All right ladies and gentlemen. We’re in the home stretch. We have officially touched down in bona fide classic territory. Today & tomorrow, we will be unveiling the albums we voted as the twenty best of the decade. If there’s anything that can underscore the dominance of the alternative rock and hip-hop genres during the decade, it should be this. Of the 20 albums remaining on this list; 15 could be classified as “alternative rock” (with one album leaning more towards pop, but with an alternative bent), while the remaining five are indisputably rap albums. No pop. No R&B. No country. No other genres. Of course, that probably speaks as much to the musical tastes of the 16 men and women who voted, but it’s still an interesting stat.
No more yammering from me, though. Let’s move on with the list.
I realize that not many people think this way, but I feel as though Midnight Marauders is a superior album to The Low End Theory, a work many consider to be Tribe’s magnum opus. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how good I am at articulating why. I guess it’s because I feel as though it’s the one album where the group sounds like they’re 100% comfortable in their own lane. It could be because Phife Dawg officially comes into his own as an MC with “8 Million Stories” (to this day, I still say “and to top it off, Starks got ejected!” as a reminder to chill out when I’m having a particularly shitty day). It could be because “Electric Relaxation” has a warmth and humor that’s been missing from 95% of sexually-inclined hip-hop in the eighteen years since. It might be because I remember hearing “Midnight” coming out of a BANGING stereo system as I spent the night in my friend Steve Cook’s Upper West Side apartment. More than any other hip-hop song I can think of, the narrative of that record DEFINES New York for me. It might have been the weed assisting, but that night alone crystallizes Midnight Marauders as the definitive statement on the best album by one of hip-hop’s greatest groups.-Blerd
19. Soundgarden | Badmotorfinger (released 10/8/91 on A&M Records | 1.5 million)
Say what you will about all the other Seattle bands, Soundgarden were the ones who started it all. Heavy as all hell, their second major label album Badmotorfinger cemented their place in the heavy metal hierarchy. “Rusty Cage” is a beast of an opener, “Outshined” is sludge incarnate and “Jesus Christ Pose” is a metal masterpiece. Badmotorfinger is the album where everything just clicked. Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell’s dueling guitars on “Slaves & Bulldozers” after Ben Shepherd’s low end intro, Matt Cameron’s pummeling throughout “Jesus Christ Pose” coupled with that voice. This was the one that solidified Chris Cornell as one of music’s best frontmen because of that soaring voice. Nothing showcases the diversity of Cornell more than “Room A Thousand Years Wide” opening with an earth shattering scream and then dropping to a baritone for the verses and then going back up to that familiar soprano effortlessly.-Jesse
18. Soundgarden | Superunknown (released 2/22/94 on A&M Records | 3.7 million)
Superunknown is a sprawling, metallic juggernaut of an album and one of the few examples I can think of from the height of the CD era where the extended running time (a shade over 70 minutes) was completely justified. As much as I love Badmotorfinger, it had its share of clunky moments, of which there are none here. Yeah, I love “Spoonman” too – what of it? The darker moments on this record still resonate the most deeply with me, most of all the crushing, sludgy riffage of “Like Suicide.”-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
17. Nirvana | MTV Unplugged in New York (released 10/11/94 on DGC/Geffen Records | 4.8 million)
By 1994, Nirvana had firmly established themselves as purveyors of loud, smart and catchy hard rock music, so it was with much anticipation that fans watched/listened to their stripped down acoustic performance on MTV’s Unplugged series. I think fans like myself certainly expected the performance to be good, but not nearly as magical as it turned out to be. Hand picking Nirvana originals like “Come As You Are”, “Pennyroyal Tea”, “All Apologies”, “Polly” and others and mixing them in with covers of songs by The Vaselines (“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”, which is actually a cover of a traditional Christian song), David Bowie “The Man Who Sold The World”), Lead Belly (“Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, which is also a cover of a cover, but this time a traditional American folk song) and the Meat Puppets (“Plateau”, “Oh Me” and “Lake Of Fire” for which Curt and Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets joined them) while incorporating accordian and cello into the mix, the band showcased how truly gifted they were underneath all the noise presented on their studio albums. “Smells Like Teen Spirt” isn’t even missed in the slightest in this stunning performance. While an edited down performance aired on television before Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April 1994, the album was the first release after his death. Having been in the public eye, most of his fans knew him as a tortured soul, so to hear him sound downright happy in the between song banter just months before his suicide makes the experience of listening to this album that much more powerful. This is always my go-to Nirvana record whenever I want to listen to them. Fun fact: One of the Meat Puppets (I think) yells “Thank you Nirvana!” while exiting the stage and for years I thought it was an audience member yelling “Fucking do Layla!”.-Nick
16. Guns ‘n Roses | Use Your Illusion (UYI1 and UYI2 were counted as one complete album) (released 9/17/91 on Geffen Records | Combined sales 11.1 million)
While their 1987 debut spawned a trio of hit singles, it was the Use Your Illusion albums that rocketed Guns n’ Roses into the stratosphere where they briefly enjoyed the status of the world’s greatest rock band before crashing and burning. The dual release of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II was an EVENT. In retrospect, it seems little more than a marketing ploy. No doubt, you could charge a higher suggested retail price for two separate albums than for one two-disc package. But no one seemed to care in 1991 – somehow the dual release was regarded as a revolutionary moment.
Nevertheless, the Use Your Illusion project is Guns n’ Roses’ magnum opus. It’s sprawling, epic and yes – bloated. At times, it suffers greatly from “double album syndrome,” and that has become clearer as time marches on. Yet much of the material spread across these two discs is noteworthy, and despite all of it’s faults, it’s difficult to imagine the Illusion package in any other configuration. There are plenty of barroom rock tunes echoing much of the material on Appetite (“Back Off Bitch,” “Don’t Damn Me,” “Right Next Door to Hell”), but the band also set out to prove that they were competent beyond the smokey sleaze. Slash cranked up the blues rock on tracks like “Dust n’ Bones,” “Bad Obsession,” “Bad Apples” and “14 Years,” while songs such as “Civil War” showed the band’s ability to write at a more complex level than say, “Nightrain.” Yet the centerpiece of the album remains the trilogy of ballads made famous by their accompanying video epics – “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain” and “Estranged.” We never figured out what the hell those videos were about, but the band’s attempt at composing Queen-esque mini symphonies successfully pushed the envelope of hard rock balladry. While Use Your Illusion is not without filler, it covers a great deal of ground and proved that Guns n’ Roses could be much more than “just another rock band.” It’s a shame that Axl Rose has done nothing but sully the band’s name for the last 15 years.-Dr. Gonzo
With 1988’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, Public Enemy fundamentally changed the fabric of hip hop. As the group ushered in the 1990s, they took all of the elements that made Nation great – socially and politically charged lyrics, richly woven collages of mutilated samples and an overall aural assault – and raised them to the tenth degree. With lyrical content providing critique of mass media, interracial relationships, institutional racism , emergency responders, and with somewhere in the neighborhood of 150-200 samples in the mix, there’s a lot to digest in Fear of a Black Planet, which is probably why it remains so compelling. Although it could not have happened without Nation, Fear stands as the group’s high water mark, and the definitive document of their creative ability. –Dr. Gonzo
14. Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream (released 7/27/93 on Virgin Records | 4.8 million)
While Nirvana was making the world unsafe for hair metal bands in late 1991, Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins were going in the other direction. The Pumpkins’ debut, Gish, was an orgy of multi-tracked guitars in the grand tradition of bands like Queen, but it didn’t make much of a splash. However, the band became well-known after touring with Nirvana and later having a song on the Singles movie soundtrack. When Siamese Dream was released in 1993, the lead track “Cherub Rock” set alt-rock radio on fire. The album really took off after the videos for “Today” and “Rocket” became hits on MTV and Pumpkins songs were all over radio. Siamese Dream alternates loud rockers like “Quiet” and “Geek USA” with quieter, majestic tracks like “Disarm,” “Soma” and “Mayonaise.” Truly an epic release. –Jay
13. Ben Folds Five | Whatever and Ever Amen (released 3/11/97 on 550 Music | 1.2 million)
Ben Folds Five is quite possibly one of the most underrated pop/rock bands of the 90’s. While everyone was oohing and ahhing over contemporaries like Dave Matthews Band, Ben Folds and his brand of piano rock seemed to get overlooked. Their second album, Whatever & Ever Amen, released in 1997, is definitely a hidden gem. You’ve probably heard the piano-ballad “Brick” before, but songs like “Fair”, “Sefless, Cold and Composed” and “Kate” are also stand-outs and prove that not only can Folds play the heck out of the piano, but he can also write a beautiful, catchy pop song, too.-Brittany
12. Alice in Chains | Dirt (released 9/25/92 on Columbia Records | 3.5 million)
It’s almost too depressing to contemplate the lyrical subject matter of Dirt in light of what became of Layne Staley. But give Alice in Chains credit for not only not flinching from the brutal reality of drug addiction, but for crafting music that was equal to the task of reflecting that reality. Knowing that Staley’s story has no happy ending only makes this a more powerful record.-The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Here, smoke this. Barely three years after saying “I don’t smoke weed or cess” on “Express Yourself”, the closest thing his former group ever got to a radio hit, Dr. Dre had split from NWA and was devoting his life (or at least the title of his debut solo album) to the sweet green leaf. No one knew that what would follow would be arguably the most influential hip-hop album ever recorded. Dre was a Quincy Jones of sorts, creating a mellow background noise while his cohorts did much of the vocal heavy lifting: in addition to introducing the world to Snoop, The Chronic also brought mainstream recognition to Kurupt, Daz, Nate Dogg, The Lady of Rage, RBX and Warren G., among others. Released in the aftermath of the L.A. Riots, The Chronic served as both a warning and an invitation to chill out. Whether dissing Eazy-E, Tim Dog and Luke, parodying the “25,000 Pyramid” or introducing the world to the G-Funk sound, The Chronic is an album whose influence lasted long after the high went away.-Blerd