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Top 100 Albums of the 1990s

040: Aphex Twin
The Richard D. James Album
[Warp; 1996]

Richard D. James' intelligence isn't measured by I.Q., but B.P.M., and that makes his namesake album Steven Hawking. Jackhammering drill-n-bass clicks and cuts are incongruously combined with the lacy ambient electronics he built his reputation on, and the whole stunted, mismatched lot couldn't sound more perfectly composed. One of the most aggressive combinations of disparate electronic forms when it was released, the almost-brutal contrast between its elements creates a seal that's locked in freshness since way back in 1996. Other, less-inspired compositions from this era are often too easily dated by their technology, and sound stale compared to modern variations; RDJ is one of the most impressive exceptions. The strength of this album lies in its structure; the ebb and flow of the pieces mimics classical composition, while simultaneously weaving rapid-fire beats no earthly booty could shake to, bitterly dividing the left and right hemispheres of the human mind. The left side hears the rhythms and lighter-than-air melodies and wants to dance, dance, dance. The right side knows that's a pipe-dream, and locks itself into contemplation of the album's technical precision. The only concord: pure awe. Awe, and then a coma; it's tough when your brain can't agree with itself. --Eric Carr

 

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039: Olivia Tremor Control
Dusk at Cubist Castle
[Flydaddy; 1996]

Having consumed and possibly memorized the entire back catalogs of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and hundreds of other acid-damaged 60s psych-rock creations, Athens, Georgia's Olivia Tremor Control created this conceptually ambitious yet highly accessible full-length on a four-track recorder-- just like their heroes. At 27 tracks, Dusk at Cubist Castle bubbles over with such astonishing precocity, braiding dreamy, convincingly drugged-out soundscapes with washes of guitar noise, thick vocal harmonies, tape manipulations, and layer upon layer of percussion and overdubs. Contributions from every key member of the Elephant 6 collective-- Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, The Bill Doss, Julian Koster, John Fernandes, Eric Harris, and others-- ensured that, no matter how ambitious their concepts, the band's results would remain grounded and highly accessible. And sure enough, like the genre's greats, the Olivia Tremor Control balanced their experimental oddity with nuanced songcraft, coming away with tracks as overstuffed and complex as "Revolution 9" but with all the charm and charisma of "Wouldn't It Be Nice". If only every collective vision could achieve such unity. --Nick Sylvester

 

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038: The Jesus Lizard
Goat
[Touch & Go; 1991]

If the Jesus Lizard isn't the most sorely-missed band on this list, it's only because they're one of the most sorely underrated; they filled the filthy, abrasive void left by the seminal Big Black with a little filth to spare, and nothing proves that better than Goat. With Steve Albini's engineering assistance, The Jesus Lizard turned every last screeching, clanging, hook-heavy riff into the sound of imminent catastrophe; then they plugged it in to a power-mad rhythm section, drove it into your living room, shit on the rug, spit in your face, fucked your wife, cheated on your taxes, and drank straight from the milk bottle. If hell hadn't run out of horseshoes, David Yow would have been the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, and if the voting hadn't been rigged, he would've been the fourth, right in front of pansy-ass Famine. Feeding off every ounce of the spiraling chaos behind him, Yow channels it all into righteous, bile-soaked howls and eerie threats. He's got a grudge against everyone-- fucking everyone-- especially you, you fucking mouth-breather. --Eric Carr

 

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037: Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs
[Merge; 1999]

Chuck D once claimed that love is a minimal subject, sex for profit. Thankfully, the cynical and oft-described misanthropic Magnetic Fields leader Stephen Merritt doesn't agree. What's more, "spineless" and "mindless" are a couple of adjectives that could hardly describe Merritt's audacious, ambitious pet project, the triple-disc 69 Love Songs. These songs, ranging from deft genre exercises to Merritt's expertly crafted takes on electropop and the classic American songbook, demonstrated a rich melange of wit, intellect, and craft rarely found in modern guitar pop. Some, such as the near perfect "Asleep and Dreaming", function as traditional love songs, but many of Merritt's tales aren't about sexual fulfillment or happy endings. (Hell, most love songs don't even have happy endings-- some of them just have endings, and still others never even had beginnings.) Merritt also realizes that love-- romantic or otherwise-- isn't only felt in extremes, and over the course of his magnum opus, he also frequently captures the absurdity, beauty, and pain of love in its more ephemeral and fleeting incarnations, a feat mirrored by the record's restlessness and eclecticism. So, sorry, Chuck: Not all love songs are selling sex for profit. Some are pitching passion, hope, lust, frustration, and redemption. These are 69 of them. --Scott Plagenhoef

 

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036: Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
[Loud; 1993]

This is the sound of accidental fame. Something as unique and unusual as this record isn't supposed to find itself at the height of commercial viability; it's supposed to smolder underground, hidden from the view of mainstream America, who surely would not be ready for such a challenge. But America was ready, in part because this one challenged convention, not listeners. Sure, its sloppy drum programming, bizarre song structures, and unpolished sound quality disturbed commercial rap purists, but the talent was so inherent and obvious, and the charisma so undeniable, that it propelled the Wu-Tang Clan to the height of the rap game, and today stands not just as the hip-hop classic that introduced the concept of obscure thematic characters (each member's name references old kung-fu movies), but also bridged the gap between traditional old-school sensibilities and the technical lyricism of today.

Half the charm is in the cast's idiosyncrasies: ODB's hovering sing-song, Raekwon's fake stutter, Ghostface's verbal tics, Method Man's hazy, dusted voice. But RZA's dusty yet digital production style also helped legitimize the use of more diverse sample sources to the hardcore New York rap massive, breaking away from James Brown beats and embracing a style that turned the Underdog theme into the menacing coda for a group of underground terrorists. These formulas have been attempted several times since: the Ghost/RZA duet, the "Protect Ya Neck" lineup, the Russell-on-the-chorus "fun" song. But it never quite works the same. Never again will the Wu possess the raw energy, hunger, and complete disregard for hip-hop's musical standards that they entered the gate with. 36 Chambers maintains what was once music's universal truth: "Wu-Tang slang'll leave your headpiece hanging." --Rollie Pemberton

 

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035: Boards of Canada
Music Has the Right to Children
[Warp; 1998]

Upon first listen, Music Has the Right to Children can sound deceptively effortless and simple-- 60 minutes or so of layers of analogue melodies, a bit of scratching, and a parade of downtempo beats and fragmented vocal samples. Yet this pioneering collection of pastoral folktronica is one of the most engaging and emotionally captivating electronic records of the decade, full of delicate textures and tones such as "Telephasic Workshop" and "Turquoise Hexagon Sun", and moments of almost painfully fleeting beauty like "Roygbiv".

Here, the Scottish duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin sculpted a fluid, gorgeous and signature sound that comes across like the score to the memory of childhood. Like a slideshow or a box of photos and postcards, it's an evocative arrangement of faded or clouded memories and half-remembered events, people, places and times. Like the imperfect notions of memory or nostalgia, it elicits a complex range of sentiments-- from regret to confusion to anxiety to boredom to loneliness-- as it seems to strive to mirror or reconstruct the emotional and psychological landmines of the past and nourish the soul. --Scott Plagenhoef

 

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034: Beastie Boys
Check Your Head
[Grand Royal; 1992]

I have no problem admitting that when Check Your Head first came out, it was my favorite record ever. Well, times have changed but there's little doubt that it's one of a handful of albums from the 1990s almost everyone can agree is a classic. By the time Check Your Head was released, the Beasties had something of a reputation for radically changing their sound with each release, and this album didn't disappoint. Their fusion of blaxploitation funk, hardcore punk and old-school rap was almost unprecedented; songs like "Funky Boss", "Gratitude" and "So What'cha Want" couldn't have been made by anyone else. Co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr. wrapped the entire thing in vintage, analog haze as the Boys went off on any funky tangent that hit them. They enlisted Biz Markie to wax eloquently about themselves, and then obliterated him with a hardcore cover of Sly Stone's "Time for Livin'"; they got all retro with the Santana instrumentals, then let MCA deliver arguably their best rap in "Professor Booty". Check Your Head not only established The Beastie Boys as Gen-X ambassadors of cool, it also opened the door to a whole school of post-modern, hip-pop (Beck, anyone?). Furthermore, like all their best stuff, it sounds as fresh today as when it was made. --Dominique Leone

 

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033: Nas
Illmatic
[Columbia; 1994]

With Nas spitting spools of ghetto philosophy over a tightly sequenced collection of lush instrumentals provided by a dream team of producers (including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor), Illmatic is the meticulously crafted essence of everything that makes hip-hop music great; it's practically a sonic strand of the genre's DNA. On the classic "The World Is Yours", Nas self-consciously kicked verses about writing rhymes and wove rhythmic inspiration into his trademark smooth delivery while Pete Rock's debonair rolling piano motifs and steady drum breaks flawlessly captured the indifferent winds of time passing; while on "Life's a Bitch", over a heady instrumental of thick layers of bass, and pensive Rhodes flourishes, Nas reminisced about waking up on his twentieth birthday ("My physical frame is celebrated 'cause I made it"), and finding newfound motivation facing the hardships of life in the projects of Queens ("I switched my motto, instead of sayin' fuck tomorrow, that buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto"). Even Nas' archenemy Jay-Z couldn't deny the brilliance of Illmatic on his diss track "The Takeover". Maybe he understood, as everyone does, that this was the original blueprint. --Hartley Goldstein

 

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032: The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die
[Bad Boy; 1994]

It's difficult to listen to Biggie's all-too-prescient 1994 debut, Ready to Die, without feeling it was a gift dropped from the heavens, a consolation prize for a life that would surely be taken before its time. Released the same year as Nas' landmark Illmatic, Ready to Die seemed to encompass the polar opposite of Nas' modest street philosophizing. Complex in execution, and ambitious in scope, Biggie's debut was an unmercifully vivid, sprawling, abstract manifesto, where his meticulously detailed narratives of drug hustling, graphic gang violence, and always humorous tales of lady-trouble, rubbed shoulders with harrowingly lucid dream-like melodramas of violence and death.

This intoxicating brew of magical realist rhymes, delivered in BIG's dusty caramel drawl atop unrelentingly crisp soul-laden instrumentals, demanded concern, acceptance, fear, and jubilation all from the listener, and frequently all at once; one minute he'd triumphantly rhyme, "Super Nintendos, Sega Genesis/ When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this" ("Juicy"), and the next he'd be staging his own suicide, pathologically raging, "When I die, I want to fuckin' go to hell/ 'Cause I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fucking tell" ("Suicidal Thoughts"). Indeed, Ready to Die is Biggie's own autobiography: a story of desperate, hard living wherein this tragic figure faces his vices and flaws, and then desperately numbs them into submission through the intensity of his own sensational and vitriolic rhymes. --Hartley Goldstein

 

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031: Wilco
Summerteeth
[Reprise; 1999]

After four years, it's difficult to believe that there are still people who pine for Wilco's early alt-country days. But sure enough, these people are out there, refusing to see the quiet, almost accidental genius of Summerteeth, the album that saw Jeff Tweedy cement himself as a master of poetic imagery and the band come into their own as craftsmen. The record unfolds like a series of epics in miniature-- the elegantly worded domestic drama of "She's a Jar", the dreamscape menace of "Via Chicago", the orchestral uncertainty of "Pieholden Suite"-- evoking an America full of people struggling, but always somehow clinging to hope. Tweedy's world of ashtrays, imperfect love and longing was uncomfortably inviting, and somehow, even the band's wrong notes sounded perfect on this unconsciously, unfailingly brilliant album. --Joe Tangari

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