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Top 10 Albums of Every Year Since 1960

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1989:

 

 

 

10. Lou Reed – New York

 

New York City figured so prominently in Lou Reed's music for so long that it's surprising it took him until 1989 to make an album simply called New York, a set of 14 scenes and sketches that represents the strongest, best-realized set of songs of Reed's solo career. While Reed's 1982 comeback, The Blue Mask, sometimes found him reaching for effects, New York's accumulated details and deft caricatures hit bull's-eye after bull's-eye for 57 minutes, and do so with an easy stride and striking lyrical facility.New York also found Reed writing about the larger world rather than personal concerns for a change, and in the beautiful, decaying heart of New York City, he found plenty to talk about -- the devastating impact of AIDS in "Halloween Parade," the vicious circle of child abuse "Endless Cycle," the plight of the homeless in "Xmas in February" -- and even on the songs where he pointedly mounts a soapbox, Reeddoes so with an intelligence and smart-assed wit that makes him sound opinionated rather than preachy -- like a New Yorker. And when Reed does look into his own life, it's with humor and perception; "Beginning of a Great Adventure" is a hilarious meditation on the possibilities of parenthood, and "Dime Store Mystery" is a moving elegy to his former patron Andy Warhol. Reed also unveiled a new band on this set, and while guitarist Mike Rathke didn't challenge Reed the way Robert Quine did, Reed wasn't needing much prodding to play at the peak of his form, and Ron Wasserman proved Reed's superb taste in bass players had not failed him. Produced with subtle intelligence and a minimum of flash, New York is a masterpiece of literate, adult rock & roll, and the finest album of Reed's solo career.

 

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9. Spaceman 3 – Playing With Fire

 

Appropriately preceded by the mind-melting crunch of the "Revolution" single, Playing with Fire proved to be the end of Spacemen 3 as a functioning band, but in truly spectacular fashion. Exploring both the depths of serene, agog beauty and sheer tape-shredding chaos, Playing with Fire pushed the extremes of The Perfect Prescription to an even further edge. It's little surprise that Pierce and Sonic couldn't find themselves properly working together after it, but even less that hordes of bands to follow would rank Playing with Fire as the equal (or better) of psychedelia's '60s/'70s forebears. Sonic himself is quoted in one reissue's liner notes as feeling the album "was the refining point of a lot of my theories on minimalism being maximalism" -- as apt a description as any. One of his songs, "How Does It Feel?," sums it up by using a series of notes echoing off into the distance, again and again. With future Spiritualized bassist Will Carruthers in place of Bain, the trio (and uncredited drummer) created glazed, liquid songs with subtle arrangements and sheer reveling in aural joys. Flange is everywhere, as is echo, full dynamic stereo mixes and more, a feast of sound. When aiming toward a gentler, hushed sound, most notably on Pierce's compositions, the incorporation of gospel power filtered through the band's own perspective results in wonders, as heard on "Come Down Softly to My Soul" and the album closing "Lord Can You Hear Me?" As for the louder end of things, besides the awesome "Revolution" itself, a slow burn blast that just keeps getting more and more obsessive and frenetic as it goes, Sonic calling for a release of energy in a mere five seconds, the other complete freakout is "Suicide." An instrumental tribute to the New York synth pioneers, Spacemen 3 keep the minimalism and up the feedback with astonishing results.

 

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8. New Order – Technique

 

Tastes and sounds were changing quickly in the late '80s, which prompted New Order's most startling transformation yet -- from moody dance-rockers to, well, moody acid-house mavens. After the band booked a studio on the island hotspot of Ibiza, apparently not knowing that it was the center of the burgeoning house music craze, New Order's sure instincts for blending rock and contemporary dance resulted in another confident, superb LP. Technique was the group's most striking production job, with the single "Fine Time" proving a close runner-up to "Blue Monday" as the most extroverted dance track in the band's catalog. Opening the record, it was a portrait of a group unrecognizable from its origins, delivering lascivious and extroverted come-ons amid pounding beats. It appeared that dance had fully taken over from rock, with the guitars and bass only brought in for a quick solo or bridge. But while pure dance was the case for the singles "Fine Time" and "Round & Round," elsewhere New Order were still delivering some of the best alternative pop around, plaintive and affecting songs like "Run" (the third single), "Love Less," and "Dream Attack." Placed in the perfect position to deliver the definitive alternative take on house music, the band produced another classic record.

 

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7. Steve Reich – Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint

 

This late-'80s work finds the minimalist composer mixing acoustic and taped material to great effect. The disc's centerpiece is "Different Trains," a work that frames Reich's impressions of his boyhood train trips between his mother in Los Angeles and his father in New York; Reich also intersperses references to the much more harrowing train rides Jews were forced to take to Nazi concentration camps. Using the fine playing of the Kronos Quartet as a base, Reich layers the work with the taped train musings of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors -- vintage train sounds from the '30s and '40s add to the riveting arrangement. And for some nice contrast, Reich recruits guitarist Pat Metheny to create a similarly momentous piece in "Electric Counterpoint" (Metheny plays live over a multi-tracked tape of ten guitars and two electric basses). Two fine works by Reich in his prime.

 

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6. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses

 

Since the Stone Roses were the nominal leaders of Britain's "Madchester" scene -- an indie rock phenomenon that fused guitar pop with drug-fueled rave and dance culture -- it's rather ironic that their eponymous debut only hints at dance music. What made the Stone Roses important was how they welcomed dance and pop together, treating them as if they were the same beast. Equally important was the Roses' cool, detached arrogance, which was personified by Ian Brown's nonchalant vocals. Brown's effortless malevolence is brought to life with songs that equal both his sentiments and his voice -- "I Wanna Be Adored," with its creeping bassline and waves of cool guitar hooks, doesn't demand adoration, it just expects it. Similarly, Brown can claim "I Am the Resurrection" and lie back, as if there were no room for debate. But the key to The Stone Roses is John Squire's layers of simple, exceedingly catchy hooks and how the rhythm section of Reni and Mani always imply dance rhythms without overtly going into the disco. On "She Bangs the Drums" and "Elephant Stone," the hooks wind into the rhythm inseparably -- the '60s hooks and the rolling beats manage to convey the colorful, neo-psychedelic world of acid house. Squire's riffs are bright and catchy, recalling the British Invasion while suggesting the future with their phased, echoey effects. The Stone Roses was a two-fold revolution -- it brought dance music to an audience that was previously obsessed with droning guitars, while it revived the concept of classic pop songwriting, and the repercussions of its achievement could be heard throughout the '90s, even if the Stone Roses could never achieve this level of achievement again.

 

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5. De La Soul – 3 Feet High and Rising

 

The most inventive, assured, and playful debut in hip-hop history, 3 Feet High and Rising not only proved that rappers didn't have to talk about the streets to succeed, but also expanded the palette of sampling material with a kaleidoscope of sounds and references culled from pop, soul, disco, and even country music. Weaving clever wordplay and deft rhymes across two dozen tracks loosely organized around a game-show theme, De La Soul broke down boundaries all over the LP, moving easily from the groovy my-philosophy intro "The Magic Number" to an intelligent, caring inner-city vignette named "Ghetto Thang" to the freewheeling end-of-innocence tale "Jenifa Taught Me (Derwin's Revenge)." Rappers Posdnuos and Trugoy the Dove talked about anything they wanted (up to and including body odor), playing fast and loose on the mic like Biz Markie. Thinly disguised under a layer of humor, their lyrical themes ranged from true love ("Eye Know") to the destructive power of drugs ("Say No Go") to Daisy Age philosophy ("Tread Water") to sex ("Buddy"). Prince Paul (from Stetsasonic) and DJPasemaster Mase led the way on the production end, with dozens of samples from all sorts of left-field artists -- including Johnny Cash, the Mad Lads, Steely Dan, Public Enemy, Hall & Oates, and the Turtles. The pair didn't just use those samples as hooks or drumbreaks -- like most hip-hop producers had in the past -- but as split-second fills and in-jokes that made some tracks sound more like DJ records. Even "Potholes on My Lawn," which samples a mouth harp and yodeling (for the chorus, no less), became a big R&B hit. If it was easy to believe the revolution was here from listening to the rapping and production on Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with De La Soul the Daisy Age seemed to promise a new era of positivity in hip-hop.

 

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4. The Cure – Disintegration

 

Expanding the latent arena rock sensibilities that peppered Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me by slowing them down and stretching them to the breaking point, the Cure reached the peak of their popularity with the crawling, darkly seductive Disintegration. It's a hypnotic, mesmerizing record, comprised almost entirely of epics like the soaring, icy "Pictures of You." The handful of pop songs, like the concise and utterly charming "Love Song," don't alleviate the doom-laden atmosphere. the Cure's gloomy soundscapes have rarely sounded so alluring, however, and the songs -- from the pulsating, ominous "Fascination Street" to the eerie, string-laced "Lullaby" -- have rarely been so well-constructed and memorable. It's fitting that Disintegration was their commercial breakthrough, since, in many ways, the album is the culmination of all the musical directions the Cure were pursuing over the course of the '80s.

 

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3. Galaxie 500 – On Fire

 

Having already made a fine account of themselves on Today, the three members of Galaxie 500 got even better with On Fire, recording another lovely classic of late '80s rock. As with all the band's work, Kramer once again handles the production, the perfect person to bring out Galaxie 500's particular approach. The combination of his continued use of reverb and the sudden, dramatic shifts in the music -- never exploding, just delivering enough of a change -- makes for fine results. Consider "Snowstorm," with Krukowski's soft-then-strong drums and Wareham's liquid solo and how they're placed in the mix, leading without dominating. Yang's vocals became more prominent and her bass work more quietly narcotic than before, while Krukowski adds more heft to his playing without running roughshod over everything, even at the band's loudest. Wareham in contrast more or less continues along, his glazed, haunting voice simply a joy to hear, while adding subtle touches in the arrangements -- acoustic guitar is often prominent -- to contrast his beautifully frazzled soloing. Leadoff track "Blue Thunder" is the most well-known song and deservedly so, another instance of the trio's ability to combine subtle uplift with blissed-out melancholia, building to an inspiring ending. There's more overt variety throughout On Fire, from the more direct loner-in-the-crowd sentiments and musical punch of "Strange" to the Yang-sung "Another Day," a chance for her to shine individually before Wareham joins in at the end. Again, a cover makes a nod to past inspirations, with George Harrison being the songwriter of choice; his "Isn't It a Pity" closes out the album wonderfully, Kramer adding vocals and "cheap organ." Inspired guest appearance -- Ralph Carney, Tom Waits' horn player of choice, adding some great tenor sax to the increasing volume and drive of "Decomposing Trees."

 

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2. Beastie Boys – Paul’s Boutique

 

Such was the power of Licensed to Ill that everybody, from fans to critics, thought that not only couldthe Beastie Boys not top the record, but that they were destined to be a one-shot wonder. These feelings were only amplified by their messy, litigious departure from Def Jam and their flight from their beloved New York to Los Angeles, since it appeared that the Beasties had completely lost the plot. Many critics in fact thought that Paul's Boutique was a muddled mess upon its summer release in 1989, but that's the nature of the record -- it's so dense, it's bewildering at first, revealing its considerable charms with each play. To put it mildly, it's a considerable change from the hard rock of Licensed to Ill, shifting to layers of samples and beats so intertwined they move beyond psychedelic; it's a painting with sound. Paul's Boutique is a record that only could have been made in a specific time and place. Like the Rolling Stones in 1972, the Beastie Boys were in exile and pining for their home, so they made a love letter to downtown New York -- which they could not have done without the Dust Brothers, a Los Angeles-based production duo who helped redefine what sampling could be with this record. Sadly, after Paul's Boutique sampling on the level of what's heard here would disappear; due to a series of lawsuits, most notably Gilbert O'Sullivan's suit against Biz Markie, the entire enterprise too cost-prohibitive and risky to perform on such a grand scale. Which is really a shame, because if ever a record could be used as incontrovertible proof that sampling is its own art form, it's Paul's Boutique. Snatches of familiar music are scattered throughout the record -- anything from Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" and Sly Stone's "Loose Booty" to Loggins & Messina's "Your Mama Don't Dance" and the Ramones' "Suzy Is a Headbanger" -- but never once are they presented in lazy, predictable ways. the Dust Brothers and Beasties weave a crazy-quilt of samples, beats, loops, and tricks, which creates a hyper-surreal alternate reality -- a romanticized, funhouse reflection of New York where all pop music and culture exist on the same strata, feeding off each other, mocking each other, evolving into a wholly unique record, unlike anything that came before or after. It very well could be that its density is what alienated listeners and critics at the time; there is so much information in the music and words that it can seem impenetrable at first, but upon repeated spins it opens up slowly, assuredly, revealing more every listen. Musically, few hip-hop records have ever been so rich; it's not just the recontextulations of familiar music via samples, it's the flow of each song and the album as a whole, culminating in the widescreen suite that closes the record. Lyrically, the Beasties have never been better -- not just because their jokes are razor-sharp, but because they construct full-bodied narratives and evocative portraits of characters and places. Few pop records offer this much to savor, and if Paul's Boutique only made a modest impact upon its initial release, over time its influence could be heard through pop and rap, yet no matter how its influence was felt, it stands alone as a record of stunning vision, maturity, and accomplishment. Plus, it's a hell of a lot of fun, no matter how many times you've heard it.

 

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1. Pixies – Doolittle

 

After 1988's brilliant but abrasive Surfer Rosa, the Pixies' sound couldn't get much more extreme. Their Elektra debut, Doolittle, reins in the noise in favor of pop songcraft and accessibility. Producer Gil Norton's sonic sheen adds some polish, but Black Francis' tighter songwriting focuses the group's attack. Doolittle's most ferocious moments, like "Dead," a visceral retelling of David and Bathsheba's affair -- are more stylized than the group's past outbursts. Meanwhile, their poppy side surfaces on the irresistible single "Here Comes Your Man" and the sweetly surreal love song "La La Love You." The Pixies' arty, noisy weirdness mix with just enough hooks to produce gleefully demented singles like "Debaser," -- inspired by Bunuel's classic surrealist short Un Chien Andalou -- and "Wave of Mutilation," their surfy ode to driving a car into the sea. Though Doolittle's sound is cleaner and smoother than the Pixies' earlier albums, there are still plenty of weird, abrasive vignettes: the blankly psychotic "There Goes My Gun," "Crackity Jones," a song about a crazy roommate Francis had in Puerto Rico, and the nihilistic finale "Gouge Away." Meanwhile, "Tame," and "I Bleed" continue the Pixies' penchant for cryptic kink. But the album doesn't just refine the Pixies' sound; they also expand their range on the brooding, wannabe spaghetti western theme "Silver" and the strangely theatrical "Mr. Grieves." "Hey" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven," on the other hand, stretch Francis' lyrical horizons: "Monkey"'s elliptical environmentalism and "Hey"'s twisted longing are the Pixies' versions of message songs and romantic ballads. Their most accessible album, Doolittle's wide-ranging moods and sounds make it one of their most eclectic and ambitious. A fun, freaky alternative to most other late-'80s college rock, it's easy to see why the album made the Pixies into underground rock stars.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie

 

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart closed with Lowery singing about how "Life Is Grand" in pointed response to "those of you who have appointed yourselves to expect us to say something darker." So when Key Lime Pie came out, its moodier music and imagery, not to mention that soon after the fact the band fell apart on the tour for the album, led more than one person to think those darker times had finally arrived. As it is, the group had already gone through one major shake-up between the two albums -- founding member Segel had taken a powder to concentrate on other efforts, with Morgan Fichter brought in as a replacement violinist. Her abilities were certainly praiseworthy, as the album-starting instrumental "Opening Theme" shows quite well. However, it's definitely not the same band that did Telephone Free Landslide Victory a mere four years previous -- things are more straightforwardly rock here most of the time, perhaps not too surprising in light of Lowery's subsequent work in Cracker. As it is, though, it's excellently conceived rock, with space, moodiness, and more to spare. Consider "Jack Ruby," with its wordless backing vocals, tense rhythms, and thick soloing, or "Laundromat" and its steady but unnerving crunch. It's not all potential melancholia, though -- "June" in particular is an underrated number, celebrating the early summer with sweetness and love (at least up to the increasingly stranger ending). Lowery's singing is his best yet, perhaps a little less prone to wackiness but an emergent, distinct voice all the same, and certainly prone to sing a quirky lyric or two still.

 

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Julee Cruise – Floating Into the Night

 

Hardcore David Lynch fans knew the album cut "Mysteries of Love" thanks to its appearance in the middle of Blue Velvet but otherwise, Julee Cruise and her singing abilities were total unknowns when Floating into the Night surfaced in 1989. When Twin Peaks took off, however, the album became more or less its unofficial soundtrack thanks to the instrumental adaptation of "Falling" that served as the theme song. Other cuts, like the haunting, moody "Into the Night," and "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart" turned up on the show as well; but as a beautiful, mysterious stand-alone effort, Floating is still that best of surprises, a left-field hit that loses nothing thanks to its fame. The combination of Cruise's sweet, light tones, Lynch's surprisingly affecting lyrics, which play just enough with clichés so as not to seem willfully ironic, and Angelo Badalamenti's combination of retro styles and modern ambience, is a winner throughout. The feeling is one of a '50s jukebox suddenly plunged into a time warp, dressed with extra sparkle and with a just-sleepy-enough, narcotic feeling. At its most upfront, the music can get downright raunchy -- check out the big band/sax blasts on the strutting tearjerker "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart," or the sudden orchestral blast three minutes into "Into the Night." Cruise herself has a wonderfully slow, burning passion that surfaces as well, such as in her whispers on "Floating." But mostly everything is just sedate enough, crystalline rockabilly guitar playing gentle riffs with a slow slinkiness, Cruise's multi-tracked backing vocals and more combining beautifully. "Falling" remains the most well-known number, and a winner it is, too; Badalamenti's synth orchestrations are so affecting that Moby ended up sampling them for "Go," kickstarting his own career. But songs like the just-spooky-enough "The World Spins," and "The Nightingale," with a great performance all around, ensure Floating's success as a through-and-through listen.

 

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Neil Young – Freedom

 

Neil Young is famous for scrapping completed albums and substituting hastily recorded ones in radically different styles. Freedom, which was a major critical and commercial comeback after a decade that had confused reviewers and fans, seemed to be a selection of the best tracks from several different unissued Young projects. First and foremost was a hard rock album like the material heard on Young's recent EP, Eldorado (released only in the Far East), several of whose tracks were repeated on Freedom. On these songs -- especially "Don't Cry," which sounded like a song about divorce, and a cover of the old Drifters hit "On Broadway" that he concluded by raving about crack -- Young played distorted electric guitar over a rhythm section in an even more raucous fashion than that heard on his Crazy Horse records. Second was a follow-up to Young's previous album, This Note's for You, which had featured a six-piece horn section. They were back on "Crime in the City" and "Someday," though these lengthy songs, each of which contained a series of seemingly unrelated, mood-setting verses, were more reminiscent of songs like Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" than of the soul standards that inspired the earlier album. Third, there were tracks that harked back to acoustic-based, country-tinged albums like Harvest and Comes a Time, including "Hangin' on a Limb" and "The Ways of Love," two songs on which Young dueted with Linda Ronstadt. There was even a trunk (or, more precisely, a drunk) song, "Too Far Gone," which dated from Young's inebriated Stars 'n Bars period in the '70s. While one might argue that this variety meant few Young fans would be completely pleased with the album, what made it all work was that Young had once again written a great bunch of songs. The romantic numbers were carefully and sincerely written. The long imagistic songs were evocative without being obvious. And bookending the album were acoustic and electric versions of one of Young's great anthems, "Rockin' in the Free World," a song that went a long way toward restoring his political reputation (which had been badly damaged when he praised President Reagan's foreign policy) by taking on hopelessness with a sense of moral outrage and explicitly condemning President Bush's domestic policy. Freedom was the album Neil Young fans knew he was capable of making, but feared he would never make again.

 

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Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine

 

 

Virtually ignored upon its 1989 release, Pretty Hate Machine gradually became a word-of-mouth cult favorite; despite frequent critical bashings, its stature and historical importance only grew in hindsight. In addition to its stealthy rise to prominence, part of the album's legend was that budding auteur Trent Reznor took advantage of his low-level job at a Cleveland studio to begin recording it. Reznor had a background in synth-pop, and the vast majority of Pretty Hate Machine was electronic. Synths voiced all the main riffs, driven by pounding drum machines; distorted guitars were an important textural element, but not the primary focus. Pretty Hate Machine was something unique in industrial music -- certainly no one else was attempting the balladry of "Something I Can Never Have," but the crucial difference was even simpler. Instead of numbing the listener with mechanical repetition, Pretty Hate Machine's bleak electronics were subordinate to catchy riffs and verse-chorus song structures, which was why it built such a rabid following with so little publicity. That innovation was the most important step in bringing industrial music to a wide audience, as proven by the frequency with which late-'90s alternative metal bands copied NIN's interwoven guitar/synth textures. It was a new soundtrack for adolescent angst -- noisily aggressive and coldly detached, tied together by a dominant personality. Reznor's tortured confusion and self-obsession gave industrial music a human voice, a point of connection. His lyrics were filled with betrayal, whether by lovers, society, or God; it was essentially the sound of childhood illusions shattering, and Reznor was not taking it lying down. Plus, the absolute dichotomies in his world -- there was either purity and perfection, or depravity and worthlessness -- made for smashing melodrama. Perhaps the greatest achievement of Pretty Hate Machine was that it brought emotional extravagance to a genre whose main theme had nearly always been dehumanization.

 

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The Wedding Present – Bizarro

 

Two years on from their debut album, the Wedding Present delivered a proper sophomore effort, one quite distanced from the jangle punk days of 1987's George Best. Though David Gedge's obsession with the lovelorn had by no means disappeared, the band finally found a way to frame his lyrics properly, resulting in a darker album with more emotional weight where needed. "Brassneck," the Weddoes' first collaboration with engineer Steve Albini, became their biggest hit yet, peaking at Number 24 on the British charts.

 

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#1 Albums from 1980s at a Glance:

 

1980: Talking Heads – Remain in Light

 

1981: Glenn Branca – The Ascension

 

1982: The Fall – Hex Enduction Hour

 

1983: R.E.M. – Murmur

 

1984: Cocteau Twins – Treasure

 

1985: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs

 

1986: Arthur Russell – World of Echo

 

1987: Dinosaur Jr. – You’re Living All Over Me

 

1988: Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

 

1989: Pixies – Doolittle

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Get ready for the 90s aka the greatest decade in music ever!

 

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Oh hell YES!!

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Get ready for the 90s aka the greatest decade in music ever!

 

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Shit just got real.

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1990:

 

 

 

10. Depeche Mode – Violator

 

In a word, stunning. Perhaps an odd word to use given that Violator continued in the general vein of the previous two studio efforts by Depeche Mode: Martin Gore's upfront lyrical emotional extremism and knack for a catchy hook filtered through Alan Wilder's ear for perfect arrangements, ably assisted by top English producer Flood. Yet the idea that this record would both dominate worldwide charts, while song for song being simply the best, most consistent effort yet from the band could only have been the wildest fantasy before its release. The opening two singles from the album, however, signaled something was up. First was "Personal Jesus," at once perversely simplistic, with a stiff, arcane funk/hip-hop beat and basic blues guitar chords, and tremendous, thanks to sharp production touches and David Gahan's echoed, snaky vocals. Then "Enjoy the Silence," a nothing-else-remains-but-us ballad pumped up into a huge, dramatic romance/dance number, commanding in its mock orchestral/choir scope. Follow-up single "Policy of Truth" did just fine as well, a low-key Motown funk number for the modern day with a sharp love/hate lyric to boot. To top it all off, the album itself scored on song after song, from the shuffling beat of "Sweetest Perfection" (well sung by Gore) and the ethereal "Waiting for the Night" to the guilt-ridden-and-loving-it "Halo" building into a string-swept pounder. "Clean" wraps up Violator on an eerie note, all ominous bass notes and odd atmospherics carrying the song. Goth without ever being stupidly hammy, synth without sounding like the clinical stereotype of synth music, rock without ever sounding like a "rock" band, Depeche here reach astounding heights indeed.

 

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9. Sonic Youth – Goo

 

Any doubts as to the continuing relevance of Sonic Youth upon their jump to major-label status were quickly laid to rest by Goo, their follow-up to the monumental Daydream Nation. While paling in the shadow of its predecessor, the record is nevertheless a defiant call to arms against mainstream musical values; the Geffen logo adorning the disc is a moot point -- Goo is, if anything, a portrait of Sonic Youth at their most self-indulgently noisy and contentious, covering topics ranging from Karen Carpenter("Tunic") to UFOs ("Disappearer") to dating Jesus' mom ("Mary-Christ"). Even Public Enemy's Chuck D joins the fracas on the single "Kool Thing," which teeters on the brink of a cultural breakthrough but falls just shy of the mark; the same could be said of Goo itself -- by no means a sellout, it nevertheless lacks the coherence and force of the group's finest work, and the opportunity to violently rattle the mainstream cage slips by.

 

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8. Fugazi – Repeater

 

With its righteous disdain for capitalism and the almighty dollar, Repeater's themes update Gang of Four's Solid Gold. Lines/slogans like "When I need something, I reach out and grab it," and "You are not what you own," bear this out. Repeater honestly gets a little stifling in its unrelenting conviction and grandstanding. It's not too difficult to see why the band was allegedly lacking a sense of humor at this stage; they could have been yelling about filing their taxes, after all. The title makes sense, if only by mistake. But -- and that's a big but -- Repeater nearly matches the early EPs with its musical invention and skill, spitting out another serving of excellence, making the finger-pointing a little easier to digest. Few rhythm sections of the time had the great interplay of Joe Lally and Brendan Canty. Likewise, the guitar playing and interaction of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto almost always get overlooked, thanks to all the other subjects brought up when the band is talked about. A guitar magazine even rated Repeater as one of the best guitar records of the '90s, and rightfully so. Anemic revs spiked by pig squeals (or is it a screeching train?) highlight the title track, one of the band's finest moments. As always, MacKaye and Picciotto's noise-terrorism-as-guitar-joust avoids flashiness, used as much as rhythm as punctuation device. Sharp, angular, jagged, and precise. Other gnarling highlights include the preachy "Styrofoam," the late-breaking "Sieve-Fisted Find," and the somewhat ironic "Merchandise," which skewers Mr. Business Owner by asking, "What could a businessman ever want more than to have us sucking in his store?"

 

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7. Pixies – Bossanova

 

Gil Norton's spacious, reverb-heavy production makes the Pixies sound like a Martian bar band, which fits the cover of the Surftones' "Cecilia Ann" and the glorious, shimmering closer "Havalina" perfectly. On the theremin-driven "Velouria," science fiction imagery displaces Francis' penchant for fetishistic lyrics; next to the token kinky song "Down to the Well"'s tired sound, it's a refreshing change. The similarly cryptic "All Over the World" and alien abduction tale "The Happening" add to the sci-fi feel. Quirky pop songs like "Allison," a tribute to jazz cool-cat Mose Allison, and "Dig for Fire," Francis' self-professed Talking Heads homage, heighten Bossanova's playful, slightly off-kilter vibe, but rockers like "Hang Wire" and "Blown Away," fall flat. However, "Rock Music" is one of the group's most fiery outbursts, and "Is She Weird"'s chugging grind and sexy, funny lyrics make it a classic Pixies song. The band was so consistently amazing on their previous albums that when they released a slightly weaker one, critics and fans alike judged them too harshly.

 

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6. John Zorn – Naked City

 

The violent cover photo (which shows a man after he was shot dead) sets the stage for the rather passionate music on this John Zorn set. With guitarist Bill Frisell, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, bassis tFred Frith, drummer Joey Baron, and guest vocalist Yamatsuka Eye making intense contributions, altoist Zorn performs his unpredictable originals, abstract versions of some movie themes (including "A Shot in the Dark," "I Want to Live," "Chinatown," and "The James Bond Theme"), plus Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." The stimulating music rewards repeated listenings by more open-minded listeners.

 

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5. Ride – Nowhere

 

Whir, whoosh, haze, swirl, ad nauseum -- this record holds all of these elements at their most exciting and mastered. But in the end, great pop records necessitate quality songs, which Nowhere delivers throughout. Undeniably, it's Ride's zenith -- dense, tight, hypnotic. "Seagull" serves as a dynamic opener; after a couple seconds of light feedback, bassist Steve Queralt kicks in with a rubbery, elliptical line (reminiscent of a certain Beatles song), which is soon followed by Andy Bell and Mark Gardener's guitar twists and Loz Colbert's alternately gentle and punishing drumming. After the upbeat "Kaleidoscope," the record falls into a tempo lull that initially seems impenetrable and meandering. However, patience reveals a five-song suite of sorts, full of lovely instrumental passages that are punctuated with violent jabs of manic guitars. The endlessly escalating "Polar Bear" is a high point, featuring expertly placed tom rolls from Colbert. The tempo picks up for the closing "Vapour Trail," a wistful pop song with chiming background guitars galore and mournful strings to close it out.

 

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4. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm

 

One year after De la Soul re-drew the map for alternative rap, fellow Native Tongues brothers A Tribe Called Quest released their debut, the quiet beginning of a revolution in non-commercial hip-hop. People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm floated a few familiar hooks, but it wasn't a sampladelic record. Rappers Q-Tip and Phife Dawg dropped a few clunky rhymes, but their lyrics were packed with ideas, while their flow and interplay were among the most original in hip-hop. From the beginning, Tribe focused on intelligent message tracks but rarely sounded over-serious about them. With "Pubic Enemy," they put a humorous spin on the touchy subject of venereal disease (including a special award for the most inventive use of the classic "scratchin'" sample), and moved right into a love rap, "Bonita Applebum," which alternated a sitar sample with the type of jazzy keys often heard on later Tribe tracks. "Description of a Fool" took to task those with violent tendencies, while "Youthful Expression" spoke wisely of the power yet growing responsibility of teenagers. Next to important message tracks with great productions, A Tribe Called Quest could also be deliciously playful (or frustratingly unserious, depending on your opinion). "I Left My Wallet in El Segundo" describes a vacation gone hilariously wrong, while "Ham 'n' Eggs" may be the oddest topic for a rap track ever heard up to that point ("I don't eat no ham and eggs, cuz they're high in cholesterol"). Contrary to the message in the track titles, the opener "Push It Along" and "Rhythm (Dedicated to the Art of Moving Butts)" were fusions of atmospheric samples with tough beats, special attention being paid to a pair of later Tribe sample favorites, jazz guitar and '70s fusion synth. Restless and ceaselessly imaginative, Tribe perhaps experimented too much on their debut, but they succeeded at much of it, certainly enough to show much promise as a new decade dawned.

 

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3. Angelo Badalamenti – Soundtrack From Twin Peaks

 

Composer Angelo Badalamenti (Cousins) set the tone for David Lynch's bizarre television soap with a haunting theme created from electric piano, synthetic strings, and the twangiest guitar this side ofDuane Eddy. The love theme, appropriately enough, sounds like a funeral march. (The series' central character was found dead at the beginning of the first episode.) The rest of the music, instantly recognizable to anyone who saw even one episode of the series, borders on fever-dream jazz. Lynch favorite Julee Cruise sings the only three vocal songs. The music from Twin Peaks is dark, cloying, and obsessive -- and one of the best scores ever written for television.

 

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2. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas

 

Deciding to scale back the overly pretty sound on Blue Bell Knoll while experimenting with more accessibility -- -- the Twins ended up creating their best album since Treasure. From the start, Heaven... is simply fantastic: on "Cherry-Coloured Funk," Guthrie's inimitable guitar work chimes leading a low-key but forceful rhythm, while Raymonde's grand bass work fleshes it out. Fraser simply captivates; her vocals are the clearest, most direct they've ever been, purring with energy and life. Many songs have longer openings and closings; rather than crashing fully into a song and then quickly ending, instead the trio carefully builds up and eases back. These songs are still quite focused, though, almost sounding like they were recorded live instead of being assembled in the studio. Due credit has to be given to the Cocteaus' drum programming; years of working with the machines translated into the detailed work here, right down to the fills. "Fifty-Fifty Clown," starting with an ominous bass throb, turns into a lovely showcase for Fraser's singing and Guthrie's more restrained playing. But the Twins don't completely turn their back on Knoll's sound; "Iceblink Luck," has the same lush feeling and a newfound energy -- the instrumental break is almost a rave-up! -- and everything pulses to a fine conclusion. There are many moments of sheer Cocteaus beauty and power, including the title track, with its great chorus, and two spotlight Guthrie solos: "Fotzepolitic," a powerful number building to a rushing conclusion, and the album-ending "Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires." Possessing the same climactic sense of drama past disc-closers as "Donimo" and "The Thinner the Air," it's a perfect way to end a near-perfect album.

 

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1. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet

 

At the time of its release in March 1990 -- just a mere two years after It Takes a Nation of Millions -- nearly all of the attention spent on Public Enemy's third album, Fear of a Black Planet, was concentrated on the dying controversy over Professor Griff's anti-Semitic statements of 1989, and how leader Chuck D bungled the public relations regarding his dismissal. References to the controversy are scattered throughout the album -- and it fueled the incendiary lead single, "Welcome to the Terrordome" -- but years later, after the furor has died down, what remains is a remarkable piece of modern art, a record that ushered in the '90s in a hail of multiculturalism and kaleidoscopic confusion. It also easily stands as the Bomb Squad's finest musical moment. Where Millions was all about aggression -- layered aggression, but aggression nonetheless -- Fear of a Black Planet encompasses everything, touching on seductive grooves, relentless beats, hard funk, and dub reggae without blinking an eye. All the more impressive is that this is one of the records made during the golden age of sampling, before legal limits were set on sampling, so this is a wild, endlessly layered record filled with familiar sounds you can't place; it's nearly as heady as the Beastie Boys' magnum opus, Paul's Boutique, in how it pulls from anonymous and familiar sources to create something totally original and modern. While the Bomb Squad were casting a wider net, Chuck D's writing was tighter than ever, with each track tackling a specific topic (apart from the aforementioned "Welcome to the Terrordome," whose careening rhymes and paranoid confusion are all the more effective when surrounded by such detailed arguments), a sentiment that spills over to Flavor Flav, who delivers the pungent black humor of "911 Is a Joke," perhaps the best-known song here. Chuck gets himself into trouble here and there -- most notoriously on "Meet the G That Killed Me," where he skirts with homophobia -- but by and large, he's never been so eloquent, angry, or persuasive as he is here. This isn't as revolutionary or as potent as Millions, but it holds together better, and as a piece of music, this is the best hip-hop has ever had to offer.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

The Breeders – Pod

 

On their 1990 debut album Pod, the Breeders -- led by the Pixies' Kim Deal and Throwing Muses' Tanya Donelly -- prove that they have more potential, and more fun, than the average side project. In fact, thanks to the album's creative songwriting, immediate production (courtesy of Surfer Rosa producer Steve Albini), and clever arrangements, Pod is a fresher and more successful work than the Pixies' Bossanova and the Muses' Hunkpapa, their main projects' releases from around that time. Though the album doesn't feature as many of Donelly's contributions as was originally planned -- which was part of the reason she formed Belly a few years later -- songs like "Iris" and "Lime House" blend the best of the Pixies' elliptical punk and the Muses' angular pop. Pod reaffirms what a distinctive songwriter Deal is, and how much the Pixies missed out on by not including more of her material on their albums. With their unusual subjects -- "Hellbound" is about a living abortion -- and quirky-but-direct sound, songs like "Opened" and "When I Was a Painter" could have easily fit on Doolittle or Bossanova. But the spare, sensual "Doe," "Fortunately Gone," and "Only in Threes" are more lighthearted and good-natured than the work of Deal's other band, pointing the way to the sexy, clever alternative pop she'd craft on Last Splash. A vibrantly creative debut, Pod remains the Breeders' most genuine moment.

 

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Codeine – Frigid Stars

 

The cover of Codeine's Frigid Stars LP sets the mood well -- a negative black and white shot of some stars, looking even more haunting as a result. As for the album, the tone isn't cold or unemotional, but simply gripped by a deep black mood, where everything seems on the verge of suddenly going wrong or collapsing. There's a cryptic warmth in the slow tempos and feedback produced from the deliberate strumming and chords from John Engle and Chris Brokaw's guitars. It isn't the narcotic hush of Low -- there's actually a little more relative energy than that! -- or sludgy stoner rock à la Black Sabbath, but something else entirely. Bassist Stephen Immerwahr's vocals lend to that feeling, softly ruminative, sometimes straining, but never sounding self-important or whining (though sometimes the lyrics are creepily macabre -- check out the start of "Cave-In"). If one lets oneself go for the album's general feel, then it all flows together to make a touching, surprising experience, but those seeking variety aren't likely to be happy. It avoids sounding repetitious by virtue of the dynamics -- treat the entire album as an extended mood piece, and it works well. Engle's lead guitar work throws in enough heartbreakingly strong moments to help -- the sudden low swoop on "Pickup Song" is a standout, while the dark, forbidding drones on "Second Chance" are truly chilling. An interesting cover surfaces a few songs in -- "New Year's" (co-written by Bitch Magnet singer Sooyoung Park but not recorded by him until the firstSeam album, Headsparks, two years later). Codeine here sound a touch cleaner than elsewhere onFrigid Stars, where the guitars can really sprawl when needed, but Brokaw's drumming andImmerwahr's great delivery mark it out as their version instead of merely a straightforward remake.

 

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The KLF – Chill Out

 

One of the initial works in the ambient house canon, Chill Out is the practically beatless soundtrack to a late-night journey along the Gulf Coast, and the track titles tell much of the story: "Six Hours to Louisiana, Black Coffee Going Cold," "3AM Somewhere Out of Beaumont," "Elvis on the Radio, Steel Guitar in My Soul." Recorded live by Drummond and Cauty (with much unintended help from sample victims Elvis Presley, Fleetwood Mac, and the throat singers of Tüva), Chill Out consists largely of fragmented, heavily reverbed steel guitar, environmental sounds (birds, trains), occasional synth, and an angelic vocal chorus repeating the KLF's own "Justified and Ancient" theme. Throughout, Drummond and Cauty display an instinctive talent for wallpaper music that's truly diverting, making Chill Out one of the essential ambient albums.

 

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The La’s – The La’s

 

 

Some albums exist outside of time or place, gently floating on their own style and sensibility. Of those,the La's lone album may be the most beguiling, a record that consciously calls upon the hooks and harmonies of 1964 without seeming fussily retro, a trick that anticipated the cheerful classicism of the Brit-pop '90s. But where their sons Oasis and Blur were all too eager to carry the torch of the past, Lee Mavers and the La's exist outside of time, suggesting the '60s in their simple, tuneful, acoustic-driven arrangements but seeming modern in their open, spacy approach, sometimes as ethereal as anything coming out of the 4AD stable but brought down to earth by their lean, no-nonsense attack, almost as sinewy as any unaffected British Invasion band. But where so many guitar pop bands seem inhibited by tradition, the La's were liberated by it, using basic elements to construct their own identity, one that's propulsive and tuneful, or sweetly seductive, as it is on the band's best-known song, "There She Goes." That song is indicative of the La's material in its melodic pull; the rest of the album has a bit more muscle, whether the group is bashing out a modern-day Merseybeat on "Liberty Ship" and bouncing two-step "Doledrum," or alluding to Morrissey's elliptical phrasing on "Timeless Melody." This force gives the La's some distinction, separating them from nostalgic revivalists even as their dedication to unadorned acoustic arrangements separates them from their contemporaries, but it's this wildly willful sensibility -- so respectful of the past it can't imagine not following its own path -- that turns The La'sinto its own unique entity, indebted to the past and pointing toward the future, yet not belonging to either.

 

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The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

 

The Sundays' debut album builds on the layered, ringing guitar hooks and unconventional pop melodies of the Smiths, adding more ethereal vocals and a stronger backbeat. As evidenced by the lilting, melancholy single "Here's Where the Story Ends," it's a winning combination, making Reading, Writing and Arithmetic a thoroughly engaging debut.

 

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10. Sebadoh – III

 

Along with Pavement's Slanted & Enchanted, Sebadoh III is one of the cornerstones of '90s indie rock, establishing the dubious lo-fi style as a credible subgenre. Though the recording techniques give the album a distinctive, hazy atmosphere, the music itself is fascinating. Divided between contributions from Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Loewenstein, Sebadoh III doesn't necessarily offer a coherent listen. Instead, it's a variety of unexpected detours, with each track offering something different from what preceded. Barlow immediately distinguishes himself with his folky acoustic musings, which not only have sensitivity to spare, but also strong melodies. Gaffney, on the other hand, consigns himself to the role of hardcore noise rocker, often with varying results. Loewenstein falls between the two extremes, acting as a bridge between the two songwriters. With such a variety of styles and sounds, Sebadoh III is a kaleidoscopic summation of various American underground rock genres of the '80s, as well as a launching pad for the introspective obsessions of '90s indie rock.

 

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9. Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque

 

The gold standard of the early-'90s power pop revival, in its own way Bandwagoneque was as much a benchmark as contemporary records like Nevermind and Loveless; though not the generational rallying cry of the former nor the revolutionary sonic breakthrough of the latter, Teenage Fanclub's sophomore album nevertheless heralded the return of melody and craft, coupled with energy and spirit -- hallmarks of much of the greatest rock & roll of the past, and virtues as rare as hen's teeth in the years immediately prior to the disc's release. Although its incandescent harmonies, lazily immediate songs, and crunching guitars earned it endless comparisons to vintage Big Star, Bandwagonesque is in every way a product of its own time -- the thick, grungy sound of the Fannies' debut A Catholic Education remains intact for gems like "What You Do to Me" (arguably the most brilliantly simpleminded love song ever penned) and the instrumental "Satan," while the lyrics of other standout moments like "Star Sign" and "Alcoholiday" reflect a laissez faire irony and unassuming genius even more emblematic of the moment in question.

 

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8. The Jesus Lizard - Goat

 

The Jesus Lizard's second album followed in the vein of the first with little immediate variation: loud, excellently produced by Steve Albini, plenty of space in the recording to emphasize the sheer force of McNeilly's drums and Sims' bass, and more besides. The little-remarked-upon ability of the rhythm section to kick out some ass-shaking jams spikes up such great numbers as "Nub," which almost predicts Rocket From the Crypt down to the gang-shout vocals, and the slower but no-less-compelling grind of "Rodeo in Joliet" (also one of the band's most inspired titles). Denison's guitar playing seemed a touch more focused at points here, the results almost suggesting such post-punk groove monsters as Gang of Four and even the Pop Group. There's a more evident melodic lead role for his work as well, as the just plain great riff that fires up "Mouth Breather" and his near-countryish twang on "Karpis" makes perfectly clear. Yow, meanwhile, steps ever more into his own persona, his lyrics now downright comprehensible and his singing levels a touch less doom- (and bass) heavy, if no less aggrieved. The staggered vocal overdubs on "Monkey Trick" are a standout, especially when Denison suddenly serves up another one of his surprisingly sweet passages as a bed. Other treats on the album include the opening "Here Comes Dudley" -- in context one of the more non-welcoming greetings around -- and the Morricone-tinged freakout of "Lady Shoes," assuming Morricone scored movies about doctors dealing with some freaky female patients. The whole album seems like a party in hell, not to mention demonstrative proof that there's still plenty of fun to be had with a basic rock lineup; it's all in the matter of how it's handled.

 

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7. Massive Attack - Blue Lines

 

The first masterpiece of what was only termed trip-hop much later, Blue Lines filtered American hip-hop through the lens of British club culture, a stylish, nocturnal sense of scene that encompassed music from rare groove to dub to dance. The album balances dark, diva-led club jams along the lines of Soul II Soul with some of the best British rap (vocals and production) heard up to that point, occasionally on the same track. The opener "Safe from Harm" is the best example, with diva vocalist Shara Nelson trading off lines with the group's own monotone (yet effective) rapping. Even more than hip-hop or dance, however, dub is the big touchstone on Blue Lines. Most of the productions aren't quite as earthy as you'd expect, but the influence is palpable in the atmospherics of the songs, like the faraway electric piano on "One Love" (with beautiful vocals from the near-legendary Horace Andy). One track, "Five Man Army," makes the dub inspiration explicit, with a clattering percussion line, moderate reverb on the guitar and drums, and Andy's exquisite falsetto flitting over the chorus. Blue Lines isn't all darkness, either -- "Be Thankful for What You've Got" is quite close to the smooth soul tune conjured by its title, and "Unfinished Sympathy" -- the group's first classic production -- is a tremendously moving fusion of up-tempo hip-hop and dancefloor jam with slow-moving, syrupy strings. Flaunting both their range and their tremendously evocative productions, Massive Attack recorded one of the best dance albums of all time.

 

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6. U2 - Achtung Baby

 

Reinventions rarely come as thorough and effective as Achtung Baby, an album that completely changed U2's sound and style. The crashing, unrecognizable distorted guitars that open "Zoo Station" are a clear signal that U2 have traded their Americana pretensions for postmodern, contemporary European music. Drawing equally from Bowie's electronic, avant-garde explorations of the late '70s and the neo-psychedelic sounds of the thriving rave and Madchester club scenes of early-'90s England, Achtung Baby sounds vibrant and endlessly inventive. Unlike their inspirations, U2 rarely experiment with song structures over the course of the album. Instead, they use the thick dance beats, swirling guitars, layers of effects, and found sounds to break traditional songs out of their constraints, revealing the tortured emotional core of their songs with the hyper-loaded arrangements. In such a dense musical setting, it isn't surprising that U2 have abandoned the political for the personal on Achtung Baby, since the music, even with its inviting rhythms, is more introspective than anthemic. Bono has never been as emotionally naked as he is on Achtung Baby, creating a feverish nightmare of broken hearts and desperate loneliness; unlike other U2 albums, it's filled with sexual imagery, much of it quite disturbing, and it ends on a disquieting note. Few bands as far into their career as U2 have recorded an album as adventurous or fulfilled their ambitions quite as successfully as they do on Achtung Baby, and the result is arguably their best album.

 

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5. Slint - Spiderland

 

More known for its frequent name-checks than its actual music, Spiderland remains one of the most essential and chilling releases in the mumbling post-rock arena. Even casual listeners will be able to witness an experimental power-base that the American underground has come to treasure. Indeed, the lumbering quiet-loud motif has been lifted by everybody from Lou Barlow to Mogwai, the album's emotional gelidity has done more to move away from prog-rock mistakes than almost any of the band's subsequent disciples, and it's easy to hear how the term "Slint dynamics" has become an indie categorization of its own. Most interestingly, however, is how even a seething angularity to songs like "Nosferatu Man" (disquieting, vampirish stop-starts) or "Good Morning, Captain" (a murmuring nod to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") certainly signaled the beginning of the end for the band. Recording was intense, traumatic, and one more piece of evidence supporting the theory that band members had to be periodically institutionalized during the completion of the album. Spiderland remains, though, not quite the insurmountable masterpiece its reputation may suggest. Brian McMahan softly speaks/screams his way through the asphyxiated music and too often evokes strangled pity instead of outright empathy. Which probably speaks more about the potential dangers of pretentious post-rock than the frigid musical climate of the album itself. Surely, years later, Spiderland is still a strong, slightly overrated, compelling piece of investigational despair that is a worthy asset to most any experimentalist's record collection.

 

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4. Primal Scream - Screamadelica

 

There's no overestimating the importance of Screamadelica, the record that brought acid house, techno, and rave culture crashing into the British mainstream -- an impact that rivaled that of Nirvana's Nevermind, the other 1991 release that changed rock. Prior to Screamadelica, Primal Scream were Stonesy classic rock revivalists with a penchant for Detroit rock. They retained those fascinations on Screamadelica -- one listen to the Jimmy Miller-produced, Stephen Stills-rip "Movin' on Up" proves that -- but they burst everything wide open here, turning rock inside out by marrying it to a gleeful rainbow of modern dance textures. This is such a brilliant, gutsy innovative record, so unlike anything the Scream did before, that it's little wonder that there's been much debate behind who is actually responsible for its grooves, especially since Andrew Weatherall is credited with production with eight of the tracks, and it's clearly in line with his work. Even if Primal Scream took credit for Weatherall's endeavors, that doesn't erase the fact that they shepherded this album, providing the ideas and impetus for this dubtastic, elastic, psychedelic exercise in deep house and neo-psychedelic. Like any dance music, this is tied to its era to a certain extent, but it transcends it due to its fierce imagination and how it doubles back on rock history, making the past present and vice versa. It was such a monumental step forward that Primal Scream stumbled before regaining their footing, but by that point, the innovations of Screamadelica had been absorbed by everyone from the underground to mainstream. There's little chance that this record will be as revolutionary to first-time listeners, but after its initial spin, the genius in its construction will become apparent -- and it's that attention to detail that makes Screamadelica an album that transcends its time and influence.

 

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3. Talk Talk - Laughing Stock

 

Virtually ignored upon its initial release, Laughing Stock continues to grow in stature and influence by leaps and bounds. Picking up where Spirit of Eden left off, the album operates outside of the accepted sphere of rock to create music which is both delicate and intense; recorded with a large classical ensemble, it defies easy categorization, conforming to very few structural precedents -- while the gently hypnotic "Myrrhman" flirts with ambient textures, the percussive "Ascension Day" drifts toward jazz before the two sensibilities converge to create something entirely new and different on "New Grass." The epic "After the Flood," on the other hand, is an atmospheric whirlpool laced with jackhammer guitar feedback and Mark Hollis' remarkably plaintive vocals; it flows into "Taphead," perhaps the most evocative, spacious, and understated piece on the record. A work of staggering complexity and immense beauty, Laughing Stock remains an under-recognized masterpiece, and its echoes can be heard throughout much of the finest experimental music issued in its wake.

 

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2. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory

 

While most of the players in the jazz-rap movement never quite escaped the pasted-on qualities of their vintage samples, with The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest created one of the closest and most brilliant fusions of jazz atmosphere and hip-hop attitude ever recorded. The rapping by Q-Tip and Phife Dawg could be the smoothest of any rap record ever heard; the pair are so in tune with each other, they sound like flip sides of the same personality, fluidly trading off on rhymes, with the former earning his nickname (the Abstract) and Phife concerning himself with the more concrete issues of being young, gifted, and black. The trio also takes on the rap game with a pair of hard-hitting tracks: "Rap Promoter" and "Show Business," the latter a lyrical soundclash with Q-Tip and Phife plus Brand Nubian's Diamond D, Lord Jamar, and Sadat X. The woman problem gets investigated as well, on two realistic yet sensitive tracks, "Butter" and "The Infamous Date Rape." The productions behind these tracks aren't quite skeletal, but they're certainly not complex. Instead, Tribe weaves little more than a stand-up bass (sampled or, on one track, jazz luminary Ron Carter) and crisp, live-sounding drum programs with a few deftly placed samples or electric keyboards. It's a tribute to their unerring production sense that, with just those few tools, Tribe produced one of the best hip-hop albums in history, a record that sounds better with each listen. The Low End Theory is an unqualified success, the perfect marriage of intelligent, flowing raps to nuanced, groove-centered productions.

 

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1. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

 

Isn't Anything was good enough to inspire an entire scene of My Bloody Valentine soundalikes, but Loveless' greatness proved that the band was inimitable. After two painstaking years in the studio and nearly bankrupting their label Creation in the process, the group emerged with their masterpiece, which fulfilled all of the promise of their previous albums. If Isn't Anything was the Valentines' sonic blueprint, then Loveless saw those plans fleshed out, in the most literal sense: "Loomer," "What You Want," and "To Here Knows When"'s arrangements are so lush, they're practically tangible. With its voluptuous yet ethereal melodies and arrangements, Loveless intimates sensuality and sexuality instead of stating them explicitly; Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher's vocals meld perfectly with the trippy sonics around them, suggesting druggy sex or sexy drugs. From the commanding "Only Shallow" and "Come in Alone" to breathy reflections like "Sometimes" and "Blown a Wish," the album balances complexity and immediately memorable pop melodies with remarkable self-assurance, given its difficult creation. But Loveless doesn't just perfect the group's approach, it also hints at their continuing growth: "Soon" fuses the Valentines' roaring guitars with a dance-inspired beat, while the symphonic interlude "Touched" suggests an updated take on Fripp and Eno's pioneering guitar/electronics experiments. These glimpses into the band's evolution make Shields' difficulty in delivering a follow-up to Loveless even more frustrating, but completely understandable -- the album's perfection sounded shoegazing's death-knell and raised expectations for the next My Bloody Valentine album to unreasonably high levels. Though Shields' collaborations with Yo La Tengo, Primal Scream, J Mascis, and others were often rewarding, they were no match for Loveless. However, as My Bloody Valentine fans -- and, apparently, Shields himself -- will attest, nothing is.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

LFO – Frequencies

 

More than just a collection of warehouse-ready singles, Frequencies is an album in the no-filler sense. As such, it dovetailed with a number of other early Warp albums that positioned techno as music that could, and should, be enjoyed in circumstances divorced from its sweaty function. These records included Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92 and Autechre’s Incunubula among others. The dread term IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) emerged around these albums, somehow implying that functional dance music was not smart. Yet, who can dance to Autechre? The really ‘intelligent’ thing about Frequencies is the fact that you can dance to it. You can dance like an absolute pilled up nutter sucking a soother to it. But you can also take it for a walk in a park or a lie down on the couch, and it will reward your attention just as satisfyingly as it will reward your inner rave-monkey.

 

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Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend

 

Matthew Sweet's third album is a remarkable artistic breakthrough. Grounded in the guitar pop of the Beatles, Big Star, Byrds, R.E.M., and Neil Young, Girlfriend melds all of Sweet's influences into one majestic, wrenching sound that encompasses both the gentle country-rock of "Winona" and the winding guitars of the title track and "Divine Intervention." Sweet's music might have recognizable roots, but Girlfriend never sounds derivative; thanks to his exceptional songwriting, the album is a fresh, original interpretation of a classic sound.

 

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Mercury Rev - Yerself Is Steam

 

Music dictated not by logic but by intuition, Yerself Is Steam is an album at war with itself, split by its desire to achieve both melodic pop bliss and white-noise transcendence within the same space; it succeeds brilliantly, avant-bubblegum fuel injected by fits and flourishes of prismatic chaos. From the comic malevolence of David Baker's mad-scientist creations to Jonathan Donahue's opiate lullabies, Yerself Is Steam is vividly cinematic -- between the roller coaster feedback of "Coney Island Cyclone" and the narcoleptic ebb and flow of the climactic "Very Sleepy Rivers," the songs perfectly evoke their titular aspirations; likewise, from the album title (say it out loud) onward, the lyrics revel in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of language, buoyed by a homophonous prankishness and dada rhyme schemes, which, in their own odd way, suggest a kind of poetry. A near-perfect debut from a band that would only get better from here on out.

 

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The Orb - The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld

 

 

Much like the early Orb-related project recorded as Space, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld simulates a journey through the outer realms -- progressing from the soaring ambient-pop of "Little Fluffy Clouds" and the stoned "Back Side of the Moon" (a veiled Pink Floyd reference) to "Into the Fourth Dimension" and ending (after more than two hours) with the glorious live mix of "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain." A varied cast of samples (Flash Gordon, space broadcasts, foreign-language whispers) and warm synthesizer tones provide a convincing bed for the midtempo house beats and occasionally dub-inflected ambience. With a clever balance of BBC Radiophonics Workshop soundtracks, '70s ambient meister-works by Eno, Hillage, and Floyd, plus the steady influence of Larry Heard's sublime Chicago house, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld is the album that defined the ambient house movement.

 

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Slowdive - Just for a Day

 

Just for a Day is Slowdive's first album, and it shows; when one listens to the magnificent sound of Souvlaki or the brilliant experimentation of Pygmalion, it becomes clear that Just for a Day was only a step toward the greatness they would later achieve. Its sound is quite like Souvlaki's -- swelling waves of flanged guitars, layers of wispy vocals floating in and out of the mix, and sweet lazy pop songs -- but the production sometimes turns the band's plush, sweet sound into the sort of cheap and cheesy pleasantness one might expect from a new age artist. A few tracks hint at the sound that would be fully achieved on Souvlaki ("Celia's Dream," "Erik's Song"), and the album as a whole must have sounded wonderful before anyone knew what great things the band was capable of -- but Just for a Day is really Slowdive in their infancy.

 

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Glad to see LFO in the honorable mentions

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Spoiler: You won't find Nirvana or Pearl Jam for 1991.

 

All the more reason to look forward to this! :lol:

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1992:

 

 

 

10. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head

 

Check Your Head brought the Beastie Boys crashing back into the charts and into public consciousness, but that was only partially due to the album itself -- much of its initial success was due to the cult audience that Paul's Boutique cultivated in the years since its initial flop release, a group of fans whose minds were so thoroughly blown by that record, they couldn't wait to see what came next, and this helped the record debut in the Top Ten upon its April 1992 release. This audience, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, was a collegiate Gen-X audience raised on Licensed to Ill and ready for the Beastie Boys to guide them through college. As it happened, the Beasties had repositioned themselves as a lo-fi, alt-rock groove band. They had not abandoned rap, but it was no longer the foundation of their music, it was simply the most prominent in a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk. What they did abandon was the psychedelic samples of Paul's Boutique, turning toward primitive grooves they played themselves, augmented by keyboardist Money Mark and co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr.. This all means that music was the message and the rhymes, which had been pushed toward the forefront on both Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique, have been considerably de-emphasized (only four songs -- "Jimmy James," "Pass the Mic," "Finger Lickin' Good," and "So What'cha Want" -- could hold their own lyrically among their previous work). This is not a detriment, because the focus is not on the words, it's on the music, mood, and even the newfound neo-hippie political consciousness. And Check Your Head is certainly a record that's greater than the sum of its parts -- individually, nearly all the tracks are good (the instrumentals sound good on their subsequent soul-jazz collection, The in Sound From Way Out), but it's the context and variety of styles that give Check Your Head its identity. It's how the old school raps give way to fuzz-toned rockers, furious punk, and cheerfully gritty, jazzy jams. As much as Paul's Boutique, this is a whirlwind tour through the Beasties' pop-culture obsessions, but instead of spinning into Technicolor fantasies, it's earth-bound D.I.Y. that makes it all seem equally accessible -- which is a big reason why it turned out to be an alt-rock touchstone of the '90s, something that both set trends and predicted them.

 

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9. The Jesus Lizard – Liar

 

From the first few seconds, in which "Boilermaker" leaps out of the speakers like a crank-addled mugger armed with a tire iron, Liar captures the Jesus Lizard in gloriously manic and muscular form, and if it sounds a bit less grimy and psychotic than Goat, the album that preceded it, this is still the musical equivalent of a ranting lunatic you would never dream of sitting next to on the subway. While said lunatic would probably be best personified by vocalist David Yow, whose litany of gasps, bellows, and shrieks is freakishly eloquent even when you can't figure out what he's saying, the drill-press guitar of Duane Denison and the constant rhythmic pummel of David Sims and Mac McNeilly conjure up a remarkably convincing re-creation of the noises in his head, and the band's taut, rapid-fire precision and striking command of dynamics (no matter that the silences appeared in split-second bursts) generate a groove that manages to be sensuous and uncomfortable at the same time. And while the crashing force of cuts like "Gladiator" and "The Art of Self-Defense" is what folks commonly associate with the Jesus Lizard, the spaghetti Western nightmare of "Zachariah" shows they can slow down without losing any of their impact in the process. Liar isn't quite the wildest or weirdest album the Jesus Lizard ever made, but it may well be the strongest, and perhaps the best.

 

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8. Red House Painters – Down Colorful Hill

 

Not a proper debut as such, Down Colorful Hill instead comprises the demo recordings which won Red House Painters their contract with the 4AD label, released here with minimal overdubbing. Regardless, the group has already reached full maturity; these lengthy, ponderous songs are remarkably evocative portraits of a distinctly tortured psyche -- Mark Kozelek forgoes the camouflage of metaphor to lay his soul on the line, and the honesty of his craft is both beautiful and disturbing.

 

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7. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde

 

The cover shot of a Fat Albert-ized Pharcyde roller coasting their way into a funhouse makes perfect sense, as the L.A.-based quartet introduced listeners to an uproarious vision of earthy hip-hop informed by P-Funk silliness and an everybody-on-the-mic street-corner atmosphere that highlights the incredible rapping skills of each member. With multiple voices freestyling over hilarious story-songs like "Oh Shit," "Soul Flower," the dozens contest "Ya Mama," and even a half-serious driving-while-black critique named "Officer," Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde proved Daisy Age philosophy akin to De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest wasn't purely an East Coast phenomenon. Skits and interludes with live backing (usually just drums and piano) only enhance the freeform nature of the proceedings, and the group even succeeds when not reliant on humor, as proved by the excellent heartbreak tale "Passing Me By." The production, by J-Sw!ft and the group, is easily some of the tightest and most inventive of any hip-hop record of the era. Though Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde could have used a few more musical hooks to draw in listeners before they begin to appreciate the amazing rapping and gifted productions, the lack of compromise reveals far greater rewards down the line.

 

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6. Tom Waits – Bone Machine

 

Perhaps Tom Waits' most cohesive album, Bone Machine is a morbid, sinister nightmare, one that applied the quirks of his experimental '80s classics to stunningly evocative -- and often harrowing -- effect. In keeping with the title's grotesque image of the human body, Bone Machine is obsessed with decay and mortality, the ease with which earthly existence can be destroyed. The arrangements are accordingly stripped of all excess flesh; the very few, often non-traditional instruments float in distinct separation over the clanking junkyard percussion that dominates the record. It's a chilling, primal sound made all the more otherworldly (or, perhaps, underworldly) by Waits' raspy falsetto and often-distorted roars and growls. Matching that evocative power is Waits' songwriting, which is arguably the most consistently focused it's ever been. Rich in strange and extraordinarily vivid imagery, many of Waits' tales and musings are spun against an imposing backdrop of apocalyptic natural fury, underlining the insignificance of his subjects and their universally impending doom. Death is seen as freedom for the spirit, an escape from the dread and suffering of life in this world -- which he paints as hellishly bleak, full of murder, suicide, and corruption. The chugging, oddly bouncy beats of the more uptempo numbers make them even more disturbing -- there's a detached nonchalance beneath the horrific visions. Even the narrator of the catchy, playful "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" seems hopeless in this context, but that song paves the way for the closer "That Feel," an ode to the endurance of the human soul (with ultimate survivor Keith Richards on harmony vocals). The more upbeat ending hardly dispels the cloud of doom hanging over the rest of Bone Machine, but it does give the listener a gentler escape from that terrifying sonic world. All of it adds up to Waits' most affecting and powerful recording, even if it isn't his most accessible.

 

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5. Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies

 

Following the dissolution of Spacemen 3, Pete Kember (a.k.a. Sonic Boom) stuck with his original vision for minimalist psychedelia, while Jason Pierce (a.k.a. Jason Spaceman) expanded on the sound to create something huge and orchestral under the name Spiritualized. Building on Pierce’s contributions to Spacemen 3’s final album, Recurring, Lazer Guided Melodies debuted in 1992 to critical acclaim. “You Know It’s True” opens with Pierce whisper-singing over a blend of acoustic and electric guitars delicately picked under keyboardist Kate Radley’s vintage Vox organ tones. This bleeds into the strobe-light guitar delay of “If I Were with Her Now,” where layered horn arrangements and a string trio introduce Spiritualized's panoramic sound. Both “I Want You” and “Run” tap into The Velvet Underground’s penchant for turning sonic oscillations into rock ‘n’ roll (the latter referencing lyrics from J.J. Cale’s “They Call Me the Breeze”).

 

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4. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People

 

Turning away from the sweet pop of Out of Time, R.E.M. created a haunting, melancholy masterpiece with Automatic for the People. At its core, the album is a collection of folk songs about aging, death, and loss, but the music has a grand, epic sweep provided by layers of lush strings, interweaving acoustic instruments, and shimmering keyboards. Automatic for the People captures the group at a crossroads, as they moved from cult heroes to elder statesmen, and the album is a graceful transition into their new status. It is a reflective album, with frank discussions on mortality, but it is not a despairing record -- "Nightswimming," "Everybody Hurts," and "Sweetness Follows" have a comforting melancholy, while "Find the River" provides a positive sense of closure. R.E.M. have never been as emotionally direct as they are on Automatic for the People, nor have they ever created music quite as rich and timeless, and while the record is not an easy listen, it is the most rewarding record in their oeuvre.

 

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3. Dr. Dre – The Chronic

 

With its stylish, sonically detailed production, Dr. Dre's 1992 solo debut, The Chronic, transformed the entire sound of West Coast rap. Here Dre established his patented G-funk sound: fat, blunted Parliament-Funkadelic beats, soulful backing vocals, and live instruments in the rolling basslines and whiny synths. What's impressive is that Dre crafts tighter singles than his inspiration, George Clinton -- he's just as effortlessly funky, and he has a better feel for a hook, a knack that improbably landed gangsta rap on the pop charts. But none of The Chronic's legions of imitators were as rich in personality, and that's due in large part to Dre's monumental discovery, Snoop Doggy Dogg. Snoop livens up every track he touches, sometimes just by joining in the chorus -- and if The Chronic has a flaw, it's that his relative absence from the second half slows the momentum. There was nothing in rap quite like Snoop's singsong, lazy drawl (as it's invariably described), and since Dre's true forte is the producer's chair, Snoop is the signature voice. He sounds utterly unaffected by anything, no matter how extreme, which sets the tone for the album's misogyny, homophobia, and violence. The Rodney King riots are unequivocally celebrated, but the war wasn't just on the streets; Dre enlists his numerous guests in feuds with rivals and ex-bandmates. Yet The Chronic is first and foremost a party album, rooted not only in '70s funk and soul, but also that era's blue party comedy, particularly Dolemite. Its comic song intros and skits became prerequisites for rap albums seeking to duplicate its cinematic flow; plus, Snoop and Dre's terrific chemistry ensures that even their foulest insults are cleverly turned. That framework makes The Chronic both unreal and all too real, a cartoon and a snapshot. No matter how controversial, it remains one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop albums of all time.

 

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2. Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

 

Slanted and Enchanted is a left-field classic, a record that came out of nowhere to help establish a new subgenre of rock & roll. Pavement had already sketched out their sound, as well as their amateurish lo-fi aesthetic, on a series of indie singles before recording their debut, but Slanted and Enchanted is where they pulled all of their disparate sounds together into a distinctive style. At first, the primitive sound of the record is the most gripping thing about Slanted, but soon the true innovations of the record appear through the songs themselves. Stephen Malkmus and Spiral Stairs subvert conventional pop structures, turning melodies inside out, reinterpreting and reworking older songs, and bending genres together. It's a complex, enthralling record, filled with fractured riffs, strong melodies, and cryptic melodies, and with all the hiss and static, Slanted and Enchanted sounds like listening to a distant college radio station -- melodies and hooks keep floating in and out of the mix, with individual lines instead of full lyrics surfacing through the murk. This unique song structure as much as the sound of the album itself makes Slanted and Enchanted an individual, signature work and one of the most influential records of the '90s.

 

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1. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92

 

Selected Ambient Works 85-92 is a desperately sparse album: thin percussion and several haunted-synth lines are the only components on most songs, and Richard D. James added only one vocal sample on the entire album ("We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams"). Also, the sound quality is relatively poor; it was recorded direct to cassette tape and reportedly suffered a mangling job by a cat. All this belies the status of Selected Ambient Works 85-92 as a watershed of ambient music. It reveals no influences and sounds unlike anything that preceded it, due in large part to the effects James managed to wrangle from his supply of home-manufactured contraptions.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Beat Happening – You Turn Me On

 

Beat Happening's final LP is also their best: concluding the emotional and musical progression begun with the minimalist innocence of their earliest work, You Turn Me On is a mature record of tremendous breadth and complexity. Where once the trio's songs were brief and bouncy, the nine tracks here are epic (several top out at over six minutes) and ambitious; produced in part by ex-Young Marble Giant Stuart Moxham (an obvious influence), the record's full, deep sound belies its bare-bones performances -- "Teenage Caveman" sports booming, primal drums perfectly suited to its title, while the propulsive "Noise" manufactures the illusion of a bassline where none ever existed. The most democratic record in an output founded on egalitarian ideals, You Turn Me On offers Heather Lewis' strongest songs ever -- her hypnotic nine-minute "Godsend" is the LP's heart and soul -- and she and Calvin Johnson even trade verses on the closing "Bury the Hammer." As for Calvin himself, his solo contributions are exceptional -- the spartan opener "Tiger Trap" is an evocative heartbreaker, and the title track is a fire-breathing corker. A masterpiece.

 

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Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine

 

Probably the first album to successfully merge the seemingly disparate sounds of rap and heavy metal, Rage Against the Machine's self-titled debut was groundbreaking enough when released in 1992, but many would argue that it has yet to be surpassed in terms of influence and sheer brilliance -- though countless bands have certainly tried. This is probably because the uniquely combustible creative relationship between guitar wizard Tom Morello and literate rebel vocalist Zack de la Rocha could only burn this bright, this once. While the former's roots in '80s heavy metal shredding gave rise to an inimitable array of six-string acrobatics and rhythmic special effects (few of which anyone else has managed to replicate), the latter delivered meaningful rhymes with an emotionally charged conviction that suburban white boys of the ensuing nu-metal generation could never hope to touch. As a result, syncopated slabs of hard rock insurrection like "Bombtrack," "Take the Power Back," and "Know Your Enemy" were as instantly unforgettable as they were astonishing. Yet even they paled in comparison to veritable clinics in the art of slowly mounting tension such as "Settle for Nothing," "Bullet in the Head," and the particularly venomous "Wake Up" (where Morello revises Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" riff for his own needs) -- all of which finally exploded with awesome power and fury. And even listeners who were unable (or unwilling) to fully process the band's unique clash of muscle and intellect were catered to, as RATM were able to convey their messages through stubborn repetition via the fundamental challenge of "Freedom" and their signature track, "Killing in the Name," which would become a rallying cry of disenfranchisement, thanks to its relentlessly rebellious mantra of "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

 

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Sugar – Copper Blue

 

How ironic that after years fronting the hugely influential but desperately overlooked Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould's first project with new band Sugar, 1992's Copper Blue, would become the most commercially successful project of his career. Of course, it was released just as the seeds sown by his former band were bearing bountiful fruits in the post-Nirvana alternative nation, which provided ample explanation for its phenomenal success. But Sugar were well deserving of their success, regardless of time and place. A more aggressive, contemporary guitar attack aside, stunning power punk masterpieces like "The Act We Act," "The Slim," and "Fortune Teller" bear all of the vintage Mould musical traits: tell-tale lyrics, great hooks, and snappy melodies. It's all underpinned by that unexplainable, chilling tension between innocent beauty and dark melancholy that fans came to expect from Mould, and topped by his somewhat nasal, almost timid vocal harmonies. Other highlights include the '60s-style "If I Can't Change Your Mind," the loud, beautiful guitars of "Man on the Moon" and "Helpless," and the tongue-in-cheek Pixies tribute "A Good Idea."

 

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The Tear Garden – The Last Man to Fly

 

 

Trying to follow up a successful collaboration had to be just about as tricky as aligning the individual schedules of each of the participants for that sequel -- in fact, it took five years to get everyone back together again. Again, the project draws more on Ka-Spel's strengths and background than on Key's, turning in a mildly psychedelic electronic soundscape, this time with organic elements like acoustic and electric guitar scattered prominently throughout. It's a nice effect and it certainly brings broader range to the Tear Garden sound, but at the same time it edges the band closer towards a funked-up electro Pink Floyd. How you react to this fact is up to you.

 

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Unrest – Imperial f.f.r.r.

 

Imperial is Unrest's full-length debut. It fleshes out the pop promise of their early singles, and expands on their pop and experimental background as well. "I Do Believe You Are Blushing," "Cherry Cream On," "Suki," "Isabel," and "June" are still some of the band's best songs, mixing high-energy guitars and subjects like girls and death to infectious effect. A near-perfect album of indie pop.

 

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So parrot are you a professional music critic or a musician or just a regular music lover?

 

Quite an admirable thread. Too bad no one's joined you yet.

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So parrot are you a professional music critic or a musician or just a regular music lover?

 

Quite an admirable thread. Too bad no one's joined you yet.

 

I'm a parrot that just loves discovering and listening to all kinds of music. :)

 

I suspect more people will vocalize their opinions as I get into the more recent years and I talk about records people are more familiar with.

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1993:

 

 

 

10. Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See

 

Thanks to the fluke hit "Fade Into You" -- one of the better beneficiaries of alt-rock's radio prominence in the early '90s, a gentle descent of a lead melody accompanied by piano, a steady beat, and above all else, Hope Sandoval's lovely lead vocal -- Mazzy Star's second album became something of a commercial success. All without changing much at all from where the band was before -- David Roback oversaw all the production, the core emphasis remained a nexus point between country, folk, psych, and classic rock all shrouded in mystery, and Sandoval's trademark drowsy drawl remained swathed in echo. But grand as She Hangs Brightly was, So Tonight That I Might See remains the group's undisputed high point, mixing in plenty of variety among its tracks without losing sight of what made the group so special to begin with. Though many songs work with full arrangements like "Fade Into You," a thick but never once overpowering combination, two heavily stripped-down songs demonstrate in different ways how Mazzy Star makes a virtue out of simplicity. "Mary of Silence" is an organ-led slow shuffle that easily ranks with the best of the Doors, strung-out and captivating all at once, Sandoval's singing and Roback's careful acid soloing perfect foils. "Wasted," meanwhile, revisits a classic blues riff slowed down to near-soporific levels, but the snarling crunch of Roback's guitar works wonders against Sandoval's vocals, a careful balance that holds. If there's a left-field standout, then unquestionably it's "Five String Serenade." A cover of an Arthur Lee song -- for once not a Love-era number, but a then-recent effort -- Roback's delicate acoustic guitar effortlessly brings out its simple beauty. Tambourine and violin add just enough to the arrangement here and there, and Sandoval's calm singing makes for the icing on the cake.

 

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9. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me

 

Dry was shockingly frank in its subject and sound, as PJ Harvey delivered post-feminist manifestos with a punkish force. PJ Harvey's second album, Rid of Me, finds the trio, and Harvey in particular, pushing themselves to extremes. This is partially due to producer Steve Albini, who gives the album a bloodless, abrasive edge with his exacting production; each dynamic is pushed to the limit, leaving absolutely no subtleties in the music. Harvey's songs, in decided contrast to Albini's approach, are filled with gray areas and uncertainties, and are considerably more personal than those on Dry. Furthermore, they are lyrically and melodically superior to the songs on the debut, but their merits are obscured by Albini's black-and-white production, which is polarizing. It may be the aural embodiment of the tortured lyrics, and therefore a supremely effective piece of performance art, but it also makes Rid of Me a difficult record to meet halfway. But anyone willing to accept its sonic extremities will find Rid of Me to be a record of unusual power and purpose, one with few peers in its unsettling emotional honesty.

 

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8. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen

 

The Afghan Whigs' sound was growing larger by the release during the days on Sub Pop, so the fact that Gentlemen turned out the way it did wasn't all that surprising as a result ("cinematic" was certainly the word the band was aiming for, what with credits describing the recording process as being "shot on location" at Ardent Studios). While Gentlemen is no monolith, it is very much of a piece at the start. While "If I Were Going" opens things on a slightly moodier tip, it's the crunch of "Gentlemen," "Be Sweet," and "Debonair" that really stands out, each of which features a tightly wound R&B punch that rocks out as much as it grooves, if not more so. Greg Dulli's lyrics immediately set about the task of emotional self-evisceration at the same time, with lines like "Ladies, let me tell you about myself -- I got a dick for a brain" being among the calmer points. The album truly comes into its own with "When We Two Parted," though, as sad countryish guitars chime over a slow crawling rhythm and Dulli's quiet-then-anguished detailing of an exploding relationship. From there on in, things surge from strength to greater strength, sometimes due to the subtlest of touches -- the string arrangement on "Fountain and Fairfax" or the unexpected, resigned lead vocal from Scrawl's Marcy Mays on "My Curse," for instance. Other times, it's all the much more upfront, as "What Jail Is Like," with its heartbroken-and-fierce combination of piano, feedback, and drive building to an explosive chorus. Dulli's blend of utter abnegation and masculine swagger may be a crutch, but when everything connects, as it does more often than not onGentlemen, both he and his band are unstoppable.

 

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7. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville

 

If Exile in Guyville is shockingly assured and fully formed for a debut album, there are a number of reasons why. Most prominent of these is that many of the songs were initially essayed on Liz Phair's homemade cassette Girlysound, which means that the songs are essentially the cream of the crop from an exceptionally talented songwriter. Second, there's its structure, infamously patterned after the Stones' Exile on Main St., but not the song-by-song response Phair promoted it as. (Just try to match the albums up: is the "blow-job queen" fantasy of "Flower" really the answer to the painful elegy "Let It Loose"?) Then, most notably, there's Phair and producer Brad Wood's deft studio skills, bringing a variety of textures and moods to a basic, lo-fi production. There is as much hard rock as there are eerie solo piano pieces, and there's everything in between from unadulterated power pop, winking art rock, folk songs, and classic indie rock. Then, there are Phair's songs themselves. At the time, her gleefully profane, clever lyrics received endless attention (there's nothing that rock critics love more than a girl who plays into their geek fantasies, even -- or maybe especially -- if she's mocking them), but years later, what still astounds is the depth of the writing, how her music matches her clear-eyed, vivid words, whether it's on the self-loathing "Fuck and Run," the evocative mood piece "Stratford-on-Guy," or the swaggering breakup anthem "6'1"," or how she nails the dissolution of a long-term relationship on "The Divorce Song." Each of these 18 songs maintains this high level of quality, showcasing a singer/songwriter of immense imagination, musically and lyrically. If she never equaled this record, well, few could.

 

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6. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders

 

Though the abstract rappers finally betrayed a few commercial ambitions for Midnight Marauders, the happy result was a smart, hooky record that may not have furthered the jazz-rap fusions of The Low End Theory, but did merge Tribe-style intelligence and reflection with some of the most inviting grooves heard on any early-'90s rap record. The productions, more funky than jazzy, were tighter overall -- but the big improvement, four years after their debut, came with Q-Tip's and Phife Dawg's raps. Focused yet funky, polished but raw, the duo was practically telepathic on "Steve Biko (Stir It Up)" and "The Chase, Pt. 2," though the mammoth track here was the pop hit "Award Tour." A worldwide call-out record with a killer riff and a great pair of individual raps from the pair, it assured that Midnight Marauders would become A Tribe Called Quest's biggest seller. The album didn't feature as many topical tracks as Tribe was known for, though the group did include an excellent, sympathetic commentary on the question of that word ("Sucka *****," with a key phrase: "being as we use it as a term of endearment"). Most of the time, A Tribe Called Quest was indulging in impeccably produced, next-generation games of the dozens ("We Can Get Down," "Oh My God," "Lyrics to Go"), but also took the time to illustrate sensitivity and spirituality ("God Lives Through"). A Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders was commercially successful, artistically adept, and lyrically inventive; the album cemented their status as alternative rap's prime sound merchants, authors of the most original style since the Bomb Squad first exploded on wax.

 

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5. Stereolab - Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements

 

Though it was the group's major-label debut, Stereolab's Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements showed no signs of selling out. If anything, it's one of the most eclectic and experimental releases in Stereolab's early career, emphasizing the group's elongated Krautrock jams, instrumentals, and harsh, noisy moments. The album begins and ends with smooth, sensual washes of sound like "Tone Burst" and "Lock-Groove Lullaby" and smoothly bouncy pop songs like "I'm Going Out of My Way." These softer, more accessible moments surround complex and varied compositions such as "Analogue Rock," "Our Trinitone Blast," and "Golden Ball," which, with its distorted vocals and shifting tempos, serves as an appetizer for "Jenny Ondioline." A hypnotic, 18-minute epic encompassing dreamy yet driving pop, a Krautrock groove, forceful, churning guitars, and a furious climax, it's the most ambitious -- and definitive -- moment of Stereolab's early years. But Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements also features quietly experimental pieces such as "Pause," a slightly spooky song that uses distorted whispers as a rhythm track and places fluttery keyboards and Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's sweet, slightly alien harmonies atop it. Likewise, the very sexy, very French "Pack Yr Romantic Mind" reveals the growing influence of '50s and '60s easy listening on the group's musical direction. If Switched On and Peng! defined the band's essential sound, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements expanded it, reaffirming Stereolab's place as one of the most innovative and evolving groups of the '90s.

 

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4. Yo La Tengo – Painful

 

Yo La Tengo has released several fine albums before, but only Painful encapsulates their folky guitar experimentalism perfectly. Alternating between dreamy Velvet Underground-style ballads and raving, Sonic Youth guitar squalls, Painful also finds the group improving their songwriting skills immeasurably. Before, they relied on soundscapes; now, the sound fleshes out their songs, from the trance-like "Nowhere Near" to the dense "From a Motel 6" and the two versions of "Big Day Coming," which cover both ends of the spectrum. A subtly addicting album.

 

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3. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

 

While Gish had placed the Smashing Pumpkins on the "most promising artist" list for many, troubles were threatening to break the band apart. Singer/guitarist/leader Billy Corgan was battling a severe case of writer's block and was in a deep state of depression brought on by a relationship in turmoil; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was addicted to hard drugs; and bassist D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha severed their romantic relationship. The sessions for their sophomore effort, Siamese Dream, were wrought with friction -- Corgan eventually played almost all the instruments himself (except for percussion). Some say strife and tension produces the best music, and it certainly helped make Siamese Dream one of the finest alt-rock albums of all time. Instead of following Nirvana's punk rock route, Siamese Dream went in the opposite direction -- guitar solos galore, layered walls of sound courtesy of the album's producers (Butch Vig and Corgan), extended compositions that bordered on prog rock, plus often reflective and heartfelt lyrics. The four tracks that were selected as singles became alternative radio standards -- the anthems "Cherub Rock," "Today," and "Rocket," plus the symphonic ballad "Disarm" -- but as a whole, Siamese Dream proved to be an incredibly consistent album. Such compositions as the red-hot rockers "Quiet" and "Geek U.S.A." were standouts, as were the epics "Hummer," "Soma," and "Silverfuck," plus the soothing sounds of "Mayonaise," "Spaceboy," and "Luna."

 

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2. Slowdive – Souvlaki

 

Though not as big and swirling as Just for a Day, there's more of an attempt to put advanced song structure and melody in place rather than just craft infinitely appealing, occasionally thunderous mood music. Everything is simplified, as if Brian Eno's presence on two songs -- he contributes keyboards and treatments and co-wrote one tune after turning down the band's invitation to produce -- hammered home the better aspects of "ambient" music. This is no Music for Airports though. On the opening "Alison," the largely uplifting "When the Sun Hits," and the darkly blissful "Machine Gun," Slowdive are still capable of mouth-opening, spine-tingling flourishes. They've found a way to be quiet, moving, and aggressive simultaneously, mixing trance-like beauty with the deepest delayed guitar sounds around, a sound at once relaxing, soothing, and exciting, and most of all harshly beautiful.

 

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1. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers)

 

Along with Dr. Dre's The Chronic, the Wu-Tang Clan's debut, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), was one of the most influential rap albums of the '90s. Its spare yet atmospheric production -- courtesy of RZA -- mapped out the sonic blueprint that countless other hardcore rappers would follow for years to come. It laid the groundwork for the rebirth of New York hip-hop in the hardcore age, paving the way for everybody from Biggie and Jay-Z to Nas and Mobb Deep. Moreover, it introduced a colorful cast of hugely talented MCs, some of whom ranked among the best and most unique individual rappers of the decade. Some were outsized, theatrical personalities, others were cerebral storytellers and lyrical technicians, but each had his own distinctive style, which made for an album of tremendous variety and consistency. Every track on Enter the Wu-Tang is packed with fresh, inventive rhymes, which are filled with martial arts metaphors, pop culture references (everything from Voltron to Lucky Charms cereal commercials to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were"), bizarre threats of violence, and a truly twisted sense of humor. Their off-kilter menace is really brought to life, however, by the eerie, lo-fi production, which helped bring the raw sound of the underground into mainstream hip-hop. Starting with a foundation of hard, gritty beats and dialogue samples from kung fu movies, RZA kept things minimalistic, but added just enough minor-key piano, strings, or muted horns to create a background ambience that works like the soundtrack to a surreal nightmare. There was nothing like it in the hip-hop world at the time, and even after years of imitation, Enter the Wu-Tang still sounds fresh and original. Subsequent group and solo projects would refine and deepen this template, but collectively, the Wu have never been quite this tight again.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Archers of Loaf - Icky Mettle

 

Raw, swirling, and remarkably brash, Archers of Loaf’s debut, Icky Mettle, helped to establish the North Carolina band as a force to be reckoned with in the pantheon of '90s indie rock. With their layered, guitar-heavy approach and driving energy, the album feels like an artifact from an alternate time line where the Pixies decided to get more and more aggressive after Surfer Rosa. Though the band doesn’t completely eschew the idea of harmony, they certainly take a more smash and grab approach to it, paving the road to sonic bliss with destroyed amps and shredded vocal chords. What makes this sound so compelling is the way it explores the full spectrum of guitar-centric rock, pulling together the blunt and abrasive with the thoughtful in the musical equivalent of a shotgun wedding with the bride and groom doing everything in their power to hold it together while the family is watching in uneasy silence. This tension is held up throughout the entire album as both sides of Archers of Loaf’s dual nature fight for supremacy in a battle that would leave a permanent mark on the indie rock landscape.

 

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Orbital – Orbital

 

Opening with a looped Star Trek sample, Orbital's second album progresses through eight tracks of warm, unrepetitive techno in what sounds more like a DJ mix album than an LP, with no bows to mainstream sensibilities. Here, the duo's acknowledged inspiration from Kraftwerk, present before but always in the background, came to the fore. The brilliant manner in which the Hartnolls weave several synth lines, samples, sung vocals, and percussion -- mathematically precise but still beautifully orchestrated -- updated Kraftwerk's mastery of minimalist electronic music. One of the highlights of the '90s techno movement, the "brown" album is still Orbital's most exciting work.

 

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Nirvana - In Utero

 

Nirvana probably hired Steve Albini to produce In Utero with the hopes of creating their own Surfer Rosa, or at least shoring up their indie cred after becoming a pop phenomenon with a glossy punk record. In Utero, of course, turned out to be their last record, and it's hard not to hear it as Kurt Cobain's suicide note, since Albini's stark, uncompromising sound provides the perfect setting for Cobain's bleak, even nihilistic, lyrics. Even if the album wasn't a literal suicide note, it was certainly a conscious attempt to shed their audience -- an attempt that worked, by the way, since the record had lost its momentum when Cobain died in the spring of 1994. Even though the band tempered some of Albini's extreme tactics in a remix, the record remains a deliberately alienating experience, front-loaded with many of its strongest songs, then descending into a series of brief, dissonant squalls before concluding with "All Apologies," which only gets sadder with each passing year. Throughout it all, Cobain's songwriting is typically haunting, and its best moments rank among his finest work, but the over-amped dynamicism of the recording seems like a way to camouflage his dispiritedness -- as does the fact that he consigned such great songs as "Verse Chorus Verse" and "I Hate Myself and Want to Die" to compilations, when they would have fit, even illuminated the themes of In Utero. Even without those songs, In Utero remains a shattering listen, whether it's viewed as Cobain's farewell letter or self-styled audience alienation. Few other records are as willfully difficult as this.

 

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Snoop Dogg - Doggystyle

 

 

If Snoop Dogg's debut, Doggystyle, doesn't seem like a debut, it's because in many ways it's not. Snoop had already debuted as a featured rapper on Dr. Dre's 1992 album, The Chronic, rapping on half of the 16 tracks, including all the hit singles, so it wasn't like he was an unknown force when Doggystyle was released in late 1993. If anything, he was the biggest star in hip-hop, with legions of fans anxiously awaiting new material, and they were the ones who snapped up the album, making it the first debut album to enter the Billboard charts at number one. It wasn't like they were buying an unknown quantity. They knew that the album would essentially be the de facto sequel to The Chronic, providing another round of P-Funk-inspired grooves and languid gangsta and ganja tales, just like Dre's album. Which is exactly what Doggystyle is -- a continuation of The Chronic, with the same production, same aesthetic and themes, and same reliance on guest rappers. The miracle is, it's as good as that record. There are two keys to its success, one belonging to Dre, the other to Snoop. Dre realized that it wasn't time to push the limits of G-funk, and instead decided to deepen it musically, creating easy-rolling productions that have more layers than they appear. They're laid-back funky, continuing to resonate after many listens, but their greatest strength is that they never overshadow the laconic drawl of Snoop, who confirms that he's one of hip-hop's greatest vocal stylists with this record. Other gangsta rappers were all about aggression and anger -- even Dre, as a rapper, is as blunt as a thug -- but Snoop takes his time, playing with the flow of his words, giving his rhymes a nearly melodic eloquence. Compare his delivery to many guest rappers here: Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Dat ***** Daz are all good rappers, but they're good in a conventional sense, where Snoop is something special, with unpredictable turns of phrase, evocative imagery, and a distinctive, addictive flow. If Doggystyle doesn't surprise or offer anything that wasn't already on The Chronic, it nevertheless is the best showcase for Snoop's prodigious talents, not just because he's given the room to run wild, but because he knows what to do with that freedom and Dre presents it all with imagination and a narrative thrust. If it doesn't have the shock of the new, the way that The Chronic did, so be it: Over the years, the pervasive influence of that record and its countless ripoffs has dulled its innovations, so it doesn't have the shock of the new either. Now, Doggystyle and The Chronic stand proudly together as the twin pinnacles of West Coast G-funk hip-hop of the early '90s.

 

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The Verve – A Storm in Heaven

 

Whereas future Verve masterpieces A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns would feature succinct song structures (for the most part) and instantly memorable verses and choruses, the group's 1993 full-length debut, A Storm in Heaven, was based on buoyant, extended psychedelic passages. Looking back today, it was an interesting and original musical direction, since at the time, angst-ridden Seattle bands (and their many copycats) were all the rage. While a few songs hint at the Verve's future penchant for composing pop gems ("Make It Till Monday," "Blue," "Butterfly"), many of the longer tracks are just as strong, especially the album's best track, the hauntingly beautiful "Already There." Also featured was the album-opening space rocker "Star Sail," the shifting moods of "Slide Away," the misty "Beautiful Mind," and the stark closer, "See You in the Next One (Have a Good Time)." A fine debut, A Storm in Heaven proved to be the important connection between the Verve's expansive early work (1992's self-titled EP) and their later worldwide pop hits.

 

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I'm a parrot

 

And that's why Pet Sounds is your favorite album. It all makes sense now. :surprised:

 

But seriously, this thread made me listen to more albums I've never heard before, both the ones you mentioned and some you haven't and it directly got me into Pet Sounds, Bitches Brew, Exile On Main St, Remain In Light, Licenced To Ill... so far. All of which I wanted to check out earlier but didn't, for whatever reason.

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Too bad no one's joined you yet.
Not for the want of trying; we've been tweeting every single year as they've been created. OP has done a great job here :)

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Not for the want of trying; we've been tweeting every single year as they've been created. OP has done a great job here :)

 

Ooh I didn't know that, that's great. :nod:

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For 1993 I would definitely have to include U2 - Zooropa and Blur - Modern Life Is Rubbish.

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Not for the want of trying; we've been tweeting every single year as they've been created. OP has done a great job here :)

 

Someone give the Parrot a cookie! :lol:

 

Anyway, yes, Siamese Dream deserves to be on my list of '93! Love that album. :dazzled:

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So parrot are you a professional music critic or a musician or just a regular music lover?

 

Quite an admirable thread. Too bad no one's joined you yet.

 

I'll be posting my alternate version at the end. The best of the rest, if you will.

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But seriously, this thread made me listen to more albums I've never heard before, both the ones you mentioned and some you haven't and it directly got me into Pet Sounds, Bitches Brew, Exile On Main St, Remain In Light, Licenced To Ill... so far. All of which I wanted to check out earlier but didn't, for whatever reason.

 

Great! I know it can seem like I'm trying to stroke my own ego but my only intention when I created this thread was to generate discussion and help people discover great albums.

 

Btw how do you feel about Pet Sounds? It's only the greatest album in the world, no?

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It's gorgeous. I was obsessed with it for a couple of days, couldn't stop singing Wouldn't It Be Nice.

I also watched the documentary you posted.

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