After I posted about how nearly all the biggest names in rock history had dented the charts at the age of 25 or younger, there was a terrific comment by mjn comparing that performance to that of mathematicians, who also tended to make their mark at a fairly young age. If you haven't read that comment, go ahead and check it out now. I'll still be here when you get back.
But what mjn was talking about was not the rookie seasons for these mathematicians but their peak years, their Yaz '67 moments. Bill James also talked about baseball players' peaks, which he pegged as occurring between the ages of 26 and 30. When do rock & roll performers peak? Let's take a look.
To determine when an act reaches its peak, we will use their highest-ranking album in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the Top 500 Albums of All Time, and try to figure their age on the day the album came out. When we get to ten different artists on that list (i.e., we won't rate Sgt. Pepper's Lonely and Revolver), we'll stop and call it a day. Confusing? It shouldn't be. Here we go:
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely (came out June 1967): John Lennon was 26, Paul McCartney was 24, Ringo Starr was 26, and George Harrison was 24.
The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (came out March 1966): Brian Wilson was 23, Dennis Wilson was 21, Carl Wilson was 19 (can that be right? That would make him 14 when their first single came out), Mike Love was 25, and Al Jardine was 23.
Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (came out August 1965): Zimmy was 24.
The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St. (came out May 1972): Mick Jagger was 28, Keith Richards was 28, Charlie Watts was 30, Mick Taylor was 24, Bill Wyman was an old man of 35.
Marvin Gaye, What's Going On (came out May 1971): Marvin was 32. God, what a mess he was.
The Clash, London Calling (came out December 1979): Joe Strummer was 27, Mick Jones was 24, Paul Simonon was 23, Topper Headon was 24.
Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions (recorded in 1954-55, came out in 1976): Elvis was 19 and 20 when these sides were cut, but past 40 before they were released in album form. Let's call this one 19-20.
Velvet Underground and Nico, Velvet Underground and Nico (came out January 1967): Lou Reed was 24, John Cale was 26, Sterling Morrison was 24, Moe Tucker was 21, Nico was ageless in that decadent German manner -- okay, she was 28.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced? (came out 1967): Jimi was 25, and I'm not much interested in how old the other guys were.
Nirvana, Nevermind (came out September 1991): Kurt Cobain was 24, Krist Novoselic was 26, and Dave Grohl was 22.
[Ed. note: I left out Miles' Kind of Blue, since it's a jazz album and I'm not measuring jazz performers here.]
I have to say, even I am surprised by the youthfulness of this list. If not for the Rolling Stones' rhythm section (and I had Exile on Main St. at No. 1 or No. 2 on my ballot, but now I would probably rate Let It Bleed, on which everyone was three years younger, as the best Stones record) and the somewhat flukish Marvin Gaye, every single act on this list would have reached its artistic zenith at the age of 28 or younger -- many of them much younger. Even if I extended the list it would be hard to find someone who was even in their late 20s: Springsteen put out Born to Run at the age of 25, Van Morrison put out Astral Weeks at the age of 22, Michael Jackson put out Thriller at the age of 23, Stevie Wonder put out Innervisions at the age of 23.
Feist, remember, is 31.