by Andrew Miller

Lots of rational people dislike technically outstanding music, and there are many reasons why: terminal overexposure (commonly cited by independent record-store employees), stubborn anti-nerd sentiment (prevents cool kids from lab-partnering up with the science geeks of the music world), compulsive contrarian tendencies. For whatever reason, musicians who can actually play their instruments often get the shaft. Because of this, appreciation of such sounds cannot be considered a litmus test for good taste in same the way that, say, love of The Simpsons can.

Of the more than 2,000 records released annually, only a handful are categorically excellent or unspeakably awful. Glossy magazines that use star-system ratings know this, which is why they grant generous space to remastered classics (five stars for Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan!) and albums obviously outside their coverage range (Blender says one star for Amy Grant!). Star ratings are inherently misleading because, counterintuitive as it might be, barely below-average bands are actually less essential than the infuriatingly lame. By most criteria, Starship and Spin Doctors are two of the most atrocious acts ever unleashed on the American public, but their sickening songs were ingratiating enough that people who do not undergo some sort of mind-cleansing therapy will remember them. By contrast, competent yet nondescript songs sink instantly into oblivion. And technical merit plays a peculiar part; critics frequently pan flawlessly played songs.

For instance: when Blender named its "50 Worst Artists in Music History," Primus, Asia, Kansas and, at No. 2, Emerson, Lake and Palmer made the list. Certainly, all of the defamed have duds in their discographies, but what's telling is the way complimentary terms become indictments in the paragraphs explaining the groups' inclusion.

Asia gets ripped for its "virtuoso playing"; ELP "shunned blues-based rock in favor of reinterpreted classical works--with bafflingly successful results"; Primus possesses "prodigious instrumental chops." If these acts are the "worst," what about the thousands of similar-minded groups without the same level of skill? Wouldn't a song filled with flubbed notes and butchered solos be less bearable than a grandiose, yet error-free number?

Early punks railed against '70s prog outfits such as Pink Floyd and Genesis, so it's natural for writers who witnessed that era to harbor some hostility toward the arena acts. Also, there's a tendency to overvalue basic bands and their rudimentary riffs for the same reason baseball fans identify with scrappy, mediocre players: It keeps the "anyone-could-do-this!" dream alive.

Fans, too, have difficulty relating to the most accomplished instrumentalists. For heartbreaking proof, examine the air-guitar heroes who line up near the stage to practice their phantom riffs. These masters of the invisible arts can thrash along with the average OZZfest outfit, but when prog groups unveil their inscrutable dual-guitar solos, mimicked motion ceases. Seems that even the most talented imaginary-axe-brandishers can't pantomime a 64th-note sweep arpeggio.

While most audience members watch wanky wizardry through increasingly glazed-over eyes, a thin line of musicians stands near the stage, taking mental notes on obscure techniques and leaving puddles of drool near their shoes. Practicing players often adore the same ostentatious achievements that casual music fans despise. Similarly, regular radio listeners tend to value prominent hooks, overlooking some of the more subtle elements that only a musician would love. For the former camp, perfection is a pristine pitch; for the latter, a catchy chorus.

The sonic tapestries these ambitious groups produce can be enchanting, but bearing witness as they create the otherworldly sounds lessens the allure. In fact, watching two players in close proximity squeeze every imaginable bit of sound from their instruments while making under-duress expressions, it's tempting to coin the term guitarded. There's a reason that Yes and King Crimson preferred garish sci-fi album covers to their own mugs on the cover. And it's no coincidence that Tool, the band that helped make the genre kinda cool again, boasts one of the most spectacular--and distracting--stage shows in recent memory. Without compelling visuals, perfection prog-style is seldom a spectator sport.