This feature originally ran in October 2015. We’re reposting it for the 35th anniversary of Let It Be.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, Ryan Bray and Collin Brennan debate over The Replacements’ two most iconic albums.
The Replacements’ career trajectory spanned 12 years and seven records, but the sizable bulk of their legend is couched in one pivotal year-long stretch in the mid-’80s. October 1984 saw the release of Let It Be, the arrival of The Replacements as fans still lovingly remember them today; wayward, wreckless, funny, and utterly human. The Minneapolis band followed up the album a year later to the month with Tim, a logical extension of the brash rock ‘n’ roll and heart-on-sleeve balladry showcased on its predecessor.
Thirty-five years later, the argument still persists between Replacements obsessives who favor one record versus the other, and for good reason. The parity between Let It Be and Tim is so strong that it almost begs you to take the former record’s advice. Why split hairs between “I Will Dare” and “Bastards of Young?” Is there really any quantifiable way of proving that “Answering Machine” is a superior song to “Here Comes A Regular?” It’s about as close to a push as you’ll find between any two records in the alternative rock cannon.
My colleague Collin Brennan is an unapologetic Tim supporter, while I favor that critical transitional period highlighted on Let It Be. But being the suckers that we are for a good musical debate, we thought we’d roll up our sleeves and dive into the issue headfirst, weighing the pros and cons of each record track by track. It was every bit the emotional train wreck you’d imagine it to be, but hey, nothing a case of beer couldn’t fix.
“I Will Dare” vs. “Hold My Life”
Ryan Bray: “Hold My Life”, you were a formidable opponent. But did you really think you’d slip past “I Will Dare”? Don’t take offense, there’s few tracks in the Replacements’ catalog that can best it. Track one of Let It Be pretty much lays the blueprint for what we still understand the band to be more than 30 years later. It’s jangle pop, college rock, pre-alternative, and couched in the kind of 20-something distress that’s long made the band coming-of-age musical heroes. Plus it’s got Peter Buck playing on a fucking mandolin.
Collin Brennan: I’m taking the side of Tim in this general discussion, so our first matchup puts me at a pretty immediate disadvantage. “I Will Dare” is that rare song that shows every side of the Replacements at once. It’s a love song that’s either sinister or goofy depending on the mood you’re in. If you’re trying to explain the phrase “college rock” to an alien and you have just over three minutes to do it, you could do a lot worse than these three minutes.
Winner: Let It Be
“Favorite Thing” vs. “I’ll Buy”
Collin Brennan: “I’ll Buy” feels like Tim’s answer to the excellent “I Will Dare”, and not just because the titles are so similar. It’s got the same jangly rock ‘n’ roll vibe, the same penchant for wordplay (“Don’t wanna get pop, find yourself a rockin’ chair”), and a sort of preemptive nostalgia that’s hard to pin down. Listening to this song is like looking at an old Polaroid of you and your friends at the beach. “Favorite Thing” is cool, too, but it’s the kind of song that grabs you by force instead of reeling you in slowly. Oh, and the chorus of “I’ll Buy” hinges almost entirely on a pun. To that I say: I’ll buy, goodbye.
Ryan Bray: Collin’s right in that “Favorite Thing” grabs you by force, but that’s exactly why I’ll champion it here. Let It Be marked the point where the Replacements started steadily moving away from the raucous misfit rock and roll that colored its earliest releases, but the cut proves that they still hadn’t lost their taste for loose bratty fun even in the midst of their musical maturation. Also, “Favorite Thing” is, in fact, my favorite thing the Mats have done, so it’s hard for me to be too objective.
“We’re Comin’ Out” vs. “Kiss Me On The Bus”
Ryan Bray: I know I’m supposed to be in the Let It Be camp here, but it’s time to give Tim a little love. I’ll start by taking “Kiss Me On The Bus” over “We’re Comin’ Out.” Considering how much of the Mats’ power derives from Westerberg’s ability to tap into the heart of post adolescent life, what’s more relatable than pining for someone that seems just a bit out of your reach? Admittedly the band goes to this thematic place a lot, but “Kiss Me On The Bus” still feels so perfectly in touch with the source material Westerberg is tackling.
Collin Brennan: “Kiss Me On The Bus” is the song that ended up on all of my mixtapes in high school. This was years before I started riding the bus to work every day in Chicago, around which time I learned that people making out on public transportation is not as pretty as it sounds. Either way, this one’s the platonic ideal of ‘Mats tunes: kind of dirty, kind of sloppy, but imbued with a deep strain of romanticism that wins you over. “We’re Comin’ Out” is pretty one-dimensional by comparison, though I am a sucker for those finger snaps.
“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” vs. “Dose of Thunder”
Collin Brennan: I’ll grant that “Tommy” is probably the funniest song on either album, but give me one good dose of thunder over a paean to dental malpractice any day of the week. Both tracks trace their lineage back to ‘70s glam rock (and, more specifically, the New York Dolls), but “Dose of Thunder” is the one that’s built to last. I’ll also mention that — look! — we’re four tracks into the album and haven’t stumbled on any throwaway goofball songs yet. This matchup is probably the one that best illustrates the difference between Let It Be and Tim: the former is the work of a band still figuring out its shit, while the latter is locked in and fully loaded.
Ryan Bray: Don’t take this as me throwing in the towel, but Collin’s right. Let It Be is a classic, but it still has one foot partially stuck in the band’s sophomoric origins. “Tommy Got His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got A Boner” are funny and insolent, but they also ever so slightly detract from the emotional power of the other nine tracks on the record. Tim isn’t held back by quite as much silliness, and “Dose of Thunder” is catchy and musically assured in the way that “Tommy” just isn’t.
“Androgynous” vs. “Waitress in the Sky”
Collin Brennan: I’ve been unacceptably hard on Let It Be so far, so I’ve got to throw some props over to “Androgynous” here. Weirdly, both songs in this matchup revolve around some kind of gender politics. “Waitress” is more of a cynical romp than an actual rant against flight attendants, and the real joke is on the asshole up in first class who feels entitled to have his every whim catered to (you know the type). But it still doesn’t hold up as well as its counterpart, a piano ballad that feels more relevant and zeitgeisty today than it did even 30 years ago.
Ryan Bray: We … have no rebuttal. That was perfect. (Cue audience cheering)
Winner: Let It Be
“Black Diamond” vs. “Swingin Party”
Ryan Bray: I’ve never been much of a KISS fan, and on first guess, I wouldn’t have initially thought that the Replacements were, either. But that just makes their retooling of “Black Diamond” all the more subversively rewarding. KISS in so many ways are the anti-Replacements, or maybe the Replacements are the anti-KISS, what with their outward rejection of garish, ornate rock and roll. I guess I just like the juxtaposition, and the Mats’ ability to bring the song into their Minnesotan corner of the world wins me over in the end.
Collin Brennan: To go against a trashy KISS cover is to defy everything I thought I knew about myself, but “Swingin Party” is too good to not win this one outright. It’s among the most grownup songs in the band’s entire catalog, a counterpoint to the youthful exuberance of Let It Be and an admission that age carries with it a bitter kind of wisdom. The ascending scale and staccato chords hint that Westerberg was already expanding the scope of his songwriting, and “Swingin Party” anticipates his solo career in both theme and ambition.
“Unsatisfied” vs. “Bastards of Young”
Collin Brennan: This is a farce. You could tell me that these are the two best Replacements songs ever and I would probably stare off into space for a second, nod my head, and say, “You know, you’re probably right.” The 12-string intro to “Unsatisfied” still makes me stop in my tracks, and “Bastards of Young” remains the best dive-bar karaoke song on this godforsaken planet. So, yeah, it’s a wash. I’m going to do the responsible music-critic thing here and force Ryan to decide.
Ryan Bray: Well, shit. If ever there was a case study for how neck-and-neck these two records are, here it is. “Unsatisfied” is one of the most cathartic entries in the Replacements’ healthy stock of emotional bruisers, and it’s positively one of Westerberg’s best songs, Mats or otherwise. But on the other hand, “Bastards of Young” is the Mats’ anthemic rallying cry. It’s pretty much the song that cements their status as outsider champions, and there’s a power and gravity to it that really carries it above almost any song in their catalog. Throw in the subversive music video starring the world’s most famous stereo speaker, and we have a winner.
“Seen Your Video” vs. “Lay It Down Clown”
Collin Brennan: “Lay It Down Clown” is probably my least favorite song on Tim. It’s essentially a more subdued, straightlaced version of the wild rockers that were commonplace on “Hootenanny” and still showed up every so often on Let It Be. Not quite one I’d skip, but definitely not on the same level as “Seen Your Video”, which takes a page out of The Clash’s book in calling out “phony rock ‘n’ roll” bands. Of course, there’s a lesson to be learned from all of that righteous posturing: we all eventually become what we hate.
Ryan Bray: Yeah, “Seen Your Video” hasn’t aged as well as much of Let It Be, but judged in the context of the era in which it was written, the song works. Westerberg eventually overcame his distaste for mainstream radio and MTV, but in 1984 he meant it, and that bonebred suspicion for all things cool and fashionable is one of the things that really make this song tick. “Lay It Down Clown” is fun, but I’m towing the party line here.
Winner: Let It Be
“Gary’s Got A Boner” vs. “Left of the Dial”
Collin Brennan: “Left of the Dial” is the first Replacements song I ever heard, so nostalgia weighs heavily on this matchup for me. But come on. “Gary’s Got a Boner”? It’s fun, it’s crass, and it rocks as much as it needs to, but it wilts next to one of the most iconic college-rock anthems of the 1980s. Now, when “Left of the Dial” comes on the jukebox, I almost get a — nevermind. Next question!
Ryan Bray: Well, you see, the thing about “Gary’s Got A Boner” is… I mean, when we talk about “Gary’s Got A Boner”, what makes it… ::sigh:: I’ve got nothing.
“Sixteen Blue” vs. “Little Mascara”
Ryan Bray: I like “Little Mascara”, but I love “Sixteen Blue”. It’s one of many crossover tracks that find the band emerging from its noisy cocoon and stepping into the realm of good, solid power pop. One of the best attributes of the Replacements was their ability to be sentimental without souring their rock and roll credentials, and “Sixteen Blue” is a great example of such. When Westerberg sings “Your age is the hardest age, everything just drags and drags,” he speaks with the kind of wisdom that’s well beyond his years. That, to me, just never gets old.
Collin Brennan: This is another matchup that makes me want to pound my fists on the table and scream, “Life’s not fair!” I’m picking “Little Mascara” for the sole reason that it gets stuck in my head way more often. “All you’re ever losin’ is…” (I’ll let you finish the line). “Sixteen Blue” is also a very good song about the ups and downs of teendom. If I was still a teen myself, it would probably win. Ah, the forlorn rags of growing old.
“Answering Machine” vs. “Here Comes a Regular”
Collin Brennan: I’m going to paint you a picture, Ryan. It’s late Tuesday night. You’re sitting in your favorite dive bar in Boston, nursing a lukewarm beer next to a townie who looks like he’s ready to kill himself after the latest Red Sox loss. Which is the first song you’d want to hear in this moment? “Here Comes a Regular” is the answer I’m looking for. It’s the one song in the world that convinces me, for a few minutes at least, that drinking Schlitz can be a downright poetic way to waste one’s time. “Answering Machine” may be a perfect closer, but “Here Comes a Regular” is the best song ever written for a very specific context. Now, let’s toss these back and hit the road.
Ryan Bray: As usual, Collin makes a convincing argument. But to get autobiographical for a second, there was a period in college where the stress, angst, and emotional frustration of “Answering Machine” felt downright tangible (although circa 2002 this song would have been called “Voicemail”). Anyone who has ever suffered through the slings and arrows of a relationship on the outs understands this song from the inside out, so for me it wins. But I can’t wrap up this entry without acknowledging the emotional depth of “Here Comes A Regular.” There can only be one winner, but damn what a great song to drown your sorrows to.
Collin Brennan: Speaking of stress, angst, and emotional frustration, it’s time to tally up the scores. If my basic math skills haven’t failed me, the final count looks something like this:
Let It Be: 3
A real photo finish! So there you have it, folks. Tim is indisputably the better album because the numbers say so. And numbers don’t lie. Now, I’m not going to say we rigged the results or anything, but we did frame this conversation as a celebration of Tim‘s 30th anniversary. Just saying. You should have seen this one coming, Let It Be fans. The writing was on the wall.