I'm obviously over-simplifying things a lot here, but there are usually two career progressions that an artist or band can take:
- Keep releasing albums, with (generally) diminishing returns. Some examples of artists and bands who fit this mould are: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and U2. While each of these artists/bands have had some impressive later-career efforts, most would probably agree that they are well past their peak.
- Release some top quality albums and quit while they're still ahead. For those who have music in their blood, this can sometimes be a hard avenue to take.
This is my top 10 artists and bands who have a lean, concise and high-quality discography. While there are many artists/bands out there who are probably best introduced to you via a "best-of" or "greatest hits" compilation, it's simply not worth it for these musicians. If you are curious about any of these artists/bands, just jump in the deep end and buy their albums. I'll even help you with the best place to get started.
The bonus is that if you fall in love with any of the artists/bands here, it won't cost you much to own all of their work.
10. Ben Folds Five
Ben Folds Five are best known for some of their mid-late 90s piano-based alternative rock/pop hits such as Underground, Brick and Army. You may also know some of Ben Folds' solo recordings since the break-up of the band. While some may dismiss their work as throwaway, they were a surprisingly talented trio who coincidentally released a trio of very solid indie power-pop albums.
Their eponymous debut included the aforementioned Underground which is (to my ears anyway) one of the catchiest pop songs of the 90s. Hand me my nose ring! Show me the mosh pit! But as classic as this song is, the rest of the album doesn't pale in comparison. From the beautiful balladry of Alice childress, to the catchier-than-thou Philosophy, to the toe-tappin' Uncle walter, this album rarely puts a foot wrong (the rough-around-the-edges Julianne being the one track which doesn't do a lot for me).
Their 2nd album Whatever and ever amen was their (relative) commercial breakthrough, and it included lots of excellent songs which were hits on alternative radio here in Australia - One angry dwarf, Brick, Song for the dumped and Battle of who could care less. Another great album in the same mould as their debut.
Their final album (the clumsily-titled The unauthorised biography of Reinhold Messner) was their attempt at a concept album. I'll admit that this album did take a while to grow on me, but thesedays I'm quite stunned by its beauty. Their reached a maturity on this album, and while it plays like a modern-day indie rock opera, at no point does it feel pretentious. Mess and Magic are still some of my favourite BFF songs. A great way to end their career.
How to buy Ben Folds Five:
Buy the albums in order. Their first 2 albums are much more accessible, and they'll prepare you well for their rewarding finale.
Pixies are almost indie royalty now, but I'm sure that Kurt Cobain (amongst many others) name-checking them as massive influences helped there. While they aren't one of my favourite bands of all time, I do respect their talent a lot and appreciate that they had a massive influence on 90s indie music.
What's also amazing is that they managed to influence a new generation of bands with only 4 albums (and 1 EP) over the course of 5 years! And whilst they did reunite in 2004, they have yet to release another album since then. So their discography is still nice and concise.
The debut EP Come on pilgrim and album Surfer rosa are both cut from the same cloth: quiet/loud dynamics, abrasive vocals and a tight rhythm section. Their second album Doolittle significantly improved the songwriting, adding some much-needed melody and accessibility in the process. 3rd album Bossanova was heavily influenced by surf music, and retained the melodic joy of its predecessor. And final album Trompe le Monde was almost a return to the sound of their initial recordings - loud and abrasive. But like all of their albums, it also had some mighty fine tunes on it.
How to buy Pixies:
Start with Doolittle - it's their most accessible and rewarding album. Then buy their debut album Surfer rosa, which also includes the Come on pilgrim EP. These two albums give you a good overview of the Pixies' sound. If you prefer Doolittle more, get Bossanova next as it follows in the same mould. But if you prefer Surfer rosa more, you may want to get Trompe le Monde next.
8. Elliott Smith
This is the first entry in this list which involves an element of tragedy.
Elliott Smith released 5 albums during his lifetime before his untimely death at the age of 34 in 2003. In 2004, the songs he was working on at the time of his death were released posthumously as From a basement on the hill.
Over the course of his lifetime, his sound had a very gradual and subtle progression. His early albums Roman candle and Elliott Smith were lo-fi and intimate, with echoes of Nick Drake. His mid-career masterpiece Either/or was the perfect combination of the intimacy of his earlier work with the pop sensibility of his later work.
He became more well known when his song Miss misery (from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack) was nominated for an Oscar in 1997, but shockingly lost to Celine Dion. What he did get from the publicity was a major label deal with DreamWorks. His major label albums XO and Figure 8 used the extra budget of a major label in subtle ways, combining his songwriting genius with understated studio enhancements.
And while his posthumous release From a basement on the hill was incomplete at the time of his death, it was not a cash-in. Some of the most beautiful songs of his career were on it, and in no way did it tarnish the legacy he left.
How to buy Elliott Smith:
Definitely start with Either/or - not only is it his finest work, but it perfectly combines the folky aspects of his early career (Rose parade, Between the bars) with the melodic pop sensibilities of his later career (Ballad of big nothing, Say yes). You can then decide which sound you prefer more and head in the right direction. But definitely pick them all up, for they are all gems.
7. The Beatles
For a band as ubiquitous as The Beatles, it's amazing when you realise that they only released 12 albums (1 double) and 1 soundtrack over the course of only 9 years. There were also lots of non-album singles too (which was the style at the time), but it's amazing that they were so influential and so revered with such a (relatively) concise discography.
There was no other band in history who showed so much progression and innovation in such a short period of time, and this is coming from someone who was born 9 years after their demise. No other bands utilised the studio quite like the fab four (and producer George Martin) did between 1962 and 1970.
Listening to their earlier work (Please please me, With the Beatles) next to their mid-late period efforts (Revolver, Abbey road), sometimes they sound like completely different bands. And while some would say that some of their earlier work is dispensible (there are a lot of covers on their early albums), it helped define who they were. Every song that the fab four released was essential to the Beatles story, and while I don't listen to some albums as much as others, I would never be without every one of them in my collection. [Having said that, I could probably do without Yellow submarine, but that's a soundtrack and therefore not a core part of their discography.]
How to buy The Beatles:
Just splurge and buy the box set. If you haven't yet been introduced to the genius of all of the Beatles' music (because there's nobody who hasn't heard at least 20 Beatles songs), you're in for a treat and I envy you.
6. The Velvet Underground
For all intents and purposes, the Velvets were probably the first indie band. They sold nothing during their lifetime, but influenced 1000s of musicians. There's this old quotation that while not many people bought their first album, everyone who did buy it ended up started a band of their own.
There's no denying that the breadth of their influence was immense. Anyone who's ever used distortion in their music (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo) learnt it from the first 2 Velvets albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico, White light/white heat). They practically helped to invent the shoegaze genre of music. Many twee indie-pop bands (Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura) were heavily influenced by their 3rd album The Velvet Underground. And while their final album (Loaded) was probably a bit less essential, there's no denying that it was a great pop/rock album.
The lineage of many contemporary bands can be traced back to what Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and [later] Doug Yule achieved in the 4 years (!) between 1967 and 1970.
How to buy The Velvet Underground:
It really depends what you like. Their first 2 albums are much more experimental listens; while The Velvet Underground & Nico mixes the avant-garde with the accessible, White light/white heat is a very difficult album. Their last 2 albums are much more beautiful and melodic. Maybe grab their 2 self-titled albums (The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground) and see which side of them you prefer.
5. The Doors
The Doors had a very linear progression over their 6 albums, before Jim Morrison's untimely death in 1971 at the age of 27 (I'm purposely ignoring the albums they released after his death).
The self-titled debut album and follow-up Strange days (both released in 1967) were very 1967 - psychedelic lyrics (Light my fire, The crystal ship, Strange days) mixed with very summer of love production. Strange days didn't stray a lot from the template laid out on their debut - even choosing a suitably epic song to close the album (When the music's over, in response to The end from the debut).
3rd album Waiting for the sun continued the psychedelic sound on a lot of songs (The unknown soldier) while taking them in subtle new directions of pop (Hello, I love you; Love street) and world music (My wild love, Spanish caravan). 4th album The soft parade was in many ways more of a straight forward pop album, but it was quite diverse as well - it added some brass instruments to the mix (Tell all the people), blues (Shaman's blues), country (Runnin' blue) and old-school Doors poetry (The soft parade).
On the final 2 albums Morrison Hotel and L.A. woman, Jim's voice started to show some cracks from all the years of drinking and smoking. But they took advantage of his new voice by subtlely changing their sound to a more blues-rock feel. Their final album L.A. woman may even be their finest album, containing such classic songs as the title track and Riders on the storm.
How to buy The Doors:
Start with either The Doors (the debut) or L.A. woman depending on whether you prefer the psychedelic '67 sound or blues-rock. Then move inwards from both directions based on which sound you prefer more. Finish up with The soft parade, which is probably their weakest album.
4. Joy Division
Post-punk band Joy Division are one of the easiest bands (financially) to get into. They only released 2 albums before lead singer Ian Curtis' suicide in 1980 - Unknown pleasures and Closer (which was released posthumously in 1980).
Unknown pleasures could be described as the more accessible of the 2 albums, but with everything it's all relative. This is far from easy listening, with jerky rhythms, tortured lyrics and fine guitar work all brought together by Ian Curtis' sombre but urgent baritone vocals.
Closer subtlety evolved their sound by adding more keyboards and electronic textures, hinting at the path that the other band members would take when they morphed into New Order after Curtis' death. While I prefer Unknown pleasures overall, the original side B of Closer (on vinyl) - the run of songs from Heart and soul to Decades - is still one of the greatest album sides in popular music.
How to buy Joy Division:
Nothing else spelt "record company cash-in" more than 2008's compilation The Best of The Joy Division. Really? A best-of for a band who released a mere 2 albums in their lifetime? And 2 brilliant albums at that? I would start with Unknown pleasures because it's the more accessible of the 2, and then get Closer. After that you'll want to pick up the odds-and-sods collection Substance, which includes their classic Love will tear us apart, amongst other non-album A-sides and B-sides. Leave the "best of" where it belongs - in the bargain bin.
3. The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Another musical genius who died way too young, Jimi's original band The Jimi Hendrix Experience released only 3 albums in his lifetime. And he couldn't have really asked for a better run of albums.
Their seminal debut Are you experienced? is still considered a touchstone of guitar rock, and despite the fact that it was released in 1967, the guitar sound that Jimi achieved on this album still sounds like the future. The CD reissue appends 3 stand-alone singles (Hey Joe, Purple haze and The wind cries Mary) and their B-sides as bonus tracks.
Follow-up Axis: Bold as love (also released in 1967) maintained the sound of their debut, but added some more psychedelic elements to the mix as well (If 6 was 9, Castles made of sound) and some beautiful ballads which have almost become standards (Little wing). [On a side note, I find it incredibly amazing that back in the 1960s, musicians could quite easily release 2 top-quality albums in the one year, while so many pretenders these days take 4-5 years to release a disappointing album.]
Their final album, the double LP Electric Ladyland, was a different affair entirely. Bluesy and epic, it was a semi-concept album which included 2 tracks well over the 10-minute mark. While it's definitely their least accessible album, it's also their most rewarding.
How to buy The Jimi Hendrix Experience:
I'm beginning to sound like a broken record here, but this is another one of those bands where I would just recommend getting their albums in order. You don't want to delve into Electric ladyland first, because its scope and length may be offputting for someone not familiar with their genius. Are you experienced? is the perfect starting point, containing some of their most well-known songs. My only gripe with the 3 albums is that the classic Angel is not on any of the albums, but this can be picked up on posthumously-released First rays of the new rising sun, which was an attempt to create the album that Jimi was working on at the time of his death.
2. The Smiths
The Smiths are one of those bands who, the first time you hear them, you ask yourself where they have been all your life. It's also disappointing in many ways that I got into them so early in my music appreciation "career", as so many other bands have attempted to emulate their sound (and what they achieved in their short lifespan) but fail miserably. The Smiths are also exhibit A in the case that 80s music wasn't all cheesy pop, being a guitar-based band in a sea of their synth-pop contemporaries. It probably also explains why their music hasn't aged so badly.
Despite how influential they were, they only released 4 proper studio albums in their 6-year lifespan. But they were an old-fashioned band in many ways, as they also released a lot of non-album singles with amazing B-sides (in fact some of my favourite songs of theirs were B-sides). They were a real band who took pride in their work, not just appending cheesy remixes as an easy way to pad out singles.
Their debut album The Smiths worked as a suitable template for the rest of their career - jangly guitar, simultaneously sombre yet witty lyrics and Morrissey's wonderful (albeit polarising) vocals. My only gripe with this album is that it is a bit under-produced in places, but the songwriting and performances more than make up for it. And underproduction in the 80s is probably a better avenue than over-production which has aged way too much music from the era. 2nd album Meat is murder is similar in sound to their debut (the production still being pretty raw), but they also managed to expand their sound a little - like on the rockabilly pastiche of Rusholme ruffians.
3rd album The queen is dead is considered by many to be their masterpiece, and I find it hard to disagree with this. It's just a lovely album from beginning to end, alternating between sad but witty laments (I know it's over, There is a light that never goes out), upbeat pop arrangements concealing dark lyrics (Cemetary gates, Bigmouth strikes again) and also Morrissey's trademark whimsy (Frankly Mr Shankly, Vicar in a tutu, Some girls are bigger than others).
Their final album Strangeways, here we come maintained the production values of the previous album, but they continued to diversify their sound - Girlfriend in a coma was probably their most pop song to date (despite the dark lyrics), Death of a disco dancer contained some fine piano playing (courtesy of Morrissey himself) and Paint a vulgar picture was a cynical look at record companies and how they cash-in on helpless artists (ironic now considering how much record companies have milked the Smiths' discography for all that it's worth).
How to buy The Smiths:
The Smiths are one of the few bands where I would not recommend buying their albums in order. I would start out with The queen is dead, because it's their best and most accessible album. Then get their self-titled debut album, because it's simply the next best bunch of songs. After this point, get either Meat is murder, Strangeways, here we come or singles/B-sides compilation Louder than bombs (which amazingly only overlaps with their 4 albums by a single song). Louder than bombs is essential to complete the story of the Smiths, containing some of their finest work which was never released on any of their "official" albums. You won't need to get anything else other than their 4 albums and Louder than bombs - some will say Hatful of hollow is a worthwhile purchase, but there's too much overlap with the rest of their stuff, and you can probably live without the 2 tracks which aren't available elsewhere (Handsome devil and Accept yourself).
1. Nick Drake
Sadly, another career that ended in tragedy. Nick Drake was the Vincent Van Gogh of music; completely under-appreciated and unknown during his lifetime, but developed a cult following after his death.
Nick Drake was a massively accomplished folk-rock-blues guitarist, beautiful singer and composer. Sadly, he only released 3 albums during his lifetime. Happily, they are all absolute gems and each one is worth picking up. Each one is also different enough from the others to make it completely indispensible.
Debut album Five leaves left introduced Nick Drake to the world. If opening track Time has told me doesn't pull at your heartstrings, then sadly Nick Drake probably isn't for you. Follow-up song River man is an absolutely gorgeous track, one of his finest. Rarely does the rest of the album dip below the quality of the first 2 tracks, and the final song trilogy of Man in the shed, Fruit tree and Saturday sun is still one of the best runs of songs I have heard.
Follow-up album Bryter layter continues the sound of the debut, but adds a lot more production and orchestration to the mix. Some have said that this album has dated a bit more than the others because of the production, and while I would tend to agree a bit, the songwriting elevates this album to another level entirely. Hazey Jane II practically invented Belle & Sebastian, and if anyone has recorded a song more beautiful than Northern sky, I have yet to hear it.
Final album Pink moon is a different beast from the previous album entirely. Minimal and folky, this is just Nick's tender vocals and his guitar (with a piano overdub only on the opening title track). Because of the minimalistic sound, this is the most difficult album to listen to out of the three, but if you are in the right mood it could be one of the most beautiful things you hear. Nick invented lo-fi indie folk on this album.
2 years after the release of Pink moon, Nick Drake was dead at the age of 26 from an apparent suicide. Luckily for us, he left behind 3 near-perfect albums.
I've been listening a lot to the classic albums podcast lately, which I highly recommended to any music fan. On each episode, the 2 podcasters Stephen and Gary give the other one an album which they consider to be a classic, and then they talk about it on the next show. On one episode, Stephen (I think) gave Gary a copy of Five leaves left.
There was a great quote in the podcast where Stephen said (and I'm paraphrasing here) Your life will be better with Nick Drake in it. I think this sums up the genius of Nick Drake perfectly for me. His music truly will enrich your life.
How to buy Nick Drake:
I started out with Bryter layter, then moved back to Five leaves left, and finally picked up Pink moon. This order worked well for me, because I fell in love with Bryter layter and simply had to pick up the others. Definitely start with either Five leaves left or Bryter layter, but get Pink moon last. The only reason I say this is that Pink moon is not representive of the sound of his other 2 albums, and its bare sound may be offputting to some. They are all fantastic though.
- Crowded House would have made the list for their original 4 albums, but now that they have released the reunion album Time on earth (still a solid album), their discography doesn't feel so concise anymore.
- Big Star released 3 albums during their lifetime, and all are very solid. They just missed the cut.
- Traveling Wilburys and The Stone Roses both released only 2 albums during their lifetime, but in both cases their debut album overshadowed the follow-up too much, that their discography felt a bit unbalanced.