Get our your Power Rangers action diorama, dust off your Pogs, brush up on your Herman’s Head trivia, and start doing the Macarena to the sounds of C&C Music Factory, because it’s time for Treble’s Best Albums of the 90s!
Here we are, nearing the inevitable close of the initial decade of the 21st century, a spate of ten years that some would argue marks some of the worst times in American history. While we are in the thick of it, it is sometimes inconceivable to think that there were better times in the previous decade. Not only were we living in headier economic times, but the worst we had to think about in terms of leadership was whether or not the prez was getting a hummer in the Oval Office.
I’ve heard it said that politically harsh environments create the best music. In the early ’90s, one can easily make an argument backing this theory, citing the rise of grunge and the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy or Jane’s Addiction, but what about the rest of the decade? The Clinton era provided some of the most sonically diverse music to that point, with scores of bands challenging listeners’ expectations at every turn.
Some might say that this spate of innovation was a period of innocence before a fall, that during prosperous times, artists have more freedom to explore, broaden their horizons and attempt to change the face of music. Of course, when consumers have more money in their pockets, that risk is somewhat lessened as they’re more likely to take a chance on a CD purchase.
And so, in the ’90s, several new styles of music jumped to the forefront. The aforementioned grunge became the genre du jour in ’91 and ’92 with an explosion of flannel and disenfranchisement thanks to the emergence of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, L7 and a little soundtrack from a movie called Singles. This wave of alienation and distortion caused an inverse reaction in the UK, which saw the fruition of Britpop, a cheerier sound that borrowed more from their earlier British Invasion ancestry than any colonial trends. Suede, Blur, Pulp and Oasis led the charge, intent on their popscene living forever rather than hating itself and wanting to die.
Trip-hop (Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky), shoegaze (Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Slowdive), post-rock (Slint, Talk Talk, Tortoise), the post-hardcore scene in D.C. (Fugazi, Jawbox, Nation of Ulysses, Shudder to Think), and the Northwest front of independence (Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, Built to Spill) all gained prominence in the ’90s as well, leading to a diverse golden age of rock music. The ’90s was also a golden age for hip-hop as acts such as Nas, Jay-Z, Outkast, DJ Shadow, the Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and Dr. Dre all altered the landscape of urban music.
That’s not to say that every band was different, that each group had to completely overhaul the face of music. Some ’80s stalwarts, experiencing revived creative peaks, made some of the best albums of the decade. U2, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, Sonic Youth and the Pixies are the best examples. They formed a bridge into the ’90s that paved the way for their successors. Solo artists and side projects of ’80s acts also made a splash with stellar albums by Morrissey, the Breeders and Frank Black.
But, the ’90s were as much about individual achievement as musical movements and the group dynamic. For me, great works of solo artists epitomize the ’90s. On the male side, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith broke our hearts and soothed our souls, while Tom Waits continued his perennial streak of intensity. On the female side, Björk, P.J. Harvey and Liz Phair seemingly single-handedly proved that the girls could rock just as hard and innovate just as much as the boys.
And despite all of these trends, one could easily say that the ’90s belonged to one band, Radiohead. Starting with the release of “Creep” in 1992, and riding the wave of popularity stemming from the lauded OK Computer in 1997 to the end of the decade, Radiohead’s ambitious new direction vaulted us headlong into the new century.
Whatever your own take on the ’90s, there’s no denying it was another noteworthy decade of music, one that ushered all of us into the digital age in more sonically divergent ways than one could possibly imagine. How else would one explain Neutral Milk Hotel and Mos Def appearing in the same list, much less the same year?
That being said, here’s Treble’s massive undertaking of the “Best of the ’90s.” In order to include as many of our favorite albums as possible, just like Nigel Tufnel’s amp, our lists go to eleven. So, here now are our favorite 110 albums of the ’90s, we hope you enjoy it.
11. The Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas (4AD)
Never lacking a sense of drama, the Cocteaus were constantly on the lookout for tools to up their creative ante and always seemed to be ahead of the curve. Liz Fraser didn’t even bother to use English, much, invoking a sort of head-language that spoke volumes even when it was unintelligible. Legend has it that Robin Guthrie, for his part, only came up with his fastidiously-layered guitar effects because he didn’t know how to record properly. Much like Peter Hook playing his bass far down on its neck to mask shitty equipment in the early days of Joy Division, an iconic sound was created more or less accidentally. – Anthony Strain
10. Happy Mondays – Pills `n’ Thrills and Bellyaches (Elektra)
It’s hardly a surprise that when asked in interviews about the recording of Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches Shaun Ryder admits he doesn’t remember much about being in the studio. I guess that kind of talent is as fickle as memory itself. As long as full-time dancer and ‘pharmacist’ Bez kept the drugs flowing the Mondays blasphemed better than the rest. At any rate the band found its perfect stride on their third effort, even if they peaked before the party ended. With defiant genre-mashing and a vocalist whose grating (and borderline unbearable) vocals suggested straightjackets rather than tuxedos, the band’s only direct competition were the turntables at the clubs—though the turntables were probably more likely to function properly in a live setting. – Mars Simpson
9. The Breeders – Pod (4AD-Elektra)
Pod is much more than a Pixies’ outtake, or an album full of “Gigantic” B-sides (which, by the way, wouldn’t be something I’d say no to). It’s Kim Deal plus Throwing Muses’ Tanya Donnelly, Perfect Disaster’s Josephine Wiggs and Slint’s Britt Walford playing creatively lo-fi, angular rock and roll, right along the lines with the beginning stages of indie rock as it emerged in the 1990s. Pod as a title actually sums up the record quite nicely, as the songs are tightly wound and minimal, confidently contained and prime for growth. – Anna Gazdowicz
8. Fugazi – Repeater (Dischord)
Throughout their career, Washington, D.C.’s Fugazi has been known for numerous things—a strict anti-corporate stance, a fierce independence, $5 shows admission, Ian McKaye’s straight edge lifestyle—but none of these factors would make a lick of difference if Fugazi weren’t already such an amazing band. Essentially laying down the blueprint for all D.C. post-hardcore to come (and yes, I see the pun), Fugazi were an aggressive, yet melodic powerhouse, lunging with ferocity while maintaining an accessible sensibility. Tracks like “Merchandise” made corporate boycotts sound downright fun, while “Styrofoam” and “Sieve-Fisted Find” just flat-out rocked. There may have been more experimental bands in the scene (Girls Against Boys) or more twisted ones (Circus Lupus), but Fugazi were the first to release a solid, filler-free full-length, and as its name implies, Repeater is designed for maximum replay value. – Jeff Terich
7. The La’s – The La’s (Go! Discs)
I could easily write about The La’s lead singer/guitarist/songwriter Lee Mavers’ understated perfectionism. But when you describe your band’s debut—considered by many to fulfill every requirement for being canonized a classic pop album—as being rush released by your label, any more explanation seems entirely unnecessary. Parting its way through a sea of hair metal and strumming clear acoustic chords mere moments before much of the world was strangled by a flannelled noose of grunge, The La’s self-titled debut burned bright. That the band would fade quickly from the public mind was no fault of its own timeless melodies and intoxicating ’60s Britpop underpinnings, but rather a conscious (although not likely unanimous) decision to never record a follow up. – Mars Simpson
6. Ride – Nowhere (Sire)
Ride’s debut album Nowhere carries the distinction of being what many consider the first breakthrough shoegaze album, the second best shoegaze album of all time, and, most importantly, Ride’s best album. Building upon the trippy, psychedelic dance rock of The Stone Roses and layering dense sheets of effects over everything, Ride creates a unique brand of rock that’s caught somewhere between a tidal wave and a cloud. It’s beautiful and it’s oblique, but much of the time it gets into a serious groove. Only occasionally does Ride emerge from their hazy funk to soar majestically into a stratosphere of their own, as in the immortal “Vapor Trail,” which is definitely one of the best shoegazer singles of all time. – Jeff Terich
5. Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual (Warner Bros.)
Ritual de lo Habitual was the soundtrack to my summer of 1990. And to this day it’s my favorite album of the ’90s. From the opening salvo of female speech in Spanish, I knew that this would be my record. It was daring, controversial, sexy, loud, intimidating to outsiders, an instant classic. I so connected with this record especially the line “I am skinny bones, I am pointy nose but the motherfucker makes me try.” Jane’s Ritiual is the personification of my teenage angst coming to life. They reflected the pain and anger of how it was growing up an outcast in a world where I felt I didn’t belong. And this was a band that felt like outsiders in Hollywood. They understood what it was like to be a freak. They were the kings of the freaks. – Adrian Cepeda
4. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)
With Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy delivered a fantastic sequel to their previous masterpiece, It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back. The beats hit harder, the lyrics cut deeper, and the stakes feel higher. While Fear doesn’t quite hit the same heights of It Takes A Nation, it still packs as powerful a punch now as it did in 1990. – Tony Ling
3. The Pixies – Bossonova (4AD-Elektra)
The study of the follow-up is a fascinating one, indeed. Treading through the timeline of modern rock, albums that proceed an artist’s zenith of creative and mainstream acumen usually fall into one of three categories; “hits” (i.e. Born to Run followed by Darkness on the Edge of Town), “misses” (i.e. Appetite for Destruction followed by Use Your Illusion 1&2) and “schisms” (i.e. Relationship of Command followed by two different bands who collectively were not as good as the one that spawned them). Another category that is rare, but present in the musical crit landscape is that of the “unfairly maligned proceeder.” This is an album that on its face was actually quite good and has come to be appreciated over time, but since it failed to make a big a splash as the leader it followed, was given the lukewarm treatment of average reviews and premature death knells. Enter Bossanova, the follow-up to the holy grail of indie rock also known as Doolittle. Catchy, spastic, and proportioned with just the right amount of space-themed antics and squeals, the album forced Frank Black to take the reigns while Kim Deal hoarded her creativity for the Breeders. The result was a product that is just as enthralling and in instances, more palatable than its breakthrough predecessor. Bossanova may have played the red headed stepchild in the press, but in any other time, this stellar intergalactic masterpiece would be the blue-eyed apple of any band’s eye. – Kevin Falahee
2. Sonic Youth – Goo (DGC)
When Sonic Youth signed with Geffen records, they were indie darlings, uncompromising with their avant-noise sound. They were coming off of their masterful Daydream Nation and to say that their fans were nervous is an understatement. By the time Goo came out in 1990, some long-time fans were already criticizing the band, saying that they were straying too far from their avant garde roots, making music that was too “rocky.” Listening to earlier Sonic Youth albums will reveal that their noise was rock, just in a different way than what we’re normally accustomed to. But really, Goo wasn’t too different from previous offerings like Sister or Bad Moon Rising. In fact there are no signs of major label meddling on Goo, just another superb Sonic Youth album. – Jackie Im
1. Depeche Mode – Violator (Sire)
In many ways, Violator signaled a culmination of the band’s steady improvement throughout the ’80s, and ushered in a new era of electronic-based music. Depeche Mode had finally reached the pinnacle of synthesizer mastery that would soon inspire an army of followers attempting to imitate their signature sound. With its release in February, 1990, Violator shocked listeners out of a hair metal and new wave stranglehold which had largely dominated the latter part of the decade of excess and even worse hair styles. Commercial success was soon to follow. – Mars Simpson