#1: The Clash, ‘London Calling’ (1980) vs. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

Well here we are at number one, and what a doozy it is. A grunge band vs. a punk band. Bands that were angry. Bands that rebelled. Bands that looked cooler than you ever could.

At the same time, bands that proved you can rant and rave while still being melodic and catchy. Both of these albums are great fun to listen to. Also, check out those iconic covers – bass-smashing Elvis tribute and baby dick chasing money. Bad ass, all the way.

Well chosen, Rolling Stone. Very rock n’ roll.

I confess I didn’t listen to Nevermind much at the time (Soundgarden, Hole and Screaming Trees were my go-to grunge bands), and have never listened to it since, so I was pretty much coming in clean. And, to be honest, I had modest expectations. I’ve always had this nagging suspicion that Nirvana was a little over-rated and their legacy was enshrined in large part because Kurt Cobain made sure the world would never see him grow old.

But Nevermind surprised me. I had forgotten how damn catchy the thing is. Nirvana gave off an aura of a band that didn’t give a shit what you thought or how they sounded – that they were just making noise to serve some inner demon and you could come along for the ride or not. But the sheer craftsmanship of these songs belies that notion. These are meticulously constructed tunes – beautifully delivered by three masterful players.

Turns out I remember this album way better than I thought too. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”, “Come As You Are”, “Breed”, “Lithium”, “Polly” – one classic, unforgettable song after another to transport you back to the days of flannel and angst.

Let’s single out “Territorial Pissings” as the song to highlight – one of the few songs I didn’t remember particularly well coming into this analysis but was thrilled to (re)discover. It opens with Krist Novaselic singing (very badly) the lyrics to the 1967 Youngbloods “Get Together”:

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another

He would explain later: “Maybe some baby boomers will hear that and wonder what happened to those ideals.”


And then the song kicks in – two pounding, driving minutes like a freight train through your brain with the same words shouted over and over: “Gotta find a way/to find a way/when I’m there!!!” The thing comes to an abrupt screeching halt, seemingly because the band was too exhausted and cranky to continue. Awesome.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will always be the iconic representation of grunge (rightfully so, I suppose), but “Territorial Pissings” is its darker and perhaps more interesting cousin.

So, my apologies to Kurt and the boys – I underestimated you. Nevermind is truly great.

But you’re still going to get thumped like Paul Simonon’s bass.

As fantastic as Nevermind is, London Calling is astounding. Where Nevermind has pretty much just one sound (with loud and quiet variations), London Calling delivers a mind-boggling variety of sounds and genres (reggae, rockabilly, ska, New Orleans R&B, pop, lounge jazz, and hard rock). And while Cobain’s lyrics focus almost exclusively on his misery, Clash writers Joe Strummer and Mick Jones blended thoughts of their own insecurities and fears into an album full of political statements about unemployment, racial conflict, social inequality and how it sucks to be an adult. The Clash had an awful lot on their minds.

And every song is a pure gem, no exceptions. Which is a hell of a feat for a double album. They are so consistently solid, in fact, that I suspect if you took 100 fans and told them all to write down their three favourite songs on the album, and then made a master list, every song would be equally represented.

Here are a few of mine:

There’s the gorgeous “The Card Cheat”, about a card player whose time has run out, in which the band recreates Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound by double-tracking everything. Apparently the sound was too complex to replicate on stage so they never played it live.

There’s falsely jaunty “Lost in the Supermarket”, which, lyrically, is perhaps the most like Nevermind, in that it is more personal than political; about the shallow consumerism of life in the suburbs.

And there’s “Death or Glory” of which. Rick Anderson of AllMusic said “this song features the best and most satisfying chord progression and melody the Clash ever came up with”. It’s also a vicious shot at rock stars who sell out, featuring the lovely line: “He who fucks nuns will later join the church.” Amen.

Such quips aside, perhaps the album is too likable considering this was supposed to be a punk band.

In their write-up about the album, Rolling Stone relays a story from Joe Strummer, who heard from a distressed German skinhead, who said, “My grandmother likes ‘Wrong ’em Boyo’. What have you done to me?” Strummer remembers thinking: “Is he right? Maybe we should have offended her more.” Maybe. But “Wrong ’em Boyo” is delicious at any age.

Speaking of Strummer, I love his vocals, changing things up, playing characters.  Sometimes he sounds like he’s just making stuff up on the spot (“Jimmy Jazz”), sometimes he sounds drunk (“The Right Profile”). It’s playful but I think it’s also far more calculated than it comes across. Everything on this album is purposeful.

If you want to boil this battle down to one song, let’s talk about closers. London Calling wraps up with “Train in Vain”, a perfect pop song and one of the catchiest break up songs ever (fun side note – it was added to the album so late it didn’t make it on the cover). Nevermind, on the other hand, ends with hidden track “Endless, Nameless”. I’m all for noise and rage, but that thing is unpleasant to the point of unlistenable. Thank goodness the novelty of hidden tracks didn’t last.


WINNER: The Clash, London Calling (5 points)


80s: 25

90s: 24

80s: 82
90s: 63

So…yep – that’s it for the battles.

And the winner is…THE 80s! Coming into the Top 10, it looked like the 90s had this thing wrapped up, but the 80s DOMINATED the Top 10.

Thanks for tuning in everyone – Happy New Year and may 2021 be a great year!

#2: Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) vs. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ (1992)

Okay, you are tied to a tree and have an arrow pointed at your head. You are supposed to decide which album is better. Purple Rain or The Chronic. Ooooo, better yet turn that arrow toward the albums. Which one will you remove from existence? Oooooo, better yet, picture this….you are on a bridge over train tracks. You see a speeding train coming toward you from one side of the bridge and you also see that Purple Rain has passed out on the tracks about 200 metres from the other side of the bridge. You scream, but P Rain can’t hear you. At that very moment, The Chronic comes walking towards you on the bridge. T Chronic is all high and has no clue what’s going on. You quickly realize that the only way you can save P Rain is to push T Chronic off the bridge in front of the train in the hopes of derailing it before it gets to P Rain. You must choose what album you want to save. You have no time to think of the logic around this doctored thought experiment. All you have is 5 seconds to process which album you want to remain in existence. Oh, I forgot to mention that killing an anthropomorphized rock album wipes it completely from existing in history. What do you do?

Second 1: cultural impact

Although The Chronic was huge culturally, it was not even close to how big Purple Rain was. If you were a kid growing up in the 80s there is a clear cultural time stamp of immediate Purple Rain saturation. Things were different after Purple Rain. A B.P.R and A.P.R., if you will. Purple Rain hit all mediums at once. A blockbuster movie; a giant album; MTV (or Much Music) videos on constant rotation; the radio; magazines; clothes; hairstyle. Prince was everywhere. This one is not a question. Purple Rain had a bigger impact on the culture.

Second 2: uniqueness

Gotta give this one to Purple Rain too. The Chronic solidified the gangster funk sound in the 90s, but that was only one branch of the 90s rap tree that already had growth from all the other gangster rap outfits out prior. Purple Rain was its own trunk, creating a new 80s style of funk that no one else, save Morris Day and the Time, copied. But it’s more than that. It’s 80s soul music. It’s 80s blues music. It’s 80s rock music. It’s Prince. There was no one like Prince and there never will be again.

Second 3: Ripple effect

The question here is, if you remove one of these albums from history what impact would that have on all the musicians who followed, creating music inspired by that album. Purple Rain was more era defining than The Chronic, but I am not sure that there were many who followed in Prince’s sonic footsteps. What is his actual influence? If Prince were to disappear, are there sonic disciples that would never exist either? The Chronic sampled 70s and early 80s funk. Sampled funk + gangster rap = GFunk. There is a host of GFunk all-stars that came to be after The Chronic. The Chronic put GFunk on the mainstream map and it stayed there for quite a while. You can directly see those who were influenced by The Chronic. Other than Morris Day and the Time (who was really a creation of Prince), I am not sure that there are any sonic disciples of Purple Rain. Cited influencees include Lenny Kravitz, Justin Timberlake Beyonce and Janelle Monae. I don’t know if I really connect those artists to Prince musically but performance-wise for sure. Musical ripple effect, I gotta give it to The Chronic.

Second 4: ethical messaging

In the world of art and music, ethics can be a very complicated discussion. That said, if I am going to be complicit in an album’s death, I wanna make sure that the murdered album is in fact the moral loser. The Chronic has drugs, violence, misogyny, many swears, etc. Purple Rain is just sexually charged. As a kid listening to Purple Rain, it felt very R rated. Now it seems tame. The Chronic is still shocking to me. I know the persona is part of the art, but how can I murder a sexually charged album for an album that degrades women and glorifies murder (irony of the thought experiment aside). The weed part is fine tho. This one goes to Purple Rain.

Second 5: personal taste

My opinion on both of these albums is that they both feel a bit dated. Although amazing albums of their time, they feel a bit stuck in that time. They just aren’t timeless to me. That said, if I were to play one album more than the other it would likely be The Chronic. I love the groove on The Chronic but, I get tired of the bravado and the anger and the attitude. Prince has a great opener song. The awesomeness of “Let’s Go Crazy” carries me happily into the album but my appreciation dwindles by the 4th or 5th song. Purple Rain is full of solid songwriting, but suffers a bit from sounding too much like a soundtrack. In other words, the pop songs sound a bit too cinematic at times. On groove alone I gotta give this second to The Chronic.

So, although I like the music in The Chronic better, weighing both albums in this fast 5 seconds, I think the world would be a worse place if P Rain never existed. So sorry T Chronic. As you stare over the railing at the oncoming train, you have no idea that I am going push you off the bridge and on to the tracks below. And although you will be wiped off the face of the planet and no one will ever hear the GFunk that you successfully popularized, I can take solace in the fact that the Parliament Funkadelic songs you so heavily sampled will remain. I like those versions better anyways. Long live the Mothership Connection!


WINNER: Prince, Purple Rain (5 points)


80s: 24

90s: 24

80s: 77
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #1 The Clash, ‘London Calling’ (1980) vs. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

#3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

Well shit. How am I supposed to pick a winner out of these two? Welcome to what I consider the real #1. These are giants that loom large in my musical journey. They are Event Albums from the days when those were still were still a thing. Albums that people lined up to buy. Albums that everyone you knew were listening to, puzzling over, talking about. Albums that, in retrospect, help define their era for those who were there. For a much more eloquent description of such things, check out Spill’s review of the 30th anniversary edition of Joshua Tree.

I considered declaring a tie. I really did. Alas, that would be a cop out, so let’s do this thing and try to decide which of these awesome collections of awesomeness is more awesome. Let me pour some observations onto the page and see where the process takes me. A Q&A with myself:

Q. Any overarching thoughts about this pair of bands/albums to kick things off?

Well, both bands were the biggest/best/most important band in the world when these albums came out – and you can feel that Magnitude in the music. Neither band is American, though one of them seemed to wish they were (hint, the one posing in the California desert). And both bands are true bands; they share songwriting credit and listening to their music you hear how impeccably they construct songs together — each player’s contribution integral to the whole.

Q. What are the albums about?

OK Computer is about the perils of technology, and warns that we are losing our humanity and ability to communicate. Joshua Tree is spiritual and political, seeking higher truth while railing against injustice and suffering in the world. OK Computer is digitized rock that sounds like it came from space; the finest headphone music since Pink Floyd. Joshua Tree sounds both earthy and epic, inspired by American landscapes. OK Computer bends the mind; Joshua Tree tugs the heart. OK Computer is more challenging; Joshua Tree is more enjoyable. OK Computer was prescient. Joshua Tree breeds nostalgia.

Q. And how do they make you feel?

Joshua Tree has its share of sadness and outrage, but is ultimately optimistic. To say “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” implicitly means the search continues. OK Computer, however, is just bleak, bleak, bleak – a dreary dystopian future. Even when the music sounds like a lullaby, the lyrics cut your soul (I’m looking at you, “No Surprises”).

The outlook is matched by the singers. Thom Yorke’s voice is haunting and otherworldly. Bono’s voice is big and commanding (a cynic might say bombastic), reaching for the rafters on almost every tune. I find Yorke’s voice is often just part of the sonic soundscape, and sometimes I barely notice he’s actually singing words. Not so with Bono. With Bono, the words are the point.

Q. But which album is better?

Well, Joshua Tree opens better. Let’s face it, the 1-2-3 punch of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You” is ridiculously good. Possibly the strongest opening in rock history. We’ve all heard those songs so much you may be sick of them. Get over it and try listening to them like it’s your first time. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

(To assist in this exercise, may I suggest listening to the live version of “Where the Streets…” on the 30th anniversary edition? It’s hard not to get caught up as 70,000 ecstatic fans positively lose their shit during that extended opening, the song building bit by bit, hitting one new crescendo after another until Bono’s vocals finally kick in: “I want to run, I want to hide…” Woooo hoooo!)

OK Computer ends better, with “No Surprises”, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. Trippy, surreal and gorgeous, all three. They transport you (as does just about every other song, for that matter). And, having dragged us through hell for most of the album, Radiohead even toss in a little optimism near the end, beginning with penultimate “Lucky”, in which Yorke tells us “it’s going to be a glorious day/I feel my luck could change”. Even better, on closer “The Tourist”, he offers us some very sound advice: “Hey Man, slow down…Idiot, slow down.” Word (too bad the world didn’t follow it).

Q. So what’s the deciding factor? Quit stalling already!

Well, I will say this – at its best (“Karma Police”, “Let Down”), OK Computer is probably better. But Joshua Tree has no weaknesses, while Ok Computer has two: “Electioneering” and “Climbing Up the Walls”. This is not to say these are bad songs, it’s just that they are not quite interesting enough to make up for their unpleasantness. (I’m also not super keen on “Fitter, Happier”, but that’s mostly because I feel that creepy robot voice judging me – I must confess it’s a brilliant concept.)

Q. I sense where this is going – you sure you want to go there? The hard-core music aficionados will judge you fiercely.

I admit I’m a bit surprised. Going in, I suspected Radiohead was going to take this one, but having now listened to both records about a million times, and talking it through, I see where I’m being pulled. Maybe I’m getting old, so I’m starting to favour comfort over cynicism.

Or maybe Joshua Tree is just a bit more timeless. It’s certainly a more inspiring listen amidst the dreary politics and social conflict that surrounded us in 2020. OK Computer may have predicted the disconnected, troubling world we’re now living in, but Joshua Tree is the sort of balm we need to endure it.

WINNER: U2, Joshua Tree (5 points)


80s: 23

90s: 24

80s: 72
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #2: Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) vs. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ (1992)

#4: Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (1980) vs. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)

I have spent so much time listening to these two albums trying to decide which one is better I have gone from loving them to being sick of them, and I still don’t know which one to choose.  So let’s just get this damn review done, and see where it goes.

One thing worth saying off the top is that both of these collections have very cool origin stories as both bands were at a crossroads when they made them. The Talking Heads were tired of being David Byrne plus three, so they made a concerted effort to do something more collaborative. And U2, stung from the critical backlash against Rattle and Hum, were tired of being so serious all the time, so made a concerted effort to bring a little playfulness to their sound.

They both recruited Brian Eno to help out. In Talking Heads’ case, Eno was there to “promote the expression of instinct and spontaneity without overtly focusing on the sound of the final product.” In the case of U2, Eno was there to “to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2.”

Both bands made masterpieces that confounded listener expectations right from their opening minutes.

I thought Paul Simon’s Graceland was the first American pop album to weave in African sounds but now I know Remain in Light came first. As Wikipedia puts it: “Drawing on the influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the band experimented with African polyrhythms, funk, and electronics, recording instrumental tracks as a series of looping grooves.”

The result is a little bizarre and endlessly compelling. This album gets more interesting every time you listen to it. It pretty much commands you to move your body, and David Byrne’s lyrics – full of stream of consciousness weirdness – seem to mean everything and nothing at the same time. (Perhaps no coincidence that Brian Eno “believed that lyrics were never the center of a song’s meaning”). I especially like “Seen and not Seen”, a story about a fellow who decides to change his face by pure will; as awesome as it is bonkers.

Two other things that need to be said about Remain in Light:

  •  The album’s most famous track, “Once in a Lifetime”, is extra brilliant – verses about how life runs away on us (“How did I get here?”) and a chorus about water flowing underground. It’s the catchiest mid-life crisis ever.
  • Closing track “The Overload” is Talking Heads’ attempt to sound like Joy Division without ever actually having heard Joy Division. That’s such a peculiar thing to do, it takes the band to a whole new level of cool.

I should note Achtung Baby was the frontrunner coming into this battle. That album is just so…big. Plus, I’ve always been more of a U2 fan than a Talking Heads fan. I’m of an age that their album releases were events. That band is in my DNA.

Achtung Baby is wonderful, especially the first two-thirds. It’s almost relentless in the number of gorgeous, moving, memorable songs it throws at you – “One”, “Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses”, “So Cruel”, “Mysterious Ways”…it goes on and on.

But the band wanted to do other things too – they wanted to mess with us. For U2 fans of the era, you can still remember the surprise of hearing first single “The Fly”, or the opening track “Zoo Station”. Were U2 an industrial band now? Is this dance music? What’s going on here? Is this what they were looking for?

Alas, for me, these are not the better songs. I like the more U2-ish songs. “The Fly” kinda bores me. It doesn’t stick. My other unpopular opinion is that if you want U2 that doesn’t sound like U2, the songs on follow-up Zooropa are better. I’d rather listen to “Lemon” than “The Fly”. (Yeah, I said it – Zooropa is underrated.)

Also, the album doesn’t know when to stop. With the last three tracks, Achtung Baby starts to fade into the background. This is not the case with Remain in Light, which never stops being interesting. Achtung Baby is 55 minutes. Remain in Light is 40. I think if U2 had edited down to their best 40 minutes, they might have won this battle…but I see now where this is going.

You also have to give Talking Heads props for innovation and influence. Achtung Baby was a reinvention of U2. Remain in Light, by blending genres and introducing sounds into pop music that hadn’t been done before, was a reinvention on a bigger scale.


WINNER: Talking Heads, Remain in Light (5 points)


80s: 22

90s: 24

80s: 67
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)