And we continue our methodical countdown of some guy’s 100 favorite albums of the 1990s. For no particular reason, either! This next batch of five rounds out #100-51, and it includes a record that’s depressing as all hell, one that confronts sadness and decay in a sweet, kinda triumphant way, and one that’s by Soul Coughing, proving that this is a list about the ’90s. So read away! Or if you like, check out the whole list so far. I’ll be back in a month or so to crack into the top 50! (“Hooray,” you say to yourself flatly, not even pretending to hide your sarcasm.)
55. Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992)
In the ’90s, we started to get a good idea of how the legendary artists of the ’60s and ’70s were going to deal with aging. Paul McCartney would dye his hair and keep on writing love songs. Stevie Wonder would pretty much retire. Bob Dylan would shroud himself in mortality and end up resuscitating his muse. But no artist stepped into middle age as organically as Neil Young did on Harvest Moon – an album of gentle country songs about life passing by, made to be listened to on a big front porch in the twilight. The then 47-year-old certainly doesn’t ignore the darkness, singing about the aching desperation of divorce, a waitress haunted by regrets, and a man contemplating suicide in a minivan. But his gently quavering voice, sympathetic turns of phrase, and clear-eyed belief in true love (especially on the title track) tip the scales from depressing to life-affirming. Then there’s “Old King,” a jaunty bluegrass eulogy to a hound dog that’s about as much fun as anybody could have contemplating death. If you could prescribe treatment for the human condition, Harvest Moon would be FDA-approved.
54. Eels – Electro-Shock Blues (1998)
Moving on, from one ruminative, regret-laden work to what is arguably the Grand Poobah of ruminative, regret-laden 1990s albums. After losing both his mother and sister in a short period of time, Mark Oliver Everett – the one-man phenomenon behind Eels – made a record that wallows in raw cynicism and deep, lying-on-the-bathroom-floor sadness (at its lowest, quietest moments, you can almost smell the porcelain). Lyrically, Elecro-Shock Blues is an open vein (e.g. “My life is shit and piss”), and it would be light years from this list if those often-brutal sentiments weren’t balanced out by the production, which was eclectic enough to make a fan out of Tom Waits. Among the many gorgeous acoustic ballads, there’s the lurching rhythms and crackling found sounds of “Cancer for the Cure,” the dance-folk breaks of “Last Stop: This Town” and the sexy Morphine rumble of “Hospital Food.” Hence, by the time Everett rewards us on the closing “P.S. You Rock My World” by admitting to a new appreciation for being alive, we’re wishing the whole beautiful thing wouldn’t end.
53. The Flaming Lips – In A Priest-Driven Ambulance (1990)
Unlike most of the epic rock music released in the ’90s, The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus – 1999’s The Soft Bulletin – was a gorgeously un-ironic embrace of hope and belief. But it was also the natural endgame of a creative impulse that was first exhibited nine years earlier, on the band’s fourth album. In A Priest-Driven Ambulance finds Lips songwriter Wayne Coyne deep in a Christ obsession, his analytical and spiritual sides clashing, adding an exotic tension to the ragged helium of his voice. “While I’m still myself/Your blankets covered me,” Coyne sings on the triumphant psych-folk opening “Shine On Sweet Jesus,” swooning at the beauty of belief. But over the spare chords and insistent crickets of “There You Are,” there’s the sickening chill of doubt – “It makes you think that God was fucked up when he made this town.” By decade’s end, The Flaming Lips stood firmly on the side of belief in something more. Without stunning metaphysical wrestling matches like this album, that level of peace wouldn’t have been achievable.
52. Soul Coughing – Ruby Vroom (1994)
Like countless hypersensitive, white suburban teenagers in the 1990s, I was magnetically drawn to albums like The Chronic and Enter the 36 Chambers – raw, confident, impeccably produced works of art that possessed an egomaniacal energy I could leech off of. But I was just as crazy about bands like Barenaked Ladies and Primus, whose strident dorkiness spoke to the chicken-armed X-Files fanboy in me. So when I first heard Ruby Vroom’s opening song, “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago,” it was like hearing those two factions of my CD collection – and those two idealized versions of myself – gelling, and it kicked more ass than it had any right to. Few bass lines have ever burrowed as deep in the pocket as Sebastian Steinberg’s does here – the groove produced by Steinberg and drummer Yuval Dabay transcends the standard definition of rhythm, inciting a primal, emotional reaction that would make Elaine Benes feel like Gregory Hines. And when M. Doughty tells you that “Saskatoon is in the room” in his flat, nasal voice, you realize that post-ironic nerdy nonsense can play in the same sandbox as supreme-sonic-super-badness. That the silly shit you think is funny might not be the polar opposite of funky. That it’s not 100% ridiculous to dream that you could, one day, bring the motherfuckin’ ruckus.
51. Bjork – Homogenic (1997)
Electronic music is fertile ground as a metaphor for sadness. Whether it’s Kanye West undergoing therapy-by-AutoTune on 808s & Heartbreak, David Bowie nailing what a “sense of doubt” sounds like during his Berlin period, or Portishead’s entire catalog, synthesized notes do a bang-up job representing a lack of emotional warmth. Which makes Bjork’s Homogenic a special album beyond the immediate bounty of its lush, philharmonic-tronica production. After the breathtaking genre whirlwinds of Debut and Post, Homogenic finds the artist working in one sonic cul-de-sac for the first time. The production makes you think twice about the originality of 21st century Radiohead – ghostly drum loops and synth patches give way to stunning string arrangements. It’s dizzyingly dour music that would make the perfect accompaniment to songs about winter, or war, or whatever kind of “sour time” you want to moan on about. But instead, Bjork uses them to sing about love as a connection that transcends the physical, that’s as inevitable as the tide, that surrounds us all whether we know it or not. Even when her music’s at its tamest, her impulses are anything but.
For five years now, I’ve been lucky enough to review concerts as a freelancer for The Buffalo News. It’s a gig that’s gotten me free admission to some of the best performances I’ve ever seen. But there’s a small downside. Not only do I have to encounter artists that I don’t like from time to time, but I have to contemplate the reasons for their popularity. And in the case of a Daughtry show I recently covered, this experience shook me. The massively popular band represents the worst nightmare of a listener who once worshipped the likes of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains – not “post-grunge,” but “post-post-grunge.” Sure, Daughtry rips off Eddie Vedder, but it’s by way of Scott Stapp. It’s like a mad scientist created club-footed, brain-dead clones of the best bands of the 1990s, and then made those clones procreate. This concert filled me with pop culture paranoia – was any of the music I grew up with actually any good?
Which is a long way of explaining why I’ve decided to revisit the soundtrack to my high school and college years, and list my top 100 albums of the decade. It was refreshing to realize that, even seen in hindsight’s harsh, unforgiving light, a lot of the stuff I loved holds up. I’m sure nostalgia is clouding my judgment on many of these choices, but jeez, I’m human, for fuck’s sake.
So, when the biggest rock band of 2021 credits Daughtry as its main influence, I’ll have this list to come back to, and remind myself that yes, it was good. Let’s start with albums 100-91, along with my favorite track from each.
100. Moxy Früvous – Bargainville (1993)
Remember how I said that thing about nostalgia just now? Well, this record’s on here largely because of it. Don’t get me wrong, Moxy Früvous was teeming with talent – a Toronto quartet of multi-instrumentalists who harmonized like a hybrid of The Beatles and The Andrews Sisters. But in concert was where the group really shone; its energy, humor, and awe-inspiring tightness made for some of the most memorable live experiences of my teenage years. Bargainville is its best album, a mix of poignant folk and quirky novelty tunes. Listening to it today does make me cringe just a bit – why, oh why, does it begin with a ballad about our dying environment (“River Valley”)? Sure, Bargainville might be an awkward mix of the self-serious and the seriously nerdy. But that’s also a dead-on description of me at 15.
My favorite track is the album’s closer, the a cappella beauty “Gulf War Song.” Yeah, I know, groan. But you can’t deny those harmonies.
99. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
If this exercise was an attempt at listing the albums I loved and obsessed over in the 1990s, The Chronic would crack the top ten for sure. I was 10 when Straight Outta Compton came out, so Dr. Dre’s solo debut was my first exposure to the lurid, hilarious and irresistible world of gangsta rap. But listening to it now is a bit of a chore – the production remains some of the best in rap history, and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s flow is unimpeachable, but so much of the lyrics are bogged down by Dre’s obsession with his own personal beefs, and frankly, his mediocre rapping ability. To quote Chris Rock: “It’s hard to drive around singing songs about ‘Easy-E can eat a big fat dick.'” Also, this might be the most misogynistic hit record of all time. The song “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is ironic, because the song is most definitely shit. Hearing this album now makes me understand why I can’t get with artists like Odd Future, despite a sound that appeals to my sensibilities – it’s a pain in the ass to have to constantly rationalize to myself why I like something. Despite all of this, I still can’t deny a genius when I hear him; The Chronic makes this list because of Dre’s production wizardry, a singular talent that would shine even brighter on the superior Doggystyle.
The obvious choice, but my choice nonetheless: “Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang,” one of the greatest tracks of the decade, let alone this album.
98. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998)
I don’t want to be one of those people who calls something like Lauryn Hill only releasing one album “tragic.” But it is a bummer. Especially when you consider the major flaw of her magnificent debut – its 77-minute running time. So much of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is so impressive, blurring the lines between R&B, gospel and hip hop, laying down a “neo-soul” template that few would come close to matching, brilliantly juxtaposing the bitterness of failed love with the hopes and mysteries of childbirth. Still, it’s tougher than it should be to get through the whole thing, what with the schoolroom skits, the hidden Frankie Valli cover, and the stretch of five long R&B tunes that get you from “Final Hour” to “Everything Is Everything.” One hoped that Hill’s future efforts would maintain this dizzying level of artistry, while exhibiting a stronger ability to self-edit. But that was a lot to expect, it turns out. This one’s all we have, and we should thank god for all 77 of those minutes.
My favorite cut is “Doo Wop (That Thing),” Miseducation‘s biggest hit, and the perfect distillation of its singular neo-soul gumbo.
97. Sublime – Sublime (1996)
By the time ska-punk and swing had infiltrated the mainstream in the mid-’90s, I was immersed in it. Looking back, it’s embarrassing to remember Carson Daly introducing a Reel Big Fish video in a two-tone suit, and it’s more embarrassing to remember how much I loved Reel Big Fish. But even after all this time, and all the guilt I’ve had to process, there’s no doubt in my mind – Sublime’s third album kicks ass. And I don’t care how many frat boys in pre-torn South Carolina Gamecocks hats agree with me. Bradley Nowell’s swan song revealed him as some kind of stoner-poseur genius. He appropriated hip-hop and reggae tropes in ways that should’ve been embarrassing. He sang about tits, butts and bong loads. But his voice ached and cracked with seemingly unwarranted pathos. Were we hearing an addict struggling to hold on to the good times? Were we just hearing a super-talented guy at his peak? No matter the reason, Sublime rules, bro.
I especially dig “Burritos,” Nowell’s Brian Wilson-ish ode to never getting out of bed, complete with period-appropriate O.J. reference.
96. Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)
Grunge is often credited as the genre that snuffed out hair metal, which is probably correct. But it’s ironic that Soundgarden was one of these vaunted acts responsible for killing the Crüe, poisoning Poison, and slaughtering Slaughter (I’ll stop there). While it did a better job with the follow through, the band’s formula wasn’t so different from Whitesnake’s – Zeppelin-esque ambition, Sabbathy riffage and a disarmingly pretty lead singer. If you had to bet on one of those Seattle bands becoming rock stars, they were the obvious choice. And Superunknown made good on all of this critical and commercial potential, a darkly tinged arena rock album with just the right mix of killer riffs, power ballads and moody meditations. Its only misstep is “Kickstand,” an workmanlike attempt at snarling punk that just underlines how different Soundgarden was from Nirvana. But what it lacks in gut-punching attitude, Superunknown makes up for in production value. An immaculately crafted work, performed by a singer and lead guitarist at the pinnacle of their powers, this is Soundgarden realizing its destiny – to play those big-ass venues that David Coverdale and company used to pack to the gills.
“Mailman” is my favorite tune here, a sludge-rock masterpiece spiked with an awesomely bitter chorus – “I know I’m headed for the bottom/But I’m riding you all the way.”
95. Primus – Sailing The Seas Of Cheese (1991)
“As I stand in the shower/Singing opera and such/Pondering the possibility that I pull the pud too much/There’s a scent that fills the air/Is it flatus?/Just a touch/And it makes me think of you.” This, my friends, is the essence of Primus, a band that thrived on bass solos, dissonance, nasal sing-speak and songs like “Grandad’s Little Ditty,” the old-weirdo-in-the-shower vignette that my friends and I would croon to each other like it was a Perry Como ballad. It’s just one of many moments on Sailing the Seas of Cheese made to be obsessed over by strange teenage boys, on an album that should’ve aged terribly on paper. But Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Herb Alexander happened to be very gifted musicians, and the obtuse nerd-funk grooves they let fly on “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver,” “Is It Luck?” and “Tommy The Cat” are evergreen. The band eventually lost me with 1995’s Tales From A Punchbowl, but for the record, it wasn’t because I’d become an adult or anything – to this day, “Grandad’s Little Ditty” makes me laugh.
This was a tough choice, but I’ve gotta go with “Tommy The Cat” as the ultimate Cheese cut. The guest spot from Tom Waits doesn’t hurt. Speaking of which …
94. Tom Waits – Mule Variations (1999)
After releasing the harrowing Bone Machine in 1992, Tom Waits took a break (1994’s The Black Rider was the soundtrack to a play he wrote and began recording in 1989). When he returned seven years later, it was to introduce yet another phase of his illustrious career. Not a Swordfishtrombones-level reinvention, mind you, but a nuanced move similar to the one Bob Dylan was making at the time – an organic, nostalgic embrace of Americana. The blues always informed Waits’ sound, whether through the hotel bar piano playing of his early records or the wonky pentatonics of his ’80s avant garde period. But on Mule Variations, the style comes through with a clarity that no Waits album, before or since, has possessed. “Lowside of the Road,” “Get Behind the Mule” and “Filipino Box Spring Hog” could all be Muddy Waters covers, and ballads like “Picture In A Frame” take the 12-bar structure into achingly beautiful places. Waits also dabbles in gospel, spoken word and adult contemporary (still waiting for Rod Stewart’s cover of “Hold On”), all with the same clear-headed approach. He lets the songs do the heavy lifting here, minimizing his vocal flights of fancy and keeping the clanging percussion to a minimum. Now I happen to really like those two things, which makes Mule Variations a second-tier Waits album in my mind. One that still kicked the shit out of most of the albums released in the ’90s.
“Don’t want no Abba-Zaba …” Waits delivery of that phrase is just so damn cool, it makes the candy-coated blasphemy blues of “Chocolate Jesus” my favorite song on Mule Variations.
93. Ice Cube – AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990)
At NWA’s height, its most talented rapper broke away and went right coast, making a solo album with The Bomb Squad, the production team responsible for Public Enemy’s massive, martial sound. I was too young to know about all of this, but for rap fans at the time, it must’ve been like John Lennon joining The Rolling Stones. To top it off, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted delivers. Ice Cube is at his most breathtakingly volatile, charging out the gate yelling, “I’m sick of getting treated like another damn stepchild!” A simultaneous description of his falling out with NWA and the common plight of African-Americans, the song, “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate,” proved Cube was up to the challenge posed by the Bomb Squad’s crackling soul thunder. Like every gangsta record from this period, Cube’s verses devolve into meathead misogyny from time to time. But the prevailing mood is righteous anger, with the ultimate goal of shining big, fat flood lights on life in Los Angeles ghettos, exposing the problem underlined by the Tom Brokaw clip that kicks of “Rollin’ Wit The Lench Mob”: “Few cared about the violence, because it didn’t affect them.”
Just try and resist the emotional and sonic onslaught of “The Nigga Ya Love To Hate.”
92. Everything But The Girl – Temperamental (1999)
I was never more than a casual fan of electronica during its ’90s heyday, appreciating its propulsive energy and imaginative approach to sampling, but always returning to rock and hip-hop at the end of the day. But a few of these records managed to break through my stubborn listening routine, including this one, in which Everything But The Girl suggested a world of listening possibilities that I was willfully ignoring. Temperamental wasn’t like any electronica I’d heard, a mix of moody synthesizers, jazzy samples and laid-back drum loops that wasn’t meant to get anywhere close to the dance floor. Tracey Thorn’s voice floated majestically over these post-punk techno pastiches, analyzing fizzled relationships with a resigned sense of grace. It’s a beautiful soundtrack for a long bout of after-hours introspection, and while this approach was nothing new to EBTG fans (Temperamental was its 10th album), it was, and remains, an eye-opener for me.
Check out “Low Tide Of The Night,” which includes one of the most elegant descriptions of depression I’ve ever heard – “Inside out in the daytime/Outside in in the night time.”
91. Cracker – Kerosene Hat (1993)
Cracker doesn’t get the breathless critical raves of its contemporaries, despite Kerosene Hat being in the same alt-country ether as Uncle Tupelo’s best work. That probably has everything to do with “Low,” the huge-ass hit song that was the only way a kid like me could become aware of David Lowery’s post-Camper Van Beethoven ensemble. Despite its rootsy, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers groove, “Low” bumped shoulders with “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Today” on radio playlists, meaning Cracker was seemingly all about the “alt,” and not about the “country.” Which just ain’t the case. Dusting off this disc has been the most pleasurable thing about this whole project so far; I’d simply forgotten how great these songs are – “Get Off This” and “Sick Of Goodbyes” join “Low” as examples of alt-country at its peak.
What a segue! Here’s “Sick Of Goodbyes,” whose chorus still gives me goosebumps.