#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…


WINNER: Pretenders, Pretenders (4 points)


80s: 13

90s: 18

80s: 27
90s: 37

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

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