Henrik Franzon is a Swedish statistician who's created a remarkable site called Acclaimed Music. Over the last seven years, he's compiled hundreds of lists that rank music--best albums of all time, best singles of year X, and so on--from every source he comes across--the Rough Guide to Jazz, Rolling Stone, Attitude magazine's top 50 gay albums of all time. (Can an album have a sexual preference?) Then he's aggregated the results, organized them into a sort of "best of the best of" list, and provided links to various views. You can see the most critically acclaimed albums or songs of all time, by decade, or within any year between 1940 and 2006.
Today, musician/writer/artist Momus noted that the chronological distribution of the top 100 albums of "all time" on Acclaimed was heavily skewed: according to his analysis, 48 of the top 100 came out during the era, between 1967 and 1976. The following two decades had about 20 albums each, and the most recent decade--1997 to present--has had only three. He questions whether this reflects the simple demographic fact that Baby Boomers tend to dominate the industry of music criticism (as they do with almost any sufficiently large sample group), or if popular music is no longer as relevant or interesting as it used to be.
In other words, are critics old and out of touch, or does today's music really suck?
A fascinating debate, but I'm more interested in a slightly different but equally open-ended question. Take a look at this list of the top-selling albums worldwide compiled from both certified sources (like RIAA sales figures in the U.S.) and anecdotal sources (such as reports from record company press releases). The list shows 97 albums that have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. Looking at the original release dates of music that's been compiled in greatest hits albums, the breakdown of top-selling albums by decade goes like this:
1957-1966: 1.5 (counting The Beatles' 1 as 0.5, since half the songs were originally released during this period)
1967-1976: 16 (counting that Beatles compilation and Steve Miller's Greatest Hits 1974-1978 as 0.5 each)
1977-1986: 25.5 (counting Steve Miller, Madonna's Immaculate Conception, Michael Jackson's HIStory, and U2's 1980-1990 as 0.5)
So, from a popular perspective, the late 80s and early 90s were the golden age of popular music, not the classic rock era of the previous decade. The lower figures between 1997 and 2006 might simply be because these albums have had less time to reach the 15 million mark, or might in fact indicate that popular music is becoming less relevant or more fragmented among audiences.
But what's really striking is the lack of overlap between the two lists. Look at the critical rankings of huge-sellers like Garth Brooks (#512 on critics' lists), Whitney Houston (#644), Shania Twain (#776), Phil Collins (#811), MC Hammer (#1372), Mariah Carey (#1512), Celine Dion (#1569), Ricky Martin (#1671) and Kenny G (unranked). (Then again, are you as surprised as I am that Britney made #401? Who are these critics?) And critical stalwartslike The Stones, Bowie, The Who, Elvis, The Beach Boys, Velvet Underground, REM, and many others are completely missing from the sales lists.
So the real question is: are the critics pretentious and out of touch, or is the public full of tasteless idiots?