A chance conversation with a fellow mathematician last night got me thinking about albums. My companion mentioned that as a general rule, he found most artists' first album to be their best. This made me wonder whether there is a stage of musical development that I tend to gravitate towards as well. To explore this I wrote down a list of every band or solo artist for which I owned three or more examples of their work, to see whether a pattern emerged.
Turns out there are 18 artists for whom I own three or four examples of their work, 8 for whom I have between five and nine, and 2 for which I achieve double figures. From this sample, fully 44.4% of the artists peaked at their second album, and 33.3% at their third. Less than a quarter of artists manage anything else. Only 16.7% concur with my friends "First is best" policy.
I actually guessed last night that I would come down in favour of sophomore efforts, and so it appears, at least on first reading. There's more to it than that, however. First of all, it's worth noting that there is a correlation between the number of albums I own by a given band, and the point at which I consider them to have peaked. For 3 or 4 albums, the mean value is almost exactly between the second and third. For 5 to 9 albums, it's exactly between the third and fourth, and for 10 + it's eight and a half, though since there are only two data points in that category (R.E.M. and Ryan Adams, if you care), I'm not sure how much faith to put in that number (especially considering how hard it is to choose a "best" album for artists as changeable as as those two).
One immediate thought is whether or not discovering a band that flowers slightly later encourages me to make greater investment in their records. If a band are still bringing it by album four, it's less likely that they're going to quickly burn out. There's also the law of the brain-eater which makes it clear that if album X is awesome, the chances of album X-1 being terrible is far, far smaller than the chance album X+1 is. Certainly, my first acquisition of Ryan Adams music were his fourth and fifth albums (well, the two two-thirds of albums that eventually got trimmed into Love Is Hell), and in R.E.M.'s case it was album number 8 (the admittedly strong but still massively overrated Automatic For The People). It's also interesting that it's so hard to pick a favourite from those two artists. Partially it's probably because I have more options, but I wonder if also the degree of variation in their work feeds into their longevity, allowing more albums to be recorded, which I then have to pore over attempting to pick favourites.
Perhaps, if I were to be fair, I should look at all the individual albums I own, to see if they tend to be from very early in bands careers. I actually think that that would prove true, but with a collection including well over 250 different artists, I'm hesitant to try.
Nothing's stopping you people, though. Anyone discerned a trend in their own taste? First albums? Sophomore efforts? "Late period" discs?
As a bonus question: can one pinpoint the median value at which the brain-eater appears, and a band suddenly become shadows of their former selves, with almost no hope of recovery. The same gut instinct that tells me I probably have a significant number of debut albums by artists that I never felt compelled to follow up on also suggests the value will be between two and three. Even for the twenty-eight artists for which I have enough material to make a judgement on the brain-eater issue, though, it's hard to decide exactly what qualifies. The point at which a downward spiral begins is usually pretty easy to pick out, but is that exactly the same thing? The second Kings of Leon album is significantly poorer than the first (despite what popular opinion would tell you), but their third and (especially) fourth albums are spectacular, so A-Ha Shake Heartbreak feels much more like a blip than the first signs of grey-matter consumption. You also have to consider competent bands who occasionally rise to the level of excellence, seemingly at random, before returning to their previous level of comparative mediocrity (take James, whose 5th album Laid is way, way better than those on either side, though neither one of them could be considered bad either).
I shall have to ruminate more on this issue; but comments are very welcome. Perhaps we can slap together a statistical model for the journey of the musician. What better way could there be to spend one's time?