>And then there were four. The Milam March Madness bracket has yielded a quartet of modern rock elites, our contemporary Pantheon: Green Day sports arguably the single best album of the decade. My Morning Jacket represents the brightest of a new generation, the most-likely heirs to the rockthrone. Pearl Jam claims the longest track record of success, and perhaps the widest influence. And Radiohead, of course, can make a case for all of those and more.
Let’s get right down to it:
Green Day vs. Radiohead
If you’re looking for the best point of comparison between Green Day and Radiohead, you might start with their most recent (largely political) records, American Idiot and Hail to the Thief. While Green Day fires off explicit statements of protest from the familiar restraints of power-chords and catchy melodies, Radiohead couches fire-and-brimstone in allusion, metaphor, and schizophrenic production. The former is wonderfully concrete, focusing on storytelling and bare-bones, explicit lyricism to make its points. The latter is willfully abstract, implicit in its symbols and song-to-song self-referentiality. American Idiot is the text; Hail to the Thief is the subtext. “American Idiot” vs. “2 + 2 = 5.” That’s all you need to know.
Both records are successful not only because they say what they want to say, but because they find a way to include the audience in that message. What fans of pop music–regardless of personal politics–would deny themselves the sheer pleasure of “Holiday,” or the sweeping beauty of “Sail to the Moon”? What person can hear “Jesus of Suburbia” or “A Punchup at a Wedding” and not connect with it, at least with some measure of awe? The truth is, any band can make a political record. Some bands can even find something interesting to say. But only the best bands can make the world sing along–or want to sing along–to a lyric they don’t initially agree with.
Throw into the mix that both bands have been multi-platinum-selling, critically-acclaimed, pop-rock juggernauts since the mid-90’s, and you’ve got an interesting face-off dating back fifteen years. For all the superficial differences between the bands, perhaps the biggest one is the decisive one: Green Day’s a great rock band, while Radiohead’s a great band. The kudos I gave Foo Fighters for “keeping it simple” apply to Green Day, with the added bonus that they’ve challenged themselves in terms of scope. They’re still essentially a four-chord rock band, but they’re unlimited in terms of subject matter.
But Radiohead’s not essentially a four-chord rock band. One could argue (though I might disagree) that they aren’t essentially a rock band at all. When they took the plunge into sonic alchemy and studio experimentation with Kid A/Amnesiac, they made a calculated risk: redefine contemporary rock, or cast themselves into artistic obscurity, a self-exile of weirdness and, ironically, irrelevance. Nine years later, we know the answer: Kid A was the best record of 2000 (no, seriously, Steely Dan, go to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 Grammy’s), transcending genre, subverting contemporary pop formulas, and converting die-hard and casual fans alike. Amnesiac, arguably a better and more cohesive group of songs, continued to drive the nail in the coffin. The two records (really, two halves of one whole) raised modern rock’s bar to an impossible height. In truth, it’s a bar that (at their best) only Radiohead can meet.
Green Day has done one thing as well as anyone, and have only become more vital, important, and challenging throughout their career. But Radiohead has always done more than one thing; in fact, they’ve invented new ways to dominate.
Pearl Jam vs. My Morning Jacket
Yeesh, this is tough. My case for placing My Morning Jacket over U2 was that, in a pre-Napster era, It Still Moves would’ve had the same commercial impact as the Joshua Tree, and that Z could’ve matched Achtung Baby; essentially, My Morning Jacket has every artistic claim to U2’s global success…they just came along in a period where that type of success is impossible.
Well, the same argument could hold against Pearl Jam. Is there anything–really, anything in the music itself–that leads you to believe “One Big Holiday” couldn’t have been to a classic rock revival what “Alive” was to grunge? Is “Alive” a better song? Eh, probably. Slightly. Maybe. But does that sliver of debatable difference really account for one record selling 10 million, and one lurching towards 100K? Should it? Of course not. Timing matters, especially when it comes to technology. Especially when that technology affects consumption. Especially when “affects consumption” means “makes music free.”
That It Still Moves became a gold record at all should be Exhibit A in the case for My Morning Jacket. That a reverb-soaked Southern rock opera with marginal label and radio support, recorded in a barn no less, could sell 100K records is a testament to its status as a contemporary landmark, and a future classic. What’s more, it might not even be their best record. The two since, Z and Evil Urges, build on a foundation of epic Americana with pop vibrancy and a seamless integration of influences. That sonic alchemy, in fact, has placed them on the short list of bands willing–and able–to meet Radiohead’s standard in terms of creating a new kind of pop music. They’re arguably the only band out there who might be able to match Radiohead’s gift for inventiveness and accessibility; they can reinvent the wheel while still making it something you want to buy.
Did I mention they’re the best live band on earth? I did? Just checking.
I ultimately vaulted MMJ over U2 because I honestly believe the Jacket’s a better band right now. They’re putting out better records, and they’re playing better shows. The issue here is that Pearl Jam isn’t U2. Pearl Jam’s self-entitled record (their most recent, in 2006) is better than any of U2’s, because it actually achieves the kind of back-to-basics “important” rockery U2’s alluding to. Also, U2’s live shows are spectacles much more than concerts; you’ll be entertained, but you won’t be moved. But Pearl Jam–one of rock’s best live bands from any era–still has their fastball***. If MMJ is #1 live band, Pearl Jam’s #1A.
When comparing one generation’s giants to the next’s, I give the former the benefit of the doubt, because body of work does matter. If Pearl Jam had released Binaural, then Riot Act, then drifted off into the sunset, My Morning Jacket would’ve taken their crown. The fact that Pearl Jam is still putting out vital records, performing at a remarkable level, and blazing new trails in the record industry matches My Morning Jacket’s young and stellar track record. Combine that with All-That-Came-Before, and you have a King who hasn’t yet left his throne.
Winner: Pearl Jam
***When I say “fastball,” I don’t mean, “wow, those aging rockers really go out there and give it their all.” I mean, “against all odds and laws of science, they’re a better live band than they’ve ever been.” Eddie’s voice alone is some kind of 8th wonder, smoking and drinking over a three-hour set, over two legs of a tour, over eighteen years as a band, and actually getting better as time goes on. It’s not human. When Secretariat died, they found that his heart was twice the size of a normal horse. In other words, Secretariat had twice the engine of all the other racehorses. He was a once-in-a-generation kind of unreal talent. And what I’m trying to say is this: Eddie Vedder’s vocal chords are like Secretariat’s heart. He is a freak of nature.
***Also, while I thought Matt Cameron needed a record to adjust as the band’s drummer (Binaural) in the studio, he’s a huge addition live. As much as anyone, it’s Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden) who breathes new life into the old classics, revving up the outtro for “Better Man,” or occasionally giving “Even Flow” a jolt of syncopation.
How many of you had a Pearl Jam/Radiohead final?
Do you agree with the picks?
Who’s the winner?