As the old adage goes, good things come in threes. There is just something inherently appealing about a trio as though the very notion stretches right back through our three-square meal’s existence to something primordial. The appeal also seems to go beyond the palate of the audience and offers the creator the chance to hone their work down to something delineated.
So, what exactly is it that constitutes a trilogy of albums? In the simple patently obvious sense, it’s a three-album run within a discography, but that is far too heavy-handed a definition for what we’re going for here. Whilst that means that unfortunately many of you will be angered not to see Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album, it’s pretty hard to tear them apart from the records that follow and little Magical Mystery Tour that sits in between; the same applies with the Velvet Undergrounds first four.
A true album trilogy is bound by something other than the circumstance of chronology. A true album trilogy represents a body of work presented as a discreet triumvirate to the masses, bound by some strange spiritual ties that encapsulate a time and place for the creator. Sometimes that can be signified by a recurring titling sequence, a character or a collaboration, but whence an artist has their head together enough to produce some 30+ songs on a theme, then the result is usually singular and spellbinding.
Below, we’re taking a look at ten of the greatest ever trilogies in music, those rare purple patches where cohesion produces results and like the days of Messi, Suarez and Neymar, the sum of the parts is somehow, inexplicably, even greater than the whole.
Thus, without further ado…
The ten greatest album trilogies in music:
‘The Parliament Interim’ – Funkadelic (1970), Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow (1970), Maggot Brain (1971)
Before marrying Parliament and Funkadelic together, George Clinton kept them somewhat apart. Following the Parliament release of Osmium in 1970, he worked on a trio of albums with Funkadelic and in the process just about invented a new genre, culminating in the scintillating masterpiece of Maggot Brain.
The psychedelia-infused funk propagated on this trilogy encapsulates the best of both worlds without diluting either. A similar dichotomy can be found in the purpose of the pieces that straddle the boundary between meaningful change, and harmless fun.
These three records served as a tonic to the tumultuous end of the sixties, as Clinton says himself, “The bigger the headache, the bigger the pill.” Funkadelic are a pretty big pill and the searing guitar solo of ‘Maggot Brain’ proves it.
9. Kanye West – ‘The College Trinity’
The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007)
Kanye West’s legacy may now be indelibly entwined with his antics and marred by the mire of that entails, but it was his early work that served as a shot in the arm for the mainstream and not the over-produced confused histrionics that followed.
The rhythmic melody of these first three albums catapulted him into the mainstream in such a way that defied genre. Rap somehow meddled with Coldplay and both parties survived unharmed.
The measure of the records is that when you cast an eye over the tracklisting some 15 years on, and most of the songs have become so ubiquitous that memory plays the trick of making you think nearly every one of them must have been number one in the charts.
8. Nick Drake – ‘The Solo Works’
Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1971), Pink Moon (1972)
The tale of Nick Drake is a tragic one, and as ever, tragedy seems to be a pretty difficult stain to wash out of a body of work. In retrospect, it is impossible to listen to Nick Drake without the haunt of hindsight lingering over the songs and imbuing them with sorrow and beauty in equal measure.
These solo works may have been all that he produced but they represent a tower of song, but on the foundations of man who simply had to defy his vulnerabilities to create, thus, although the songs may be ethereally delicate in terms of melody and delivery, they carry the weight of bludgeon.
Only two years after he completed this trilogy, at the tender age of 26, Nick Drake took his own life. The albums serve as both a balm for our own existence and a reminder about the importance of kindness and helping others.
7. Paul McCartney – ‘The Self-Titled Trio’
McCartney (1970), McCartney II (1980), McCartney (2020)
Although McCartney recorded a slew of records between this self-titled trio, they stand as one body beyond the titles and round figure release dates alone. The records capture the journey of an artist from a tumultuous debut to a settled-down lookback from calmer waters.
Paul McCartney is probably the most important songwriter in history. As an artist, he has probably impacted more lives through his creativity than any other person in history, which is quite a calling card.
The fortunate thing for us is that this culture encapsulating output has been a boon to life that rarely let up in quality. Last year’s McCartney III sealed his undisputed legacy and warded off any fears that the album would sound wrinkled and croaked.
6 Tom Waits – ‘Frank’s Wild Years Trilogy’
Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), Franks Wild Years (1987)
In 1982, Tom Waits produced the soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s film One From The Heart. His then-record label, Elektra-Asylum, deemed his change in style disastrous and dropped him. He was picked up by Island Records and, as if to rub it in on his former label, he produced three more experimental pieces and they were all greeted with rightful acclaim.
Tales of the “urban dispossessed” are Waits’ natural habitat. And nobody captures the inherent weirdness of urban living quite like Waits. He skirts around the unpredictable corners of cityscapes and transposes what he finds in equally unpredictable songs.
Frank’s haphazard adventures are equal parts surrealism and relatability, as Waits juxtaposes one with the other both in terms of music and mingling scope.
5. The Stooges – ‘The First Three’
The Stooges (1969), Fun House (1970), Raw Power (1973)
In a recent interview with Far Out, Charlie Steen of the band Shame, described the impact of The Stooges on music, “Only three albums to their name and these three records seem to have altered the fate and direction of so much that came after them. The list of artists that cite this band as the reason they picked up an instrument is endless.”
The legacy of the band may well be best described by JG Ballard as some sort of beautiful drawn-out car crash but, following their inevitable demise, their star has only grown.
“It seems as if this band has nothing to lose when you listen to them,” Charlie continued. “No willingness to sacrifice their sound in hopes of achieving a high rank in the charts. No sign of trying to mould themselves to be something they were not. Nobody had seen anything like them at the time and nobody has seen or heard anything as real as them since.”
4. Leonard Cohen – ‘Songs Of…’
Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971)
It took Leonard Cohen a long time to arrive at music, but when he finally put poems to song, it seemed like he had been stockpiling soul-pouring for years. All culminating in a record which sets itself aside from all others, as fellow Far Out writer, Jack Whatley, recently described as follows: “While some records are full to the brim with potency and memorable moments, Songs of Love and Hate instead feels like ‘an experience’. It is an album to listen to in one sitting whenever possible, in order to feel the full brute force of the songs, of Cohen’s writing, of life itself.”
The trio of albums not only established Cohen in the Greenwich Village folk scene but announced him as a master songwriter from the get-go. He may have been a slightly older artist, but the wisdom in his songs were beyond the years of anyone who has lived only one life.
The trio is caustically candid and simply heart strung. His back catalogue may not have waned thereafter, but it is hard to say that he ever topped these works, as he transitioned into different sounds.
3. Fleetwood Mac – ‘The Buckingham & Nicks Arrival’
Fleetwood Mac (1975), Rumours (1977), Tusk (1979)
When the wide-eyed world of cocaine-kookiness from Californian couple Buckingham and Nicks collided with the booze and blues bounty of the very British Fleetwood Mac, on paper, it may well have been a mixed-up milieu that precluded productivity. Perhaps it would have been worse still if they were all fucking each other. But, possibly worst of all, was the reality that they were all suddenly not doing so. Somehow a trio of pop-rock masterpieces were spawned from that maddening reality, nevertheless.
After some initial success, Fleetwood Mac post-Peter Green were fading ever closer to obscurity. In need of a revival, they entered the market for a guitarist. Lindsay Buckingham was the man they had in mind, but he and Stevie Nicks came as a package deal. In 1975, on their 11th record, the band signified a rebirth by self-titling their first album as the eponymous five-piece (now including Buckingham and Nicks).
The result was an explosion of perfection, and that is scarcely hyperbole. The self-titled 1975 release signalled something seismic with tracks like ‘Rhiannon’ and ‘Landslide’ and then they obliterated the world of popular music with Rumours. Tusk might sometimes be touted as the ugly duckling of the trio, owing to a relatively power commercial performance, but it is still an excellent effort from a band in turmoil, somehow at the top of its game.
2 David Bowie – ‘The Berlin Trilogy’
Low (1977), Heroes (1977), Lodger (1979)
In order to escape the cocaine grip of gaudy LA, David Bowie and his old pal Iggy Pop moved to the then-Heroin capital of the world, Berlin. It was a move that proved to be both creatively and, in some ways, spiritually, an effervescent boon for the duo.
When Bowie first set his sights on being “an influential person”, he attempted to catapult his singular creative splatter onto the mainstream via a strange mime-based multimedia project. That says a hell of a lot about the man we’re dealing with. In retrospect, it can be easy to think that after his fallow feet-finding period, his career began in earnest with Hunky Dory and thereafter he became a megastar. However, the truth of it is that he couldn’t buy a hit!
In the 1970s, his albums charted in the commercially hollowed-ground of the US as follows: The Man Who Sold The World – 105, Honky Dory – failed to chart, Ziggy Stardust – 75, Aladdin Sane – 17, Pin Ups – 23, Diamond Dogs – 5, Young Americans – 9, Station to Station – 3. Thus, in the most Bowie move ever, just as his star was gathering, he came out with a record so unusual that it saw him invent his own language.
However, as ever with Bowie, what transform these records from interesting experimentation to rarefied heights that they are now held in, was the pure humanised exultation that he loaded them with – exemplified by the soaring epic titular track ‘Heroes’. A comedown never sounded so good.
1. Bob Dylan – ‘The 14 Month Trilogy’
Bring It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966)
Splitting Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and Dylan’s electric threesome was an unforgiving, hairline impacting, task. Ultimately, what separated them was the pure Promethean nature of Dylan’s work. Even Bowie himself recognised the revolutionary impact of the eponymous folk songsmith with his early Honky Dory ode ‘Song for Bob Dylan’.
With this trilogy and his voice of “sand and glue”, Dylan quite literally changed the world, and he did it in a 14-month spell, which represents a purple patch of brilliance so prolific that even to Dylan himself it conjures up a notion of divine intervention.
It is easy to forget how quickly the 1960s sped by in a kaleidoscopic blur. Rock ‘n’ roll may well have been brooding away since the days of Robert Johnson and the delta blues, but its flower didn’t really burst open until the summer of the mid-sixties. And Dylan helped that invasive wildflower spread to ensure that pastures of pop-culture would never look the same again with three records, 34 songs, recorded in 14 months when he was only 23… And each one of them is in with a shouting chance of being crowned the greatest album of all time.