Winner: "Possum Kingdom"
Gary Clark Jr., "When My Train Pulls In" vs. Lissie, "Record Collector"
Winner: "When My Train Pulls In"
Strokes, "Reptilia" vs. Rolling Stones, "Gimme Shelter"
Winner: "Gimme Shelter"
Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks" vs. Joel Plaskett Emergency, "Somewhere Else"
Winner: "When the Levee Breaks"
Temptations, "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" vs. Robbie Williams, "Rock DJ"
Winner: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
White Stripes, "Stop Breaking Down" vs. Stella Ella Ola, "Summerette"
Winner: "Stop Breaking Down"
Sloan, "The Answer Was You" vs. Rentals, "Move On"
Winner: "The Answer Was You"
Van Halen, "Running With The Devil" vs. The Doors, "Love Her Madly"
Winner: "Running With the Devil"
Feist, "How Come You Never Go There" vs. Who, "Love Reign Oer Me"
Winner: "Love Reign Oer Me"
R.E.M. "Sitting Still" vs. Barenaked Ladies, "The Old Apartment"
Winner: "The Old Apartment"
A weird thing started happening in round 2 of this tournament: the matchups started becoming a lot less outlandish, a lot more even. Not even in the sense of, "How do I choose between these excellent songs," but even in the sense that many of the songs are comparable, and a fairly easy case is to be made why one might be better than the other. I love the Strokes, and there are superficial similarities between them and the Stones, but no-way-no-how is "Reptilia," excellent, bracing, exciting song it is, better than "Gimme Shelter." Likewise, I'd pick Sloan's symphonic power pop pleasure over The Rentals' symphonic power pop pain, the White Stripes' simplicity over Stella Ella Ola's, Van Halen over the Doors... and so forth. There's no shame in Joel Plaskett being felled by that Led Zeppelin song, and while I love Lissie's work, it just has no counter for the gripping guitar work in Gary Clark's.
The most notable matchup above, which were all fairly easy choices for me, was The Black Keys against Toadies. Both are creepy, semi-sexy, sneering, lustful rock songs, but while "Howling For You" is straightahead blues rock (and all the better for it,) Toadies has that 90s quirk, that something extra that every band in that decade needed to survive. I salute it.
Below, however, things started getting trickier. A lot of these are still similar, but a lot harder to pick.
Arcade Fire, "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" vs. The Beatles, "Happiness is a Warm Gun"
An argument could be made that John Lennon was as good on accident (as on the rather tossed-off "Happiness is a Warm Gun") as Arcade Fire is on purpose, but with sheer heart and grandeur, I give it to the new kids. Stunning upset.
Winner: "Neightborhood #1 (Tunnels)"
Weezer, "Say It Ain't So" vs. Smashing Pumpkins, "Tonight Tonight"
Both products of the 90s, both great, but inverse: Weezer was doing rough-edged pop, Pumpkins were doing sweetened art. I think in this case, "Tonight Tonight" is a feeling, and a good one, but "Say It Ain't So" is an emotion: a concrete statement.
Winner: "Say It Ain't So"
Oasis, "Wonderwall" vs. David Bowie, "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)"
If it weren't for the fact that I have to put Nirvana against Radiohead down below, this might be the toughest pick. On the one hand, "Wonderwall" seems really easy to dismiss. It's fluff, it doesn't quite come together, it glides through the mind like the hooky radio pop-via-feels that it is. And the Bowie is rather sophisticated both in its lyrics and its arrangement. Twenty years on, I might be tempted to reject Oasis just based on their reputation, but we never truly do understand our addictions, and there are many ways a song can inject itself into us.
Belle & Sebastian, "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" vs. Exploding Hearts, "Sleeping Aides and Razor Blades"
Here's just about the perfect snapshot of the breadth of "what I am willing to listen to (and love.)" One of these songs features a sultry-sweet guest vocal from Norah Jones. One of them rhymes "so hard" with "retard." And I have trouble choosing between them. It's true! Do I submit to my weepy, twee, chamber pop craving, or fall back on my instincts that everything must rock as much as possible. The perfectly fine-tuned, or the perfectly imperfect?
One of these songs grips me while I'm listening, but one lingers in my bones when it's over.
Winner: "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John"
Stars, "Wasted Daylight" vs. The Hold Steady, "Lord, I'm Discouraged"
This one was not that hard, per se, and I'd like to renew my warning that my personal affection for this Hold Steady track may ultimately overrule every single other song in this tournament. We'll see. But these aren't without comparison. The Stars song is a wonderfully restrained, depressed, deflated vocal from the lovely Amy Millan, and a very minimal production, even when it "gets going." I would like to praise the whole aesthetic of "Wasted Daylight" as embodying most of what I love about Stars. What the Hold Steady song brings, aside from a perfect evocation of despair that comes close to the brink but never steps over the line into exaggeration and caricature, using tried and true rock methods like a light piano touch and a ringing guitar. It's a staggering giant.
Winner: "Lord, I'm Discouraged"
Radiohead, "Let Down" vs. Nirvana, "Heart-Shaped Box"
Is "Heart-Shaped Box" just a grunge song? Just a lot of sound and fury and distorted guitars? While "Let Down" is a symphonic, dreamlike, or perhaps nightmarish, piece of artwork, a slow-burning rage inside the mind? It's the kind of suppressed fury and outright suspicion at the modern world seeded through the whole of OK Computer, through "Fitter Happier" and "Karma Police." The way it sparkles and lilts as Thom Yorke mumbles, "Don't get sentimental / It always ends up drivel... Let down and hangin' around / Crushed like a bug in the ground..." it's as smart and well crafted as any alt rock song ever was, an elevation of the art form.
But perhaps "Heart-Shaped Box" is something even more rare: it is rage given form. There is something so perfect - a word not to be used lightly - about Nirvana, when they were on. It begins with that deliberately struck chord, notes falling from the sky like bombs. Nirvana's music is not the triumphant ode to swaggering rock and rollism, it's a rejection of everything that's supposed to be good: hate of the world, the culture, the self, the body. Hate of love. Kurt delivers the verses like a prisoner beaten down, the choruses like a revolutionary, with a fury that has never been matched by any vocalist. Guitars wail unprettily, unpreciously, behind him like malevolent demons howling from the pit. It's not for show, it's not a put-on, a pretense for a wicked solo or a snappy hook. He doesn't want you to like it, he wants to troll the fuck out of you. When was the last time you loved a song that hated your guts?
I don't know if I'm right. I don't know if Kurt Cobain would agree, disagree, or even give a shit about my reading of his music. All I know is that he gave it up, he gave it to me, and to all of us, when he killed himself nearly 20 years ago. He left it, and we took it, and I'm keeping it.
Winner: "Heart-Shaped Box"