Welcome to the exciting second half of Popblerd!’s list of the 100 best albums of the Nineties. If you haven’t seen the first half of our list, this is a great place to start.
It’s OK, we’ll wait.
Well, now that you’re caught up, let’s continue with the debut solo album from an amazing singing/songwriting/rapping triple threat (and she could act, too!) that should have set up a legendary career…
A remarkably humanist and organic synthesis of hip-hop and r&b, former Fugee Lauryn Hill’s first (and, to date, only) studio record still sounds like lightning in a bottle 13 years on. Gliding ably from tongue-twisting, fiercely intelligent raps to a tasty, melismatic croon and back again, Lauryn comes correct on every second of this remarkably inventive record, hopping from influence to glorious influence with ease. As she weaves doo wop (“Doo Wop”), gospel (“In Zion”), vintage Flack/Hathaway soul (“Nothing Even Matters”), and trunk-rattling hip-hop (“Everything Is Everything”) into her rich tapestry, Hill’s gaze fixes onward even as her sound reaches back. It’s still a remarkable, vibrant record, one that unfortunately remains unparalleled, even by Ms. Hill herself. – Drew
49. Dave Matthews Band | Before These Crowded Streets (released 4/28/98 on RCA Records | 3.8 million)
Before These Crowded Streets could be subtitled “Dave Matthews Band gets serious”. Not to say that Charlottesville’s favorite sons were terribly lighthearted, but there weren’t any “Ants Marching”-esque anthems to get the frat boys dancing on the troupe’s third major-label album. Railing against things like cultural imperialism in a whiskey-soaked moan on “Don’t Drink The Water” and “The Last Stop”, turning his voice into a seductive whisper for the jazzy “Crush” and enlisting it-girl Alanis Morissette for support vocals on album closer “Spoon”, Crowded Streets is the one Dave album it’s most safe for non-Dave fans to like.-Blerd
48. Beck | Mellow Gold (released 3/1/94 on DGC/Geffen Records | 1.3 million)
Like a slacker bolt out of the blue, Beck Hansen shot into the alt-rock mainstream in 1994 with “Loser,” which was quickly adopted as the anthem for the so-called Generation X. Beck’s disaffected delivery of the chorus—“Soy un perdedor/I’m a loser, baby/so why don’t you kill me?”—and his love of non-sequiturs, sampling and white-boy raps made “Loser” a staple of modern rock radio for years to come. Never mind that only “Loser” and “Beer Can” had any airplay, Mellow Gold went platinum and introduced the world to a decidedly non-slackerish artist who remains prolific as an artist and producer to this day. –Jay
47. R.E.M. | Out of Time (released 3/12/91 on Warner Brothers Records | 4.5 million)
When was the exact moment when “alternative” became mainstream? Probably not so much when Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson from the #1 spot on the album charts as when this Athens, Georgia’s album clocked in at the top spot six months before. The fact that Michael Stipe and company did it without making an overt play for pop radio (seriously, does “Losing My Religion” sound like a pop hit? Featuring KRS-ONE on the first track of your album wasn’t exactly a mass-appeal move either) speaks volumes to not only the band’s ability to make fantastic music, but the fact that there was a cultural shift in progress.
Social importance aside, Out of Time remains a great musical portrait of a band near the top of it’s game. Despite the presence of the indefensible “Shiny Happy People” (a mistake that can probably only be compared to the placing of “The Girl is Mine” on the otherwise pristine Thriller), many bands would be happy to have this as their magnum opus. And it’s not even R.E.M.’s best album.-Blerd
46. Nine Inch Nails | The Downward Spiral (released 3/8/94 on Nothing/Interscope Records | 3.7 million)
By the time The Downward Spiral was released in 1994, industrial music had already achieved some degree of mainstream popularity thanks to Nine Inch Nails earlier releases Pretty Hate Machine and the Broken EP and the success of Ministry’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste and Psalm 69: The Way To Succeed And The Way To Suck Eggs. Those four releases had captured the attention of both industrial and alternative rock fans and a respectable amount of metalheads; however, The Downward Spiral would be the unlikely record to launch industrial into the mainstream. Trent Reznor had painted an audio tapestry of anger and sorrow that debuted at #2 on the Billboard Top 200 upon release. The album’s initial popularity wasn’t terribly surprising given that The Downward Spiral is a deeply layered and intricate album that flows perfectly. Successive listens revealed new sounds lurking underneath what felt like every time…the gift that keeps on giving, if you will. Clearly, Nine Inch Nails had earned their loyal following with excellent songwriting, but the mainstream gladly embraced the album after the single “Closer” with the chorus “I want to fuck you like an animal” became a huge radio and MTV hit (in a censored version, of course). Nine Inch Nails would become even more popular after a gripping performance of haunting album closer “Hurt” (later brilliantly covered by Johnny Cash) at Woodstock ’94, a video of which became a MTV staple. This was the decade where the outcasts with their lyrics of pain, hate and stories of the beaten down and the cast aside were embraced by the mainstream. The irony of course is that high school gyms across the country that year were full of teens bouncing around to “Closer” and slow dancing to “Hurt” at their proms without even realizing that these are far, far, far away from being love songs. That was the ’90s though…the decade where many an artist with truly fucked up lyrics set to incredibly catchy tunes enjoyed massive success. The Downward Spiral is a good example of that, but that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this is quite simply one of the most brilliant albums ever made.-Nick
Coming off the break-up of stoner rock icons Kyuss and a stint playing with Screaming Trees, guitarist Josh Homme decided to go in a different direction entirely in 1998. He and ex-Kyuss drummer Alfredo Hernandez wrote an album of what Homme would later call “robot rock,” featuring repetitive riffs and fluid solos in a much more precise manner than the rumbling roar of Kyuss. Homme handled all the vocals, guitars and bass and you could tell that he was the auteur of Queens of the Stone Age (a name he used after the original moniker, Gamma Ray, was already taken); indeed, Homme has been the only constant over the years as other members have rotated in and out. QOTSA provided a new take on hard rock with heavy but catchy songs like “If Only,” “Avon” and “Regular John,” while “Walkin’ on the Sidewalks” and “Mexicola” retain the titanic thump of Homme’s previous efforts. Homme has continued to refine that vision over the years on a series of excellent QOTSA releases, but it got off to a terrific start here. Jay
44. Jane’s Addiction | Ritual De Lo Habitual (released 8/21/90 on Warner Brothers Records | 1.2 million)
When they emerged with Nothing’s Shocking in 1988, Jane’s Addiction was lumped in with the Sunset Strip hard rock scene at the time that included acts like Guns N’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and L.A. Guns. But that album and the band’s subsequent videos and tours quickly set them apart as a different animal altogether. Frontman Perry Farrell exuded a dangerous vibe and rumors of the band’s heavy heroin use swirled, making it seem as though each performance could be the last. Still, Jane’s were still a fringe act until Ritual was released in August 1990. Immediately, there was a controversy over the cover art, which featured artwork by Farrell depicting a threesome; it was replaced by a plain white cover so it could be sold in stores like Wal-Mart that refused to stock “offensive” items. The album itself was powered by Farrell’s spacey vocals and Dave Navarro’s rapid-fire soloing, but it didn’t take off until Farrell launched the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991. That coincided with the second single “Been Caught Stealing” and the corresponding video, which caught fire on MTV. The album features punchy riff-rock songs like “Stop!,” “No One’s Leaving” and “Ain’t No Right” in addition to longer, proggier excursions like “Three Days,” “Then She Did” and “Of Course.” Sadly, the band broke up right after the tour ended and the recent reunion albums haven’t matched up to the edgy Jane’s of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.-Jay
43. Janet Jackson | janet. (released 5/18/93 on Virgin Records | 7 million)
How strange is it to think that there was a time when the idea of a sexually provocative Janet Jackson was a novelty? These days, Miss J. sticks her titties out at the drop of a hat, but hearing an erotically charged JJ was almost scandalous. Who did she think she was, LaToya?
Unlike later efforts, which sounded like somewhat desperate attempts to sound provocative, janet. succeeds because it’s musically sound in addition to being a bedroom banger. Janet, joined by steadfast partners Jam & Lewis in addition to then-hubby Rene Elizondo (“that Rico Suave looking guy”) brought out their full arsenal. Opera diva Kathleen Battle and hip-hop’s #1 political mouthpiece, Chuck D., appeared within about 15 minutes of one another. A James Brown sample was closely followed by a Supremes sample. Funk flirted with jazz flirted with industrial flavors. Janet preached for black female empowerment on “New Agenda”, played the wistful lover on “Where Are You Now”, took us down to Cotton Club-era Harlem on “Funky Big Band” and channeled her big brother on the weepy ballad “Again”. Ruling the summer of 1993, this officially marked the period when Janet became “THE Jackson” and once and for all, not just Michael’s little sister.-Blerd
42. Foo Fighters | There Is Nothing Left to Lose (released 10/26/99 on Roswell/RCA Records | 1.3 million)
The Foo Fighters were destined to enjoy some degree of popularity out of the gate due to frontman Dave Grohl being the drummer of Nirvana, but by the time they released their third album There Is Nothing Left To Lose, they had definitively established themselves as a band with the success of their self-titled debut and follow-up The Colour And The Shape. No longer were they the drummer from Nirvana’s new band, but the FOO FIGHTERS. “Everlong” from The Colour And The Shape had been a massive hit for the band and undoubtedly they may have been feeling some pressure to deliver on their third album. Recorded in a home studio at Grohl’s house in Northern Virginia, There Is Nothing Left To Lose features just Grohl, drummer Taylor Hawkins and bassist Nate Mendel as the band was without a second guitarist at the time. Grohl has said more than once that he felt this was the band’s softest album, but for an album that is supposedly “soft”, it sure produced quite a few hits. “Breakout”, “Learn To Fly” and “Next Year” were all wildly successful radio and MTV hits (“Learn To Fly” and “Breakout” aided by rather hilarious videos) and along with “Stacked Actors” are still staples of the band’s live sets today. There Is Nothing Left To Lose was the band’s most cohesive release to date and while it definitely showcased a more mellow side to the band, it was still a great rock record with big guitars and drums and excellent songwriting. Deep cuts like “Live-In Skin”, “Gimme Stitches” and “Generator” stand amongst the band’s best and there is literally not a dull moment on this album. I have long said that this is and always will be my favorite Foo Fighters album (and for the record, I love them all), but with the release of their newest album Wasting Light this year, I am gladly calling that claim into question as they may very well have topped this release. That being said, There Is Nothing Left To Lose easily ranks among the band’s best, if not THE best, and is the record that established them as not only a band that was here to stay, but full-on rock stars. Fun fact: There were two different CD single versions of “Learn To Fly” released in the UK. If you can track down the first, then you will be generously rewarded with mind blowing covers of The Obsessed’s “Iron And Stone” and Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” (sung by Taylor Hawkins).-Nick
A jaw-dropping exercize in pure, classical songwriting, 69 Love Songs offers exactly what its title promises, and it feels all-encompassing; not only does it illuminate every facet of love in all its thorny glory, but it also yanks us along on a freewheeling trip through the history of American popular music, pinballing from country (“A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off”) to jazz (“Love Is Like Jazz”) to faux-reggae (“It’s A Crime”) to earnest piano balladry (“Busby Berkeley Dreams”). And yet, filtered through figurehead Stephin Merritt’s fractured perspective, this all sounds agreeably unified; it’s ragtag, sure, and crazy long, but Merritt and his stable of guest vocalists imbue these songs with startling life, humor, and, well, love. And in the process, he’s added more classics to the popular lexicon in one shot than perhaps any other songwriter. – Drew