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 (55-51)

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.)

Harvest Moon55. 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.

Electro-Shock Blues54. 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.

In A Priest-Driven Ambulance53. 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.

Ruby Vroom52. 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.

Homogenic51. 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.

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Mom and dad,

This list of the Top 10 Albums of the past year is a bit anti-climactic, since I’m sure you pored through my Top 100 Albums of the Decade list with a fine-toothed comb, or at least a comb with teeth that are relatively small. It definitely wouldn’t have been one of those thick plastic combs that come with dolls that you buy at the Dollar Tree. If it was, then you’re both dead to me.

You’ll see a few repeats here (six, in fact), but I’m sure you won’t mind reading them again – I’m your flesh and blood after all. It’s the least you could do.

10. Iggy Pop – Préliminaires
Iggy Pop’s 15th solo album is a brooding slab of French pop, post-punk and Basin Street blues, making for a delightful departure from his firmly established hard rock sneer. Whether he’s seducing like Serge Gainsbourg on “Les Feuilles Mortes,” leaning into a dirty New Orleans groove on “King of the Dogs” or channeling Leonard Cohen over the wandering violins of “Spanish Coast” and brooding synths of “Party Time,” Iggy’s gothic cabaret baritone totally captivates, thickening each arrangement like café with extra lait.

9. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
This is the album that The Flaming Lips needed to make after 2006’s At War with the Mystics, a solid effort that nonetheless signaled the band’s return to Earth after seven years in the space rock stratosphere. Shredding that sacred, universally appealing Soft Bulletin formula once and for all, Embryonic isn’t much interested in hooks, or for that matter, traditionally beautiful sounds. Raw, challenging soundscapes are the order of the day instead, accentuating the inherent weirdness of Wayne Coyne’s voice where previous albums sought to offset it. Where Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would have given you a blast of harmony, Embryonic hits you with a wall of static, a dissonant power chord or wash of synthesized harp. By bringing their freakier ’80s and ’90s selves back into the fold, the band can give us metaphysical head trips like the “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and towering, passionate jams like “Worm Mountain.” Drummer Kliph Scurlock goes ballistic throughout, like Nick Mason would’ve if Pink Floyd had tried to go back to its roots. With feet planted in the past and the future, Embryonic makes the present a hell of a lot more interesting.

8. Vetiver – Tight Knit
Quick, listen to Vetiver’s song “Everyday” right now, before Target or Old Navy or some other company beats it into submission in a ubiquitous commercial. Coupling some breezy acoustic chords with a sweet, McCartney-esque vocal melody, the track is as effortlessly catchy as anything released in ’09, and if it wasn’t for Feist’s “Mushaboom,” the entire decade. And this quality bit of easy listening is only part of the charm of Tight Knit, a record that’s intent on conveying one particular form of happiness – that lazy Sunday afternoon, dipping your toes in the lake kind of feeling, a sensation that’s as unforgettable as it is fleeting. As a result, Andy Cabic’s songs aren’t all that interested in changing your life, or even getting you to think all that much. This is gentle, artful soft rock, irresistibly simple and mostly free of James Taylor-ish stabs at poetry. Keep it out of your On the Go party playlist, but when you’re hung over the next day, you’ll cling to it as intensely as that bottle of blue Gatorade.

7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II
Wu-Tang Clan broke the rules from the start, a crew of nine MCs that rolled out a raw East Coast masterpiece at the height of gangsta rap’s popularity, took four years to record a two-disc follow-up, and turned that into a stroke of brilliance as well. In this context, the utter magnificence of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II makes sense. Usually when artists borrow off the cred of their younger days, it’s because they’re either greedy, out of ideas, or both. But Raekwon’s “sequel” to his legendary solo debut is no Stillmatic. Maybe the title alone was enough to get the MC to push himself, so as not to sully the sacrosanct Cuban Linx name, but regardless, Raekwon has never sounded better, not to mention guests Ghostface Killah and Method Man, and producers RZA, Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla. These project newscasts, dealer diatribes and prison yard tales are as raw and compelling as hip hop gets, from the chilling descriptions of “Cold Outside” to the laid-back crack-making interlude “Pyrex Vision” and the heartfelt Ol’ Dirty Bastard memorial “Ason Jones.” Part II is such a shocking triumph, one wonders if these guys could’ve salvaged The Godfather: Part III.

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
The press went apeshit about an album with a weird title by a relatively unknown Brooklyn indie-folk band. Lots of people listened, went out and bought it. And it’s terrific. What a refreshing thing to think about as the “death of the album” decade comes to a close. To those going in pre-hyped, Veckatimest might not be an immediately rewarding listen, because this isn’t typical pop songcraft. It’s lofty, hypnotic music, where the verses draw you in and the choruses only serve to deepen the mystery.

5. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Take an infectious, harmony-drenched pop album of enviable quality. Now stick it in a jam jar and shake it up violently. You might have something resembling Bitte Orca, a record that’s stuffed with stunning vocal melodies and intricately beautiful guitar passages, put together in jarringly unconventional ways. Odd time signatures, jittering solos and acquired-taste falsettos abound, and instead of giving the sense of a masterpiece marred, Dirty Projectors reminds us of the beauty of broken rules.

4. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
When two absolute masters from different genres team up on a project, the expectations are overblown, and the results usually can’t meet them. But when Danger Mouse joined Mark Linkous, the one-man wonder behind Sparklehorse, for a cinematic, star-studded affair called Dark Night of the Soul, the final product was as good as advertised. This is much more of a Sparklehorse record, which means it’s weird, whispery and sad (the most upbeat cut is called “Daddy’s Gone”). Mouse gives Linkous’ songs more room than they usually get to breathe, resulting in the most far-reaching album of his career. Guests with defined personalities (e.g. The Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, David Lynch) blend gracefully into this tapestry, not a small feat. And in true Danger Mouse fashion, the record still hasn’t been released – a frustrating fact that only adds to its intoxicatingly mysterious vibe.

3. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Until this year, Mos Def was a shoo-in for the most disappointing hip hop artist of the decade. His 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, is one of the masterpieces of the genre, but it’s had to tide us over since then – 2004’s The New Danger was hazy and uneven, and 2006’s True Magic is best left forgotten. But from the opening, acid rock/Bollywood strains of “Supermagic,” where the MC spits a twisted Mary Poppins-inspired chorus, our faith is instantly renewed in his ability to get our heads nodding and spines tingling. The Ecstatic is more an album of vignettes than full-blown songs, and it keeps Mos Def constantly on his toes, crushing one mesmerizing analog beat after another, two-three minutes at a time. His acting is enjoyable, but here’s hoping he leaves the multiplex by the wayside and continues this musical resurgence.

2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko Case’s fifth album finds her at the peak of her abilities, channeling Emmylou Harris and Jeff Tweedy in her reverb-laden alt-country soundscapes, and the devastating power of Mother Nature in her lyrics. When a singer/songwriter name-checks the natural world, we expect it to be a treatise on peace and beauty. But on Middle Cyclone‘s opening cut, “This Tornado Loves You,” the narrator is a fearsome storm, destroying towns and villages in her search for the love that got away. The lilting Sparks cover “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” turns the tables on the standard abuser-victim relationship between mankind and the environment. On the title track, Case lets her guard down to confess the pain of a loveless life, but she finds her strength by the end – “But I choke it back/How much I need love.” The record is a gorgeous examination of love’s warts and blossoms, and by the time you get to its final cut – more than a half-hour of cricket-laden nature sounds – it feels less like a soothing sleep aid and more like a beautiful, potential threat.

1. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Good music is fun to listen to and easy to identify with. Great music transports you to another world. The Crying Light is great music, an impeccably produced, soul-searching record, marked by ambitious arrangements and Antony Hegarty’s indelible, quavering voice. This is a white man in his late 30s who sounds like the reincarnation of Nina Simone, pouring sincere expressions of pain and pleasure into lyrics that aren’t afraid to get markedly poetic. In Hegarty’s world, hearts don’t break, they sob. Lovers don’t kiss his lips, they kiss his name. Celebrations of Mother Nature rub shoulders with a devastating account of an epileptic seizure. And the singer’s hypnotic way with words makes them ideal bedfellows for these arrangements, which employ small string sections, spare pianos, subdued guitar picking and dancing woodwinds in a way that’s both elegant and humble. The Crying Light is an album dominated by soft, shy balladry, yet it demands your attention. God-given talent isn’t a background kind of thing.