Here’s a slight cocktease for you guys. I say slight because you can easily scroll down and find the damn Top Ten.
16 people voted for the titles that wound up placed on this list. Granted, sixteen people isn’t a large amount when compared to, say…the hundred or so people that vote in a Rolling Stone list, or the hundreds of writers that vote in Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll, but it’s still a pretty decent cross-section. Add in the various musical backgrounds, nationalities and ages of the participants, and I think the list (for the most part) does a good job in offering up a diverse array of tastes needed to make the list a true document of what the best albums of the Nineties were. Of course, people will have different takes on inclusions, exclusions and rankings, but debate (when done in the right spirit) is always welcomed here, and I’m sure that even internally, there’s head-scratching when it comes to the rankings.
So before we move into the Top Ten, allow me to present to you twenty-five albums that did NOT make the cut! Overall, 544 albums were voted for at least once. Here are the albums that came closest to denting this list.
101) Bee Thousand | Guided By Voices
102) Clutch | Clutch
103) Goo | Sonic Youth
104) Earthling | David Bowie
105) Symphony or Damn (Exploring the Tension Inside the Sweetness) | Terence Trent D’Arby
106) Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star | Black Star
107) Dirty | Sonic Youth
108) Being There | Wilco
109) Copper Blue | Sugar
110) Meantime | Helmet
111) Seasons in the Abyss | Slayer
112) Enema of the State | blink-182
113) Time’s Up | Living Colour
114) Where You Been? | Dinosaur Jr.
115) Fan Mail | TLC
116) Poison | Bell Biv DeVoe
117) Cowboys From Hell | Pantera
118) Definitely Maybe | Oasis
119) Very | Pet Shop Boys
120) All Eyez on Me | 2Pac
121) Bandwagonesque | Teenage Fanclub
122) Cure for Pain | Morphine
123) California | Mr. Bungle
124) Diamonds and Pearls | Prince & the New Power Generation
125) Resurrection | Common (Sense)
Now, on to the main event…The Top Ten!
Pearl Jam left no doubt about who the biggest rock band in America was, rolling out of the gate with almost a million copies sold of their second album, Vs., in it’s first week of release. Lead singer Eddie Vedder felt somewhat trapped by the success of their debut album, Ten, and it’s subsequent positioning of him running neck-and-neck with Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain for the “Voice of Generation X” title. That trapped feeling resulted in the band’s defining statement (I’m sure that invincible feeling that comes with the first flush of success helped also). From the breakneck tempo of the album’s opening track, “Go”, it was clear that these guys had the eye of the tiger. While songs like “Animal” and “Rearviewmirror” certainly hold up to repeated listens, the soul of Vs. to me comes courtesy of the hushed final track “Indifference” and the majestic “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town”, a song that still brings a tear to my eye and has been the soundtrack for many, many drunken singalongs. -Blerd
9. Weezer | Weezer (released 5/10/94 on DGC/Geffen Records | 3.4 million)
Remember when Rivers Cuomo didn’t:
have a degree from Harvard?
live in a closet for months at a time?
claim that Weezer was just a cover band playing songs broadcast to his brain from another dimension?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above you probably also remember the sensation that Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”. The song makes no damn sense. The pre-internet sensation was part of a string of genius music videos by Spike Jonze. Together, they put Weezer and Rivers at the forefront of popular music in the mid to late 90s. The blue album provided the tracks to countless mix-tapes and was the tipping point at which I started exclusively buying compact discs, forgoing record label produced cassettes. Part of this was the diverse yet cogent sound on the blue album you could listen to it as an album. And individual tracks had such different tempos, styles, and moods it lent itself to all sorts of mix-tape-making. Cuomo’s easily accessible references to surfing, Kiss, and pouting in his garage were only part of the reason this remains Weezer’s most relate-able. Later albums often contained excessive navel gazing due to fame, the experience of excruiciating ‘leg lengthening’ treatment–and they had not yet made a song or video with the Muppets…or Lil’ Wayne. The blue album is Weezer at its best. –Tom
8. Pearl Jam | Ten (released 8/23/91 on Epic Records | 9.9 million)
For die-hard fans of Pearl Jam, it can be easy to dismiss Ten as more of a legacy work than a true masterpiece: the album that everyone knows and has played to death (I honestly wonder if you can consider anything on the album a deep track, such was the album’s popularity) but that lacks the nuance and creativity of their later gems like No Code. I sometimes catch myself acting a bit snobbish whenever someone raves about the album, more out of bitterness that the band’s time in the limelight has come and gone than out of a genuine hatred of the album.
However, ignoring that “hipster”-esque tendency of rock fans to dismiss anything popular, Ten remains a timeless rock album and one of the best albums of the decade. There’s a reason Pearl Jam burst on the scene in a market saturated with Seattle grunge and quickly found success. Unlike the punk-tinged Nirvana and the heavy metal-influenced Soundgarden, Pearl Jam found its heart in the classic rock of the late 60s and 70s — acts like The Who and Led Zeppelin – and were suckers for a good old fashioned catchy riff and blistering solos from the schools of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn (the two headed guitar beast of Stone Gossard and Mike McReady is criminally under-rated). Throw in modern distortion and Vedder’s bombastic vocal delivery and Pearl Jam had a sound that was at once familiar yet excitingly different.
While the album is filled with fist pumpers like “Even Flow”, “Why Go”, and “Porch”, it’s perhaps the softer moments that really stand the test of time, including the bitterly romantic “Black”, the poem to surfing “Oceans”, and the elegiac “Jeremy”, a song infamous for its controversial video which often overshadows its masterful use of dynamics, soft-to-loud building, and ability to spin a good yarn in an earnest way that other bands of the time either couldn’t or wouldn’t dare to do. And you could write an entire post on Vedder’s vocals alone. Passionate, raw, haunting, gravely, angry, yet at times even delicate, they offered a real emotional core to the project. Few vocalists have been so shamelessly copied, and yet no one can come close to matching the emotions contained in Vedder’s howls and cries.
Sure, Pearl Jam has grown as a band over the past two decades, but that doesn’t mean we have to dismiss Ten as childish or unevolved. No other album influenced radio rock more than Pearl Jam’s breakthrough debut, and even if we do have to blame Ten, at least in part, for bands like Nickelback, that can’t take away from the fact that this is rock and roll in its purest form and the closest thing to a sonic Polaroid of what would be an entire decade’s musical style. – Stephen
7. Nirvana | In Utero (released 9/14/93 on DGC/Geffen Records | 4.1 million)
As one of the many excellent albums celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year, Nirvana’s Nevermind gets much of the attention and credit in the band’s slim catalog. The heaps of praise dumped upon Nevermind are absolutely deserved. Yet as much as I love Nevermind, in 2011 it is In Utero that strikes me as Nirvana’s most impressive and enduring effort. Perhaps it’s the band’s conscious effort to not replicate Nevermind‘s blatant poppiness. Perhaps it’s a result of Steve Albini manning the boards, giving In Utero a fuller,deeper and slightly less accessible sound than its predecessor. Or maybe it’s that Cobain’s lyrics grew increasingly complex on the album from both a topical and an emotional standpoint. Though tensions between the band and DGC Records nearly prevented the release of the album as we know it, the court of public opinion showed that a massively successful band like Nirvana could still challenge its listeners with an album that pushes the boundaries of mainstream rock and roll. The album debuted at #1, while both of its singles (“Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies”) reached #4 on the charts. The latter single effectively became the band’s swansong – Cobain would commit suicide seven months later.-Dr.Gonzo
6. A Tribe Called Quest | The Low End Theory (released 9/24/91 on Jive Records | 1.2 million)
Sure, I could go the whole “jazz/alternative/ground-
Ill never forget the first time I heard Wu-Tang Clan. It was the “Method Man/Protect Ya Neck” cassingle, complete with hand drawn cover, that my man bought out of a trunk in front of Tower Records on Mass Ave. & Newbury. I still wonder if it was an unknown RZA and ODB out there hustling tapes….probably not, but that’s how I see it.
Anyway, from first listen I knew this group was special. The two tracks hit me like the first time I heard Run DMC, NWA or De La Soul. It was that special, that epic. The beats were hard and unlike any other of the time. Rza had this flair about his work, beats so simple yet so tight. The obvious kung-fu influence and references laced throughout tied the album together brilliantly. Listening made me feel like I was watching some behind the scenes party at Mr. Han’s palace in Enter The Dragon. The soundtrack was perfect. Before Enter the 36 Chambers dropped, one might think that having a crew so large couldn’t possibly work, but it did….because not only were they large, they were DEEP. Each brought their own style, flow and abilities and when combined they really did form like Voltron, perfectly. Enter the 36 was exactly WHAT hip hop needed precisely WHEN it needed it most. The Wu provided a shot in the arm that put the world on notice that straight from the slums of Shaolin, NYC was back to stake its claim in hip hop.-Chuck
4. U2 | Achtung Baby (released 11/19/91 on Island Records | 5.5 million)
It’s an unpopular opinion that second-period U2 trumps their over-earnest, politically-minded past, but one that boasts no piece of evidence more compelling evidence than the band’s initial turning point, Achtung Baby. It’s the only perfect album Bono and the boys have ever released – one of a very small fistful that anybody’s ever bothered to make, truth be told – but, man, what a record. It’s not just that U2 shirk the political for the personal, although the inverted focus helps Bono deliver, time and again, the most poignant, aching vocals he’s ever laid to wax. And it’s not that Achtung Baby shakes up the too-familiar U2 formula for the first time in their career, although the electronic touches and the mid-period Bowie touchstones help make the already-stellar songs pop with newfound life and verve, resulting in the most musically intricate and thrillingly inventive album of the boys’ career. No, I think Achtung Baby is a great record because it’s simply a perfect set of songs – the songs, they dial into the soul and engage the mind, breaking the heart as often as it mends it. If that sounds like a dizzying journey, it is; but it’s also an enthralling one, one that swoops the listener through the emotional ringer dozens of times, but holds up as a singular musical vision as well. Everyone has their favorite tracks – I like the wrenching, yearning “Ultraviolet” and the closest any band has ever come to replicating the apocalyptic feel of “Gimme Shelter”, “The Fly” – but they’re all immaterial. Top to bottom perfection, achieved, personified. – Drew
3. Radiohead | OK Computer (released 7/1/97 on Capitol Records | 2.4 million)
Radiohead is my favorite band, but I’m definitely more a fan of their later stuff than I am of their earlier work, with the only exception being OK Computer. The band’s third studio album was released in 1997, and marked a huge departure from the grunge/alternative sound their fans had already become familiar with. For this album, the band played around with more of an electric, experimental sound; lyrically, the songs focused less on interpersonal relationships and more on Thom Yorke’s political and social views. OK Computer not only played a big part in Radiohead’s future sound, but it also paved the way in Brit-Rock/Pop music in general- the sounds and themes you hear in songs like, “Karma Police” or “Paranoid Android” became a influence for other British rock acts like Muse, Coldplay and Keane. Some classic Radiohead fans are still a bit on the fence when it comes to this album, but it’s always been a favorite of mine, if only because it showed that Radiohead wasn’t afraid to change up their sound a quarter of the way through their career and do so successfully.-Brittany
2. R.E.M. | Automatic for the People (released 10/6/92 on Warner Bros. Records | 3.5 million)
Not only one of the greatest R.E.M. records of all time but quite possibly one of the greatest records of all time. From the opening chords of “Drive”, R.E.M. took strides to distance themselves from the pop aesthetic of Out Of Time with Automatic. First single “Drive” with its’ crowd-surfing inspired black and white video was a far cry from the poppy “Losing My Religion”. But not all was lost, there’s “Man On The Moon” and the somber, yet catchy “Everybody Hurts” in the singles department. Then there’s one of my most favorite song of all time, the beautiful “Sweetness Follows”. I still get chills every time the cello begins the song, add that with Michael Stipe’s voice which has never sounded better (Automatic… has to be one of his most solid vocal performances.) and you have an instantly memorable R.E.M. classic.-Jesse
From the opening power chords of its disaffected teenage anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to the ghostly orchestral strings of album closer “Something in the Way”, Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind is a blistering tour de force. But underneath the driving drums and heavy distortion lies an amazingly astute pop sensibility. Kurt Cobain’s song writing owes as much to the Beatles and classic rockers like Queen as it does to the abrasive works of the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, and The Stooges. Sure, the themes were dark, brooding, snarky, and edgy, but Nirvana wrapped everything in easily digestible melody. It’s little wonder the album became the sensation it was; this was rock and roll for the masses.
And if that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s not. Nirvana never allowed its popcraft to get in the way of the songs or vice versa. Even spinning through the album today, I am absolutely floored by how utterly well put together every song is, to the point that picking a favorite track off the album is akin to asking a doting mother to rank her own children. The radio singles are as good now as they were in 1991 (what can I write about “Teen Spirit” that hasn’t been said before). But even the deeper cuts, like “Lounge Act” and “Territorial Pissings”, straddle a perfect balance of grunge and tunefulness. It’s an entire album of earworms.
I won’t pretend that the album’s timing wasn’t a big part in its success. The band was able to tap into the zeitgeist of the early 90’s with eerie prescience. But all the insight in the world wouldn’t have meant a thing if the songs themselves didn’t work. And while it may seem strange to consider Nevermind a timeless album, that’s exactly what it was. Cobain may have been with us for but a brief time, but he, Grohl, and Novaselic were able to create one of the defining albums, not just of the decade, but of modern music.-Stephen