I could write a preface to this and each installment in this series, but seriously (to quote the title of one of 1990’s biggest albums), what can I say about the Nineties that a VH-1 soundbite hasn’t already said? Good God, what does that say about my ability to come up with a good soundbite? I’m going back to bed now.
Here’s #90-#81. Venture a guess as to what #1 is yet? Pissed off because your favorite album didn’t make the list?
Just when I had written Judas Priest off after a few subpar albums, they roared back to life with Painkiller. Listening to the thundering Scott Travis drum part that starts the record is as exhilirating now as it was more than 20 years ago. As satisfying and kickass as albums like Sad Wings of Destiny and British Steel were back in the day, so was Painkiller in the ’90s. This is a masterclass in metal, my friends.-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
89. Wilco | Summerteeth (released 3/9/99 on Warner Bros. Records | 331K)
Considering how easily Wilco moved from pop traditionalists to advocates of restless experimentation, it’s easy to forget how purely likable Wilco’s 90’s masterpieces – Summerteeth and the just-as-excellent Being There – once were. If Being There was the Wilco version of country-rock, Summerteeth brought the pure pop of Brian Wilson and the acerbic, deceptively bouncy songwriting of Elvis Costello together for a whirlwind collabo, and the results are fascinating. In terms of pure exuberance and gooey pop goods, the Wilco of Summerteeth give the boys in Fountains of Wayne a run for their money; and they temper it, brilliantly, with songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s most excavating, personal set of lyrics yet, blending pop sheen with domestic dischord and dark drama. It’s all very exciting stuff, and while Wilco made a welcome return to form earlier this year with their excellent (and unburdened by overbearing experimentation) The Whole Love, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t, secretly, wish the Wilco of Summerteeth would stop by for just one more glorious record. – Drew
88. Boyz II Men | Cooleyhighharmony (released 2/14/91 on Motown Records | 7 million)
Remember when Biv was in control of these guys? Well, if all of your knowledge of Boyz II Men starts with their super successful sophomore album II, then you probably didn’t know that. Michael Bivins of New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe fame, decided to market the group as a nerdy New Edition and somehow, it worked. I’m not sure how or why it worked, but my best guess is that their vocals overshadowed the weird marketing strategy. Or the 90s were just wacky. The album title comes from the movie Cooley High in which the lead character, Cochise is murdered before he has a chance to go to college and play basketball. At the end of that movie a song plays at Cochise’s funeral performed by G.C. Cameron. I’m not sure how these guys pulled it off, but their cover of the same funeral song, “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” became a radio hit. It followed up first single “Motownphilly” which was more of an introduction to the group and how they met Biv. What makes the album memorable isn’t just the first two singles. “Please Don’t Go” is probably one of their 5 best songs ever. And if you have the reissue, “In The Still Of The Night” is vocally as impressive as anything they’ve ever put out. While II will always overshadow anything they’ve ever done, I still enjoy their first album. And I’m still not sure where Biv went.-GG
87. Tool | Undertow (released 4/6/93 on RCA Records | 2.9 million)
That sound. That sound of either an outboard motor sputtering out or something circling down a drain that starts off Undertow just sticks with you. It’s the first sound you hear as “Intolerance” is only seconds away from starting up and it’s just one of those unforgettable album openers. What it evokes is something dark is on its way. I can’t scrub my brain of those Claymation videos for “Prison Sex” and “Sober”. Or even of the album cover – a seemingly undulating, sinister red mass against a black background.
It’s long been documented that Maynard’s whole reason d’être musically is to create a space for catharsis. He would probably even dispute what he does could even be called art. We know better though. His torture is fodder for great hard rock. The inner-play between Danny Carey, Paul D’Amour and Adam Jones at the end of “Crawl Away” is sickeningly good. Maynard dances between Jones’ riffs and the din of Carey’s cymbal crashes like no one’s business. The guitar wails by Jones sounded fresh and driven – taking equally from Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Van Halen and Rush. Metal, classic and progressive rock all blended in one brilliant guitarist.
Listening eighteen years later, you really see the richness of what Adam Jones accomplishes on Undertow. It’s been oft-replicated on subsequent Tool releases, but here – it truly serves as brilliance.
This is not hair metal. This is not grunge. This is not Metallica. But rather, it’s a standalone entity that in years that follow will be replicated ad nauseum by a class of nu metal bands. Tool’s luster would, in my mind, falter after Aenima, but throughout this album – something exceptional happened.
“Flood” will be forever linked with the quiet coo from Maynard: “I was wrong…this changes…everything.” In essence, this is exactly what Undertow did.-KBOX
86. Pavement | Slanted & Enchanted (released 4/28/92 on Matador Records | 277K)
The prevailing currents of alternative rock in 1992 had no answer for Pavement, which released one of the strangest and most influential albums of the decade with Slanted and Enchanted. The brainchild of frontman Stephen Malkmus and guitarist Spiral Stairs, Slanted was an unexpected low-fi cavalcade of jagged riffs, quirky couplets and herky-jerky vocals. You didn’t hear “Summer Babe (Winter Version),” “In the Mouth a Desert,” “Two States” or “Conduit for Sale!” on the radio and you never will. Slanted and Enchanted proved that musicians who seemingly had no hope at commercial success could succeed on their own terms. –Jay
85. Me’Shell N’degeOcello | Plantation Lullabies (released 10/19/93 on Maverick/Warner Bros. Records | 340K)
The first track on Plantation Lullabies, the debut album by singer/rapper/bassist/songwriter/dynamo Me’Shell Ndegeocello, is “I’m Diggin’ You (Like An Old Soul Record)”. That song is now as old as the music she referenced in that song was then. Crazy, huh? While not as commercially well-received as efforts by followers like D’Angelo, Jill Scott or Erykah Badu, Lullabies is the album that officially kicked off the “neo-soul” revolution. Madonna (who signed Meshell to her aptly-named Maverick label) was an early supporter, but the pop audience might have been a little scared off by Meshell’s shorn-headed visage and her occasional forays into militance (“the white man shall forever sleep with one eye open” she forcefully intones on one track, a lyric that caused several fans to walk out of the club where I first saw her perform in 1994). Nevertheless, this album is a tour-de-force of musicianship, smart lyricism and general attitude, and if you were paying attention, you would have noticed that Meshell made baby-makin’ jams on par with the rest of soul music royalty. Ask Brian McKnight, who made a baldfaced jack of the single “Outside Your Door”’s piano melody to use in his own hit single “Anytime” without giving Meshell any credit. While casual pop and rock fans may only vaguely recall Meshell as John Mellencamp’s duet partner on his career-resuscitating cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”, Plantation Lullabies kicked off not only a new era in soul music, but the career of one of popular music’s most talented (and consistently dope) women.-Blerd
84. Kyuss | Blues for the Red Sun (Released 6/30/92 on Atlantic Records | 87K)
One of my top five of all time, one of my desert island discs. The album that was the catalyst for creating my musical identity. Blues For The Red Sun, the album that kicks the sophomore slump in the ass. Even today it sounds like nothing out there. Stoner rock is such a limited category for an album such as this with its Sabbath-ian riffs hidden in sludge. Josh Homme is a guitar God and no other album defines him as much as Blues does. It’s also the last album to feature the original four members as Nick Oliveri would split before their next opus, replaced by Scott Reeder for the equally epic Sky Valley. But I digress. “Allen’s Wrench”, “Freedom Run”, Thumb”, “Green Machine”…. the album is solid from start to finish and there are truly not enough words in the dictionary to describe how awesome this album is. – Jesse
83. Tricky | Maxinquaye (Released 3/14/95 on Island Records | 253K)
Tricky, aka Adrian Thawes, nee of Knowle West Bristol, England is every bit the definition of his name. When one asks “where did Trip-Hop get its start?”, one looks no further than his debut album, Maxinquaye, an ode to a mother who committed suicide when he was only four years old.
Layering melancholy electronics against tribal beats, Tricky’s production of his debut LP eschewed what hip-hop had been up to this point and stood as a counter to the Puff Daddy’s and DMX’s that dominated a completely different end of the spectrum. Martina Topley-Bird served as his muse – conveying portraits of his youth, common existence, and world perspective. It’s not until “Hell Is around the Corner”, the fourth track, that we’re truly introduced to his gravel-inflected verses.
On “Pumpkin”, Tricky liberally samples from The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Rhinoceros” to lay down a looped guitar and drum sample that drives yet another dark missive. “Aftermath” is a faux-jazz swagger track with a heavily influenced LL Cool J/Def Jam vibe. “Brand New I’m Retro” is a street track that reminisces with Michael Jackson’s “Bad”. “Suffocated Love” flirts with a Sade sounding bass line. After this point the album falters and loses steam. But eight of those first nine tracks are truly a thing of dark beauty. – KBOX
82. Queensryche | Empire (Released 8/23/90 on Capitol Records | 3.4 million post advent of Soundscan in 1991)
Having built up a loyal following of heavy metal faithful with a self-titled EP and two excellent studio albums (The Warning and Rage For Order) that showcased the Seattle band’s ability to write some amazing power metal songs, Queensryche pulled off a master stroke with their third album Operation: Mindcrime. A complicated and intricate (lyrically and musically) concept album involving prostitutes who had become nuns, junkies, evil doers, sex, murder and the like, the album was a massive (and unlikely) success that enjoyed radio and MTV exposure and swelled the ranks of the band’s fanbase. The big question when a band achieves such a massive success is always, “How can they possibly top it with the follow up album?” Whether or not 1990’s Empire tops Operation: Mindcrime is an argument that heavy metal music nerds will have until the end of time as this album stripped away the overt power metal the band had been associated with and presented a more radio friendly progressive rock sound. No matter your musical tastes, there is no denying Empire was undeniably the larger commercial success with 6 singles (“Best I Can”, “Empire”, “Another Rainy Night (Without You)”, “Silent Lucidity”, “Jet City Woman” and “Anybody Listening”) that all fared well on the Mainstream Rock charts. On top of that, the video for “Silent Lucidity” (a song that is an obvious nod to Pink Floyd) was literally inescapable on MTV. Queensryche toured in support of the album by performing Operation: Mindcrime in its entirety complete with an elaborate screen set up that provided visuals for the music and also cranked out plenty of tunes from Empire (still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen), furthering the argument amongst their followers as to which album is the superior one, but at the end of the day, Empire is just a well-crafted and superbly performed record, period. The album would prove to be their creative peak (to date at least) as the band disappeared for a few years after the tour cycle for this release ended and showed a clear a drop in quality with each subsequent release afterward, but when a band writes two nearly perfect albums back-to-back that is more often the case than not. –Nick
If Pearl Jam were past their commercial sell-by date by the time No Code hit shelves, no matter – Eddie Vedder and company, inching slyly away from the spotlight, did us one better, and delivered the most artistically satisfying record of their careers. Short on chest-bursting stadium rock, but teeming with instrumental texture and melodic experimentation, No Code finds the band in fine form, largely divorced from the creeping darkness and internal turmoil of Vitalogy. And so singer/songwriter Vedder delivers ecstatic platitudes about love in ramshackle rockers “Hail Hail” and “Smile” without a hint of irony; the band explores world-music textures in “Who You Are” and “In My Tree”, toppling their arena-rock predilections with honest-to-goodness songwriting; dizzying fever dreams like the astonishing, psychedelic “Red Mosquito” rub elbows with earnest, spacey ballads like the impeccably-sung “Present Tense” and the heartbreaking “Off He Goes”. And, in the midst, a wink and a tip of the hat to Pearl Jam’s alienated punk-rock fans: “Habit” and “Lukin” remind devotees that Pearl Jam haven’t forgotten how to rock amidst all this ethereal beauty, and do so with a blistering, throbbing-veined energy that most rockers would find envious. It may not be a very unified stew of influences, but it’s a compelling one, and most importantly, Pearl Jam’s single best collection of songs. – Drew
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