We all like to think that certain things defy the predetermined rhythms of the universe. That the blackheaded budworm molts once every 12 years seems OK, but to declare that something like rock 'n' roll flourishes in an identical cycle, well, that's a little bit disturbing.
Except that that's exactly what happens.
My realization of the 12-year rock cycle arose during a routine inspection of my record collection, when I noticed a 1979 cluster of favorites. Granted, when I thought of the 1970s music I loved, it was generally 1977 albums like Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols by the Sex Pistols, Marquee Moon by Television, In the City by the Jam, or My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello that first came to mind. But while these records were amazingly influential, I realized that 1979 had more good records by better bands, and that many of the innovations that had begun to ferment in 1977 didn't find their ultimate expression until 1979. The prototypical example of this could be the Clash, whose 1977 debut pales in sophistication, brilliance, and range to their 1979 London Calling. Kraftwerk may have pointed the way for synth bands back in 1977 with Trans-Europe Express, but it was in 1979 with records like Reproduction by the Human League that the style took hold. Same for mope rock (Joy Division's 1979 Unknown Pleasures) and world music-new wave fusion (compare Talking Heads' 1977 debut with their 1979 Fear of Music, for example). 1979 featured more great straightforward guitar rock albums—releases like Tom Petty's Damn the Torpedoes—and timeless first records by the Pretenders, the English Beat, the Specials, and others.
Noticing a similar 1991 cluster (think Nirvana's Nevermind, U2's Achtung Baby, R.E.M.'s Out of Time, and others) in my collection, I began to get excited. I knew that almost everyone agreed that 1967 was the greatest year in rock history (click to see some of the albums released that year), and it seemed odd that each of these humps was precisely the same distance from each other. Not wanting to restrict myself to my own record collection, I gathered an assortment of "best albums of all time" polls and lists from sources such as Rolling Stone, Spin, New Musical Express, VH-1, and others. (For the 1950s, often ignored by critics, I was admittedly more subjective, and relied heavily on singles.) Every time an album was picked, it got a point, and when I graphed it out, the peaks occurred in 1955, 1967, 1979, and 1991—as I had suspected. In the year or two leading up to each peak the number of great records increases, and in the post-peak years it declines before settling into a stretch of mediocrity. These mediocre years are punctuated with some great records, but the notable albums are far fewer.
Of course, many great bands and records didn't track with the curve. (The Rolling Stones and the Who come to mind.) My own personal top 10 included only three records that lined up—1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band by the Beatles, 1991's Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and the aforementioned London Calling. But of course the point wasn't that those four years in the cycle were the only years good rock came out; only that more good rock came out in those years.
But why? We could model rock on other commodity markets that ebb and flow in 12-year waves. The market for cattle follows this cycle, for example. But I suppose I love rock 'n' roll too much to believe it works like prime rib. Music belongs on a higher plane, and I thought perhaps I had found something when I discovered that the Chinese astrological calendar works in 12-year cycles. A quick check of a placemat at a nearby Szechwan restaurant revealed that the rock cycle syncs with the year of the goat. Goat people, the placemat declared, are the most creative, so maybe …
Oh, but I can't lie to myself: I believe in astrological explanation about as much as I believe Britney Spears dresses with the lights on. (Though I was spooked by the fact that the crap metal band Ratt released their first LP in 1984—the year of the rat.) So the cycle remains a mystery to be solved at some later date. Pay attention, because the next year of the goat is only 20 months away.