Saturday, January 14, 2012

Clearing the critical bar

It may have started when I wrote about M83 and Spiritualized in my Top Albums of 2011. I can't remember exactly what sparked it, but I've been listening obsessively to Spiritualized all week -- live recordings, mainly. I revisited those spine-tingling Acoustic Mainline shows from '06-'07 (and a pristine quality audio and sound recording from a special acoustic performance from a festival in Iceland in 2010). I heard a complete performance of "LAGWAFIS", recorded in New York in July 2010, that far exceeded my expectations (I'm not a fan of the complete album performance fad, but if you can count on any band to make it interesting and not just do a note for note run through, it's Spiritualized). I listened to recordings of the fall 2001 tour with the audacious 13-member band. I happily suffered through poorly recorded early gigs from 1991 and 1999 (the latter was a one-off gig, I believe, with full choir accompaniment). In the pre-Youtube era you would always cycle through the same recordings of your favourite bands every time you wanted to go on a listening binge, but now you can discover a nearly bottomless pit of new treasures -- TV and festival performances, interviews, cell phone clips, etc.

What was I thinking when I compared M83 with Spiritualized? M83 are amazing, easily the most consistently excellent band of the past several years, but nobody tops Spiritualized when they're at their best. At least not this week.

But this post is supposed to be about M83's sudden jump into elite status, judging by the unexpectedly good showing (at least to me) of "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" in many year-end polls and lists. But it could be applied equally well to Spiritualized c. 1997. And a host of other bands.

It's not like M83 were unknowns before this year. They had a healthy base of support among critics, enough to put "Saturdays = Youth" in the top 30 in Pazz and Jop in 2008, which indicates a high level of exposure but not an "everybody has an opinion on your music" level of exposure. So what exactly changed this year? Was "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" a huge step forward compared to their other albums? Not really. You can argue about how to rank their albums or what have you but most longtime followers of the band wouldn't say that their music suddenly took a jump into a different league.

A similar thing happened with Spiritualized in 1997. Now obviously the differences between "Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space" and their earlier albums are a lot more dramatic compared with M83 and "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming". They went from making semi-instrumental space rock to more of a free jazz/rock hybrid complete with actual love songs, so it doesn't take much imagination to understand why they became a lot more accessible to a lot more people nearly overnight. I think a band can wake up one day and discover -- not just because of their sustained run of excellent music -- that it's their time to be in the spotlight. But still, why exactly did the breakthrough happen for Spiritualized in 1997, and not before or after?

A great album and a classic album are not at all the same thing. Bands make great albums all the time. Making a great album is largely a question of talent, and being able to reach the right audience who will appreciate that talent. But classic albums are much rarer. These are the albums that people other than the band's usual fans will hear and remember. It's not just about who has the most talent. It's also a question of timing.

There might be no better timing than the release of a debut album. Everyone loves debut albums. They're about the thrill of hearing a great new band for the first time, or the collective experience of discovering and getting excited about them at almost the exact same time as everyone else. The band will never be that flawless ever again, over time they'll hopefully make a lot more great music but they'll also make a ton of mistakes and missteps. But with their debut album, without the burden of having to overcome past screw-ups or reputations, they couldn't be more perfect.

On the other hand, the sophomore slump is real. That saying about how bands have their whole lives to write their debut album but only 18 months to write and record the follow-up is true in the sense that the second album almost never seems to be the best in any band's catalog.

By their third or fourth album, a band is somewhat established and has built up some name recognition. They have enough of a following to justify keeping the band going at least on a part time basis, so they're not likely to fold up shop for lack of money or interest. Each new album will be hotly anticipated by fans, and critics don't want to get behind an obvious failure. By album three or four, you're fairly comfortable in saying that a band will have a sustainable career ahead of them. It would be a bit embarrassing to heap loads of "album of the year!!" praise on a band and album that ceased to exist one year later. They also don't want to laud some journeyman band that's been around forever but has never achieved much success. You want to get behind a band when they're about to reach their peak, not after they've already peaked, and not after too many years when you're still waiting for them (perhaps hopelessly) to peak.

Further down the road, once a band has been around for a number of years and released a bunch of albums, overfamiliarity sets in and they aren't as newsworthy anymore. They reach the point where they cater mainly to their existing fan base (which nonetheless may be large and extremely loyal) but don't pick up many new fans. Non fans, including critics who are familiar with their music but wouldn't necessarily listen to it in their spare time, see them as a band to be respected but not adored or fawned over. They can be very successful, but not a phenomenon in the critical sense.

A picture is starting to form of two "sweet spots" in a band or artist's career. The first is the release of their debut album, and the second occurs about 5-7 years and 3-5 albums.

So let's consider the following simple formula:

(# of years since debut + 1) x (# of albums)

I couldn't think of a funny acronym (CRIt-LOve Peak Prediction factor = CRILOPP factor ... ugh, forget it) so I'll call it the b-factor for now.

"Years since debut" is the number of years since the band's debut album was released. I thought about using the total number of years the band had been active, but most bands toil away in obscurity for a while without anyone really knowing who they are. The debut album marks the first time that a larger audience can be made aware of their music, and that's what we're trying to capture here. "Number of albums" is fairly self-explanatory, although one might need to differentiate between "proper" studio albums and other releases such as live albums, EPs or mini-albums (particularly for a new band), compilations, soundtrack work, etc. Obviously there is room for interpretation here, but I tried to stick closely to official studio albums as best I could.

A debut album, therefore, always has a b-factor of one. Very large b-factors (we'll try to quantify this later on) indicate that a band is past their likely peak, or at least past the time when they can reasonably expect a critical or popular breakthrough. Going by the sweet spot estimation of 5-7 years and 3-5 albums, we'd expect the ideal time for critical blowjob end-of-year chart topping success to occur for b-factors of 25 +/- 10.

[aside: I think it's more realistic to weight the two halves of the b-factor differently. (# of albums) feels more discriminatory than (# of years since debut), i.e. over-familiarity comes more from releasing a lot of albums than by taking a lot of time between albums. So maybe it would be better to use something like (# of years since debut +1) x (# of albums)^(3/2). But in the interest of keeping the calculation basic (something that doesn't require a calculator) and for using nice, easy to remember integer numbers, we'll stick with the simpler formula for now.]

As a test, here are the b-factors for the #1 albums on Pitchfork's year-end critics polls, from 1999-2011:

Year Artist Album "Years" "Albums" b-factor
2011 Bon Iver "Bon Iver" 3 2 8
2010 Kanye West "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" 6 5 35
2009 Animal Collective "Merriweather Post Pavilion" 9 9 90
2008 Fleet Foxes "Fleet Foxes"0 1 1
2007 Panda Bear "Person Pitch" 8 3 27
2006 The Knife "Silent Shout" 5 4 24
2005 Sufjan Stevens "Illinois" 5 5 30
2004 Arcade Fire "Funeral"0 1 1
2003 The Rapture "Echoes"0 1 1
2002 Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights"0 1 1
2001 Microphones "The Glow Pt. 2" 3 5 20
2000 Radiohead "Kid A" 7 4 32
1999 The Dismemberment Plan "Emergency and I" 4 3 15

Out of thirteen albums, four are debuts, and another seven fall within a fairly narrow b-factor range from 15-35.

Getting back to the examples discussed at the start of this post, M83's "Hurry Up, We're Dreaming" has a b-factor of 55 (note that I didn't count "Digital Shades, Pt. 1") and Spiritualized's "Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space" has a b-factor of 18. If we consider recent Pazz and Jop polls, we see many of the same patterns: 15 for TV on the Radio's "Dear Science" (2008), 50 for Outkast's "Speakerboxxx/The Love Below" (2003), and 32 for Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" (2002) (discounting the Woody Guthrie covers albums with Billy Bragg, but even if they were counted, YHF would only score a 48). The numbers seem to suggest that bands peak and/or have their critical breakthrough at b-factors in the 15-35 range, with a significant tail of the distribution extending up to around 50-60.

I doubt I'm the first to notice all this, in which case, consider this article to be my musings on the subject.

Obviously this is not meant to be some kind of grand theory of music crit everything. There are a number of instances where the reasoning behind the b-factor wouldn't really apply, for example:

-- Side projects or solo records from established artists. Example: Michael Jackson. "Thriller" was his sixth solo album, but his second as the "adult" Michael that became a megastar. However, we was already a household name with the Jackson 5 before that. Defining his "debut" is a murky issue. A different example: LCD Soundsystem. "Sound of Silver" (#1 on P&J in 2007) has a b-factor of only six, but James Murphy and LCD Soundsystem had been around for years prior to their official debut album, making their name via singles and DFA Records.

-- Megastars in general. Kanye's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" falls into the 15-35 range, but all his albums have been critical and popular smashes. Bon Iver may fall into this category as well.

-- Career resurgences by artists such as Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, or PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake" (b-factor 160, which would be higher if you count "4 Track Demos" and the John Parish collaborations). However, you could easily argue that an artist making their second, third, etc. breakthrough is already in a different category, and that b-factors should only be relevant for an artist's initial breakthrough.

What would be a "large" b-factor, where overfamiliarity sets in and a breakthrough becomes extremely unlikely? Based on the examples considered here, anything over 50-60 is already unlikely to break through, a safer bet would be about 100. You can argue that Animal Collective are an exception because they're not a "band" in the usual sense of the word (members come and go from album to album, and most of their albums don't feature everyone in the collective), but I'm not sure I'd subscribe to that reasoning. "Merriweather Post Pavilion" and its extremely high b-factor (90) may the kind of breakthrough we won't see again for a long time.

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