#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!

JS

WINNER: Husker Du, Zen Arcade (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 8

90s: 10

EARNED POINTS
80s: 11
90s: 15

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

#41: R.E.M., ‘Document’ (1987) vs. Guns n’ Roses, ‘Use Your Illusion I & II’ (1991)

Music snobs beware: you may be entering hostile territory. Because how could this even be a contest? A politically astute top-shelf album from one of the greatest indie rock bands of all time versus a big bloody mess of bombastic and petulant heavy metal.

R.E.M., hands down – right? And yet it’s not so obvious.

Document, R.E.M.’s fifth album, was the moment they decided to take a crack at stardom, and it worked. The tunes are a little more rockin’ than what came before. Peter Buck, famous for his jangly guitar, tries some new sounds to beautiful effect. And Michael Stipe’s lyrics, so often inscrutable on other albums, are clear and at the forefront, probably to make sure their scathing political commentary against Reagan’s America  came through loud and clear (oh, to imagine what they would say about a Trumpian world!). Almost every song is a gem (except maybe “Lightin’ Hopkins”) and even though I hate to single out the obvious ones…the vocal acrobatics on “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” are still breathtaking and you gotta love a band that can trick people into thinking something as cold and mean as “The One I Love” is actually a love song.

But does Document contain anything that moves me as much as Slash’s guitar on “November Rain”? Or makes me laugh as much as the vulgar rant on “Get in the Ring”? Or gets me yelling and fist-pumping like “Breakdown”? Or transfixes me like the multi-movement epic that is “Estranged”?

It does not.

Use Your Illusion I and II add up to more than 2.5 hours of music and that is probably too much, but damn, when I listen to them now there is far less filler than I thought. No ideas were off limits when the Gunners hit the studio with this one. They rocked just as hard as ever, but expanded their sound to include other genres, like country, blues and electronica; and they added piano, strings, banjo and even a little sitar. Axl ranted against everythig under the sun. They shot for the moon, then blew it up on the way by. The Illusions were released one week before Nirvana’s Nevermind, so they have come to symbolize 80s metal’s last gasp. But what a gasp. Mammoth and ambitious, these albums sold about a bazillion copies, generated plenty of debate amongst hard rock fans, and still hold up today.

Document is excellent and, let’s face it, smarter; and R.E.M. is the more important band. But these battles are not about the artists, they are about the albums. And Use Your Illusions were a cultural event in a way that Document was not – people lined up outside record stores. That may be the last time that happened, and it will never happen again. Sorry, music snobs, but history decrees it must be so…

JG

WINNER: Guns n’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 5

90s: 5

EARNED POINTS
80s: 5
90s: 5

Next week’s battle  –  #40: U2, War (1983) vs. Neil Young, Harvest Moon (1992)

#42: The Robert Cray Band, ‘Strong Persuader’ (1986) vs. PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’ (1993)

One thing Robert Cray and PJ Harvey can definitely agree on is that relationships are a bitch. Both albums are full of songs about love gone wrong, and they get sad and they get ugly. Cray sits silently in his room listening to his neighbours break up “because she was just another notch on my guitar” on “Right Next Door (Because of Me)”. And Harvey howls “You salty dog, you filthy liar/My heart it aches, I’m in the fire” on “Snake”, which appears to be a raging tribute to hate fucking.

The similarities pretty much end there. Cray’s album is pretty and too smooth for words, famous at the time for bringing blues to the masses. His voice is sweet and expressive and his guitar is amazing. While I was too busy listening to Springsteen, Paul Simon and Van Halen at the time to even notice it, I now imagine Strong Persuader was the soundtrack to a lot of dinner parties and spousal dates back in 1986.

Harvey’s Rid of Me, on the other hand, refuses to be the soundtrack to anything but her own meltdown. She was going through hell and you are bloody well going to sit there and listen to it. Christ Almighty! I thought Weezer’s Pinkerton was aggressive, but it’s applesauce compared to the hell that P.J. Harvey has wrought. She ties you up and rips your head off on the title track and threatens to kill you at the end of “Legs”. And as for “Rub it till it Bleeds”, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

A note on the production of Rid of Me – it’s awesome. Steve Albini was behind it. He’d previously worked with the Pixies and would go on to produce Nirvana’s In Utero after Cobain heard Rid of Me.  According to Harvey, she’s never seen anyone set up a studio the way he did, with mics all over the place, so you could feel the walls shake and the drum kit rattle. The impact is potent – you feel like you’re in the room with the band, probably lying on the floor with a cheap bottle of scotch.

Rid of Me also has a gonzo cover version of Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”; and that awesome cover photo of Harvey, taken in a pitch black bathroom apparently, with the camera flash lighting her up at precisely the right hair-flinging instant. What more do you want really?

JG

WINNER: PJ Harvey, Rid of Me (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 5

90s: 4

EARNED POINTS
80s: 5
90s: 4

Next week’s battle  –   #41: R.E.M., Document (1987) vs. Guns n’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I & II (1991)

#43: Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’ (1982)vs. TLC, ‘CrazySexyCool’ (1994)

 

These albums are polar opposites. Nebraska is a stripped down depressing barn stomp and Crazy Sexy Cool is highly produced sweaty sex romp (exception being the righteous mega-hit “Waterfalls”). As much as CSC is a stone cold funkified-hip-hop jam, Nebraska is not that at all. It’s completely and perfectly bleak.

What both albums have is soul in spades. They got soul for days! Bruce’s titular first track, “Nebraska” is as if a grizzled country boy sliced his belly open and spilled his guts out on the table for all to see. Even an upbeat blues bar anthem  like “Open All Night” has a heartbreaking edge to it. On the paranoid drone shocker “State Trooper”, Bruce’s screaming yelps of “Woooo!!” are an unsettling wake up call of raw emotional energy. The rest of the songs are a collage of desperately brilliant Americana that is more compelling with each listen.

Crazy Sexy Cool is a different kind of soul. One that makes you wanna drop your hips and pucker your lips. I love the first track, a quick spit of verse by the late Phife Dawg introducing the ladies and setting the stage for the party to come.  Phife passes the mic to the ladies and they take us to their libido lagoon filled with deep circuitous roots running through dark organic wet earth giving rise to thick buttressed tree trunks.

This battle is a bit like comparing a low budget indie movie to a highly produced epic.  At the Oscars last year, Moonlight won out over the highly polished La La Land.  I am going to give the win to Nebraska over Crazy Sexy Cool for the same reason. Despite the deep base and glossy grooves, Nebraska is a deeper look into the human condition and just has more substance.

JS

WINNER: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 5

90s: 3

EARNED POINTS
80s: 5
90s: 3

Next week’s battle  –  #42: The Robert Cray Band, Strong Persuader (1986) vs. PJ Harvey, Rid of Me (1993)

#44: Bob Dylan, ‘Oh Mercy’ (1989) vs. Fugees, ‘The Score’ (1996)

 

All hail the master! The legend. The wizard of words. The  melody maestro. The trickster with a social conscious. No, I’m not talking about Bob Dylan (this time). I am talking about The Fugees’ Lauryn Hill. What a performance she and those two other guys put into their second and final album, The Score. Marvel at how she moves seamlessly and gorgeously between singing and rapping. What a voice! One minute, she croons achingly about how he’s killing her softly with his song, the next minute she’s tearing you a new one with her rapping:

So weep as your sweet dreams break up like Eurythmics
Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile
Whether Jew or gentile, I rank top percentile
Many styles, more powerful than gamma rays
My grammar pays, like Carlos Santana plays “Black Magic Woman”
So while you fuming, I’m consuming mango juice under Polaris
You just embarrassed cause it’s your last tango in Paris

Seriously, how many references and rhymes can one person pack into a few lines? This album has humour, rage, political consciousness and beauty. I was aware of it at the time, of course, but paid scant attention to it. I’ve had it on repeat for the past week and I am thoroughly impressed. I’m actually surprised it’s not higher on the 90s list.

I say all this with an aching in my heart. Dylan is my guy, my favourite recording artist of all time (or maybe Neil Young). And Oh Mercy is a damn fine album; his improbable and incredibly welcome comeback album after a decade of mediocrity (the 80s were not kind to the greatest songwriter of all time), thanks to some beautifully moody tunes, and lush production and beautiful guitar from legendary producer Daniel Lanois. I bought it when it was new and I was also in the early days of vintage Dylan discovery, and it will always have a special place in my heart.

Alas, Oh Mercy is a minor Dylan masterpiece (he would have at least three bigger ones still to come), and it can’t compete with The Score, an influential and near-perfect album that also happened to be a massive hit that proved hip hop could be uncompromising and still appeal to the masses.

JG

WINNER: The Fugees, The Score (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 4

90s: 3

EARNED POINTS
80s: 4
90s: 3

Next week’s battle  –  #43: Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982) vs. TLC, CrazySexyCool (1994)

#45: Sonic Youth, ‘Daydream Nation’ (1988) vs. Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ (1995)

Sonic Youth has always been a band that I wanted to love more than I actually did.   Alanis Morissette has always been an artist that I didn’t want to admit I like as much as I actually do. The obvious choice might be to go with Alanis (spoiler: I do) simply on commercial success.  Her break out record has got more mammoth hits than any other record I can think of. Jagged Little Pill is full of very listenable well written pretty-grunge gems that I must admit found new light in me. A light that my younger, more musically-snobby self had blacked out. It was just way cooler to like bands like Sonic Youth.

The cool factor for Daydream Nation remains. It’s the critical darling of the late-eighties punk scene.  The double album juggernaut is a definitive noise wonderland. There is no doubt that Daydream Nation rocks more than Jagged Little Pill.  Sonic Youth expertly meanders through a valley of distorted riffs and twisted journeys in sound. Its brand of weirdly tuned hard-core punk and sarcastic hatred towards conformity is a very palatable “fuck you!” to the norm.

Jagged Little Pill is the norm. Alanis dialed right into the sound of the times with this one.  I might have been a late to the game on fully ingesting the album, but, the masses weren’t. They gobbled it up right away.  On Jagged Little Pill, Alanis elevates 90s rock song-writing with empathetic relatability. Mixing personal reflections with astute life observations, she crafts catchy universal truth bombs.

Daydream Nation may be way cooler, but Jagged Little Pill is way way more popular. I am going to give this one to the 90s post-grunge-rock queen.  It was just that huge, and it is just that good.

JS

WINNER: Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 4

90s: 2

EARNED POINTS
80s: 4
90s: 2

Next week’s battle  –  #44: Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy (1989) vs. Fugees, The Score (1996)

#46: Peter Gabriel, ‘Peter Gabriel’ (1980) vs. Jay-Z, ‘Volume 2…Hard Knock Life’ (1998)

 

This is a strange battle.  An interesting battle where similarities are minimal.  Aside from the numerical album identifier, both albums at times offer strange and alluring sonic touches that create interest unique within its own genre. With Gabriel, he mixes up different rhythms and musical styles incorporating African drumming and bag pipes on top of a synthy melange of distraught funkiness.  With Jay-Z, he mixes non-traditional hooks to give depth to the seemingly superficial world of Gansta Rap.

Despite the troubled inference in the title, Jay Z has no distraught funky qualities.  Touting his Roc-A-fella CEO status, this is a man demonstrating that he is in charge of both his world and yours too.  Aggressive and relentless, letting you know where he and those around him stand.  There is only one rhythm here. That tight ‘boom bap’ 90s hip hop perfected by Jay-Z and other outfits like A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang, and Black Sheep.  What I love about Jay Z’s songs is his sample and riff selections.  To my ear, it starts off sounding wrong but immediately makes sense and always works. Like the title track.  It’s quite an achievement to make a group of orphaned little girls who often break out into saccharine songs sound as hard core as a drive by shooting.  I am not sure anyone else could do that and get away with it. He even acknowledges that he might get criticized for his riff selection, but he couldn’t care less. On the track “Money, Cash, Hoes”, he spits:

I know they gone criticize the hook on this song
Like I give a fuck I’m just a crook on this song

Hard Knock Life was a commercial break-out for Jay-Z.  Once I get past the N-word fueled misogyny laced anger words, I can definitely bounce to stand out songs like “N***a What”, “N***a Who”, and “Can I Get A…”.  A highlight for me is using Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” on the track “It’s Alright (Streets is Watching)”.  The album is an undeniable party.

There is no party for ol’ Pete here.  If anything, Peter Gabriel (a.k.a. 3 or Melt) is the cozy but achy stay-in-bed hangover after.  Like the album cover, 3 presents two faces.  Sometimes between songs and other times within the same song.  Peter Gabriel is filled with clean musical lines and clear voicing mixed with a weird atonal smearyness that is hypnotic and at the same time unsettling. There is a grand sweeping musicality but it’s also minimal in that Eno-esque style common to the burgeoning New Wave landscape.  Melt was a critical breakout for Peter Gabriel and I can see why.  It’s a gorgeous, ugly, sprawling, melancholic, upbeat, danceable, anthemic, understated, sad, and angry piece of work.  With still more to discover in the morning after, I am more likely to stay in Pete’s complex world a little longer and forgo the next party.

JS

WINNER: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 4

90s: 1

EARNED POINTS
80s: 4
90s: 1

Next week’s battle  –  #45: Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation (1988) vs. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1995)

#47: Tina Turner, ‘Private Dancer’ (1984) vs. Portishead, ‘Dummy’ (1994)

 

Private Dancer is a really solid album. A great listen all the way through.  It’s quintessential 80s soul, full of well crafted synthy-soul-rock originals like super hits “Private Dancer”, “You Better Be Good to Me”, and “What’s Love Got to Do With It”. Injected in the mix are great covers like “I Can’t Stand the Rain”, “Let’s Stay Together”, and the stand out slow burning version of “Help!” (a wonderful surprise to this unlearned Tina listener).  Perhaps the only slight misstep is “1984”.  A dystopian nightmare that sounds like it should be on Broadway. It’s a bananas way to end an album, but I have to acknowledge its unabashed enthusiasm.  “Who could ask for more?”

Dummy has got a lot of that halloweeny sound you hear on a lot of 90s hip hop (e.g. Snoop’s Doggy Style). The foundation of the album is a deep scary groove that gets my body moving, but I remain a little distant just to protect myself from what feels like an impending doom. Wanting only to observe the super cool world of Portishead and not live in it.  Songs like “Sour Times”, “Wandering Star”, and “Numb” have got a soulful driving trip-hop vibe that is easy to latch onto. The last song on Dummy, “Glory Box”, is an alt-rock stand out.  It’s a killer.  However, songs, like “Roads” are just a little to dreary for me.

Both voices are powerful and work perfectly for their backing music. Tina’s is well seasoned and confident, Beth Gibbons of Portishead is understated occasionally exploding with well timed moments of power.  Private Dancer and Dummy are well deserved titans of their decade.  Overall, I am gonna give this one to Tina’s Private Dancer because it just hits that generational sweet spot a little better than Dummy.

JS

WINNER: Tina Turner, Private Dancer (1 point)

RUNNING TALLY:

80s: 3

90s: 1

EARNED POINTS
80s: 3
90s: 1

Next week’s battle  –   #46: Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1980) vs. Jay-Z, Volume 2…Hard Knock Life (1998)

#48: XTC, ‘Skylarking’ (1986) vs. Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’ (1996)

 

What a match-up – the sound of your favourite summer day vs. the sound of a rock star coming unhinged.

Apparently, XTC leader Andy Partridge had been listening to a lot of Beach Boys as they geared up to make their ninth album, and you can tell. Full of birdsong and summer breezes, the album soars with gorgeous melodies and harmonizing. But don’t let the prettiness fool you – the album has some sharp lyrics and hits on some big issues, like mortality (“Dying”) and the plight of the working class (“Earn Enough for Us”). It’s a beauty and it gets richer with every listen (I’m proof – I didn’t like it the first time I heard it upon its release).

Weezer’s Pinkerton, their second album, sees bandleader Rivers Cuomo showing a seriously dark and creepy side of himself, such as “sniffing and licking” an envelope from an 18-year-old Japanese fan while admitting “I wonder how you touch yourself” on “Across the Sea”. Ew. Pinkerton is loud, aggressive, surprising…and brave as hell in its candour. It also nearly destroyed the band because fans initially HATED it after the comparative breeziness of their classic debut. Even Rivers was embarrassed. Then, as reported in this great Rolling Stone article, something funny happened over the ensuing years and it slowly earned its deserved reputation as a stone-cold classic.

Both albums are brilliant, get better with age, and are required additions to any serious music collection. Listen to Pinkerton when you want to unleash some aggression, listen to Skylarking when you’re feeling wistful and nostalgic.

So who wins?

Skylarking. It has more to offer sonically,  plus it contains “Dear God”, in which Partridge writes a letter to God that asks the Almighty why he has abandoned his creation and declares “I can’t believe in you” – a perfect atheist manifesto 20 years before it was fashionable to do such things.

JG

WINNER: XTC, Skylarking (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 2

90s: 1

EARNED POINTS
80s: 2
90s: 1

Next week’s battle  –  #47: Tina Turner, Private Dancer (1984) vs. Portishead, Dummy (1994)

#49: The Feelies, ‘Crazy Rhythms’ (1980) vs. Sleater-Kinney, ‘Call the Doctor’ (1996)

 

Interesting match up. The indie boys of light eighties punk versus the indie girls of heavy nineties punk.  Different in some ways, but they are both in the same family. The Feelies being the brothers to the Sleater-Kinney sisters. The former ruling the teenage roost with a subdued confidence and the latter raising hell with a brash insecurity.

Its hard to select a clear winner here.  There isn’t much difference between them.  Both albums contain extremely catchy and very rhythmic songs filled with bursts of high spirited nervous energy.  Crazy Rhythms’ zero-distortion-two-chord-rifforama is clean and very pleasing to the ears. However, it is unassuming, filled with space and at risk of getting lost in the background. Call the Doctor’s all-distortion-three-chord-rifforama is completely in your face and requires full attention be paid to it.  But that is just attitude.  Change the dynamics of a strikingly wonderful song like “I’m Not Waiting” from Call the Doctor and it can seamlessly sit as a track on Crazy Rhythms.

Despite their seminal stature both of these albums are new discoveries for me.  From what I can gather, they equal in their impact and influence on the indie rock sound, so I can’t differentiate them that way.  So essentially it comes down to the MEAT of both albums and I have to say that there is more to chew on in Call the Doctor.  Ultimately there are more riffs, more rhythms, and more progressions.  Even though Crazy Rhythms’ minimalism is a punk rock triumph, Call the Doctor’s maximalist punk sound wins by a chord.

JS

WINNER: Sleater-Kinney, Call the Doctor (1 point)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 1

90s: 1

EARNED POINTS
80s: 1
90s: 1

Next week’s battle  –  #48: XTC, Skylarking (1986) vs. Weezer, Pinkerton (1996)