No surprise, all realized their creative high-points in their twenties and then fell off in their thirties and forties. But what surprised me was the rise for all three artists in their fifties that continued into their sixties. For Dylan specifically his output into his seventies has sustained a higher average score than any output since his twenties. Granted, this increase might have more to do with bias on the “RateYourMusic” site where the reviewers are hungry for anything new that’s worth anything (fan idolatry= easy grader), and it may disappear if the measure was a more objective assessment (like aggregated reviews via metacritic). Bowie's score in his sixties is based on the reviews for one album - "The Next Day" - which was just released a week before this posting. No way to know if those high ratings will hold up over time.
The Comeback Kid
Brian Wilson's rise from the ashes of a 1.58 rating for The Beach Boys release "Stars and Stripes" when he was 53 to his acclaimed "Smile" (which garnered a 3.81) when he was 61 was the biggest bounce-back. Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Bowie all saw solid returns to form in their 50's from the significant low points that were their 40's as well.
Descend and Level-off
Both Neil Young and David Byrne saw precipitous drops from their twenties to their thirties then leveled-off and were consistent through their fifities. David Byrne's twenties saw the release of the first four ground-breaking Talking Heads records, peaking with the seminal "Remain in Light" when he was 28. He also scored Twyla Tharp's dance project "The Catherine Wheel" and produced "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts with Brian Eno". Young was even busier in his twenties, releasing twelve albums which included records with CSN&Y, Buffalo Springfield and his top-rated solo album: "After the Gold Rush". Young has been the most prolific member of the collective, being involved in the release of 43 studio albums over 46 years of recording.
Artists that just continued to slide after the heyday of their twenties include Prince, Elvis Costello, Van Morrison, and Pete Townshend. What is particularly interesting about Townshend is the see-sawing of ratings once he started releasing solo albums in his 30's. The reviews of the Who records were significantly lower than those for his solo records.
Of the twenty-six songwriters examined, I couldn't find an example of someone who consistently improved across decades. This may just owe to fan bias - you're never as good as your first record. But surely there are examples of folks who continue to improve. There were only three whose average rating by decade increased from their twenties to their thirties: Tom Waits, Jeff Tweedy (discussed later), and Joe Henry. Of the three, Henry saw the greatest gain. His output consistently improved from his twenties to his forties. His style changed considerably over that time, moving from the alt-country genre of his early records to a more expansive almost jazz-centric style in his more recent offerings. No coincidence that Waits and Henry are shown together here. Both are examples of artists who have doggedly explored the boundaries of their creativity and evolved significantly as songwriters across their careers.
Tweedy vs. Farrar
So Who's the Best?
That's a ridiculous question to ask, but we can at least quantify some results based on the data we have. The highest mark for an album was Abbey Road at 4.38 which is credited to both Lennon and McCartney. Lennon would have had the highest overall score for any artist if he had steered clear of collaborations with Yoko, however we are factoring in the "Whole Artist" here. The highest decade of achievement was Lou Reed in his 20's where he notched an incredible average of 4.18 - most likely owing to the deification of the Velvet Underground by audiophiles everywhere. But Tom Waits is the one artist who's output throughout his career has been consistently good. His average across five decades was 3.83. Unlike his peer group, there has yet to be a significant dip or falling off that most of the other artists with at least four decades worth of releases have experienced. In fact, his lowest rated album was "Foreign Affairs" at 3.39 which he released in his twenties. Since then only one album - the experimental opera "The Black Rider" he made in collaboration with William S. Burroughs - saw an average score of less than 3.65. Now in his sixties, Waits continues to crank out amazing music.
And that gives us soon-to-be fifty year-olds hope that anything is possible. Of course, it helps a little to be a genius like Tom Waits.
~ Kyle Biehle
March 20, 2013
Part of the idea for this post came after watching Beck's mesmerizing cover of Bowie's song "Sound and Vision". It got me thinking about the similarities between these two musical shape-shifters and where they each were at different ages in their careers. While I was putting the post together, I shared it with a few friends for feedback. Two friends pointed me to published works that actually tie in rather closely with this idea of when artists create, and both serve as great companion pieces to this one: Malcolm Gladwell's article "Late Bloomers" and Periscopic's terrific interactive visualization How Old Were They? . The Gladwell article appeared in the New Yorker in 2008 and was also featured in his collection of essays "What the Dog Saw". I actually borrowed the bubble-timeline technique in the "Albums by Artist view" from the Periscopic viz - so thanks for that Persicopic!
~March 22, 2013