The Swedish Tax Agent Who Has Aggregated the Best Music of All Time

By day, Henrik Franzon is a tax agent in Stockholm, working for the Swedish equivalent of the IRS. In his off hours, the statistician uses his skills to sort through a much hipper set of data. It could be argued that more than anyone at Pitchfork or Rolling Stone or NME, this bureaucrat is the ultimate oracle of just how respectable your musical tastes are.  

Franzon collects music critics’ lists the way botanists collect seeds. Some are lists of the best songs or albums ever. Others are parsed by genre or country or era. He draws them from magazines, the ever-expanding online music press, and a few books. Using a complex algorithm, he has aggregated these to create massive lists of the most acclaimed albums, songs, and artists of all time. Since 2003, the continually updated results have been published on his website, AcclaimedMusic.net. Right now, the site contains ranked lists of the 1,000 artists, 3,000 albums, and 6,000 songs most beloved to music writers around the globe.

He admits his hobby is odd. “When I showed [my first aggregated list] to my friends, they thought I was insane,” Franzon recalls. But as a lover of both music and statistics, he kept refining his formula and collecting and inputting lists. “I like to work with this kind of data,” he says. “There’s no right or wrong,” as to which music is actually best, “which makes it different than other statistics.”

Franzon, 42, grew up on acts like Depeche Mode and The Cure during the blossoming of the print-media music press. He says he’s been interested in these lists since a retrospective on the best albums of all time in a Swedish music magazine expanded his tastes.

His aggregate rankings don’t simply measure the number of times a song or album winds up on a list. “There are a lot of parameters,” says Franzon. All-time lists count for more than more limited lists, like year-end round-ups or lists ranking the best of a genre. Lists representing the view of a publication or institution (like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll) count for more than lists of an individual critic (like Greil Marcus’ book The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs). Lists that come from a place that doesn’t produce a lot of lists (i.e., outside the critics’ bubbles of New York and London) get more weight. But lists that contain a bunch of picks not usually on such lists get less weight, as a guard against deliberately provocative musical musings. Newer lists count for more than older lists. A song or album’s place on a ranked list is factored in. The algorithm also incorporates ratings from sites like AllMusic and Metacritic.

To put it succinctly, Franzon gathers up critical accolades, factors in a few parameters to steer the results towards reflecting global critical opinion of the best of the best, and then crunches the numbers. AcclaimedMusic.net provides his footnotes. Click on an item and you’ll see which lists it’s on.

By design, the top results won’t surprise vinyl geeks quick to click such lists whenever they’re published by the likes of Rolling Stone.

The top 15 albums:
1. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
2. The Beatles, Revolver
3. Nirvana, Nevermind
4. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground & Nico
5. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
6. The Clash, London Calling
7. Marvin Gaye, What's Going On
8. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main St.
9. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde
10. Radiohead, OK Computer
11. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
12. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks - Here's the Sex Pistols
13. The Beatles, The Beatles (“The White Album”)
14. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
15. Van Morrison, Astral Weeks

The top 15 songs:
1. Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
2. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
3. The Beatles, “A Day in the Life”
4. The Beach Boys, “Good Vibrations”
5.  The Rolling Stones, “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction”
6. Marvin Gaye, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
7. The Ronettes, “Be My Baby”
8. The Beatles, “Strawberry Fields Forever”
9. Aretha Franklin, “Respect”
10 . Marvin Gaye, “What's Going On”
11. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
12. Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode”
13. Bruce Springsteen, “Born to Run”
14. The Who, “My Generation”
15. Elvis Presley, “Heartbreak Hotel”

The top 10 artists (as determined by an algorithm incorporating the number of their works in Franzon’s information matrix and the ranks of those works):

1. The Beatles
2. Bob Dylan
3. The Rolling Stones
4. David Bowie
5. Bruce Springsteen
6. Radiohead
7. Neil Young
8. Elvis Presley
9. The Beach Boys
10. Prince            

Expanding from there, the top few hundred songs and albums offer some more of the expected: seas of classic rock, vintage soul and work from ’50s-era pioneers, with a few islands for punk, early hip-hop, dance music, alt-rock, and the unclassifiable Prince.

But there are some surprises, particularly for American audiences. British rock from the alternative spectrum competes very well, even in the cases of singles that never got much U.S. airplay. Standing beside the Elvis and Dylan classics in the top 100 songs are Pulp’s “Common People” (#41), Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” (#50), The Specials’ “Ghost Town” (#77), and three by The Smiths: “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (#78), “How Soon Is Now?” (#83), and “This Charming Man” (#84).

This is because the British music press can be somewhat insular, and heavy acclaim within it can make up for obscurity, hence Portishead's four songs in the top 1,000 to AC/DC’s three. “In the U.K., they have a lot of famous magazines,” says Franzon. “But they don’t reflect the whole world.”

Alternatively, one could argue that American ears have been sadly deaf to much of the best stuff to come from across the pond since the ’80s.

Twenty-first-century acts do crack the upper echelons. The top 100 songs boast nine from the new millennium, and the top 100 albums have eight. Newer songs turn up on the year-end lists that music pubs churn out in droves. A single year-end list doesn’t count for much, but Franzon has refined his algorithm so that a song or album in the top of almost every such list rockets ahead. He argues that if a song like M.I.A.’s 2008 smash “Paper Planes” (#42) or Daft Punk’s 2013 international hit “Get Lucky” (#55) makes it onto almost every list for which they’re eligible, they should move ahead of older songs, which might show up on more best-of-all-time lists but then make a smaller percentage of other lists. Such an album or song will drop quickly if it doesn’t keep picking up accolades.

His parameters and ways of pruning his lists have been debated on his website’s forum, which Frazen says has stayed quite friendly by the standards of people discussing music on the Internet.

There are unlimited ways to divide and subdivide Franzon’s data, and AcclaimedMusic.net is full of sub-lists parsed by year, genre and country of origin. There are even lists of the most acclaimed artists from every state in the U.S. (In case you were wondering, the five most acclaimed artists from Pennsylvania are Nine Inch Nails, The Roots, Todd Rundgren, Stan Getz, and The War on Drugs, in that order.) The site is dotted with Spotify playlists to help you enjoy these miniature lists.

As a statistician, Franzon says he’d never allow his personal tastes to affect his data, but he does cheer when his favorite Depeche Mode song, “Enjoy the Silence,” goes up a rank. (It’s currently #415.) His favorite song of all time is “All Is Full of Love” by Björk (#3,636)—the single version, not the album version, he specifies—and his favorite album is Songs of Leonard Cohen (#149).

Even though Franzon says his coworkers don’t quite understand his off-hours obsession, they do sometimes use it to break up the tedium of a day at the Swedish tax office. He and his colleagues have developed a game: One will name a year and a number, and ask to hear the song ranked at that number on Franzon’s sub-list for that year. Franzon will cue it up on Spotify and the tax agents will try to name that tune.

“Usually, they don’t get it,” Franzon says. “A lot of them don’t even know Nirvana.”

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Karl Walter, Getty Images
When the FBI Investigated the 'Murder' of Nine Inch Nails's Trent Reznor
Karl Walter, Getty Images
Karl Walter, Getty Images

The two people standing over the body, Michigan State Police detective Paul Wood told the Hard Copy cameras, “had a distinctive-type uniform on. As I recall: black pants, some type of leather jacket with a design on it, and one was wearing combat boots. The other was wearing what looked like patent leather shoes. So if it was a homicide, I was thinking it was possibly a gang-type homicide.”

Wood was describing a puzzling case local police, state police, and eventually the FBI had worked hard to solve for over a year. The mystery began in 1989, when farmer Robert Reed spotted a circular group of objects floating over his farm just outside of rural Burr Oak, Michigan; it turned out to be a cluster of weather balloons attached to a Super 8 camera.

When the camera landed on his property, the surprised farmer didn't develop the footage—he turned it over to the police. Some local farmers had recently gotten into trouble for letting wild marijuana grow on the edges of their properties, and Reed thought the balloons and camera were a possible surveillance technique. But no state or local jurisdictions used such rudimentary methods, so the state police in East Lansing decided to develop the film. What they saw shocked them.

A city street at night; a lifeless male body with a mysterious substance strewn across his face; two black-clad men standing over the body as the camera swirled away up into the sky, with a third individual seen at the edge of the frame running away, seemingly as fast as possible. Michigan police immediately began analyzing the footage for clues, and noticed the lights of Chicago’s elevated train system, which was over 100 miles away.

It was the first clue in what would become a year-long investigation into what they believed was either a cult killing or gang murder. When they solved the “crime” of what they believed was a real-life snuff film, they were more shocked than when the investigation began: The footage was from the music video for “Down In It,” the debut single from industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and the supposed dead body was the group's very-much-alive lead singer, Trent Reznor.

 
 

In 1989, Nine Inch Nails was about to release their debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, which would go on to be certified triple platinum in the United States. The record would define the emerging industrial rock sound that Reznor and his rotating cast of bandmates would experiment with throughout the 1990s and even today on albums like The Downward Spiral and The Slip.

The band chose the song “Down In It”—a track with piercing vocals, pulsing electronic drums, sampled sound effects, and twisted nursery rhyme-inspired lyrics—as Pretty Hate Machine's first single. They began working with H-Gun, a Chicago-based multimedia team led by filmmakers Eric Zimmerman and Benjamin Stokes (who had created videos for such bands as Ministry and Revolting Cocks), and sketched out a rough idea for the music video.

Filmed on location among warehouses and parking garages in Chicago, the video was supposed to culminate in a shot with a leather-jacketed Reznor running to the top of a building, while two then-members of the band followed him wearing studded jumpsuits; the video would fade out with an epic floating zoom shot to imply that Reznor's cornstarch-for-blood-covered character had fallen off the building and died in the street. Because the cash-strapped upstarts didn’t have enough money for a fancy crane to achieve the shot for their video, they opted to tie weather balloons to the camera and let it float up from Reznor, who was lying in the street surrounded by his bandmates. They eventually hoped to play the footage backward to get the shot in the final video.

Instead, the Windy City lived up to its name and quickly whisked the balloons and camera away. With Reznor playing dead and his bandmates looking down at him, only one of the filmmakers noticed. He tried to chase down the runaway camera—which captured his pursuit—but it was lost, forcing them to finish shooting the rest of the video and release it without the planned shot from the missing footage in September of 1989.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the band, a drama involving their lost camera was unfolding in southwest Michigan. Police there eventually involved the Chicago police, whose detectives determined that the footage had been filmed in an alley in the city's Fulton River District. After Chicago authorities found no homicide reports matching the footage for the neighborhood and that particular time frame, they handed the video over to the FBI, whose pathologists reportedly said that, based on the substance on the individual, the body in the video was rotting.

 
 

The "substance" in question was actually the result of the low-quality film and the color of the cornstarch on the singer’s face, which had also been incorporated into the press photos for Pretty Hate Machine. It was a nod to the band's early live shows, in which Reznor would spew cornstarch and chocolate syrup on his band members and the audience. “It looks really great under the lights, grungey, a sort of anti-Bon Jovi and the whole glamour thing,” Reznor said in a 1991 interview.

With no other easy options, and in order to generate any leads that might help them identify the victim seen in the video, the authorities distributed flyers to Chicago schools asking if anyone knew any details behind the strange “killing.”

The tactic worked. A local art student was watching MTV in 1991 and saw the distinctive video for “Down In It,” which reminded him of one of the flyers he had seen at school. He contacted the Chicago police to tip them off to who their supposed "murder victim" really was. Nine Inch Nails’s manager was notified, and he told Reznor and the filmmakers what had really happened to their lost footage.

“It’s interesting that our top federal agency, the Federal Bureau of [Investigation], couldn’t crack the Super 8 code,” co-director Zimmerman said in an interview. As for Wood and any embarrassment law enforcement had after the investigation: “I thought it was our duty, one way or the other, to determine what was on that film,” he said.

“My initial reaction was that it was really funny that something could be that blown out of proportion with this many people worked up about it,” Reznor said, and later told an interviewer, “There was talk that I would have to appear and talk to prove that I was alive.” Even though—in the eyes of state, local, and federal authorities—he was reportedly dead for over a year, Reznor didn’t seem to be bothered by it: “Somebody at the FBI had been watching too much Hitchcock or David Lynch or something,” he reasoned.

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Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
West Side Story Is Returning to Theaters This Weekend
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM
Courtesy of Park Circus and MGM

As Chris Pratt and a gang of prehistoric creatures get ready to face off against some animated superheroes for this weekend’s box office dominance, an old rivalry is brewing once again on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. West Side Story—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s classic big-screen rendering of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical—is returning to cinemas for the first time in nearly 30 years.

As part of TCM’s Big Screen Classics Series, West Side Story will have special screening engagements at more than 600 theaters across the country on Sunday, June 24 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. If you can’t make it this weekend, encores will screen at the same time on Wednesday, June 27. The film—which is being re-released courtesy of TCM, Fathom Events, Park Circus, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer—will be presented in its original widescreen format, and include its original mid-film intermission. (Though its 2.5-hour runtime is practically standard nowadays, that wasn’t the case a half-century ago.) The screening will include an introduction and some post-credit commentary by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz.

West Side Story, which was named Best Picture of 1961, is a musical retelling of Romeo and Juliet that sees star-crossed lovers Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer) navigate the challenges of immigration, racial tension, and inner-city life in mid-century Manhattan—but with lots of singing and dancing. In addition to being named Best Picture, the beloved film took home another nine Oscars, including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Actress (for George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, respectively), and Best Music—obviously.

To find out if West Side Story is screening near you, and to purchase tickets, visit Fathom Events’s website.

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