have to accept that Spoon has somehow put out more consecutive great albums than Stevie Wonder. (It’s not my fault that Stevie followed up Songs In The Key Of Life with Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants).

Eleven-Albums Level: R.E.M. (1983’s Murmur to 1998’s Up)

R.E.M. is the most consistently great band ever. As you can see, nobody is really all that close. (There is no nine or ten-albums levels.) We can quibble over the endpoint — it’s common to discount anything after the last Bill Berry album, 1996’s New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and I’m tempted to argue for the inclusion of 2001’s mostly forgotten but very good Reveal, bumping the run up to 12. Either way, R.E.M. still beats everyone. For now, let’s settle on Up — the most underrated R.E.M. ever — being the end point of an unprecedented stretch of quality records. You know what that means: Just three more records to go, Spoon!

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