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.

what-millennials-should-know-about-outkast-aquemini-compressed

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.

 

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (10-6)

So here we are, gang. Ten albums left. Can you believe it? It’s only taken me eight years to get here! EFFICIENCY. These next five LPs certainly meant a lot to me as a mumbling high school and college student who smelled weird because he’d never learned to wash properly.

ATribeCalledQuestTheLowEndtheory10. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)

In 1991, it was getting harder to disregard rap music as a fad. A year earlier, “Ice Ice Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This” gave the world a preview of the genre’s inevitable crossover dominance. (On the day I’m writing this, 9 of the top 20 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 come from rappers.) A Tribe Called Quest was decidedly not celebrating this. “Rap is not pop / If you call it that, then stop,” scolded rapper/producer Q-Tip on the Queens trio’s second LP. Here were young artists on the cusp of stardom, who had already landed a hit by sampling “Walk On the Wild Side,” abandoning that path and consciously pursuing a different type of hook – anchored in the syncopations of jazz and the pentameters of poetry. “Don’t you know that things move in cycles?” Q-Tip asks his father on his iconic opening verse, openly acknowledging that this new and exciting genre was indebted to the record and book collections of generations past. And with this bold, anthropological mission driving them, Tribe recorded some of the wisest, funkiest, most sweepingly joyful rap songs in history. Tip and the forever-underrated Phife Dawg trade bars about everything from growing up together to dealing with psychotic A&R guys, giving other artists a blueprint for their own careers. They were never pop stars as a result. They’ll just have to settle for being legends.

220px-Pnyc9. Portishead – Live from Roseland, NYC (1998)

Of the handful of James Bond movies I’ve seen, my favorite parts are the songs. A talented vocalist belts their guts out, their voice trembling with emotion, the minor-key arrangement inevitably boiling over with a scalding spray of brass. Then the director credit fades, along with that feeling. Because James Bond is about as passionate as a cold shower. The Terminator feels more. A love of Bond themes was central to the aesthetic of Portishead, the Bristol trip-hop pioneers who combined throwback ’60s horn and string charts with blasts of synthetic noise and head-spinning displays of record scratching.  But it was singer Beth Gibbons that made the trio so much more than a formula. She approached these songs like a self-aware Shirley Bassey, who knows that these intense feelings are unrequited, marveling at the energy she can muster for one so undeserving. And Live from Roseland, NYC is the ultimate document of her achievement. Backed by a full orchestra, which gives Portishead’s ambitiously cinematic sound the dynamic scope it deserves – from whispering strings to trammeling trombones – Gibbons sings with the concentrated energy of a spirit trying to move something corporeal. “I can’t hold this day / Anymore,” she bemoans on “Over,” as a lone guitar delivers a two-note eulogy. By the end of that song, its singer is wailing; the orchestra is at triple fortissimo; the DJ is scratching like there’s bugs in the vinyl. And we are both shaken, and stirred.

Magnolia_album8. Aimee Mann – Magnolia: Music from the Motion Picture (1999)

The soundtrack album for the film Magnolia – Paul Thomas Anderson’s indulgent masterpiece about the intersecting lives of despairing Californians – contains tracks from four different artists. Yet it’s credited, right there on the cover, to Aimee Mann. This is entirely appropriate, because Anderson has admitted that Mann’s lyrics heavily influenced these stories. At one point, Melora Walters’s character delivers the first line of “Deathly” in conversation: “Now that I’ve met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?” That line is peak Mann, untangling the complicated internal lives of the victimized in a handful of syllables. Like the movie, she makes sure to let pinpricks of hope shine through over the course of nine tracks, making the sadness ring even truer. The richly layered folk arrangements have the color palette of a sunset – nuances of warmth form a halo around Mann’s steady, reassuring voice. And songs like the Oscar-nominated “Save Me” express a stubborn, foundational belief in romantic alchemy – broken hearts can find understanding souls. And when they do, they fuse together to create something new, and strong, and good. The balance of the Magnolia soundtrack is also spot-on – a pair of Supertramp classics about self-actualization and its aftermath; the cheerful self-help R&B of Gabrielle’s “Dreams”; the fairy-tale malaise of Jon Brion’s theme. But this soundtrack belongs to one person, who suspects they could never love anyone, singing songs that will immediately appeal to anyone who ever has.

https___images.genius.com_0e92782dd80e4fc1b0ea056705fba60b.1000x1000x17. Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997)

When Motown label head Kedar Massenburg introduced the term “neosoul” to describe artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, it was marketing at its emptiest. And most successful. “Neosoul” records, of which Baduizm remains the gold standard, were actually “retrosoul” records – summoning the organic warmth of ’70s Motown while supposedly slighting the slick, rap-influenced R&B that was ruling the charts. It was a white lie to make traditionalists feel like they weren’t out of touch. Lulled by Badu’s nightclub jazz arrangements and laconic, Billie Holiday drawl, they probably never picked up on just how much this Dallas singer, songwriter and iconically headwrapped Soulquarian loved hip hop. “You rush into destruction cause you don’t have nothing left / The mothership can’t save you so your ass is gon’ get left,” Badu sings with the swaggering syncopation of a rapper, on Baduizm‘s first single, “On & On.” This quiet confidence propels her performance throughout, as she dismisses those who dismiss her intelligence, confronts a guy who tries to roofie her, and wrestles with the risks of loving a drug dealer. Her songs and the way she sings them elevate the midtempo jazz vamps that are Baduizm‘s stock in trade. Also like a rapper, she turns to bass lines for guidance, wrapping her syllables around them until they become indelible earworms. In the process, Badu made an intergenerational soul album that reassured her elders, inspired countless rappers, poets and R&B singers, and wove a spell that holds to this day. It was something new, after all.

220px-Radiohead.okcomputer.albumart6. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)

Countless rock bands have written songs about life on the road. Because touring is what bands do, and you write about what you know. But no artist has used their experience on tour to communicate larger metaphors as effectively as Radiohead did on its third album. Singer/songwriter Thom Yorke mined some terrifying and disorienting travel experiences for material, resulting in songs about car and plane crashes, insane thoughts in tight spaces, and grabbing your bags before dawn in a panic. “Transport, motorways and tramlines / Starting and then stopping / Taking off and landing / The emptiest of feelings,” he observes. But this is not an album about airports. By taking that odd sense of disconnection we feel while traveling and applying it to our relationships with our bosses, political representatives, and inner selves, OK Computer tapped into a creeping cultural malaise that would eventually overtake us. Listening today, its themes resonate as strongly as ever, pulled from the brink of fatalism time and again by the music, which is as towering and tender as the band has ever sounded. The six-minute anti-capitalist epoch “Paranoid Android” shifts from buzzsaw guitar screaming to a spine-tingling choral breakdown, giving Gen X its own “Stairway to Heaven” moment in the process. On “Let Down” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” Jonny Greenwood’s clean guitar sounds wash over Yorke’s dour observations like cleansing foam. And the arrangement on “No Surprises,” featuring a major-scale glockenspiel loop that could just as easily have been whistled, sounds like brainwashing feels – just a little too perfect. As a result, Radiohead made an album about hopelessness that achieved unforeseen levels of melodic uplift. Like a plane that’s just left the ground, it’s a miracle. One that doesn’t give us much room to breathe.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (15-11)

OMG, we’re uncomfortably close to the end of this crazy countdown! Here are five albums that I adored in my underachieving, ironic-tee-shirt-wearing youth, and are only getting better with age. (You can check out the whole list here.)

51Cy7Aj+XdL15. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)

On a trip to Hawaii a few years back, my wife got bit by what we thought was a spider. The bite kept getting worse, so we called poison control. I was scared shitless that I was going to lose my person, while surrounded by the most vibrantly alive environment I’d ever seen. The Flaming Lips must’ve known this feeling. Because their masterpiece, The Soft Bulletin, is full of songs that are acutely aware of life’s impermanence. Yet they’re surrounded by optimistic, awe-inspiring orchestral arrangements that do justice to the laziest Pet Sounds reference. And oh yeah, there’s literally a song called “The Spiderbite Song,” which does not require a personal encounter with potentially deadly insects to appreciate. Producer Dave Fridmann goes borderline Disney with the arrangement, slathering it with trilling harps and tinkling pianos. Yet it’s a delivery system for a raw-as-hell truth – love and devastation are a switch, and it can be flipped by the tiniest twist of fate. “If it destroyed you / It would destroy me,” admits Wayne Coyne on the chorus, balancing the scales without dispelling the magic. My wife’s bite turned out to be from a non-poisonous scorpion, further proof that she’s a total bad-ass. But I’ll always feel a little bit shaken by the memory. Hearing Coyne’s voice, trembling with relief as it floats high above these flourishing soundscapes, it’s impossible to not be moved. Because at any moment, it could’ve fallen.

https___images.genius.com_658097527d975ba15bcaca96999f5f5e.500x500x114. Beck – Mutations (1998)

These days it’s common knowledge that Beck Hansen is a singer/songwriter capable of incredible pathos. But the first time I heard Mutations, I had no idea. The crate-digging hipster earthquake of Odelay was still ringing in my ears. So I was floored by this collection of languid folk and country sway-alongs, its rich, organic warmth somehow unscathed by an aggressively bleak lyric sheet (“We ride disowned / Corroded to the bone”). Nigel Godrich, fresh off producing OK Computer, buoys Beck’s tender crooning with reassuring swaths of synths, sitars, and harpsichords. Friendly, almost amateurish harmonica solos add to the humanity. And while there are no donkey samples or rapped non-sequiturs, Beck’s quirks are all over this album, giving it a ramshackle, lived-in feel. “Canceled Check” ends with the band having a collective stroke, randomly bashing on things. The hidden track “Diamond Bollocks” leaps between seething Stooges riffage and gentle birdsong. And his lyrical flights are as strikingly weird as ever: “A desolate wind / Turns shit to gold / And blows my soul crazy.” To encounter all of this unexpectedly was like having a profound conversation with somebody you thought you knew. Realizing there’s way more to them than you thought. And looking forward to hearing from them again.

buhloone mindstate13. De La Soul – Buhloone Mindstate (1993)

Grunge bands got tons of credit for rejecting the spoils of stardom in the 1990s. But none of them explored this conflict on tape quite like De La Soul, who made entire concept albums about what it meant to be a rap star. They called their second LP De La Soul Is Dead, shattering the cuddly, neo-hippie image that made them famous. A few years later, they dropped Buhloone Mindstate, its title borne from a stated desire to “blow up, but not go pop.” It sounds like what it is – a rap group at the peak of its powers, trying its hardest to not make hits. So we get thickets of ’70s soul and ’80s rap samples, live horns, and clips from the movie The Five Heartbeats (all of which appear on the monumental “Patti Dooke”). Maceo Parker gets five minutes to just solo. Same for the Japanese rap trio Scha Dara Parr, who get a stripped down drumbeat to freak out over. And then there’s Posdnous, De La’s de facto leader, who makes sure we’ve got our seatbelt on during all these thrilling left turns. He overstuffs his verses with introspective journeys and biting social commentary, stating his case clearly and prolifically. “I am Posdnous / I be the new generation of slaves / Here to make papes to buy a record exec rakes,” he shares on “I Am I Be,” doing justice to the authenticity of that title. It’s lovely how much De La Soul cared about this stuff. They stayed true to themselves in the spotlight, exposed who was really benefitting from their hard work, and channeled it all into groundbreaking, revivifying music. It’s been 26 years, and it’s still blowing up.

https___images.genius.com_f08464da62a15725b3ea3a6a0a4c2da4.1000x1000x112. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995)

Countless Westerns end with their male leads going out in a blaze of glory, because they valued their own concept of justice  over anything else. On her third album, PJ Harvey had had enough of that shit. To Bring You My Love is written from the perspective of the women in these stories, those unconsidered widows and jilted lovers whose existential pain is usually seen as acceptable collateral damage. “I love him longer / As each damn day goes / The man is gone / And heaven only knows,” she sings on the album’s final song, establishing the permanence of grief before the music fades. Her narrators plead with everyone from Jesus to a deadbeat dad named Billy. They travel “over dry earth and floods.” And on the mesmerizing murder ballad “Down By the Water,” they drown their own child and blame it on the fish. Harvey, making her first album as a solo artist, comes into her own as a producer, creating atmospheres worthy of these raw, gothic tales. Almost every riff is a simple pentatonic phrase, a shard of the blues poking through the skin of the session. And it’s all in full mourning dress, thanks to slow tempos, low, burbling organs, and heavy swaths of distortion – imagine Violator-era Depeche Mode doing an album of John Lee Hooker covers. “See it coming / At my head / I’m not running / I’m not scared,” she sings, both as a character with a death wish and a songwriter in complete control of her gifts. Our concept of bravery doesn’t always have to be a cowboy perishing in a rain of bullets. It can be an artist doing exactly what she wants.

SmashingPumpkins-SiameseDream11. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)

In the summer of ’96, when Smashing Pumpkins was the biggest band on earth, I saw them deliver an unforgettable set of high-decibel melodrama. During the second encore, the band unleashed “Silverfuck,” the incendiary 8-minute shredfest from Siamese Dream. At the end, instead of smashing his guitar, Billy Corgan sat down on the stage and methodically took it apart, unfazed by the screeching feedback of this little experiment. It’s the perfect metaphor for what made Siamese Dream the greatest LP to ever be labeled “grunge.” Corgan was a neurotic guitar geek, and he used the Siamese Dream sessions to indulge in his obsession, foregoing sleep and the respect of his bandmates to ensure every blast of distortion met with his vision. In the process, he invented his own wall of sound – a steady thrum of multi-tracked guitars that flood our eardrums like bagpipes from heaven. (The only instrument he didn’t personally touch were the drums, probably because Jimmy Chamberlin was one of the best rock drummers on earth in ’93.) Unlike the ragged emotional outpourings coming out of Seattle, this was unapologetically fussy rock music, best experienced on pricey headphones with your eyes closed. Despite the darkness of Corgan’s lyrics – even the hits are cries for help – the majesty of his sonic vision lifts all boats. When he sings, “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known,” he means the opposite. But the way those guitars ring as they deliver the hook? It makes the line true for me. Like any raging perfectionist, Corgan’s insistence on taking things apart and putting them back together again would come back to bite him. But not before he proved that perfection was within his reach.

The Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (20-16)

Whoa, we’ve hit the top 20! I’ve been writing this column since 2011, because like a good Gen X-er, I didn’t care that much about following through. Alas, here we are. Five more ’90s classics in ya ear. (You can check out the whole list here.)

91pBFF64j-L._SL1400_20. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head (1992)

That cover image you’re looking at right now, with the Beastie Boys sitting on a curb next to their instrument cases? It wasn’t a joke. Even though Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock had just reinvented themselves, against all odds, on the triumphant samplepalooza Paul’s Boutique, they took an even bigger risk on the follow-up – ditching their old producers and proven formulas so they could play their own loose concoction of funk, rap and hardcore punk. Like the Monkees, novelty-act status had masked the fact that the Beastie Boys had legitimate musical chops. Check Your Head is stuffed with monumental riffs and meditative instrumentals, lovingly sequenced into 20 tracks that resist the shuffle button. The rapping reflects this anything-goes, jam-session mentality, summed up by Mike D on track one: “All I ever really wanna do is get nice / Get loose and goof a little slice of life.” Only six years after “Brass Monkey” squawked its way onto the charts, this deeply musical, effortlessly electrifying LP entered the world. It was irrefutable proof of one of popular music’s greatest evolutions.

220px-IllmaticNas19. Nas – Illmatic (1994)

There’s a moment, before Nasir Jones raps a word of his debut album, that underlines how incredibly fresh his artistry was. As the ominous, subway-rattling bass line of “NY State of Mind” ramps up underneath, the 20-year-old MC confesses into the mic, “I don’t know how to start this.” And then, even though the ink is still drying, he jumps in, telling stories about life in New York’s Queensbridge projects that are so detailed, you can hear the dice hitting the walls: “On the corner bettin’ Grants with the cee-lo champs / Laughin’ at base-heads tryin to sell some broken amps.” Illmatic is a masterpiece of scene-setting, a clinic of internal rhymes, and an emotional watershed from a composition-book-scrawling kid who grew up surrounded by violence and nourished by poetry. And the beats – crafted by top producers of the ’90s – dramatically soundtrack these vivid scenes, from the clave-clacking quiet-storm R&B of “Life’s a Bitch” to the mournful organ loop of “Memory Lane.” He may have had no clue how to begin, but once Nas took that leap, it would be 38 minutes before he touched the ground.

CarWheelson_aGravelRoad18. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998)

Lucinda Williams wanted her fourth album to sound a particular way. Warmer, punchier, more like the Pretenders or Steve Earle – “His vocals were more outfront, and it was a bigger sound,” she said about the latter. And thankfully, she stuck to her guns, through six years of label flameouts and disagreements with stubborn male producers (Earle included). Because Car Wheels on a Gravel Road sounds big in the most authentic possible way, a deeply rooted Louisiana oak that we can lean up against for an afternoon. It opens with “Right In Time,” an achingly physical love song that pairs visceral yearning (“Think about you and that long ride / I bite my nails, I get weak inside”) with a chiming guitar riff that’s as fulfilling as the sound of your lover pulling into the driveway. As Williams goes on to explore the nooks and crannies of Southern music, from jukebox country to jailbird folk and dobro-happy roots-rock, the connective tissue is her voice – defiantly front and center, singing about wandering spirits seeking meaning, making it seem like the journey itself could be enough.

Things_Fall_Apart_4117217. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)

With the millennium coming to an end, the Clinton crime bill wreaking havoc on black communities, and an extended era of anti-Muslim fear-mongering right around the corner, The Roots released an album called Things Fall Apart. It was, quite ironically, the moment where everything came together for them. There’s a feeling of unrest throughout, an understanding that now it’s time to spark shit. Beats fade away in the middle of verses, the rappers left alone to soldier on. Its lead single, a love song about trust, prominently features the line “sometimes relationships get ill.” Its bookends are an argument between musicians from Mo’ Better Blues and a spoken word screed about the cycle of abuse. But even with the pull of these serious undercurrents, Things Fall Apart is a delight to listen to, a telepathic group at its peak, lovingly laid to tape. The crisp crack of Questlove’s snare; Kamal Gray’s nourishing Fender Rhodes vamps; Black Thought’s sweat-on-the-mic intensity – it gels in that next-level Revolver way. Resulting in a record that makes you feel grateful for its artistry, and wary of what’s to come.

https___images.genius.com_f251dcf3649ff26ca4be1d103d3a9173.1000x1000x116. Smog – Knock Knock (1999)

“Let’s go to the country / just you and me,” goes the opening lines of singer/songwriter Bill Callahan’s seventh LP. But that invitation wasn’t as casual as it sounded. Knock Knock found Callahan expanding his palette, both lyrically and instrumentally, the obscure lo-fi vision of his early albums making way for richly rendered, naturalistic tone-poems about empathetic prison guards, bone-chilling childhood traumas, and restorative balms of affection. “I lay back in the tall grass / And let the ants cover me,” he sings in his rumbling basso, describing a moment of psychological healing like Leonard Cohen on a Thoreau kick. The music is equally exploratory, using bouncing cellos and children’s choirs to buoy Callahan’s lush, searching guitar. It’s a formula he’d take to even more panoramic heights later on in his career, a smirking cowboy wading through amber waves of pain, coming out the other side humbled and smitten. Making Knock Knock even more meaningful in context. This isn’t just some invitation to a three-day weekend on the lake. It’s an artist taking the first steps into the underbrush of his soul.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (25-21)

Being There

25. Wilco – Being There (1996)

In 1996, things weren’t exactly going Jeff Tweedy’s way. It’d been a few years since the nasty breakup of alt-country pioneers Uncle Tupelo, and Tweedy’s new band wasn’t doing as well as his old partner Jay Farrar’s. So he literally doubled down, recording a double album and refusing to budge when his label balked. He called it Being There, after the 1979 Peter Sellers movie about a clueless man named Chance who floats to the top of society. “Misunderstood,” the album’s first song, starts as a ballad about not belonging, and ends with a thunderous punk catharsis: “I wanna thank you all for nothing!” It’s Tweedy trying the Chance method of getting famous, sharing what’s on his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s selfish, and dynamic. But thankfully, Being There isn’t all vitriol. The brilliant multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett joined Wilco for these sessions, burnishing every track in some way, be it a ringing pedal steel note or a heartfelt backing vocal. And Tweedy full-on embraces his love of classic rock, from the shameless Stones rip-off “Monday” to the T. Rex boogie of “I Got You.” He may have missed the point of that movie – Chance is a stand-in for every idiot who’s coasted to the White House on white male privilege – but he made himself a masterpiece all the same.

BizarreRideIIthePharcyde

24. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)

There’s something inherently rewarding about talented people not taking themselves seriously. Like Meryl Streep playing an ego-drunk Danielle Steele villain in She-Devil. Or Werner Herzog narrating an episode of Parks & Recreation. Or a quartet of accomplished dancers forming a goofy rap group called The Pharcyde. After landing a record deal on the strength of a song full of mom jokes (e.g. “Your mama’s got a peg leg with a kickstand”), Fatlip, Slimkid3, Imani and Bootie Brown poured all their youthful energy and comedic chops into Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde. Whether they’re rapping about getting high, or arrested, or ignored by a woman, their rapid flows, class-clown antics, and legitimate moments of clarity formed the backbone of a record that was so much more than funny. These guys were smart enough to avoid the kind of wooden sketch comedy that marred many a ’90s rap album – instead, they freestyled about hypothetical presidential power over a vamping live band. Oh, and did I mention Bizarre Ride is a clinic in sample-based beatmaking? J-Swift’s celebratory, jazz-inflected production has aged wonderfully – it’s entirely possible the inventor of the confetti gun was listening to it when inspiration struck.

Introducing_happiness_album_cover23. Rheostatics – Introducing Happiness (1994)

Sire Records had no idea what to do with Rheostatics’ fourth albumEven though it featured “Claire,” by far the biggest hit of this Ontario cult quartet’s career, Introducing Happiness was a carnival of clashing ideas – the deep cerulean of a sci-fi ballad, next to a lime green fever dream of a giant hummingbird, blurring into the mercury-silver glow of a jazz ode to the Russian lunar cycle. Factor in singer Martin Tielli’s anti-Vedder quaver and guitarist Dave Bidini’s explosive, angular noodling, and the Buzz Bin probably felt out of reach (although the Flaming Lips, this band’s closest American counterpart, managed to pull it off). Who cares about this 24-year-old industry context, you say? Well, you may have forgotten just how deeply odd, and disarmingly pretty, this album is. You may have forgotten about “Cephallus Worm/Uncle Henry,” which sounds like a room of amateur impressionists covering “Purple Haze” through a fog of nitrous oxide. You may have forgotten about lines like “I’m dripping water on your gills / You’re such a beautiful thing.” These guys had been given a second chance to prove themselves as a commercial force, and this is what they made. God bless them.

https---images.genius.com-8d8af1e45dbeada213405d9aa7a539d6.1000x1000x122. Björk – Debut (1993)

There’s a moment on Björk’s solo debut where we get a chance to step back and truly take stock of what we’re hearing. In the middle of the deliriously catchy raver “There’s More to Life Than This,” the singer pulls us out of the club – a door slams, muffling the music behind it. It’s a disorienting experience; I thought my speakers had shorted out the first time I heard it. But before I could start messing with the wires, Björk was singing again, in full-throated a cappella – “We could nick a boat / And sneak off to this island!” When the beat comes back, it’s a whole new kind of high. This, right here, is what it was like to listen to Björk in the ’90s. Anytime we thought “perfectly enjoyable” was good enough, we felt a pull at our sleeves, away from complacency and toward a previously unimaginable Icelandic adventure. Debut isn’t quite as richly layered as her future triumphs, but the building blocks alone make it a classic – the insanely creative techno production, the vintage movie musical balladry, a voice with a majestic ornithology all its own. There’s more to life than this, but only because Björk’s next album was even better.

https---images.genius.com-cd0a26733cc459710d0986b7b64de8f0.1000x1000x121. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)

In the summer of 1997, Bob Dylan was hospitalized with a fungal infection that was attacking his heart. He’d already had his 30th album, Time Out of Mind, in the can by then. Its songs weren’t inspired by this particular crisis. But it’s a haunting, melancholy struggle just the same – a man on the verge of becoming a boomer relic, coming to terms with the mortality of his mind and body. Here was rock’s most renowned lyrical obfuscator, writing with eerie clarity about failed marriages, stale hopes, and looming shadows. “I got no place left to turn / I got nothin’ left to burn,” he sings on “Standing in the Doorway.” He’s spent. But ironically, Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s most fulfilling work in decades. With producer Daniel Lanois back in the fold – he produced Dylan’s underrated 1989 album Oh Mercy – these songs of woe get the sonic TLC they deserve. From the ominous, echoing organ of “Love Sick” to the sauntering blues vamp that makes the 16-minute “Highlands” feel like a reasonable length, Lanois’s warmly evocative touches remind us that while the narrators are alone, the musicians are anything but. “It’s not dark yet / but it’s getting there,” Dylan confesses. His talent has rarely shone brighter.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (30-26)

And we’ve entered the top 30 of our Albums of the ’90s list. Spoiler alert: All of them are better than Better Than Ezra.

30. Radiohead – The Bends (1995)

In 1993, at the height of grunge’s marketability, Radiohead released “Creep,” a single that nailed the genre’s central oxymoron – self-loathing art that draws a crowd. Suddenly, these guys were getting what seemed like their 15 seconds. Except they didn’t relish their dalliance with stardom. It made them feel alienated and exhausted, to the point where they started to seriously ponder the fleeting nature of life itself. And then they made an album about that. “You can crush it, but it’s always here,” warns Thom Yorke on the opening track of The Bends, as if the reassuring swirl of Wurlitzer and guitar was the only thing keeping the reaper off his back. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood utilizes way more than his volume knob this time around, creating atmospheres of aching wonder and wanton destruction. From the consumer culture nightmares of “Fake Plastic Trees” to the raw existentialist dread of “Street Spirit,” Radiohead confront one unfixable, harrowing reality after another, while writing choruses that blot out the world. Instead of eating hot dogs like most of us do when we feel like nothing matters, they made an attempt at shared catharsis. Self-loathing had made way for selflessness.

29. Portishead – Dummy (1994)

Seattle wasn’t the only rain-spattered town to become famous for its gloomy music scene in the ’90s. Bristol, UK, was ground zero for “trip hop” – a fusion of rap, electronica and post-punk that played like the soundtrack to a Bond movie where his greatest nemesis is loneliness. In 1994, the genre landed its own Nevermind, in the form of Portishead’s bewitching debut. Dummy was a trip-hop blueprint, with an emphasis on the blue – singer Beth Gibbons confronts the day-to-day realities of depression in an absolutely haunting voice. The music fits her like a shroud. Theremins cry over echoing minor chords. Single words become garbled and transformed by bandleader Geoff Barrow’s emotive scratching. “In this moment/How can it feel this wrong?” Gibbons asks, like a forgotten spirit trying make herself heard. In that moment, you know why people decide to investigate that mysterious sound in the attic. Some part of us wants to be haunted.

28. The Beta Band – The Three E.P’s (1998)

In 1994, an album called Chant hit #3 on the Billboard charts. It featured old recordings of Spanish monks doing what the title promised, and was marketed as a surefire stress reliever. It sold two million copies. My dad had one of them. I have no idea if the Scottish “folktronica” outfit The Beta Band were Chant fans, but their music strives for a similar kind of transcendency – not exactly the status quo in indie rock back then. Over the course of three EPs, the band explored the limits of patient, circular songwriting, finding a throughline from “Alice’s Restaurant” to ambient techno – a mix of acoustic guitar strumming and entrancing electronic noise that feels like it could go on forever without losing steam. (The only artists less concerned with radio play? Those monks.) All three of these extended players were collected on this single disc, and while it did land them a minor hit with the slow-build stoner ballad “Dry the Rain,” these guys were after something deeper than mere hooks. The Beta Band didn’t just catch your ear. It absorbed you, tip to tail.

27. Mos Def – Black On Both Sides (1999)

I’m a sucker for artist autobiographies. There’s always the chance those pages contain a deeper understanding of a performer’s state of mind during the creative process – ideally resulting in an even closer relationship with their art. Rap is the only genre that regularly weaves these meta commentaries within the music itself; emcees often explain what drives them to write rhymes, how the process makes them feel, and why they’re so much better at it than you. And I can’t think of any rapper who has written about writing better than Mos Def on his solo debut. “My restlessness is my nemesis / It’s hard to really chill and sit still, committed to page / I write a rhyme, sometimes won’t finish for days / Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature,” he raps. He devotes a whole chorus to Rakim’s classic bars about being trapped between the lines. He wrestles with his responsibilities as an artist but decides to soldier on and follow his Umi’s advice: “Shine a light on the world.” Black On Both Sides does just that, with golden-hour production that makes samples sound like backing bands, leaping from R&B to jazz to hardcore without ever losing that comforting sheen. Fluid, openhearted, and buried deep in the pocket, it’s got all I ever need to know.

26. Mariah Carey – Mariah Carey (1990)

It started with one note. A strange, reverberating synthesizer, drawing us in like a UFO tractor beam. Then the chimes tinkle, the vocals do a melismatic dance, and we’re there, swaying to the timeless doo-wop melody of Mariah Carey’s first single, “Vision of Love.” To an aspiring R&B singer at the time, that note must have felt like the X marking the spot of their way forward, their opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The song, and the self-titled album it anchored, introduced Carey as a writer and singer with an innate ability to craft worldbeating hits from R&B and gospel ingredients. Her fingerprints have been all over pop music ever since – Beyoncé has credited “Vision of Love” with inspiring her to do vocal runs. That powerhouse of a voice naturally gets all the attention, elevating this record’s twinkling Whitney arrangements into something more profoundly human. But Mariah Carey remains a spine-tingling listen because of the crispness and unexpectedness of the writing – like “Someday,” with its finger-wagging prognostications of regret. Or “It’s All In Your Mind,” which rubs Tiger Balm onto a partner’s trust issues. Or the closer, “Love Takes Time,” which features a narrator that didn’t follow the lesson of the song title, staring in the mirror, trying to forgive themselves. Three of the four songs I’ve mentioned here were #1 hits. This was pop music that gave you so much more, right from note one.