#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)

#35: Metallica, ‘Kill ’em All’ (1983) vs. Wilco, ‘Being There’ (1996)

 

One thing I love about these battles is that they force me to listen to albums I used to love but rarely listen to anymore. Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All is that for me.  This album introduced me to metal and for a brief 2-year period in my teens, I was a full blown metal head because of it. To me, this is authentic metal.  I F$%&ing love this album. It’s a hard high tempo metal experience filled with overdrive baselines, scorching guitar licks and anthemic vocal renderings. You can hear elements of punk music influences throughout, which weirdly adds a structured element to the songwriting and marries well with the lyrics’ rhythm and subject matter. I can see why Kill ‘Em All was a very influential album for metal bands to come. This album is an anger cry built for the masses. Its musical violence delivered in a way most had not heard before. Kill ‘Em All was groundbreaking.

Kill ‘Em All introduces itself to us as a building wave of drum rolls and guitar flourishes. A squealing guitar leads to a barrage of fast riffs and catchy metal verse.  “Hit the Lights”!!! Listen to us muther-f#$%ers.  We are on the scene and the scene won’t ever be the same.  We are like Sabbath on speed!!! Many may not agree with this, but I think the second track “Four Horseman” sounds a lot like Rush’s early records.  Good thing I love Rush! Just like that Canadian power trio, these polished thrash metal pioneers are so tight with their musicianship.  Its unrelenting musical beat down continues all through the album with songs like “Jump in the Fire”, “Whiplash”, and “No Remorse”.  This album is a heavyweight contender, completely ready to go toe-to-toe with any opponent.

It’s just too bad that Kill ‘Em All is up against one of my all-time favorite albums written by one of my all-time favourite bands.

Wilco’s Being There gets better for me with every listen.  I am so glad this battle gave me an excuse to listen to it over and over and over and over again. Being There is a gorgeous alt-collage of rock n’ roll, folk, country, grunge, pop, psychedelia and traditional Americana. The whole album is a love-hate letter to their fans, their band mates, and themselves.  “I want to thank you all, for NOTHING!!!” It’s that nothingness that they embrace.  It’s that nothingness that releases them and allows them to reflect on the beauty inherent in everything.  This contradiction threads throughout the album. I hear it even in their choice of song order, where they alternate from loud-outward expressions to soft-inward introspection. every song is a perfect reaction to what they just made as well as what I just heard.  After the steaming noise of “Misunderstood”, I need to simmer down with the calmness of “Far Far Away”.  After the tension has abated, I am ready to rock out with “Monday”.

Being There is perfectly arranged and listenable all the way through. There is no blunder here. Kill ‘Em All is perfectly listenable all the way through too. So if I am able to be as unbiased as I can be to even the playing field (which I can’t), this is a really close call. I think what Being There has that Kill ‘Em All doesn’t is a maturity and willingness to explore variations in tone and feel.  Of course we know that Metallica can show this maturity.  We see it in later albums.  Just not in this one.  Being There edges the win by a small margin.

JS

WINNER: Wilco, Being There (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 7

90s: 9

EARNED POINTS
80s: 9
90s: 13

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

#37: Marvin Gaye, ‘Midnight Love’ (1982) vs. Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’ (1994)

I thought about making sweet love to my wife the entire time I was listening to Midnight Love. I did not do that when I was listening to American Recordings. That alone might give it the win, but, lets break down why that is.  Why do I not want to make sweet love to my wife when I listen to American Recordings?

Well….I thought Nebraska (see battle #43) was bleak, but we hit our bleak peak with American Recordings. And not a bleak delivery that is in any way relatable to me.  It feels heartless. It’s an ugly dank piece of folk art. Although I can appreciate its time capsule nostalgia towards backwoods desperation and the artistic importance of music that tries to humanize horrible people doing horrible things.  I just can’t get past its shocking unpleasantness. It just doesn’t connect with me. I know this is veering (and cheating) a bit to bring in another album into the battle, but while I was trying to digest the dark and wretched mass that is American Recordings I coincidentally bought the vinyl double album masterwork The Basements Tapes by Bob Dylan and the Band. As I was reading the liner notes, it clicked that what they achieved in the basement of Big Pink is exactly what Johnny and Rick Rubin were trying to capture on American Recordings. Greil Marcus wrote it better than I ever could, so here it is….

I think you can hear what Bob Dylan is talking about in the music of Basement Tapes……one can hardly avoid hearing it.  It is a plain-talk mystery; it has nothing to do with mumbo-jumbo, charms or spells. The “acceptance of death” that Dylan found in “traditional music” – the ancient ballads of mountain music – is simply a singer’s insistence on mystery as inseparable from any honest understanding of what life is all about; it is the quiet terror of a man seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back.  It is awesome, impenetrable fatalism that drives the timeless ballads…..

John is a master at delivering honest plain spoken diatribes from the perspective of lost people reflecting on mistakes they have made, hoping to be forgiven. This is why this album is so well regarded.  This is what American Recordings should be for me, but it isn’t.

What is for me are the charms and spells woven by the sweet, devilishly angelic voice of Marvin Gaye.  What is for me is the guttural slap happy bass lines that makes me wanna bite my lower lip and say “Good God!”.  What is for me are the complex chord changes and layered instrumentation specifically engineered to make that thing between my knees and my stomach start to rock back and forth. It makes me want to celebrate humanity by making sweet love to the best version of them (my wife). Marvin Gaye gave me the means to do that by filling the air in the room with Midnight Love.

JS

WINNER: Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 7

90s: 7

EARNED POINTS
80s: 9
90s: 9

Next week’s battle – #36: Anita Baker, Rapture (1986) vs. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)