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The rise and fall of popular music - click opera
February 2010
 
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Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:09 am
The rise and fall of popular music

Henrik Franzon is a 34 year-old Swedish statistician who's spent the last ten years crunching lists, and in particular those weird quantifications of the unquantifiable, critics' lists. Franzon has taken all the music critics' lists he can find, fed them into his computer, and come up with a website called Acclaimed Music, a list of lists which lays out "the 3000 most recommended albums and songs of all time".

Looking at Acclaimed Music for the first time last night, my interest was piqued by the Lists By Year section. I decided to do a little number-crunching of my own. Noticing how few of the albums released in the last ten years had made it into the Top 100 most-acclaimed albums, I decided to divide the last 50 years into five decades and see where the most-acclaimed albums -- the ones that today's musicians can't seem to beat for quality -- are coming from. Which decades they were made in.

In a simplistic geometrical world of total equality, we'd expect 20 of the best hundred albums of the last fifty years to have been made each decade. Of course, the real world isn't like that. The chart on the left shows what we actually think the story of pop music looks like. Two decades (1977 to 1996) are average -- they each produce about twenty classics. The other three diverge wildly. The medium started off kind of tacky and throwaway, we think, then suddenly got very, very strong artistically, then had a vigorous revival which didn't quite match its early surge, then diversified "healthily", then faded with shocking rapidity into almost complete insignificance.

Here's that same story in a bit more detail. From 1957-1966 there are 10 albums that reach the Top 100 most acclaimed. The artists who make them are Miles Davis, James Brown, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Otis Redding, John Coltrane and The Beach Boys.

1967-1976 is the miracle decade -- 48 albums that reach the top 100 are produced. I won't mention them all, but they're made by people like the Velvet Underground, The Beatles and various Beatles solo projects, The Doors, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, and so on.

1977-1986 produces 18 albums that reach the Top 100 most-acclaimed. Punk has shaken things up; the critically-acclaimed albums are from The Sex Pistols, Television, The Clash, Elvis Costello. There's a Cold Wave -- Bowie, Kraftwerk, Joy Division. Then there's 80s stuff like Michael Jackson, REM, Prince, The Jesus and Mary Chain and The Smiths.

You might expect it all to be downhill after this, but surprisingly the 1987-1996 decade does a little better than the one before it, with 20 albums considered vital by critics. Big names: Prince, U2, REM and Guns n Roses, Public Enemy and De La Soul reprazenting for rap, Sonic Youth, The Pixies and Nirvana bringing grunge, Massive Attack and Portishead inventing Trip Hop, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine and Oasis doing the Creation label proud, and Beck innovating in California. Surprisingly, this decade's diversity yields more classics than punk's energy did.

But from there the decline is rapid. In the pathetic bathos of 1997-2006 just three albums can match the classics of the past, say the critics. Even worse, it's all distinctly retro. We get Radiohead retreading prog, and The Strokes and The White Stripes going "back to basics" with primal garage guitar rock.

What can we conclude from this picture? That the popular music medium is almost entirely spent? That rock critics are ageing? That nobody ever thinks the music of their own age can live up to the music of the past? That as a medium ages it gets increasingly difficult to match past peaks? That the new is buried under the weight of the old? That the criteria for greatness were set early and never updated? That the aesthetic judgements of hundreds of critics actually just reflect the views and demographics of the "pigs in the pipe", the post-war Baby Boomers? That, as they decline into old age, so does their artform of choice, the rock album? That whatever old rubbish was big when they were in their golden years would be boosted by these influential pigs now they're declining, and that there just aren't enough new kids being born to shout the oldies down?

Or should we be looking on the bright side? Should we be arguing that canons can change and that "the greatest albums of all time" -- those 100 top slots -- are still very much up for grabs? Might Pet Sounds get displaced by the next Panda Bear album? At this point in time it really doesn't look very likely, does it, no matter how brilliant a record Panda Bear makes. Maybe it's just too late. Maybe the creative action is elsewhere -- China, software, art, terrorism, blogging, gentech.

One thing seems clear. Despite the plethora of music being produced, despite the advances of music-making technology, despite the democratization of the means of musical production, despite instant global distribution, despite the touchscreen iPod -- or maybe because of these things? -- the very least we can say, looking at these figures, is that the self-esteem of the music industry is currently at a fifty-year low.

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zenithberwyn
zenithberwyn
Rev. Hollywizzle
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 01:43 am (UTC)

I think one answer is that it's difficult to tell what kind of historical impact an album will have if it's still within a few years of its release. Like, the Strokes' first album paved the way for a lot of neo-garage bands to have popular breakthroughs, but I still have my doubts about exactly how well it will hold up over time, divorced from that original context -- they don't have quite the versatility of the White Stripes. Plus, music that's ahead of its time can take a while to filter out and find an audience that's ready for its innovation.

I think another factor is that some of the most creatively vital music of the last decade has been hip-hop, a format whose albums are notoriously uneven and filled with padding in between the moments of brilliance. As if it's better to fill up 74 minutes of a CD -- even if half of it is irrelevant -- than to cut out the filler and give the audience 37 minutes of unadulterated greatness, but leaving half the CD blank and risking the audience feeling ripped off.

I don't think music criticism is entirely sure yet how to evaluate important albums that were made specifically for the more expansive running times of the CD era, and consequently have a few weak moments (unlike a lot of the great LPs of yesteryear that were necessarily limited to around 45 minutes).


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 01:11 pm (UTC)
creatively vital!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M2SFBLOI2aQ


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masnomas
masnomas
Hanging Johney
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 02:13 am (UTC)

Probably one of the best entries in this journal ever.


I'm glad P.E.'s Nation of Millions made it. I'm surprised that the Beastie Boy's Paul's beat out License.

Anyway, what about the math. I don't know enough about his data. Don't older albums have more TIME to be well credited? This isn't about new music being unappreciated. It's about whether these lists that are polled for data are all current. If every critic in the past 40 years has had the option of suggesting a beatles album, then that's a skew isn't it?

The noticeable flaw is the decade before being so weak. But I suspect that the 60s and 70s were a higher point for volume of music than the decade before.

I must say one of the things I like about being older, I have so much more music than I used to. Yet, I still don't listen to half the crap on this list. I'm not sure what this all means. And while it's an interesting source for considering music I have never considered before, it also smacks of homogenizing music even further.

It would be interesting if there were a nice fat pirate torrent to get it all in one go. There-you-are. Everyone gets the same music library, and no one can complain, after all it's the "best" possible library isn't it?


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minimalrobot
Bruce
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 02:28 am (UTC)

Thanks. This is the best and clearest summation I've read explaining where we're at with music right now. Amazing what you can do with some simple math and a simple graph.


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xchimx
xchimx
john fisch
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)

If this had been done in '96, would the '87-'96 decade been as large? It sometimes takes time for critics to realize the significance of these works and how they ended up shaping the direction of music tomorrow. Don't you think?


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andalus
andalus
seven quintillion five quadrillion
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:44 am (UTC)

Yes, if this study were being conducted in 1976, Zeppelin, Floyd, the Stones wouldn't be nearly as high as the "golden age" of Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al. -- and, someone like Led Zeppelin might be seen as merely a retrospective of blues. Note the surge in albums coincides with the height of the baby boomers. The chart looks more like a comparison of the relative ages of music critics than it is of the impending death of music.

I personally would rank twice as many albums from the past 15 years as I would from the '70s. That only shows you how old I am.


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dunno - (Anonymous) Expand
bonsai_human
Bonsai Human
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:15 am (UTC)

That rock critics are ageing?

Yes, and they're male.

I think the main issue is that most people are nostalgic, and the music of their childhood/teenage years affects them the most. Those who listened to the music made between '97-'06 just aren't old enough to be nostalgic yet, or "industry" enough to get reviews printed in newspapers.


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)

yay a person with a brane!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)

I don't think the trend for praising older albums in the music industry is because of the fact that the older music have had more time to gain recognition. There are almost no albums on the list that were'nt super popular when they came out. I think this study on the most critically acclaimed albums reflects the popularity and commercial success of the albums, moreso than the innovation and artistic merit. I think time will change what's on this list, but there hasn't been enough time yet, today it's still just a reflection of popularity and commercial success. "As Valasquez and Picasso will happily explain, history remembers the names of those who creep out of the shadows and reposition the frames."


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 04:12 am (UTC)

Where is Daniel Johnston? Where are the High Llamas? Where is Liliput? Where is Renaldo and the loaf? Wjere is Yximalloo? Where are the Shaggs? Wheres is Momus????


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 04:17 am (UTC)

I typed this really quickly and managed to misspell 'where' twice. I'm not really that horrible at spelling I promise, I'm just not very good at typing!


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 04:15 am (UTC)
Despite the plethora of music being produced, despite the advances of music-making technology, despi

Accessibility to technology has definitely changed the playing field
in pop culture. I wonder if literature or other art forms correspond in a similar fashion.




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idletigers.wordpress.com
idletigers.wordpress.com
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 04:51 am (UTC)

I wonder what kind of obscene technology we need to invent before we can quantify the most ignored music of all time?


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akabe
akabe
alin huma
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC)


the ipods will stop spinning (i know people who only carry audio-books on their pods already), a decade of silence, then something. a tone ?


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ajkandy.myopenid.com
ajkandy.myopenid.com
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 05:23 am (UTC)
Does it say more about critics than bands?

I think this deification of the 67-77 decade coincides a bit too neatly with the adolescence and early adulthood of the mid-to-late Boomers (and overlapping just a bit with early Gen X).

I think it's also pretty self-evidently reflective of white North American tastes. Only 9 black artists in the top 100, and most of them were more known as 1950s soul types (and therefore more nostalgic and safe)...and of those, only one relatively recent artist (Public Enemy).

I wonder if this doesn't reflect a sort of racial divide in the ranks of music critics. At least going by my own city's English newspapers, most of the 'senior' critics are white; white critics seem to have (pardon the expression) carte blanche to indulge their wide-ranging tastes, but black critics tend to cover black music or club music exclusively. It's not a hard and fast rule, but I wonder, is this self-segregation? Everyone cleaving to what they know?

Just ramblings - not trying to state a theory here. I leave that to the capable readers...


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 06:12 am (UTC)

Pet Sounds is ranked #1 best album of all time on this list and it might be #1 on my list of most overrated albums of all time(not that I don't like it, it's very cute pop, but I don't even think it belongs in the top 20 best pop albums). But, for me, the biggest crime was ABBA only being listed once in the top 3000, and clear down at the 656th spot. Van Halen, on the other hand, is listed four times on the top 3000, their self titled album ranking at 272. ACDC is listed 5 times, 'Back In Black' barely missing the top 100. How long does it take for bands as awful as Van Halen and AC/DC to be forgotten? Did anyone else watch the Spinal Tap movie? I think ABBA, despite their immense popularity, is paying the price for their shiny one piece outfits and disco beats. That shit just ain't tuff man.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 07:25 am (UTC)

Interesting post.

Is it partly about the importance of the album? At some point (1967?) the album became for pop music what the symphony was for classical music - the defining large-scale form. But it's no longer at the centre of how people listen to music.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 09:33 am (UTC)

Are you saying that Pet Sounds really might be knocked off the most-acclaimed spot by the next Panda Bear album? A few years from now?


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