(Note: This article originally appeared on jericsmith.com, copyright 2005, J. Eric Smith. All rights reserved).
Slaughtering the Sacred Cows?
So here’s a thought for sequel to “Best of the Blockbusters” . . . instead of looking at the best of the commercially popular records (which are expected to be bad), how about trying identify the worst of the critically acclaimed records (which are expected to be good)? I get tired of reading “[Your Magazine Name Here]’s List of the 100 Greatest Records Ever” . . . and having them almost always contain the same records, over and over again. There have to be some clunkers in there, right? Some things that critics rave about, but haven’t listened to in years, and aren’t really as good as they remember? I kinda like the “Slaughtering the Sacred Cows” concept . . . I think I will do some web research, look at several different “Top 100” lists and come up with a combined Top 64, the general consensus critical faves, and go from there. How’s that sound?
More on Slaughtering the Sacred Cows
Very interesting. I started grabbing some of those “Top 100 Albums of All Time Lists” that you can find zillions of online and in print. After scanning only four of them, I already had 78 albums that had appeared on more than one list. Two of the lists I used were from the USA, two from the UK. Three were polls by a group of critics associated with magazines, one was an open readers poll. One skewed early (albums through 1995 only), one skewed late (albums after 1970 only), the others were pretty inclusive, from blues era up through now. Two were mainstream, two were indie. I stuck points on each poll/record (100 points for a number 1 position, 1 point for a number 100 position), and tallied them all up on a simple spreadsheet.
Here are the Top 64 Sacred Cows by such a metric, from highest to lowest scoring in my poll of polls:
1. The Clash, London Calling
2. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3. The Beatles, Revolver
4. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
5. Nirvana, Nevermind
6. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
7. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
8. The Beatles, The Beatles (White Album)
9. The Beatles, Abbey Road
10. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
11. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
12. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
13. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
14. The Beatles, Rubber Soul
15. Love, Forever Changes
16. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On?
17. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
18. The Doors, The Doors
19. Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
20. Television, Marquee Moon
21. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
22. The Band, The Band
23. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
24. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, It’s the Sex Pistols
25. The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed
26. Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
27. Patti Smith, Horses
28. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (Zoso)
29. Joni Mitchell, Blue
30. The Who, Who’s Next
31. James Brown, Live at the Apollo
32. Radiohead, OK Computer
33. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
34. U2, Joshua Tree
35. The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
36. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
37. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica
38. Joy Division, Closer
39. Michael Jackson, Thriller
40. Ramones, Ramones
41. The Smiths, The Queen is Dead
42. Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions
43. R.E.M., Automatic for the People
44. Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon
45. The Stooges, Fun House
46. Otis Redding, Otis Blue
47. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
48. Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express
49. Prince, Sign o’ the Times
50. David Bowie, Hunky Dory
51. The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
52. Pixies, Doolittle
53. Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On
54. The Clash, The Clash
55. U2, Achtung Baby
56. Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
57. Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
58. Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain
59. Nirvana, In Utero
60. Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
61. Pink Floyd, The Wall
62. Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge
63. Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
64. Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
My quick reaction? There’s not a surprise on that list, and it’s astounding how quickly critical orthodoxy on these records is achieved by quickly culling four disparate lists from four different perspectives. We have been told that these records are Sacred Cows for so long that we (a) vote for them, even if we’ve never heard them, or (b) don’t express surprise or indignation when other people vote for them. So, uh, that’s a start, right there.
I’m not sure how I’ll proceed. I want to mull that unsurprising list for a spell, first.
Still More Slaughtering of the Sacred Cows
So after looking at that list, I’m not sure that a tournament style contest is the best thing to do with it. I think there’s a (maybe) more interesting analysis in looking at the Critical Orthodoxy of Sacred Cows vs. Actual Commercial Appeal.
Think about it: in just about any other human endeavor, if something is judged worthy by the judges who count, other people will want to enjoy and share in that thing’s worthiness. So if, say, Marquee Moon by Television is judged to be such a high quality cultural icon, why haven’t very many people (relatively speaking) actually bought it during the almost 30 years it has been available?
More to the point: of the 64 Sacred Cow albums, only 13 of them were in the 64 records assessed in the Best of the Blockbusters list. About 20%. Why is this correllation not greater? Why do critics tend to downplay commercially successful records and lift up commercially obscure ones? Do we think we’re smarter than the hoi polloi? That we have better taste than the public at large?
I began gathering data last night to graph a correlation between placement on the Sacred Cows list and total certified U.S. sales as tracked by RIAA. Tonight, I should be able to offer some insight into which Sacred Cow albums are the most over-rated by critics. Maybe, then, I’ll take the 10 or so most over-rated ones and do a little dissection and analysis that way, to see if we can parse out what makes a Sacred Cow.
Slaughtering the Sacred Cows (Continued)
Okay, so I came up with the list of 64 Sacred Cow records yesterday, a sort of survey of surveys to pick the albums that critics are most apt to gush over. Today, I looked up all of their certification information on RIAA’s website, which is based on U.S. sales.
I then plotted the critical rankings against the sales rankings, adjusting certification on multi-disc sets to reflect number of packages sold, since that’s how buyers buy them. (Example: If Pink Floyd’s The Wall is certified 22 times platinum by RIAA, it only sold 11 million copies of the album, since the album contains two discs, which is how RIAA calculates its certifications. But no one just buys disc two of The Wall, do they?)
At the mid-point of the graph would be the place where “critical votes” (ranking in the Sacred Cow list) and “commercial votes” (sales of the record) would be equal, identifying records where the critical and commercial respect given the record is about fairly proportioned. Given my pretty unscientific methods, let’s allow a 50% margin of error around that mid-point, and say those are the fairly assessed records, where the voices of the critics, more or less, equate to the voices of the people.
How many of the 64 records fell into that expansive +/- 50% range? Only eight of them. These, then, are the eight Sacred Cow albums that have the best correlation between critical and commercial acclaim, ranked from leaning a little bit towards critically over-respected (The White Album), to a leaning a little bit towards critically under-respected (The Joshua Tree).
The Beatles, The Beatles (White Album)
R.E.M., Automatic for the People
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers
The Beatles, Abbey Road
Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
U2, Joshua Tree
There were 12 of the 64 Sacred Cow albums that fell on the side of the graph indicating that critics don’t respect them as much as maybe they should; if we assume that the people’s voices matter, these albums should be a little more loved by the critics. They are ranked in order from most under-rated (Appetite for Destruction) at the top, down to something approaching fairly assessed at the bottom (Zep IV).
Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction
Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
Fleetwood Mac, Rumours
Michael Jackson, Thriller
Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town
Pink Floyd, The Wall
Nirvana, In Utero
U2, Achtung Baby
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (Zoso)
Now . . . for the fun part. The other 44 records fell on the side of the curve indicating that critics are valuing them more than the record buying public as a whole does. This would be the over-rated list, the list of records that critics moon and sing about repeatedly, but which still don’t interest the general public to buy them with any sort of regularity. They are ranked from most-over-rated at the top, to just a little over-rated at the bottom. In order, the Most Over-Rated Sacred Cows:
1. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico
2. Love, Forever Changes
3. Television, Marquee Moon
4. Patti Smith, Horses
5. James Brown, Live at the Apollo
6. Stevie Wonder, Innervisions
7. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica
8. Joy Division, Closer
9. Ramones, Ramones
10. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On?
11. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks
12. David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
13. The Stooges, Fun House
14. Otis Redding, Otis Blue
15. Kraftwerk, Trans Europe Express
16. The Clash, London Calling
17. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
18. David Bowie, Hunky Dory
19. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
20. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
21. The Smiths, The Queen is Dead
22. Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions
23. Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland
24. The Band, The Band
25. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, It’s the Sex Pistols
26. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street
27. Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back
28. Joni Mitchell, Blue
29. Radiohead, OK Computer
30. Prince, Sign o’ the Times
31. The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet
32. Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks
33. Pixies, Doolittle
34. The Clash, The Clash
35. The Rolling Stones, Let It Bleed
36. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
37. The Beatles, Revolver
38. Sly and the Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On
39. The Doors, The Doors
40. The Who, Who’s Next
41. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
42. Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
43. The Beatles, Rubber Soul
44. Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Now . . . as I always do when I go through a semi-formal analysis like this, I step back and look and say “Does that make any sense, at a gut level?” And I think I have to conclude that, yes, it does make sense, on a macro level.
Let’s look at the most over-rated sacred cow: The Velvet Underground and Nico. This record is 40 years old. Countless thousands of critics and cultural observers over the years have cited is as the turning point for modern/indie rock music. People have had four decades to heed those sorts of high praise and buy the album . . . but they haven’t. Two generations have grown to maturity since that record came out, reading about its magnificence, without ever (collectively) being inspired to go out and buy a copy to hear what the critics are going on about.
Does that make it over-rated? I think it does, by some definition of the phrase. I mean, if nothing else, it means that the importance given to it by critics is not shared by the general record buying populace, and if the general record buying populace does not share the critics’ views at all, after 40 years, then what does that say about the importance of the critics themselves? Hmmm . . . food for thought.
Letting the Sacred Cows Out of the Barn
On another online message/bulletin board I frequent, someone made the observation that over-ratedness is more a function of critical praise divided by musical quality than it is a function of critical praise divided by commercial sales success.
He was correct. Those most over-rated sacred cows below represent not a dichotomy between musical quality and critical praise (because, for the most part, they really are very good albums), but instead a dichotomy of how much commercial weight the critics’ opinions carry. In other words: The Velvet Underground and Nico is the album that the general listening public just most doesn’t want to buy, no matter how often critics tell the people they should. It is the record with the greatest commercial resistance ever. That’s probably the best way to describe it.
And given that fact, I’m having a hard time getting excited about doing a week long essay parsing these 64 albums down to a most-over-rated sacred cow, since the choices are going to be such fine lines, such dancing on the knife’s edge, that I can’t see myself reaching a well-argued decision that will satisfy me (or you) anymore than just looking at the list and picking some now would.
In the other contests, I was generally surprised where I came out, and the process made me think differently about certain records and bands as I went. I can’t see the process of comparing and contrasting these records in great detail changing anything I feel right now . . . since, to my mind, the very clear winner of the most-over-rated record title on that list of 64 albums (in terms of critical praise divided by musical quality) is Horses by Patti Smith. I find that record to be just flat out bad, no matter what my critical breathren and sistren have to say about it. Flat. Out. Bad.
Other observations on the list . . . I think Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys is a fine album, but one which has grown a cult devotion that far outstrips its actual musical accomplishment. I think it has become the record that critics select to honor Brian Wilson’s career as a whole, the symbol of everything he did and was and does, the one without all the cars and surfboards on it. Nirvana’s Nevermind is, likewise, a fine album that’s grown an out-of-proportion cult over the years as well. Suicide will do that. See the Joy Division entries (Closer and Unknown Pleasures) for confirmation. Not to mention Nirvana’s own In Utero. I like all five of the records listed in this paragraph (the Joy Division ones especially), but think they get a bit more love than they earn.
Other albums that I personally, actively dislike on the list of 64 are Television’s Marquee Moon, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (I can at least get through Darkness On the Edge of Town), Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and the Pixies Doolittle. I appreciate the importance and accomplishment of the Bob Dylan albums, but I never have any desire to listen to them again. And I just don’t get the appeal of Radiohead’s OK Computer, although I don’t dislike it particularly.
Other than that, though, I pretty much like or love just about every other album on the list, and consider them to be worthy of the kudos heaped upon them over the years. So I can’t see the fun in parsing the list and knocking off a bunch of cool things to end up with a final four that would (and should) almost certainly include four of the following five albums Horses, Marquee Moon, Born to Run, Astral Weeks and Doolittle.
But, hey, want a winner? How about a little round robin action:
Marquee Moon (2 points) is a better album than Horses (0 points)
Born to Run (1 point) ties Horses (1 point)
Astral Weeks (2 points) is a better album than Horses (0 points)
Doolittle (2 points) is a better album than Horses (0 points)
Marquee Moon (2 points) is a better album than Born to Run (0 points)
Marquee Moon (1 point) ties Astral Weeks (1 point)
Marquee Moon (2 points) is a better album than Doolittle (0 points)
Born to Run (1 point) ties Astral Weeks (1 point)
Born to Run (2 points) is a better album than Doolittle (0 points)
Astral Weeks (2 points) is a better album than Doolittle (0 points)
Marquee Moon by Television: 7 points
Astral Weeks by Van Morrison: 6 points
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: 4 points
Doolittle by the Pixies: 2 points
Horses by Patti Smith: 1 point.
And, so, see, we end with Horses at the bottom of the pile doing it short form, which is where we end up doing it long form as well, and I can’t see typing 10,000 words to get to such a logical (in my mind) conclusion as to the most over-rated critical sacred cow record of all time. Flat out bad is flat out bad . . . and that’s Horses. So let’s just leave it at that, shall we, and let the other sacred cows run the free range, happy (if bloated) and care free . . . because, actually, someone suggested something to me that I actually like better and can get more excited about: a Progressive Rock (or “prog”) contest of some sort, a parsing of the genre, records and bands that I actually love more than just about any others. Records that I know a whole heck of a lot about (too much, probably), and have passionate feelings for. Bands that excite me. Watch this space, as I will probably frame this contest soon and see where it takes us. You’ve seen me geek here before, but I can guarantee you that nothing brings out the deepest, darkest geek in me than prog. You’ve been warned.