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Friday, April 7, 2006

Buzzing Like A Fridge
The essential quality of any given band is a completely subjective measure. This why even those who insist The Offspring are the best band in the world are not inherently wrong in their assertion. Wrong, perhaps. But not to a degree that anyone could prove beyond doubt.

Generally speaking, all of the above goes without saying. Everyone understands this. It is not a particularly interesting revelation. But I feel I should say it again here at the outset, like the disclaimer of potential nudity that begins every program on Showcase. Because I will now attempt to piss all over this touchy-feely sense of neo-socialist subjectivity.

Rock bands are basically charged with two purposes. First, making vaguely interesting music. Second, getting people to like them. This applies to pretty much every band. Even the Fiery Furnaces. Though just barely.

Bands can decide to add certain elements - fireworks, furry costumes, biting social commentary, a female drummer - but eventually everything comes back to these two basic ideas. (Of course, some bands choose to focus on one more than they other. Or even flat out ignore one of the two. But in these cases we get Creed. Or the Fiery Furnaces.)

Helpfully, these two criteria show themselves separately - through critical acclaim and record sales. So, first, let us assume that the best bands in the world manage to please both critics and the record-buying public.

The happiness of critics is typically difficult to measure. In part because critics are generally unhappy people. But also because critics regularly work in a less-than-uniform system of stars, letters, numbers and sometimes thumbs. Often, being the unknowable intellectuals that they are, they eschew any kind of rating entirely.

The best anyone has so far been able to offer is Metacritic, which distills all of this random insight into a single number between 1 and 100. For instance, the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record rates a 79, while the latest P.O.D. album receives a less-impressive 53. This means that critics generally prefer the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to P.O.D. And, also, that critics are godless and hell-bound.

Despite the moral and ethical bankruptcy of the American recording industry, the relative mood of the record-buying public is more easily measured, namely by Billboard. For instance, right now, lots of people love country heart-throb Tim McGraw, but not as many as love hip-hop heart-throb T.I. (though after the inevitable duet, this difference may be negated).

If you were so interested, the challenge would come in combining these two measures into one, easy-to-understand rating.

Well, I am so interested. At least today.

The Metacritic score can actually stay as is. For our purposes, it works just fine. Billboard, on the other hands, requires some math.

Let's first take the Billboard 200, the basic chart for albums. There are plenty of numbers you could take from that - current position, weeks on the chart, etc - but let's work strictly with peak position, which gives us an idea of where the band's most recent album stood at its most popular.

To get a rating, let's say that peaking at number one is worth 200 points, while peaking at 200 is worth exactly one point. Then, to get that number on the same level as the Metacritic score, let's divide the Billboard rating by two. In the end you get something like this:

Billboard/2 + Metacritic = X.

(In general, this equation should only be applied to bands who released records in, say, the last couple years. With anything older, time renders the numbers less relevant.)

That would give you a score between 1 and 200. For example, Broken Social Scene, whose last album had a Metacritic score of 82 and peaked at 105 would receive a rating of 130. Arcade Fire is just behind at 124. Nickelback is just ahead at 138.

Now, does this mean that Nickelback is better than Broken Social Scene? Well, yeah, sorta.

But, here's the thing: neither are among the best bands in the world. In fact, they're not even close.

Using the same formula and applying it to some of the biggest and most acclaimed bands of the last couple years, here's your Top 10:

White Stripes 179
Franz Ferdinand 178.5
Gorillaz 178.5
U2 178
Green Day 177
System of a Down 177*
Wilco 175.5
Queens of the Stone Age 175
Yeah Yeah Yeahs 174
Modest Mouse 173.5

(*I used Hypnotize for this, which seemed to be the more recent of their albums. If you use Mesmerize, they actually score 184.)

So there you go. Assuming I haven't forgotten anyone and my Grade 12 math skills are as sharp now as they were so many years ago, the best band in the world is the White Stripes. And, without having tried to make the numbers match a pre-conceived conclusion, the calculation has actually produced fairly respectable results. I'd even go so far as to say the Top Ten is a pretty accurate assessment of the last two years in rock music.

(For the sake of argument, some other scores: Mars Volta 172.5, Interpol 171, Arctic Monkeys 170.5, Coldplay 170, Rolling Stones 170, Foo Fighters 167.5, Strokes 165.5, Audioslave 165, Velvet Revolver 163, New Pornographers 162.5, Killers 161, Korn 161, My Morning Jacket 156, Yellowcard 154, Weezer 148.5, Sleater-Kinney 147.5, Kings of Leon 145, Bloc Party 124.5, Rilo Kiley 93)

Suffice it to say, by the time you read this, I will already be at the patent office. (And, suffice it to say, there I will find out that someone figured this out about three years ago.)

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