What a bummer. I was really looking forward to this battle only to discover both albums left me a little underwhelmed and full of questions. So let’s do this review as a Q&A:
Q: Why the heck did Rolling Stone pick the Smiths’ debut and not The Queen is Dead as the sole Smiths album on their 80s list?
A. Not sure – could anyone from Rolling Stone chime in on this peculiar choice? In the meantime, here’s an observation that may be relevant – the magazine did their 80s list right at the tail end of the decade. In other words, arguably too soon. Art needs time to marinate in our collective conscience and settle into its rightful place in history. It’s pretty obvious now which Smiths album is the best (isn’t it?) – perhaps it wasn’t so clear when they were still relatively fresh.
Q. Would Jeff Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it didn’t contain the now legendary version of “Hallelujah”?
And while we’re on the topic, I know Buckley’s version of the song is wonderful, but I’d like to point out that the song was written by Leonard Cohen and the arrangement made famous by Buckley was actually created by former Velvet Undergrounder John Cale (check it out). So, yes, kudos to Buckley for finding the formula that made it famous, but let it not be forgotten his achievement is a cumulative one that stands on the shoulders of two giants.
Q. Would Buckley’s Grace be on the 90s list if it weren’t the only album from a promising singer/songwriter who died a few years after its release?
A. I doubt it. But an ability to go from a stirring, smoky rendition of “Lilac Wine” to hard rocking “Eternal Life” is pretty impressive.
Q. Why do Buckley’s vocal stunts piss me off but not Morrissey’s?
A. Because, for reasons I cannot support with actual evidence, I believe Morrissey and I don’t believe Buckley. I think Buckley had a touch of what I call Mariah-Carey-itis, in which the artist loves the sound of their admittedly impressive voice more than the words they are singing, leading to distracting demonstrations of their range, such as the irritating and bombastic climax to Grace‘s title track.
Morrissey is prone to abrupt leaps into a jarring falsetto but for whatever reason I trust that he is doing it with purpose and meaning. Also, there is a cosmic law that says Morrissey’s voice will resonate deeply in the soul of anyone who is sad, cynical or was a teen in the 80s. Depending on the day, I check all three boxes.
Q. What’s better – an album with a singular feel and sound, or one that leaps effortlessly from one genre to another?
A. More data and analysis is needed to answer definitively but, in this case, singular feel and sound prevails. The Smiths had a vision for their art, and the debut was just the opening shot. I’m less optimistic that Buckley knew where he was going, or would have gone anywhere more interesting than where he started.
WINNER: The Smiths, The Smiths (3 points)
Next week’s battle – #21: Tom Waits, Rain Dogs (1985) vs. Radiohead, The Bends (1995)