But my favorite moments in these podcasts are when Bill and Chuck talk about craft. They have both carefully projected images as shiftless Xers…but the secret that seeps out when you get to listen in on a casual conversation is that they both think very carefully about their craft…and work very hard. At one point in their first podcast (which does not appear to be extant) they argued that writers (including themselves) improve with age while musicians make their best contributions early in their career.
The great irony of this discussion is that I think that, while they both remain worth reading, I think both of these guys peaked in the early years of their careers. While all of his works are worth reading, Chuck’s fist widely published book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was unquestionably his best. And Simmons early columns were so shockingly original that they created culture at an astonishing rate.
Anyway, I am fascinated by the creative process and am particularly fascinated by the contrast between momentary virtuosity and sustained excellence. I consider engineers and scientists participants in the creative process (at least the ones I respect). But we unquestionably improve with time. You could plot the quality of an engineer’s work with time and apart for loss of interest or the cognative hardening that affects advanced life stages, it would plot as a steady increase.  So, I thought I’d test the Simmons-Klosterman Hypothesis with bands I have enjoyed in the last year or so.
My data set includes seven bands that fit the following criteria:
1. I have listened to most of their music to the extent that I have an opinion on it
2. They have 3 or (preferably more) albums spanning a decade
3. At least one of their albums was outstanding
I’ll open with the Killers because Simmons has, himself, expressed an opinion on their trajectory:
“I don't want to say The Killers are going in the wrong direction, but their third album made their second album sound like a cross between "Born in the USA" and "Nevermind" ... and I'm currently using the second album's CD as a coaster for ginger ale.” –Bill Simmons
Well, I thought Hot Fuss was very good, but Sam’s Town is their finest work in my opinion.  I loved the concept and while none of the songs were as subversively original as “Mr Brightside” they were consistently excellent (and on themes I found more enobling). “When we Were Young” can still make me shudder from time to time. Then they fell off a cliff. The only memorable song on the overlong Sawdust is a remix of “Mr. Brightside”. Day and Age was a slight improvement due entirely to the comedic possibilities surrounding lines like ‘are we human or are we dancers’.
And this sets the template. It appears that several of the bands I like reverse the assumption of a sophomore slump. Instead we see a sophomore surge. A very good debut is followed by a phenomenal second album, after which, things fall off.
Paramore follows this trend precisely.
mewithoutYou also demonstrates this pattern, but their albums are all so good, that, while there is a relative tailing off between album 2 and 3, the latter albums are still exceptional. In fact, Brother Sun Sister Moon, still cracks my all time top 10…but it is a ‘drop off’ from Catch for us the Foxes which is my favorite album of all time.
Sufjan is more like an engineer. His music starts good and just gets better. Avalanche cannot be considered a drop off because it was the compilation of the 21 tracks that were not good enough to make it on the 22 track Illinoise. It is a double length B side of a double length album and is still excellent. Sadly, it seems that Sufjan has gotten board with pumping out phenomenal albums. But I have to respect the impulse to not make music rather than putting out art that is less than he knows he is capable of just to make another paycheck.
Death Cab for Cutie is a special case. They do not have a transcendent album…but they also do not have a bad one. When Death Cab puts out an album you know what you are getting.  They are indistinguishable…but they are indistinguishably good.
The Decemberists started strong and peaked four albums in. Crane Wife would be a perfect album if it wasn’t for two conspicuously sub-par songs in the middle. But then The Hazard of Love did not live up. (Note: Hazard of Love is a serious piece of concept art. I have not really gotten into it since I got it for Christmas, but I have not really invested the work it probably deserves. While the album failed to make me want to do the work it is possible I just don’t ‘get it’ yet. And this band has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt).
Finally, Modest Mouse is the quintessential late bloomer. This first couple albums are pretty brutal. But he tinkered with his sound and themes in Good News for People Who Love Bad News and the results were fantastic. Long time fans saw it as a sell out, but count me in the camp that considers it his greatest work. He kept the pieces in place for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and the quality remained high.
No definitive trend emerged. I had long held that a bands best album (or a writer’s best book) was usually their first, because they worked on it for a decade, and then were pressured to produce a follow up in a tenth of that time. But it seems like the second or third album is the sweet spot. The band is still raw and hungry enough to resonate but has learned the lessons of the early work.
Post Script: The KLOV-ification of Christian Music
I found my mistaken hypothesis (that bands peaked with their first album) interesting and gave some thought to its genesis. I believe I have identified the culprit: the most promising bands of the late 1990’s Christian Music scene.
I spent the 1990’s listening exclusively to Christian music…and I wasn’t even interesting enough to listen to Five Iron Frenzy or The Choir. So you have to believe me when I tell you that you cannot understate the sub-genre renaissance represented by 1995-1997. Not only did DC Talk put out an album you could listen to without embarrassed smirking, but three new bands came on the scene that seemed to actually be doing art. We thought we were witnessing Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century or Motown at the beginning of the last one. Jars even got some mainstream attention for their driving ‘Flood’ which was excellent but wasn’t even the second best song on the album.
But here are their subsequent time series:
All three bands quickly traded in their gritty, driving, and/or experimental flavors for bland easy listening. We never got another ‘Consuming Fire,’ ‘Bus Driver,’ or ‘Liquid.’ We never even got another ‘Flood.’ And I blame KLOVE. KLOVE was the Walmartification of Christian music.
With the exception of ‘Flood’ the bands weren’t quite good enough to get mainstream play the only way they could get exposure is through the historically tepid ‘contemporary’ Christian radio stations that market themselves as ‘safe for the whole family.’ It might just be me, but it does not seem like ‘safe for the whole family’ is the head space in which great art thrives.
So instead of a sophomore surge, these promising young bands quickly gave us, what I will call ‘music for vacuuming.’ Our best chance at resonating with Xers turned their talents to the middle age house wives that drive Christian radio giving. And it seems like the powers that be have actually convinced the artists that it is for the better. Amanda and I went to a concert a couple years ago where Aaron Tate joked that they had tried to destroy every copy of their first album out of embarrassment. The only song that gets play from those three seminal works is the tepid ‘Love Song for a Savior’ that might not even exceed the median quality of the album it appeared on, but is sufficiently tepid for the airwaves.
Anyway, because the first three bands I cared about as an adult followed this trajectory, it became my default hypothesis. Bands come on the scene with the pent up creativity of hungry decades, and then follow up with lesser works. But I have come to believe that this is not so much a general insight on the creative process but an artifact of the structure of late 90’s Christian music.
This post was written while listening to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse
 Here I am talking about podcasts proper, not the explosion of outstanding, free, MP3 content. A close second is the Economist podcast.
 I talked about my affection for these guys in one of my favorite posts.
 Sometimes, when I write fiction, I write a sentence and then sit back and say “I can do this.” But then it is a week before I write another…meanwhile there is a 500 page Updike novel in my backpack that conspicuously lacks a single pedestrian sentence. Last week some golfer I have never heard of hit a single round all time low score…something Tiger et al have never done. When interviewed he said the reason that Tiger et al were great and he was just good is that he has amazing days and bad days…they consistently have great days. Consistency seems to be the currency of greatness…unless you are Nirvana…then you just have to write the single greatest song of a generation and the rest of discography gets a mulligan.
 An interesting counter-example to this appears to be Mathematicians. Apparently if you haven’t made your mathematical contribution by 25 you resign yourself to mediocrity.
 He wrote this right after their 4th album, so I am going to chalk it up to a mistake…I think he is saying that Sawdust was terrible and Day and Age was worse.
 I have written about this before and they will eventually get their own post, but part of this sustained greatness is a complete reinvention of their sound for each album.
 Good lyrics, a great but familiar sound, some compelling story telling and mopy themes…essentially country music for hipsters.
 Someone at the time told me that I was being ‘too Christian’ by limiting my artistic appreciation to a sub-culture. The irony was that I wasn’t being Christian enough.
 Whether ‘Christian music’ is a helpful or even a meaningful label will eventually be another post if I can edit it to the point of less-than-disturbingly-bitter.
 In a related note, I did not have much interest in music in the late 1990’s. And, yes, I know that that means I missed grunge in real time, the quintessential artistic voice of my generation…please don’t rub it in.
 Seriously, Jesus Freak was a water to wine (2 buck chuck, but wine none the less) transformation that could be cited as evidence for a all powerful and benevolent creator. I know this sounds silly, but going from being as bad as they were and then suddenly listenable still strikes me a requiring divine intervention.
 It is worth noting that I probably grade Christian music on a curve. These bands’ good albums probably get overrated because they were getting compared to Carmen, Sandi Patti and DCT’s early work at the time. But the latter albums are probably not as bad as I am remembering. The grades are likely the residual physic effects of my disappointment.
 In their recent album, Jars included a song ‘O God’, which was a refreshingly honest song about the hiddeness of God that had a distinctively ‘Worlds Apart’ feel to it…the primary reason this album didn’t suck.
 Over the course of the 1990’s and 2000’s the localized Christian radio stations that offered mostly radio preachers, children’s shows, goofy reenactments and hymns were gradually replaced by and expanding juggernaut, KLOVE, that offered exclusively musical content. This played out like the premier of V. At first the V’s appeared to be benevolent allies, but soon the dark side emerged. Having a single centralized entity determining national radio play acts as quality control on the industry but it also militates against niche (the force that has driven the greatest era of musical creativity since Motown and Vienna) and results in a bland, lowest common denominator selection process.
 And, it is possible that they suffered from anti-religious bias…but Christians have hidden bad art behind that boogieman for so long that I hesitate to invoke it, even in part.
 I love Driscoll’s thoughts on the Christian use of the word ‘contemporary.’ He likes to say that ‘Most contemporary services wouldn’t even be contemporary for 1984.’
 Actually, this is the tag line for KLOVE’s commercial competitor, but they both say the same sorts of things, and seem to share play lists.
 My friend Dan actually objects to this idea more broadly suggesting that there may not be a more alien idea to the teachings of Jesus than the pursuit of personal safety.
 As a side note, Switchfoot’s time series looks much more like those previously documented. Their best album was their second, the 1999 New Way to be Human (which would not get a sniff of KLOVE play time) and subsequent work did not fall of quite as precipitously.