VERSUS: Episode 3: Division II: Rock Album Deathmatch: Eight Albums Enter, One Album Exits . . .

Previously, on VERSUS . . .

The eight albums of Division I—featuring works from The Beatles, The Who, The Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Styx and Bad Company—battled it out, head-to-head, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band emerging as the sole survivor.

In this episode, another eight albums enter the fray. This time, the competitors are Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Blue Öyster Cult, KISS, The Cars, Foreigner, Electric Light Orchestra and The Eagles. This is Division II, the second division of four in THIS Conference, all of the rock albums on the left side of the championship tree you’ll just have to imagine in your mind. The 32 albums on the right side of the tree is THAT Conference, which we’ll get to later.

Why am I doing this?

My motives are entirely selfish, of course. This project gives me an excuse to actively listen to a pile of old record albums, and to look at them from a new perspective. I’ve discovered that the compare-and-contrast element of this mental exercise forces me to examine what it is that makes me like a particular album or band. It also gives me an outlet to kill time without doing anything overly productive.

Choosing a favorite from each clash can become as difficult as choosing a favorite child. The standard parental answer is that your favorite child is the one who needs you the most at the time. These albums don’t need me at all. They will continue to exist long after I don’t. So, my favorite album in this huge collection of battles of my favorite albums is largely a gut-level reaction, completely subjective and sometimes unfair. These are all my opinions, and I own that, at least. Since the past is the best predictor of the future, I’ll probably disagree with myself this time next year. And, that’s okay.

Disclaimers completed, let’s get our combatants into the Thunderdome of the Mind.


ROUND ONE (4 bouts)

Blood on the Tracks (Bob Dylan)

VERSUS

Harvest (Neil Young)

I’m kicking this off with what amounts to an upset victory, in my opinion.

Blood on the Tracks is, by far, my favorite Bob Dylan album. It was also the first Dylan album I purchased, at Square Records in Lancaster, South Carolina, way back in the Stone Age, when Hector was a pup. My definition of the word “album” is admittedly a loose one, since I first owned this one on cassette tape. My car stereo played cassettes, not vinyl LPs, as did my Sony Walkman. The choice was a simple one. A few years earlier, it would have been an 8-track. Kids, ask your grandparents about those sometime and let them regale you with tales from the Good Old Days (which weren’t always so good).

I’ve written about my love for this album before. For a time, it was the soundtrack of my life. I know the lyrics to every track on it, and every song means something to me. The album itself further broadened my tastes in music, come to think of it. I had been a troubled kid, drawn to music with a harder edge, like hard rock and heavy metal. Music I can still appreciate, by the way. But, Dylan’s genre-hopping, folky brand of music opened my ears and mind to other musical styles, leading me ass-backwards (as always) to the Blues and Americana, the music that influenced the rock-‘n’-roll bands I loved, even when they didn’t realize it.

When I decided to have this album square off with Neil Young’s Harvest in the Thunderdome, I thought the bout would be a bit of a mismatch. Like Blood, Neil Young’s album features acoustic sensibilities that a few of my dunderheaded friends would claim wasn’t rock music at all. My personal definition of rock music is fairly broad these days, and is more about how the music moves me than genre. There’s a reason Charlie Daniels, may he rest in peace, was played on rock radio. That’s the feeling I’m talking about. But, I digress—

The Dylan album is a solid work of art from beginning to end. So is the Young album.

Dylan offered me “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” “Meet Me in the Morning,” and an abridged Western in “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” The entire album is imbued with a bittersweet magic. Forty years later, I can still gain fresh perspectives on these songs, filtered through the cracked lens of my own experiences.

It occurred to me while listening to Harvest this time that, in my lifetime, I’ve rarely listened to this album in its entirety. Partly to blame for this was Lynyrd Skynyrd, of course. What do you mean, what do I mean by “of course”? Because Skynyrd seemed to disparage Neil Young in their hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” many of my brethren boycotted all things Young. We were sheep who thought we were wolves. So, I was very familiar with the hits, of course. “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold,” “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and “Are You Ready for the Country?” But, as I listened to the entire album from first track to last this time, I realized that I had still been doing a disservice to Young for too many years. This may have been the first time I actively listened to “There’s a World,” which featured the London Symphony Orchestra, in decades.

After listening to both albums, Dylan and Young were pretty much in a dead heat. In the end, my decision boiled down to which album I wanted to listen to again sooner. Since I was much more familiar with the Dylan album, and can hear any track on it in my head at will, Harvest managed to inch ahead during the final seconds. I knew I would listen to it again in the near future, because parts of it still felt new to me. After another dozen or so spins of this particular album, the results of the head-to-head might be different.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Harvest (Neil Young)

I know, right?


The following bout is a little less contentious and surprising.

Destroyer (KISS)

VERSUS

Spectres (Blue Öyster Cult)

As a former card-carrying member of the KISS Army, it would be hypocritical for me to dismiss the band’s music as bubblegum metal, as some music-lovers do. I was a huge KISS fan, as were many of my friends. It wasn’t just about the music. It was the costumes and the makeup, it was Gene breathing fire and spitting up blood, the on-stage pyrotechnics and overall theatrical aspects of the band. It didn’t hurt that the band itself became characters in Marvel comic books.

In that time of my life I think of as pre-Star-Wars, KISS was a major component of my pathology of serial monomania. I even wrote a play, using the band as characters, which had two classroom performances before ending its brief off-off-Broadway run. I played the role of Paul Stanley, even though my favorite KISS bandmember was Gene Simmons, of course, because my friend Scott wanted to be Gene and his mother (knowingly or not) provided the wigs we all wore.

KISS was being marketed towards children, I realize now. And, it was effective marketing. Remember that cardboard gun that came with the album Love Gun? Genius. There were other incentives, like temporary tattoos. I also got one of my first tastes of being a true rebel because of KISS. The church gatherings on Wednesday nights were a casual affair, with t-shirts and jeans permitted. I wore a KISS t-shirt one Wednesday night and was sent home because, I was told, KISS was an acronym for Knights In Satan’s Service. I didn’t realize, or believe, this. I still don’t, even though I think having an album called Hotter Than Hell or a bandmember referred to as The Demon didn’t help my case. I was an early collateral victim of the Satanic Panic.

Destroyer was my favorite KISS album. It was their first after the monster breakthrough concert album Alive! Bob Ezrin, a record producer who had previously worked with Alice Cooper, brought in special effects, strings, even a children’s choir on this one. It was an ambitious, sonically dense release for the band. The album also has some of the band’s biggest hits. “Detroit Rock City,” “Shout It Out Loud,” “God of Thunder,” and also “Beth,” not one of my favorites (although girls liked it, which was a bonus).

With a lead-off track like “Godzilla,” it’s difficult for me to call Blue Öyster Cult’s Spectres more adult fare than Destroyer with a straight face. It was released in October 1977, which would put it in my post-Star-Wars phase, a period when I was putting away some childish things only to embrace other childish things. While “Godzilla” was the bait that drew me to the album (I vividly recall trading my three-years-older uncle Frampton Comes Alive for this one and one other—a very good deal), the mix of styles and a pervading sense of darkness throughout the album kept my interest and fascinated me. The faux-collegiate choir intro to “Golden Age of Leather,” which is about an epic battle royale between aging motorcycle gang members, remains fun to sing along to. I just did, in fact. “R U Ready 2 Rock,” a song title befitting Prince, is the anthemic rocker that kicks off side two of the album. The seriously gothic “Nosferatu” closes out the album, with its intricate piano parts and haunting vocals.

While I enjoy both albums, BÖC takes the decision for this bout. The musicianship is orders of magnitude above that of KISS, who aren’t trained musicians when all is said and done. Plus, the Cult’s underlying sense of darkness and horror seems more real in their music, not superficial like makeup and costumes. More adult? I think so, but I’m hardly the authority on being an adult. Just ask my wife.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Spectres (Blue Öyster Cult)

Plus, you gotta dig the umlaut, no?


These two albums were both released in 1978. They were competing for my hard-earned money at the same time.

Double Vision (Foreigner)

VERSUS

The Cars (The Cars)

Of course, I ended up owning both albums at some point.

Double Vision is a good album. It is a 7X platinum record. There are two great songs on the album: “Hot Blooded” and the title track “Double Vision.” There’s one really good song: “Blue Morning, Blue Day.” The other seven tracks are just okay.

The Cars is a great album, and it was the band’s debut. I recall one of the bandmembers joking that their first release was essentially their “greatest hits” album. The band had other albums, and other good songs, but, joke or not, the statement was true. Nearly all of my favorite Cars songs are on this album. “Just What I Needed,” “My Best Friend’s Girl,” “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” “Bye Bye Love,” and “Moving in Stereo.” I can’t help but see Phoebe Cates when I listen to that last one. My least favorite song on this album is still a good song.

Having just listened to these two albums, I’m giving the decision to The Cars. It is the more consistent album. Iconic is a good word to slap on it. Call it New Wave, Power Pop or Synth-Rock: It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . The Cars (The Cars)


Although Hotel California was released in December 1976, I still consider it a 1977 album like the ELO album. That was Star Wars Year One, and a lot of great things happened that year. I think I’ll write a separate post about this someday.

Hotel California (The Eagles)

VERSUS

Out of the Blue (Electric Light Orchestra)

Believe it or not, before today, I hadn’t listened to either of these albums in at least a decade. I’ve played some of the songs on Pandora Radio or Amazon Music, but I haven’t listened to either album the way God intended, from first track to last, no skipping.

Hotel California is a solid album. Whenever I put on a “classic rock” station on my phone, the song “Hotel California” is almost always one of the first songs that comes up. More often than not, I will skip it. Don’t get me wrong: I love the song. But, it’s one of those that I really don’t need to hear more than once a year. It’s in the same boat as “Freebird” and “Do You Feel Like We Do.”

The album itself has sold over 32 million copies. Aside from the title track, it has “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love” and “New Kid in Town.” The rest of the songs would be good to listen to if you’re just relaxing or trying to go to sleep.

I love this album, but, honestly, prefer Their Greatest Hits (1971 – 1975). I made an executive decision to exclude greatest hits albums from this project.

ELO’s Out of the Blue is also impressive. It has “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Birmingham Blues,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Because it’s a double LP, there are thirteen other tracks on the album. While they are consistent in their orchestration and symphonic flights of fancy, many of the tracks are curiously similar.

If I were just comparing my favorite tracks from both albums, the bout would have been closer. But, today, the album I liked more was the one I could listen to the quickest.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Hotel California (The Eagles)



ROUND TWO (two bouts)

Spectres (Blue Öyster Cult)

VERSUS

The Cars (The Cars)

AND THE WINNER IS . . . The Cars (The Cars)

As much as I love the BÖC album, The Cars is a scary-good record and I already want to listen to it again.


Hotel California (The Eagles)

VERSUS

Harvest (Neil Young)

There will be a day when I’d rather listen to Harvest over Hotel California. Today is not that day. Sorry, Neil.

AND THE WINNER IS . . . Hotel California (The Eagles)



And now . . .

THE DIVISION II CHAMPIONSHIP!!

Hotel California (The Eagles)

The Cars (The Cars)

If anyone had told me ahead of time who would be winning this divisional championship, I may not have believed them.

THE DIVISION II CHAMPION IS . . .

The Cars (The Cars)

Now we’ve trimmed 16 albums down to only 2. The first two albums going into the quarter-finals are a psychedelic-rock masterpiece (Sgt. Pepper’s) and a synth-rock masterpiece (The Cars). Only 48 more albums to sift through before we move ahead.

Rock On, Everybody.

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