File-icon-gray Mon: 11-17-03
Top 100 Albums of the 1990s
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050: Outkast
[LaFace; 1998]

The overrated Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is garnering props for its audacity-- and its solo format, something The Melvins and Kiss have attempted themselves. But despite the recent and late critical praise, Outkast haven't surpassed the spacious grooves of their third full-length, Aquemini, an album on which they merged astrological signs and didn't need separate CDs to get the job done. From the ridiculously pimped-out cover art, to the spot-on production and perfectly placed live instrumentation (check the horns on the epic "Spottieottiedopaliscious"), to the languid Southern sprawl of the near-nine-minute "Liberation", Aquemini is smooth and well-conceived. Plus, it includes Outkast's greatest track to date, "Rosa Parks": The politico-historical-dance-step chorus ("Ah ha, hush that fuss/ Everybody move to the back of the bus/ Do you wanna bump and slump with us?/ We the type of people make the club get crunk") should make anyone a decent hip shaker. --Brandon Stosuy


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049: Tom Waits
Bone Machine
[Island; 1992]

When all the grandpaboys made their death-is-coming-to-get-me albums in the 1990s (Reed's Magic & Loss, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, et al) only one of them didn't go all selfish. Tom Waits told transcendent, cinematic stories set in barns, colosseums, nursing homes, bars and temperamental oceans from the viewpoints of religious alcoholics, hairy-chested ex-cons, embittered nonagenarians, jilted Ophelias and would-be suicides. Waits' wails were lizardly and warm throughout; Bone contains the finest showcase of his Frank-Oz-meets-Francisco-Goya pipes.

Although it's a mystic love song, "Earth Died Screaming" was scary enough to turn the staunchest global-warming skeptic into an environmentalist. No existential ballroom could clear its floor without Ralph Carney's mournful woodwinds accenting "Dirt in the Ground". The myths of Christ, Lucifer, Sleepy Hollow and Johnny Cash blend on the chiller "Black Wings", which suggested that saviors are born out of gossip. Joey Ramone would go on to cover "I Don't Wanna Grow Up", and Waits would go on to outlive the beautiful bastard. If you don't weep to the twilit sendoff "Who Are You", then I must ask who the hell you think you are; of course, the chorus' question could easily be turned on its consummate-actor source. Waits, Beck and Radiohead form the trifecta proving that the "Best Alternative" Grammy can get something right, but only Waits fisted every Yankee idiom into a stain-pocked opera gown. --William Bowers


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048: Portishead
[Go! Discs; 1994]

I put on Dummy recently, expecting it to have aged miserably. In fact, it almost seems fresher now than it did nearly a decade ago, when it defined trip-hop for the mainstream, merging the eerie darkness of Massive Attack with hard-edged, sludgy hip-hop beats. The album still vividly evokes gritty alleyways and urban black holes, Beth Gibbons' languid torch croon dripping like ether over warm, crackly vinyl and shadowy guitar. Her longing, sensual lyrics were ripe with forbidden sexuality, but the tightly mic'd, ominous instrumentation and close, whispered vocals oozed claustrophobia. In 1994, this album's seismic blast rippled across the globe from a Bristol epicenter, influencing a legion of leaders and followers to spin their own dark webs; that it's one of the few trip-hop statements that still shatters preconceptions today merely proves how forward thinking it really was. --Ryan Schreiber


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047: Oval
[Thrill Jockey; 1995]

The differences between the last three proper Oval records are there, but you have to listen closely for them. Nothing in Oval's catalog, however, sounds like 94diskont. On 1994's Systemische, Markus Popp-- then working with Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger-- stumbled upon the idea of fusing drones from Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II with the sound of CD skips. On 94diskont, the germ of that idea flowered into a fully realized album. The centerpiece is the 24-minute "Do While", which is repetitious in the best possible way, cycling through the same sections with variations. If you listen to it on headphones you get an idea of what it would be like to have four ears. Sounds appear as multi-layer holograms, with both sources and ghosted copies simultaneously vying for attention, a piece of sonic trickery used to create some of the most serene and aquatic music of the 90s. The flipside (it's worth getting the vinyl of this one for the extra 12-inch of "Do While" remixes, including an outstanding reworking by Mouse on Mars) both refines the experiments begun on Systemische by adding depth and texture, and foreshadows the greater density and sharper edges of Oval's late-90s work. This record is why Markus Popp was called the new Eno. --Mark Richardson


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046: Air
Moon Safari
[Astralwerks; 1998]

Air should be ashamed of themselves. Thanks to albums like Moon Safari, international stereotypes of Frenchmen as nothing more than muss-haired playboys stroking a woman with one hand and an analog synth with the other are forever reinforced. Oh sure, some will tell you that they're merely reflecting the society that birthed them, and that the hyping of the Frug Life is the only way off the hard streets of Nice or Cannes. It's possible to praise the album for its skillful positioning at the intersection of electronics and organics, gracefully balancing on the border of adult contemporary at moments and composing underwater Moog symphonies at others. You can probably even credit Air for bringing the vocoder back into style-- especially if you're Cher. But by creating an album infamous for being the best makeout album of the decade, Air has done a great disservice to their country, portraying all Frenchmen as nothing more than oversexed Champagne-swigging keyboard players. Va te faire! --Rob Mitchum


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045: Godspeed You Black Emperor!
F# A# Infinity
[Kranky; 1998]

Admit it: You got goosebumps the first time the narrator got to the bit about mothers clutching babies and the violin rose up in the background like the collective cry of the wounded, lonely, and destitute. F# A# Infinity is a creaking, majestic tribute to the end of days, the tyranny of market forces, and the power of loosely scripted, collectively imagined music. Despite the heavy presence of reverb and electromagnetic vibrations of steel of strings, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s first album sounded ancient, like a thought that had existed for centuries but was just now being articulated. Real life samples-- the rumble of a distance locomotive, the shouting of a street preacher, airwave static-- added an unsettling layer to the brooding instrumental textures woven by the violins, cellos, and alien guitars, and the music somehow felt undeniably political, even if a direct message was nowhere to be found. If F# A# Infinity taught us anything, it's this: the Apocalypse will be beautiful. --Joe Tangari


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044: Boredoms
Super Ae
[Birdman; 1998]

Super Ae is where the aesthetic of the "new" Boredoms, introduced earlier the same year on Super Roots 7, crystallized. The randomness and adolescent spurts of their past releases disappeared, and instead, Boredoms became a superhuman tribal rock machine. The brilliant thing about Super Ae is that it wrests abrasion and aggression from the hands of the nihilists. Nowhere is such positive and triumphant music performed with such balls-out intensity. There is noise, distortion, screaming, pounding, but there is neither anger nor rage; instead, Super Ae is a celebration of something. Life? Freedom? Community? Nobody knows, really. This album, like Eye's vocals, works completely on a pre-verbal, instinctual level. "Boredoms are like a moon on a lake," Eye would later say. "Only there is no moon and no lake. Only Boredoms." That koan makes a little more sense after listening to "Super Shine". Super Ae is the most uplifting music I know. --Mark Richardson


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043: R.E.M.
Automatic for the People
[Warner Bros; 1992]

Growing up in Atlanta, worshiping R.E.M. was a requisite. Naturally, as a supposed punk transplant preteen from New Jersey, I forced myself to hate them. Chemistry, 1991, the blonde girl in the front row turns around to get my vote in her Georgia Rock survey: "R.E.M. or Drivin' N' Cryin'?" Looking back, it's preposterous to even see the two bandnames together. The reason being Automatic for the People. Remove it from their discography, and R.E.M. would go from mixed-bag major label over-attempts to fumbled hard rock. In other words, they wouldn't even be around today, and "Losing My Religion" would track between "Fly Me Courageous" and "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" on Now That's What I Called the 80s XI: DiXIe & The Stone Mountain Laser Show. The dark "Drive" completely reframed the band in my Fugazi-tinted eyes as dark and troubled, and it was an sparse, acoustic ballad. This opener led what was the most mature, rich, and rococo record of the decade-- a work necessary for every cellar, waiting to be pulled up when the biased bullshit of adolescence has passed. --Brent DiCrescenzo


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042: Fugazi
Red Medicine

[Dischord; 1995]

With Repeater still standing as possibly the last great gasp of punk, and already idolized for their tireless DIY ideals, Fugazi could have simply continued treading water and been canonized among the patron saints of independent music. But theirs is always the road less traveled; Red Medicine was the most self-consciously divergent album of Fugazi's career, eclipsing their signature broken, socio-political vitriol with greater excursions into downtempo dub, ambient bursts, and out-and-out noise. Eclipsed, but not forgotten; the jagged blare of "Do You Like Me?" immediately shows that they haven't given an inch, and the slow drone of "Long Distance Runner" shows just how far they've come. For so many bands that made their names on youthful determination, creativity, and simple enthusiasm, the onset of "maturation" is less a creative zenith than an emotional palsy, but on Red Medicine, Fugazi grew up without aging a day. --Eric Carr


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041: Yo La Tengo
[Matador; 1993]

Though they'd already made their name on a series of alt-country strumalongs and covers albums, Hoboken, NJ's Yo La Tengo didn't truly find themselves until 1993's landmark Painful, a drugged-out and drony homage to The Velvet Underground that fired off feedback like rounds in wartime and dreamt of quiet rural nights from within the heart of the city. Ira Kaplan's guitar squall seemed in sonar communication with Thurston Moore's somewhere uptown, James McNew's Farfisa buzzed along in dissonant accordance, and Georgia Hubley's drumkit crashed like I-95 pile-ups, translated the rattle of riverfront machinery, and whispered secrets to a newfound crush.

It was their first real rock album, alternately heartbroken and lonely and drowning its cries out with fiery, frustrated fretwork (the embittered "From a Motel 6" and "I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long"), or innocently falling in love against dreamy, escalating guitar figures and warm, soft blankets of organ ("Nowhere Near", "The Whole of the Law"). But the standout was unquestionably "Sudden Organ", whose nominal pun (the track opens with its namesake) belies the stellar freakout within: the quintessential Yo La Tengo song, "Sudden Organ", stunningly balances Kaplan's minimal, buzzing guitar, Hubley's brilliant cascading drumbeat, and McNew's rampant organ-smashing with one of the best pure indie rock songs of the decade. Painful was the album that made Yo La Tengo a band to reckon with, and marked the true start of the unstoppable decade-long run that would make them one of indie rock's most revered and canonical bands on record. --Ryan Schreiber