#29: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, ‘Double Fantasy’ (1980) vs. Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’ (1998)

I’m a firm believer that youthful angst produces better music than aged wisdom, but these two comeback albums from established legends on the cusp of their 40s (one of whom, tragically, would be dead three weeks after release) make for compelling counterpoints.

On Ray of Light, Madonna explores her newfound mysticism, bares her soul and reflects on past mistakes. On Double Fantasy, John Lennon and Yoko Ono dissect their relationship and explore all the beauty and darkness that a marriage in the spotlight can provide. Both artists devote some time to sharing the joys of parenthood.

Here’s something I didn’t expect to say – Madonna’s album is more profound and more interesting. An album of soaring, pulsing, shimmering electronica, fleshed out with splashes of real guitar and Madonna’s voice possessing a depth and resonance far beyond the singing on her earlier records, Ray of Light is amazing. I didn’t know electronica could be so warm and engaging. The album is full of poetic wisdom, too, like this little nugget from “The Power of Good-Bye”:

Freedom comes when you learn to let go
Creation comes when you learn to say no

On the opening track, “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”, she admits she “traded fame for love…and suffered fools so gladly…And now, I find, I’ve changed my mind.”

Lennon, on the other hand, is almost childlike in his words. “Our life together is so precious together; we have grown,” he declares in the first lines of album opener “(Just Like) Starting Over”. Elsewhere he repeats that his son Sean is a “beautiful, beautiful, beautiful boy” and asserts his right to just sit here “watching the wheels go round and round”.

It’s all very pretty and catchy, but a titch saccharine. It’s Ono who arguably provides the more thought-provoking songs. Love it or hate it, whether she’s simulating orgasm on “Kiss Kiss Kiss” or imitating a Vegas lounge singer on “Yes, I’m Your Angel” – she keeps things interesting.

The most interesting thing about Double Fantasy is its back story. There is  no time to tell it here, but suffice to say it involves the B52s, members of Cheap Trick, an asshole “fan” with a bullet, and a good deal of critical revisionism post-tragedy.

Here’s something else I didn’t expect to say – Madonna is now 2 for 2 in her VanJam battles. Bob Dylan, by comparison, is batting .500.  WTF?!


WINNER: Madonna, Ray of Light (3 points)


80s: 9

90s: 13

80s: 14
90s: 22

Next week’s battle – #28: Janet Jackson, Control (1986) vs. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)


#50: Madonna, ‘Madonna’ (1983) vs. 2Pac, ‘All Eyez on Me’ (1996)


Right out of the gate we see why this blog is a good idea – where else can you pit synthesized girly pop against bad ass gangsta rap? This is all the more interesting considering these two secretly dated for a while, and it led to a wacky appearance by Madonna on David Letterman (Tupac would later apologize in a very expensive letter, apparently).


Anyway…Madonna’s first album holds up a lot better than expected. With infectious songs like “Lucky Star”, “Borderline” and “Holiday”, the pop star burst upon the music scene fully formed, knowing what she wanted to do and how she was going to do it. The world didn’t know she was going to change pop music, but she did.

But does it have the gravitas to topple Tupac’s post-prison magnum opus? Actually, yes. All Eyez on Me has lots of great stuff and is overflowing with ambition and hefty themes, but it is far from perfect – it’s hard to make a 2+ hour album without filler. It was a grand statement from a guy who continues to have influence over his genre (To whit: The world’s current greatest rapper, Kendrick Lamar, closed his masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly with a fascinating imagined conversation with 2Pac). But it’s a lot of work to sit through.

And, he was just one of several legends of 90s gangsta rap. Madonna, on the other hand, is one of a kind — the archetype for every pop princess who would follow, from Britney Spears to Rihanna to Katy Perry to Keisha (why am I naming some of them – it applies to all of them). She would have even better albums still to come, and not just in the 80s, but it all started with this one.


WINNER: Madonna, Madonna (1 point)


80s: 1

90s: 0

80s: 1
90s: 0

Next week’s battle  –  #49: The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (1980) vs. Sleater-Kinney, Call the Doctor (1996)