#20: Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’ (1980) vs. Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’ (1993)

 

We’re in the top 20!

Now we’re talking! After the let-down of my last battle (The Smiths vs. Jeff Buckley), I’m thrilled to get back to two albums that are genuinely awesome. In other words, where a couple of mopey dudes failed, two kick-ass women spectacularly succeed.

Liz Phair’s debut album (why are so many of the masterpieces on these lists debuts?) is a beautiful mess, which I think is the point. It’s got a bit of everything, sound-wise, including a dog, but it’s mostly just straight-up rock n’ roll. You get sludgy guitar, piano, low-fi drums and shockingly candid and vulgar lyrics delivered in a matter-of-fact monotone that is way more compelling than it ought to be. One second she’s telling you she’ll fuck you till your dick is blue (“Flower”), the next she is waking up from a one-night stand pining for a boyfriend who’ll write her love letters (“Fuck and Run”). 

It was touted as a song for song response to Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, but more precisely it’s a commentary about what it’s like to be a girl in the man’s world of rock n’ roll (she breaks it all down herself in this excellent Rolling Stone piece). Every song is catchy, fun and fascinating. I love it.

Chryssie Hynde stormed the gates of guyville 13 years earlier with the Pretenders debut (another debut!) album of new wave rock. It’s astoundingly strong and confident for a band’s first time out. The band is crazy tight and rockin’ and, when it needs to be, pretty (my favourite is the Kinks cover “Stop you Sobbing”, which sounds like vintage ’60s “Wall of Sound” girl music).

Unlike Phair, Hynde didn’t make it about being a girl in a man’s world, but nor did she in any way hide who she was either. I’m struck by how prominent her vocals are – especially on the album’s opener, “Precious”. She drives her words straight into your ear-holes.

Thematically, there are comparisons to be made. “Up the Neck” is Hynde’s take on waking up from a one-night-stand; just a little more cryptic about how she feels about it than Phair’s “Fuck and Run”. (And let me just say I love the way Hynde sings “Baby! Oh Sweetheart.”) And “Brass in Pocket” is not unlike Phair’s “Flower”, but a whole lot more subtle about how she’s going to have her way with you. I guess Phair, working in the 90s, could be waaaay more candid about the details. I think it’s a case of trailblazers like Hynde (and Pattie Smith) opening the door for the next generation of trailblazers like Phair (and PJ Harvey).

So who wins this battle? Frankly I hate to choose.

This is neither the first time nor the last time I’m going to do this in the VanJam Music War – I’m choosing the album I think is better rather than the one I personally like more. Perfection over beautiful mess. Hynde over Phair, by a hair…

JG

WINNER: Pretenders, Pretenders (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 13

90s: 18

EARNED POINTS
80s: 27
90s: 37

Next week’s battle – #19: Lou Reed, ‘New York’ (1989) vs. Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ (1991)

#21: Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’ (1985) vs. Radiohead, ‘The Bends’ (1995)

Oh Tom Waits. Sigh. I want to love you so much. On paper you fit right into my weird musical wheelhouse. I’ve tried so many times to love you. I hear people talk about how amazing you are. You attract people with a unique musical pallet (I have a unique musical pallet). Your mix of avant-jazz-rock-pop should fit well with my love of avant-jazz-rock-pop. Your “I don’t care about anyone’s convention” and ferocious independence is something I am all over. But, for me your sharp witted knife edge sound never cut through my skin. And Rain Dogs is no different. Tom, why can’t I love you? The closest I got was Bone Machine and Mule Variations (interesting that these are his 90s offerings).

Part of my issue with Waits is that his barfly musings and back alley grime musicality seems almost cliche. Maybe at the time it was new and unique, and fit well as anti-anthems in and age where slick commercial gluttony was king, but as someone who didn’t grow up with him, it seems comically theatrical (I can feel the boos and the hissing from our more snobby readers). I can’t take him seriously. I want to but maybe it is just too late for me.

There is one redeeming track tho that blows me away. I play it constantly. I assume that the Waitsies know exactly the one I am talking about. This track is a slow pretty lamenting dirge. It’s the most palatable song on the album I think. It’s the one that seems the most honest. It has a vulnerability that the other tracks on the album don’t have. It’s the track called Time. That song is just gorgeous. There is a weakness to that song that makes it a complete tear jerker. Especially on the second run through of the chorus. The words get muted, as if he is so moved by his own words, Waits seems to back away from the mic or maybe he gets choked up. It’s beautifully devastating. All his songs should sound this honest. Sorry all you Waitsies out there. What many consider his best left me wanting more.

So. The winner is clear on this one. It’s The Bends. Whoa nelly. This album is a doozy. Complete Brit Alt Rock perfection. There are no stinkers on this one. The emotion of the album ranges from hard and heavy to soft and beautiful. “Nice Dream” is a perfect example of how they expertly dance back and forth from pretty to pretty ugly (but in a good rock your off you asses kind of way). Alternating dynamics is really just at the surface of this album. There is a lot of depth in The Bends that is a joy to spelunk in and because of this, the album comes across as more honest to me.

The Bends is 90s Brit Rock perfection. It is hard to think that any album would beat this one for me other than their later offerings. I pity the contender who goes up against OK Computer.

JS

WINNER: Radiohead, ‘The Bends’ (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 12

90s: 18

EARNED POINTS
80s: 23
90s: 37

Next week’s battle – #20: Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’ (1980) vs. Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’ (1993)

#22: The Smiths, ‘The Smiths’ (1984) vs. Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’ (1994)

 

What a bummer. I was really looking forward to this battle only to discover both albums left me a little underwhelmed and full of questions. So let’s do this review as a Q&A:

Q: Why the heck did Rolling Stone pick the Smiths’ debut and not The Queen is Dead as the sole Smiths album on their 80s list?

A. Not sure – could anyone from Rolling Stone chime in on this peculiar choice? In the meantime, here’s an observation that may be relevant – the magazine did their 80s list right at the tail end of the decade. In other words, arguably too soon. Art needs time to marinate in our collective conscience and settle into its rightful place in history. It’s pretty obvious now which Smiths album is the best (isn’t it?) – perhaps it wasn’t so clear when they were still relatively fresh.

Q. Would Jeff Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it didn’t contain the now legendary version of “Hallelujah”?

A. No.

And while we’re on the topic, I know Buckley’s version of the song is wonderful, but I’d like to point out that the song was written by Leonard Cohen and the arrangement made famous by Buckley was actually created by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale (check it out). So, yes, kudos to Buckley for finding the formula that made it famous, but let it not be forgotten his achievement is a cumulative one that stands on the shoulders of two giants.

Q. Would Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it weren’t the only album from a promising singer/songwriter who died a few years after its release?

A. I doubt it. But an ability to go from a stirring, smoky rendition of “Lilac Wine” to hard rocking “Eternal Life” is pretty impressive.

Q. Why do Buckley’s vocal stunts piss me off but not Morrissey’s?

A. Because, for reasons I cannot support with actual evidence, I believe Morrissey and I don’t believe Buckley. I think Buckley had a touch of what I call Mariah-Carey-itis, in which the artist loves the sound of their admittedly impressive voice more than the words they are singing, leading to distracting demonstrations of their range, such as the irritating and bombastic climax to Grace‘s title track.

Morrissey is prone to abrupt leaps into a jarring falsetto but for whatever reason I trust that he is doing it with purpose and meaning. Also, there is a cosmic law that says Morrissey’s voice will resonate deeply in the soul of anyone who is sad, cynical or was a teen in the 80s. Depending on the day, I check all three boxes.

Q. What’s better – an album with a singular feel and sound, or one that leaps effortlessly from one genre to another?

A. More data and analysis is needed to answer definitively but, in this case, singular feel and sound prevails. The Smiths had a vision for their art, and the debut was just the opening shot. I’m less optimistic that Buckley knew where he was going, or would have gone anywhere more interesting than where he started.

JG

WINNER: The Smiths, The Smiths (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 12

90s: 17

EARNED POINTS
80s: 23
90s: 34

Next week’s battle – #21: Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (1985) vs. Radiohead, The Bends (1995)

#23: Black Uhuru, ‘Red’ (1981) vs. The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’ (1993)

This one might be the toughest one for me. These albums took a while to take hold. Also, it’s hard to find a through line connection for comparison between them. The quintessential 90s shoe-gazer vs. the blueprint for 80s reggae. To me they both felt sorta ho-hum. I know better grunge and I know better reggae.

After repeated listening, that opinion changed for me with one album at least. I didn’t want to like Siamese Dream; and this was working out fine for me until I finally let the album play past the first 5 tracks. The album starts off okay but it feels very superficial. A bit empty and one note. Little did I know the depth that was to come. I think the term ‘Burying the lead’ applies very well to Siamese Dream. This album gets better as it progresses. It gets more complex. It gets more melodic. It gets way more emotional.

Billy Corgan knew what he was doing and I didn’t give him enough credit. I thought he was (1) a crybaby adolescent who made angsty music in the comfort of his bedroom; (2) luckily tapping into the angsty zeitgeist of the 90s by going out of his bedroom; and (3) rocking with a kick ass band that was better than he deserved. I was ever so wrong. My quick judgement was unwarranted.

So, in my desire to get past this battle. A quick decision is in order.

The Crybaby wins! And I learned a little something about being too hard on Billy Corgan.

JS

P.S. I eventually did warm up to Red too. It was actually really great.

WINNER: The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 11

90s: 17

EARNED POINTS
80s: 20
90s: 34

Next week’s battle – #22: The Smiths, The Smiths (1984) vs. Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994)

 

#24: X, ‘Los Angeles’ (1980) vs. Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ (1992)

What a maddeningly awesome battle this turned out to be: awesome because these are two astounding debut albums of beautiful noise from uncompromising indie bands, and maddening because I hate to pick a winner…and, by extension, a loser.

“WHAT!?” I can hear the indie rock connoisseurs shout. “How is this even a contest?!”

I understand the outrage. Not many people even know about X any more. Meanwhile, the reputation of Pavement in general and Slanted and Enchanted in particular is unassailable. Many folks who know music better than most will tell you this is not merely one of the best albums of the 1990s, but perhaps THE album of the 1990s (you’ll have to take it up with Rolling Stone why it’s way down at #24).

And, yes, it’s amazing. A messy, wild collection of let’s-try-anything noisy sonic experiments that works extraordinarily well. Stephen Malkmus writes mind-bending tunes, can do anything on a guitar and sometimes sings exactly like Lou Reed, which I greatly appreciate. (I thought often about Lou and his Velvet Underground during this battle as it’s hard to imagine either of these bands without the influence of those 1960 pioneers of uncompromising beautiful noise.)

But then I put on X’s Los Angeles and oh boy.

I don’t like punk but I LOVE this – 28 minutes of propulsive punk perfection about the seedy underbelly of their home city, full of things you don’t expect from a punk band: poetic lyrics, rockabilly guitar, wacky boy-girl harmonizing vocals, and even organ courtesy of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek, who discovered the band and produced the album. It’s unbelievably fun, catchy and easy to listen to, even if it does get a titch disturbing at times with its matter-of-fact exploration of nasty subjects like sexual violence, racism and heroin addiction.

So am I really going to do the unthinkable and pick AGAINST Pavement? Yes.

I’m sorry, indie rock connoisseurs, I know it’s madness. Just please do me a favour: once you’ve scooped your jaw off the floor, spend some time banging your head to “Nausea” and “The World’s a Mess; It’s in My Kiss” and maybe you’ll understand a little tiny bit.

JG

WINNER: X, Los Angeles (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 11

90s: 16

EARNED POINTS
80s: 20
90s: 31

Next week’s battle – #23: Black Uhuru, Red (1981) vs. The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993)

#25: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Tunnel of Love’ (1987) vs. Sublime, ‘Sublime’ (1996)

Listening to the Boss’ 80s masterwork is like splashing cold water on your face. It is always refreshing. As if defragging my brain, this album is exactly what I needed to refresh what was building up as musical clutter from all these album battles. It is a treasure from start to finish. Prior to this battle, I knew none of the songs, save for a mild familiarity with the title track. Not only has it cleared my mind. This album has completely reformatted my view on 80s rock music. Perhaps I have been too hard on you, 80s rock music. Especially when records like Tunnel of Love exist.

Where many rock legends from the 70s failed to successfully adopt the 80s musical sound technologies, Tunnel of Love does it with such taste that I regret not feeling nostalgia when I listen to it. Its use of synthesizers is a mature take on the newish 80s sound.

Even with that high tech sound, its traditional quality remains strong. Take the first track. “Ain’t Got You” wallops you with a true traditional ‘this dance hall’s a’ rockin” sound. It’s confident. The whole album is confident.

And those heart wrenching lyrics. Like on “Cautious Man”:

Billy felt a coldness rise up inside him that he couldn’t name…Just as the words tattooed ‘cross his knuckles he knew would always remain…At their bedside he brushed the hair from his wife’s face as the moon shone on her skin so white…Filling their room with the beauty of God’s fallen light

The words are beautiful but I think something really bad happened.

The Boss is all grow’d up with his compilation of mature takes on all the different aspects to love. All the ugly and the beautiful. The song Tunnel of Love is a complete joy. From its weird atonal start to its cool groovin’ all-tonal synth progression. The lyrics are a sharp take on adolescent love from a man who has been through it all.

Well, I can feel the soft silk of your blouse…And them soft thrills in our little fun house…Then the lights go out and it’s just the three of us, yeah…You, me and all that stuff we’re so scared of…Gotta ride down baby into this tunnel of love

I think its mild obscurity, compared to his other monster albums, helps its ‘ear’-ptics. It just sits there in the Bruce cannon, unassumingly being awesome.

So, on to this battle’s victim. Sublime is fine enough. A great soundtrack for the 90s university scene. Perfectly fine songs to drink to, to dance to, to whatever to. You know, just “rocking and rolling and what not”. It’s a full blown epic mix of peppy rock, grunge, punk, hip hop and of course reggae. All with lyrics that elevate it to a thinking man’s Limp Bizkit.

If you were to track Sublime like a night at a university dance bar, it starts off feelin’ oh so fine. You’re starting to buzz off the first few beers. That’s the first few tracks. It starts off strong with “Garden Grove”, lesser “What I Got”, and “Wrong Way”. The bar is jumpin’ by “Santeria”. Six beers/tracks into it, we have hit the sweet spot. But that ends quickly. We get a little over excited and the night starts to become a shit show after 7 beers/tracks in. Track/beer 8 thru 13 is a bit of a mess. Still fun, but a bit too confused and a bit too aggressive. But by track/beer 14 something magical happens. The drunken mess finds synchronicity for the last few tracks/beers. The album ends gloriously. From “What I Got (Reprise)” to “Doin’ Time”, it’s a stone cold jam.

In the morning that splash of cold water on the face is gonna feel so refreshing.

JS

WINNER: Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 10

90s: 16

EARNED POINTS
80s: 17
90s: 31

Next week’s battle – #24: X, Los Angeles (1980) vs. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

#26: AC/DC, ‘Back in Black’ (1980) vs. Nas, ‘Illmatic’ (1994)

 

Hard core. That’s what this is. Hard fucking core. A contender for best-ever metal album against a contender for best-ever rap album. Just look at those covers – AC/DC’s all-black tribute to their recently-deceased former lead singer Bon Scott, and a bad-ass picture of Nas as a kid superimposed over the bad-ass neighbourhood that defined and formed him – New York’s Queensbridge. Scary. Dark. Iconic.

When Australia’s AC/DC lost their great lead singer to “acute alcohol poisoning” in 1980, they chose not to throw in the towel but to immediately find an arguably better lead singer (Brian Johnson) and make an album about partying and screwing your ass off, and even included a song called “Have a Drink on Me”. While they presumably learned no lessons about the merits of moderation, they clearly learned huge lessons about how to rock.  Back in Black is near-perfect metal. Monster riffs, slammin’ guitar and choruses designed for 20,000 people to bellow at the top of their lungs until the arena roof blows off. It worked so well every album they’ve made since has sounded the same, but not as good.

The downside is the lyrics, which are clever in a metal sort of way, but mostly dumb as dirt. “Givin’ the Dog a Bone” is not the most thoughtful way to describe a blowjob, and I could really do without lines like “don’t you struggle, don’t you fight” in “Let Me Put My Love Into You”. I suppose we shouldn’t judge 1980 lyrics through the #MeToo lens of 2018. Still…yikes.

Nas, on the other hand, has a lot more on his mind. Illmatic is all about growing up in the largest public housing development in North America. Opening with an audio clip from a movie, the album is cinematic from front to back. He makes you feel what it’s like growing up in Queensbridge, rapping about gang warfare, the drug trade, poverty, and friends and rivals who have come and gone. We get reports like this: “But yo guess who got shot in the dome-piece?/ Jerome’s niece on her way home from Jones Beach.” 

No wonder he declares “I never sleep – ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.” Nas was only 20 when he gave this masterpiece to the world, but he’d seen more and lived more than most people do in 80 years.

Another thing about Illmatic – it’s surprisingly pretty. With little flourishes like jazz trumpet thrown in, it’s atmospheric, smooth and melodic – a pleasure to listen to. Rap has never really been my genre, but every so often a rap album comes along that grabs my attention and won’t let go. Illmatic is one of those. Stunning. And smarter than Australia’s party boys.

JG

WINNER: Nas, Illmatic (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 9

90s: 16

EARNED POINTS
80s: 14
90s: 31

Next week’s battle – #25: Bruce Springsteen, Tunnel of Love (1987) vs. Sublime, Sublime (1996)

 

#27: Guns n’ Roses, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ (1987) vs. Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’ (1992)

I have spent very little past personal time on either album.  With Rage’s self titled album, I would only hear a few selected songs at parties and bars.  And of course they were always giant jump orgies when they were on.  Similar to “Shout” (ala Animal House) or “Blister in the Sun”, “Killing in the Name” was the 90s bar anthem that got the crowd incensed.  When the song reached its climactic repetition of “fuck you I won’t do what ya tell me!” the whole dance floor became seething Maasi warriors, jumping and shouting their privileged defiance to the world.

Rage is the quintessential anti-establishment band, unhappy with the way things are. Conversely, its competitor for this round seems quite happy with the way things are.  Living, loving and rocking under a booze (and more heroin than I realized) fuelled haze. They have happily abandoned the idea of social justice. With Appetite for Destruction, they created their own little world where they are the powerful and the corrupt, taking advantage of their own people: Their fans (particularly the ladies).

This might sound like I am crapping on GnR (and I am a little), but I am actually quite excited to have given this album a solid listen.  Appetite stands out as a way more kick ass version of the prototypical 80s hair band. A lot edgier, with more metal-infused hard rock and blues. They are just taking it up a notch beyond the offerings of puffy rock bands like Poison.  Little did they know that grunge was coming and they were to be the last of their breed.

Appetite for Destruction remains a strong collection of decent rock songs. The hits alone give it legs. “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are pretty much prefect rock songs that give endurance to the listenability of the whole album. GnR may have known this. It’s possibly why they were spread so evenly across the album.

Hits aside, what is so refreshing to hear on Appetite are the freaking GUITAR SOLOS!!! Boy do I miss guitar solos.  On Appetite, with Slash, we are witness to one of the best rock guitarists puking out some of the best guitar solos.

But then there’s Rage’s Tom Morello. If grunge shot a bullet into the popular guitar solo, Rage, and the kick ass shredding of Morello, made sure that its afterlife was an ascension into Rock n Roll heaven.

So, for this round, in honour of the all mighty guitar solo, and because he have two of the greats here, the winner will be determined by the better shredder. Who had the better chops. Let’s lay it all on the line in a solo off. Slash vs. Tom Morello.

Classic Slash solos are hard rock masterpieces. Like on “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Its bluesy/metal pallet is complemented by a fast virtuoso-style metal finish. I wish every song on “Appetite” had that solo. I could listen to that all day all night, all night all day. But the others aren’t like that. Although awesome, they are bit slower, more standard fare.

Tom Morello solos are like snowflakes. None of them is the same. From the standard fare rock solo in “Take the Power Back” to the multi tone space jam of “Know Your Enemy”, Morello’s natural understanding of layers, rhythm and feel puts him on some kind of other plane of musical existence. Maybe you could critique that the farts and whistles are only there for the sake of having farts and whistles, but I challenge that. He can turn the guitar into a metal-hop synthesizer!

Tom Morello’s solos are just more aggressive, more funky, more noisy and more ballsy than Slash’s.

In a battle of the bands, I think that Rage would crush GnR. In a street fight, I think Rage would crush GnR.

JS

WINNER: Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 9

90s: 15

EARNED POINTS
80s: 14
90s: 28

Next week’s battle – #26: AC/DC, Back in Black (1980) vs. Nas, Illmatic (1994)

#28: Janet Jackson, ‘Control’ (1986) vs. Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ (1993)

 

Surprisingly enough, as a lover of 90s hip hop, I had never listened to Enter the Wu-Tang before. This is classic 90s rap. I should have listened to it. I denied myself the pleasure of puffing out my young chest to this tight package of funk rage delivered by an ensemble of some of the best rappers out there. I also denied myself the myriad of references and notable quotes that 36 Chambers provided. “Bring tha Mutha Fuckin Ruckus”, “Protect Ya Neck”, “Wu Tang Ain’t Nothin to Fuck With”. The lyrics on this album are clever, fast, funny and complex. What do you expect when they are trading fours with the best in the biz?

This album is the granddaddy of 90s rap music. The ripples of their influence can be heard by other artists for the rest of the decade and beyond. I wish current popular hip hop sounded a bit more like this; this ain’t lazy sparse mumble rapping. This is aggressive, clear and active rap. Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Basterd, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, and the rest of this titan rap roundtable trade off rhymes like a relay team, pushing each other to the finish line, leaving the other runners lying on the ground in their rap wake.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of this album is the use of the piano as hooks that thread through each song. It has this Thelonius Monk quality to it. Arhythmic, off tempo, atonal at times. It puts the whole album on edge in a way that keeps the clean and clear danceable groove that is under it on notice.

And then there is Control…

I admit, I did not connect with Control at all. I tried but it’s hard when you’re not a 13-year-old girl from the 80s. This record is stuck in time. I think if you loved it then you are likely to love it now. But to listen to it now, ughh! It’s hard to get around the very dated sound and sparse instrumentation. I just don’t like this album.

36 Chambers is deep. It’s layered. It’s complex. Control just skips off the surface. This is a clear case of something so over produced it becomes thin and unsubstantial. I hate crapping on an album so much. It made the list and had a cultural influence on the Western world. But that’s it for me. It’s a piece of time-stamped culture. That makes it relevant on some level. But it pales to the might of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). This was no match.

JS

WINNER: Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 9

90s: 14

EARNED POINTS
80s: 14
90s: 25

Next week’s battle – #27: Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987) vs. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (1992)

#29: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Double Fantasy’ (1980) vs. Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’ (1998)

I’m a firm believer that youthful angst produces better music than aged wisdom, but these two comeback albums from established legends on the cusp of their 40s (one of whom, tragically, would be dead three weeks after release) make for compelling counterpoints.

On Ray of Light, Madonna explores her newfound mysticism, bares her soul and reflects on past mistakes. On Double Fantasy, John Lennon and Yoko Ono dissect their relationship and explore all the beauty and darkness that a marriage in the spotlight can provide. Both artists devote some time to sharing the joys of parenthood.

Here’s something I didn’t expect to say – Madonna’s album is more profound and more interesting. An album of soaring, pulsing, shimmering electronica, fleshed out with splashes of real guitar and Madonna’s voice possessing a depth and resonance far beyond the singing on her earlier records, Ray of Light is amazing. I didn’t know electronica could be so warm and engaging. The album is full of poetic wisdom, too, like this little nugget from “The Power of Good-Bye”:

Freedom comes when you learn to let go
Creation comes when you learn to say no

On the opening track, “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”, she admits she “traded fame for love…and suffered fools so gladly…And now, I find, I’ve changed my mind.”

Lennon, on the other hand, is almost childlike in his words. “Our life together is so precious together; we have grown,” he declares in the first lines of album opener “(Just Like) Starting Over”. Elsewhere he repeats that his son Sean is a “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy” and asserts his right to just sit here “watching the wheels go round and round”.

It’s all very pretty and catchy, but a titch saccharine. It’s Ono who arguably provides the more thought-provoking songs. Love it or hate it, whether she’s simulating orgasm on “Kiss Kiss Kiss” or imitating a Vegas lounge singer on “Yes, I’m Your Angel” – she keeps things interesting.

The most interesting thing about Double Fantasy is its back story. There is  no time to tell it here, but suffice to say it involves the B52s, members of Cheap Trick, an asshole “fan” with a bullet, and a good deal of critical revisionism post-tragedy.

Here’s something else I didn’t expect to say – Madonna is now 2 for 2 in her VanJam battles. Bob Dylan, by comparison, is batting .500.  WTF?!

JG

WINNER: Madonna, Ray of Light (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 9

90s: 13

EARNED POINTS
80s: 14
90s: 22

Next week’s battle – #28: Janet Jackson, Control (1986) vs. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)