#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.


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


80s: 18

90s: 23

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.


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


80s: 18

90s: 22

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…


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


80s: 17

90s: 22

80s: 43
90s: 53

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