#3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

Well shit. How am I supposed to pick a winner out of these two? Welcome to what I consider the real #1. These are giants that loom large in my musical journey. They are Event Albums from the days when those were still were still a thing. Albums that people lined up to buy. Albums that everyone you knew were listening to, puzzling over, talking about. Albums that, in retrospect, help define their era for those who were there. For a much more eloquent description of such things, check out Spill’s review of the 30th anniversary edition of Joshua Tree.

I considered declaring a tie. I really did. Alas, that would be a cop out, so let’s do this thing and try to decide which of these awesome collections of awesomeness is more awesome. Let me pour some observations onto the page and see where the process takes me. A Q&A with myself:

Q. Any overarching thoughts about this pair of bands/albums to kick things off?

Well, both bands were the biggest/best/most important band in the world when these albums came out – and you can feel that Magnitude in the music. Neither band is American, though one of them seemed to wish they were (hint, the one posing in the California desert). And both bands are true bands; they share songwriting credit and listening to their music you hear how impeccably they construct songs together — each player’s contribution integral to the whole.

Q. What are the albums about?

OK Computer is about the perils of technology, and warns that we are losing our humanity and ability to communicate. Joshua Tree is spiritual and political, seeking higher truth while railing against injustice and suffering in the world. OK Computer is digitized rock that sounds like it came from space; the finest headphone music since Pink Floyd. Joshua Tree sounds both earthy and epic, inspired by American landscapes. OK Computer bends the mind; Joshua Tree tugs the heart. OK Computer is more challenging; Joshua Tree is more enjoyable. OK Computer was prescient. Joshua Tree breeds nostalgia.

Q. And how do they make you feel?

Joshua Tree has its share of sadness and outrage, but is ultimately optimistic. To say “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” implicitly means the search continues. OK Computer, however, is just bleak, bleak, bleak – a dreary dystopian future. Even when the music sounds like a lullaby, the lyrics cut your soul (I’m looking at you, “No Surprises”).

The outlook is matched by the singers. Thom Yorke’s voice is haunting and otherworldly. Bono’s voice is big and commanding (a cynic might say bombastic), reaching for the rafters on almost every tune. I find Yorke’s voice is often just part of the sonic soundscape, and sometimes I barely notice he’s actually singing words. Not so with Bono. With Bono, the words are the point.

Q. But which album is better?

Well, Joshua Tree opens better. Let’s face it, the 1-2-3 punch of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You” is ridiculously good. Possibly the strongest opening in rock history. We’ve all heard those songs so much you may be sick of them. Get over it and try listening to them like it’s your first time. Then pick your jaw up off the floor.

(To assist in this exercise, may I suggest listening to the live version of “Where the Streets…” on the 30th anniversary edition? It’s hard not to get caught up as 70,000 ecstatic fans positively lose their shit during that extended opening, the song building bit by bit, hitting one new crescendo after another until Bono’s vocals finally kick in: “I want to run, I want to hide…” Woooo hoooo!)

OK Computer ends better, with “No Surprises”, “Lucky” and “The Tourist”. Trippy, surreal and gorgeous, all three. They transport you (as does just about every other song, for that matter). And, having dragged us through hell for most of the album, Radiohead even toss in a little optimism near the end, beginning with penultimate “Lucky”, in which Yorke tells us “it’s going to be a glorious day/I feel my luck could change”. Even better, on closer “The Tourist”, he offers us some very sound advice: “Hey Man, slow down…Idiot, slow down.” Word (too bad the world didn’t follow it).

Q. So what’s the deciding factor? Quit stalling already!

Well, I will say this – at its best (“Karma Police”, “Let Down”), OK Computer is probably better. But Joshua Tree has no weaknesses, while Ok Computer has two: “Electioneering” and “Climbing Up the Walls”. This is not to say these are bad songs, it’s just that they are not quite interesting enough to make up for their unpleasantness. (I’m also not super keen on “Fitter, Happier”, but that’s mostly because I feel that creepy robot voice judging me – I must confess it’s a brilliant concept.)

Q. I sense where this is going – you sure you want to go there? The hard-core music aficionados will judge you fiercely.

I admit I’m a bit surprised. Going in, I suspected Radiohead was going to take this one, but having now listened to both records about a million times, and talking it through, I see where I’m being pulled. Maybe I’m getting old, so I’m starting to favour comfort over cynicism.

Or maybe Joshua Tree is just a bit more timeless. It’s certainly a more inspiring listen amidst the dreary politics and social conflict that surrounded us in 2020. OK Computer may have predicted the disconnected, troubling world we’re now living in, but Joshua Tree is the sort of balm we need to endure it.

WINNER: U2, Joshua Tree (5 points)


80s: 23

90s: 24

80s: 72
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #2: Prince, ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) vs. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’ (1992)

#4: Talking Heads, ‘Remain in Light’ (1980) vs. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’ (1991)

I have spent so much time listening to these two albums trying to decide which one is better I have gone from loving them to being sick of them, and I still don’t know which one to choose.  So let’s just get this damn review done, and see where it goes.

One thing worth saying off the top is that both of these collections have very cool origin stories as both bands were at a crossroads when they made them. The Talking Heads were tired of being David Byrne plus three, so they made a concerted effort to do something more collaborative. And U2, stung from the critical backlash against Rattle and Hum, were tired of being so serious all the time, so made a concerted effort to bring a little playfulness to their sound.

They both recruited Brian Eno to help out. In Talking Heads’ case, Eno was there to “promote the expression of instinct and spontaneity without overtly focusing on the sound of the final product.” In the case of U2, Eno was there to “to come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2.”

Both bands made masterpieces that confounded listener expectations right from their opening minutes.

I thought Paul Simon’s Graceland was the first American pop album to weave in African sounds but now I know Remain in Light came first. As Wikipedia puts it: “Drawing on the influence of Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, the band experimented with African polyrhythms, funk, and electronics, recording instrumental tracks as a series of looping grooves.”

The result is a little bizarre and endlessly compelling. This album gets more interesting every time you listen to it. It pretty much commands you to move your body, and David Byrne’s lyrics – full of stream of consciousness weirdness – seem to mean everything and nothing at the same time. (Perhaps no coincidence that Brian Eno “believed that lyrics were never the center of a song’s meaning”). I especially like “Seen and not Seen”, a story about a fellow who decides to change his face by pure will; as awesome as it is bonkers.

Two other things that need to be said about Remain in Light:

  •  The album’s most famous track, “Once in a Lifetime”, is extra brilliant – verses about how life runs away on us (“How did I get here?”) and a chorus about water flowing underground. It’s the catchiest mid-life crisis ever.
  • Closing track “The Overload” is Talking Heads’ attempt to sound like Joy Division without ever actually having heard Joy Division. That’s such a peculiar thing to do, it takes the band to a whole new level of cool.

I should note Achtung Baby was the frontrunner coming into this battle. That album is just so…big. Plus, I’ve always been more of a U2 fan than a Talking Heads fan. I’m of an age that their album releases were events. That band is in my DNA.

Achtung Baby is wonderful, especially the first two-thirds. It’s almost relentless in the number of gorgeous, moving, memorable songs it throws at you – “One”, “Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses”, “So Cruel”, “Mysterious Ways”…it goes on and on.

But the band wanted to do other things too – they wanted to mess with us. For U2 fans of the era, you can still remember the surprise of hearing first single “The Fly”, or the opening track “Zoo Station”. Were U2 an industrial band now? Is this dance music? What’s going on here? Is this what they were looking for?

Alas, for me, these are not the better songs. I like the more U2-ish songs. “The Fly” kinda bores me. It doesn’t stick. My other unpopular opinion is that if you want U2 that doesn’t sound like U2, the songs on follow-up Zooropa are better. I’d rather listen to “Lemon” than “The Fly”. (Yeah, I said it – Zooropa is underrated.)

Also, the album doesn’t know when to stop. With the last three tracks, Achtung Baby starts to fade into the background. This is not the case with Remain in Light, which never stops being interesting. Achtung Baby is 55 minutes. Remain in Light is 40. I think if U2 had edited down to their best 40 minutes, they might have won this battle…but I see now where this is going.

You also have to give Talking Heads props for innovation and influence. Achtung Baby was a reinvention of U2. Remain in Light, by blending genres and introducing sounds into pop music that hadn’t been done before, was a reinvention on a bigger scale.


WINNER: Talking Heads, Remain in Light (5 points)


80s: 22

90s: 24

80s: 67
90s: 63

Next week’s post – #3: U2, ‘The Joshua Tree’ (1987) vs. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’ (1997)

#40: U2, ‘War’ (1983) vs. Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’ (1992)

War is the third album by a band that was, at the time, young and raw and hungry, and it opens with the words “I can’t believe the news today/I can’t close my eyes and make it go away”. Harvest Moon is the 20th studio album from an established legend with nothing to prove and opens with the words “She used to work in a diner/never saw a woman look finer”. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this battle: youthful outrage trying to change the word versus aging comfort contentedly observing it.  

In a post-U2 360 world, it’s hard to believe there was a time when U2 were young and raw and hungry – and Bono had a last name (Vox, in case you’re wondering) – but that’s how it was when the band got down to business in the fall of 1982 to record what was a “do or die” album after the sophomore slump of October.

They went with “do” in a big way. While even better things were still to come, War let the world know this was a serious band with something to say and a desire to say it with stadium-sized anthems. A concept album of sorts, most of the songs are about the horrors of, you guessed it, war, and it’s great. It rocks and it preaches with the spirit of kids who believe that music can change the course of history. Of course we’ve all heard “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, “New Year’s Day”, “Two Hearts Beat as One”, and “40” enough times for them to be seared onto our brains, but every other song is pretty much just as good. I especially like “Seconds” – an oddball track that juxtaposes a playful beat and melody with a dark warning about nuclear war.

The whole band sounds energized but let’s give a special shout-out to the rhythm section, and particularly drummer Larry Mullen Jr. who, from the military march of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to the rave-up ending of “Like a Song”, sounds like he’s banging his kit to save his life.

Neil Young had no such anxiety or eagerness to please when he called forth his crew of perfect country-rock session players (also known as the Stray Gators) and choir of big-name back-up singers (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Nicolette Larson), and ushered them back into the studio to make a sequel to his biggest-selling album – 1972’s Harvest.

The result, I would argue, is quite possibly better than Harvest. At its best, Harvest Moon is unbeatable. “Harvest Moon”, “From Hank to Hendrix” and “Unknown Legend” are absolutely marvelous (side note: you have to love how director Jonathan Demme used “Unknown Legend” in Rachel Getting Married). Like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, it’s the kind of album you can put on in any situation and everyone in earshot will be glad you did – though you’d be well advised to skip the nauseating treacle of “Such a Woman”, as well as “Old King”, a goofy tribute to a dog he admits to kicking once. No one needs the line: “But that hound dog is his..tor..eeeeee.”

Overall, this battle is close but since we’re talking about rock n’ roll let’s go with youthful outrage over aging comfort.


WINNER: U2, War (2 points)


80s: 6

90s: 5

80s: 7
90s: 5

Next week’s battle – #39: ZZ Top, ‘Eliminator’ (1983) vs. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’