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Do recessions make for better music? Add to ...

Please pardon my extended absence from the site, but I find trying to fill a politics blog over Christmas about as useful as skis in the desert.

This entry isn't even about politics.

There is a long-standing urban legend that bad economic times create better music.

Think of the economically depressed post-war Britain spitting out the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, or the late 70's UK punk scene birthing the Sex Pistols and the Clash, or the bubblegum pop of the late 80's being swept away by Nirvana during the 1991 recession.

Certainly, music websites have noted a surge in popularity of "depressing" music of late.

As we head into a definite downturn, one saving grace should be better tunes on the radio.

But is this phenomenon true? Does a recession create better music?

If you try to use scientific method to prove the hypothesis, the results are decidedly mixed.

I took the World Bank's GDP indicators for the United States, and put them against the best-selling album in the United States.

There are six years between 1969 and 2008 with either dead flat or negative growth, and a shall we say varied result of albums.

1970  (0% growth)  Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Simon and Garfunkle 1974  (-0.5% growth)  Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John 1975  (-0.2% growth)  Elton John's Greatest Hits by Elton John 1980  (-0.2% growth)   The Wall by Pink Floyd 1982  (-2% growth)  Asia by Asia 1991  (-0.2% growth)   Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey

Depending on whether you're an Elton John fan, this can look like a great list or... quite a monstrosity. Certainly, Asia is not appearing on a lot of best-album-ever lists, despite being released during the worst U.S. recession of the last forty years.

But it is tough for any individual to make judgments about what is or is not "better music."

So let's let the market decide.

Here is a list of the all-time best selling albums in the United States.

If the theory holds, the years 1970, 1974, 1975, 1980, 1982 and 1991 should have an over-preponderance of albums on this chart. While people might not have bought as many albums at the time, the "greatness" of the music should drive up demand over time and place more of them on the all-time sales chart.

Here are the totals:

1970  None 1974  One ( Elton John's Greatest Hits) 1975  One (Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti) 1980  Three (AC/DC's Back in Black, Kenny Rogers' and Areosmith's Greatest Hits) 1982  Three (Eagles' Greatest Hits, Patsy Cline's Greatest Hits, Michael Jackson's Thriller) 1991  Four (Nirvana's Nevermind, Garth Brooks' Ropin the Wind, Metallica's Metallica, Pearl Jam's Ten)

Again, it is very difficult to prove this theory given these results.

First of all, there are 78 albums on this list, with the oldest being Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, released in 1967. So the average rate of "best seller" albums should be just under two released each year. (This is slightly unfair, as singles remained a major medium for purchasing music until well into the early 1970s.)

Clearly, 1970, 1974 and 1975 did not produce more than their share of great music, on a simple mathematical basis

In addition, most of the top sellers from 1980 and 1982 were actually greatest hits collections from bands who enjoyed their best days during better economic times.

The only year that even remotely holds up the theory is 1991 with four top sellers, but this is around the average for its era, considering 1990 had four in the best seller list, and 1992 had three.

I think it is fair to say that none of us should hold our breath for a series of chart-topping albums that will revolutionize music and wipe the T.I's and Jonas Brothers' of the world off the charts.

More bad news for Stephen Harper, a devoted fan of the best product on this list, AC/DC's seminal Back in Black.

(There, politics junkies, are you happy now?)

 

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