The Best Album? (and a Reason Many Think So)

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 Stoneโ€™s 500 Greatest Albums books and fan polls such as Q magazineโ€™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.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice

That’s Not Me

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)

Here Today

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

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Sometimes the Internet Works For Us

Yesterday, I visited YouTube to see what the algorithms had for me and saw this video:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

It’s 2 1/2 minutes of Brian and I guess some of the other Beach Boys performing background vocals for a beautiful song on the Pet Sounds album, my all-time favorite (and #2 in the recent Rolling Stone Top 500 — โ€œWhoโ€™s gonna hear this shit?โ€ Beach Boys singer Mike Love asked. . . ).

This morning, the video popped up again. While I was listening, I noticed a link to a song by Fleet Foxes, one of my favorite groups:

Fleet Foxes – Shore (Full Album) 2020ย 

Fleet Foxes has a new album out? I didn’t know. So I played the first track:

“Wading In Waist-High Water”

It’s beautiful. Fleet Foxes often remind me of the Beach Boys. I wondered how the new album, released in September, was being received. A search for “Fleet Foxes Shore” turned up a review from Pitchfork magazine.

On his fourth album, singer-songwriter Robin Pecknold refines and hones Fleet Foxesโ€™ crisp folk-rock sound, crafting another musically adventurous album that is warm and newly full of grace.ย 

They gave the album an 8.3, which sounds high.ย ย 

As I was looking at the review, I saw this:

Elsewhere, there are explicit nods to contemporary classical music, as on โ€œJara,โ€ which features hocketing by Meara O’Reilly, and โ€œCradling Mother, Cradling Woman,โ€ which pairs Oโ€™Reilly with a snippet of Brian Wilson counting to resemble Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, and, in its sampling, also recalls the early work of Steve Reich.ย 

A snippet of Brian Wilson counting? Well, I had to click on that.

Surprise, surprise! It turned out to be:

Brian Wilson – Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) (Demo Vocal Tracks)”

Yes, YouTube had twice recommended one of the thousands of Beach Boys/Brian Wilson videos they offer, of which I’ve watched many, and that took me to somebody else’s album, which uses part of that particular Pet Sounds session, which is in a YouTube video that’s probably getting attention because Robin Pecknold borrowed Brian Wilson counting “one-two-three-four” for his new Fleet Foxes album, Shore.

In the old days, only ten years ago, I might have quickly ordered the new Fleet Foxes CD. The internet would have succeeded in selling me something. But since CD technology is fast disappearing and I almost never play one except in our 16-year old car, there’s no rush. I can play the whole thing on Spotify and see if I want a copy for the car.ย 

Was I manipulated? Sure. Were a few more bytes of my data stored away in Google’s innards, only to be mined for heaven knows what purposes? Yeah. But sometimes it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a vast machine, even something to be a little bit thankful for.

Take a Visual Break from Reality with the Beach Boys

Someone going by the nameย Summertime Bloozย has a YouTube channel that features “amazing music accompanied by colorful and imaginative slideshows”. That is an accurate description. Actually, it’s putting it mildly.

I count 28 videos on his channel devoted to the Beach Boys or Brian Wilson (there are a few for other artists as well). Here are three with some of Mr. Blooz’s comments.

This is a slideshow video for the Beach Boys’ 1964 classic “The Warmth Of The Sun”. I made this video tribute because I think it is probably the most beautiful song in the Beach Boys catalog (sorry, “God Only Knows”).

Brian Wilson and (the unpleasant) Mike Love wrote it in the wake of the 1963 Kennedy assassination. The graphics truly evoke Los Angeles and Southern California from years ago.

… a video for the Beach Boys’ 1966 song “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” from their album masterpiece Pet Sounds. I think the themes of feeling alienated and not fitting in are universal and timeless. In making this video I gained an even greater appreciation of the intricacies of the record’s production and believe it’s truly one of the finest and most daring productions Brian Wilson ever created.

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is the climax to Pet Sounds, appearing near the end of what used to be side 2.

… a slideshow set to my edited version of the Beach Boys’ “Wind Chimes”, recorded in 1966 for the legendary, aborted Smile album. All thanks to Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys for the awesome music. Please enjoy responsibly.

More than one version of “Wind Chimes” is available. This is the older, longer version. Keep listening when the video fades to black about 3 minutes in.

Visit Summertime Blooz’s YouTube channel for more, including 17 videos devoted to Smile.ย