#5: Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’ (1986) vs. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)

I have come to the realization that growing up in the 80s generation of corny music video saturation ruined me on appreciating legendary albums made by legendary artists, like Paul Simon’s Graceland. The “You Can Call Me Al” video is a farce. Chevy Chase bouncing around like a fool and Paul being very stoic and still. I guess it was funny but I just didn’t take it seriously; I didn’t know anything about Paul Simon yet so corny a video caused me to simply dismiss it. I thought it was just a couple of old codgers being doofuses.  Now that I am a doofusy old codger, I see the error of my ways. As an impressionable kid who also wanted to lay claim to teenage coolness, this imagery didn’t fly and that’s a shame, because, on Graceland, genius is packed tight like sardines in a can. I wish I appreciated it sooner.

Videos were way cooler in the 90s. They were more complex, visually stunning and often dealt with abstract themes and imagery. One in particular comes from Graceland‘s competitor. The video for Hill’s “Everything is Everything” is cooler than four Fonzies with amazing visual effects to boot. The island of Manhattan is a spinning record. A tone arm is sliding across the city streets. A hand reaches down to scratch the record and everyone on the streets gets completely thrown off their feet. Whoa! Mind blowing. That video worked.

One could make a case that Graceland should be #1 on Rolling Stone’s 80s List.  One should make that case, so I will.  The music is stunning. In true Paul Simon form, it flows like a rolling river across the ears.  The crystal clear vocals fall from verse to verse in a perfectly tumbling sort of way. The African-Folk hybrid music rocks and sways like a tree in the wind. The production is interesting and satisfying too. Like in “You Can Call Me Al”, where the base line break riff is actually played backwards on the track creating this perfectly warped moment that snaps you out of perfection and then thrusts you back in 3 seconds later.  That may not make too much sense but, listen to that song and you will know exactly what I mean.  What stands out the most are the lyrics.  Really the poetry. I am not sure there is any better lyrics in all of music than what is on Graceland. Tall statement, I know.  For example, from “Boy in the Bubble”

It was a dry wind and it swept across the desert
And it curled into the circle of birth
And the dead sand falling on the children
The mothers and the fathers and the automatic earth

I read that verse over and over and it conjures different images in my mind every time. It’s big and complex in both in time and in space.  I could quote endless lines in Graceland that stand out as the best ever.  Better to just listen to it.

On TMLH, we are witness to boundless natural talent personified. I am sure that this kind of talent takes a lot of work, but with Lauryn Hill it just seems to ooze, without effort, from her every pore. It’s Lauryn (the high priestess of Neo-Soul) that stands out on the album, though some of the songs are truly tight jams with some of the best grooves going.  Like the first track (after the skit) called “Lost Ones”. That song should be on every All-Time Best Ever Hip Hop Songs list.

It’s funny how money change a situation (BAM!! BAM!!)
Miscommunication leads to complication     (BAM!!)
My emancipation don’t fit your equation (BAM!! BAM!!)
I was on the humble, you on every station     (BAM!!)

However, if I were to nit pick a pretty perfect album, there are a few songs that lay a bit flat musically. Back in the day, 90s R&B was a lot about a loud bass carrying the chord changes over even louder drums. I want more funky guitar or keyboard or, even better, a horn section. Something! Those R&B songs are great and they fit the times, but they need to taste a little bit sweeter if they want to remain timeless. I need more colour than just the voice. Even though Hill’s singing is the star on this album, her rapping is why I come back.  

You know what? That last paragraph is utter bullshit. All the songs are stellar.  My negativity is toward another song that isn’t even on the album.  It’s that snoozer of a dirge “Killing Me Softly” cover by the Fugees.  Although Hill’s voice is gorgeous, that song is so excruciatingly boring I have these mini irksome moments when on TMLH there is a hint of a simple bass line with simple drums.  I loved the first Fugees album so much and when one of the singles released for The Score was “Killing Me Softly” I was very disappointed.  To me, it was anti-hardcore Rap. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is a perfect album and I have unfair and biased expectations based on something that this album is really not supposed to be. The Fugees were too brief and Lauryn Hill was too brief.  I just want more of both so I can get that version of “Killing Me Softly” out of my head.

So……..Both of these albums, to me, are examples of someone unfairly judging them based on expectations that they shouldn’t have. Even though I would love for TMLH to get a win in this battle, it’s up against the unbeatable. Sorry Ms. Hill.  You are among the best. I don’t like your version of “Killing Me Softly” so you just lost one.

WINNER: Paul Simon, Graceland (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 21

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 62
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #4: Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (1980) vs. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)

#6: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (1984) vs. Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’ (1991)

Pearl Jam’s Ten was one of those albums that pushed albums like Born in the U.S.A. to the back of the CD shelf for a while. It was the angsty early 90s; alternative was in, and classic was out. The rawness of grunge made a lot of the music of the 80s seem a little lame, including “heartland” rock from the likes of Bruce Springsteen. None of this was helped by the fact that the early 90s were not Bruce’s finest hour.

Ironic, as it turns out, considering 1) Pearl Jam and Springsteen, as crusaders against injustice and corruption, are birds of a feather; 2) Pearl Jam were influenced by Springsteen, particularly in their no-holds-barred, marathon live shows; and 3) Born in the U.S.A. is proving to stand the test of time better (helped, no doubt, by the resurgence of The Boss’ “cool” quotient in recent years).

Don’t get me wrong – Ten is a pretty great album, but this is not even particularly close.

In the spirit of the title of Pearl Jam’s debut, here are 10 reasons why Born in the U.S.A. must win this battle:

  1.  Born in the U.S.A. opens with “Born in the U.S.A.”, a song so indelible that if you’ve heard it once you remember it forever. That’s how you open an album – like we’re marching into war. Also, Max Weinberg’s drums on that song – wow.
  2. While we’re on it, “Born in the U.S.A.” has a long tradition of being misunderstood by idiot politicians and conservative columnists who can only process the most-repeated seven syllables of the song, so they think it’s an anthem, not an indictment. Bruce continues to try to educate the nitwits. Points for longevity and patience, Bruce.
  3. Born is twelve great songs that are all memorable in their own way. The tracks on Ten start to meld together a bit, especially on the weaker second half.
  4. “Alive” is an insanely great song, especially Mike McCready’s mad guitar solo at the end. OK, this is actually a vote for Ten so I guess the score is now 3-1.
  5.  Eddie’s lyrics are solid – a raw kind of poetry about every sad thing you can think of (suicide, mental illness, domestic abuse), but Bruce can tell entire novels in a handful of verses (e.g. “No Surrender” and “My Hometown”).
  6.  Springsteen inspired bands like Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam inspired bands like Creed. Not PJ’s fault, but damn…
  7. Bruce has a sense of playfulness on Born (e.g., “Darlington County”), even as he is making serious statements about the poor and disenfranchised. Ten is just sad, sad, sad. A little levity helps on repeat listens.
  8.  Born can speak to you at any age. Kids can feel the gotta-get-out desperation of “Dancing in the Dark” and the older folk can appreciate the teasing sting of “Glory Days”.  Ten is best digested by moody teens and early 20-somethings, and is more likely to be outgrown.
  9. Pearl Jam waged war against the evil empire that is Ticketmaster. OK, this is another voted for Pearl Jam – 7-2.
  10.  The best albums finish great, and Born ends with the triple punch of “Glory Days”, “Dancing in the Dark” and “My Hometown”. Does it get any better than that? Very rarely, and certainly not Ten‘s “Garden”, “Deep” and “Release”.

Let’s also note that both albums were monsters on the charts, but even on that front Born rules. It sold 30 million copies and generated seven – seven! – top 10 singles, while Ten sold a “mere” 13 million.

So now that Bruce has thumped poor Pearl Jam, just to show that everyone can still be friends, here is a video of Eddie Vedder and Springsteen singing “Highway to Hell” together.

JG

WINNER: Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A. (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 20

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 57
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #5: Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’ (1986) vs. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998)

#7: Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’ (1982) vs. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (1993)

Notice:

Unfortunately, this battle presents a moral problem. There is a long and disturbing history of serious accusations against the late Michael Jackson, most recently in the 2019 HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland”.

While some of the allegations are unresolved, and may be forever, the sheer volume of damning information is impossible to ignore (including the fact that one case was settled with a massive $25 million pay-out). And it makes it extremely difficult to write objectively about the artist’s work. While it has often been the critic’s approach to “separate the artist from the art”, we at VanJam are not prepared to do that in this extreme and, let’s face it, creepy, case.

So what to do about it? We considered making In Utero the default winner. But because, technically, Michael Jackson has not been convicted – and still has his many defenders – this solution did not seem appropriate.

So we are declaring this a non-battle. It never happened. No winner. No loser. No points. The battle tally and earned points below remain the same as after battle #8..

Now, because JS did spend some time with In Utero, he does wish to share a few thoughts:

My pre-battle experience with In Utero was limited only to the hits. I overdosed on Nevermind and was ‘Nirvana tired’ by the time In Utero came out. I couldn’t escape the hits though. I remember thinking that songs like “Heart Shaped Box” were more mature than those in Nevermind. It was easy to see that the songwriting had advanced, which made me think “oh boy, they have gone rock-pop”. After listening to the full album, I was pleasantly surprised that much of the dirty, noisy, screamy alt-punk in Nirvana still remained. A lot of grunge, I think, doesn’t stand the test of time. In Utero does.

JS

WINNER: None (0 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 19

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 52
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #6: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ (1984) vs. Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’ (1991)

#8: R.E.M., ‘Murmur’ (1983) vs. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)

I didn’t realize how unbelievably amazing Ready to Die is. Biggie Smalls deserves his stature as one of the best and Ready to Die is a master class of East Coast Gansta Rap. There is a lot to unpack on this album.

I am not completely sure what it is, I can’t quite figure it out, but there is something elevated here. Biggy is still spitting out the same gangsta tropes as all the other rappers. The groove is essentially the same as the rest. Same violence and misogyny as all the others. Check. So what is it? Perhaps it’s his turn of phrase. Perhaps there is more meat in his guttural delivery. Perhaps the beats are little tighter. Perhaps it’s the fact that he died too early and the “ready to die” words that permeate the album put a new level of realness that is more captivating than the others. Whatever it is, Biggie hits it in the gut more than any other gansta rap album in this “best of” war (note: I am not considering my fave Illmatic from this as I do not consider it part of the gangsta rap genre).

There are a few things that I can’t get past. The violent skits and the sex track are very unnecessary, and the blow job sounds leading into “Respect” are a misophonian nightmare.

There is something Dylanesque about Ready to Die. It’s the “matter of fact” Dylan. The non-metaphor Dylan. The example of this for me is Biggie’s track “Time Done Changed”. Compare that to Dylan’s “Things Have Changed”. Perhaps too on the nose, but there are similarities here. The former is Biggie pontificating on how life has gotten too complicated.  The latter is about how Dylan doesn’t care any more and has sort of checked out of life. Both are so matter of fact. So completely real.

With Biggie, there is something beyond the usual gangsta rap bravado, although it’s still there in spades; but there is also a realness and a specific vulnerability that puts it square in the realm of folk artistry. The lyrics are complicated, covering a multitude of ideas and themes: violence, oppression, crime to feed his baby girl, rising from poverty to extreme wealth, street intelligence, the struggle, the hustle, sex, murder, love, the hypocrisy of glamorizing white gangsters like John Gotti and not Biggie, family, suicide, and death. On “Suicidal Thoughts”, Biggie’s life crumbles to the point where he kills himself. Perhaps all the negativity and complicated hate violence, just for mere survival, caused all this misery to the point of self annihilation. The album is genius.

R.E.M.’s Murmur is pure beauty. While the themes are clearly stated in Ready to Die, there is no such clarity in Murmur. I have no idea what Michael Stipe is singing about. I guess on “Catapult” he is singing about a catapult? Not likely. Nothing makes sense or is even clear enough to understand. It’s cryptic, symbolic and completely obscure. So in many ways Murmur is the exact opposite of Ready to Die.

As their first commercial full album offering, these masters of jangley rock pop started their mammoth career off with a complete masterpiece. There is a joyous predictability with the songs on this album. R.E.M’s writing formula is for the band to write the music first and then the lyrics are added after. The result is an album full of very predictable and patterned song progressions (A leads to B which leads to C and then we start all over again). The obviousness of this is not a detractor at all. In fact there is a comfort and excitement in knowing what is coming, especially when the music is so good. This formula is perfect for their live shows and you can tell it’s the live stuff that they are showcasing on Murmur. Straight ahead production. Nothing fancy.

R.E.M are the foundation of the indie scene in the 80s. Murmur is the document of magic they created. This album started a string of R.E.M. records that are probably the most influential of all the 80s musical cannons. Despite the genius of Ready to Die the influence of Murmur cannot be denied.

JS

WINNER: R.E.M, Murmur (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 19

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 52
90s: 63

Next week’s battle – #7: Michael Jackson, ‘Thriller’ (1982) vs. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’ (1993)

#9: Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982) vs. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)

Now that we’ve cracked the top ten this might be a good time to make an observation about music criticism (especially since the very essence of this blog is based on it). As part of this project I’ve read a boatload of reviews from multiple sources for the acclaimed albums battling it out, and something has become clear – they tend to say a lot of the same things. Certain narratives take hold about classic albums after a while, and every new writer seems to fall into line.

I’m not going to pretend to be above such things – while I have endeavoured to put my own spin on every album I’ve written about, I know I’ve regurgitated the established narrative time and time again.

Which brings us to Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. I came across this review, from a source that was new to me: Alt Rock Chick (whose slogan is “music reviews with a touch of erotica” – nice!). I love this review (even though she doesn’t like the album as much as I think she should) because she opens with a beautiful rant about critical consensus. Here’s a taste:

“What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work…people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community…”

She goes on to argue that everyone talks about Shoot Out the Lights as the Thompsons’ “divorce album”, leading them to conclude that every song is either Richard or Linda (they take turns on lead vocals) railing against the other about their disintegrating marriage. In fact, an honest look at the lyrics should tell you only two of the nine songs are actually about this.

She’s right. While the couple was undergoing a divorce at the time, it’s clear they had a lot more to say than “screw you, no screw you”. My personal favourite is “Wall of Death”, which uses an amusement park ride to say you’re never more alive than when you’re living on the edge. One of my favourite album closers ever.

I’ve loved this album for many years and occasionally puzzled over the “divorce album” narrative. A lot of the songs really did seem to be about other things, but who was I to question? Well, thank-you Alt Rock Chick for letting me know I may have been on to something.

I also occasionally puzzled over why I like the album so much; in many ways, the songs are fairly ordinary pop songs. This time, I figured it out – it’s all about Richard’s guitar work. This probably should have been obvious to me all along because, seriously, the guy is amazing – he creates an entirely different sound on every song. Sometimes smooth and soothing (“Just the Motion”), sometimes smooth and foreboding (“Did She Jump or was She Pushed”), sometimes nervous and jittery (“Man in Need”), sometimes downright menacing (“Shoot out the Lights”). Whatever the mood, he can create it with six strings.

But is it enough to win against a 90s titan?

Beck’s Odelay is what happens when an artist is operating at the peak of confidence and creativity.  It’s a country/folk album mashed with a hip hop album, sprinkled with every other genre and pumped full of innumerable samples (courtesy of producers the Dust Brothers). The lyrics are as nonsensical as they are fascinating. The whole thing shouldn’t work, it ought to be mess; but it’s not a mess, and it totally works. At 14 tracks you might argue it’s too long but I’m at a loss as to what to delete.

Bottom line: It’s fantastic – a “sonic tapestry” (speaking of music criticism consensus, I totally stole that from this review). Also speaking of music criticism consensus, it’s hard to find a review of Odelay that does not talk about the fact that it came on the heels of Cobain/grunge and that Beck was the king of the slackers (or some similar thing). Oh well, that’s how it goes – read, rinse, repeat.

I was pretty down with Odelay back in the day, but not hugely, and haven’t really listened to it since. This is my loss. Rediscovering it now, I find particular joy in the little details:

  •  the whistle at the beginning of “Sissyneck”
  •  the fact that “Readymade” has little pops to make it sound like an old LP
  •  the saxophone on “The New Pollution”
  •  The digital voice on “Where It’s At” – two turn tables and a microphone!
  •  The fade-out lyrics on “Lord Only Knows” – “…going back to Houston to the hot dog dance / going back to Houston to get me some pants.”
  •  About a million other things

The best song of all is “Jack-Ass” and I was excited to learn this time out that the gorgeous base of the song is actually Them’s cover of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. Everything about that makes me happy.

Wrapping up, I came into this battle cheering for the underdog, my old favourite Shoot Out the Lights. But facts are facts and I suspect any critic out there would agree…

JG

WINNER: Beck, Odelay (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 18

90s: 24

EARNED POINTS
80s: 47
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #8: R.E.M., ‘Murmur’ (1983) vs. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’ (1994)

#10: Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988) vs. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)

Amid the hair metal and synth pop of the late 1980s, political folk was reborn in the unlikely form of Tracy Chapman with her debut album. It was like Greenwich Village Bob Dylan had come back as a 24-year-old black woman. The album was a huge hit and deserved to be: clean and simple folk tunes (with a couple love songs tossed in) that earworm into your head and stay there. It’s a clear statement of purpose railing against inequality and injustice. It’s also occasionally chilling, such as the domestic abuse tale of “Behind the Wall”, performed a cappella. It’s depressing to realize the problems she highlights are as real today as they were then.

Is it too obvious to say “Fast Car” is my favourite? It’s a perfect short story about a young woman clinging to hope as she trades in one useless companion (her deadbeat dad) for another one (the deadbeat owner of the fast car – whom in 1988 I assumed was a guy but that’s less obvious to me now). That song is so damn good it was everywhere in 1988 and even today kids like my daughter discover it and love it (I honestly had nothing to do with it – she just found it on Spotify one day and started playing it all the time).

While it is abundantly clear what Tracy Chapman is talking about in her music, most of the time I have no idea what Pavement is talking about; or, more specifically, I have no idea what eccentric band leader and songwriter Stephen Malkmus is talking about. And based on my reading, neither does anyone else. Here’s what Pitchfork has to say in their review of Crooked Rain:

But really, though Crooked Rain references the burbs and the music biz, with Pavement it’s the sound and feel that matter, not the words or themes. Quoting lyrics to get to the heart of Pavement is misguided. Go online and print some out and you’ll see that, taken on their own, they’re generally meaningless.

Just to prove how true this is, the last song on the album – the awesome guitar jam “Fillmore Jive” ends with an incomplete sentence: “Their throats are filled with…”. You gotta love a band with the Chutzpah to let that be their last word.

Crooked Rain is confusing and disorienting (though it’s considered a “mainstream” effort by an otherwise very alternative band), and it is awesome. Trippy and weird. Sometimes it’s loud and abrasive, sometimes it’s melodic and mellow. Every song is unique. My favourite (at the moment, anyway) is “Range Life”, in which the narrator meanders through his California suburb on a skateboard, pondering existence.

I’ve spent so much time listening to “Fast Car” and “Range Life”, it’s starting to sound like a conversation in my head between Tracy’s restless dreamer and Stephen’s aimless slacker. Just for kicks, here’s how it plays out using actual lyrics from two phenomenal but totally unrelated songs:

Tracy Chapman: You’ve got a fast car

Stephen Malkmus: I want a range life

TC: Say remember when we were driving, driving in your car / Speeds so fast it felt like I was drunk

SM: Run from the pigs, the fuzz / The cops, the heat

TC: Maybe together we can get somewhere

SM: Don’t worry / We’re in no hurry

TC: I’d always hoped for better / Thought maybe together you and me’d find it

SM: Until you snort it up or shoot it down / You’re never gonna feel free

TC: We gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way

SM: Hey, you gotta pay your dues / Before you pay the rent

TC: I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

SM: If I could settle down, Then I would settle down

Weird. That worked even better than I imagined (Pitchfork should try it).

It also makes me feel bad because it makes me root for Tracy, but this battle isn’t looking good for her. As near-perfect as her album is, my enjoyment level on listen #20 is the exact same as on listen #1. Crooked Rain, on the other hand, gets more interesting with every listen. The trajectory is clear – in art, over the long term, the strange puzzle beats the statement of purpose.

JG

WINNER: Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (5 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 18

90s: 23

EARNED POINTS
80s: 47
90s: 58

Next week’s post – #9: Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982) vs. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)

#11: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) vs. Outkast, ‘Aquemini’ (1998)

This was a fun battle. Both new listens for me and both are near perfect records. One album has relentless drive and the other has relentless groove. Both demonstrate lyrical genius. Both demonstrate a mastery of their genre.

Get Happy does exactly as prescribed. Most songs feel like I am cartwheeling down a mountainside and nailing every rotation with a smile on my face. Elvis’s delivery, musically and lyrically, is completely forward moving. The album is in constant motion. The uptempo drums, the aggressive vocals, the falling melodic and chord change refrains, the big hit riffs. There is never a moment of rest, but it’s all energizing.

When it came out, Get Happy was seen as a bit of a flub. Mainly because it was a bit of a change from the three previous Attractions albums. The retroactive reviews have changed to the point where this is now seen as one of his best. That is great art, when the audience has to go to the artist and not the other way around. Sometimes, like this case, it can take a while.

I would always hear or read about how important Outkast was in the evolution of hip hop. Hearing Aquemini I can see why. This album is groove perfection. Every little sample or rhythm or even guttural “ugh” is completely calculated and flawlessly timed. The layering and blending of these precise ingredients created a stew of sounds that masks the rigid architecture, making it feel more natural and less mathematical. Like a well made hip hop ratatouille.

Outcast is really the first Southern hip hop mainstream group. Their impact no doubt spilled into how the East and West Coast hip hop scene would develop. Aquemini was an instant classic immediately and was revered by those who followed them, having a profound influence and musical impact.

So, this battle was fun in terms of discovering two great albums, but it’s a tough one to decide on. If I were to pick the one I like most and will probably include in my future musical rotation, Get Happy is that album. If I am to pick the album that had the most impact, I gotta think that Aquemini influenced more simply because it was immediately loved by both fans and critics. This time I shall go with the one that I simply just like better.

JS

WINNER: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!! (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 18

90s: 22

EARNED POINTS
80s: 47
90s: 53

Next week’s post – #10: Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988) vs. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)

#12: Public Enemy, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988) vs. Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’ (1994)

 

Here we have a battle of musical opposites. Wildflowers is comfort food and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is cold hard medicine. The only thing they have in common is that they are both absolutely amazing. I really do not want to pick a winner here.

Wildflowers is the Tom Petty album that all other Tom Petty albums want to be when they grow up. I used to think Full Moon Fever was his best. I was wrong. In 1994, Tom found the perfect formula for smooth, indelible folk rock. This is the soundtrack to a lazy summer night on the back patio. The title track kicks things off perfectly, and every song that follows is a gem. (Although it must be said “Honey Bee” sounds distressingly like a middle age man sneaking around with his neighbour’s teenage daughter – killer riff though!)

Also, the album contains a lyric that has brought me comfort in life more times than I can count. On “Crawling Back To You”, Tom says “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” So simple, but a great reminder to any worrywart, and a line that sums up the spirit of the whole album. Take it easy, friends – all will be well.

And then there’s Public Enemy’s second album, which changed the game for rap in 1988 by teaching all future rappers that their genre could be scorchingly political. A million miles from Wildflowers, it’s piercing, abrasive and disruptive. Packed with whistles, sirens and all manner of other noises, it’s an emergency meeting of the Enough Already Club. Time to get the hell OFF the porch!

While “Fight the Power” would come a little later, Chuck D was already making bracing political statements about the media (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), drugs (“Night of the Living Baseheads”), racial inequality (just about everything, including “Party for Your Right to Fight” – a nice play on the earlier Beastie Boys hit), and even mind-numbing shitty television (“She Watch Channel Zero?!”).

And while Chuck D thunders his anger and wisdom, there by his side is the slightly ridiculous but very welcome Flavor Flav, egging him on, playing the comic foil to the angry preacher:

Yo Chuck, these honey drippers are still fronting on us
Show ’em that we can do this, cause we always knew this
Haha, yeah boy!

Yeah boyyyyy! You said it, Flav. The album also broke new ground on sampling, both in volume and variety, bringing in everything from Malcolm X to Slayer. It’s phenomenal.

As I’ve said before, I rarely listen to hip hop, but every so often an artist comes along that shows me why I should. Public Enemy was the first artist to do that (the Run DMC-Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” doesn’t count). They taught teenage me that even though my tastes may steer me to Tom Petty-ish music more often, rap freakin’ matters.

Because influence must be factored in, this brutally tough battle must go to…

JG

WINNER: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 17

90s: 22

EARNED POINTS
80s: 43
90s: 53

Next week’s post #11: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) vs. Outkast, ‘Aquemini’ (1998)

#13: Midnight Oil, ‘Diesel and Dust’ (1987) vs. Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (1994)

No need to mince words.  I don’t like Midnight Oil.  Some bands you just don’t like, and that’s okay.  I never liked the way their songs sounded, and let’s just leave it there.  “Bed’s Are Burning” probably sealed the deal, for me.  It’s the first song I heard from them. The video actually. I just never liked the packaging and didn’t want to open the box.

But, the battle forces me to.  So I did.  What I can say now is that I still don’t like them.  However, after listening to the whole album, I can see why it might make the best of the 80s list. I actually found them sounding a bit like R.E.M.  I like R.E.M. a lot, so why don’t I like Midnight Oil?! I don’t know. I just don’t.

Let’s move on….Ill Communication is fucking amazing. One of my favourite all-time albums. It’s my party jam, no contest. This album defines my late teens and early twenties. I would crank songs like “Root Down”, “Flute Loop”, and “Sabotage”, as loud as my ears could take, in my car. Most bar nights would end with me begging the DJ to play “Get it Together”.

I really think that they mastered all of what they had been working on with Ill Communication. It’s truly a 90s defining hip hop record. Everyone drools over the innovative sampling and weirdness of Paul’s Boutique but for me, all attention should be put towards Ill Communication. The Beasties always seem to be a bit ahead of the curve on things. They also get points for calling themselves out on their past misogynist lyrics.

I Want To Say a Little Something That’s Long Overdue
The Disrespect To Women Has Got To Be Through
To All The Mothers And Sisters And the Wives And Friends
I Want To Offer My Love And Respect To The End

In a time when relentless misogyny in rap was, and in many ways still is, as common as McDonald’s, this progressive statement is huge. For this, and so much more, the winner is clear.

JS

WINNER: Beastie Boys, Ill Communication (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 16

90s: 22

EARNED POINTS
80s: 39
90s: 53

Next week’s post – #12: Public Enemy, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988) vs. Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’ (1994)

#14: Peter Gabriel, ‘So’ (1986) vs. Snoop Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’ (1993)

One of the joys of the VanJam project has been discovering albums I wasn’t paying attention to at the time but probably should have been. Here we have two in that category.

Peter Gabriel temporarily became a superstar despite himself with So. He was an art rocker who answered his record company’s call to try to be at least a bit commercial. And so he did. He made hits. He gave the album an actual name – every other had been eponymous – and for the first time you could see his entire face on the cover (this was actually a request from the record company – stop obscuring half your face, Peter!).

But the album is still art. Gabriel was experimental enough to bring African and Brazilian sounds into it. It’s beautiful stuff. So is both smooth and challenging – it pulls you in. The ballads are my favourite, especially “Don’t Give Up”, with Kate Bush’s gorgeous and soothing vocals. You also gotta enjoy “Big Time”, which has Gabriel making fun of the kind of megastar he’d been working hard not to be and now kinda was.

Snoop, on the other hand, knew he was destined to be a superstar and wanted everyone to know it on his debut, Doggystyle. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings on Doggystyle.   There is no denying it is infectious as hell. SUPER catchy. It sounds fantastic (thanks in large part to Dr. Dre’s production), and Snoop’s rapping is as smooth and mellow as the finest herb you’ve ever tasted. It’s mostly party music – although “Murder was the Case” tells an interesting story of life on the streets – and much of it is just silly. But what else to expect, I suppose, from an album that opens with the star being bathed by his girlfriend (or one of many, apparently), and is periodically interrupted by a DJ from “W Balls” radio.

Also, why oh why must the lyrics be so damn misogynistic? I suppose we’re supposed to accept at least a certain amount of that in rap (especially from the 90s), but shit like “Ain’t no Fun” and the talking intro to “Doggy Dogg World” are way too dumb to forgive the offensiveness.

JG

WINNER:  Peter Gabriel, So (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 16

90s: 21

EARNED POINTS
80s: 39
90s: 49

Next week’s post – #13: Midnight Oil, ‘Diesel and Dust’ (1987) vs. Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (1994)