#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!

#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)

#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)

#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)

#10: Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988) vs. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)

Amid the hair metal and synth pop of the late 1980s, political folk was reborn in the unlikely form of Tracy Chapman with her debut album. It was like Greenwich Village Bob Dylan had come back as a 24-year-old black woman. The album was a huge hit and deserved to be: clean and simple folk tunes (with a couple love songs tossed in) that earworm into your head and stay there. It’s a clear statement of purpose railing against inequality and injustice. It’s also occasionally chilling, such as the domestic abuse tale of “Behind the Wall”, performed a cappella. It’s depressing to realize the problems she highlights are as real today as they were then.

Is it too obvious to say “Fast Car” is my favourite? It’s a perfect short story about a young woman clinging to hope as she trades in one useless companion (her deadbeat dad) for another one (the deadbeat owner of the fast car – whom in 1988 I assumed was a guy but that’s less obvious to me now). That song is so damn good it was everywhere in 1988 and even today kids like my daughter discover it and love it (I honestly had nothing to do with it – she just found it on Spotify one day and started playing it all the time).

While it is abundantly clear what Tracy Chapman is talking about in her music, most of the time I have no idea what Pavement is talking about; or, more specifically, I have no idea what eccentric band leader and songwriter Stephen Malkmus is talking about. And based on my reading, neither does anyone else. Here’s what Pitchfork has to say in their review of Crooked Rain:

But really, though Crooked Rain references the burbs and the music biz, with Pavement it’s the sound and feel that matter, not the words or themes. Quoting lyrics to get to the heart of Pavement is misguided. Go online and print some out and you’ll see that, taken on their own, they’re generally meaningless.

Just to prove how true this is, the last song on the album – the awesome guitar jam “Fillmore Jive” ends with an incomplete sentence: “Their throats are filled with…”. You gotta love a band with the Chutzpah to let that be their last word.

Crooked Rain is confusing and disorienting (though it’s considered a “mainstream” effort by an otherwise very alternative band), and it is awesome. Trippy and weird. Sometimes it’s loud and abrasive, sometimes it’s melodic and mellow. Every song is unique. My favourite (at the moment, anyway) is “Range Life”, in which the narrator meanders through his California suburb on a skateboard, pondering existence.

I’ve spent so much time listening to “Fast Car” and “Range Life”, it’s starting to sound like a conversation in my head between Tracy’s restless dreamer and Stephen’s aimless slacker. Just for kicks, here’s how it plays out using actual lyrics from two phenomenal but totally unrelated songs:

Tracy Chapman: You’ve got a fast car

Stephen Malkmus: I want a range life

TC: Say remember when we were driving, driving in your car / Speeds so fast it felt like I was drunk

SM: Run from the pigs, the fuzz / The cops, the heat

TC: Maybe together we can get somewhere

SM: Don’t worry / We’re in no hurry

TC: I’d always hoped for better / Thought maybe together you and me’d find it

SM: Until you snort it up or shoot it down / You’re never gonna feel free

TC: We gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way

SM: Hey, you gotta pay your dues / Before you pay the rent

TC: I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

SM: If I could settle down, Then I would settle down

Weird. That worked even better than I imagined (Pitchfork should try it).

It also makes me feel bad because it makes me root for Tracy, but this battle isn’t looking good for her. As near-perfect as her album is, my enjoyment level on listen #20 is the exact same as on listen #1. Crooked Rain, on the other hand, gets more interesting with every listen. The trajectory is clear – in art, over the long term, the strange puzzle beats the statement of purpose.


WINNER: Pavement, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (5 points)


80s: 18

90s: 23

80s: 47
90s: 58

Next week’s post – #9: Richard and Linda Thompson, ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ (1982) vs. Beck, ‘Odelay’ (1996)

#11: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) vs. Outkast, ‘Aquemini’ (1998)

This was a fun battle. Both new listens for me and both are near perfect records. One album has relentless drive and the other has relentless groove. Both demonstrate lyrical genius. Both demonstrate a mastery of their genre.

Get Happy does exactly as prescribed. Most songs feel like I am cartwheeling down a mountainside and nailing every rotation with a smile on my face. Elvis’s delivery, musically and lyrically, is completely forward moving. The album is in constant motion. The uptempo drums, the aggressive vocals, the falling melodic and chord change refrains, the big hit riffs. There is never a moment of rest, but it’s all energizing.

When it came out, Get Happy was seen as a bit of a flub. Mainly because it was a bit of a change from the three previous Attractions albums. The retroactive reviews have changed to the point where this is now seen as one of his best. That is great art, when the audience has to go to the artist and not the other way around. Sometimes, like this case, it can take a while.

I would always hear or read about how important Outkast was in the evolution of hip hop. Hearing Aquemini I can see why. This album is groove perfection. Every little sample or rhythm or even guttural “ugh” is completely calculated and flawlessly timed. The layering and blending of these precise ingredients created a stew of sounds that masks the rigid architecture, making it feel more natural and less mathematical. Like a well made hip hop ratatouille.

Outcast is really the first Southern hip hop mainstream group. Their impact no doubt spilled into how the East and West Coast hip hop scene would develop. Aquemini was an instant classic immediately and was revered by those who followed them, having a profound influence and musical impact.

So, this battle was fun in terms of discovering two great albums, but it’s a tough one to decide on. If I were to pick the one I like most and will probably include in my future musical rotation, Get Happy is that album. If I am to pick the album that had the most impact, I gotta think that Aquemini influenced more simply because it was immediately loved by both fans and critics. This time I shall go with the one that I simply just like better.


WINNER: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!! (4 points)


80s: 18

90s: 22

80s: 47
90s: 53

Next week’s post – #10: Tracy Chapman, ‘Tracy Chapman’ (1988) vs. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ (1994)

#12: Public Enemy, ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988) vs. Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’ (1994)


Here we have a battle of musical opposites. Wildflowers is comfort food and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is cold hard medicine. The only thing they have in common is that they are both absolutely amazing. I really do not want to pick a winner here.

Wildflowers is the Tom Petty album that all other Tom Petty albums want to be when they grow up. I used to think Full Moon Fever was his best. I was wrong. In 1994, Tom found the perfect formula for smooth, indelible folk rock. This is the soundtrack to a lazy summer night on the back patio. The title track kicks things off perfectly, and every song that follows is a gem. (Although it must be said “Honey Bee” sounds distressingly like a middle age man sneaking around with his neighbour’s teenage daughter – killer riff though!)

Also, the album contains a lyric that has brought me comfort in life more times than I can count. On “Crawling Back To You”, Tom says “Most things I worry about never happen anyway.” So simple, but a great reminder to any worrywart, and a line that sums up the spirit of the whole album. Take it easy, friends – all will be well.

And then there’s Public Enemy’s second album, which changed the game for rap in 1988 by teaching all future rappers that their genre could be scorchingly political. A million miles from Wildflowers, it’s piercing, abrasive and disruptive. Packed with whistles, sirens and all manner of other noises, it’s an emergency meeting of the Enough Already Club. Time to get the hell OFF the porch!

While “Fight the Power” would come a little later, Chuck D was already making bracing political statements about the media (“Don’t Believe the Hype”), drugs (“Night of the Living Baseheads”), racial inequality (just about everything, including “Party for Your Right to Fight” – a nice play on the earlier Beastie Boys hit), and even mind-numbing shitty television (“She Watch Channel Zero?!”).

And while Chuck D thunders his anger and wisdom, there by his side is the slightly ridiculous but very welcome Flavor Flav, egging him on, playing the comic foil to the angry preacher:

Yo Chuck, these honey drippers are still fronting on us
Show ’em that we can do this, cause we always knew this
Haha, yeah boy!

Yeah boyyyyy! You said it, Flav. The album also broke new ground on sampling, both in volume and variety, bringing in everything from Malcolm X to Slayer. It’s phenomenal.

As I’ve said before, I rarely listen to hip hop, but every so often an artist comes along that shows me why I should. Public Enemy was the first artist to do that (the Run DMC-Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” doesn’t count). They taught teenage me that even though my tastes may steer me to Tom Petty-ish music more often, rap freakin’ matters.

Because influence must be factored in, this brutally tough battle must go to…


WINNER: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (4 points)


80s: 17

90s: 22

80s: 43
90s: 53

Next week’s post #11: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Get Happy!!’ (1980) vs. Outkast, ‘Aquemini’ (1998)