Have Anybody Made Their Best Album After 33?

Every time an older pop/rock musician comes out with a new album, the reviews are always “this is the best album they’ve made since that album that was actually good several decades ago” (and then two months later, nobody ever listens to the new album ever again).

So I’ve been idly wondering whether there is a pop/rock artist that has ever actually created their best album ever after they’re 33 — I couldn’t think of anybody offhand.

Data science to the rescue!

Now, note that I didn’t say “created a good album” or “wrote some good songs”, because that happens all the time. But their best album?

And, sure, it’s all subjective blah blah blah, but surely nobody reasonable would say that I/O is Peter Gabriel’s best album. Surely! There must be some sanity in the world!

So I picked a couple dozen artists that have had long careers, and plotted their albums in the chart above. The ones that somebody reasonably could call “their best” are marked in green. When it’s a band, I’ve picked the “main songwriter”, but bands are usually more or less the same age, so it doesn’t matter that much.

And… my intuition was basically kinda correct: The vast majority of what can be considered “best albums” are done before the age of 33. But there’s some outliers, like Pet Shop Boys, Kate Bush and Kraftwerk.

For jazz performers and contemporary composers, I think the productive career is often longer? I don’t really have a theory as to why older pop musicians stop writing banging tracks, but my guess is that they get so good at stitching together reasonably OK-sounding songs that they stop experimenting — and if you don’t experiment, you don’t fail or stumble upon new, cool tunes.

I’ve put the data on Microsoft Github, and I got the data from discogs… which reminds me that I should do some whinging about discogs:

So Eurythmics have done 27 albums? Really? Yes, because they include all effluvia like “BBC Rock Hour #434 (Version “A”)” in the “album” section, so even if they’ve really only done, like, ten albums, you get all this junk.

I’ve tried to edit out the junk, so I may have missed some, or edited too much, but it doesn’t really make that much difference to my extremely scientific approach here.

Did you know that The Beatles released 174 albums? Not many people do.

(And also: Nyah, nyah, Betteridge’s law.)

9 thoughts on “Have Anybody Made Their Best Album After 33?”

  1. Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks (1975 @ 34), Oh Mercy (1989 @ 48), Time Out of Mind (1997 @ 56).

    22 Pistepirkko: Rally of Love (2001 @ 39, 37, 37)

    Claus Hempler: Kuffert fuld af mursten (2019 @ 49).

    Hole: Celebrity Skin (1998 @ 34, 35, 26).

    Johnny Cash: American Recordings (1994 @ 62).

    Leonard Cohen: The Future (1992 @ 58).

    Madonna: Ray of Light (1998 @ 40).

    Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (1962 @ 36).

    Suzanne Vega: Nine Objects Of Desire (1996 @ 37).

    Tom Petty: Wildflowers (1994 @ 44).

    Some outliers, but not many.

  2. Thom Yorke, really really like In Rainbows, but maybe I’m the outlier.

    Mark Hollis?

    But yes, not many.

  3. OK, overthinking this, there goes my Sunday morning. Thanks Lars.

    I think this is difficult because pretty much all artists had their “breakout” album quite early (otherwise you simply have to stop doing this because people need to eat), and this is often considered their best, just because it usually perfectly encapsulated their “signature sound” and if often was “new” in some way. And even if they later did better work or perfected their sound, it often isn’t considered “best”, simply because it isn’t new anymore and often also their popularity has waned and nobody listened. I think quite a few artists get more experimental as they grow older, especially because the financial burden is gone and they just don’t give a shit anymore if this stuff can be sold (see Mark Hollis above).

    For instance: Björk. I think Vespertine or Vulnicura are probably her best albums, but of course, if you ask “people on the street”, they’d say Debut or Post.

    Similarly, I like Beck’s later albums like Morning Phase better.

    Then again, I’m a rube.

    I also know some rabid Nick Cave fans who think he’s at his peak RIGHT NOW (not a big fan, so I can’t judge).

    Or look at what Karin Dreijer is doing nowadays.

    1. You make some good points, David, but it’s complicated. But I’m still right. 😀

      Let me bloviate some more.

      Yes, some artists become more experimental as they grow older. For instance, David Sylvian pivoted to improvised music and away from pop with pretty good results. But Manafon, for instance, is really a showcase for the “tunes that aren’t really tunes” thing many older pop musicians suffer under — the melodies are random walks between notes that fit together pleasantly, and that any experienced musician can do in their sleep. I don’t think anybody reasonable would claim Manafon as being better than, say, Secrets of the Beehive.

      David Bowie and Nick Cave are even more complicated cases. There are people that were really enthusiastic about Blackstar, and there are people who are really into Nick Cave’s current stuff. But it’s hard to disentangle your love for these artists and their situations on the one hand, and their albums on the other hand: Blackstar being released after Bowie’s death, and Cave’s travails over the past few years. But when I was at a Cave concert a couple years back, people responded way, way more to The Mercy Seat and The Weeping Song than any of the new stuff.

      As for Dreijer — would anybody reasonable really class Radical Romantics over Silent Shout? I’m kinda doubtful.

      OK, enough blithering on my part! This time I mean it for sure!

    2. I agree with you about bjork and beck. awhile ago beck put out a pop album better than anything on the radio. i killed it. he was 46.

  4. I love Radical Romantics, but you are of course right. I was at a Fever Ray concert last year, and if she had done Silent Shout, at least I would have gone apeshit purely out of nostalgia (not so sure about the rest though, I was pretty much the oldest dude, she has a ton of young fans).

    OK, but you asked about “anybody”, so let me throw Bryan Ferry in the ring. Like it or not, I think Avalon is pretty much considered peak Ferry, if not for “More than this” alone, which is nowadays in every soundtrack for anything that is trying to evoke the 80s.

    1. OK, I couldn’t help myself — I added some of the artists mentioned. 🫠

      And now with a more high res image, too:

  5. Very interesting, thanks for doing the work on this.
    One thing i noticed is that besides their youth, for the most part these artists are producing a lot of albums, one or more a year, at the start of their careers but then the gaps stretch out. If you stay creatively active and keep recording (like Chris Lowe/Pet Shop Boys, Miles Davis, Johnny Cash) you keep progressing.

  6. just came to say, i also totally hate the addition of superfluous albums on music apps. i currently use youtube premium and it is exactly like discogs. full of random best ofs and lives at. i just need the core. have a subsection for lives, singles, etc.

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