Content in Context is on the road again, so over the next three weeks, instead of the usual stuff, please enjoy a series of musical interludes. And in keeping with that trio theme, the first addresses the the notion of “the album trilogy”.
I don’t mean triple albums (i.e., no bloated live collections, or multi-disc greatest hits…) but three individual studio albums, released sequentially, by a single artist or band. They weren’t necessarily conceived as a trilogy, but somehow they have come to form a self-contained, mini-canon. Either they reflect a key period in the artist’s career, and/or they represent a significant shift in style and content.
Few artists are capable of sustaining seismic shifts in their output. Sure, plenty of artists can turn out reasonable runs of “consist” albums (read: same again, or “why mess with a winning formula?), but few have created a truly unique and memorable sequence of three albums, that can also each individually hold their own in lists of all-time great records.
Even a band like the Beatles failed to create such a trilogy: yes, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road are both great albums, but however you cut it, the albums either side of those releases were either patchy (inside the double White Album lies an amazing single album…), compilations (Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine), or released out of sequence (Let It Be). And their contemporaries and friendly rivals, the Beach Boys, could not match the genius of Pet Sounds – neither Wild Honey nor Smiley Smile (as good as they may be in parts) managed to sustain that level of quality, especially in light of the subsequent reworked/reissued “lost” albums that lurked within their 1967-1968 recording sessions.
So, with no other criteria, here is a list of my favourite album trilogies (and like any other music list, the selections are highly subjective):
David Bowie: Low, “Heroes”, Lodger (The Berlin Trilogy) – A pivotal time in Bowie’s career, reflecting his European exile (following his US meltdown), helped by Brian Eno, and largely inspired by the city it references (where much of the material was produced). Plus, after his folk, glam and plastic soul periods, these albums include some of his most enduring songs. Aside from 1980’s Scary Monsters (something of a related coda to the Berlin albums), Bowie would never quite reach the same critical success until his final two albums, The Next Day and Black Star.
Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, Remain in Light – also helped by Eno, these albums showed the band shift in style, sentiment and subject matter. The albums that followed featured a few great songs, but nothing of the sustained output of the trilogy.
Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde – Dylan goes electric, finds his groove, and writes some of his best material, before going “country”…. He could have had a further trilogy incorporating Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but the previous album, Planet Waves is a poor effort, and after Desire, Dylan found sanctimony, religion and reggae.
Wire: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154 – Rather like the punk era they emerged from, Wire’s first three albums are a 1,2,3 assault on your musical senses. Despite being closely identified with punk, taken together these albums totally outclassed most of their contemporaries.
Magazine: Real Life, Secondhand Daylight, The Correct Use of Soap – Like Wire, Magazine emerged from the ashes of punk, and like Wire, with their first three albums, they defined much of what has become to be known as post-punk (and also transcended most of their contemporaries). Plus, they came from Manchester.
Bjork: Debut, Post, Homogenic – Across her first three solo releases, Bjork established and defined a musical individuality that continues to this day: choosing to work with interesting combinations of producers and musicians, exploring different song-writing and composition styles, and developing a distinct narrative arc across each album.
Madonna: Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light, Music – This sequence of albums probably represents Madonna’s critical peak (not necessarily the height of her commercial success). Certainly they present a more mature and sophisticated sound, and draw on Madonna’s knack for choosing songwriters and producers that are in tune with (and even define) the zeitgeist – a trait she shares with Bjork.
Dusty Springfield: Where Am I Going, Dusty … Definitely, Dusty in Memphis – I’m not sure if this classifies as a guilty pleasure, but this sequence of late ’60s releases saw Dusty Springfield transition from her previous albums of pop, standards and show-tunes to more focused, classic soul and r’n’b – but still including her choice of key ballads by Bacharach & David (a constant factor in her repertoire).
Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express, Man Machine, Computer World – The albums that defined electronica and modern dance music. Sure, Autobahn was a breakthrough album, but compared to that huge success, Radioactivity was something of a curious follow-up (although it seems to have gotten better with time). And afterwards, it largely seems that Kraftwerk have been content to keep re-cycling/re-working/re-visiting their earlier work.
Massive Attack: Blue Lines, Protection, Mezzanine – The “Sound of Bristol”, that helped trigger the genre known as trip-hop (now something of blighted category). OK, purists may argue that No Protection came between Protection and Mezzanine, but I see it as a remix album (albeit a very good one). Each album is also built around key female guest vocalists, that unlike many other “featuring” collaborations do not feel like gimmicks or marketing ploys.
Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later, Pink Moon – By sad fate, this is the entire output of Nick Drake’s short recording career. Not much more I can say, other than he achieved far more with these three albums than most singer-songwriters have managed with much larger output. Less is definitely more.
Close calls: Other artists that nearly made the cult of the trilogy include: Elvis Costello, Flaming Lips, OMD, John Cale, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, New Order, Beck, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth, Echo & the Bunnymen…
Next week: The Soundtracks of My Life…