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.

The Plight of the Spoiled Music Fan

Back in July, AV Club music editor Steven Hyden shared an interesting theory – in order to be classified as a great band, an artist must have released five “very good” to “excellent” records in a row. In the arbitrary world of ranking pop culture, Hyden’s formula is as good as any – it should be awfully hard to earn the distinction of “great” – but it did get me thinking about how spoiled we music fans can be. After having our minds blown by an exceptional work of art, part of us feels grateful to the artist, while the other part busily sets unrealistic goals for them. In this heightened context, if a band’s follow-up is merely “good,” then that qualifies as a letdown. I felt this way about several albums in 2011, and I’ve selected four to discuss. All were created by artists I love; all feature some quality material. But when placed in the context of their back catalogs – and my emotional attachment to them – all are disappointments.

Radiohead – The King of Limbs

In the pantheon of spoiled music fans, Radiohead fans are the worst. Hyden claims the Brit legends don’t pass his five-albums test because of 2001’s Amnesiac, which I disagree with (see #56 on my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s). I don’t think they pass the five-albums test because of 2004’s overlong Hail to the Thief. These are really good albums we’re talking about here, some seriously adventurous, emotionally riveting stuff that we would praise unconditionally from a band of any other name. But because Radiohead was kind enough to make OK Computer and Kid A, they must suffer our nit-pickery! And The King of Limbs has been no exception. It’s a magnificently dense recording, a world of lurching synths and frantic polyrhythms that unfold like a strange, binary orchid. But it’s also immediately accessible in places, especially the last two cuts – the gorgeously eerie piano ballad “Give Up the Ghost” and the lite electronica boogie of “Separator.” Yet TKOL is bereft of the grand statements and avant garde left turns that defined the band at its earth-shattering best. The biggest complaint among fans has been the running time – under 40 minutes – but that doesn’t bug me. In all honesty, the only problem I have with TKOL is that it doesn’t feel like a momentous occasion, the band having painted cold, beautiful landscapes like this before. It’s an ingeniously layered production of eight well-written, adventurous songs, something that could only disappoint a Radiohead fan.

Lil Wayne  – Tha Carter IV

This year, my spoiled ass was the most disappointed by the hotly anticipated return of Lil Wayne. After the across-the-board success of his 2008 masterstroke Tha Carter III, and the ending of his highly publicized prison sentence, Weezy sounded sharp on his pre-Carter IV mixtape, Sorry 4 Tha Wait, rapping over loops from “Gucci Gucci” and “Rolling in the Deep” with understated poise. But when the real album finally dropped in August, the rapper didn’t sound understated – he sounded underwater. He’s never been a speed rapper, but Wayne certainly takes his time delivering his couplets this time around, and his similes tend to not warrant the extra attention (e.g. “The weed’s loud like a lion’s roar”). Guests Rick Ross, Tech N9ne, Busta Rhymes and Andre 3000 deliver life support in the form of fantastic verses, and the beats successfully hearken back to the gangsta/Dirty South gumbo of Tha Carter II. But without Wayne at his scatological-pothead-Martian best, TC4 is merely a good hip-hop album with occasional flashes of the lyrical master of old. The intro, the interludes, “6 Foot 7 Foot,” “John” and “President Carter” are all worthy of Weezy’s legacy, but we’ve come to expect much more from a record with Tha Carter” in its title.

Wilco – The Whole Love

Despite the sonic canyon that separates alt-country from post-punk, Wilco/Radiohead comparisons have been kicking around since Being There and OK Computer set their respective bars impossibly high. But now that both groups have aged, a legitimate parallel can actually be made – both Wilco and Radiohead possess a built-for-the-long-haul dynamic that generates fruitful output in the face of the loftiest expectations. These guys are gonna keep making music, no matter how many bloggers whine about how they’ve lost a step. And thank god for it – The Whole Love, like The King of Limbs, is a pristinely crafted work, with material that’s right in the band’s wheelhouse. The first two songs even get you hoping that this is indeed the “next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” you were dreaming for. “Art of Almost” is one of the band’s finest tunes, period, a seven-minute opus that pairs bittersweet, close-but-no-cigar sentiments with soaring distortion and menacing synths – a lusher, warmer “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” This is followed by “I Might,” a blast of riff-focused power pop that would’ve fit snugly on Summerteeth. But alas, TWL isn’t a full-blown Wilco masterpiece. While the balance of the record is far from one note – the haunting acoustics of “Black Moon” and sunny Sunday shuffle of “Capital City” providing the most welcome dynamic shifts – it’s still bereft of the wild spirit of “Art of Almost.” Like Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky before it, TWL depicts a band that’s gotten very comfortable doing its thing – and in 2011, that thing is impeccably wrought country-rock, not the unpredictable Americana rollercoasters of yore. A good album? Yes. A disappointing tease? You betcha.

Bjork – Biophilia

As an artist who passes the five-albums test in my book – from Debut to Medulla, she was pretty much unstoppable – it’s impossible for me to look at any new Bjork album objectively. That being said, the flaws in this year’s Biophilia are plain to see – every track on this mega-concept album about the history of the universe comes with its very own iPad app, and what we gain in ambition we lose in listenability. Not to say that the album isn’t enjoyable; it’s frequently gorgeous. Bjork remains one of the most daring artists making music today, with a voice that continues to astound. Yet where her best work always had clear horizon lines, Biophilia is a thicket of notes and concepts, without much traditional songcraft to ground them. The exception is “Crystalline,” an etheral club banger with a whirlwind of a drum n’ bass outro. Here, Bjork shows us what can still happen when she gets out of the way of her own creativity. But like “Art of Almost,” it only serves to make us wonder just how great this album could’ve been.