#14: Peter Gabriel, ‘So’ (1986) vs. Snoop Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’ (1993)

One of the joys of the VanJam project has been discovering albums I wasn’t paying attention to at the time but probably should have been. Here we have two in that category.

Peter Gabriel temporarily became a superstar despite himself with So. He was an art rocker who answered his record company’s call to try to be at least a bit commercial. And so he did. He made hits. He gave the album an actual name – every other had been eponymous – and for the first time you could see his entire face on the cover (this was actually a request from the record company – stop obscuring half your face, Peter!).

But the album is still art. Gabriel was experimental enough to bring African and Brazilian sounds into it. It’s beautiful stuff. So is both smooth and challenging – it pulls you in. The ballads are my favourite, especially “Don’t Give Up”, with Kate Bush’s gorgeous and soothing vocals. You also gotta enjoy “Big Time”, which has Gabriel making fun of the kind of megastar he’d been working hard not to be and now kinda was.

Snoop, on the other hand, knew he was destined to be a superstar and wanted everyone to know it on his debut, Doggystyle. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings on Doggystyle.   There is no denying it is infectious as hell. SUPER catchy. It sounds fantastic (thanks in large part to Dr. Dre’s production), and Snoop’s rapping is as smooth and mellow as the finest herb you’ve ever tasted. It’s mostly party music – although “Murder was the Case” tells an interesting story of life on the streets – and much of it is just silly. But what else to expect, I suppose, from an album that opens with the star being bathed by his girlfriend (or one of many, apparently), and is periodically interrupted by a DJ from “W Balls” radio.

Also, why oh why must the lyrics be so damn misogynistic? I suppose we’re supposed to accept at least a certain amount of that in rap (especially from the 90s), but shit like “Ain’t no Fun” and the talking intro to “Doggy Dogg World” are way too dumb to forgive the offensiveness.

JG

WINNER:  Peter Gabriel, So (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 16

90s: 21

EARNED POINTS
80s: 39
90s: 49

Next week’s post – #13: Midnight Oil, ‘Diesel and Dust’ (1987) vs. Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’ (1994)

#15: The Replacements, ‘Let it Be’ (1984) vs. Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998)

 

I really hate to say it, but this should be a lot closer of a competition that it is. I saw Lucinda Williams live and she is magnetic. I was captivated by her swagger and command of the stage and this was only a few years ago. Boy could she hold a crowd. She just owned that stage. It made me wanna rush home and try to appreciate Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for the umpteenth time. And like all the other umpth-times it fell flat for me – umphh!- and did not take. Based on seeing that live show, I am certain that it is me and not her that is the problem. I am quite sure I am wrong on this and if the VanJam Music War ends in a one point differential, there is a justifiable case for an asterisk designation that will require a reassessment of the whole project. I fully expect this album to click for me eventually.  Foot stompin’ songs like “Joy” and “Can’t Let Go” will no doubt be my gateway into appreciation so I can eventually fall in love with more mature contemplative songs like “Drunken Angel” and “Jackson”.  I’ll get there someday I am sure.  Lucinda is an Americana goddess with nothing to prove.  I just gotta catch up.

Let it Be, however, is another story. This one hit me late in life and it hit me hard. This is not just the most accessible punk album I have ever heard, it is also just good plain songwriting.  If the Beatles made a punk album (and really tried hard at making it authentic) it would come out sounding  a lot like Let it Be (just realized the connection right now). Case in point is the first track.  The undeniably catchy “I Will Dare” can’t help but put one in a happy mood.  The shimmering guitar, the poppin’ up-tempo bass lick, and ragged vocal cries are a complete delight.  Go ahead, I dare you to not be smiling from ear to ear after listening to that song. There are so many other alt-beautiful moments throughout the album. “Androgynous” stands out as a sweet non-conformist ballad to punk youth entering a new world of adult society. The piano progressions and melodic punk vocals inject validity to a punk culture that can no longer stand in the shadows.  The complexities of love are just as valid in punk society as they are in the mainstream. At its heart, it’s a punk album, but it’s really a lot more than that. You can hear elements of hard rock, folk, pop and, dare I even say it, the seeds of grunge! Its influence on the indie rock scene can’t be overlooked. I don’t doubt that any member of a future 80s or 90s rock, punk, or grunge band had a copy of Let it Be in heavy rotation in their bedroom. Elements of its brilliance and influence on others are scattered throughout every Indie rock album in this VanJam Music War.

JS

WINNER: The Replacements, Let it Be (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 15

90s: 21

EARNED POINTS
80s: 35
90s: 49

Next week’s post – #14: Peter Gabriel, ‘So’ (1986) vs. Snoop Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’ (1993)

#16: Prince, ‘1999’ (1982) vs. Metallica, ‘Metallica’ (1991)

 

When I was in junior high in the early 80s there was a kid in our class, Kevin, who went on and on about this new thrash metal band called Metallica. He declared that one day they were going to be the biggest hard rock band in the world. We all knew he was a fool, of course; nothing could unseat Twisted Sister.

Turns out Kevin was right! By the end of the decade Metallica were well on their way to global metal domination and in 1991 they made it official with Metallica self-titled (aka the Black Album), which would go on to sell a bazillion jillion copies (approx.) and make Metallica fans out of everyone and their sister (twisted or not). I’d lost touch with Kevin by this point, but I wonder what he thought of the Black Album. I suspect he hated it – many “real” Metallica fans rue the day that their beloved thrashers recruited Bon Jovi producer Bob Rock to help them make an album of 12 polished tunes of melodic metal that included – yikes! – a love ballad (“Nothing Else Matters”).

I say they’re crazy (a band’s grassroots fans can be tiresome sometimes). The Black Album is freaking awesome. It’s dark, it’s heavy, it’s fun and it sounds amazing (thanks, Bob Rock!) without a bad song anywhere. Near perfect album.

With 1999, Prince continued to prove that not only was he a genius who could bend any music genre to his will, he also was the horniest son-of-a-bitch to ever pick up a microphone. Every song on this techno-funk masterpiece is either about sex or features it prominently, even when its tackling serious issues. Prince will car-fuck you (“Little red Corvette”) . He’ll Armageddon-fuck you (“1999”). He’ll even politico-fuck you (“Lady Cab Driver”). On “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”, he declares: “Look here Marsha, I’m not saying this just to be nasty/I sincerely want to fuck the taste out of your mouth/Can you relate?”

I don’t know who Marsha is, but I’m a little scared for her.

There is no question Prince was engorged with talent and this album is an orgy of amazing sounds, but 70 minutes of pulsating musical intercourse eventually makes me want to fake a headache.

Kevin (and Marsha for that matter), this one’s for you…

JG

WINNER: Metallica, Metallica (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 14

90s: 21

EARNED POINTS
80s: 31
90s: 49

Next week’s battle – #15: The Replacements, ‘Let it Be’ (1984) vs. Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998)

#17: The Police, ‘Synchronicity’ (1983) vs. Jay Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ (1996)

 

Synchronicity has one of the best starting tracks of any album. Titular (Version One) is a hard driving pump – your fist in the air – 80s rocker laced with enough musical oddity to keep it interesting and challenging. Then the inconsistent journey begins. It’s a reflection of the band’s fractured relationship and the album suffers a bit from it. From “Synchronicity I”, it goes to the chant of “Walking in Your Footsteps”. A great song but it leaves the listener a bit hanging after getting revved up so hard. This leads into “Oh My God”. A perfectly fine song with a good groove. So we are back on track, right? Then along comes “Mother”. An out there barely-listenable indulgent scream fest. “Miss Gradenko” is a nice and appropriately weird soft landing, after the shock of “Mother”. Then we get into the mammoth hits. My fave of the hits is next (Titular Two) with its rock solid groove mundane big picture lyrics:

“Every meeting with his so called superior, is a humiliating kick in the crotch!”

Then the stalker snooze fest “Every Breath You Take”. “King of Pain” is perhaps one of the best Police songs ever written. And “Wrapped Around Your Finger” is slightly less sleep inducing than its stalker  counterpart. The last two songs are sort of forgettable and then its over. All in all it’s a mix of greatness, weirdness, and flaccid pop. A rave review for a band I actually truly love.  It’s a fractured contribution. You can’t deny it’s a classic album, but the Police have better ones. This one is maybe middle of the pack.

Moving from a fractured group at the end of their run to a master first entry from a hip hop legend soon to be realized. Reasonable Doubt is as solid a hip hop album as you can get. Every song holds up. Jay-Z’s rapping style feels like it’s chiseled from stone. Where most 90s hip hop albums were either hard core gangsta rap or RnB/Jazz, Reasonable Doubt found a Goldilocks zone. It’s an almost perfect album in the way that Nas’ Illmatic is almost perfect. In fact it seems very much modelled after Nas’ masterpiece with its consistency and singular inner city crime fuelled vision. He references Nas on multiple occasions, so I would think he welcomes that comparison.

Many consider Reasonable Doubt to be Jay-Z’s best work and I would find it hard not to agree. Of course I am troubled by the misogyny and homophobia that sprinkles the album, but I have to treat that as a character (having no evidence to the contrary) and not a character trait of Jay-Z’s. If that changes I will revise my review.

JS

WINNER: Jay-Z, “Reasonable Doubt” (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 14

90s: 20

EARNED POINTS
80s: 31
90s: 45

Next week’s battle – #16: Prince, ‘1999’ (1982) vs. Metallica, ‘Metallica’ (1991)

#18: Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’ (1980) vs. R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’ (1992)

In the summer of my 13th year I met a girl at summer camp. She asked me to dance, I kissed her in the woods and when I went home I had my first girlfriend. Four years later, no longer together but silently knowing we should be, we found ourselves reunited at another summer camp; so she and I snuck out of our cabins down to the lake and went nightswimming under a starry sky. Several years after that, in 1992, she and I finally did the inevitable and got back together.

That same year, R.E.M., at the peak of their powers and popularity, brought John Paul Jones into the studio to enhance their jangly indie rock sound with lush orchestral strings and gave the world a moody, profound masterpiece called Automatic for the People.

That girl and I, finally together but living in separate university towns, would talk on the phone all night and listen to Automatic on repeat, puzzling over the enigmatic “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and welling up over the painfully earnest “Everybody Hurts”. One summer night we saw R.E.M. at Toronto’s Molson Ampitheatre, got high on the grass and marveled at the perfect full moon that floated in the sky while the band played “Man on the Moon”.

A few years later, we danced to the nostalgic piano ballad “Nightswimming” at our wedding despite protestations from family members who would have preferred something more upbeat, like “Up Where We Belong”; and so there we swayed on the dance floor, the centre of attention, whisper-singing into each other’s ears: “Nightswimming deserves a quiet night/I’m not sure all these people understand”.

20 years later we still sometimes dance to “Nightswimming”, remembering that night.

So that’s my take on Automatic for the People. (Here’s a proper and great review of the 25th anniversary edition worth checking out.)

Dirty Mind? Well, I’m sure that many people really like it.

JG

WINNER: REM, Automatic for the People (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 14

90s: 19

EARNED POINTS
80s: 31
90s: 41

Next week’s battle – #17: The Police, ‘Synchronicity’ (1983) vs. Jay Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’ (1996)

 

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

 

New York is a wonder. With each listen the songs become more and more vivid. I absolutely love this album. Lou Reed’s decision for simple music under complex lyrics is admirable, but in a strange way the songs seem unfinished. I keep expecting some change in the middle, or even at the end, of the song. Perhaps a bridge or some coda or reprise or key change. If New York is a house, the songs are like peeking into a window, not getting the full view of what is inside. But as you keep staring in you see more and more detail and nuance.  As with all love letters, there is something deeper being communicated beyond the lyrical snapshots and paintings of scenes and people. With my lack of Lou depth I may be unaware that this is the beauty of his song writing. Sparse. Spare, and speaking to something greater. New York is a series of feeling-filled paintings, elevating the rock form to high art status.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a funk rock revelation. For the teenage set in the 90s this album hit all the right buttons, with its collection of stone cold summer jams and monster party hits like “Give it Away”, “Under the Bridge”, and “Suck My Kiss”. With most of their albums, the Red Hot Chili Peppers walk a tightrope of solid funk-rock, but at any moment can slip and fall into a soft netting (like balls in a swimsuit) of douche bag rock (in fact I think they might have inadvertently invented the genre). However on BSSM they stay firmly in the air. It is, by far, the best album they ever made. Their albums before this were infantile and the ones after just stood in the shadows of this funky monolith.

So the conclusion is that, with New York, I feel like I am looking at the iceberg. Knowing that below the water, there is so much more. With Blood Sugar Sex Magic they are at Funkrock Mountain’s peek. There is nothing deeper under the water.

JS

WINNER: Lou Reed, New York (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 14

90s: 18

EARNED POINTS
80s: 31
90s: 37

Next week’s battle – #18: Prince, ‘Dirty Mind’ (1980) vs. R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’ (1992)

#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…

JG

WINNER: Pretenders, Pretenders (4 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 13

90s: 18

EARNED POINTS
80s: 27
90s: 37

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

#21: Tom Waits, ‘Rain Dogs’ (1985) vs. Radiohead, ‘The Bends’ (1995)

Oh Tom Waits. Sigh. I want to love you so much. On paper you fit right into my weird musical wheelhouse. I’ve tried so many times to love you. I hear people talk about how amazing you are. You attract people with a unique musical pallet (I have a unique musical pallet). Your mix of avant-jazz-rock-pop should fit well with my love of avant-jazz-rock-pop. Your “I don’t care about anyone’s convention” and ferocious independence is something I am all over. But, for me your sharp witted knife edge sound never cut through my skin. And Rain Dogs is no different. Tom, why can’t I love you? The closest I got was Bone Machine and Mule Variations (interesting that these are his 90s offerings).

Part of my issue with Waits is that his barfly musings and back alley grime musicality seems almost cliche. Maybe at the time it was new and unique, and fit well as anti-anthems in and age where slick commercial gluttony was king, but as someone who didn’t grow up with him, it seems comically theatrical (I can feel the boos and the hissing from our more snobby readers). I can’t take him seriously. I want to but maybe it is just too late for me.

There is one redeeming track tho that blows me away. I play it constantly. I assume that the Waitsies know exactly the one I am talking about. This track is a slow pretty lamenting dirge. It’s the most palatable song on the album I think. It’s the one that seems the most honest. It has a vulnerability that the other tracks on the album don’t have. It’s the track called Time. That song is just gorgeous. There is a weakness to that song that makes it a complete tear jerker. Especially on the second run through of the chorus. The words get muted, as if he is so moved by his own words, Waits seems to back away from the mic or maybe he gets choked up. It’s beautifully devastating. All his songs should sound this honest. Sorry all you Waitsies out there. What many consider his best left me wanting more.

So. The winner is clear on this one. It’s The Bends. Whoa nelly. This album is a doozy. Complete Brit Alt Rock perfection. There are no stinkers on this one. The emotion of the album ranges from hard and heavy to soft and beautiful. “Nice Dream” is a perfect example of how they expertly dance back and forth from pretty to pretty ugly (but in a good rock your off you asses kind of way). Alternating dynamics is really just at the surface of this album. There is a lot of depth in The Bends that is a joy to spelunk in and because of this, the album comes across as more honest to me.

The Bends is 90s Brit Rock perfection. It is hard to think that any album would beat this one for me other than their later offerings. I pity the contender who goes up against OK Computer.

JS

WINNER: Radiohead, ‘The Bends’ (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 12

90s: 18

EARNED POINTS
80s: 23
90s: 37

Next week’s battle – #20: Pretenders, ‘Pretenders’ (1980) vs. Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’ (1993)

#22: The Smiths, ‘The Smiths’ (1984) vs. Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’ (1994)

 

What a bummer. I was really looking forward to this battle only to discover both albums left me a little underwhelmed and full of questions. So let’s do this review as a Q&A:

Q: Why the heck did Rolling Stone pick the Smiths’ debut and not The Queen is Dead as the sole Smiths album on their 80s list?

A. Not sure – could anyone from Rolling Stone chime in on this peculiar choice? In the meantime, here’s an observation that may be relevant – the magazine did their 80s list right at the tail end of the decade. In other words, arguably too soon. Art needs time to marinate in our collective conscience and settle into its rightful place in history. It’s pretty obvious now which Smiths album is the best (isn’t it?) – perhaps it wasn’t so clear when they were still relatively fresh.

Q. Would Jeff Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it didn’t contain the now legendary version of “Hallelujah”?

A. No.

And while we’re on the topic, I know Buckley’s version of the song is wonderful, but I’d like to point out that the song was written by Leonard Cohen and the arrangement made famous by Buckley was actually created by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale (check it out). So, yes, kudos to Buckley for finding the formula that made it famous, but let it not be forgotten his achievement is a cumulative one that stands on the shoulders of two giants.

Q. Would Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it weren’t the only album from a promising singer/songwriter who died a few years after its release?

A. I doubt it. But an ability to go from a stirring, smoky rendition of “Lilac Wine” to hard rocking “Eternal Life” is pretty impressive.

Q. Why do Buckley’s vocal stunts piss me off but not Morrissey’s?

A. Because, for reasons I cannot support with actual evidence, I believe Morrissey and I don’t believe Buckley. I think Buckley had a touch of what I call Mariah-Carey-itis, in which the artist loves the sound of their admittedly impressive voice more than the words they are singing, leading to distracting demonstrations of their range, such as the irritating and bombastic climax to Grace‘s title track.

Morrissey is prone to abrupt leaps into a jarring falsetto but for whatever reason I trust that he is doing it with purpose and meaning. Also, there is a cosmic law that says Morrissey’s voice will resonate deeply in the soul of anyone who is sad, cynical or was a teen in the 80s. Depending on the day, I check all three boxes.

Q. What’s better – an album with a singular feel and sound, or one that leaps effortlessly from one genre to another?

A. More data and analysis is needed to answer definitively but, in this case, singular feel and sound prevails. The Smiths had a vision for their art, and the debut was just the opening shot. I’m less optimistic that Buckley knew where he was going, or would have gone anywhere more interesting than where he started.

JG

WINNER: The Smiths, The Smiths (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 12

90s: 17

EARNED POINTS
80s: 23
90s: 34

Next week’s battle – #21: Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (1985) vs. Radiohead, The Bends (1995)

#23: Black Uhuru, ‘Red’ (1981) vs. The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’ (1993)

This one might be the toughest one for me. These albums took a while to take hold. Also, it’s hard to find a through line connection for comparison between them. The quintessential 90s shoe-gazer vs. the blueprint for 80s reggae. To me they both felt sorta ho-hum. I know better grunge and I know better reggae.

After repeated listening, that opinion changed for me with one album at least. I didn’t want to like Siamese Dream; and this was working out fine for me until I finally let the album play past the first 5 tracks. The album starts off okay but it feels very superficial. A bit empty and one note. Little did I know the depth that was to come. I think the term ‘Burying the lead’ applies very well to Siamese Dream. This album gets better as it progresses. It gets more complex. It gets more melodic. It gets way more emotional.

Billy Corgan knew what he was doing and I didn’t give him enough credit. I thought he was (1) a crybaby adolescent who made angsty music in the comfort of his bedroom; (2) luckily tapping into the angsty zeitgeist of the 90s by going out of his bedroom; and (3) rocking with a kick ass band that was better than he deserved. I was ever so wrong. My quick judgement was unwarranted.

So, in my desire to get past this battle. A quick decision is in order.

The Crybaby wins! And I learned a little something about being too hard on Billy Corgan.

JS

P.S. I eventually did warm up to Red too. It was actually really great.

WINNER: The Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 11

90s: 17

EARNED POINTS
80s: 20
90s: 34

Next week’s battle – #22: The Smiths, The Smiths (1984) vs. Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994)