Music snobs beware: you may be entering hostile territory. Because how could this even be a contest? A politically astute top-shelf album from one of the greatest indie rock bands of all time versus a big bloody mess of bombastic and petulant heavy metal.
R.E.M., hands down – right? And yet it’s not so obvious.
Document, R.E.M.’s fifth album, was the moment they decided to take a crack at stardom, and it worked. The tunes are a little more rockin’ than what came before. Peter Buck, famous for his jangly guitar, tries some new sounds to beautiful effect. And Michael Stipe’s lyrics, so often inscrutable on other albums, are clear and at the forefront, probably to make sure their scathing political commentary against Reagan’s America came through loud and clear (oh, to imagine what they would say about a Trumpian world!). Almost every song is a gem (except maybe “Lightin’ Hopkins”) and even though I hate to single out the obvious ones…the vocal acrobatics on “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” are still breathtaking and you gotta love a band that can trick people into thinking something as cold and mean as “The One I Love” is actually a love song.
But does Document contain anything that moves me as much as Slash’s guitar on “November Rain”? Or makes me laugh as much as the vulgar rant on “Get in the Ring”? Or gets me yelling and fist-pumping like “Breakdown”? Or transfixes me like the multi-movement epic that is “Estranged”?
It does not.
Use Your Illusion I and II add up to more than 2.5 hours of music and that is probably too much, but damn, when I listen to them now there is far less filler than I thought. No ideas were off limits when the Gunners hit the studio with this one. They rocked just as hard as ever, but expanded their sound to include other genres, like country, blues and electronica; and they added piano, strings, banjo and even a little sitar. Axl ranted against everythig under the sun. They shot for the moon, then blew it up on the way by. The Illusions were released one week before Nirvana’s Nevermind, so they have come to symbolize 80s metal’s last gasp. But what a gasp. Mammoth and ambitious, these albums sold about a bazillion copies, generated plenty of debate amongst hard rock fans, and still hold up today.
Document is excellent and, let’s face it, smarter; and R.E.M. is the more important band. But these battles are not about the artists, they are about the albums. And Use Your Illusions were a cultural event in a way that Document was not – people lined up outside record stores. That may be the last time that happened, and it will never happen again. Sorry, music snobs, but history decrees it must be so…
WINNER: Guns n’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II (1 point)
Next week’s battle – #40: U2, War (1983) vs. Neil Young, Harvest Moon (1992)