#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)


80s: 21

90s: 24

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.


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


80s: 20

90s: 24

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)


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.


WINNER: None (0 points)


80s: 19

90s: 24

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.


WINNER: R.E.M, Murmur (5 points)


80s: 19

90s: 24

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…


WINNER: Beck, Odelay (5 points)


80s: 18

90s: 24

80s: 47
90s: 63

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