In search of a definitive album rating formula

When it comes to my iTunes library, I’m a regular statistics nut. Sure, my library exists primarily for my own enjoyment, but it contains so much organically-compiled data about my habits and tastes that I can’t help but want to take a look at it and find out what the data says about my interests.

But for a while now, I’ve struggled to quantify, tabulate and analyze the overall sense of my library. Which of my albums albums are truly the greatest? Which artists, when the sum of their parts are combined, are really my favorites? And by how much? I want numbers.

None of the iTunes stats options available at the moment give me the type of results that I want. The Album Ranking AppleScript provides a simple average that skews toward albums with fewer tracks. SuperAnalyzer provides a top 10 list that is skewed toward albums with more tracks.

Most iTunes stats tools simply provide averages or totals of play counts and/or star ratings. Averages, while somewhat useful, can be misleading. An album could have a handful of awesome songs and a bunch of filler and still rank as well as and album that’s consistently good, but without much breakout material.

And that can be frustrating to me, because, in terms of album or artist worth, I tend to value the ones with consistent performance.

Take, for example, my recent run-down of Air’s discography, specifically the albums 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides. After many years of listening, my artistic impression is that Virgin Suicides is ever so slightly the better of the two. The songs on Legend vary from excellent to clunkers. Suicides is overall pretty good, with only one exceptional track. However, averaging my ratings shows that Suicides is a 3.85 while Legend rates as an even 4.

So, to reward albums that don’t veer wildly around the quality wheel, I’ve developed my own album rating formula that takes into account the consistency of all the star ratings on a given album.

The Formula

album rating = (mean of all songs + median of all songs) - standard deviation of the set

The mean sums up the whole of the album. The median shows the state of the album at its core. The standard deviation indicates the variety of the individual ratings. The result is a number on a scale of 1 to 10. (Alternately, divide that number by 2 to return the result to a 5-star scale).

Let’s take a look at the formula in action. Suppose we have two albums with twelve songs each. The first is generally excellent, but varies in quality. The second is good stuff throughout.

Ex. 1 Ex. 2
5 4
4 4
5 4
2 4
4 4
5 4
5 4
2 4
5 4
3 4
5 4
3 4
Mean 4 4
Median 4.5 4
total 8.5 8
STDEV 1.21 0
Score 7.29 8

This table shows the individual star ratings for the two theoretical albums, as well as all the statistical data, as calculated by Excel. As you can see, both albums average score is the same (4) and Ex 1 even has a higher median than Ex 2. But, because the quality of Ex 1’s songs vary a great deal, its standard deviation is substantial, so much so that its album rating becomes 7.29 (or 3.645 on a 5-star scale) when my formula is applied. Ex 2’s score suffers no penalty and its score remains 8 (4). In this case, the standard deviation awarded Ex 2 a bonus for being of uniform quality.

Let’s take a real world example, the two Air albums I mentioned above.

10 kHz Legend Virgin Suicides
4 4
5 4
4 4
5 3
5 3
4 4
3 5
4 4
3 4
3 4
4 4
4
3
Mean 4 3.84
Median 4 4
 
total 8 7.84
 
STDEV 0.77 0.55
 
Score 7.23 7.29

When the formula is applied to my ratings for each, the scores for 10000 Hz Legend and The Virgin Suicides become 7.23 (3.62) and 7.29 (3.65), respectively. So factoring in the standard deviation results in a score that more closely reflect my thoughts of those two albums.

So what does this mean? I’m not sure exactly. In practice, I could whip up some listy goodness and see which albums are truly my favorites. A comprehensive analysis would be cool. I’d love to see the distribution of my album ratings. However, that would require more programming skills than I have. Though that could be a good project to help me learn.

Out of curiosity though, I have picked 10 albums, just to see how they rate. One provision, of course, is that every song on an album must have a rating before the album score can be calculated. These ratings are on a 5-star scale.

AVG My Score
Radiohead – OK Computer 4.5 4.41
Air [french band] – Moon Safari 4.5 4.39
Nirvana – Nevermind 4.5 4.24
Mouse on Mars – Radical Connector 4.33 4.23
Ratatat – Ratatat 4.45 3.97
Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth 4.31 3.77
The Strokes – Is this it? 4.09 3.7
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem 4 3.68
Basement Jaxx  –  Remedy 3.73 3.51
Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher 3.82 3.47
Weezer – Make Believe 3.58 3.21

This is by no means a top 10 list, but it is interesting to see where things ended up. It’s also interesting to see how minor fluctuations in star ratings can change the final score. For instance, if that Ratatat album had one more 5 star song in place of a 4 star song, its median number would become 5 and its album score would jump to 4.51. Lower a 5 star to a 4 star and the score only drops slightly to 3.93. I don’t know if this is a flaw in the formula or a reward for albums that have a lot of good songs.

Problems and issues

Small data sets. These are troublesome in all statistical circumstances and this formula is no different. Albums with only one song will, by definition, not have a mean, median or standard deviation, and that kills the formula with a divide-by-zero error. Also, because the formula uses the average rating as a component, albums with a low number of songs will tend to skew one way or the other.

In my library, Boards of Canada’s EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country has four fantastic songs and ranks at 4.63, higher than anything on that list above. As a release, I’d say that’s accurate, but I’m sure it doesn’t surpass OK Computer. I would be interested to see a chart of how the album score changes as the number of tracks on an album increases.

Additionally, I haven’t figured out a way to rank partial albums, i.e. albums where I either don’t own all the songs or albums where I’ve deleted songs I didn’t like. For now, I’m just excluding them altogether.

Still, I’m fairly pleased with the results I’ve been getting as I run various albums through the formula. It’s working for me and my own song rating system, but I’m curious to see how it works with someone else’s.

Fortunately, Webomatica has posted his song-by-song ratings for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Using his numbers, the average for the album is 4.38, while my formula renders a 4.28. I’d say that’s a consistently good album.

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Here’s a Microsoft Excel file you can download. Plug in your star ratings to find the album score. AlbumScore.zip

Best of tunequest: Top 10 discoveries of 2006

When I began the original tunequest in February of last year, I had ~6000 songs in my iTunes library that had a play count of zero. Part of that list consisted of old CDs that just hadn’t been played since they were digitized. A good number of them were the result of over-zealous music collection and exploration. That was one of the reasons I decided to undertake the endeavor in the first place.

By the end of the journey, every one of those songs had been played and a good number of them had been rated as well. Of those, 122 songs received a five-star rating after only a single play. About half of those were well-known songs from yesteryear. From those remaining, I whittled down the ten newly discovered or unearthed tracks over the course of the tunequest that had the highest impact on me.

Here they are in no particular order.

Ratatat – Noose – Live at Lee’s Palace Toronto 2004

I first heard this song on a CBC Radio 3 Internet stream, which is the version presented here. It’s the b-side to the Germany to Germany single and I liked it so much, I, a) captured the entire show and, b) instantly bought it from iTunes. Along with Ratatat’s Wildcat, the single from their 2006 album Classics, this is probably my favorite track of the year.

[audio:070109Noose.mp3]

Ratatat - Germany to Germany - Single - Noose

Sonic Youth – Incinerate – from Rather Ripped

Rather Ripped is Sonic Youth’s latest new release, having come out last summer. This song is the perfect example of the ” radical adults’ ” effortless melodies and

[audio:070109Incinerate.mp3]

Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped - Incinerate

Pearl Jam – World Wide Suicide – from Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam came back into my life last year, after having been relegated to background noise for many many years. It comes in the form of renewed appreciation for the group’s back catalogue as well as the latest album, the self-titled Pearl Jam, and this, it’s lead single.

[audio:070109WorldWideSuicide.mp3]

Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam - World Wide Suicide

Les Baxter – Oasis of Dahkla – from Tamboo!

A song I’ve had digitized for a while, but somehow never listened to. Les Baxter’s smooth and exotic compositions and arrangements have been perennial favorites around here. Oasis of Dahkla is lush and melodious, just like I like it.

[audio:070109OasisOfDakhla.mp3]

Titel – Klaus Doldinger – From Das Boot

A soundtrack that I acquired several years ago, but resisted listening to it for fear that I couldn’t relate to it. What a mistake! Methodic, pulsing and indelibly thematic, Klaus Doldinger’s main title score to this 1981 film is captivating.

[audio:070109Titel.mp3]

Klaus Doldringer - The Longest Day - Music from the Classic War Films - Das Boot (The Boat)

Stereolab – Pack Yr Romantic Mind – from Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements

I’m a big fan of Stereolab’s later releases with their heightened pop sensibilities and have traditionally shied away from the groop’s more expressly noise-influenced early records. Though the production value isn’t quite what I expect from the band, the somber beauty of this song, from their first proper album, quite surprised me.

[audio:070109PackYrRomanticMind.mp3]

Stereolab - Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements - Pack Yr Romantic Mind

Joe Hisaishi – Sootballs – From Spirited Away

Hisaishi’s score are as breathtaking as Miyazaki’s animations. This song from 2001’s Spirited Away is full of playful mischief.

[audio:070109Sootballs.mp3]

Blondie – Sunday Girl – from Parallel Lines

For whatever reason, I had never listened to the second half of Parallel Lines, other than Heart of Glass of course. This song is pure pop bliss and I’m bummed I missed out on it for years.

[audio:070109SundayGirl.mp3]

Blondie - Parallel Lines - Sunday Girl

Stravinsky – Scene 1 from Petrushka – performed by the London Symphony Orchestra under Abbado

This ballet by Stravinsky, composed in 1911, is simply marvelous and the opening legerdemain scene at the Shrovetide Fair is quite engaging.

[audio:070109PetrushkaLegerdemain.mp3]

John Barry – James Bond with Bongos – from From Russia with Love

If you thought James Bond was cool before, wait until you hear that famous theme slowly dissolve into some uber-smooth slacker jazz before 007 is put in danger once again. From THE master, John Barry, doing what he does best.

[audio:070109JamesBondWithBongos.mp3]

At the risk of turning this into a Ratatat blog…

…here’s the Ratatat remix of Shout Out Louds’ The Comeback. I actually listened to it last weekend, but didn’t hear anything half as interesting today, so consider it a retroactive song of the day.

This mix illustrates perfectly what I love about Ratatat’s remixing style. They’re not content to just throw a house beat behind the song, or chop it up until it’s unrecognizable. No, Mike and Evan take full possession of the original, reshaping it in their own image while not losing the core of the source material.

The Comeback – Big Slippa remix by Ratatat

Shout Out Louds - The Comeback - Single - The Comeback (Big Slippa Mix By Ratatat) big slippa remix by ratatat

The Nine Beats of Ratatat

ratatat - 9 beats

It’s a bit of a cosmic coincidence that I happen to be on a huge Ratatat kick right now and a new Ratatat bootleg has happened to suddenly surface around the net. It’s titled 9 Beats and is apparently a rare look at the band’s early/demo work. How early? It doesn’t say, but it probably pre-dates their 2004 debut.

The tracks on the album aren’t songs per se. They’re mostly extended loops of beats and melodies that last between one and two minutes. Then, just as you’re starting to really get into them, they just stop. Most of the unnamed tracks don’t even get a fade out. Banagale has more info.

It’s pretty interesting stuff.

Here’s a taste for you. It’s track “two.”

[audio:061019RatatatTwo.mp3]

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Update 3/29: Some tracks from 9 Beats have turned up as the backing music on Ratatat Remixes Vol 2. Specifically:

  • Beat #1 is used for Memphis Bleek’s Alright.
  • Beat #2 is used for Young Buck’s Shorty Wanna Ride.
  • Beat #3 is used for Notorious B.I.G.’s Dead Wrong.
  • Beat #4 is used for Young Buck, T.I. & Ludacris’s Stomp.
  • Beat #6 is used for Slim Thug, Bun B, and T.I.’s 3 Kings.

Ratatat really does make the world a better place

Take for example this remix.

Normally, I absolutely can not tolerate Missy Elliot. I just don’t like her style. And her 2004 single I’m Really Hot was a completely egotistical crapfest which couldn’t manage to display the slightest bit of talent or even a minisculey appealing hook.

So it is a bit of a minor miracle that Ratatat manages to not only make the song listenable, but the duo actually creates something awesome from it.

Have a listen:

and a free download.

All hail Ratatat. Truly musical gods.

A Grand Celestial Music

Quite the musical week here at tunequest. A little more than usual.

First the Ratatat show, now a symphony performance. The Atlanta Symphony put in a wonderful performance of Holst’s Planets. From the raw power of Mars to the ethereal ambiance of Nepture, the orchestra dispatched all seven symphonic poems with passion and exuberance. "Wow", I say "Wow."

Parts of Mercury felt a little bit off, but it could have just been the acoustic of the hall (which honestly aren’t that good; let’s hope the new hall gets built soon). It didn’t matter though; by the end of Mars, I was willing to forgive just about any mis-step. The full force of the orchestra performing only a few feet away literally gave me chills. Man, it was good.

I’m stoked for this ASO season.

RATATATL*

Ratatat ATL

I just got home from Ratatat’s performance at The Earl in East Atlanta. Awesome awesome stuff. This band is phenomenal, from concept to execution, and they kick it ten ways live. I can now add Ratatat to the list of bands I’ve seen more than once. Hoorah.

I would have liked to record the show, but my dinky Maxell voice recorder for iPod was overwhelmed the sheer amount of volume as was themodernista. I got nothing but noise and static from it.

Boo.

Hopefully, I got some decent pics from my cell phone (i doubt they’re that good though), but it’s late now and I’m off to bed.

The show was fronted by Panther and The Envelopes.

* coined by themodernista at the show.

ratatat makes the world a better place

I. am. being. slowly. driven. insane. emphasis on the slowly driven.

Seriously, if you wish to maintain your sanity, do not drive in Atlanta, ever. But especially avoid the interstates. and the access roads. and the side streets. and all intersections.

If you give those places a wide berth, you will find yourself infinitely less frustrated with your life.

But if you cannot manage that, make sure you roll down your windows and crank up the Ratatat. You’ll be humming “germany to germany” Ratatat - Ratatat by the time you walk in the door.

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UPDATE: I had been planning on writing how a shortened work-day was another great way to maintain your precious sanity. But when traffic at 2-fucking-p.m. is as bad, nay, worse than it was at 8:30 am, well, no amount of creature comforts can make up for that. Not Ratatat’s crispy beats or their wailing guitars. It’s simply impossible.

No, not even kim deal has the power to save you.