#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)

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