The Top 24 Albums of the 1990's
The old list has been condemned as too backward by many. So, by using some input, I've tried to tailor this list to people's opinions, and my own-ever expanding tastes, along with more available hindsight as to how great some albums really were. And in keeping with my hardcore traditions, I've also broken the mold and explanded the list to an astounding 24 albums (no room for 25)! Hope you enjoy, and drop me your opinions.
The Top Albums
24. Primal Scream - Screamadelica - 1991
A modern psych classic, capturing the vibrant, mind-blowing experience of Ecstacy in a joyful hybrid. Successfully balancing the jangly Beggar's Banquet-era Stones rock with the thick, trippy soundscapes of rave culture, this was the soundtrack of countless raves in the British colony circa the early 90's. If course it's easy to see why it is so acclaimed: switching between uplifting gospel-techno anthems like "Movin' On Up" and "Come Together" to sinister, dark beats like "Slip Inside This House", there's never a dull moment in the Primals' euphoric vision for a united world order.
23. Weezer - Pinkerton - 1996
Criminally overlooked. The only two words that can properly describe Weezer's mature, sophomore album. Pinkerton seemingly disappeared off the commercial radar, which is surprising because their self-titled debut was a triple-platinum success after "Buddy Holly" burned up the charts. Many people blame the flop on a decidedly un-commercial first single, and a more cynical, mature lyrical standpoint from Harvard-grad pop geek Rivers Cuomo. It is a damn shame, because this album is more diverse and rewarding than the sugar-buzz grunge of their debut. But sadly, the people never caught on, Weezer took five years with a third album, and this one was relegated to cult status. Of course, that's no problem, because that's where it gathers its true fans. So come and join the cult: it's a damn good album.
22. The La's - The La's - 1990
Although the La's followed through with almost every British band in the early 90's musical movement by creating a splash and then fading into obscurity, they deserve to be waived from one-hit-wonderdom as every song on their debut and only album is exquisitely crafted and delightfully executed. Sadly, they might not even be remembered as the crafters of the magnificent "There She Goes", that honor having been taken by christian rock band Sixpence None the Richer. A christian rock band! Covering a song about heroin! Can't be more ironic. That being said, find this album today and buy it. Every song is a potential single and, because songwriter Lee Mavers was such a perfectionist, they are all brilliant. So sad their momenum was cut short.
21. Mos Def - Black On Both Sides - 1999
As one-half of legendary Black Star, Mos Def dropped his debut solo album onto a world completely unprepared for genius. After being forcefed a barrelful of tripe rap albums after another, the general public was getting sick of rap, and yet made no effort to but this album in droves! Not surprising: this is hardly the tired blunts-and-bitches cliches of the past decade in rap. This is expansive, thought-provoking, magnificently made conscious rap. When was the last time you heard a rapper slam corporate companies for polluting the oceans with such researched zeal? Such spacey musical accompaniment and varied topics? I hope he has strong shoulders: rap's future is resting right on top of them.
20. Oasis - (What's the Story) Morning Glory? - 1995
It may have been shunned here, and it may be inconsequential to the North American buying public, but the sheer impact Oasis had in the UK, especially with this album, are just too unavoidable. After all, this is highly regarded as one of the generation's greatest statements. Oasis was a loud, racous band that established their motive with Definitely Maybe, and then followed through with it on this album. Aching, tender ballads and in-your-face, old skool rock n' roll courtesy of virtuoso songwriter/guitarist Noel Gallagher are delivered with an unparalleled sneer by his brother Liam (the voice of the generation, really). So they wore their influences loud and proud on the sleeves, or burnt out from the stratospheric success. They made two of the decade's finest rock albums, and deserve to be in a pantheon with their beloved Beatles as one of the finest rock bands Britain has produced. Absolutely essential.
19. My Bloody Valentine - Loveless - 1991
Is Kevin Shields a genius? If he isn't, he sure did the genius thing: make a brilliant, widely acclaimed, peerless album and disappear off the face of the earth. The perfect accumulation of the sheer sound that he heard in his head turned into an androgynous, warm and sexual rush of noise; Shields and partner Bilinda Butcher's voices and guitars intermingle into a wall of sound so dense, it's been over a decade and people are still hearing new sounds buried in the mix. Its huge pricetag was in no small way justified, as it is one of the grand audio statements in all of recorded music. Majestic, furious, seductive: the perfect shoegazer album.
18. The Smashing Pumpkins - "Siamese Dream" - 1993
Coming in like a flash of thunder during grunge's downward spiral, many felt these Chicago noise-niks were merely another copycat band trying to cash in. But listen again, and you will see the Pumpkins' vast range of influences: hey, is that psychedelica? Why, you damn right it is. Siamese Dream is all about the guitars: tracks laden with sometimes as many of 60 tracks of guitars, creating a heavy, buzzing tone that would start to simmer down in years to come. Although principal songwriter Billy Corgan would almost singlehandedly reach masterful perfection on Mellon Collie (a personal favorite), this album still hits heaviest and contains signature tunes like "Disarm" and "Today".
17. The Verve - Urban Hymns - 1997
It's always a sad thing when a band breaks up in their prime. There was no sadder example of this then the Verve. But then again, it might have been shallow to expect another masterpiece like this from them. Because that's what Urban Hymns is: a stone-cold, flat-out masterpiece. A rare and perfectly balanced mix of symphonic rock and bluesy jams that blends together like jelly in its 65-minute run time. While Richard Ashcroft's songwriting had in the past been dismissed as vapid romanticism, he crafted several songs that are some of the finest to come out of Britain this century. Essential.
16. The Chemical Brothers - Dig Your Own Hole - 1997
The sounds of the revolution are always so boombastic. Of course, not all of them are as loud as this. Electronica was tipped as the next big thing in 1997: it quickly fizzled out. Thankfully, we were left with this beast of an album that still sounds like a nuclear war. "Block Rockin' Beats" was indeed as the title suggested: mix with a 200-watt car stereo, and your arrival will be heralded from five blocks away. Dig Your Own Hole found that delicious common ground in between rock n' roll and techno, and bred them together to make a unique hybrid unthought of before. This is one of the hardest album to correctly pigeonhole, but then again why would you want to? As massive as Public Enemy without the politics, it could only be labeled one-of-a-kind.
15. Green Day - Dookie - 1994
Aah, the days of being young and carefree. Rarely before has a record captured the young generation's general apathy for life with such boundless energy, a heady mix of raw Sex Pistols production with bouncy Who-esque dynamism. Dookie caused a monstrous uproar among parents worried such negative lyrics would cause their kids to go astray, while said kids ate it up like candy from a stranger. Frontman Billie Joe's seemingly new-color-everyday hairstyle was national fodder and their appearance at Woodstock '94 was a classic rock n' roll moment, with the audience-band barrier broken down in a vigorous mudfight. The winner? Everyone with a child inside.
14. DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.... - 1996
Is the world going awry when hip-hop, a predominantly black musical genre, is invaded by whites? Eminem is the most captivating MC today, but back in '96, a white DJ stole everyone's thunder with a brilliant, symphonic album consisting entirely of samples. It's not as haphazard as it sounds; Shadow took piano lines, thunderous drums, guitars, surreal spoken-word pieces and mad scratches, put them all together in a way that shouldn't work (but somehow does) and made hip-hop seem expansive again. It's a testament to a man's genius when he can take cheesy old horror movie dialogue and make it seem timeless. It has been six years now since this gem was released to critical adoration reserved for the likes of Jesus and whatnot, and it seems not a day older. Classical music for the 21st Century.
13. Bjork - Post - 1995
Most people feel it is easy to dismiss Bjork for being "too weird" but they'd be missing the point: that's what she does best. No doubt that possibly only Bjork could still be considered an acquired taste after 8 albums (four with the Sugarcubes) and almost 20 years making music (most in her native Iceland). But really, who cares? After making a brilliant debut album, incidentally called Debut, we found a more introspected Bjork rather than the party oriented version we saw on said album. Post is abrasive, abstract and accessible all at once. Tracks like "Army of Me" will hit with the club-heads, "It's Oh So Quiet" could connect with the older generation that enjoys big band beats, and "Hyper-ballad" and "Isobel" will attract people with a taste for emotionally charged electronic ballads. Although it wasn't a commercial success (nor never will be), it is still a magnificent album that will only enhance anyone's collection.
12. Nirvana - In Utero - 1993
This was the album everyone hoped Nirvana wouldn't make. What they were hoping for was another smoothly polished rock album. What they got was an uncompromising and often unlistenable, but ultimately more intriguing work of art. And it was exactly those things that made In Utero work. It is well known that during this period, Kurt Cobain was undergoing severe problems with unexpected fame, a ridiculed marriage to Hole's bad girl Courtney Love and unfounded accusations of child abuse (Courtney was blamed for taking heroin during her pregnancy). The end result of the turmoil was In Utero. The album was greeted with mixed results, but it got a big thumbs-up from who it mattered most: Cobain. It's only fitting that Nirvana's last studio album was the one Cobain said he dreamed of making, the one that most closely captured the noise in his head. In time, it has been acknowledged as an album more respected than listened to. A fitting way to burn out.
11. Jeff Buckley - Grace - 1994
The most bittersweet example of being taken far too early. When Jeff Buckley drowned in the Mississippi river in 1997, his rabid collection of fans mourned the passing of young Buckely, eerily in the same manner of his cult favorite father Tim Buckley. Sadly, his vast talent and undeniable singing prowess would only translate to this, his debut and final album. His strong writing was on display in songs like "Mojo Pin" and the title track, while his choice and execution of covers by Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah"), and Nina Simone ("Lilac Wine") portray a wide range of influences. One can only wonder what masterpieces he might have created with more time. A thanks to all those fans E-mailing about the power of the album: you were all right. Thanks.
10. Public Enemy - Fear of a Black Planet - 1990
"Elvis was a hero to some but he didn't mean shit to me." And it's on! After the controversial, revolutionary napalm bomb of It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, PE returned to the limelight at the height of their notoriety having dismissed Professor Griff for anti-Semitic remarks, still spitting their controversial agenda in everybody's face, whether you liked it or not. It couldn't have been easy following up an instant classic like their sophomore album, but Chuck D and Terminator X had other tricks up their sleeves: a denser, angrier call-to-arms that many thought would be impossible to pull off. Although it sounds dated compared to new recording technology, Fear of a Black Planet is still a shocking, magnetic tour-de-force. Move or be trampled.
9. Beastie Boys - Check Your Head - 1992
There are always albums that are adored by individuals worldwide as being trememdous achievements, yet never really often make that adoring transition over to the mainstream. The Beastie Boys have long been regarded as one fucked-up band. Starting off in the early 80’s as a hardcore band in New York, they made the move to being goofy white-boy rappers with street-cred, to being psychedelic pastiche creators. But on Check Your Head they made a dual forward-backward transition: picking up the old instruments whilst taking genre-mixing to the next level. A musical stew of anything that can be put together, Head is one of the generation’s most adventurous albums. For a while people had forgotten that the Beasties had actually played instruments: but damn, could they play well. And we were reminded in most convincing fashion with this gumbo of flavors, tickling the funny bone and beating your skull in with hardcore precision. Check my head, I think I'm delerious.
8. The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin - 1999
Every once in a while, there comes along an album that is so strange, and yet so familiar, that you can only stop with your opinions and gawk stupidly at its awesome power. The Flaming Lips abandoned their older, more rocking sound for the album the Beach Boys might have made after Smile had Brian Wilson not gone mad. Although he might have if he heard this. Indeed, any band would kill to call this album their own: the majestic orchestration, the brilliant melodies, the off-kilter lyrics about space and love and science; Sgt. Pepper’s band viewing the dark side of the moon listening to pet sounds couldn’t have made an album so daring and touching. Wayne Coyne’s songwriting blossoms in a nebula of rich colors and unexpectedly touching wordplay. There’s not a lot of adjectives to describe this album properly, not with the seemingly effortless encapsulation of the past 40 years of pop music into a mere hour. The only one this awed listener can think of is bloody genius. Get it. Today. You’ll never ever regret it.
7. Radiohead - The Bends - 1995
When Radiohead was on the climb to their guitar-playing prime, they made magic. Debut album Pablo Honey is largely unremarkable and sadly forgotten, while third album OK Computer is considered untouchable art. But it was a quiet sophomore album released to little fanfare that slowly but surely took over the world and set the stage for the drama to follow. Now widely revered as the "second greatest rock album made" behind the unbiquitous Revolver, it is easy to see why: a magnificent album devoid of fillers (even OKC had "Fitter, Happier"), and a quiet depression about it. Make no mistakes, this isn't Radiohead unplugged; the moments where they decide to rock are as heavy as you could ask for, but it's on the quiet songs that they shine: "Fake Plastic Trees", "High and Dry", "[nice dream]" and "Street Spirit" are all fragile works of art where nobody leaves without being deeply moved. A quiet triumph.
6. Dr. Dre - The Chronic - 1992
Compton, Los Angeles, has been credited with breeding gangsta rap. Native sons NWA's 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton was a violent trip down the streets, whereas former member Dr. Dre's debut showcases the party atmosphere. Of course, this isn't your upper-class milk-and-crumpet party. Blunts, 40's, and bitches. And, oh yes, the chronic. That's how the parties in Compton go down. Not to mention with the guns and air of tension, awaiting the inevitable drive-by. Pretty dangerous to include all this in album made for public consumption, but the public consumed to the tune of 3 million sold. In retrospect, it's easy to see why: the beats are irresistable, the sing-along hooks even more so. How many kids were inspired to tell a fella "it's like this and like that and like this an-a" while wearing pants three sizes too big? The Chronic was the spark that shot the smoke of hip-hop into the mainstream and contributed to the stale, multi-billion industry it is today. Too bad they don't make albums this vibrant and organic anymore.
5. U2 - Achtung, Baby! - 1991
Perhaps the greatest transformation a pop band ever underwent, maybe even bigger than the Beatles themselves, U2 went from a religiously influenced anthem band in the Eighties to prophets of the TV age in Nineties. This album was no Joshua Tree; it was an exciting foray into the electronic genre in which U2 would spend the Nineties. At the end of the decade that U2 helped to characterize, it was either sink or swim: their religious prophet schtick was getting tired, and 1988's Rattle and Hum was a fatal mistake that almost did them in. After a tense studio session in Berlin that nearly tore the band apart, guitarist the Edge lay down a guitar riff and Bono improvised lyrics that would become their finest work: the ballad "One". Of course the rest is history. Critically adored for being the brave transformation U2 needed to stay credible in a new age, it has also become the band's second-most revered album among their fans: the dark, turbulent yin to the Joshua Tree's dark, more straightforward yang. The strong flow of songs is never disrupted and it has been regarded as the band's Revolver. Whatever it is, it can be regarded as the album that saved U2 -- and the Nineties. How ironic.
4. Bjork - Homogenic - 1997
Singularily the most creative, stimulating artist of the decade. Any artist could feel free to call it a day if they release an album as acclaimed and brilliant as Bjork did with Post. However, she needed a challenge and decided to challenge her listeners in turn with this extreme, heavy, and dark album seemingly not from this world. Bjork has always come across as a quirky personality, which is why Homogenic's bleak world view is shocking even now. Marrying minimalist techno with soaring orchestras, she took electronic music not to the next step, but the next millennia: everything is so delicately balanced and yet so dangerously precarious it's hard to believe it holds up so well with time. Challenging and highly rewarding, this is what music should be like.
3. Beck - Odelay - 1996
Like a kid in a candy store. At least that's how some people feel when listening to Beck's wildly eclectic, genre-hopping opus. A breath of fresh air if there ever was one, Odelay was a critical smash and unexpected commercial success when singles "Where It's At" and "The New Pollution" lit up the airwaves and MTV with creative videos and fresh sounds drawn from obscure funk samples and a fun approach to making new sounds. This is a rare album that still hits like a ton of bricks with its exhilarating creativity, especially when heard through headphones. The one thing working against it is that it's not an especially cohesive album: it reads more like a collection of fascinating short stories rather than a genius novel. But of course that shouldn't hinder anyone: they are very fascinating short stories indeed. Pure ear candy that does not rot the brain.
2. Radiohead - OK Computer - 1997
Supposedly an artist can only grow at a pre-determined pace. It takes real skills to go from one masterpiece to another, and very few have done it in so short a time as Radiohead. It's no surprise, then, that after the exponential growth shown on this gem after The Bends allows it to already be hailed as one of music's greatest achievements: a dense, neurotic album about life in modern times, surrounded by the machines that constantly threaten to engulf mankind. Sounds risque? It was, but being the genius songwriters and talented musicians that Radiohead are, they made the album feel as breezy easy as playing a G-chord. In all reality, no band should be able to create such genius so relatively early in their careers (especially not the third album), but Radiohead are a breed apart: determined, talented, and a huge emphasis on quality over quantity (because, really, everyone wanted a Bends No. 2). How good are the songs? Damn good; they held up as a parts of a complete vision very well while standing tall by themselves. The jagged guitar riff and loopy drums of "Airbag" will still excite the way it did five years ago; the three-part rush of "Paranoid Android" still kicks ass, and the album's second side is still unparalleled in superiority. Where the first side is meant to jerk you around, side 2 is a complete mindfuck where you can't fight the power: you have to surrender to it. Will it be regarded as highly as Revolver in following years? Only time will tell, but for now, this is the most important rock album since the Beatles' golden era.
1. Nirvana - Nevermind - 1991
Ten years can do so much. It still seems like yesterday when you tuned into MTV and saw a grimy pep gathering in a rank gym. A clean, impossibly simple chord progression suddenly lurches into heavy distorsion while the drums threaten to bash your skull in. And in those 12 seconds, a legend was born; the orgasmic, angry rush of Gen-X was completed, and the world changed. It was the penultimate musical and cultural moment of the decade, the end of one era and the start of another. Or so we thought. Of course, we all know the sad story of the brilliant, magnetic and utterly tormented Kurt Cobain: a nobody with no intentions of going big, suddenly on top of the world with more adoration than he can handle, in the cold ground within two years. Before Kurt and Nirvana, the music world was a festering wasteland: after him, the music world was a festering wasteland, with pale imitations of his brilliant band that only make life worse. No band has had such a sudden and immediate impact on the culture since perhaps the Beatles (Joy Division's was more gradual, though just as short). And even though Nirvana would make a better album in In Utero, they would never top the impact of Nevermind and its still-excitable and awesome tracklist that reads like a greatest hits on its own. It could be argued that this album isn't as strong as people would care to think; that it didn't really change everything in the long run, but rather killed rock and opened the doors for the Teen Plague. That the songs are dilute Pixies tributes (a thought supported by Kurt himself). That it was overproduced. None of these facts could be argued against too easily, but the one fact that is interchangable is the fact that this album was American rock's last hurrah; enormous in its impact, bigger in its lasting influence. People will tell me that Bjork, Beck or Beastie Boys deserve the top spot, but I have to disagree and give it to the little blond man who came to us as if straight from heaven: infallible in his short career, touching so many lives and tearing apart so much more in his selfish final act. Wherever he is, I'm sure he's enjoying seeing people debate over his influence in his small worldly output. Rest in peace: thanks for the music.
The last great American Band (Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic)
Updated list with brand-new reviews for brand-new albums. Tell me what you thought.