In case you hadn’t heard, Beyoncé’s Lemonade is good. As in, really really really good. I’ve enjoyed singles from here and there- “Crazy In Love” and “Irreplaceable” in particular- but before Lemonade, I’d never listened to a Beyoncé album and then immediately started it from the beginning again (I’m not sure I’ve actually ever listened to a full Beyoncé album more than once).
There is something about major artistic statements that, for me at least, re-frame the other work of the same artist. Now that Beyoncé has Lemonade I’m interested in going back and hearing her movement towards this point. Early singles like “Say My Name” about calling out a cheating boyfriend become significantly more interesting when you know this is a theme she is going to come back to in a big way in the midst of a marriage and after having a child.
This has happened before. I didn’t have any thoughts on Green Day one way or another, but when American Idiot came out there was suddenly an interesting momentum to their discography from goof-offs to political activists. The early Beatles albums are good, but they become better when you know they are leading up to Revolver and The White Album.
The opposite can happen, too. There are artists whose early work I love, but mediocre later releases cast a shadow over them. If this goes on long enough, I start to lose interest in their earlier work, as well.
Then there’s artists who have bouts of mediocrity but come back with something interesting enough to make going through their other work interesting. The Rolling Stones fall into this category for me. I have little interest in Goat’s Head Soup but there’s enough interesting stuff before and after that it’s a worthwhile pit-stop.
Of course, you can always skip the mediocre moments and go right for the good stuff. That’s why greatest hits albums are so popular. But with the deaths of Bowie and Prince this year I’ve re-discovered the joy of going through the entire catalogue of a talented artist, even at the moments they aren’t churning out their best work. It’s interesting to hear them grown and evolve and take detours into territory that maybe wasn’t the best idea. Just like a good album is more than just a bunch of good songs, a good discography is more than a bunch of good albums. It ebbs and flows and tells a bigger story than any of its individual parts.
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