Why do albums take so long to make?

Radiohead

Thom Yorke and Radiohead play First Bank Ampitheatre in Tinley Park. (Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune / June 10, 2012)

On March 10, 1967, 15 days shy of her 25th birthday, Aretha Franklin released her 12th album and Atlantic Records debut, "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You." It was a breakthrough, triggering a string of four top 10 albums released over 15 months that included the top 10 hits "Respect," "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)," "Baby I Love You," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Chain of Fools," "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone" and "Think."

The most acclaimed singer-songwriter of recent years, Adele, put out her debut album, "19," in January 2008, and the massively popular, lauded follow-up, "21," in January 2011. (Yes, there were three years between the albums but just two years between the title ages — she actually was 22 when "21" was released.) The third album, rumored to be called "25" (she turned 26 in May and had a baby in 2012), supposedly is coming soon, but even if it popped out tomorrow, more time will have elapsed between her first and third albums than between the releases of "Please Please Me" and "Abbey Road," the first and last albums the Beatles recorded. One of the most exciting parts of being a music fan is riding the surge: that flurry of activity when artists are growing and creating their best work, album after album, year after year. When you examine the track records of many of the rock era's greatest acts, it's hard not to conclude that these intense stretches of productivity were essential to their development — and it's logical to wonder whether the years now typically taken between albums is resulting in stunted artistic development and a shortfall of great music.

Each of the 10 albums topping Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list (published in May 2012) arrived no more than one calendar year after the artist's previous album. The four Beatles albums that made the top 10 — "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (No. 1, 1967), "Revolver" (No. 3, 1966), "Rubber Soul" (No. 5, 1965) and the self-titled record known as the "white album" (No. 10, 1968) — were tucked into the band's incredible 1963-1970 run that saw the release of 11 new studio albums, plus stand-alone singles, EPs and a soundtrack album.

The two Bob Dylan albums on the list — "Highway 61 Revisited" (No. 4, 1965) and "Blonde on Blonde" (No. 9, 1966) — were the second and third landmark works from him during a mind-warping 15-month stretch. ("Bringing It All Back Home," which included Dylan's first electric music, preceded "Highway 61" by five months in 1965.) The Rolling Stones' double record "Exile on Main Street" (No. 7, 1972) capped what's generally considered the band's peak stretch of four albums over 31/2 years, and the great evolutionary leaps of the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" (No. 2, 1966), Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" (No. 6, 1971) and the Clash's "London Calling" (No. 8, 1979) also came amid busy stretches.

Now the technology to record albums is cheaper and more accessible than ever, and online distribution enables musicians to get their work to fans with fewer steps and people involved, so we should be experiencing another golden age of creative productivity, right?

Heck, when Radiohead — perhaps the most critically lauded rock band of the past two decades — released its album "In Rainbows" in October 2007 as a pay-what-you-want download a mere 10 days after revealing its existence, a sense of revolution was in the air. The shackles were off! Artists were in control! They could release music whenever they wanted to!

Since then this innovative British band has released just one album, "The King of Limbs," in 2011. That's kind of a drag because "The King of Limbs" isn't exactly its most exciting album, so it would be nice to hear how they rebound, but 3 1/2 years later, Radiohead supposedly is only about to begin work on the next one.

Then there's U2, which during the Super Bowl in February unveiled "Invisible," said to be the lead single from the Irish band's first album since 2009's "No Line on the Horizon." Yet instead of releasing the album in the ensuing months, the band reportedly returned to the studio to record/tinker some more, and as of last week, a label spokesman said it has no release date. U2 seems to be in a vicious cycle: Heaven forbid the album isn't perfect, because it'll take so long to come up with another one.

Granted, these are veteran bands that have earned the right to slow down after being more prolific earlier, but what of younger artists looking to build some momentum?

MGMT won over rock and dance-pop fans with its bright debut, "Oracular Spectacular" (2007 online, 2008 physical CD), and the popular singles "Time to Pretend," "Electric Feel" and "Kids," but the duo's more overtly psychedelic follow-up, "Congratulations" (2010), proved less popular (though I liked it more). Then they took three more years to come up with the murkier "MGMT" (2013), which might've been viewed as an incremental step had it followed on the heels of "Congratulations" but instead felt like a muted chapter in a book taking too long to unfold.

Says former Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin of this trend: "There's so much gestation between records, it's hard to trace the trajectory."

That wasn't the case when R.E.M. was releasing an album a year from 1983 through 1988, each of those six releases advancing the story in some significant way as the band broadened its stylistic range while growing in popularity.

"You've got to produce," R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills said while in town Aug. 7 to play at the Abbey Pub with the Baseball Project, crediting guitarist Peter Buck with driving R.E.M. back into the studio so regularly.

I was similarly buzzed about Elvis Costello as he released 10 albums of wildly varied original material (plus a country album and B-sides collection) between 1977 and 1986. Talking Heads, whose evolution from the twinkling "Talking Heads: 77" (1977) to the taut "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (1978) to the claustrophobic dance party of "Fear of Music" (1979) to the loose-limbed African fusion of "Remain in Light" (1980) represents one of rock's most thrilling progressions.

Prince released his first 10 albums from 1978 to 1988; Elton John reigned with 11 studio albums between 1969 and 1976; Joni Mitchell released 10 albums from 1968 to 1979; and how cool it was for Stevie Wonder fans to experience the then-21-year-old singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer hitting his stride after 13(!) studio albums with a run of five classics from 1972 to 1976: "Music of My Mind," "Talking Book," "Innervisions," "Fulfillingness' First Finale" and "Songs in the Key of Life."

Where are such musical-genius bursts now?

"I don't know if it's ever going to happen where you get to see a band develop that quickly and to see how their artistic growth happens in incredible spurts in rapid-fire succession," says Scott McCaughey, who fronts the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, was the "fifth" member of R.E.M. for years and also was in town with the Baseball Project. "I don't know if that will ever happen again, and if it does, it will probably be an indie rock thing that's under the radar a little bit."

In rock's earlier days, label contracts typically required acts to record far more often than today. As the major labels hit the rocks in the late '90s, artistic development became a low priority, and it was easier to drop a low-to-medium-selling band than to nurture it.

Now, for both established and up-and-coming acts, there's this elephant in the room: Album sales no longer necessarily pay the bills.

"Twenty years ago artists used to tour to sell records because that was the primary way they were making money," says Gary Bongiovanni, president/editor-in-chief of the concert-industry trade publication Pollstar. "That paradigm has been set on its head. Artists tour to make money, and if they sell a few more records along the way, that's nice, but it's not going pay their mortgage."

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