The Fourth Best Album of the 1990s

If I could only take four albums from the 1990s on a desert island with me, this would be one of them. How else could I process all the loneliness? 

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4. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)

There’s a generally agreed-upon theory when it comes to vocal harmonies – nothing sounds better than two blood relatives singing together. And there’s a bevy of DNA-sharing crooners to back up this “blood harmony” argument (e.g. the Everlys, Andrewses, Wilsons). But in 1998, Elliott Smith released an album stuffed with dazzling vocal harmonies, without a family member on hand. It was perhaps a depressing exception to the rule. Because the only person this artist wanted to sing with was himself.

After releasing a trilogy of quietly devastating folk albums on indie labels, Smith unexpectedly blew up when director and fellow Portlander Gus Van Sant caught wind of him, using six of his songs on the soundtrack to his movie about how hard it is to be a handsome white genius, Good Will Hunting. The track “Miss Misery” got an Oscar nomination alongside the likes of Celine Dion and Faith Hill. And Smith performed it on the telecast, with artfully mussed hair and a white suit, looking tentative but sounding absolutely at home with the melodic flourishes of the pit orchestra.

After this unforeseen dalliance with the mainstream, it was time for Smith to make good on all the attention, and elevate his game in the recording studio. He was more ready than it may have seemed. The singer/songwriter’s willingness to sound vulnerable on tape didn’t mean he didn’t know how to take control – he spent five years leading the alt-rock band Heatmiser, which landed a contract with Virgin in 1996, right before Smith’s solo career became too big to ignore. So while the songs on XO are rooted in feelings of inadequacy, the arrangements are the work of a confident artist coming into his own.

Take the bridge of XO’s first single, “Waltz #2,” for example. The song is a poetically veiled story about Smith going to a bar karaoke night with his mom and stepfather. He no longer recognizes her, and tries to brush off being triggered by him. All over a waltz tempo sprinkled with rickety saloon piano runs. Which builds to the bridge, a heartbreaking sigh of resignation:

I’m here today and expected to stay
On and on and on
I’m tired

Musically, Smith treats this moment like a rocket launch. The band revs its engines to the first line. Then his multi-tracked vocals reach higher and higher with each ensuing “on.” As we arc back down to earth, our narrator might be tired, but us listeners are inspired. XO is loaded with dissonant moments like these, beauty and sadness spiraling into one another until they’ve bonded. It’s a forensic analysis of what a big fucking mess life can be, delivered in perfect pitch.

All of it is anchored by Smith’s underrated guitar playing. Years spent recording alone into four-tracks honed his chops to the point where he could play the chords, bass line and lead melody simultaneously, giving himself and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock fully formed blueprints to build on. The opening “Sweet Adeline” relies on little more than his bouncing acoustic melody for a full 90 seconds, before the dam breaks and the drums, piano and backing vocals drown us. And his finger-picked intro to “Independence Day” is so deeply, fluidly melodic, it could’ve worked as an instrumental.

But that first blast of full-bore instrumentation in “Sweet Adeline” showed us that XO was not going to be another tape-hiss-heavy, stripped-down affair. Smith, an avowed Beatles fan, was ready for his big, Revolver-style, studio-driven artistic evolution. And he sealed the deal with an album closer that’s every bit as jarring as “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

“I Didn’t Understand” finds Elliott Smith alone. No instruments, no guest vocalists, a lyric sheet that gives him nowhere to hide. The only sound is his voice, stacked to the heavens in an audacious display of vocal harmony. It begins with yet another majestic sigh, a parishioner in a confessional clearing his throat before laying himself bare. And then he begins, singing in his uniquely cryptic way about a breakup, mostly about how much he deserved it:

And so you’d soon be leaving me
Alone like I’m supposed to be

Then, with the vocals-only arrangement underlining the stakes – intricate waves of beauty when he exhales, nothingness when he inhales – Smith ends his song with a stanza that will crush anyone who has been too stupid or self-absorbed to realize that somebody was right there in front of them, needing them:

You once talked to me about love
And you painted pictures of
A Never Never Land
And I could have gone to that place
But I didn’t understand

A short five years after XO cemented his genius, Elliott Smith left us. But not before he showed us how beautiful it can be to create your own sense of harmony.

 

 

The Fifth Best Album of the 1990s

Well lookie here. There are only five entries left in my Top 100 Albums of the ’90s countdown. I’m gonna spend a little bit more time on each of our remaining classics, starting with #5 – the album that transformed Atlanta, Georgia, into a hip hop mecca.

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5. Outkast – Aquemini

There’s something inherently captivating about duos. Two people whose chemistry is inevitably intertwined with their creations, who push one another to heights they could never achieve individually. It’s why Simon was never as good without Garfunkel. Jack is lost without Meg. And Tip sounds incomplete without Phife.

In 1998, the rap duo Outkast released an album that was about this specific dynamic. They called it Aquemini, a portmanteau of the rapper/producers’ zodiac signs (Big Boi is an Aquarius; Andre 3000 is a Gemini), and proceeded to write songs about the intensity of their friendship and the magic of their chemistry, while exhibiting a zen-like acceptance of its eventual demise.

And all of this held water, because musically, these guys were at their absolute peak. They invited live musicians to their Atlanta studio to stretch, deepen and distort their sound, slow-roasting it until any resemblance to East or West Coast rap had sloughed off onto the coals. Aquemini absorbed the sprawling, earthy aesthetic of Parliament-Funkadelic more organically than Dr. Dre’s samples ever could. It set a bar for Dirty South hip hop that has arguably never been cleared. It’s one of the boldest, most self-aware recordings in rap history.

“Stickin’ together like flour and water to make that slow dough / We worked for everything we have and gon’ stick up for / Each other,” proclaims Big Boi on his first verse of the album. The song, ironically titled “Return of the ‘G’,” is a spleen-vent against anybody who was weirded out by Outkast’s 1996 LP, ATLiens (#83 on this list). They’d left the “harder” gangsta rap of their hit debut in the dust, in favor of longer, spacier, more overtly Southern funk experiments. They weren’t pimps anymore. They were aliens. And that was alienating to people who don’t take kindly to change.

“Some of my fashion choices people didn’t accept at the time. I started getting flak from some people, so they were like, ‘Either he’s gay or on drugs,’” Andre shared in an interview. It’s the kind of situation that regularly destroys artistic partnerships – blowback from fans largely directed to one artist, who ends up getting an inordinate amount of attention. Outkast responded by closing ranks.

Aquemini’s lyrical scope is as wide as its sonic palette, including stories about how poverty can strangle hope, detailed deconstructions of failed relationships, and a myriad of ways to let us know why Big Boi and Dre are the type of people that make the club get crunk. But that sense of brotherhood is the common thread, the unifying vision that makes this ambitious, 75-minute album feel not only coherent, but full of exhilarating urgency right up until the last wailing guitar note of “Chonkyfire.” Even the few skippable moments – a pair of skits set in a record store where Outkast haters can’t wait to hear the new “Pimp Trick Gangsta Clique” album – are rooted in the adversity that tempered their bond.

Aptly, it’s on the horoscope-melding title track where everything comes together, and the core ethos of this record is laid bare. Over a syrupy R&B groove where glittering guitar chords can seemingly ring out forever, Andre whispers a chorus about impermanence:

Nothing is for sure
Nothing is for certain
Nothing lasts forever
But until they close the curtain
It’s him and I, Aquemini

Some people use the inevitable end of things as a good reason to give up. This pair of 23 year olds took it as irrefutable evidence that they needed to work even harder. Because the energy created by their duality was special. And thanks to the miracle of recording technology, they had the ability to trap that energy in amber.

Eight years after Aquemini ruled the world, Outkast dropped their clunky film project Idlewild. It was the duo’s first true misstep, and Big Boi and Andre 3000 went their separate ways soon after. They could’ve stayed together and made expertly crafted rap music for years to come. But they could feel that curtain closing. Even when they broke up, they were absolutely on the same page. Today, with popular music an ever-growing cult of personality, there are very few duos making noise. But we can still press play on Aquemini and sit in wonder of what can happen when two driven, talented individuals find inspiration in one another.