#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?!

JG

WINNER: Madonna, Ray of Light (3 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 9

90s: 13

EARNED POINTS
80s: 14
90s: 22

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

 

#31: Roxy Music, ‘Avalon’ (1982) vs. Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997)

The best albums are creepers – you don’t like them at first, but they keep calling you back and, bit by bit, become favourites.

Avalon, the final album from Roxy Music, is a creeper. The first time I heard it, it was like an easy listening radio station – the kind of stuff that meekly fades into the background while you wait for the dentist to be ready for you. But it kept calling me back and now I know it’s not music for a dentist’s office, it’s music for headphones while walking the city streets at night. “It’s raining in New York on 5th Avenue,” sings honey-voiced leader Bryan Ferry, “and off Broadway after dark – love the lights, don’t you?”

Yes, Bryan, yes I do.

Avalon is a wonderful pop album for grown-ups: jazzy, layered and dreamy. “More Than This” and the title track, featuring sublime background vocals from Yanick Etienne, are obvious stand-outs. Melancholic masterpieces.

But the ultimate creeper-maker is Bob Dylan. There is no album in his massive catalogue that doesn’t get better with multiple listens. The man is light years ahead of all of us and all we can do is try to keep up.

In 1997, he was 35 years into his recording career and at a point when most people figured he was done making music that was pertinent and great. And then he came out with the moody and bluesy Time Out of Mind, and began an amazing late-career resurgence that continued with Love and Theft in 2001 and Modern Times in 2006.

The weary, old-man voice that has characterized his later work is in full bloom on Time Out of Mind, which is perfect for delivering such rueful lyrics. He seems weighted down by regret and thoughts of death on every track. On “Not Dark Yet” he declares:

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Time Out of Mind was produced by Daniel Lanois, whose distinctive production style is called swampy by some and atmospheric by others. I’m in the second camp. It works when the artist is in a certain mood, and Bob was in that mood when he wrote these songs.

Two great, sombre albums by two mature artists. But only one can emerge.

JG

WINNER: Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 8

90s: 12

EARNED POINTS
80s: 11
90s: 19

Next week’s battle – #30: Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) vs. Green Day, Dookie (1994)

#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)

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

What a juicy match-up – so many points of comparison: Two British bands…Two British bands with co-leaders who like to rip out each other’s throats…Two British bands with co-leaders like to rip out each other’s throats and were caught up in mega rivalries with other bands during their heydays (The Stones were The Beatles’ Blur, and Oasis were Blur’s The Beatles).

Confused? OK, let’s talk about lyrics instead.

Is it just me or does Mick Jagger sometimes like to garble his words? I think he does it to disguise when he’s saying something too subversive for radio, or when he’s just singing about his boner. Case in point – “Start Me Up” off of Tattoo You. I’d heard that song a million times and, before the internet ended every lyrical mystery, I had no idea what he was saying between “start me up”, “never stop” and “you make a grown man cry”.

Oasis’ cocky Gallagher brothers, on the other hand, believe we should hang onto their every word. The lyrics come through crystal clear, no matter how ridiculous they may be. Even they have admitted they don’t know what a wonderwall is. And how do you walk slowly down a hall, faster than a cannonball? And really – how can you be caught beneath the landslide and in a champagne supernova in the sky at the same time?

But they sing these goofy words with conviction and they are a shitload of fun to bellow along with, especially when drunk. I think perhaps this review from Consequence of Sound about the album’s 20th anniversary says it best, noting brother Noel – “…has his moments where he says something completely stupid and awesome at the same time”. I know Oasis have their haters – which makes sense because they’re dicks – but (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is one fantastic sing-along after another, and it was the biggest thing in the world when it came out. The Gallagher brothers thought they out-Beatled The Beatles and they totally did NOT, but they imitate them beautifully and still make it entirely their own.

Nothing against Tattoo You – often called the Stone’s last great album – it’s a ragtag collection of abandoned leftovers from previous recording sessions recycled because the band needed an album for an upcoming tour; and it’s far better than that description would make you think. I like their choice to put all the rockers on side one and all the ballads on side two. It sounds like they had a blast making it and it produced two classics: opener “Start Me Up” – which is a song about Mick’s boner pretending (just barely) to be a song about a car – and the beautiful closer “Waiting on a Friend”, which has a fabulous sax solo from Sonny Rollins.

So here’s what it comes down to: When I listen to Tattoo You it makes me want to listen to other Stones’ albums, but when I listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory it makes me want to listen to (What’s the Story) Morning Glory again.

JG

WINNER: Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 7

90s: 10

EARNED POINTS
80s: 9
90s: 15

Next week’s battle – #33: Husker Du, Zen Arcade (1984) vs. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP (1999)

#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)

#38: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, ‘Imperial Bedroom’ (1982) vs. Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’ (1994)

Oh Elvis, you poor little fellow – you drew a short straw with this one. You’re like the head of the chess club being sent out to grapple with the captain of the wrestling team. Don’t get me wrong, you’re a clever musical craftsman, but there is a rock n’ roll juggernaut thundering across the mat towards you. You might just want to run.

Full disclosure – your judge and juror is a slobbering fan of your opponent. As far as I’m concerned, Superunknown is the pinnacle of grunge achievement. There is no album from that legendary early 90s scene that captivated me more than this one. Because what’s better than grunge than grunge with Beatlesque ambition pumped through a psychedelic filter? Soundgarden had me at Badmotorfinger but they scooped me up and carried me away with this 1994 masterpiece.  Chris Cornell’s voice is a force of nature; the music is dark, heavy, melodic, creative, experimental. And BIG. They even make a pair of spoons sound epic.

The darkness is all the more potent since Chris Cornell’s suicide in May 2017. Suddenly songs like “Fell on Black Days”, “Black Hole Sun” and “The Day I Tried to Live” are all the more intense. I hadn’t listened to Superunknown in years. Listening to it now, I am struck by how great it still sounds.

But let’s give Imperial Bedroom its due, Elvis. On this, your seventh album, you expanded your sound and played with different genres. It’s been a genuine pleasure to discover it, and it’s prettier and more interesting than I expected. No doubt about it, you are a meticulous craftsman with a gifted band. I absolutely love the soaring “Man out of Time”, as well as “…And in Every Home”, which makes me think of Randy Newman, and “Pidgin English”, which starts out sounding like the Kinks and then…

…oh, why I am bothering with this analysis? This one is no contest and never was. Your shoulders have been on the mat from word one. Sorry, Elvis.

JG

WINNER: Soundgarden, Superunknown (2 points)

BATTLE TALLY

80s: 6

90s: 7

EARNED POINTS
80s: 7
90s: 9

Next week’s battle – #37: Marvin Gaye, Midnight Love (1982) vs. Johnny Cash, American Recordings (1994)