It’s still somewhat mind-boggling to me that we’re in full-fledged ’90s nostalgia mode right now. Maybe it’s because that’s the decade I (and most of the Popblerd staff) remembers most clearly, and the fact that there are full grown adults walking around whose childhood memories coincide with memories of our teenage and young adult years makes us feel…old? I mean, what other way is there to put it?
Musically speaking, the Nineties marked a sharp turn away from the previous decade. Whereas the Eighties was all about pop icons like Michael, Madonna and Prince, everything had splintered within a year or two of the new decade arriving. The most important developments had to do with the breakthrough of music that had previously only been scribbled into the margins. Hip-hop turned into a force to be reckoned with just over a decade after originating in the streets of New York. Meanwhile, alternative rock, previously the province of urban college kids, turned into the dominant album-selling genre thanks to breakthroughs by Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Nirvana. Women came into their own as singer/songwriters with the likes of Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Lauryn Hill and Fiona Apple before being forced back into the corners at the end of the decade via pop puppets like Britney and Christina.
When we decided to compile a list of what we think are the best albums of the decade, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Our staff is relatively diverse in age, ethnicity and musical taste, and there were certainly quite a few curveballs in the final list. For those of you who are interested in how this list was compiled-it’s pretty simple. 16 of us listed our favorite albums of the decade in descending order. Most of us contributed 100, several contributed less. Everyone’s highest-ranked album was given 100 points, and titles were ranked in descending quantities from there. Albums were given an extra point every time they were placed on a list, and the points were compiled by the accounting firm of Microsoft Excel.
What did we end up with? A list that pretty accurately reflects the widening musical scope of the decade. There’s lots of alternative rock, some metal, some punk, some soul, some funk, some hip-hop, a handful of singer-songwriters and even a little bit of pop. We’ll be unveiling 10 titles every day leading up to the #1 album (which won in a landslide, by the way.)
Now, on with the show…
Slanted and Enchanted primarily existed in a nerd-rock vacuum, but Pavement’s 1994 follow-up, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, found unexpected exposure thanks to MTV, of all places. The band had expanded its lineup, adding bassist Mark Ibold, percussionist/shouter Bob Nastanovich and new drummer Steve West, and the sound on Crooked Rain was still quirky, but definitely more accessible than its predecessor. “Cut Your Hair” became a surprise hit after MTV’s “120 Minutes” added it to its rotation, and the album went on to be Pavement’s most successful. The album swings from the driving rock of “Unfair” and “Hit the Plane Down” to the laconic alt-country sound of “Range Life” and the poppier “Gold Soundz.” Following up Slanted and Enchanted with Crooked Rain was a hell of a 1-2 punch for Pavement. – Jay
99. De La Soul | Buhloone Mind State (9/21/93 on Tommy Boy Records | 265,000)
OK, so you begin with a classic debut, 3 Feet High & Rising. For an encore you drop another classic, De La Soul is Dead. Has to be downhill from there, right?
Allow me to channel Charlie Murphy from his Rick James True Hollywood Story.
Buhloone Mindstate is just that. Lofty. Other worldly. On some other stuff. Conceived from a way of thinking and feeling no one else perceives. Maybe they really are Transmitting Live From Mars. Once again produced by Prince Paul, so you know the production is right. Posdnous (most underrated emcee ever imho) is a beast on the mic, Trugoy complements him perfectly and Maceo holds it down on the wheels (and occasionally on the mic). My favorite DeLa album (and that’s saying A LOT). From “Patti Dooke” (featuring a brilliantly understated guest spot from Guru), to “Ego Trippin’ pt. 2” and on to “Breakadawn”, Buhloone is ripe with hits. The star of the album though is ” I Am, I Be”. I still get chills today listening to Posdnous’s first verse. What really sets this album apart from so many other Hip Hop albums is DeLa & Paul’s ability to go outside the box. Feature a pair of Japanese rappers, performing in Japanese? Why not? (“Long Island Is Wylin'” KILLS and I have no idea what they’re saying). Just have Maceo Parker bless on the Sax? Sure. (“I Be Blowin'” will change you).
De La Soul proved that Buhloone Mindstate isn’t just an album title, its descriptive of who they are collectively. – Chuck
98. DJ Shadow | Endtroducing… (11/26/96 on Mo’Wax Records | 375,000)
The musical landscape of the 1990s was an extremely broad and eclectic mix to say the least. From the angst fueled sounds of Seattle grunge to the souled out funkyness of new jack swing, there was something for every ear, every taste. It is an amazing testament to both the era and to DJ Shadow that an album like Endtroducing can drop, dominate and garner such high acclaim despite such large and varied competition.
Known for being a crate digger with few peers, DJ Shadow puts on an absolute clinic, converting his wax knowledge into a lesson plan that so many DJ’s would come to learn from, mimic, emulate and treasure. Melodic and precise, smooth as silk. Ehhhh, its hard to define how great this album truly is. For me its akin to sneaking into the basement as a kid, thumbing through your grandfathers old records and pulling out Miles Davis. You put it on the turntable and the magic begins….you’re in awe of the originality and creativity the artist presents. Its just like that, and that’s just about the highest praise I have to offer. Endtroducing is a surreal, groundbreaking journey into sound. A journey captained from behind the wheels, of DJ Shadow. Innovator, creator and turntable manipulator. – Chuck
97. Stone Temple Pilots | Purple (6/7/94 on Atlantic Records | 4.3 million)
Music critics may have summarily dismissed the Stone Temple Pilots after the release of their 1992 debut album Core, but rock fans were squarely in the corner of the band as evidenced by healthy album sales and omnipresence of their songs on the radio. Sophomore effort Purple had a lot riding on it in that they needed to keep the fan base happy and, regardless of what the reviews would say, throw it back in the critics’ faces again with a successful album. With three huge hit singles in “Big Empty”, “Vasoline” and “Interstate Love Song”, a #1 debut on the Billboard Top 200 and sales of 6 million plus, STP proved that their debut was no joke and they were no flash in the pan. Purple laid to rest any sonic comparisons between STP and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains (two bands that lazy, jaded music critics incorrectly liked to say that they sounded exactly like) and firmly established the band’s particular brand of hard rock. The DeLeo brothers song writing talents are once again on full display here as evidenced not only by the three huge singles, but deep album cuts like “Meatplow”, “Silvergun Superman”, and “”Unglued””. Driving guitars, loud drums, grooving bass, awesome rock vocals and a keen sense of melody on display here would help make STP one of the biggest bands of the ’90s and mainstream rock radio staples for years to come. Sadly, this would be the last truly great release from the band as lead singer Weiland’s substance abuse and in-fighting in the band would impact the band’s ability to steadily release quality albums (and release albums at all). – Nick
96. GZA/Genius | Liquid Swords (10/10/95 on Geffen Records | 990,000)
One of the Wu-Tang Clan’s most famously celebrated emcees, GZA may not have the commercial potential of Method Man, the humor of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or the demented flow and gonzo hamminess of Ghostface. No, GZA instead makes his mark in gimmick-less raw rhymes, laid-back, but fluid and evocative. Liquid Swords provides him with a series of the most dank, eerie Wu-bangers RZA’s ever put to wax, and lets The Genius spit. The result may well be the best thing to come out of the Wu stable… well, ever. – Drew
She’s become funkier (and freakier) in the 15 years since her debut, but there was definitely the sense when Baduizm dropped that something special and different was happening. She wasn’t a ‘hood diva like Mary J. Blige or a dancing dervish like Janet. Erykah was a homegirl, but mature, intelligent and more than a little abstract (have y’all finally caught the 360 degrees reference in “On & On”?), with a voice that was more restrained jazz boho than caterwauling chick. Like Billie Holiday adapted for the 20th century (and yes, I know that’s a comparison that’s been made to death). With Badu handling an impressive amount of the songwriting and production (The Roots were her most notable collaborators, and they only did two tracks), the songs (like the amazing “Otherside of the Game”) stand the test of the time a lot better than the whole contrived incense and headwraps image (which she thankfully abandoned in relatively short order) did. – Blerd
94. Beck | Odelay! (6/18/96 on Interscope Records | 2.3 million)
Beck upped the ante with Odelay, his 1996 follow-up to the surprise smash Mellow Gold. Reportedly, his initial sessions were a lot more downbeat, but Beck switched gears and began working with the Dust Brothers (of Beastie Boys fame) to whip up a masterful combination of hip-hop and rock sounds. Lead single “Where It’s At” was an instant smash, with its “I’ve got two turntables and a microphone” refrain and samples of classic songs and left-field dialogue. The album is chock full of great songs: “Devil’s Haircut,” “New Pollution,” “Novocaine,” “Jack-Ass.” Odelay was a commercial and critical success, making many lists of top albums for the decade and all-time. Alas, while Beck has consistently made quality albums since then, he’s never been able to top this masterpiece. – Jay
93. Anthrax | Persistence of Time (8/21/90 on Island Records | 287,000)
92. D’Angelo | Brown Sugar (6/27/95 on Virgin Records | 1.8 million)
The neo-soul movement went major with the arrival of this cool twentysomething from Virginia. Hair in cornrows, cigarette in hand, standing over an electric piano, D’Angelo Archer radiated smoothness on his debut. Songs like the title track, his ode to the cheeba cheeba, got head nods from the hip-hop crowd while satisfying the older folks who wondered why R&B musicians didn’t play “real” instruments anymore. D had the full package, with a fantastic pen game (“Shit, Damn, Motherfucker”), heartthrob looks and a buttery voice, which he used to full effect on his cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’”. After one more album, D’Angelo took what has now amounted to an 11-year hiatus. While hope springs eternal for his return, I think it might be better for us to just appreciate this work of genius with no expectation of a return to form.- Blerd
Homogenic is a recording of remarkable beauty and atmosphere, and easily Björk’s greatest musical achievement. It strikes a perfect balance between the frenetic experimentation of her earlier albums and the moody, almost icy detachment of her later work. Those who are put off by Björk’s weirdness should give Homogenic a shot. It’s emotionally substantive and musically rich, yet still quite accessible.-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit