#30: Los Lobos, ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’ (1984) vs. Green Day, ‘Dookie’ (1994)

Both of these bands would go on to make albums that are more eclectic, ambitious and, to my mind, better (Los Lobos’ Kiko and Green Day’s American Idiot); so this feels a bit like a battle of the B-sides.

That said, they are pretty solid albums. I’ll say this – they’re probably more fun than the other two records I mentioned. They’re both party albums, albeit very different parties.

Dookie is the high school party where everyone crammed into somebody’s parents’ kitchen, funneled dangerous amounts of Budweiser and then trashed the place until the cops showed up. Wolf is the neighbourhood party where the children play in the grass while the dads BBQ and then later, after the kids go to bed, the grown-ups sit around the campfire and smoke a joint.

Dookie is better and more interesting than I remembered. Raw, ass-kicking punk by a killer trio. Sonically, it’s the part of the party when people are trashing the place; lyrically, it’s after the party when you’re stumbling home feeling sorry for yourself and fretting about the future. Teen angst at its finest. Billie Joe Armstrong’s voice is my favourite part – something about it instantly conjures a weird but welcome nostalgia.

Where Green Day have energy and anger to burn, American-Mexican band Los Lobos have ridiculous amounts of talent and depth. Onto their traditional Mexican sound they layer rockabilly, R&B, country and whatever other genre they feel like playing with. They can play any instrument, including accordion, mandolin, bajo quinto (whatever that might be) and saxophone. “Corrido #1” is the most fun you will ever have dancing to accordion (here’s a close second), “Evangeline” uses a light-hearted rockabilly sound to tell a contrastingly sad tale. And the title track is a worthy anthem for an uber-talented band that spent more time than they deserved toiling in obscurity, and the rest of their career known primarily as those guys who put “La Bamba” into Lou Diamond Philips’ mouth.

So what wins? Kiko. But failing that…


WINNER: Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive (3 points)


80s: 9

90s: 12

80s: 14
90s: 19

Next week’s battle – #29: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (1980) vs. Madonna, Ray of Light (1998)

#31: Roxy Music, ‘Avalon’ (1982) vs. Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997)

The best albums are creepers – you don’t like them at first, but they keep calling you back and, bit by bit, become favourites.

Avalon, the final album from Roxy Music, is a creeper. The first time I heard it, it was like an easy listening radio station – the kind of stuff that meekly fades into the background while you wait for the dentist to be ready for you. But it kept calling me back and now I know it’s not music for a dentist’s office, it’s music for headphones while walking the city streets at night. “It’s raining in New York on 5th Avenue,” sings honey-voiced leader Bryan Ferry, “and off Broadway after dark – love the lights, don’t you?”

Yes, Bryan, yes I do.

Avalon is a wonderful pop album for grown-ups: jazzy, layered and dreamy. “More Than This” and the title track, featuring sublime background vocals from Yanick Etienne, are obvious stand-outs. Melancholic masterpieces.

But the ultimate creeper-maker is Bob Dylan. There is no album in his massive catalogue that doesn’t get better with multiple listens. The man is light years ahead of all of us and all we can do is try to keep up.

In 1997, he was 35 years into his recording career and at a point when most people figured he was done making music that was pertinent and great. And then he came out with the moody and bluesy Time Out of Mind, and began an amazing late-career resurgence that continued with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006.

The weary, old-man voice that has characterized his later work is in full bloom on Time Out of Mind, which is perfect for delivering such rueful lyrics. He seems weighted down by regret and thoughts of death on every track. On “Not Dark Yet” he declares:

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Time Out of Mind was produced by Daniel Lanois, whose distinctive production style is called swampy by some and atmospheric by others. I’m in the second camp. It works when the artist is in a certain mood, and Bob was in that mood when he wrote these songs.

Two great, sombre albums by two mature artists. But only one can emerge.


WINNER: Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (2 points)


80s: 8

90s: 12

80s: 11
90s: 19

Next week’s battle – #30: Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) vs. Green Day, Dookie (1994)

#32: John Cougar Mellencamp, ‘Uh-Huh’ (1984) vs. Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’ (1994)


I really like John Mellencamp, but I have always seen him as an underdog: Not as smart as Springsteen, not as pretty as Bon Jovi, not as cool as Tom Petty – he always seems to come in second in any comparison.

So how does his 1983 collection of heartland rock hold up against the mind-melting industrial assault unleashed by Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails in what has to be the weirdest match-up so far in the VanJam Music War?

Uh-huh was Mellencamp’s seventh album (that is not a typo), but only his second as a household name following the breakthrough smash of American Fool; and he now had enough clout to make an album on his own terms (and to bring back his real last name after living as Mr. Cougar in an effort to appease record labels and be more marketable). It’s a solid album. “Pink Houses” belongs on the same shelf as “Born in the USA”, and everything else is damn fine as well. Particularly surprising is “Jackie O”, which was written with John Prine and sounds like a children’s song.

But Downward Spiral – a ferocious mash-up of heavy metal and synth pop – is a landmark 90s album that blew minds and inspired imitators. As described in this excellent Stereogum review, restless adolescents everywhere went bananas for it as they discovered a dark world view entirely apart from their parents and teachers. What fun to go to a party and scream “I want to fuck you like an animal” and “God is dead and no one cares/if there is a hell I’ll see you there”. It’s a concept album about a guy losing his mind and eventually killing himself (I think that’s what happens, anyway). It’s terrifying. It could be the soundtrack to a school shooting. Fortunately, Reznor was smart enough to sprinkle in just enough sweetness and beauty to keep you from jumping in front of a train, like when he follows the horrifying “Big Man with a Gun” with the tenderness of “A Warm Place”. It probably goes without saying, but the signature song “Closer” is fucking amazing.

Uh-huh is cute by comparison. In the rousing “Authority Song”, Mellencamp admits “when I fight authority, authority always wins”. I think the last time authority fought Reznor, he ate its liver with some fava beans and nice Chianti.

Uh-huh? Nuh uh. Sadly, the underdog must come in second yet again.


WINNER: Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral (2 points)


80s: 8

90s: 11

80s: 11
90s: 17

Next week’s battle – #31: Roxy Music, Avalon (1982) vs. Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (1997)

#33: Husker Du, ‘Zen Arcade’ (1984) vs. Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’ (1999)

These albums are angsty masterpieces. Both are stories of angry troubled boys molded by past traumas. One is, as if staring into an open wound, a pure honest representation of abuse and a boy’s journey to escape it and the other is a cartoonish journey of a pissed off poor urban kid whose depraved inside voice has taken over his outside voice.

You never know what is real and what isn’t on The Slim Shady LP. His genius is not only his rapping and his keen ability to turn a phrase, it’s that he will go places that people never realized they didn’t want to go.  In other words, it gave a new legitimacy to depraved thinking.  The “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” murder fantasy is both compelling and unlistenable.  The whole album is a maniacal offensive thought experiment built in rap music format.

A similar thought experiment is presented in Zen Arcade but in distorted punk beauty. It’s a punk opera. A perfectly developed concept album of trauma, loneliness, and insanity.  Where EMINEM shows overbearing bravado, the hurt little boy in Zen Arcade goes into a loud maniacal rampage.

Zen Arcade made me remember that punk music can be well written.  It can be sprawling. It can be lyrical. It can be complicated. Husker Du has got some real chops here. Those fellas can play. Even just listening to it, it’s hard to keep up with the tempo and the changes.  They are lock step, in a spaztic, frenetic anger dance. It’s a well crafted underdog freak out session.  But don’t worry, Zen Arcade‘s vulnerable stumbling protagonist is being held up by a rock solid foundation of perfected punk music.  Boy did Husker Du nail this one!

Musically speaking, The Slim Shady LP is lacking on many of the tracks. Although there are exceptions like “Just Don’t Give a F*ck” and “My Fault”, most of the backing tracks sound, to me, like they were pulled from stock open source material rather than crafted in the studio. Fully relying on the amazingly brilliant rapping skills of EMINEM. In my first listen, my mind got angry. Who the f*ck is this guy! Who does he think he is.  He can just say anything he likes?!  What a liar.  There is no truth to this. It’s completely exploitive. And then I listened to “I’m Shady”. Near the end of the album. He spits some truth that put the whole album into perspective for me. It made me realize his calculated genius. I could have totally missed the boat on this, but I think the point of this album lies in this verse

And if I told you I had AIDS y’all would play it
cause you stupid motherfuckers think I’m playin when I say it
— Well, I do take pills, don’t do speed
Don’t do crack (uh-uhh) don’t do coke, I do smoke weed (uh-huh)
Don’t do smack, I do do shrooms, do drink beer (yup)
I just wanna make a few things clear
My baby mama’s not dead (uh-uhh) she’s still alive and bitchin (yup)
And I don’t have herpes, my dick’s just itchin
It’s not syphilis, and as for being AIDS infested
I don’t know yet, I’m too scared to get tested

To me this verse cops to the crux of the album. It’s all lies. Here is where EMINEM says, “okay, this is what I do. I am just a frightened f*cked up little sh*t just trying to cope.  I am pushing boundaries with what I say. I can do it in a way that you can’t”.

So to sum up.  If I were to declare The Slim Shady LP the winner, it would be based solely only on his rap ability weighing higher than the complete punk rock package of Zen Arcade. Guess what? It ain’t. That little sh*t didn’t win this one. Here’s one for the underdog!


WINNER: Husker Du, Zen Arcade (2 points)


80s: 8

90s: 10

80s: 11
90s: 15

Next week’s battle – #32: John Cougar Mellencamp, Uh-Huh (1984) vs. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral (1994)

#34: Rolling Stones, ‘Tattoo You’ (1981) vs. Oasis, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory’ (1995)

What a juicy match-up – so many points of comparison: Two British bands…Two British bands with co-leaders who like to rip out each other’s throats…Two British bands with co-leaders like to rip out each other’s throats and were caught up in mega rivalries with other bands during their heydays (The Stones were The Beatles’ Blur, and Oasis were Blur’s The Beatles).

Confused? OK, let’s talk about lyrics instead.

Is it just me or does Mick Jagger sometimes like to garble his words? I think he does it to disguise when he’s saying something too subversive for radio, or when he’s just singing about his boner. Case in point – “Start Me Up” off of Tattoo You. I’d heard that song a million times and, before the internet ended every lyrical mystery, I had no idea what he was saying between “start me up”, “never stop” and “you make a grown man cry”.

Oasis’ cocky Gallagher brothers, on the other hand, believe we should hang onto their every word. The lyrics come through crystal clear, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Even they have admitted they don’t know what a wonderwall is. And how do you walk slowly down a hall, faster than a cannonball? And really – how can you be caught beneath the landslide and in a champagne supernova in the sky at the same time?

But they sing these goofy words with conviction and they are a shitload of fun to bellow along with, especially when drunk. I think perhaps this review from Consequence of Sound about the album’s 20th anniversary says it best, noting brother Noel – “…has his moments where he says something completely stupid and awesome at the same time”. I know Oasis have their haters – which makes sense because they’re dicks – but (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is one fantastic sing-along after another, and it was the biggest thing in the world when it came out. The Gallagher brothers thought they out-Beatled The Beatles and they totally did NOT, but they imitate them beautifully and still make it entirely their own.

Nothing against Tattoo You – often called the Stone’s last great album – it’s a ragtag collection of abandoned leftovers from previous recording sessions recycled because the band needed an album for an upcoming tour; and it’s far better than that description would make you think. I like their choice to put all the rockers on side one and all the ballads on side two. It sounds like they had a blast making it and it produced two classics: opener “Start Me Up” – which is a song about Mick’s boner pretending (just barely) to be a song about a car – and the beautiful closer “Waiting on a Friend”, which has a fabulous sax solo from Sonny Rollins.

So here’s what it comes down to: When I listen to Tattoo You it makes me want to listen to other Stones’ albums, but when I listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory it makes me want to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory again.


WINNER: Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (2 points)


80s: 7

90s: 10

80s: 9
90s: 15

Next week’s battle – #33: Husker Du, Zen Arcade (1984) vs. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (1999)