Ah. Here it is. The final part of my three part Top 120 Albums of the 1990s list. Part 1 (120-31) is here and Part 2 (30-16) is here. (Or you can just scroll down.) By now, you may have been able to guess what albums make up this top 15, but hopefully it will include some surprises. The '90s were my first decade, and I enjoyed them. (Them? It? I'll say them.) The top albums on this list just show, along with movies like Batman & Robin, how artistic and cultural the decade really was.
By the 1990s, it had already become difficult to do anything too unique and still be in the realm of rock or pop. But these top 15 albums were able to adapt previous rock and pop music in modern ways to create truly unique and amazing pieces of art. There is an array of styles represented, but the focus here, as you could probably tell, is on independent rock albums, because, well, that's what I like the best.
Without further ado, here are my 15 favorite albums of the 1990s. Enjoy.
15. Weezer--Weezer (Blue Album)
Weezer's self-titled debut album proves that there is always room for great big hooks and great big riffs if they are indeed great. This album is purely guitar pop, but it's executed perfectly. All the songs are wondrously catchy, all the riffs are smart and big, and the lyrics are funny, intelligent, and entirely relatable. Weezer is one of the only albums that my ten year-old self loved that my seventeen year-old self still loves. It's uplifting when it wants to be, jaded when it wants to be, and depressing when it wants to be. Though it’s not especially original, I find myself coming back to it time and again, year after year. (And I've been doing this for about seven or eight years now.) It’s a complete pop music triumph that captures the feeling of youth better than any full-length ever made.
14. Public Enemy--Fear Of A Black Planet
It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back is inarguably one of the finest hip-hop albums ever made. (Some might say the finest.) I might be part of a minority, but I think Fear Of A Black Planet is just as good. On this album, Public Enemy are just as furious as before, and Chuck D’s highly literate rants are just as effective and stirring as ever. The production is chaotic, apocalyptic, messy, and undeniably funky. Obviously, as a white person, it’s difficult for me to exactly relate to hip-hop lyrics, but Chuck D’s raps are so personal and open and heartfelt that his struggle and the struggle of black people is easily identifiable, intriguing, and despicable. It’s sarcastic and angry, funny and furious, but Fear Of A Black Planet is consistently brilliant.
Homogenic finds Bjork at her most, well, everything. Most haunting, most cold, most bizarre, most artistic, most complex, most intense, and most good. It's completely electronic (though I'm still not sure if some of those strings are real or synthesized, which is a goof thing) unlike Post and draws influence from trip-hop and IDM without sounding like anyone. That's probably because Bjork's voice on Homogenic is as big and singular as ever, and her lyrics seem to be a little more dark and twisted and emotional. I think what makes it Bjork's best album is its cohesiveness. On Homogenic, she finds a style and sticks to it, and the result is a grouping of songs that all sound similar, but different, and flow perfectly. Homogenic is a masterpiece of electronic music.
I mentioned that #15 on this list was one of the only albums that I have loved unfailingly for upwards of six or seven years. Odelay is another. (To find the third, look to #8.) Anyhow, Odelay appealed to the younger me because the songs are wondrously catchy and wondrously weird. At age eleven, though, I'm not sure that I appreciated Odelay's full genius. It takes the Beck that became famous--bluesy acoustics and electronic beats--and adds better, more mature songwriting and unbelievably interesting production courtesy of Beck and The Dust Brothers, among others. The songs cover tons of different styles, from trip-hop to experimental to folk to pop to hip-hop to blues (often within individual songs) while managing to always sound cohesive and uniquely like Beck. And it still sounds fresh today.
Dummy is a trip-hop album at its most basic, but it's pretty different from Massive Attack's Blue Lines or something like that. But, upon further listening, Dummy reveals itself to be more of a dark, creepy, intense experimental electronic soul album. Soul is certainly an important describing factor because Dummy truly does contain some of the most soulful--and beautiful--singing of the decade, even if it is often on top of harsh electronic beats. The music and the beats are often harsh and heavy and dark, but they are crisp and intricate and warm at the same time. Some songs do have that trip-hop feel, and the ones that do are some of the finest trip-hop songs I've heard, but many of the tracks are truly unique in their approach. Dummy is a dense, haunting electronic music album with beauty and soul to spare.
10. Yo La Tengo--I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is easily Yo La Tengo's best album, and Yo La Tengo is probably one of the top five best independent rock bands. Which is to say: I Can Hear... is amazing. It combines all the sounds Yo La Tengo had made previously--the harsh noise, the droning, the '60s pop, the droning '60s pop, the soft organ pop, etc.--and synthesizes and refines it and puts it all together seamlessly. As is the case with all their music, their influences are semi-evident (a Velvet Underground bassline is used for "Moby Octopad") but the resulting sound is very unique and recognizable only as Yo La Tengo. It's a long album at about an hour and eight minutes, but it never drags. In fact, I usually feel as though I want it to go on for a while longer. This album feels like a mature, well-produced, smarter version of indie rock.
9. Guided By Voices--Bee Thousand
I disliked Guided By Voices and Bee Thousand until last year. However, that was before I actually had ever heard the album. Then, well, I listened to it. And I loved it. It being lo-fi is really the least appealing quality I think. Bee Thousand is filled with several of the best, albeit weirdest, hooks of the decade. Although most of the songs are under two minutes long, they all feel like full, finished, brilliant pop songs that are masked in tape hiss and distortion. It's incredibly raw and personal, even though many of the lyrics have something to do with aliens. The songs are fun when they are supposed to be and melancholy when they are supposed to be, but they always sound original. It's not the best indie rock album, because how can something so sloppy be the best? Doesn't "the best" have connotations of perfection? However, it's that anti-perfection that makes it one of my favorites.
8. Pavement--Slanted & Enchanted
I think this is a logical album to follow Bee Thousand, because together, these two albums basically created the blueprint for indie rock in the '90s and 2000s. And Slanted & Enchanted gets the edge because it came first. In terms of personality and relatability, Slanted & Enchanted is practically unmatched. The lyrics are earnest and smart, and they are sung in an earnest and smart manner. The songs certainly resemble pop songs, but they are often masked in feedback and noise. After everything I've read about this record, it's hard to say something without sounding redundant, but I think the one thing to take away--the thing that really makes this album--is its influence. I said earlier that it created the blueprint for indie rock, and that's because just about everyone has copied it, but no one really has done it as well.
7. DJ Shadow--Endtroducing...
Few albums have really blown me away upon my first listen to them, and, obviously, Endtroducing... is one of those select few. The main reason this happened: it's startlingly good and original. Endtroducing... is a far cry from the hip-hop record it's often billed as. Though most of the beats and the sampling process with which it was created are derived from hip-hop, the album itself founds far removed from the genre. It encompasses every type of electronic style, and, through its samples, all sorts of soul, pop, and rock. It's heavy, dark, and intense, but it often maintains a playful enough atmosphere. Though it is not even close to the first record to use sampling (that happened about twenty years before), it might be the first to use it exclusively, and it's still completely innovative. Endtroducing... is a masterpiece of electronic music, hip-hop, and even pop and rock, because it took all of those and created a whole new thing.
By now, "quiet-loud dynamics" and stuff in that vein has been used to describe about a million albums. You can thank Spiderland for that. The album is full of guitar-centric post-rock that shifts constantly from atmospheric, airy, experimental, quiet, spoken-word rock to heavy, grating, experimental, loud, spoken-word-with-some singing rock. Both aspects of the album--the quiet and the loud--are unsettling, unique, difficult, and incredibly awesome. It, like many other albums on this list, has influenced the following fifteen to twenty years of independent rock music, and, like many other albums on this list, is far better than anything it had influenced. No one else can master the distorted guitars and equally distorted lyrics that make up Spiderland, and that allows the album to stay fresh after eighteen years. Post-rock was an important part of underground music in the '90s (and into today), and Spiderland is the genre's masterpiece.
I love Nevermind because it is intrinsically linked to my childhood. For at least four of my formative years, Nevermind was my absolute favorite album of all time. It was angry, messy, chaotic, and still poppy. I listened to Nevermind religiously. When I first found out Kurt Cobain was dead (and had been for years), I was utterly and deeply upset. He was just so cool. All nostalgia aside though, the music on Nevermind truly is amazing. The songs are indeed angry, but literate and intelligent. And they are indeed poppy, but not in a traditional pop sense. They're catchy. They stick with you. They've stuck with me for nine or ten years and will stay with me forever I'm guessing. Nevermind is a huge, lasting statement and more than just a grunge album. It is the most important grunge album, but it certainly has transcended that inherently crappy sub-genre to become one of the most important (and awesome) rock n' roll albums of all time. Period.
4. Guided By Voices--Alien Lanes
I know that Bee Thousand is nearly universally regarded as this band's opus, but I prefer Alien Lanes. Sorry if that doesn't sit well with you. By the time this was released (1995), Bee Thousand had given Guided By Voices a pretty solid following in the independent music world, which, in turn, put some pressure on Alien Lanes. People don't like that it's better produced, more polished, more mature, and more developed than Bee Thousand, but those are the exact qualities that make it better. It takes their amazing hooks, science-y lyrics, and warm lo-fi aesthetic and fully realizes their vision. As for those amazing hooks: they're bigger and better on Alien Lanes. I'll stop comparing it to Bee Thousand, though, because it deserves to stand alone as a masterpiece. Because that's what it is. Alien Lanes showcases a brilliant band at their peak, when they had all the tools and resources they needed to do exactly what they wanted to do and create a truly mesmerizing pop album.
3. Modest Mouse--The Lonesome Crowded West
The Lonesome Crowded West is, in a word, unbelievable. It is actually not believable that a band so young could create such a bizarre, smart, mature, personal, and heavy album. It is an album that gets better with every listen, even if you've heard it through countless times. (And it's a long album. An hour an hour and fourteen minutes.) The lyrics are sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes social, sometimes reflective, sometimes nonsense, and always clever, sarcastic, and brilliant. In Spiderland's review, I mentioned quiet-loud dynamics and how Slint was the only master of them. I forgot about Modest Mouse. The music on this album alternates between beautifully quiet to mind-numbingly loud with frequency. It is the band's most furious, most raw, and most personal album, which, with a catalogue like theirs, says a lot. I realize that they take many cues from other bands (Pixies, Pavement, etc.), but, for whatever reason, I keep coming back to Lonesome Crowded West before any other similar release. (Doolittle, Slanted.)
2. Neutral Milk Hotel--In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
One thing I can definitively say about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is that I have heard it through more times than any other album ever made. During the first year after I bought it, I listened to it every day at least once a day. This album is transcendent. It transcends indie rock, folk, the Elephant 6 Collective, modern songwriting, non-modern songwriting, everything. It is familiar to people who haven't heard it, and it is deeply encoded into the minds of people who have. Why, you ask. The lyrics, though supposedly about Anne Frank, are immediately relatable and interesting. The singing of those lyrics is sloppy and wild, and, also immediately relatable and interesting. And, though the music itself is often thought of as secondary, the music is a perfectly executed mixture of folk, indie rock, and garage rock that, despite that description, does not sound derivative. Despite the immediate gratification this album gives, it's a grower. It keeps growing and growing and growing until nearly all other music sounds unimportant.
1. My Bloody Valentine--Loveless
Yes, this is the best record of the decade. No, I didn't even have to think about it. If In The Aeroplane Over The Sea transcends everything, Loveless transcends In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It is one of the largest, most unique, most beautiful, and downright coolest sonic achievements in the history of all music (not just modern. Eat it, Beethoven.) It's undeniably heavy and loud (when I saw them live last year, a girl in front of me nearly passed out due to the volume) but beneath those swirling, raging, loud, un-guitar sounding guitars lies omnipresent beauty. And the guitar noise itself is beautiful as well. The lyrics are usually quite hard to discern, but that's okay because this is an album that's truly about the music and the sound. In that sense, it is like a classical work. A really loud, awesome classical work. It simulates the full range of human emotions and experiences--joy, sadness, anger, passion, sex, etc.--with only its minimal and uplifting sonics. That said, if you look up the lyrics, you'll find that some of them are quite interesting. They deal mainly with sex, but they do so in a way that isn't creepy, just artistic. Another thing I love about it is that Loveless can be anything the listener wants it to be. It's that ambiguity and shape-shifting quality that makes it an easy candidate for a desert island disc, if, you know, you were ever to actually be stranded on a desert island. Loveless is indeed a shoegaze album (and by far the best ever in that category), but I think the genre that it belongs in is "music." This is what music should sound like.
That's what I think. This is the only decade where I don't think #1 is very arguable, so argue about #2-15, or 2-120, or something completely unrelated.