#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)

#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)

#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)

#28: Janet Jackson, ‘Control’ (1986) vs. Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ (1993)


Surprisingly enough, as a lover of 90s hip hop, I had never listened to Enter the Wu-Tang before. This is classic 90s rap. I should have listened to it. I denied myself the pleasure of puffing out my young chest to this tight package of funk rage delivered by an ensemble of some of the best rappers out there. I also denied myself the myriad of references and notable quotes that 36 Chambers provided. “Bring tha Mutha Fuckin Ruckus”, “Protect Ya Neck”, “Wu Tang Ain’t Nothin to Fuck With”. The lyrics on this album are clever, fast, funny and complex. What do you expect when they are trading fours with the best in the biz?

This album is the granddaddy of 90s rap music. The ripples of their influence can be heard by other artists for the rest of the decade and beyond. I wish current popular hip hop sounded a bit more like this; this ain’t lazy sparse mumble rapping. This is aggressive, clear and active rap. Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Basterd, Ghostface Killa, Raekwon, and the rest of this titan rap roundtable trade off rhymes like a relay team, pushing each other to the finish line, leaving the other runners lying on the ground in their rap wake.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of this album is the use of the piano as hooks that thread through each song. It has this Thelonius Monk quality to it. Arhythmic, off tempo, atonal at times. It puts the whole album on edge in a way that keeps the clean and clear danceable groove that is under it on notice.

And then there is Control…

I admit, I did not connect with Control at all. I tried but it’s hard when you’re not a 13-year-old girl from the 80s. This record is stuck in time. I think if you loved it then you are likely to love it now. But to listen to it now, ughh! It’s hard to get around the very dated sound and sparse instrumentation. I just don’t like this album.

36 Chambers is deep. It’s layered. It’s complex. Control just skips off the surface. This is a clear case of something so over produced it becomes thin and unsubstantial. I hate crapping on an album so much. It made the list and had a cultural influence on the Western world. But that’s it for me. It’s a piece of time-stamped culture. That makes it relevant on some level. But it pales to the might of Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). This was no match.


WINNER: Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (3 points)


80s: 9

90s: 14

80s: 14
90s: 25

Next week’s battle – #27: Guns n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction (1987) vs. Rage Against the Machine, Rage Against the Machine (1992)

#36: Anita Baker, ‘Rapture’ (1986) vs. A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’ (1991)

Low End Theory is a hip hop masterpiece. This was the one that got me hooked on the jazzy-funky world of 90s hip hop. This album just hits my sweet spot. There are so many things to love about it. The boom bap “hits-da-high-hat” rhythm. The smooth rapping prowess of Q-tip and the late great Phife Dawg. It’s elevated song writing. Perhaps my favourite part of Low End Theory is its strong jazz influence. From recruiting legend Ron Carter to drop a funky-smooth upright baseline on the classic “Verses from the Abstract”, to sampling jazz fusion legend band Weather Report’s Birdland on “Butter”, Low End Theory set the bar for alternative hip hop. Defining a new form of hip hop (hands down my favourite era of the genre). The stone cold jams are endless. “Excursions”, “Buggin’ Out”, “Vibes and Stuff”, “Check the Rhyme”, and finishing on the high powered rap ensemble juggernaut “Scenario”. It doesn’t get much better than Low End Theory.

If anyone could battle against these 90s rap legends, it’s the strong satin sheets power of Anita Baker and her titanic soul-jazz album Rapture. I had no idea how freaking good this album was. This is not kids’ music. Anita Baker was my parents’ music, in heavy rotation on the local easy listening radio stations.  Because of this, I overlooked her greatness.  Well, no longer.  Anita’s voice is like no other, with its low register power and off note vocal tones. Her mighty voice is unmatched. Musically there are no slouchy songs on Rapture. Starting with “Sweet Love”, she grabs hold and doesn’t let go, leaving one in a heap on the floor from sheer exhaustion.

Anita was my parents’ music. And that’s a good thing. I am a parent. I get it now. Rapture is the blueprint for what adult romance should be. Rapture is a complex, well crafted mature escape. It is confident, sexual, experienced, loving, and healing. It’s got this low sway feel that makes me think of candle light dinners, red wine, conversation and laughter. We have a lot to learn from Anita.

Anita is the mature soul mother to those funky fresh kids of the 90s. But guess what mom! This is our time and these funky fresh kids from the 90s rule!


WINNER: Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (2 points)


80s: 7

90s: 8

80s: 9
90s: 11

Next week’s battle – #35: Metallica, Kill ’em All (1983) vs. Wilco, Being There (1996)

The album battles are coming…Beginning Jan. 6, 2020!

The VanJam Music War is set to begin! The first album battle – #50 vs. #50 – will be published Jan. 6 at 11 AM.

A new battle will be published each week – every Monday at 11 AM.

Sign up to receive notifications and check back every week to see the latest battle and check out the score. And remember to comment! Tell us when we’re right, tell us when we’re wrong.

Which decade had better music – the 80s or the 90s? After 50 album battles, by the end of 2020, we’ll know!

First Battle: #50 – Madonna, Madonna (1983) vs. 2Pac, All Eyez on Me (1996)