I saw The Fratellis twice last summer. This may come off as somewhat odd, since I'm not really a huge fan of the band, but both shows were somewhat enjoyable and, regardless, this is not really a post about the band.
Anyway, the second time I saw them, it was with a roommate of mine who has recently started to expand his musical horizons. This is a good thing for me, as it means less Dave Matthews Band around the house. I have done all I can to encourage his musical development. I have tried to avoid holier-than-thou hipster-ism whenever possible, but it's hard.
Long story short, it turns out that my roommate prefers the second Fratellis album, Here We Stand, while I am a much bigger fan of their debut, Costello Music. When he voiced this preference, I uttered the most cringe-worthy, elitist line it's possible for a music aficionado to say: "Aw man, their early stuff is way better."
In hindsight, that statement makes no sense. Costello Music is not exactly part a of the indie rock canon. Pitchfork gave it a 5.5. It fared a little better on Metacritic, rating a 71. It's pleasant, harmless, more than a little derivative. Here We Stand is, in all objective measures, exactly the same (though Metacritic pegged it at 61, so maybe I'm right after all).
But still, I got up on my high horse and told him that the early stuff was better. And music buffs do this ALL THE TIME. I'm sure you've heard it at some point, and it's exactly this kind of cool-kid's-club attitude that keeps people listening to the radio. The Indifferent Listener finds an under-the-radar album he likes, talks it up in a social setting, and gets smacked down by some "expert" who tells him that the band in question hasn't made a good album since that five-song EP they recorded in their garage and sold out of the back of their van. Why do people do that?
So I started thinking about the times I'd been told that the early stuff was way better. Two examples immediately sprung to mind: Modest Mouse and Guided by Voices.
My favorite Modest Mouse album is 2004's Good News for People Who Love Bad News. Pitchfork gave it a solid, if unspectacular 7.9. By comparison, earlier albums like The Moon and Antarctica (9.8), The Lonesome Crowded West (8.9), and Building Nothing Out of Something (8.9) scored almost off the charts. I've heard all those albums. They're okay.
In the same way, my favorite Guided by Voices album is Isolation Drills (checking in at a pedestrian 7.0). Your seasoned indie rock veteran, however, will tell you that the twin peaks of the GBV catalog are Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand (which came out in more innocent, pre-Pitchfork times). Again, those records are pretty good.
Is something wrong with me? Why do I not grasp the greatness of The Moon and Antarctica? In considering these questions, I thought about my relationships with those two bands, and I think I figured this out. In each case, my favorite album by each band was the FIRST one I heard. Let's talk about why that matters.
Every good band (and even most of the mediocre bands) crafts a signature sound and, for all talk of "artistic freedom" and "moving in a new direction," most bands stick pretty closely to that sound. When the new U2 album comes out, you will immediately recognize it as U2, no matter what Bono says about how adventurous it is. Besides Radiohead (and maybe Wilco), no band of my generation can claim to have re-intvented itself in any serious way. So every band has a sound, and everyone hears it for the first time.
As far as I can tell, music is always more immediate the first time you hear it. Hopefully, you all have had the experience of listening to the radio and having that "What is this song? This is incredible! How have I never heard this? I must immediately hear everything this band has ever done!" epiphany. I would argue that you never hit that same high with most bands ever again. I would assume doing hard drugs works pretty much the same way - you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture that original high.
And so, when you hear an album like Good News For People Who Love Bad News, and it serves as your introduction to all things Modest Mouse, and you enjoy it, you really enjoy it, and you go back and listen to the back catalog ... the euphoria of a new discovery has already worn off. Even if the back catalog is objectively better, it doesn't stand a chance. Top of the line heroin probably doesn't give the junkie a first-time high, either.
Now, I would also argue that this doesn't apply to your very favorite bands. For me, at least, when it comes to The Hold Steady, The New Pornographers, and probably The Mountain Goats, that sound is new and wonderful every time, and that shock of euphoria stays with me through each new song I hear. Obviously, this is why these are my favorite bands. I don't expect that kind of emotional involvement from most bands.
So consider the hipster again: He's telling you to listen to the early stuff because he heard the early stuff first. That's his relationship with the band. He actually bought the EP out of the back of the van, he actually downloaded those horrible-quality MP3s, went to that first show, felt that excitement years before you did. So, therefore, everything that came after was just an echo to him. And maybe he'll never understand that the early stuff is just an echo to you, since it's easy to see music as strictly chronological. It's hard to understand how music can be autobiographical for someone other than you. But the hipster is really trying to steer you in the right direction. That early stuff is magic for him. But, and this is the most important point here, it doesn't make the later stuff any less magical for you.