Musically speaking, some albums are better than others. But is being better than another album simply a matter of personal taste? I’m not going to try to answer that question, but philosophers tend to say it’s more complicated than that.
It’s not a matter of personal taste that some albums are more popular than others. But even here, you have to decide how to identify popularity. Is it by total sales? The issue of sales can get murky, since not all sales figures are equally accurate. Wikipedia’s “List of Best Selling Albums” goes into some detail about methodology and ends up saying Michael Jackson’s Thriller from 1982 is the best-selling album of all time.
Another way to identify popularity is to ask people. But that’s not simple either. Who gets to vote? How is the voting done? A site called PopVortex has a list they call “The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time”, but it comes with an explanation:
There have been plenty list available that rank the top 100 greatest albums of all time. What makes this list different is that it compiles and aggregates data from other best of lists, including both critics lists such as Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums books and fan polls such as Q magazine’s 100 Greatest Albums Ever poll. The goal of this list to find not only the greatest albums of all time but also the most influential and culturally significant albums as well, so in addition to just the opinions of critics and fans to compile the list other metrics where used as well such as Billboard chart statistics, RIAA sales figures and several others to help determine the final rankings of the best albums.
However they did it, they have The Beatles (also known as “The White Album”) at #1.
A Swedish statistician came up with his own list (and lists). Henrik Franzon is on LinkedIn:
I am a statistician/analyst with long experience of predictive modeling, surveys/user research, effect measuring, among other things. Team leader for election results at the Swedish Election Authority (Valmyndigheten) since September 2020. I have also worked 8 years in the pharmaceutical industry and 14 years at the Swedish Tax Agency.
My primary analytic strength is data interpretation, to see and understand patterns.
Mr. Franzon’s interesting site is called “Acclaimed Music”. I won’t quote any of his methodology, which you can find on his site, but he says his list of the “most acclaimed” albums is mainly based on lists from music critics, with some other lists (from musicians, for example) thrown in. These are his results for the most acclaimed albums of the 1940s through the 2010:
1940s: Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads (#2 is the Broadway cast recording from “Kiss Me, Kate”)
1950s: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
1960s: The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (The White Album is #7)
1970s: Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On
1980s: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Thriller is #2)
1990s: Nirvana, Nevermind
2000s: Arcade Fire, Funeral
2010s: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly
This leads me to what got me thinking about quality, popularity and lists. I was driving along and something related to Pet Sounds came up on random play. It wasn’t one of the 13 tracks from that album, which, according to Mr. Franzon, is the most acclaimed album of all time (followed by Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Beatles’ Revolver). It was the instrumental track for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the first song on the album, performed by the studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”. This was the instrumental background Brian Wilson recorded in the studio before he added the vocals sung by himself and the other Beach Boys.
It’s remarkable that Wilson created this music without intending for anyone to clearly hear it. He knew the vocals on the finished song would hide a lot of it. It’s also remarkable that he made this music before anybody did any singing. Did he know what the finished song would sound like once the instruments and vocals were mixed together? Looking back, people say he had it “all in his head”.
Capitol Records issued The Pet Sounds Sessions, a 4-CD box set, in 1997. It has the instrumentals, the vocals and the finished product. You can find the 13 instrumental tracks on YouTube and Spotify. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite instrumental backgrounds from what many consider the best album of all time.