September 1, 2010

Rise and fall of metal parallels that of pop music broadly

The data from that graph come from Digital Dream Door's list of the 100 best metal albums. That's exactly what my mental picture of best albums looks like, no matter the genre. There's a peak in 1983 (the Maiden and Priest sound, parodied the next year in This is Spinal Tap) and another in 1987 (the glammier and deathier sound), just like with pop in general: the new wave / new romantic / post-punk explosion peaks in '83, and then there's the '87 peak of I don't know what to call it -- Kick by INXS, Bad by Michael Jackson, Joshua Tree by U2, and much else in that year. The metal albums take a tumble starting in 1993, again just like with pop music in general (grunge / alternative / indie / emo, as well as gangsta rap).

It might seem surprising that the sacred albums of metalheads are mostly from the '80s, as we associate '80s music with sounds that they wouldn't dig. This just goes to show that how good music is depends mostly on the zeitgeist and not on the genre -- metal, pop, rock, rap, and R&B have all sucked starting in the early-mid '90s, all were out of control from '75 to '84, and all went through a twilight stage from about '85 to '90. Plus all of them experienced their growing-up phase sometime during the late '50s or early '60s through the early '70s (except for rap, which started in the late '70s).

The power of the zeitgeist is one of the most underappreciated social forces in pop culture. It's like a wind that blows through and either polishes or corrodes everything out there. I think it's given more credit in high culture -- people talk about the Elizabethan world, the Renaissance, etc., noting how the zeitgeist affected religious and secular art, painting as well as sculpture, and so on. For popular culture in recent times, we've adopted the highly misleading practice of referring to decades that begin in a 0 and end in a 9, like the Roaring Twenties or The Sixties.

But we should just see what the picture looks like for each year and group similar years together with a suggestive name, not arbitrarily split by decades. Again, the period from about 1975 to 1984 is a lot more coherent of a cultural moment than if we included the periods just outside of it, but we don't have a name for it and chop it in half to fit the Procrustean bed of decade thinking. And sometimes a decade is too long -- the roughly 5-year period of the late '80s through 1990 has its own feel, distinct from the '75-'84 period and definitely in another world from the '91 and after period. We do have a handy name for the 2003-'07 period of euphoria -- the Bubble Years, or something like that -- but in general we need better periodization.


  1. the chart looks right to me too.

  2. I would say the late 80's (1986-1989) was characterized by the late 80's dance pop (Janet Jackson, Fine Young Cannibals, etc.) that was played a lot in clubs and on the radio (e.g. SoCal's Power 106). I rather liked this music because it was a good time in my life.

    Grunge was early 90's. I never experienced it since I was in Japan during all of that time. Rap became mainstream starting in 1990 (and I did not like it at all).

    I did like the House/Techno/Rave dance music that became popular starting in the mid 90's.

    There's another music trend you should be aware of, which is British Pop. BritPop is popular during the feel good times in the U.S. (early-mid 1960's, 1980's) but is not popular at all during angst-driven times (late 1960's through 1970's, 1990's through today).

  3. A great metal song that time forgot, Black Sabbath's, "The Mob Rules"

    Im not, and never have been a metal guy, but if anyone can listen to that tune and not feel an adrenaline rush and a surge in testosterone, they are dead.

    Kiss had a metalesque song called "Lick It Up" that I used to like when I was a kid also.

  4. Interesting to see that there are no nu-metal albums on there. It could be a function of the age of the rankers.

  5. lemmy caution9/2/10, 7:46 PM

    Here is the decade breakdown for a 2003 rolling stone top 500 albums list:

    1950s 4 4%
    1960s 37 37%
    1970s 42 42%
    1980s 11 11%
    1990s 5 5%
    2000s 1 1%

    There was a clear peak in the 60s-70s with a decline thereafter.

    Part of that is US based classic rock conservatism. Here is a 2003 UK list:

    1950s 0 0%
    1960s 15 15%
    1970s 30 30%
    1980s 17 17%
    1990s 25 25%
    2000s 13 13%

    This list of top jazz albums gives a strong 60's peak:

  6. The "Maiden and Priest sound" is a genre referred to as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. They were generally faster than the "heavy" metal of the early/mid 70s had been (NWOBHM actually starts in the late 70s). Metal seemed to be dying off in the late 70s and NWOBHM was a revival. Spinal Tap is supposed to be a has-been 70s band still chugging away in the 80s. The Stonehenge Gimmick is patterned after something that happened to Black Sabbath when they promoting their terrible album with Ian Gillan (though in real-life the prop was way too large rather than too small). Musically Spinal Tap tends to sound like the proto-metal of a band like Alice Cooper rather than the refined for-metal-fans-only blues-free sound of NWOBHM. Some of the filmmakers did spend time with the NWOBHM band Saxon though.

  7. That's not referred to as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal except by nerds. You can tell because it's a transparent excuse to use yet another unnecessary, ugly, and clarity-destroying acronym.

  8. Nerds? Who else do you think listens to it! I guess power metal better fits that charge, but that's just a step removed. As for the term itself, Geoff Barton is credited with inventing it, but himself credits a co-worker. Raven at the time described themselves as "athletic rock", but that didn't catch on.

    Googlefights shows nwobhm beating out "80s metal" or "british metal" or maiden/priest sound/style. It loses out to "iron maiden", "judas priest" and a number of metal genres (though it beats some as well).


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