Top 20 Albums of the 1990s

Posted: June 9, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I knew hockey season would cause a bit of a delay in putting this together, but I didn’t expect to have a six-month gap between my 1980s list and this one. I don’t want to delay any longer, so let’s just review the guidelines: no live albums, no compilations, no more than two albums from any one artist. I shouldn’t really need to explain this one, but Foo Fighters and Nirvana are obviously considered separate artists. If you missed any of the first three entries in this series, here they are: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s.

Honorable Mentions
The Flaming Lips- The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Modest Mouse- The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Nas- Illmatic (1994)
Nirvana- In Utero (1993)
Red Hot Chili Peppers- Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)

20. Guided by Voices- Alien Lanes (1995)
The first thing you notice about Alien Lanes, before anything having to do with the music itself, is that there are 28 songs. That seems like a lot, but the album is actually just 41 minutes long; the average song is less than a minute and a half. GBV comes at you rapid-fire, knocking out one catchy snippet of lo-fi indie rock after another. There aren’t any truly great songs here, but a lot are very good. “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “As We Go Up, We Go Down,” “Motor Away,” “Blimps Go 90” and “Little Whirl” are my favorites. There’s an argument to be made for Bee Thousand being GBV’s best album, but I think Alien Lanes is more consistent start to finish.

19. Soundgarden- Superunknown (1994)
By 1994, grunge had pretty much run its course. But Soundgarden, who had been a mainstay of the grunge scene since its beginnings, hit their peak that year with Superunknown. It was, and still is, impossible for Soundgarden to escape the Led Zeppelin comparisons, but that certainly isn’t a bad thing. Their music had always been built on Kim Thayil’s powerful riffs and Chris Cornell’s incredible voice, but on Superunknown they also incorporated more melody and more layers. “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” are the album’s most popular songs and most obvious highlights, but the title track, “Let Me Drown,” “Head Down” and “The Day I Tried to Live” are fantastic as well.

18. Oasis- Definitely Maybe (1994)
First off, the fact that NME readers voted this the greatest album of all-time is ridiculous. It’s not THAT great. But Oasis’ debut is great nonetheless. Definitely Maybe helped launch the subgenre known as Britpop, which is basically a fancy term for British bands that were heavily influenced by 60s and 70s classic rock. Noel Gallagher wrote guitar-driven songs that sounded big, and brother Liam provided the vocals that soared above the noise. Opener “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” accurately predicted how big Oasis would become, while “Live Forever” and “Cigarettes & Alcohol” became their first two big hits. “Up in the Sky,” “Bring It on Down” and “Slide Away” are other personal favorites.

17. Smashing Pumpkins- Siamese Dream (1993)
The Smashing Pumpkins were mocked by the early 90s underground because their music was meticulously produced and because Billy Corgan actually wanted to be a rock star. What the detractors missed, though, was the fact that the Pumpkins made some great music. Siamese Dream combines their classic rock, heavy metal, shoegaze and pop influences into an excellent 13-song collection. “Cherub Rock” is one of the decade’s best openers, and arguably the best song the Pumpkins ever made. “Rocket” and “Geek U.S.A.” are great rockers as well, “Disarm” and “Luna” are great slower songs, and “Today” does a good job of combining the two.

16. The Dismemberment Plan- Emergency & I (1999)
Rolling Stone called Emergency & I “a game-changer for indie rock fans,” and that might actually be an understatement. It was rock at its heart, but it incorporated so many other influences as well — from R&B and hip-hop to dance and synthpop. It was unlike any album that came before it, and I’m not sure any album has sounded like it since. Travis Morrison’s lyrics tell tales of growing up and trying to make sense of life, and his voice always taps into the perfect emotion. The guitar, bass and especially Joe Easley’s drums are all great. “What Do You Want Me to Say?” is my favorite song here, but “A Life of Possibilities,” “Gyroscope,” and “8 1/2 Minutes” are all highlights as well.

15. Pearl Jam- Ten (1991)
It’s pretty funny to go back and read some of the early criticisms of Ten. Basically some critics accused Pearl Jam of simply trying to capitalize on grunge’s newfound popularity. It’s funny because 1) Ten actually came out before Nirvana brought grunge to the mainstream with Nevermind, and 2) guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament had been around the grunge scene as long as anyone — in fact, their first band, Green River, actually coined the term grunge in the early 80s. Ten incorporated a lot more classic rock than most grunge albums, but that doesn’t make Pearl Jam sellouts. Between the excellent guitar interplay from Gossard and Mike McCready and the emotional lyrics and vocals from Eddie Vedder, it’s easy to see why this album was so successful. “Even Flow,” “Alive” and “Jeremy” were all big hits, and “Once,” “Porch” and especially “Black” are all great as well.

14. Green Day- Dookie (1994)
Before a bunch of crap bands ran pop punk into the ground in the late 90s and early 2000s, Green Day perfected the sound and did it far better than anyone since. Dookie gave Green Day a surprising five hits — “Longview,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “Basket Case,” “She” and “When I Come Around.” All five are great songs, but with the possible exception of “When I Come Around” (depending on how you view those lyrics), all of them feature pretty depressing lyrics. The songs aren’t depressing to listen to, though. “Longview” makes boredom and loneliness sound kind of fun. “Basket Case” does the same with anxiety and paranoia. The hits are the best songs here, but “Burnout,” “Sassafras Roots” and “In the End” are all very good, too.

13. Elliott Smith- XO (1998)
After “Miss Misery” was nominated for an Oscar for its role in Good Will Hunting, Smith signed a major-label deal with DreamWorks. It would have been easy for Smith to sell out and make a pop album if he wanted to — in fact, a lot of the melodies here do incorporate a hint of pop. But XO isn’t overblown, and Smith didn’t try to make anything that wasn’t him. Instead, he used his newfound resources to produce fuller and more complex arrangements than anything he had made before, ones that included piano, electric guitar, strings and horns in addition to his usual acoustic guitar. My favorite songs here are “Waltz #2 (XO),” “Baby Britain,” “Independence Day” and “A Question Mark.”

12. Mercury Rev- Deserter’s Songs (1998)
Deserter’s Songs is really a unique album. The closest comparison I can think of is The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, but that’s only because both are set to music that could pass as a film score. Deserter’s Songs features all kinds of fun instruments, such as clavinet, harpsichord, mellotron, violin, woodwinds and brass instruments. Mercury Rev use all of those to create an incredible atmosphere for what are essentially pop songs — just ones that sound very different than most. “Opus 40” is one of the best songs of the decade as far as I’m concerned, and “Holes,” “Hudson Line,” “Goddess on a Hiway” and “Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp” are all awesome as well.

11. Weezer- Pinkerton (1996)
Pinkerton was widely considered a failure when it was released. Its darker themes and emotional lyrics were panned by critics, and it didn’t sell anywhere near as well as Weezer’s debut. Over time, though, Pinkerton came to be recognized as the masterpiece that it is. The lyrics were considered amateurish by many critics, and some of them are, but they’re also real. The failed relationships, the loneliness, the wondering if true love exists… that’s what Rivers Cuomo was actually feeling when he wrote these songs. As he put it, it was “like getting really drunk at a party and spilling your guts in front of everyone.” There isn’t a bad song here, but my favorites are “No Other One,” “The Good Life,” “Falling for You” and acoustic closer “Butterfly.”

10. Foo Fighters- The Colour and the Shape (1997)
On Foo Fighters’ second album, Dave Grohl shifted from the rawness of Nirvana and the Foos’ debut to a more polished, straightforward rock sound. That might sound boring on the surface, but what it ended up doing was showcasing the fact that Grohl was a great songwriter himself. “Monkey Wrench,” “My Hero” and “Everlong” are three of their best and most popular songs. “My Poor Brain,” “Wind Up” and “New Way Home” are great rockers as well. “See You” and “Walking After You” are solid acoustic numbers, while “Up in Arms” is a great shorter song that starts slow before picking up.

9. Jeff Buckley- Grace (1994)
David Bowie once said Grace was the one album he’d want to have if he was stranded on a deserted island. You can’t get much higher praise than that. Buckley’s voice is one of the best in rock history, and the songs here frequently build up to a moment when he just cuts loose. But Grace isn’t just about Buckley’s voice. The songs, and those climactic moments in particular, are made even more special by the music surrounding them. They start quiet and soothing and wind up loud and frantic. Just listen to “Mojo Pin” and the title track, both of which are masterpieces. Buckley’s remarkable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is another obvious highlight, as are “Last Goodbye,” “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” and the hard-rocking “Eternal Life.” Unfortunately for all of us, this is the only proper studio album we ever got from Buckley.

8. R.E.M.- Automatic for the People (1992)
By 1992, R.E.M. had already conquered the underground and broken through to the mainstream. Because of that expanded fanbase, Automatic for the People became the band’s most popular album, despite the fact that the music is about as far from pop as R.E.M. ever got. “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” features their trademark jangly guitar and “Man on the Moon” has a nice sing-along chorus, but the best songs here are the slow, tortured, acoustic numbers. Opener “Drive” seems to lament the changing times. “Everybody Hurts” is the greatest anti-suicide song ever made. “Nightswimming” is a beautiful, nostalgic piano ballad. “Find the River” seems to use a river as a metaphor for life, and it features the most poetic lyrics Michael Stipe ever wrote — heck, probably some of the most poetic anyone ever wrote.

7. Radiohead- OK Computer (1997)
Radiohead showed off some versatility and experimentation on their second album, The Bends, but they took it even further on OK Computer. Among others, Thom Yorke has listed The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew as influences on OK Computer, so needless to say their sights were set pretty darn high. Opener “Airbag” does a good job of mixing Radiohead’s rock side with some of the electronic experimentation to come. “Paranoid Android” is really a mini-suite, and it might be the best piece of music Radiohead ever made. “Karma Police,” with its wonderful piano and gradual build-up, is my favorite song here. “Electioneering” is straightforward guitar rock. Other highlights are “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “No Surprises” and “Lucky.” Radiohead went too deep into experimentation on their next album, Kid A — at least for my liking. But on OK Computer, they struck a perfect balance.

6. Built to Spill- There’s Nothing Wrong with Love (1994)
There’s nothing groundbreaking about Built to Spill’s music, but Doug Martsch just happens to be a lot better at making pop-oriented guitar rock than most people. From start to finish, There’s Nothing Wrong with Love is just an incredibly fun album to listen to. The riffs aren’t complicated, but they’re original and they stick in your head. Same goes for the lyrics. Martsch’s voice is unique, but easy to listen to. The guitar solos always feel perfectly placed. “In the Morning” makes for a perfect upbeat opener, while the slower “Reasons” is a nice follow-up. “Car” and “Fling” change things up by incorporating some cello. “Distopian Dream Girl” is my favorite song here — how can you not love the lyric “If it came down to your life or mine / I’d do the stupid thing / And let you keep on living”? “Some” and “Stab” are longer, semi-jam songs, and both are fantastic. “Big Dipper” and “Israel’s Song” are great as well.

5. Pavement- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
Usually on lists like this, Slanted and Enchanted would be the highest-ranked Pavement album. That’s understandable considering it was probably more influential in indie rock circles, but to me Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a much better album. Pavement became a more complete band between albums, and they moved toward more straightforward rock songs with cleaner production. Sometimes that’s a move that doesn’t work for a band, but it definitely worked for Pavement. Opener “Silence Kit” starts all over the place before settling into an awesomely melodic rock song. It’s followed by three more great songs in “Elevate Me Later,” “Stop Breathin” and “Cut Your Hair,” making for one of the best starts to any 90s album. Other highlights are the punky “Unfair,” the laid-back “Gold Soundz,” the country-tinged “Range Life” and epic closer “Fillmore Jive.”

4. Neutral Milk Hotel- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
It’s hard to classify In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. There’s some folk, some rock and some folk-rock. It can be lo-fi at times and polished at others. But the instrumentation is so unique that all of those categories seem too simplistic. In addition to your typical guitar, bass and drums, Neutral Milk Hotel makes use of trumpets, trombones, flugelhorns, organs, saxophones, zanzithophones (what now?) and bagpipes. It’s also sometimes hard to figure out what the album’s about. A lot of the songs reference Anne Frank, and Jeff Mangum has talked about how moved he was by her diary. But it’s not just a concept album about Anne Frank. Some of the songs here are about young romance and some… I have no idea what they’re about. They all sound great, though. The beautiful title track is one of the best songs of the decade as far as I’m concerned. So is the chaotic “Holland, 1945.” “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” “Two-Headed Boy,” “Oh Comely,” “Ghost” and “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” are all great as well.

3. Nirvana- Nevermind (1991)
Nevermind is one of those rare albums that might actually be better known for its cultural impact than its music. You know the story: it came out of nowhere, got a massive boost from MTV, knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the charts, and brought alternative rock to the mainstream. That’s all great, but it’s not why I have Nevermind this high. I love Nevermind simply because it’s a great freaking album. Whether you call it alternative rock, grunge, hard rock or punk, fact is Kurt Cobain put together an album without a weak spot. It incorporated all of those styles, but it did it with melody and sing-along choruses. The iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sets off a murderers’ row to open the album, as we’re hit with “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Breed” and “Lithium” before the acoustic “Polly” changes things up. Then we get five more great rockers before ending with the somber “Something in the Way,” complete with a cello. Some CD versions tack on “Endless, Nameless” at the end, but I like Nevermind more without it.

2. Weezer- Weezer (1994)
Weezer’s debut, best known as The Blue Album, is one of those albums where even though some of the lyrics are actually pretty serious, all you can think about when you listen to it is just how much fun it is to listen to. The riffs are heavy, but the songs are so melodic that they don’t really feel heavy. The choruses make you want to sing along and the solos make you want to play air guitar. “Buddy Holly,” “Undone – The Sweater Song” and “Say It Ain’t So” — which is arguably the best song Weezer ever made — all became hits and helped launch the band to stardom. “My Name Is Jonas” makes for a phenomenal opener and the eight-minute “Only in Dreams,” with its intense final crescendo, is a perfect closer. The five songs I haven’t mentioned yet are all great as well, so it’s pretty tough to find any flaws here. There are plenty of Weezer fans who give Pinkerton the nod as their best album, but while both are great, I’ll take The Blue Album.

1. Radiohead- The Bends (1995)
Radiohead’s debut album, Pablo Honey, was good, but there was nothing on it that separated them from every other alternative rock band of the early 90s. They sure as hell separated themselves with The Bends, though. To me, it’s a perfect album. Everything they do on it, they do flawlessly. Opener “Planet Telex” was their first real foray into using the studio as an instrument, and the result is excellent. The title track, “Bones,” “Just” and “Black Star” are all guitar-driven rock songs, and all of them are fantastic. “High and Dry,” “Fake Plastic Trees,” “(Nice Dream)” and closer “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” are all great softer, mostly acoustic numbers. Thom Yorke’s lyrics and vocals were as good as they’ve ever been, and the guitar interplay and Phil Selway’s drumming were more pronounced here than on any other Radiohead album.

I feel similarly about The Bends as I do about one of my top albums of the 60s, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Like Rubber Soul, The Bends is often viewed as the album that was the foundation for the band’s supposedly better albums to come. But to me, this is actually their best album. Just as the case was with The Beatles, what came after was more experimental and maybe more influential on the music business, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was better. Radiohead has never returned to the straightforward rock of The Bends, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s because Yorke realizes it would be nearly impossible to ever match The Bends.

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  1. […] If you missed any of the previous entries, check them out here: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s. […]

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