Music, statistics and data visualization

“Music critics get their records for free, so their opinions generally don’t interest me” (Marilyn Manson)

“Competitions are for the horses, not for the artists” (Bela Bartok)

“Everything can be explained with statistics, 40% of people know it” (Homer Simpson)

“Without data, you are just another person with an opinion” (William Deming)

Since I was a little child I have been passionate about music and all the data and information related to it.

I remember those early ’90s when I faithfully accompanied the weekly Top 20 of Saturday Box Office (1) or going out to buy Rolling Stone magazines to read, mainly and first of all, the reviews of recently released albums. Came to my mind the indignation I felt when I saw that the score of an album, that I liked so much, barely reached three stars. I was also looking forward to the annual Si! Supplement survey by the Argentine newspaper Clarín, to find out about the year’s outstanding artists and releases.

In short, I haven’t left any music article without reading; if it was in the form of lists or ranking, with associated numbers, even better.

Then the Internet came, and everything changed. I began to have access to new artists, I exercised my listening, and today I enjoy sounds that I would never have imagined before. I’ve lost a bit of innocence and matured in disbelief. I understood how the market works, that music is actually another industry, and my interest in recognized music rankings and awards ceremonies diminished, although I confess that I still feel like a teenager when Spotify sends me the year summary with my statistics of reproductions and list of personal preferences.

I am an engineer and musician (2). I love attending concerts, I declare myself a music lover but not a religious audiophile and, finally, I resigned (almost) definitely the beautiful ritual of buying a physical album for the practicality of having the musical universe just a couple of clicks away.

Repeated coffee talks, in which an attempt has been made to define whether Megadeth is indeed better than Metallica. The eternal combat of two heavyweights of metal, where surely the disruptive defense of some indignant minority fan of Slayer will be present. Music lovers have lived through several of these debates and, in a way, we end up enjoying them, even knowing that most of them are more encouraged by the press than by the artists themselves.

On some occasions, almost all of us have heard the firm assertion, initially irrefutable, that the Beatles were, are, and will be the best band in history. Days ago I saw a BBC documentary where one of the interviewees strongly doubted this statement, arguing that Kraftwerk is indeed the best and most influential band of all time (3).

I was part of a musical band for more than a decade and despite being an extraordinary and extremely rewarding experience, especially those sporadic and ephemeral moments where individual performances achieve maximum group synergy, it was always a bit tedious for me that all compositional decisions must be permanently agreed upon. Over time, this concept led me to think if artistic teamwork does not end up damaging the quality of the musical product and if the creativity of the artist who composes alone ends up being much more artistically effective.

I have wondered, on more than one occasion, if I have become more demanding or the quality of the artists’ musical work is effectively decreasing with the progress of their career. Or will it be the opposite, could it be that musicians are really like wines: the older the better?

Homer Simpson, a great fan of rock in his youth, but sadly gentrified by the crushes of life itself, once argued that Rock achieved perfection in 1974. As an admirer of the character and a fervent Queen follower, I always had sympathy for that sentence; that year saw the release of what I consider to be the best album Queen has ever released: “Sheer Heart Attack” (4). The dispute over which period of this band was better, the seventies or the eighties, is also a thing to define.

A large number of friends and acquaintances who go through half of their lives argue that the ’80s were the best years in terms of music releases, while older adults nostalgically remember the good 70’s. On the contrary, I always maintained that the ’90s was indeed the golden decade of Rock, especially, the year 1991 when great classic albums were released. In that year were released the admired Blood Sugar Sex Magic by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the magnificent Ten by Pearl Jam, the disruptive Nevermind by Nirvana, the futuristic and revolutionary Achtung Baby by U2, or the multiplatinum Black Album by Metallica, to name only a few. There’s no way another year can beat 1991, not even 1974, right?

With great advertising cunning, the United States has always managed to position itself as the best country in the world when it comes to almost anything. In this case, it may be justified; after all, it is the country that gave birth to great legends, such as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Velvet Underground or Ramones. Personally, I have always felt that it is actually England who has been and continues to be, the best world producer of musical content. Could I be wrong?

I decided to fusion my two cerebral hemispheres, combining my passion for music with my academic background, and start a path of research where, through certain premises, assumptions and simplifications, I can try to answer these and other questions related to the world of music, in an analytical and structured way.

This is how MOC| Music On Charts was born

At the time of writing this article, the database has more than 1,000 recognized and popular artists and their respective 10,000+ officially released studio albums. It does not (obviously) include the whole universe of the music published worldwide, but it is a sufficiently representative sample of the musical releases of the most prominent and popular western bands and solo artists of the last 60 years, a period that extends from Elvis Presley to Billie Eilish.

Knowing that music is art, and all art is personal and subjective, the analysis is only possible if a quantitative variable is found, that acts as a means of comparison. In this sense, and within the subjectivity field, there is no more “objective” numerical analysis tool than the album ratings.

Album ratings are obtained from a mathematical algorithm that weighs several reviews from different sources; not only are considered the evaluations of music critics from recognized media, but also the ratings made by thousands of music followers on different alternative and independent websites.

All these 10,000+ records, analyzed with data visualization tools, allowed me to answer some of my old concerns and obtaining different conclusions.

Below, I detail a few conclusions that I arrived at:

a. The best album ever is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (1975), with a weighted average rating of 4.92/5.00. The worst one, Summer in Paradise (1992) by The Beach Boys with a score of 1.04.

In MOC you will be able to discover the complete list and, if you stop to observe closely the values, perhaps you will agree with me that it would probably be fairer to talk not about one, but the five or ten best albums in history; the mathematical difference in the result is truly minimal.

b. The ‘70s have been the best decade when it comes to musical releases. This analysis considers approximately 1800 records counted in each decade, from 1970 to date. The number of recorded albums that belong to the 1960s is not representative in the database, so it was excluded from this analysis.

c. The overall average rating for the 10,000+ albums is 3.47. Bands as a whole have a better rating than soloists; female artists have released better works than their male peers.

d. 1970 has been the best year. Homer Simpson has been much more correct than I in his prediction.

e. The correlation index of the discographies of each artist, complemented with other charts, allows me to conclude that the number of artists who have managed to have a sustained upward career over the years is very small; the vast majority of artists have an irregular and oscillating or downward trended career. In fact, at the aggregate level, it is observed that the artists begin a pronounced artistic decline from their fourth album.

F. The UK (3.48/5.00) has released better albums than the US (3.44/5.00). It should be noted that I am considering 5,200 US albums versus 3,200 UK albums.

g. James Brown, Johnny Cash, and Tangerine Dream have been some of the most prolific artists when it comes to the number of official studio releases.

h. One of the charts shows how the music industry has been professionalizing itself over time, with a marked inflection point from the year 2000. From the beginning of this millennium to the present day, the ratings of the albums are highly concentrated around the general mean; with few exceptions, no excellent or terrible work has been released lately, most albums are just acceptable, good, or average.

i. Queen of the 70s has been artistically better than Queen of the 80s, and their best work was indeed A Night at the Opera (1974), with a rating of 4.67. Paradoxically, the band reached its peak of global popularity in the mid-80s. And yes, Metallica’s official discography is indeed better than Megadeth’s one.

j. When talking about the average of the released albums to define the best artist in history, it is necessary first to consider a threshold regarding the number of released albums. Considering all those artists who have released more than 7 official albums, then the initial hypothesis that The Beatles is the best band of all time is confirmed, followed by Led Zeppelin in second place. In turn, Nick Cave is the best solo artist.

I invite you to visit the MOC website and go deeper into this subject, stratifying the data with the available filters in the interactive chats.

k. If we (arbitrarily) consider that an excellent album is the one whose rating is greater than 4.75, and a bad album is the one whose rating is less than 1.75, then the proportion of excellent albums (1.8%) is much higher than the bad ones (0.7%). More than half of the albums ever released are actually good.

If we randomly select an album, there is a probability of more than 75% that the album is, at least, good. This does not necessarily mean that we end up liking it ;)

After analyzing all the data, and arriving at some conclusions, surely another question arises:

Is it fair and/or sufficient to evaluate an artist strictly by scoring their official musical releases, or are their studio albums just a cog within a more complex mechanism, which also includes their appearance, their public statements, their charisma, their media handling, its management and advertising structure, the art design of the albums, their live shows, their controversies, etc?.

This discussion is as complex as it is passionate, impossible to be quantified, so not only exceeds the scope of this project but it should remain part of the musical folklore and endless hours of coffee talks.

Dani Roperto // //

1. Saturday Box office. TV program. Chile.

2. Drummer and sound artist.

3. Kraftwerk, Pop Art. Documentary, BBC.

4. Yes, even better than “A Night at the Opera”.


-- // from Buenos Aires, Argentina

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