In modern music, it seems studio perfection is increasingly favoured over genuine alchemy. It is now common for artists to be spending anywhere between three and five years on albums. From Radiohead to The War On Drugs, these records are hailed as studio masterpieces with soundscapes defined by world-class production but are they worth the wait?
Having the time to endlessly labour over, surgically enhance, and, in regards to Adam Granduciel, mentally breakdown, means that room for error and quality songwriting is significantly slackened. But what can be said of their most prolific adversaries and how these works are digesting by the public and music industry.
Let’s take a look at some of the most prolific artists in history, their hibernating antithesis, and the relevant dangers of both.
From King Gizzard to Tame Impala, this is an analysis of the most prolific artists and their counterparts who work at a glacial pace.
A decade in review
As Andy Warhol once said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
If the last decade has produced anything praise-worthy it is two prevailing kings of Australian rock: Tame Impala, and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. With two wildly different approaches, they seem like the perfect touchstone for this debate.
Tame Impala mastermind Kevin Parker released his now deified first album, Innerspeaker, in 2010. Parker just released his fourth album Slow Rush in 2020, perfectly capping a remarkable arc in his career.
King Gizzard issued their debut, 12 Bar Bruise, in 2012, and released their 15th album, Infest The Rats Nest in 2019. More than three times the output of Tame Impala, Gizz have a scope spanning a score of genres and identities. Their relentless abundancy, that which peaked in 2017 with the release of 5 albums, has earnt them a rabid fanbase of cult worshippers.
The issue is, most fans can’t necessarily engage, absorb, and love five albums a year. Being possessively prolific is both King Gizzard’s greatest trait and biggest downfall. In the case of Gizz however, it is not art for art’s sake. They take considerable care with each album and they rarely feel like an afterthought. Ultimately, that is the main distinction to be made between success and excess. Prolificacy and profligacy.
In that regard, it’s rather remarkable. Stu Mackenzie has released more albums in seven years than most professional artists do in their career.
Kevin Parker, on the other hand, has released four award-winning albums in 10 years. While they are exceptionally conceived works, any artist can spend half a decade on one album. Only a finite number can proliferate the luxuriant output of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Thus, to cement the words of Warhol, it is far more important in today’s industry to be prolific, rather than perfect.
Deadheads and bootlegs
As one of the most venerated and hard-working live bands in history, the Grateful Dead have made a monopoly out of bootlegging their live shows, hundreds of which have received official releases.
When the Grateful Dead decided to rail against the instruction of Warner Bros. and allow fans to record their live performances, they kickstarted a marketplace of bootleg trades and changed the music industry forever. Today, some 2,000 of their 2,300 shows have been recorded, creating an endless wealth of music to explore.
Due to their ever-changing life performances and ferociously dedicated fanbase, this has made the Dead one of the most prolific groups in history. Moreover, this underground marketplace of trading tapes and tours reels meant that nobody, least of all the record labels, were profiting from the music they fervently believed should be free.
As the ultimate form of prolificacy, this clever development in their career allowed the Grateful Dead to dodge the debate of studio recording quality, and instead focus on what they do best, playing live.
While relatively niche during his lifetime, the enigmatic Frank Zappa is now a prophet of the avant-garde and it one of the most prolific artists of all time. Boasting one of the most impressive, if slightly manic, work ethics around, it was not uncommon for Zappa to spend up to 40 hours straight in the studio.
As a man of relative sobriety, this combination resulted in 62 studio albums and 49 posthumous ones. Yep, the man has 49 albums yet to release at the time of his death. This simply remarkable output has made a bible of Zappa’s work for aspiring musicians and written him into the annals of music history. Is every album a masterpiece? No. But more than a few certainly are.
Here two questions arise. Does every album have to be a masterpiece? And is it not better to have more music in the world than less? Whichever way you lean, the sheer volume of Zappa’s output sure hasn’t hurt his reputation.
One of the most celebrated, scrutinised, and likely overrated bands in history, Radiohead have made a career out of labour-intensive studio works. Spending many years on a single album in relentless pursuit of perfection has paid off in spades and rewarded listeners with some of the most emotionally intelligent music of the last few decades.
OK Computer, Kid A, Amnesiac and In Rainbows are arguably all masterpieces released from 1997-2007. Akin to Kevin Parker’s methodical approach, certainly aiming for earth-shattering, conceptual new heights with every subsequent release.
The most interesting thing about Radiohead’s body of work is the trajectory of their career and the development of the songwriting rather than any singular album.
As with Tame Impala’s fourth album, there is an inherent indulgence of time. The Slow Rush took five years to come to fruition, certainly living up to its name. In a world of instant gratification and mass ingestion, we need more creation and less consumption. Everyone can release one album in five years, but not everyone can release five albums in one year.