Using Science to Determine the Most Disappointing Albums

You know the feeling. You wait forever for your favourite band to follow up that awesome album with something brand new. When the day finally comes, you buy it, crank the volume and…yuck. It’s nowhere near what you’d hoped it would be. Maybe the songs just aren’t as good. Maybe the artist has decided to evolve their sound. Or maybe you’ve changed. Whatever the case, the album gets filed away under “disappointment.”

To cite some personal examples, I was disappointed in Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces (1979) because I wanted more of This Year’s Model (1978). Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut (1983) wasn’t anywhere close to The Wall (1979). And who wasn’t at least a little let down by In Utero (1993) after Nevermind (1991)?

The people behind Pricenomics have been disappointed, too, so they applied some empirical research to the situation. I found this fascinating.

In 2010, the English pop star M.I.A was riding high. Her first two albums were critically lauded for their experimentation and provocative lyrics. The second of those albums performed surprisingly well commercially, selling well over 500,000 records in the US, and spawning the irresistible anthem “Paper Planes.” 

Fans eagerly anticipated the release of her 3rd album. That album, “Kaya”, arrived in July 2010 and mystified many fans and critics — but it received substantially worse reviews than her previous albums, and sold a below-expected 100,000 records. Pitchfork panned the album: “The record is a shambling mess,” wrote the music review site, “devoid of the bangers that characterized Arular and Kala, two of the stronger pop albums of the past decade.”

The data backs up Pitchfork’s assessment. We statistically analyzed the most disappointing albums of the last fifteen years using data from the music review aggregator Metacritic and found that “Kaya” is among the 30 most disappointing albums from that period. 

M.I.A. is not alone in the business of not meeting expectations; she shares space on this list with artists like Outkast, Brad Paisley, and My Morning Jacket. In contrast, Kanye West, Beyonce and Daft Punk had albums that were surprisingly great, at least according to Metacritic’s statistics.

In what follows, we highlight these disappointing albums and unexpectedly good albums. We also identify the artists who exhibit the most and least consistency in quality.

Here’s a graph that’s too hard to read. Best go to the original article for more info to understand why (Together) by The Antlers was the most disappointing album of the last ten years–and why The Ecstatic by Mos Def was the most surprisingly good album.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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