Recording artists are sort of like relationships. Some start with a bang, then fizzle. Sometimes the opposite is true. It takes a while for them to hit their groove, but then they do. A lot of artists get gradually better and better, though it’s more common for them to have ups and downs throughout their careers. Groups break up. They try to get back together. It doesn’t really work. And so on.
The recent breakup (see?) of REM spawned a very good, spot-on “report card” by Rob O’Connor that traces the arc of their career. They peaked on the early side and, though they never got really bad, probably should have called it quits a few years ago. And that seems to be a pretty common trajectory for bands. And more than a few marriages.
Rare is the artist who nails it on their last album then never records again, but I can think of a few. Amy Winehouse is a recent example. Back to Black (2006) was only her second album, alas, so there isn’t a whole lot to compare. Some might cite the posthumously released Pearl (1971) by Janis Joplin, who also died young.
What about artists who didn’t die or who had longer careers? It’s easier to find peak moments that don’t mark the end of a career. Sometimes life circumstances align in just the right wrong way to create a masterpiece: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) would be a good example; but while most of the band members’ relationships ended at the time, the group went on. Sometimes it’s a matter of just finding your groove at the right time (often with the help of a gifted producer), as with Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall (1979). You could say the same for Madonna and Ray of Light (1998).
If some of these folks had stopped recording at their peak of brilliance — kind of like how M*A*S*H ended when it was in its prime; kind of like how J. D. Salinger just stopped writing — they’d have pretty awesome reputations and we’d all look back at them really fondly.
The Smiths’ last album, Strangeways, Here We Come (1987), which contains my favorite Smiths song, “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” is brilliant. It might be my favorite, might not. In any case, I would be going way out on a limb to say there’s any kind of consensus around that album being their best. But they did certainly end on a high note…and though they often sang about wanting to die, they didn’t.
I’m going to give the End-of-Career-Peak Award to ABBA. Seriously. I just listened to their last album, The Visitors (1981), and I’ve gotta tell ya, the title song is quite simply ABBA at their best. And their relationship problems were so bad by the time they recorded it, it really did mean the end of the band. And that’s ok.