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 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.

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


Distraction for a Saturday Afternoon (or Sunday)

Rolling Stone, still in business after 52 years, took a poll of 300 people in the music business to create a new “500 Greatest Albums” list. They polled 271 people in 2003 to do the same.

I’ll offer no opinion, except to note that hundreds of people supposedly submitted lists of their Top 50 albums, from which the magazine generated the Top 500. How did Rolling Stone find 300 people willing to make that kind of effort? Did they let their kids or dogs weigh in?

Anyway, it’s interesting that albums by Marvin Gaye and the Beach Boys were the only ones to stay in the Top 10 between 2003 to 2020. The Beach Boys stayed at #2 and Marvin Gaye rose from #6 to #1.

Everything else in 2003’s Top 10 went down, although none of them fell out of the Top 40. 

In the 2020 list, Abbey Road jumped ahead of four Beatles albums from the 2003 list. Three albums on the 2020 list didn’t even make the Top 50 in 2003. Lauryn Hill’s 1998 album went from #312 to #10. That’s quite a jump. (And Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 mega-seller, is more popular now than it was in 2003? That’s just weird.)

2003 2020 2020 2003
1 The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper 24 1 Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On 6
2 The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds 2 2 The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds 2
3 The Beatles, Revolver 11 3 Joni Mitchell, Blue 30
4 Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited 18 4 Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life 57
5 The Beatles, Rubber Soul 35 5 The Beatles, Abbey Road 14
6 Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On 1 6 Nirvana, Nevermind 17
7 The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St. 14 7 Fleetwood Mac, Rumours 26
8 The Clash, London Calling 16 8 Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain 72
9 Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde 38 9 Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks 16
10 The Beatles, The White Album 29 10 Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 312

Someone kindly made a YouTube playlist for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On. The title track sure fits 2020:

Making Pet Sounds playlists is a cottage industry. I’d forgotten that I made one comprising stereo versions of the original 13 tracks three years ago. It’s been viewed 400,000 times.

On the other hand, the one I did called “If Pet Sounds Was, God Forbid, an EP”, which only includes four tracks, has been viewed 7 times. That sounds right. 

PS: If enough of us vote for our favorite candidates this year, not our favorite albums, we can damage the Republican Party for decades. Wouldn’t that be wonderful, not just nice?

Of No Consequence At All, But Nice Anyway

Here’s one of those coincidences that make the world seem nicely symmetrical:

I happened to be looking for a version of the old Irving Berlin song “Blue Skies” this afternoon and eventually found a good one by the American jazz singer Maxine Sullivan, recorded in 1937:

Maxine Sullivan’s biggest hit, somewhat oddly, was her jaunty recording of the traditional Scottish tune “Loch Lomond”. That’s why her greatest hits CD (shown in the video above) was called “Loch Lomond: Greatest Hits 1937-1942”.

While listening to “Blue Skies”, however, I noticed a video for a 60s group from Boston called the Rockin’ Ramrods. It’s called “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and is pretty good:

Now, somewhere along the way, the Rockin’ Ramrods shortened their name and became the Ramrods. This, however, led to some confusion, because a rock band from nearby Connecticut already went by that name. 

These other Ramrods had one hit, an instrumental version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. Unfortunately, their follow-up single, released in 1960, didn’t become a hit.

But it was called “Loch Lomond Rock”:

If only they’d called it “Rockin’ Loch Lomond”. That would have been perfect.

#1 Songs — The Good, Bad and In Between

According to this website, a professor and archivist named Hugo Keesing put together a few seconds of every Billboard #1 hit starting in January 1956 and continuing for several decades after that. The text says that he got the idea from radio station WOR-FM in New York.

Listening to this is an interesting experience, but I gave up somewhere around 20 minutes into Part 1 when Bobby Goldsboro sang “Honey” (a #1 considered by some to be the worst song of all time).

There are obviously lessons to be learned from hearing what were the best-selling or most popular songs in America (according to Billboard magazine). My main reactions were “I remember that one” and “Wow”.