Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Collective Mind of our Critics

with 4 comments

I’m fascinated by Metacritic—the website that tallies up the reviews of movies, music, and other various cultural productions, designates them a numerical value, creates an average, and then ranks them hierarchically.

There is some sort of mystical democratic principle at work. Out of the many critical voices, each free and unique, each responding to its own call, marching to its own drummer, comes one Truth, developed by millions of individual choices, like the unconscious wisdom of a school of minnows. And that Truth thought Avatar totally kicked ass.

On the other hand, maybe it seems a tad bit absurd to rank mathematically what are clearly personal choices. You know… the quixotic bourgeois quest to impart rationality, predictability, and regularity to the messy artistic imagination; a perfect example of what Charles Taylor calls “the widespread acceptance of a deeply wrong model of practical reasoning, one based on an illegitimate extrapolation from reasoning in the natural science.” Anyways…

The lists of albums and bands that got the best reviews of the decade is pretty revealing. (Now, of course, keep in mind that metacritic itself didn’t do the reviews; they only aggregated them.)

And so behold the judgment of our collective minds!

Best Bands:
1. Spoon, 2. Sigur Ros, 3. Super Furry Animals, 4. Sleater-Kinney, 5. The White Stripes. 6. Animal Collective, 7. Drive By Truckers, 8. Lightening Bolt, 9. Iron and Wine, 10. The Hold Steady.

Best Albums:
1. SMiLE by Brian Wilson, 2. Van Lear Rose by Loretta Lynn, 3. Stankonia by OutKast, 4. Savane by Ali Farka Toure, 5. Madvillainy by Madvillain, 6. Love And Theft by Bob Dylan, 7. Boy In Da Corner by Dizzee Rascal, 8. Elephant by The White Stripes, 9. A Grand Don’t Come For Free by The Streets,10. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below by OutKast

A couple of observations:

1.There are more rock bands on the top artists lists, and more R&B and Rap bands on the best album lists. Rock bands, apparently get more consistently good reviews, but less excellent album reviews. Anyone have any thoughts about why this might be?

2. There clearly is a bias in favor of established artists (especially from the 60s or 70s) when it comes to album reviews. Too many old hippies still working for Rolling Stone. I may be slaying a sacred cow here, but does anyone seriously think that SMiLE will be remembered as that important or wonderful an album?

3. Where the fuck are the Strokes? Whiners can shove it, this decade belonged to Is This It? They found an indie rock scene dominated by the pretentious (Tortoise), the twee (Belle and Sebastian), and the pretentious and twee (Apples in Stereo), and turned it back towards Rock with a capital R; Rock (no, I’m sorry, Rawk) drenched in cheap whiskey and songs about drinking 40s. No one can seriously think that Loretta Lynn was more important to the decade’s music.

4. The format clearly privileges those like bands- like Spoon- which haven’t put out a bad album, over bands like Radiohead whose material has either been excellent (Kid A, Hail to the Thief) or disappointing (Amnesiac, I Might be Wrong).

5. A couple of inexcusable missing classics from the top 40 album list: Unwound: Leaves Turn inside You, The Wrens: Meadowlands (!),Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy. Trail of Dead: Sources, Tags, and Codes, and, although it pains me to say it, where is Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights, an obnoxious band but clearly an excellent and important album?

Point is, the hivemind needs to get its shit together and listen to the Wrens more often.


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

April 14, 2010 at 13:00

Posted in music

4 Responses

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  1. this is…really interesting. agreed re: strokes… many good memories.

    in any case, this really seems most fascinating in revealing the sociology of critics, and in that light seems hardly democratic at all. there are likely just more (bouge) rock-loving critics out there who dominate critical platforms (I mean I’d always assumed this but interesting to see it proved in aggregate) and every once in a while they get hit with a r&b/rap album that’s just cross-over enough for them to say, “woahh guys..speakerboxx!” I’d say it doesn’t represent “our collective minds” except I like a lot of their choices, so it’s pretty clear where I sit in this sociology…


    April 14, 2010 at 13:32

  2. I’ve barely heard of any of these bands.


    April 14, 2010 at 18:23

  3. Re: “the widespread acceptance of a deeply wrong model of practical reasoning, one based on an illegitimate extrapolation from reasoning in the natural science.”

    Stores aggregate product reviews and sales total not because it represents any kind of absolute truth, but because it’s still interesting and useful information to consumers. Otherwise sites like metacritic and rottentomatoes and Amazon wouldn’t have survived and thrived, and every store would not highlight its bestsellers.

    If I want to select any product, the average review score and sales rank are among the first things I’ll look at. Then I’ll quickly skim the written reviews to see how well the reviewers preferences match mine. I won’t do much more than that, but I think that’s generally the right tradeoff in terms of getting useful information without spending too much time on the decision.

    Best of the year/decade lists in entertainment are then useful in case I’ve totally missed anything really good, and usually I have.


    April 15, 2010 at 09:56

  4. re:No one can seriously think that Loretta Lynn was more important to the decade’s music.
    who’s music? Van Leer Rose is produced by Jack white, king of reuniting today’s rock with country roots. Perhaps, Wiz, you’re lens is a little too New England centered for considering the meta.

    Cornell Grad student

    April 17, 2010 at 23:14

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