Saturday, September 29, 2012

Albums in thirds

Epic geekery here.

I have a theory that an important factor in making a good album is to have a strong final third.  So many albums start well but tail off towards the end.  Sometimes this is because the artist doesn't really have enough good songs to make an album, and packs their two or three decent singles in the first 5 tracks.

I have analysed 145 of my albums to find out a few things.  I mainly wanted to know the proportion of the albums that bucked the trend and finished well, and whether there were any patterns from any particular artists.

I did this by splitting albums in half and awarding a point to whichever half was strongest, and splitting albums into thirds and awarding three, two and one points for the strongest, middle and weakest thirds respectively.  I only did this for albums that (a) had at least 9 tracks, and (b) I was confident I knew well enough to analyse well.
There were various problems with the method.  It's hard to split an 11 track album into thirds, for example.  Or, this gives no indication of how much better one section of an album is than another.  But given the resources available (time, energy, inclination, knowledge, ability), it was the best I could do.

The findings?  Of 145 albums, 120 had a stronger first half and only 25 had a stronger second half.  The total points for thirds were: 1st third - 382; 2nd third - 259; 3rd third - 229.  So the final third is not, on average, much weaker than the middle third - but the first third is definitely the strongest.  And first halves are stronger about 80% of the time.
A total of 59 albums were 'perfectly front heavy' - that is, the first third was the strongest, the final third was the weakest, and the first half was stronger than the second.  Only 6 albums were the opposite - first third weakest, final third strongest, second half stronger than the first.  These six albums, if you are wondering, are Athlete - Beyond the Neighbourhood, Bottlerockit - Angel on a Vespa, British Sea Power - The Decline of British Sea Power, Coldplay - Viva la Vida or Death and all his Friends, Hurts - Happiness, and Lifehouse - No Name Face.

In terms of artists, I looked at any artist with three or more albums on the list, and looked for patterns.
Anberlin: consistently front heavy (i.e. strongest in the opening third), with weak middles.
Athlete: very varied, no pattern, each album is very different
Bloc Party: always front heavy, except for their best album, A Weekend in the City, which is back heavy
British Sea Power: same as Bloc Party - front heavy except for their best album which is back heavy
Casting Crowns: always perfectly front heavy and declining throughout the album
Coldplay: slightly varies but mostly front heavy
Delirious: generally front heavy, lots of weak middles
Enya: front heavy, except for her first two albums
Idlewild: very varied, like Athlete
The Killers: always front heavy
Lifehouse: front heavy except for their best album which is back heavy
Matt Redman: front heavy except for his best album
Mew: consistently front heavy
Muse: front heavy
Oasis: generally front heavy
Stellastarr*: front heavy with weak middles
Tim Hughes: front heavy
U2: front heavy

The pattern is pretty clear throughout: most albums are front heavy.  Interestingly, there are several artists whose strongest album is the only one that is back heavy.  Of the nine of my top ten albums of the decade for 2000-2009 that were in this analysis, only 1 had the final third as its weakest section, and 5 had it as the strongest section.  It seems that, for me at least, a strong final third is an important factor in a good album.


Joe 50 said...

Interesting post. Disagree with some of your conclusions, but only one thing I was entirely outraged by- and that was the claim that Stellastarr* have weak middles. Assuming on each album the 'middle' encompasses songs 4-7, the claim is nonsensical. On Stellastarr*, 'My Coco', 'No weather' and 'Somewhere across forever' are three of the strongest songs on the album. On Harmonies..., the run of 'Sweet Troubled Soul'-'Born in a fleamarket'-'On My Own' is the best three-song run of any Stellastarr* material and are the 3rd, 4th and 2nd best songs on Harmonies... respectively. And again on Civilised, the middle 4 songs are a stronger group than either 1-3 or 8-10 (despite the two best songs on the album coming in the end and beginning groups respectively).

Unknown said...

Hi Joe
A defence of my claim...
Maybe I should have said 'relatively weak middles'. Stellastarr* are, of course, very good across the board. However, I do think their middles are generally their weakest sections.
My reasoning?
Stellastarr* - My Coco and Somewhere across forever are undoubtedly strong, but I don't rate No Weather (or Moon Girl) as highly. On albums with ten tracks, I took 1-4 as the first third, 4-7 as the second third, and 7-10 as the final third; therefore tracks 4 and 7 (in this case My Coco and Somewhere Across Forever) count towards two different thirds. I think that In The Walls, Jenny and A Million Reasons beat No Weather and Moon Girl, as do Homeland, Untitled and Pulp Song. My Coco and Somewhere Across Forever don't really help the middle section as they also count for the first and final sections respectively.
Harmonies - with 11 track albums, I took the tracks 1-4 as the first third, 5-7 as the middle third, and 8-11 as the final third. Hence the second third is handicapped by having fewer tracks. This is balanced, at least in part, by the fact that on 13 track albums, the middle third had tracks 5-9. (the fact that there are more 11-track albums than 13-track albums is an issue, but does help further support my overall point that final thirds are generally weakest - to balance the handicap of middle thirds we should really bump the middle thirds' total score up a bit, pulling it further away from the final thirds' total). Anyway, on Harmonies, this means that the middle third is Born in a Fleamarket, On my Own (admittedly both strong), but also When I Disappear, the second weakest track on the album. The first third gets Sweet Troubled Soul and, with Lost in Time, clearly wins. It is close between the middle and final thirds, but, for me, the final third takes, it, helped by Love and Longing and the superb Stay Entertained (probably my 3rd favourite track on the album).
Civilised - generally a weaker album overall I think. Robot and Freak out (3rd and 2nd strongest respectively) help the first third win here, while Move On helps the final third into second place. The other 7 tracks are, for me, fairly even, and the middle third doesn't have any of the aforementioned top three, and thus comes last.