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.

Top 100 Albums of the ’90s (65-61)

Dear hypothetical reader –

I haven’t posted in a little bit, I know. But don’t worry, I’m OK. In fact, I’m goddamn marvelous! My wife and I decided to pick up and move to Maine – Portland to be specific – and the breathtaking ocean vistas have made it hard to focus on how I feel about music and movies and stuff. Although I had a complete blast watching The Last Stand and am once again completely in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sway. He’s the sheriff – of my heart. Anyways, let’s talk about some ’90s albums, shall we? It’s been a while since I left things dangling at #66 with Air’s Moon Safari.

 images-165. Alice In Chains – Dirt (1992)

I’m trying to figure out how to say something different from my take on Pearl Jam’s Ten earlier on this list, but the experience of listening to Dirt for the first time in a decade was similar. But before I crap on your memories, let’s be clear – this is a great metal album, steeped in a malaise that came from a frighteningly real place. It provides moments of clarity that feel like blasts of pain poking through the anesthetic. Alas, not being a teenager anymore means Dirt is not an album I will reach for often. What can I say, I like my bleakness with a chaser of hope these days. Plus, like vintage Eddie Vedder, Layne Staley isn’t as infallible as I once thought. He can truly haunt a song, a la Ozzy Osbourne in his prime. But also like Osbourne, it’s the only setting he’s got. The moments where Staley’s tortured crooning inhabits Jerry Cantrell’s demonically beautiful guitar riffs – e.g. “Them Bones” and “Would?” – are what made Alice In Chains special, and there are enough of them here to make Dirt a classic.

matthew-sweet-1991-girlfriend164. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1991)

To people who grew up on The Beatles, ELO and Cheap Trick, and then had to endure mainstream rock radio throughout the ’80s, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend must have felt like a warm hug from mom. Pairing feelings of elation and vulnerability with shimmering power pop riffage and stacked-high vocal harmonies, Sweet’s third album has a timeless quality to it (the song title “Winona” is the only clue that this is from the ’90s). The songs explore the creation and destruction of relationships in universal terms – love makes self-deprecating feelings vanish; somebody falls for a preacher’s daughter; a guy who thought he knew his girl realizes he was wrong. Without getting specific, Sweet turns phrases like knives – “You can’t see how I matter in this world,” he pleads amongst the beautiful wreckage of “You Don’t Love Me.” His kinda nerdy, straightforward tenor makes all of the sentiments feel genuine, those hooks still as fresh and addictive as a long gaze into the eyes of the one you love.

images63. Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999)

After 1988’s Land of Dreams, Randy Newman took a long break from traditional record-making to focus on film music (and his so-so Faust musical). I’d bet the 11 years between Dreams and Bad Love made for the most lucrative period of his career. You might’ve thought that all those Oscar nominations and Pixar paydays would soften the guy, that when he got around to recording another batch of songs, they’d be somewhat pleasant – even, dare I say, optimistic. But Bad Love isn’t just a work of caustic satire typical of Newman’s oeuvre. It’s the bitterest, saddest, most unflinchingly personal work of his career. The songs depict families falling apart in front of televisions, dirty old men cursing at women half their age, native peoples suffering and dying. Which would make for untenable listening if most of this stuff wasn’t also hilarious – especially “The World Isn’t Fair,” an open letter to Karl Marx that finds Newman acknowledging his good fortune by talking about how preposterously undeserving of it he is. Like most self-absorbed people, Randy’s incapable of change here, and we’re all the richer for it.

MercuryRev-DesertersSongs62. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998)

It’s impossible for me to listen to Deserter’s Songs without constantly comparing it to a record that came out a year later – The Soft Bulletin. Mercury Rev’s fourth record shared the same producer as that Flaming Lips masterwork, the brilliant and clearly influential Dave Fridmann. So it’s no coincidence that both records possess the same ambitious, slightly disorienting template, mixing lush, Nelson Riddle arrangements with quirky, contemplative musings, like a band used backing tracks for a Great American Songbook tribute to write songs about spider bites, or moles with telephones for eyes. But while they might be the same type of animal, these records are also different breeds – Deserter’s being one that prowls across much darker emotional territory. As singer Jonathan Donahue spins yarns about nightmares and doomed relationships with an unvarnished Neil Young yodel, Fridmann piles on the woodwinds, strings and saw solos like an old-time Disney composer. It’s a birthday cake with a scotch egg in the center, a walk to the gallows that runs through Martha’s Vineyard, an album with a title drenched in self-imposed loneliness that makes good on it in the most unexpectedly stunning way.

220px-SmashingPumpkins-Gish61. Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991)

Gish is one of the most compelling debuts in rock history, and not just because it gives us an unfiltered look at what made Smashing Pumpkins one of the greatest arena-rock bands of the 1990s. It’s that in those very same qualities laid the seeds of the group’s demise. While by far the rawest recording that Billy Corgan has deemed acceptable for our ears, Gish is still marked by a proudly meticulous approach to rock record-making, its guitars layered richly to create walls of sound that envelop you with warmth, even while they strain your speakers to the limit. Of course, once Corgan got on the short list of successors to the Cobain throne and became obsessed with his own brand of stylized melancholy, the speaker straining stayed, and the warmth didn’t. And that just makes songs like “Window Paine” even more of a pleasure to experience in 2013 – a jaw-dropping ballad that features some of the most gorgeously punishing guitar playing of the ’90s. Hopelessly yearning for Corgan to make another record like this someday? That’s a worthwhile kind of melancholy.