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February 2010
September 12th, 2007
Wed, Sep. 12th, 2007 03:09 am

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.