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Can more popular = more interesting?

August 14, 2015

“Rod is a classic example of an artist where more popular = less interesting.”
– Bruce @ Vinyl Connection, in a recent thought-provoking/this-post-inspiring comment.

There are plenty of examples where that negative correlation exists (or conversely, less popular = more interesting).

As shown in Graph A, this is a relatively common scenario: as the # of albums sold increases (or popularity increases), the interesting-ness index of that particular record decreases.

Graph A

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But is it possible for an artist to release his/her most interesting output when the artist’s popularity is at its peak?

Is Graph B (below) merely theoretical?

Can the positive correlation, more = more, be achieved?

Graph B

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In search of answers, I visited Dave’s Music Database for the list of the top 100 Best Selling Albums of All Time.

Based on this list, I’m pleased to report it can be done.ย  Sometimes, more popular = more interesting.

That being said, of the scores of artists listed, I’m only confident in saying conclusively that 2 artists pulled off the more = more equation!

  1. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
  2. Oasis, (What’s the Story?) Morning Glory (1995)

Perhaps fittingly, both were sophomore albums that built upon already interesting & popular rookie releases.

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Compelling arguments could probably be made for some other albums and artists from the Top 100 list but for me, these were the only ones I was willing to go ‘all-in’ with.

What say you?

Did anyone else’s commercial peak coincide with their most interesting record?

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49 Comments
  1. Fascinating!

    I think the only place the argument might break down is subjective disagreement with the source of the popularity rating. Also, does record sales really indicate popularity? Perhaps in the short-term, at release, but what about the longevity factor?

    I mean, is Pearl Jam’s Vs. more interesting than Ten and for which record were they more popular. Same for Black Crowes’ Moneymaker versus Southern (I won’t mention Amorica based on my own subjective opinion – see? ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Or what about the Rolling Stones’ incredible 1968-1972 run of four albums (Let It Bleed, Beggars Banquet, Sticky Fingers and Exile). They were already hugely popular by then, but were they ever more interesting as they were then?

    This is endless food for thought. FANTASTIC POST (yet again).

    • Thanks Aaron!
      It’s funny, even the record sales totals (in theory, objective evidence) were hard to find as I gather sometimes these numbers can be quite inflated. But you’re right, what constitutes popularity? These days, would the time when the artist had the most twitter followers be their popularity peak? Admittedly, the record sales total felt like the easiest x-axis, hence it was chosen!

      I’m glad you mentioned Vs. – I remember it had some record at the time (most 1st day or 1st week sales?) and I too find it more interesting than its predecessor. Also a second album.
      And Twice Removed is likely Sloan’s most interesting, also a sophomore LP. Maybe there’s a pattern there!

      • For the longest time, I held that a band’s first record was their best, as it was closest to how they sounded when they were young and hungry and giving it their all. But sometimes the sophomore record is the winner. I dunno. Maybe there’s no formula that can be applied, here. Each band does their own thing. Many fizzle out after one record. A few get stronger and have a career. Fewer still get huge. But it’s subject to the whims and whorls of the public opinion, prevailing Everything about life at the time. And then, like Mike says, some like the records that weren’t as popular. Or even bands (look at all the indie bands) that aren’t mainstream. One of my favourite bands has been going since the mid-80s and had a brief brush with fame in the 90s and have ever since been cruising along oblivious to the fact that only the people who already cared still care. They sure aren’t huge sellers (Guided By Voices/Robert Pollard/the zillion side projects).

        Maybe the better question, then, is who cares about that band or this band, that record or this record? All those people do? Great! Those people prefer this other? Great! There’s something for everyone, then, if no formula can accurately capture it?

      • I’m reviewing the first Dio album soon. Every time I review Dio, I remember him saying that a band`s first album is usually best. He said that was true of his albums with Rainbow, Sabbath, and Dio.

      • And I’ve always enjoyed that quote of ‘you have your lifetime to make your 1st record, 6 months for the follow-up!’

        Well said Aaron – let people love what they love, I don’t think any one record/artist could please everyone.

        If it could, it would probably be so bland/inoffensive that it would be impossible to love or hate, just sort of be mildly diverted by instead!

  2. For me, I enjoy harder music vs. soft rock. Any band that switched over may have sold more records, but got less interesting to me. Chicago, Genesis, Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel, The Cars, April Wine, Bryan Adams, Fleetwood Mac, Dallas Green(from Alexisonfire to Dallas Green), Jefferson Starship ( J Airplane, Starship), Toto, Boston, Bon Jovi, Billy Squier, Rainbow, Heart, Journey, REO Speedwagon etc.

    Some bands retained the heaviness but either were the same or got a little worse while selling more records: Van Halen, AC/DC, Metallica, Pink Floyd, Santana, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Prince, Green Day, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, etc.

    Some bands that got more interesting(even though most are awesome, they often had great albums to go along with great sales with more sales) would be Guns N Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Eagles, Meat Loaf, Boston, U2, Oasis, Eminem

    • Nice points on those artists that had a noticeable softening vs. those that maintained the sound, but didn’t necessarily improve.

      Several of those you mentioned that got more interesting had records on that top 100 sellers – I don’t know much from the Meatloaf/Boston/Eagles/Dire Straits catalogues.
      GNR’s best selling was appetite (according to the list) and while it’s probably their best, I’d call the illusions more interesting. Ditto with the Boss, Born in the USA sold more, but Born to Run interested me more!

  3. I’m most interested in underdog records. The ones people ignored at the time. The ones with odd lineups. Stuff like Another Perfect Day by Motorhead. Or Come Taste the Band by Deep Purple. The stuff I had to pay $30 for on import because they were barely in print at all. Those are the records I seem to be naturally drawn to. Good records that are left of center in the band’s history.

    • I’m not familiar with either – but I too am a sucker for the underdog!

      • Well dude, you know I would never ever intentionally steer you wrong!

        I thought about this a bit more. At least where I am concerned, there is another variable. That is the burnout factor. Machine Head is the most popular Deep Purple album. But between live and greatest hits and radio…how many times have I listened to those very 7 songs? Countless.

        So: perhaps this is another reason I am drawn to the underdogs. They feel fresher to my ears.

        But I do truly enjoy the nooks and crannies of a career. Rich would tell you — some of Alice Cooper’s most interesting albums are the ones nobody bought!

      • Could these also be the records Alice doesn’t even remember making?

      • Yes. The very same.

      • Nailed it!

      • Yeah, I read a Steven King book ‘on writing’ where he said he doesn’t listen to the radio as, “how many times do I need to hear highway star?”
        I like that idea of nooks and crannies – even within an album.
        Something like the white album, that super brief spanish guitar bit in between wild honey pie & bungalow bill, love it!
        Speaking of Alice, just picked up Billion Dollar Babies recently, excited to finally check it out!

      • Right on Geoff! Vinyl or CD? Is that on the 1001?

      • It certainly is – and it’s my first shrink-wrapped CD in ages. I’m going to get a video of it being opened for the first time to add to the inevitable post, although plastic obviously has its negatives, there’s something quite satisfying about opening a New CD!

      • Hold on a moment Geoff — Brian (Boppin) mentioned yesterday that he was thinking about doing a group post of bloggers opening sealed packages. Maybe you guys can make that part of the series. I’m on board with it for sure. I have a record I’ve been waiting to open for something like that.

        Anyway, second question — single disc or double remaster?

        Billion Dollar Babies is a fabulous AND interesting album. Perhaps his second best? Some say it’s his best. And it coincided with his most popular period. I certainly rate it very high. So that’s an exception to my normal rule!

      • I’d like to think that’s great minds thinking alike, awesome idea!
        Single disc – $5.99 at a Sunrise and I had a gift card with $3 or so left so the choice was obvious – and love how you tied it back to the popular/interesting idea!

      • Well the popular/interesting thing is an interesting thought that keeps bringing new observations to mind! I’ve certainly praised certain less known Kiss albums over Destroyer. But when it comes to Alice, he truly was making brilliant records when he became popular. In fact I’d say underrated, despite their success. Because nobody talks about the brilliant, unorthodox arrangements and playing.

        I really hope you like it. Heck maybe I can do a review to coincide with yours. I have the 2 CD set with bonus live CD and B-sides.

      • A team review sounds great Mike – I’ll send a message once I’m ready to review!

      • Awesome man. That will be fun!

  4. jprobichaud permalink

    People sometimes ask me if I’ll stop liking a band once they become popular, perhaps they think I like the artist because they obscure. However, I am always happy when interesting/talented artists hit it big. Great post.

    • It seems like fans of certain genres call the band they love a sell out if they hit it big. Punk, underground, metal, and alternative all seem to be guilty of this. I think some of the most famous were the Clash, Sex Pistols, and Metallica. I am happy as well when bands make it big. It gives the millions of small time bands starving and doing what they love something to strive for.

      • jprobichaud permalink

        Agreed. I think as long as they feel they haven’t sacrificed their own souls, why shouldn’t they enjoy success.

      • If a rock star, country star, blues, jazz etc band or person makes it big, they get praised. If the above styles of music make it big they get ostracised. It doesn’t make sense to me. There is a reason they are popular. Usually because they are really good.

        There are tons of people from fringe bands that make it big and can’t handle the popularity. Especially if they make it real big, real fast. Kurt Cobain was like that before he told Courtney he wanted out of Nirvana, and she had him offed. (Can of worms officially opened)

      • r.e. Courtney: what worms? I thought this was just known? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Ahh yes, the Sell out accusation – I heard a snippet of Alan Cross’s show on that topic and I was sorry not to hear the full thing!

      I remember the South Park guys being interviewed about people calling them sell outs – they quite reasonably explained, we’re still doing what we’ve always done, now just more people are watching!

      I’m all for deserving groups hitting it big as well. I might not have been that way in my younger, foolish high school days but in my current older & slightly wiser stage of life, if something’s good, I’d rather it get the airtime!

  5. Zack permalink

    I’d say usually more popular =less interesting. Tool being the exception that proves the rule.

    • I would say all of those so called Nu Metal bands fall into that category. They were intriguing if not interesting when popular.

    • Tool, I saw them a couple years ago, it was a strange show as Maynard faced away from the audience the whole time!
      Zack – is there a Tool album you’d say is their most interesting?

      • Same when we saw Tool, Maynard was way at the back and never once even left his spot. He just sort of arched his back and waved his arms like one of those air-filled things that car dealerships put out to attract your attention.

      • Zack permalink

        I’m a big fan of AEnima, but they’re all pretty interesting.

  6. Another genre I would put a lot of bands into the interesting when popular is rap/hip hop.

    • I’d agree with that – a group like Public Enemy released some very interesting stuff during their commercial peak. And I can’t tell you much of what they’ve been up to for the last 2 decades

  7. Lots of bands. Pink Floyd. Who thinks Saucerful of Secrets and More are better than Darkside and The Wall

      • Nice point Jimmy!
        Dark Side was their biggest seller – I’m not an enormous Floyd fan, I wasn’t sure if Floyd fans would be unanimous in picking Dark Side over say, Wish You Were here or The Wall.

      • My favourite Floyd to just listen to? Echoes – the 2 CD greatest hits.

  8. Great post, Geoff! My curiosity lies a little outside your awesome graphs. What do you think about expectations? Take the high point of interesting-ness…do expectations set the bar a little higher to achieve equal or greater interesting-ness?

    • Wonderful point about expectations, I think that’s definitely been behind the unfair criticism of some records!
      One of my favourites from the 21st century was Axl Rose’s Chinese Democracy – at the time, I think the reviews weren’t terribly kind but I think it was mostly due to the ridiculously long buildup to the record and not so reasonable expectations.
      When I went into the Dandy Warhols expecting to really like it, I was somewhat disappointed.
      When I listened to a record like Janet Jackson’s without much expectation, I ended up being pleasantly surprised.
      Does that make hers better than the Dandy Warhols? Maybe not, but you’re right, expectations play an important role!

  9. It’s an interesting observation. In theory greater success gives greater financial funding to push the musical direction further. But I guess there are more vested interests from record companies, with more meddling. It good to see artists like Thom Yorke, who continues to be experimental and push the boundaries. It will be interesting to see if that translates to greater success when the next Radiohead album appears.

    • Well said Music Waffle – I too eagerly await more radiohead!
      If I can modify a Notorious BIG title, mo’ (record label) money, mo’ (meddling) problems

  10. Fascinating topic. So many variables that make for exceptions. And how about belated recognition and popularity? Pet Sounds, when it came out, was a disappointment commercially (relatively speaking), but of course became much more popular over time. It was maybe “too interesting” at the time it was released to have wide acceptance.

    • Yes Steve – from what I’ve read, even Wilson’s band mates were, let’s call it, less than enthused about the album at the time!
      That idea of belated recognition – it may be the highest musical compliment in my books

  11. Geoff, You have to consider the audience here- You know that music bloggers are more serious about music taste than the general population. (They write about music for no money, in fact for no reason other than they can’t stop themselves!!!- they would if they could)—-So the rule is going to be —- we know better than the average non-blogging fan— so more people like it=less better.

    • We voluntary music bloggers are a curious bunch Wayne!

      That best seller list is an interesting one – it features many of my beloved bands, so I can’t say that more sales always equates to me losing interest.

      I just tended to find other albums by those best-selling artists more intriguing (for example, I find The Beatles more fascinating than Sgt. Pepper, Master of Puppets vs. Metallica etc.).

  12. Really great post, Geoff. I reckon further research is needed. I think when it gets to album sellers as big as these the formula is more often than not more = less.

    I can think of a bunch of acts from the 90’s alt. rock boom who did get more interesting, but perhaps things like that are an anomaly given it was a scene that broke rather than bands striving for success?

    But it led to the thoughts on diminishing returns after huge success. Like The Boss and Pearl Jam. Taking PJ as an example, I’m of the opinion that they got more interesting after Ten only to get less interesting again as they became this huge band whose purpose is, in my opinion, purely to exist as an alternative to U2 (their last handful of albums bore me, but thei catalogue is such that they are definitely worth seeing live).

    Another one for considering is what happens when an artists popularity rises then falls. Do they opt for hitting a mainstream vibe or say “screw it” and do what they want?

    • Thanks J – appreciate the comments and more thought-provoking questions!

      When you mentioned the 90s, PJ and Nirvana were the first two that jumped to mind for me. Where the 1991 breakthroughs sold more, I find the 1993 follow-ups more interesting.

      The PJ one is a funny case as you’re right, a switch went in the early 2000s back to less intriguing (I like the U2 alternative idea)! Would you say Yield was the end of their interesting run?

      • I think Yield was the end of the interesting and inspired run. Binaural and Riot Act had their interesting moments, but they weren’t sounding as inspired (some of it sounding more like sketches than anything else) and they both ultimately fell a bit flat. I think.

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