After we run through these ten titles, we’ll officially be at the halfway point of the list. We’ll be taking a day-long break from doing this countdown, and then resume on Monday, which means #1 will be unveiled on Friday.
Excited yet? Huh? HUH?? Well, let’s move on, then!
Ian MacKaye was already a hardcore punk legend before the 1990s even began, but his band Fugazi took hardcore to a new level with Repeater. The album is pissed off, about violence and commercialism and just about everything else, and MacKaye and co-frontman Guy Picciotto drive the works with their guitar and vocal interplay. The rhythm section of Joe Lally and Brendan Canty is super-tight. One of the most successful indie bands ever, Fugazi steadfastly refused anything to do with The Man as evidenced by songs like the title track, “Merchandise” (“We owe you nothing! You have no control!”), “Greed” and “Styrofoam.” Sure, they’re strident, but how can you deny the power and direct purpose of this band? The Occupy Wall Street folks should just crank Repeater non-stop to get their message across. –Jay
59. Jay-Z | Reasonable Doubt (released 6/18/96 on Roc-A-Fella/Priority Records | 1.6 million)
Jay-Z may have grown into a mogul, a household name, and a rapper eventually lumped into the vast hive of glittery, materialistic artists; but you wouldn’t necessarily know it by his debut. Sure, Reasonable Doubt embodies the hustler’s spirit – indeed, Jay’s legendary “get the money” mindset was firmly in place since jump street – but it’s as romantic as it is harrowing, as regretful as it is defiant. Like a young artist by the name of Kanye that Jay would later mentor, he’s at his best when he’s a mess of contradictions, his brash arrogance tempered by reflective, inward-focused moments that illustrate that, despite his legendary confidence, Jay is keenly aware of his flaws. It doesn’t hurt that the album simply sounds terrific: Jay is young and hungry on the mic, but he’s got a plethora of soulful, wistful beats as a net. From Mary J.’s delicious hook on “Can’t Knock the Hustle” to the modal, jazzy piano chords that bolster “Feelin’ It”, every track on Reasonable Doubt is a winner. A young emcee debuts in the mid-’90s with a staggeringly accomplished, streetwise, smart, filler-free debut; sound like anyone else you know? – Drew
58. Depeche Mode | Violator (released 3/20/90 on Sire Records | 1.6 million post the advent of Soundscan)
When I started high school in 1989, I quickly realized that the most popular group amongst the 5,000-strong populace was New Kids on the Block. The second most popular group? Depeche Mode. A British outfit that I was only familiar with via their 1985 hit “People Are People” was causing teenage boys and girls to freak the fuck out. When Violator arrived in the spring of my freshman year, I found myself freaking out as well. A compact collection of synth-rock, it proved to be the British quartet’s American breakthrough. Armed with songs that ran the gamut from sinisterly seductive (“World in My Eyes”) to dreamily ambient (“Waiting for the Night”) and including two of the three best singles the band ever recorded (“Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus”), DM (as my school friends affectionately called them) shot into the stratosphere and fired one of the first salvos as far as getting “alternative” recognized by a larger, more mainstream audience.-Blerd
57. Maxwell | Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite (Released 3/26/96 on Columbia Records | 1.9 million)
Coming straight out of Brooklyn with a smooth vibe, an unidentifiable ethnic identity and the best Afro of the Nineties (sorry ?uesto), Maxwell made his entry onto the scene with an album that looked backwards and forwards at the same time. Unabashedly romantic at a time when R&B was officially in blunt “freak you” mode, songs like “Til’ the Cops Come Knockin’” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” were tasteful panty droppers. It didn’t hurt that Max was joined by arranger Leon Ware (most famous for his work with Marvin Gaye) and Sade’s Stuart Matthewman. If Portishead met Teddy Pendergrass in Sade’s basement, the result would be Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite.-Blerd
56. The Breeders | Last Splash (released 8/31/93 on Elektra Records | 1 million)
I cannot tell a lie. I had no idea who the hell the Pixies were in 1993, other than Kurt Cobain was a big fan. Truthfully, it was The Breeders’ second LP that introduced me to the extended Pixies family via lead vocalist/guitarist Kim Deal. Although “Cannonball” failed to crack the top 40 (peaking at #44), the song propelled Last Splash to #33 on the Top 200. While “Cannonball” remains a gem of the so-called alternative rock era, the rest of the album showcased the band’s flirtations with a number of styles, while always keeping their feet firmly planted on poppy ground. The band’s guitar-driven rock (“I Just Wanna Get Along,” “New Year,” “Invisible Man”) is well balanced by more straightforward pop (“Cannonball,” “Divine Hammer”) and longing ballads (“Do You Love Me Now?,” “Drivin’ on 9”). 18 years later, every spin that I give Last Splash seems fresh, and the album never fails to please me. These days, I’m most impressed by the band’s sense of concision; the majority of the album’s songs run under the three-minute mark. There’s something to be said for that kind of awareness. Far too often today, bands make 70 minute albums because they can. But like their parent group The Pixies, The Breeders knew very well the art of crafting succinct pop songs. At a few seconds shy of 40 minutes, Last Splash is the band’s greatest testament to that skill.-Dr. Gonzo
Although Daft Punk wouldn’t create their masterpiece for a few more years (2001’s Discovery), their debut laid the groundwork by perking the ears of music fans and alerting them to contemporary French electro music. Homework is more house-laden than much of the group’s later work, and that’s perhaps why it endures. Although Discovery has a very sentimental place in my heart, I’ve heard many of those songs too many times to consistently get enjoyment out of them. But Homework isn’t quite as digestible from the get go. There’s more to wrap your head around, and thus there’s much to come back to. “Around the World” performed modestly, peaking at #61 on the Billboard Hot 100, but become a staple of late night MTV programming including 120 Minutes. More importantly, it set the stage for Daft Punk to define the standards of electronic dance music for the next few years.-Dr. Gonzo
54. Prince (and others) | Graffiti Bridge (Original Soundtrack) (released 8/21/90 on Paisley Park/Warner Bros. Records | 154K post-advent of Soundscan)
When Prince’s Graffiti Bridge is mentioned, it’s understandable that the first thing that comes to mind is that God-awful movie. As cheap looking as it was badly acted, it is hard for even the most diehard Prince fan to defend this failure to recapture the magic of Purple Rain. But do not allow the putridness of the film to cause you to overlook the majority of its soundtrack. Other than 1995’s The Gold Experience, Graffiti Bridge is the best thing Prince released in the 90’s.
Although it is true this soundtrack consists mainly of songs Prince dusted off from his vault of unreleased music and updated, that means little when we’re talking about such gems as the haunting “Joy In Repetition”, the stunning blues/rock of “The Question Of U”, the gorgeous gospel ballad “Still Would Stand All Time”, and the stomping “We Can Funk” featuring George Clinton. True, Prince collectors can point to earlier, unreleased versions of some of these songs that have circulated amongst fans as superior, but nowhere do any of the re-recordings ruin the songs.
In addition to his own songs, Prince also wrote and collaborated with the roster of artists that appeared in the movie for the soundtrack. The legend that is Mavis Staples sings on “Melody Cool”, while Tevin Campbell scored the biggest hit off the album with “Round And Round”. Four new songs by The Time are also included, all leftovers from their unreleased album Corporate World, with the thumping “Release It” the highlight.
Besides the Tevin Campbell track, the only Prince hit off the album was one of the few actual new songs on it. “Thieves In The Temple” was the last song recorded for the project and it turned out to be one of the album’s best. With a Middle Eastern flair, Prince uses a pounding drum and bass motif to emphasize the dark mood of the song and sense of betrayal in its lyrics. It went on to become a Top Ten pop hit and topped the R&B Singles charts, but the follow-up single, the funk anthem “New Power Generation” went nowhere and the complete and utter failure of the movie at the box office (and on screen) spelled the end for the album’s success as well. It’s easy to forget this soundtrack was widely met with high praise and mostly positive reviews from music critics at the time. Graffiti Bridge is definitely a case of a rancid movie overshadowing its far superior soundtrack.-Mike A.
53. De La Soul | De La Soul is Dead (released 5/14/91 on Tommy Boy Records | 424K)
Despite the morbid inference within its title, De La Soul Is Dead much more signifies rebirth than it issues eulogy. While 3 Feet High & Rising brought in the D.A.I.S.Y age, Dead calls an abrupt end to it, ushering in a new change in speak….and speak it does. Make no mistake, this album is every bit as irreverent and silly as 3 Feet. The art of the skit is mastered throughout-featuring Native Tongue fam Dres & Mr. Lawnge of Black Sheep as the hilarious & inept bully crew. What takes this album to the next level is the combination of brilliant production by Prince Paul, the lyrical prowess of Posdnous and the crews willingness to tackle topics taboo in hip hop. Actually, similar topics have been tackled before, De La just hits them from the polar opposite, conscious angle. Drug talk was a hip hop staple for many in the 90’s, glorifyingly so, but on “My Brother’s a Basehead” De La personalizes it and shows the effects of drug abuse on the family and community. Sex? Sure hip hop was laden with that–in the masterpiece “Millie pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus” De La speaks on the tragedy of sexual abuse. Who does that?
So they mastered the silly and the serious, what about bangers? Check out “A Roller Skating Jam named Saturdays”, “Ring, Ring, Ring” and the posse cut “Schwingalokate”. Always ones to mess with minds, De La Soul proves that they never went away, never died… they just got better.-Chuck
52. TLC | Crazysexycool (released 11/15/94 on LaFace/Arista Records | 7.3 million)
I’m not sure that TLC was great at one thing except for being TLC, but the three girls mixed well with each other, each distinct with what they brought to the table. Left Eye was the rhymer and the wildcard (Crazy). Chili was the more consistent R&B pop vocal with a (Sexy) side. And T-Boz was laid back with a husky as all hell voice (Cool). Put it together and you had a female alpha group that mixed rap, pop, and R&B with the best of any group (male or female) ever. While their rookie album was more fun and daring, CrazySexyCool is their best work. “Creep” and “Red Light Special” were strong singles, but “Waterfalls” might be their best song ever. “Waterfalls” goes into absolute lift-off once Left Eye raps, “I seen a rainbow yesterday…” making it one of the more recognizable in mid-song raps of the decade.-GG
I didn’t really get into Outkast’s first two albums, and I know to Outkast fans that probably doesn’t allow me to write smartly about this album, but Aquemini is the album that made me a fan. I remember the day that it dropped because I was in college and left class early to get to the record store across the street, to get there immediately as it opened. I grabbed Aquemini and Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life album and put the Jay-Z album in my discman first. Remember discmans? Soon enough, I was listening to Aquemini. Talk about two extremely different albums. What won me over with Aquemini was the soulful, yet smartly distinctive rapping and storytelling by Andre 3000 and Big Boi in full on southern drawl. It was just cool as all hell. “Rosa Parks” isn’t necessarily the kind of song lyrically you’d think about bumping to, but that song hits. “Skew It On The Bar-B” is probably my favorite song on the album for all of its phrenetic-ness. “Da Art Of Storytellin'” parts one and two are equal in quality, yet entirely different and original. Though they would explode commercially just two years later, you can say that this was the jump off. Give me Aquemini over any other Outkast album, and I’ll be happy.-GG