Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (with a question mark)

I've been going through and listening to the Rolling Stone Magazines list of the greatest albums. I just search the album on youtube with "full album" and nearly all of them have a hit. Its been interesting in many many ways.

One is simply that there are a lot of pop songs I've heard on the radio and recognize, but couldn't have sung one word of let alone name the artist and album. Its kinda fun thinking, "oh this is where that song comes from."

Another way its been interesting is which albums AREN'T available on youtube. Now I recognize this is more likely due to the label than the artist, but I can't help but think differently of the artist, when I go to listen to an album I've never heard and the big label pops up that more or less means you can't listen unless you pay. Well, I'll never know how that artist sounds. I'm much less inclined to ever buy it. I'm only through the first 10 so far (500-490) and only the White Stripes hasn't been available, though I had find a playlist for KISS's "Destroyer", the full album video exists but has been muted due to copyright.

Another interesting thing is to see the comments and how many "Artist/Album XXX isn't on the list? What a crappy list!" comments there are. Some I agree with. Overall the list is pretty subjective, but I think most of the albums are worth a listen for educational purposed. There's lots of stereotyped "genre XXX stinks" in the comments, and the results do seem to have some bias, but it set me to thinking, how should such an album list be generated? Also what makes an album great?

The best way to make a "greatest" list is to find a valid metric. Votes will end up subjective and show selection biases unless a HUGE sampling is taken. Album sales could be a good metric. Especially in my opinion, album sales over time. Some albums skyrocket then fall into obscurity. Other albums  tell their value over time (i.e. the ramones have sold more albums after they broke up than when they were together. Just like in other mediums some painters/poets/writers are entirely unrecognized during their lifetime). So put some weighting to the number of sales per year based on how many years past the release. In reality its difficult to see the value of an album immediately after its release, at least for me, its the timelessness of an album that makes it valuable. Another metric could be the number of plays from tracks that are still happening on the radio, but that can also favor latest hits that will only hold nostalgic value in a few years. If a database of such information were available then these lists could be easily generated and reviewed to see if the results seem reasonable. Really it would be the outliers, the surprises, that would be fun to see.

Finally I'd just like to explore what makes an album great. In the simplest form, a great album is appealing. Beyond that it starts getting really subjective. Mass appeal? The numbers suggested, and the RS list seem to favor this, the result being most selections coming from mainstream or pop music. That's ok, but you have to realize that. Another way to consider what makes an album great, its influence on other artists/music in general. Again, this will bias mainstream, because once broken into subgenres, the realm of influence is less (though not constricted arbitrarily) as country music artist are more likely to influence other country music artists. Also this is impossible to meter, though I'd love to hear suggestions. I won't take cited influences seriously as a metric, as I can't really sum up all the artists who have influenced my music, let alone how much each one had. Another thing that is unclear about album greatness, does one bad song make the album a flop? Does a couple of big hits make one great? If the whole thing doesn't have any continuity should it even be considered on the album level? Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is obviously a single work, and its great to be considered on the whole, but another one of my favorite albums is Smashmouth's Astrolounge. I just like every single song on there. Actually, the radio hit All-Star isn't that great though. Meh. But I can't really identify exactly why these albums are great. Part of its nostalgia, the sound, the lyrics, the emotion I feel when listening... They're just appealing.

If I think about some of my favorite albums, some jazz-rock like Chicago II, or deep funk like the Funky 16 Corners, Neil Diamond, or ska, or Jazz, its pretty hard to come up with a metric or anything that would be able to encompass everything I like and declare them great. Maybe I just like some lame albums. Maybe music is subjective by nature and should be enjoyed, considered, embraced, rejected etc. on an individual level. Maybe every such list is more objectively telling about the list creator than the music cited.

So in summary, this list, and any similar list of the greatest albums, is a valid thing to consider and enjoy, with a grain of salt. Its been a great avenue for me to listen to some stuff I never would have otherwise. Its a subjective field, since music is largely created with emotion, intended to illicit emotion, how could it not be individually received and acclaimed? As a result, its hard not to take music personally, but lets try to realize other people should not be clones of ourselves. Anyhow, try new stuff with an open mind, don't be a hater, but its ok to find something you don't like.

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