The great Neil Young once asked the important question as to whether it’s better to burn out or fade away, and today we’re going to be taking a long, hard look at some bands who chose to do one or the other, and how it turned out for them. We’re looking at 10 bands who peaked early and we’ll be speaking on groups who had extremely strong first/second outings before taking a nose dive towards the weaker territory they now occupy (in some cases, this weakness is more extreme than others). And just like Mr. Young, we’ll be asking ourselves (and you, readers) whether it really was better for these bands to burn out and/or fade away, whether they should’ve quit while they were ahead, and whether or not we’re happy they’re still producing (admittedly mediocre) tunes.
10. Maroon Five
There’s few bands on Earth that are more consistently hated than Maroon Five, and for good reason. The Adam Levine-led project has produced some terrifically awful work as of late, with ridiculous songs such as “Moves Like Jagger” becoming so stale and overplayed that they’re best reserved for instances of cruel and unusual punishment rather than casual radio listening. That said, with all the justifiable hatred floating around, it’s easy to forget that Maroon Five’s first creative endeavour, Songs About Jane, was a really, really solid album. Before Levine and company became the vapid, pop-infused meatheads they appear to be these days, they were producing quality soft rock ballads that made good use of Levine’s unique voice, a sharp contrast to the overproduced whine that lets listeners known he’s attempting to make noise in their more recent work. Would it have been better to quit while they were ahead? In light of their recent work, we think it may’ve been.
9. Van Halen
So we’re taking a liberal application of the word “terrible” here, because it’s hard to suggest anything that Van Halen produced during their heyday was truly awful; rather, we like to think that they just got less good over the years. But that lessening of the goodness was enough for most folks to draw attention to the fact that their first two albums, Van Halen and Van Halen II, really were their strongest musical endeavors. Since these albums, the group has gone through some serious adversity, dealing with in-fighting, drug addictions, and the changing nature of the music industry, whose tastes don’t really gravitate towards “mind-shattering electric guitar tapping” so much as they do towards “Taylor Swift’s newest album” (we’re not hating, we love T-Swizzle). Regardless, it’s pretty apparent that these former heavyweight rockers have chosen the “fade away” route, but as in most instances it may’ve been better to just burn out after two legitimately great albums (this is a common thread throughout most of this list).
Someone once suggested to us that “If you can think of a song by Boston, the odds are damn good that it’s on the first album.” After a little independent research, we here at Goliath concluded that statement was absolutely true. “More than a Feeling”? Boston, 1976. “Long Time”? Boston, 1976. “Peace of Mind”? You get the picture. That’s not to suggest the band didn’t have success after their first album; rather, the band did release numerous albums after the breakout popularity of their first, but it’s easy to argue that they never again reached the heights achieved by their first album. Perhaps the consistent changes to the band’s lineup during their tenure on-stage contributed to the loss of urgency you hear in some of their later work. Or perhaps the long delays between their albums also worked to remove the sheen from this once heralded rock band.
7. Black Flag
If there’s one album that’s intrinsic to the development of the West Coast hardcore punk scene of the mid-eighties, it’s undoubtedly Black Flag’s Damaged, which consistently rates as one of the greatest debut albums of all time. A raw, blistering musical experience that took the immediacy of earlier punk movements (such as those in New York City and London in the 1970s) and combined it with prominent social themes of alienation, paranoia and non-conformity, Damaged is one of the most important rock and roll albums to come out in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, it set a standard that Black Flag would never again rise to, despite the success of their subsequent albums (some of which, like the group’s sophomore album My War, are still quite good). Another band which has gone through frequent lineup changes (the departure of vocalist Henry Rollins was difficult for both the singer and the group), Black Flag’s now-iconic first work places them firmly among the list of bands that may’ve peaked earlier than they should have (although it’s hard to argue with iconic, isn’t it?).
6. The Killers
Flashback to 2004, when a young alternative rock band from Las Vegas, Nevada, had taken the music world by storm with a little ditty called “Mr. Brightside,” a misnomer of a tune that featured some quality guitar riffage and the deadpan yet melancholy vocals of a brash, outspoken singer named Brandon Flowers. That band, The Killers, would experience immense success with both “Mr. Brightside” and the remainder of their debut album, Hot Fuss, which also featured singles “Somebody Told Me,” “All These Things That I’ve Done,” and “Smile Like You Mean It”; however, the band’s follow-up album, Sam’s Town, is often cited as a creative misstep for the group, and they have never recovered the originality and delicate balance between pop and rock that worked so effectively on Hot Fuss. One of the earliest iterations of contemporary “indie” music, Hot Fuss was a stellar debut that effectively thrust The Killers into stardom, but it set an unrealistic precedent for them to follow-up on.
5. Jimmy Eat World
It pains us to put a band we love as much as Jimmy Eat World on this list, but the truth is often a painful thing to suffer through. A band whose first two full-length albums were both wildly influential and successful, Jimmy Eat first entered the music scene with Clarity, released in 1998 to strong reviews and even stronger word of mouth; however, it wasn’t until they released Bleed American in 2001 that they became internationally known, with their hit single “The Middle” remaining one of the most iconic and best recognized songs from the era (and the music video, with the kids in the underwear? Classic stuff). Recently cited as one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (By NME Magazine, who know their stuff, music lovers), Bleed American was a smash hit that immortalized Jimmy Eat World as one of the fundamental bands of the early 2000s, But they seem lost since the culmination of that era, and their last two albums have all seemed haphazard (if not outright lazy).
4. The Counting Crows
The Counting Crows are one of those bands that you most likely fail to recognize unless you came to age during their heyday in the mid to late 1990s. Despite their huge success during that time, they failed to achieve any lasting cultural power, due in no small part to the fact that their earliest albums are far superior to the later ones, and 1993’s August and Everything After is a perfect example of that fact. The band’s debut work, August and Everything After is a stellar creative endeavor that sees the band performing the kind of soulful alt-rock that they were known for. How unfortunate, then, when the band attempted to stray from what they did best on their later albums, instead gravitating towards more radio-friendly music that never sat well with fans or listeners, most of whom found the new sound less satisfying than their old one (as often happens in music).
3. The Sex Pistols
We may catch some flak for this one, but we’re prepared to eat our crow if someone can tell us we’re wrong here. Despite their cultural legacy as the godfathers of punk rock, The Sex Pistols only ever released one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks: Here Come the Sex Pistols, via Virgin Records in 1977. We’re not sure what your definition for “peaking too early” is, but if you release one album, become an overnight sensation that defines an entire generation, influence countless musicians to come after you only to break up over petty, ridiculous differences and an inability to keep it all together, we’re going to file you under the “peaked early” tab and never, ever reconsider that categorization. The Sex Pistols, who would disband not long after they released their first album due to the unstable behaviour of Sid Vicious and the irreconcilable differences between front man Johnny Rotten and the rest of the gang, earned a place in music history with this doozy of an album, but they never bothered to find their way back into the studio to enhance their legacy further.
Perhaps no contemporary band epitomizes the “Peaked too Early” tag like Weezer, the rock group and chosen musical gods of nerds and stoners everywhere. A monumental breakthrough band way back in 1994, Weezer released The Blue Album to triple platinum success, and singles like “Buddy Holly,” “Undone – The Sweater Song” and “Say It Ain’t So” cemented their spot as alternative rock icons; however, things went downhill after that, as their next album, Pinkerton, was both a commercial failure and a divisive critical enigma (more recent reviews have been kinder to the album). The band found mainstream success with subsequent albums The Green Album and Maladroit, but never seemed to carry the same musical legitimacy as they did in their earlier work.
1. Guns N’ Roses
It’s a little known fact that Guns N’ Roses’ first album, Appetite for Destruction, remains the best selling debut album of all time (somewhere around 30 million copies have been sold worldwide). So it should come as no surprise, then, that the band’s efforts since the release of that album have failed to live up to the stellar example set by their first. This was perhaps best exemplified with the release of Chinese Democracy in 2008, the long-awaited sixth album from the band (and one that took an extremely long 15 years to make, with their previous endeavor The Spaghetti Incident being released way, way back in 1993), which sold well but was both critically and commercially underwhelming, considering the strength of the debut on which Guns N’ Roses built their success.