Bands On The Run

You make an album, a bonified studio-recorded long-player, frankly that’s an accomplishment unto itself in my book. Create a truly great one, just one, and you may be etched in rock and roll history. See Blind Faith, Rockpile, Derek & the Dominos, and the Sex Pistols if you think that’s hyperbole. Two or three standout records in a row? That’s already going to merit an exalted stature. A rarefied air in the music world. But to generate a real album run, one demonstrably great album after another, is to enter a legendary status. Rock immortality – or some such similarly trite categorization. Neither its uniqueness nor significance can really be overstated, though; we’re talking about the most incredible recording career arcs in rock music history. That, too, is no exaggeration.

Shall we explore the absolute greatest ones ever? Why yes, let’s do that.

Three main issues need clarification first:

  • Firstly, our title was Bands on the Run. Bands. That’s what we’re limiting this analysis to, genuine bands. Naturally, that eliminates from consideration many possible individuals such as Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Elton John, David BowieBruce Springsteen¹, Elvis CostelloBob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell. Yes, understood. Spoiler alert: they could all qualify – well, probably – but we’re going to leave the solo artist discussion to another time.
¹I know, for purposes of compiling another list, I once assured you that Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band was, de facto, a band. But, I don’t know, the albums all have only his name – not the band’s – on them. And I don’t want to get into an argument with anyone over my general distaste for Nebraska.
  • Next, what exactly is to be properly thought of as a run? Our intro cited a quantity greater than two or three, so let’s establish that as the minimum standard: four or more albums, released consecutively (naturally). But further weight must also be given for further numbers. All else being equal, for instance, a run of five great albums historically surpasses a run of four, and so on. That’s the last of our math exercises.
  • Finally, and this is really key, is the question of duration, in this case the shortest being most impressive, for which heavy priority should and will be awarded. Consider: in what compacted length of time were our entrants able to produce these multiple monolithic pieces of rock. There must be some tight linear time connectivity (is that a thing, or did I just make that up?), none of this Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy crap. In short, speed counts – at least for this consideration of the optimal band recording runs ever.

With those understandings in place we’re ready to name our Top Five Best Band Album Runs of All Time. But in the run-up to that proper list, first there are some Honorable Mentions, to get us, um, off and running.

The Who

Run: 5 albums in 9 years, 3 months

    • Tommy (1969)
    • Who’s Next (1971)
    • Quadrophenia (1973)
    • The Who by Numbers (1975)
    • Who Are You (1978)

Starting with 1969’s Tommy, The Who combined pioneering thematics and overwhelming acoustics to re-shape what rock music could sound like as well as what types of stories it could present. Although it took them a comparatively long time to accomplish this 5-album stretch, who could deny its lasting brilliance? Who, who, who, who? (I really want to know).

Earth, Wind & Fire

Run: 5 albums in 4 years, 8 months

    • Open Our Eyes (1974)
    • That’s the Way of the World (1975)
    • Gratitude (1975)
    • Spirit (1976)
    • All ‘n All (1977)

It’s unfortunate that to many Earth, Wind & Fire are thought of as a glossy party band, surely based mainly on the omnipresence of mid-career hits ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and – who doesn’t remember – ‘September’ (don’t be fooled, both great songs too). But that focus sadly fails to appreciate that EWF in the ‘70’s put out some of the most ambitious, extravagant, spiritual, genre- and culture-crossing, flat-out funkiest albums ever heard in popular music. And yes, we’re including a (primarily) live album (Gratitude) as part of this seismic run because a) it did also include numerous previously unreleased studio tracks, and b) its relentless awesomeness really leaves me no choice.

Pink Floyd

Run: 4 albums in 6 years, 8 months

    • The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
    • Wish You Were Here (1975)
    • Animals (1977)
    • The Wall (1979)

A succession of cinematic masterworks, beginning with the longest-charting album in Billboard history, Dark Side of the Moon, and continuing through the delightfully overblown theatricality of The Wall. In this sonically and emotionally evocative 4-album span, no band inspired more introspection, or bong hits.

The Doors

Run: 6 albums – full discography (I don’t count whatever came after Morrison’s death) – in 4 years, 3 months

    • The Doors (1967)
    • Strange Days (1967)
    • Waiting for the Sun (1968)
    • The Soft Parade (1969)
    • Morrison Hotel (1970)
    • L.A. Woman (1971)

From pop radio hits to haunting poetic dirges, six dramatically affecting records emerged in just over four years. And then, in a bathtub in Paris, The End, with Jim Morrison’s utterly predictable death. When the music’s over, turn out the lights.

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Alright, I think now we’re officially ready to run. Here we go, let’s count down the Top Five Best Band Album Runs of All Time.

5. Rolling Stones

Run: 10 albums in 12 years, 8 months

    • Beggars Banquet (1968)
    • Let It Bleed (1969)
    • Sticky Fingers (1971)
    • Exile on Main St. (1972)
    • Goats Head Soup (1973)
    • It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (1974)
    • Black and Blue (1976)
    • Some Girls (1978)
    • Emotional Rescue (1980)
    • Tattoo You (1981)

Following the psychedelic pop of their prior two records, Beggar’s Banquet began an extended period bridging the ‘60’s to the ‘80’s of rootsier, bluesier, blessedly chaotic and more imperfectly perfect albums – when the Rolling Stones truly became The Stones. You could also break up this historic 10-album run as 6 albums (in under 6 years) thru It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, then the next 4 albums of late-period Stones through Tattoo You. And yes, the early ‘80’s was in fact late-period Stones; the idea that 40 years on they’ve just put out a brand new album in 2023, with Mick & Keith both hitting an even 80 years of age, cannot logically be explained or considered.

4. Steely Dan

Run: 6 albums – their first 6 – in 4 years, 10 months

    • Can’t Buy a Thrill (1972)
    • Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
    • Pretzel Logic (1974)
    • Katy Lied (1975)
    • The Royal Scam (1976)
    • Aja (1977)

Coming as their very first six albums, two guys from New York incredibly conceived, created and produced an output to make the ’27 Yankees envious. The ingenious ‘Do It Again’ was track one on the debut Can’t Buy a Thrill – how do you start like that?! – and they somehow did just that, again and again, in under five years total, releasing a stunning series of innovative, provocative, sophisticated, often enigmatic but never anything than flawlessly tuneful gems. Even leaving 1980’s Gaucho out of this celestial bracket seems cruel, but the lack of uniform impeccability among its 7 tunes, together with the indulgent 3-year hiatus, forced a difficult excision.

3. Beatles

Run: 10 albums in 5 years, 8 months

    • Please Please Me (1963)
    • With the Beatles (1963)
    • A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
    • Beatles for Sale (1964)
    • Help! (1965)
    • Rubber Soul (1965)
    • Revolver (1966)
    • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
    • Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
    • The White Album (1968)

Are we over-thinking things? I mean, The Beatles, for chrissakes, the greatest rock and roll band of all time – and I’ll fight anyone who obtusely claims otherwise. At this point attempting to sum up their supremacy is surely, well, pointless. These ten planet-altering presses in under 6 years, though? What more can really be said. But we’ll nick them into third place on a minor technicality: Yellow Submarine, arriving next in 1969, was really kind of a half album of new songs, a couple previous releases, and an orchestral soundtrack to the animated film of the same name. Were it not for this, let’s call it “glitch,” the succeeding coda of Abbey Road and Let It Be would have tallied 13 pristine albums – their full epic discography – in just 7 years and 2 months. All these pieces have their moments…in my life, I’ve loved them all.

2. Led Zeppelin

Run: 6 albums – their first 6 – in 6 years, 1 month

    • Led Zeppelin (1969)
    • Led Zeppelin II (1969)
    • Led Zeppelin III (1970)
    • Led Zeppelin IV (Zoso) (1971)
    • Houses of the Holy (1973)
    • Physical Graffiti (1975)

Hard Rock knew neither “hard” nor “rock” adequately before the earth-shattering landing of four English lads known as Led Zeppelin in January of 1969. Like Steely Dan’s entrant here, astonishingly these bedrock behemoths of popular music were Zeppelin’s very first six releases. Can you even imagine rock music’s existence without any one of them? Or of a more significant classic rock catalog, achieved in this case in just a shade over six years? This remarkable six-album run reverberates – figuratively, and no doubt literally as well – across the lives of every post-1969 popular musician or music listener. I see no exceptions. It’s been a long time since they’ve rock and rolled, but thank (the rock) god they once did.

1. Creedence Clearwater Revival

Run: 7 albums – the full discography – in 3 years, 9 months

    • Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)
    • Bayou Country (1969)
    • Green River (1969)
    • Willy and the Poor Boys (1969)
    • Cosmo’s Factory (1970)
    • Pendulum (1970)
    • Mardi Gras (1972)

Though this may not be who you expected, yes it was Creedence Clearwater Revival who created the single greatest band album run ever. We said at the top that the duration would be weighed as a key factor. CCR’s stellar song-making prowess is beyond debate, but their speed was nearly inconceivable: Seven landmark, hall-of-fame worthy records, indeed seven of the greatest albums in rock history – some important critics having remarked with nary the existence ever of a single sub-par tune² – delivered in the absolutely preposterous timeframe of just three-and-three-quarter years. You should probably read that again. And for Creedence, that was their beginning, middle and end: their complete irreplaceable catalog fulfilled from July of ’68 to April of ’72. That was it. From down on the corner to the mythic green river, that’s a legacy – for spotless greatness combined with outlandish pace – that no other band can equal.

²critics such as me and my friend Zing

Well, that’s the end of our run. So how about we salute our Bands on the Run champs Creedence Clearwater Revival with, what else, ‘Run Through The Jungle.’

Okay, run along now.