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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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5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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