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Top 10 Albums of Every Year Since 1960

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1994:

 

 

 

10. Suede – Dog Man Star

 

Instead of following through on the Bowie-esque glam stomps of their debut, Suede concentrated on their darker, more melodramatic tendencies on their ambitious second album, Dog Man Star. By all accounts, the recording of Dog Man Star was plagued with difficulties -- Brett Anderson wrote the lyrics in a druggy haze while sequestered in a secluded Victorian mansion, while Bernard Butler left before the album was completed -- which makes its singular vision all the more remarkable. Lacking any rocker on the level of "The Drowners" or "Metal Mickey" -- only the crunching "This Hollywood Life" comes close -- Dog Man Star is a self-indulgent and pretentious album of dark, string-drenched epics. But Suede are one of the few bands who wear pretensions well, and after a few listens, the album becomes thoroughly compelling. Nearly every song on the record is hazy, feverish, and heartbroken, and even the rockers have an insular, paranoid tenor that heightens the album's melancholy. The whole record would have collapsed underneath its own intentions if Butler's compositional skills weren't so subtly nuanced and if Anderson's grandiose poetry wasn't so strangely affecting. As it stands, Dog Man Star is a strangely seductive record, filled with remarkable musical peaks, from the Bowie-esque stomp of "New Generation" to the stately ballads "The Wild Ones" and "Still Life," which are both reminiscent of Scott Walker. And while Suede may choose to wear their influences on their sleeve, they synthesize them in a totally original way, making Dog Man Star a singularly tragic and romantic album.

 

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9. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II

 

Selected Ambient Works, Vol. 2 is a more difficult and challenging album than Aphex Twin's previous collection. The music is all texture; there are only the faintest traces of beats and forward movement. Instead, all of these untitled tracks are long, unsettling electronic soundscapes, alternately quiet and confrontational; although most of the music is rather subdued, it is never easy listening.

 

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8. Built to Spill – There’s Nothing Wrong With Love

 

Wistful: it seems an odd word to describe anything penned by Boise’s scruffiest guitar hero. But Doug Martsch’s band Built to Spill show a charmingly childlike side on 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, their last independent-label release. With simple, straightforward lyrics that trace a Brontosaurus constellation in the sky (“Big Dipper”); recall gym class parachutes and games of 7-Up (“Twin Falls”); and explore the inner life of a baby in the womb (“Cleo”), Martsch seems to be looking not forward, but back. The effect may be nostalgic, but it’s anything but sweet. As in childhood, emotions run raw and close to the surface: “Christmas, Twin Falls Idaho’s/ Her oldest memory/ She was only two/ It’s the first time she felt blue.” Musically, Love is less noise-driven than what was to come, with shorter songs and melodies hooky enough to hum in the shower. But the mature band’s splintered song structures and quirky chord progressions are already evident; tunes start and stop suddenly, time signatures change without warning, and string arrangements shimmer in unlikely places. Still, it might be easy enough to write this off as Pavement-esque indie pop were it not for Martsch’s effects-laden guitar. By turns soaring and spacious, jagged and gnarled, it paints soundscapes as lovely—and as bleak—as the Idaho sky.

 

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7. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Let Love In

 

Keeping the same line-up from Henry's Dream, Nick Cave and company turn in yet another winner with Let Love In. Compared to Henry's Dream, Let Love In is something of a more produced effort -- longtime Cave boardsman Tony Cohen oversees things, and from the first track, one can hear the subtle arrangements and carefully constructed performances. Love, unsurprisingly, takes center stage of the album. Besides concluding with a second part to "Do You Love Me?," two of its stronger cuts are the (almost) title track "I Let Love In," and "Loverman," an even creepier depiction of lust's throttling power so gripping that Metallica ended up covering it. On the full-on explosive front, "Jangling Jack" sounds like it wants to do nothing but destroy sound systems, strange noises and overmodulations ripping throughout the song. The Seeds can always turn in almost deceptively peaceful performances as well, of course -- standouts here are "Nobody's Baby Now," with a particularly lovely guitar/piano line, and the brooding drama of "Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore." The highlight of the album, though, has little to do with love and everything to do with the group's abilities at music noir. "Red Right Hand" depicts a nightmarish figure emerging on "the edge of town," maybe a criminal and maybe something more demonic. Cave's vicious lyric combines fear and black humor perfectly, while the Seeds' performance redefines "cinematic," a disturbing organ figure leading the subtle but crisp arrangement and Harvey's addition of a sharp bell ratcheting up the feeling of doom and judgment.

 

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6. The Notorious B.I.G. – Ready to Die

 

The album that reinvented East Coast rap for the gangsta age, Ready to Die made the Notorious B.I.G. a star, and vaulted Sean "Puffy" Combs' Bad Boy label into the spotlight as well. Today it's recognized as one of the greatest hardcore rap albums ever recorded, and that's mostly due to Biggie's skill as a storyteller. His raps are easy to understand, but his skills are hardly lacking -- he has a loose, easy flow and a talent for piling multiple rhymes on top of one another in quick succession. He's blessed with a flair for the dramatic, and slips in and out of different contradictory characters with ease. Yet, no matter how much he heightens things for effect, it's always easy to see elements of Biggie in his narrators and of his own experience in the details; everything is firmly rooted in reality, but plays like scenes from a movie. A sense of doom pervades his most involved stories: fierce bandits ("Gimme the Loot"), a hustler's beloved girlfriend ("Me & My Bitch"), and robbers out for Biggie's newfound riches ("Warning") all die in hails of gunfire. The album is also sprinkled with reflections on the soul-draining bleakness of the streets -- "Things Done Changed," "Ready to Die," and "Everyday Struggle" are powerfully affecting in their confusion and despair. Not everything is so dark, though; Combs' production collaborations result in some upbeat, commercial moments, and typically cop from recognizable hits: the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" on the graphic sex rap "One More Chance," Mtume's "Juicy Fruit" on the rags-to-riches chronicle "Juicy," and the Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets" on the overweight-lover anthem "Big Poppa." Producer Easy Mo Bee's deliberate beats do get a little samey, but it hardly matters: this is Biggie's show, and by the time "Suicidal Thoughts" closes the album on a heartbreaking note, it's clear why he was so revered even prior to his death.

 

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5. Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand

 

The cult of indie rock thrives on the unexpected discovery, and in 1994 Guided by Voices was just the sort of musical phenomenon no one figured was still out there -- 30-something rock obsessives cranking out fractured guitar-driven pop tunes in a laundry room. Robert Pollard and his stable of beer buddies/backing musicians had been churning out stuff like Bee Thousand for years, but the album's surprise critical success marked the first time the group found a significant audience outside their hometown, and it made a clear case for Guided by Voices' virtues -- as well as their flaws. From the moment "Hardcore UFOs" kicks in, it's obvious that Pollard has an uncanny gift for a hook and a melody, and Bee Thousand's 20 cuts are dotted with miniature masterpieces like "Echos Myron," "Smothered in Hugs," and "Queen of Cans and Jars." However, there are also more than a few duds that threaten to cancel out the goodwill the great songs generate, and Pollard is an acquired taste as a lyricist -- his freakishly poetic verse has a real charm, but it's hard to figure out what he's on about. (GBV's other principal songwriter, Tobin Sprout, contributes less often, but manages a higher batting average.) The lo-tech rumble of the album's D.I.Y. production also wavers between being a help and a hindrance, depending on the songs, and as musicians Guided by Voices veer between sounding like inspired amateurs and, well, just amateurs. On Bee Thousand, Guided by Voices sounds like a passionate and gloriously quirky garage band fronted by a thrillingly and maddeningly idiosyncratic songwriter; its many pearly moments make it a fascinating discovery for rock enthusiasts, but a few years would pass before this band was fully earning the new accolades showered upon it.

 

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4. Jeff Buckley – Grace

 

Jeff Buckley was many things, but humble wasn't one of them. Grace is an audacious debut album, filled with sweeping choruses, bombastic arrangements, searching lyrics, and above all, the richly textured voice of Buckley himself, which resembled a cross between Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and his father Tim. And that's a fair starting point for his music: Grace sounds like a Led Zeppelin album written by an ambitious folkie with a fondness for lounge jazz. At his best -- the soaring title track, "Last Goodbye," and the mournful "Lover, You Should've Come Over" -- Buckley's grasp met his reach with startling results; at its worst, Grace is merely promising.

 

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3. Portishead – Dummy

 

Portishead's album debut is a brilliant, surprisingly natural synthesis of claustrophobic spy soundtracks, dark breakbeats inspired by frontman Geoff Barrow's love of hip-hop, and a vocalist (Beth Gibbons) in the classic confessional singer/songwriter mold. Beginning with the otherworldly theremin and martial beats of "Mysterons," Dummy hits an early high with "Sour Times," a post-modern torch song driven by a Lalo Schifrin sample. The chilling atmospheres conjured by Adrian Utley's excellent guitar work and Barrow's turntables and keyboards prove the perfect foil for Gibbons, who balances sultriness and melancholia in equal measure. Occasionally reminiscent of a torchier version of Sade, Gibbons provides a clear focus for these songs, with Barrow and company behind her laying down one of the best full-length productions ever heard in the dance world. Where previous acts like Massive Attack had attracted dance heads in the main, Portishead crossed over to an American, alternative audience, connecting with the legion of angst-ridden indie fans as well. Better than any album before it, Dummy merged the pinpoint-precise productions of the dance world with pop hallmarks like great songwriting and excellent vocal performances.

 

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2. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

 

It may be a bit reductive to call Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain the Reckoning to Slanted & Enchanted's Murmur -- not to mention easy, considering that Pavement recorded a song-long tribute to R.E.M.'s second album during the Crooked Rain sessions -- but there's a certain truth in that statement all the same. Slanted & Enchanted is an enigmatic masterpiece, retaining its mystique after countless spins, but Crooked Rain strips away the hiss and fog of S&E, removing some of Pavement's mystery yet retaining their fractured sound and spirit. It's filled with loose ends and ragged transitions, but compared to the fuzzy, dense Slanted, Crooked Rain is direct and immediately engaging -- it puts the band's casual melodicism, sprawling squalls of feedback, disheveled country-rock, and Stephen Malkmus' deft wordplay in sharp relief. It's the sound of a band discovering its own voice as a band, which is only appropriate because up until Crooked Rain, Pavement was more of a recording project between Malkmus and Scott Kannberg than a full-fledged rock & roll group. During the supporting tour for Slanted, Malkmus and Kannberg recruited bassist Mark Ibold and percussionist Bob Nastanovich, and original drummer Gary Young was replaced by Steve West early into the recording for this album, and the new blood gives the band a different feel, even if the aesthetic hasn't changed much. The full band gives the music a richer, warmer vibe that's as apparent on the rampaging, noise-ravaged "Unfair" as it is on the breezy, sun-kissed country-rock of "Range Life" or its weary, late-night counterpart, "Heaven Is a Truck." Pavement may still be messy, but it's a meaningful, musical messiness from the performance to the production: listen to how "Silence Kit" begins by falling into place with its layers of fuzz guitars, wah wahs, cowbells, thumping bass, and drum fills, how what initially seems random gives way into a lush Californian pop song. That's Crooked Rain a nutshell -- what initially seems chaotic has purpose, leading listeners into the bittersweet heart and impish humor at the core of the album. Many bands attempted to replicate the sound or the vibe of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but they never came close to the quicksilver shifts in music and emotion that give this album such lasting appeal. Here, Pavement follow the heartbroken ballad "Stop Breathin'" with the wry, hooky alt-rock hit "Cut Your Hair" without missing a beat. They throw out a jazzy Dave Brubeck tribute in "5-4=Unity" as easily as they mimic the Fall and mock the Happy Mondays on "Hit the Plane Down." By drawing on so many different influences, Pavement discovered its own distinctive voice as a band on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, creating a vibrant, dynamic, emotionally resonant album that stands as a touchstone of underground rock in the '90s and one of the great albums of its decade.

 

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1. Nas – Illmatic

 

Often cited as one of the best hip-hop albums of the '90s, Illmatic is the undisputed classic upon which Nas' reputation rests. It helped spearhead the artistic renaissance of New York hip-hop in the post-Chronic era, leading a return to street aesthetics. Yet even if Illmatic marks the beginning of a shift away from Native Tongues-inspired alternative rap, it's strongly rooted in that sensibility. For one, Nas employs some of the most sophisticated jazz-rap producers around: Q-Tip, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, and Large Professor, who underpin their intricate loops with appropriately tough beats. But more importantly, Nas takes his place as one of hip-hop's greatest street poets -- his rhymes are highly literate, his raps superbly fluid regardless of the size of his vocabulary. He's able to evoke the bleak reality of ghetto life without losing hope or forgetting the good times, which become all the more precious when any day could be your last. As a narrator, he doesn't get too caught up in the darker side of life -- he's simply describing what he sees in the world around him, and trying to live it up while he can. He's thoughtful but ambitious, announcing on "N.Y. State of Mind" that "I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death," and that he's "out for dead presidents to represent me" on "The World Is Yours." Elsewhere, he flexes his storytelling muscles on the classic cuts "Life's a Bitch" and "One Love," the latter a detailed report to a close friend in prison about how allegiances within their group have shifted. Hip-hop fans accustomed to 73-minute opuses sometimes complain about Illmatic's brevity, but even if it leaves you wanting more, it's also one of the few '90s rap albums with absolutely no wasted space. Illmatic is a great lyricist, in top form, meeting great production, and it remains a perennial favorite among serious hip-hop fans.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Global Communication – 76:14

 

Tempering the industrial tilt of their previous Reload material with slower, more graceful rhythms and an ear for melody unmatched by any in the downtempo crowd, Mark Pritchard and Tom Middleton produced the single best work in the ambient house canon. The tick-tock beats and tidal flair of "14:31" are proof of the duo's superb balance of beauty with a haunting quality more in line with Vangelis than Larry Heard (though both producers were heavy influences on the album). On several tracks the darkside appears to take over -- the pinging ambience of "9:39" -- but for most of 76:14 the melodies and slow-moving rhythms chart a course toward the upbeat and positive.

 

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Mark Lanegan – Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

 

Mark Lanegan's first solo album, 1990's The Winding Sheet, was a darker, quieter, and more emotionally troubling affair than what fans were accustomed to from his work as lead singer with the Screaming Trees. The follow-up album, 1994 's Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, used The Winding Sheet's sound and style as a starting point, with Lanegan and producer/instrumentalist Mike Johnson constructing resonant but low-key instrumental backdrops for the singer's tales of heartbreak, alcohol, and dashed hopes. While The Winding Sheet often sounded inspired but tentative, like the solo project from a member of an established band, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost speaks with a quiet but steely confidence of an artist emerging with his own distinct vision. The songs are more literate and better realized than on the debut, the arrangements are subtle and supportive (often eschewing electric guitars for keyboards and acoustic instruments), and Lanegan's voice, bathed in bourbon and nicotine, transforms the deep sorrow of the country blues (a clear inspiration for this music) into something new, compelling, and entirely his own. Whiskey for the Holy Ghost made it clear that Mark Lanegan had truly arrived as a solo artist, and it ranks alongside American Music Club's Everclear as one of the best "dark night of the soul" albums of the 1990s.

 

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Oasis - Definitely Maybe

 

Definitely Maybe begins with a statement of aspiration, as Liam Gallagher sneers that "tonight, I'm a rock & roll star" -- the words of a bedsit dreamer hoping he'd break out of those four walls and find something greater. Maybe all he could muster is a fleeting moment of stardom as he sings in front of a fleet of amps pushing out power chords, or perhaps he'd really become a rock & roll star; all that matters is he makes the leap. This dream echoes throughout Oasis' debut, a record which takes the dreams of its listeners every bit as seriously as those of its creators. Both the artist and audience desire something greater than their surroundings, and that yearning gives Definitely Maybe a restlessness that resonates. Certainly, Oasis aren't looking to redefine rock & roll here; they'd rather inhabit it. They scour through the remnants of the past three decades to come up with a quintessentially British rock & roll record, one that swaggers with the defiance of the Rolling Stones, roars with the sneer of the Sex Pistols, thieves from the past like the Happy Mondays, and ties it all together with a melodicism as natural as Paul McCartney, even if Definitely Maybe never quite sounds like the Beatles. All the Fab Four comparisons trumpeted by the brothers Gallagher were a feint, a way to get their group considered as part of the major leagues. Soon enough, these affirmations became a self-fulfilling prophecy -- act the way you'd like to be and soon you'll be the way you act, as it were -- but that bravado hardly diminishes the accomplishment of Definitely Maybe. It is a furious, inspiring record, a rallying cry for the downtrodden to rise above and seize their day but, most of all, it's a blast of potent, incendiary rock & roll. Soon after its release, Noel Gallagher would be hailed as the finest songwriter of his generation, an odd designation for a guy drawn to moon/June rhymes, but his brilliance lies in his bold strokes. He never shied away from the obvious, and his confidence in his reappropriation of cliches lends these bromides a new power, as do his strong, sinewy melodies -- so powerful, it doesn't matter if they were snatched from elsewhere (as they were on "Shakermaker" or the B-side "Fade Away"). The other secret is of course Noel's brother, Liam, the greatest rock & roll vocalist of his generation, a force of nature who never seems to consider either the past or the present but rather exists in an ever-present now. He sometimes sighs but usually sneers, shaking off any doubt and acting like the rock & roll star Noel so wanted to be. This tension would soon rip the group apart but here on Oasis' debut, this chemistry is an addictive energy, so Definitely Maybe winds up a rare thing: it has the foundation of a classic album wrapped in the energy of a band who can't conceive a future beyond the sunset.

 

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Underworld -Dubnobasswithmyheadman

 

 

From the beginning of the first track "Dark & Long," Underworld's focus on production is clear, with songwriting coming in a distant second. The best tracks ("MMM Skyscraper I Love You," "Cowgirl") mesh Hyde's sultry songwriting with Emerson's beat-driven production, an innovative blend of classic acid house, techno and dub that sounds different from much that preceded it. In a decade awash with stale fusion, Underworld are truly a multi-genre group.

 

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Vangelis – Blade Runner [Original Soundtrack]

 

Arriving 12 years after the release of the film, Vangelis' soundtrack to the 1982 futuristic noir detective thriller Blade Runner is as bleak and electronically chilling as the film itself. By subtly interspersing clips of dialogue and sounds from the film, Vangelis creates haunting soundscapes with whispered subtexts and sweeping revelations, drawing inspiration from Middle Eastern textures and evoking neo-classical structures. Often cold and forlorn, the listener can almost hear the indifferent winds blowing through the neon and metal cityscapes of Los Angeles in 2019. The sultry, saxophone-driven "Love Theme" has since gone on as one of the composer's most recognized pieces and stands alone as one of the few warm refuges on an otherwise darkly cold (but beautiful) score.

 

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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.
This is for sure happening :D

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1995:

 

 

 

10. Slowdive – Pygmalion

 

Pygmalion is the most abstract of Slowdive's albums; after moving from the sugary pop of Just for a Day to the more mature and more experimental Souvlaki, the band began to incorporate even more elements of ambient electronica -- drum loops, samples, and songs even less tangible than on previous releases. There seem to be two prevailing opinions of the album, among Slowdive fans: either (a) it's disappointingly "out there," since it doesn't work with the conventional pop underlying the sounds of Souvlaki, or (b) it's absolutely brilliant, taking their sound into the realms it was always destined to go. The second opinion seems a little more reasonable; tracks like "Blue Skied an' Clear" and "Crazy for You" demonstrate that the songs are still in there, somewhere -- they're just buried under more abstract sounds than before. The album is not for those seeking a direct and solid song under the surface -- but for anyone who appreciates the indirect and intangible, it's a stylistic masterpiece.

 

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9. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx

 

A serious contender for the title of best Wu-Tang solo album (rivaled only by the Genius' Liquid Swords), Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is also perhaps the most influential, thanks to Raekwon's cinematic imagination. If the Genius is the Wu's best overall lyricist, Raekwon is arguably their best storyteller, and here he translates the epic themes and narratives of a Mafia movie into a startlingly accomplished hip-hop album. Raekwon wasn't the first to make the connection between gangsta rap and the Cosa Nostra (Kool G Rap pioneered that idea), but he was the one who popularized the trend. Cuban Linx's portraits of big-money drug deals and black underworld kingpins living in luxury had an enormous influence on the new New York hardcore scene, especially Mobb Deep and Nas, the latter of whom appears here on the much-revered duet "Verbal Intercourse." The fellow Clan members who show up as guests are recast under gangster aliases, and Ghostface Killah makes himself an indispensable foil, appearing on the vast majority of the tracks and enjoying his first truly extensive exposure on record. Behind them, RZA contributes some of the strongest production work of his career, indulging his taste for cinematic soundscapes in support of the album's tone; his tracks are appropriately dark or melancholy, shifting moods like different scenes in a film. Cuban Linx's first-person narratives are filled with paranoia, ambition, excess, and betrayal, fast rises and faster falls. There are plenty of highlights along the way -- the singles "Criminology" and "Ice Cream," the gentle "Rainy Dayz," the influential posse cut "Wu-Gambinos" -- and everything culminates in "Heaven & Hell" and its longing for redemption. Like the Genius' Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx takes a few listens to reveal the full scope of its lyrical complexities, but it's immensely rewarding in the end, and it stands as a landmark in the new breed of gangsta rap.

 

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8. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love

 

Following the tour for Rid of Me, Polly Harvey parted ways with Robert Ellis and Stephen Vaughn, leaving her free to expand her music from the bluesy punk that dominated PJ Harvey's first two albums. It also left her free to experiment with her style of songwriting. Where Dry and Rid of Me seemed brutally honest, To Bring You My Love feels theatrical, with each song representing a grand gesture. Relying heavily on religious metaphors and imagery borrowed from the blues, Harvey has written a set of songs that are lyrically reminiscent of Nick Cave's and Tom Waits' literary excursions into the gothic American heartland. Since she was a product of post-punk, she's nowhere near as literally bluesy as Cave or Waits, preferring to embellish her songs with shards of avant guitar, eerie keyboards, and a dense, detailed production. It's a far cry from the primitive guitars of her first two albums, but Harvey pulls it off with style, since her songwriting is tighter and more melodic than before; the menacing "Down by the Water" has genuine hooks, as does the psycho stomp of "Meet Ze Monsta," the wailing "Long Snake Moan," and the stately "C'Mon Billy." The clear production by Harvey, Flood, and John Parish makes these growths evident, which in turn makes To Bring You My Love her most accessible album, even if the album lacks the indelible force of its predecessors.

 

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7. Guided By Voices – Alien Lanes

 

It's surprising what a difference it makes when a musician knows someone will actually be hearing his work. After 1994's charmingly sloppy Bee Thousand gained Guided By Voices a nationwide cult following (instead of the local cult following they were accustomed to), 1995's Alien Lanes found Robert Pollard and his partners in hard pop cleaning up their act a bit. For the most part, Alien Lanes isn't radically different from Bee Thousand -- it was primarily recorded on a four-track cassette machine (and sounds like it), and Guided By Voices was still a garage band with more in the way of inspiration than chops. But the musicians have put a bit more care and focus into their performance on this set; the playing is tighter and sharper, and the band plays toward their strengths, pushing their occasional sloppiness into a harder, more rock-oriented direction. And if Pollard and Tobin Sprout were still obsessed with tiny fragments of pop song wonderment, they also rounded up a more consistent collection of them; there aren't quite as many obvious masterpieces as on Bee Thousand, but also fewer obvious mistakes, and the sequencing gives the album a more consistent flow than before. Pollard also made genuine inroads into more lyrically cognizant material (though don't fret, "Auditorium" and "Blimps Go 90" are as cryptic as ever), and "Watch Me Jumpstart," "Striped White Jets," and "Motor Away" are simply superb pop/rock songs. (Sprout also gets a few shining moments on "A Good Flying Bird" and "Straw Dogs.") Both Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes sound like they were made by a band of inspired amateurs with great ideas; the difference is that Alien Lanes suggests that Guided By Voices wanted to prove that they could turn pro some day.

 

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6. Radiohead – The Bends

 

Pablo Honey in no way was adequate preparation for its epic, sprawling follow-up, The Bends. Building from the sweeping, three-guitar attack that punctuated the best moments of Pablo Honey, Radiohead create a grand and forceful sound that nevertheless resonates with anguish and despair -- it's cerebral anthemic rock. Occasionally, the album displays its influences, whether it's U2, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., or the Pixies, but Radiohead turn clichés inside out, making each song sound bracingly fresh. Thom Yorke's tortured lyrics give the album a melancholy undercurrent, as does the surging, textured music. But what makes The Bends so remarkable is that it marries such ambitious, and often challenging, instrumental soundscapes to songs that are at their cores hauntingly melodic and accessible. It makes the record compelling upon first listen, but it reveals new details with each listen, and soon it becomes apparent that with The Bends, Radiohead have reinvented anthemic rock.

 

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5. Autechre – Tri Repetae

 

Starting with the snarling, slow machine-funk of "Dael," Tri Repetae fully confirms Autechre's evolution into electronic noise kings. If not as immediately experimental as the fractured work by the likes of Merzbow, Tri Repetae expertly harnesses the need for a beat to perfectly balance out the resolutely fierce, crunching samples and busy arrangements, turning from being inspired by Aphex Twin to being equally inspiring in itself. "Rotar" does a particularly fine job on this front, with high-pitched sounds against low, distorted bass blasts -- and this only forms part of the percussion arrangement. The basic combination of soft melody and harsh beats are here as well, coming fully to the fore and resulting in such fine songs as the synth-string/organ wheeze laden "Leterel" and the quirky, sweet "Gnit." Nearly every track has a particular edge or element to it, making it eminently listenable and distinct. "Stud," for all of its macho connotations, actually takes a gentler path than most of the album's tunes, with a flowing synth wash at the center of a stripped-down but sharp digital-drum punch; by the end of the song, the synth loops float freely in an uneasy, ambient wave. With the drowsy pulse of "Overand" and the echoing beats of "Radio" (perhaps not so ironically, the most straightforward of the album's songs) to close things out, Tri Repetae stands as a varied, accomplished album, clear evidence of Autechre's unique genius around sound.

 

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4. GZA – Liquid Swords

 

Often acclaimed as the best Wu-Tang solo project of all, Liquid Swords cemented the Genius/GZA's reputation as the best pure lyricist in the group -- and one of the best of the '90s. Rich in allusions and images, his cerebral, easy-flowing rhymes are perhaps the subtlest and most nuanced of any Wu MC, as underscored by his smooth, low-key delivery. The Genius' eerie calm is a great match for RZA's atmospheric production, which is tremendously effective in this context; the kung fu dialogue here is among the creepiest he's put on record, and he experiments quite a bit with stranger sounds and more layered tracks. Not only is RZA in top form, but every Clan member makes at least one appearance on the album, making it all the more impressive that Liquid Swords clearly remains The Genius' showcase throughout. All of his collaborators shape themselves to his quietly intimidating style, giving Liquid Swords a strongly consistent tone and making it an album that gradually slithers its way under your skin. Mixing gritty story-songs and battle rhymes built on elaborate metaphors (martial arts and chess are two favorites), The Genius brings his lyrical prowess to the forefront of every track, leaving no doubt about how he earned his nickname. Creepily understated tracks like "Liquid Swords," "Cold World," "Investigative Reports," and "I Gotcha Back" are the album's bread and butter, but there's the occasional lighter moment ("Labels" incorporates the names of as many record companies as possible) and spiritual digression ("Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth"). Overall, though, Liquid Swords is possibly the most unsettling album in the Wu canon (even ahead of Ol' Dirty Bastard), and it ranks with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx as one of the group's undisputed classics.

 

 

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3. Scott Walker – Tilt

 

Tilt was Scott Walker's first album following over a decade of silence, and whatever else he may have done during his exile, brightening his musical horizon was not on the agenda. Indescribably barren and unutterably bleak, Tilt is the wind that buffets the gothic cathedrals of everyone's favorite nightmares. The opening "Farmer in the City" sets the pace, a cinematic sweep that somehow maintains a melody beneath the unrelenting melodrama of Walker's most grotesque vocal ever. Seemingly undecided whether he's recording an opera or simply haunting one, Walker doesn't so much perform as project his lyrics, hurling them into the alternating maelstroms and moods that careen behind him. The effect is unsettling, to put it mildly. At the time of its release, reviews were undecided whether to praise or pillory Walker for making an album so utterly divorced from even the outer limits of rock reality, an indecision only compounded by its occasional (and bloody-mindedly deceptive) lurches towards modern sensibilities. "The Cockfighter" is underpinned by an intensity that is almost industrial in its range and raucousness, while "Bouncer See Bouncer" would have quite a catchy chorus if anybody else had gotten their hands on it. Here, however, it is highlighted by an Eno-esque esotericism and the chatter of tiny locusts. The crowning irony, however, is "The Patriot (A Single)," seven minutes of unrelenting funeral dirge over which Walker infuses even the most innocuous lyric ("I brought nylons from New York") with indescribable pain and suffering. Tilt is not an easy album to love; it's not even that easy to listen to. First impressions place it on a plateau somewhere between Nico's Marble Index and Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music -- before long, familiarity and the elitist chattering of so many well-heeled admirers rendered both albums mere forerunners to some future shift in mainstream taste. And maybe that is the fate awaiting Tilt, although one does wonder precisely what monsters could rise from soil so belligerently barren. Even Metal Machine Music could be whistled, after all.

 

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2. Pulp – Different Class

 

After years of obscurity, Pulp shot to stardom in Britain with 1994's His 'n' Hers. By the time Different Class was released at the end of October 1995, the band, particularly lead singer Jarvis Cocker, were genuine British superstars, with two number two singles and a triumphant last-minute performance at Glastonbury under their belts, as well as one tabloid scandal. On the heels of such excitement, anticipation for Different Class ran high, and not only does it deliver, it blows away all their previous albums, including the fine His 'n' Hers. Pulp don't stray from their signature formula at all -- it's still grandly theatrical, synth-spiked pop with new wave and disco flourishes, but they have mastered it here. Not only are the melodies and hooks significantly catchier and more immediate, the music explores more territory. From the faux-show tune romp of the anthemic opener "Mis-Shapes" and the glitzy, gaudy stomp of "Disco 2000" (complete with a nicked riff from Laura Branigan's "Gloria") to the aching ballad "Underwear" and the startling sexual menace of "I Spy," Pulp construct a diverse, appealing album around the same basic sound. Similarly, Jarvis Cocker's lyrics take two themes, sex and social class, and explore a number of different avenues in bitingly clever ways. As well as perfectly capturing the behavior of his characters, Cocker grasps the nuances of language, creating a dense portrait of suburban and working-class life. All of his sex songs are compassionate, while the subtle satire of "Sorted for E's & Wizz" is affectionate, but the best moment on the album is the hit single "Common People," about a rich girl who gets off by slumming with the lower class. Coming from Cocker, who made secondhand clothes and music glamorous, the song is undeniably affecting and exciting, much like Different Class itself.

 

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1. Björk – Post

 

After Debut's success, the pressure was on Björk to surpass that album's creative, tantalizing electronic pop. She more than delivered with 1995's Post; from the menacing, industrial-tinged opener, "Army of Me," it's clear that this album is not simply Debut redux. The songs' production and arrangements -- especially those of the epic, modern fairy tale "Isobel" -- all aim for, and accomplish, more. Post also features Debut producer Nellee Hooper, 808 State's Graham Massey, Howie B, and Tricky, who help Björk incorporate a spectrum of electronic and orchestral styles into songs like "Hyperballad," which sounds like a love song penned by Aphex Twin. Meanwhile, the bristling beats on the volatile, sensual "Enjoy" and the fragile, weightless ballad "Possibly Maybe" nod to trip-hop without being overwhelmed by it. As on Debut, Björk finds new ways of expressing timeworn emotions like love, lust, and yearning in abstractly precise lyrics like "Since you went away/I'm wearing lipstick again/I suck my tongue in remembrance of you," from "Possibly Maybe." But Post's emotional peaks and valleys are more extreme than Debut's. "I Miss You"'s exuberance is so animated, it makes perfect sense that Ren & Stimpy's John Kricfalusi directed the song's video. Likewise, "It's Oh So Quiet" -- which eventually led to Björk's award-winning turn as Selma in Dancer in the Dark -- is so cartoonishly vibrant, it could have been arranged by Warner Bros. musical director Carl Stalling. Yet Björk sounds equally comfortable with an understated string section on "You've Been Flirting Again." "Headphones" ends the album on an experimental, hypnotic note, layering Björk's vocals over and over till they circle each other atop a bubbling, minimal beat. The work of a constantly changing artist, Post proves that as Björk moves toward more ambitious, complex music, she always surpasses herself.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Mobb Deep - The Infamous

 

One of the cornerstones of the New York hardcore movement, The Infamous is Mobb Deep's masterpiece, a relentlessly bleak song cycle that's been hailed by hardcore rap fans as one of the most realistic gangsta albums ever recorded. Given Mobb Deep's youthful age and art-school background, it's highly unlikely that The Infamous is drawn strictly from real-life experience, yet it's utterly convincing, because it has all the foreboding atmosphere and thematic sweep of an epic crime drama. That's partly because of the cinematic vision behind the duo's detailed narratives, but it's also a tribute to how well the raw, grimy production evokes the world that Mobb Deep is depicting. The group produced the vast majority of the album itself, with help on a few tracks from the Abstract (better known as Q-Tip), and establishes a spare, throbbing, no-frills style indebted to the Wu-Tang Clan. This is hard, underground hip-hop that demands to be met on its own terms, with few melodic hooks to draw the listener in. Similarly, there's little pleasure or relief offered in the picture of the streets Mobb Deep paints here: They inhabit a war zone where crime and paranoia hang constantly in the air. Gangs are bound together by a code of fierce loyalty, relying wholly on one another for survival in a hopeless environment. Hostile forces -- cops, rivals, neighborhood snitches -- are potentially everywhere, and one slip around the wrong person can mean prison or death. There's hardly any mention of women, and the violence is grim, serious business, never hedonistic. Pretty much everything on the album contributes to this picture, but standouts among the consistency include "Survival of the Fittest," "Eye for a Eye," "Temperature's Rising," "Cradle to the Grave," and the classic "Shook Ones, Pt. 2." The product of an uncommon artistic vision, The Infamous stands as an all-time gangsta/hardcore classic.

 

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Oval – 94 Diskont

 

94 Diskont is undoubtedly a standout in the field of electronically advanced, glitch-heavy music. In addition to having clear resonance with those primarily interested in process, this record resides in an autonomous and highly aesthetic sonic universe, where bits of production and granulated noise easily melt into warm, repetitive arrangements. 94 Diskont was made with a lot of productive mediation and gadgetry, but the seams don't show. The textures are thick and the melodies are challenging, nowhere more so than on the epic opening track "Do While." At 24 minutes, Oval take their time, but this is deep listening, and anything shorter just wouldn't do. A distant and fractured bell sound competes with a decaying, four-note organ swell for the majority of the song, while clicks and unidentified manipulations make their way in and out of the mix. Rhythm and melody emerge from unexpected places. What you initially take to be white noise settles into an odd but discernible pattern.

 

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Sparklehorse - Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot

 

Sparklehorse's 1995 full-length debut, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, has even more sad, beautiful, weird moments of spacy, rural folk-rock than it does letters in its name. Primarily the project of singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse's sound embraces impossibly frail, cobwebby ballads like the album opener "Homecoming Queen," "Most Beautiful Widow in Town," and "Heart of Darkness"; sun-drenched, noisy pop like "Rainmaker" and "Hammering the Cramps"; and noise blasts like "Ballad of a Cold Lost Marble" and "850 Double Pumper Holley." The album's most powerful moments borrow from folk and country traditions, alluding to their universally understood poignancy, while updating and personalizing them with spacy arrangements, distorted vocals, and slivers of feedback. "Heart of Darkness" and "Homecoming Queen" in particular have a woozy, late-night sweetness that conveys a touching, if unstable, honesty. The single "Someday I Will Treat You Good" molds this vulnerability into a radio song, with catchy and affecting results, but it's the shambling, understated songs like "Saturday" and "Sad & Beautiful World" that define the group's down-to-earth melancholy. Despite covering some expansive musical territory, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot doesn't sound scattered so much as spontaneous, reflecting the happy, sad, noisy, and quiet moments in life.

 

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Tindersticks – Tindersticks

 

 

Tindersticks' second consecutive, eponymously titled double-LP set refines the approach of their debut; while every bit as ambitious and adventuresome, it achieves an even greater musical balance, stretching into luxuriously long compositional structures and more intricate arrangements. While Stuart Staples' songs remain as obsessive and haunted as before, he wards off his demons with fits of pitch-black humor (the narrative "My Sister") and a more tender perspective; similarly, while his funereal vocals remain the focus, there's a new reliance on extended instrumental passages, and even a pair of duets (the centerpiece, "Travelling Light" -- a gorgeous collaboration with the Walkabouts' Carla Torgerson -- is akin to a Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra record trapped in emotional purgatory). Another awesome triumph of mood and atmosphere.

 

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Tricky – Maxinquaye

 

Tricky's debut, Maxinquaye, is an album of stunning sustained vision and imagination, a record that sounds like it has no precedent as it boldly predicts a new future. Of course, neither sentiment is true. Much of the music on Maxinquaye has its roots in the trip-hop pioneered by Massive Attack, which once featured Tricky, and after the success of this record, trip-hop became fashionable, turning into safe, comfortable music to be played at upscale dinner parties thrown by hip twenty and thirtysomethings. Both of these sentiments are true, yet Maxinquaye still manages to retain its power; years later, it can still sound haunting, disturbing, and surprising after countless spins. It's an album that exists outside of time and outside of trends, a record whose clanking rhythms, tape haze, murmured vocals, shards of noise, reversed gender roles, alt-rock asides, and soul samplings create a ghostly netherworld fused with seductive menace and paranoia. It also shimmers with mystery, coming not just from Tricky -- whose voice isn't even heard until the second song on the record -- but his vocalist, Martine, whose smoky singing lures listeners into the unrelenting darkness of the record. Once they're there, Maxinquaye offers untold treasures. There is the sheer pleasure of coasting by on the sound of the record, how it makes greater use of noise and experimental music than anything since the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy. Then, there's the tip of the hat to PE with a surreal cover of "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos," sung by Martine and never sounding like a postmodernist in-joke. Other references and samples register subconsciously -- while Isaac Hayes' "Ike's Rap II" flows through "Hell Is Around the Corner" and the Smashing Pumpkins are even referenced in the title of "Pumpkin," Shakespear's Sister and the Chantels slip by, while Michael Jackson's "Bad" thrillingly bleeds into "Expressway to Your Heart" on "Brand New You're Retro." Lyrics flow in and out of consciousness, with lingering, whispered promises suddenly undercut by veiled threats and bursts of violence. Then, there's how music that initially may seem like mood pieces slowly reveal their ingenious structure and arrangement and register as full-blown songs, or how the alternately languid and chaotic rhythms finally compliment each other, turning this into a bracing sonic adventure that gains richness and resonance with each listen. After all, there's so much going on here -- within the production, the songs, the words -- it remains fascinating even after all of its many paths have been explored (which certainly can't be said of the trip-hop that followed, including records by Tricky). And that air of mystery that can be impenetrable upon the first listen certainly is something that keeps Maxinquaye tantalizing after it's become familiar, particularly because, like all good mysteries, there's no getting to the bottom of it, no matter how hard you try.

 

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How intriguing! :lol:

 

Mellon Collie, Garbage and Insomniac were good albums for '95 if you ask me. :P

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1996:

 

 

 

10. Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album

 

Perhaps inspired by the experimental drum'n'bass being created by Squarepusher (a recent signee to his Rephlex label),Richard D. James' third major-label album as Aphex Twin was his first to work with jungle -- though, to his credit, he had released the breakbeat EP Hangable Auto Bulb almost a year earlier. Contemporaries Orbital and Underworld were beginning to incorporate moderate use of drum'n'bass in their work as well, but this album was more extreme than virtually all jungle being made at the time. The beats are jackhammer quick and even more jarring considering what is -- for the most part -- laid over the top: the same fragile, slow-moving melodies that characterized Aphex Twin's earlier ambient works. Most overtly disturbing is "Milkman," the first straight-ahead vocal track from Aphex Twin; the song is a child-like ode that gradually deteriorates into a bizarre fantasy concerning the milkman's wife. With all the Aphex Twin's curious idiosyncracies, though, Richard D. James Album is a very listenable record and a worthy follow-up to I Care Because You Do.

 

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9. Dr. Octagon - Octagonecologyst

 

It's hard to exaggerate the role that Kool Keith's debut solo album as Dr. Octagon played in revitalizing underground hip-hop. It certainly didn't bring the scene back to life single-handedly, but it attracted more attention than any non-mainstream rap album in quite a while, thanks to its inventive production and Keith's bizarre, free-associative rhymes. Dr. Octagon represented the first truly new, genuine alternative to commercial hip-hop since the Native Tongues' heyday. It appealed strongly to alternative audiences who'd grown up with rap music, but simply hadn't related to it since the rise of gangsta. Moreover, it predated seminal releases by Company Flow, Black Star, and the Jurassic 5, helping those groups get the attention they deserved, and reinvented Keith as a leader of the new subterranean movement. As if that weren't enough, the album launched the career of Dan the Automator, one of the new underground's brightest producers, and shed some light on the burgeoning turntablist revival via the scratching fireworks of DJ Q-Bert. The Automator's futuristic, horror-soundtrack production seemed to bridge the gap between hip-hop and the more electronic-oriented trip-hop (which has since narrowed even more), and it's creepily effective support for Keith's crazed alter ego. Dr. Octagon is an incompetent, time-traveling, possibly extraterrestrial surgeon who pretends to be a female gynecologist and molests his patients and nurses. The concept makes for some undeniably juvenile (and, arguably, hilarious) moments, but the real focus is Keith's astounding wordplay; it often seems based on sound alone, not literal meaning, and even his skit dialogue is full of non sequiturs. Keith has since lost his taste for the album, tiring of hearing it compared favorably to his subsequent work, and complaining that the only new audience he gained was white. However, it's the best musical backing he's ever had (especially the brilliant singles "Earth People" and "Blue Flowers"), and even if he's since explored some of these themes ad nauseum, Dr. Octagon remains as startling and original as the day it was released.

 

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8. Porter Ricks – Biokinetics

 

Even at its most song-like, sonic imagery is the most important part of the album; the rhythms are very straightforward, and there's hardly any melody, but every passage contains endless details within details, like a fractal pattern. This is a result of ingenious sound design and meticulous use of stereo imaging. Take "Biokinetics 1." This song doesn't really go anywhere—within about 30 seconds, all of the loops have arrived, but as you stew in them for the next five minutes, a bizarre scene takes shape: there's this frantic gurgling sound in the center of the frame, panning slightly, with a metallic counterpart that's panning more frantically, sounding violent and chaotic. These two together (along with the little splat noises on the last beat of each bar) form an image that's part David Cronenberg, part Frozen Planet. "Biokinetics 2," though different in mood, takes a similar approach, drawing up a vivid scene and sticking with it for a few minutes, giving you time to take it in. The remainder of Biokinetics is more conventionally musical, but only marginally so. Euphoric chords bookend the album (on "Port Gentil," by far the album's best track, and "Nautical Zone") but their purpose is mostly atmospheric—the presence of melody creates a bright scene, the absence a dark one. Even when there's a meaty kick drum or a soothing melody (or half-melody), whatever grounding effect these familiar sounds might normally have is offset by something disorienting, like the squishy percussive lead on "Port of Nuba" and "Nautical Nuba," or the hallucinatory undertow of "Nautical Zone." Ultimately it seems like Köner and Mellwig took the reverse approach to many of today's artists: rather than making techno with an experimental edge, they made avant-garde music with a techno pulse.

 

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7. OutKast – ATLiens

 

Though they were likely lost on casual hip-hop fans, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik was full of subtle indications that OutKast were a lot more inventive than your average Southern playas. Their idiosyncrasies bubbled to the surface on their sophomore effort, ATLiens, an album of spacy sci-fi funk performed on live instruments. Largely abandoning the hard-partying playa characters of their debut, Dre and Big Boi develop a startlingly fresh, original sound to go along with their futuristic new personas. George Clinton's space obsessions might seem to make P-Funk obvious musical source material, but ATLiens ignores the hard funk in favor of a smooth, laid-back vibe that perfectly suits the duo's sense of melody. The album's chief musical foundation is still soul, especially the early-'70s variety, but other influences begin to pop up as well. Some tracks have a spiritual, almost gospel feel (though only in tone, not lyrical content), and the Organized Noize production team frequently employs the spacious mixes and echo effects of dub reggae in creating the album's alien soundscapes. In addition to the striking musical leap forward, Dre and Big Boi continue to grow as rappers; their flows are getting more tongue-twistingly complex, and their lyrics more free-associative. Despite a couple of overly sleepy moments during the second half, ATLiens is overall a smashing success thanks to its highly distinctive style, and stands as probably OutKast's most focused work (though it isn't as wildly varied as subsequent efforts). The album may have alienated (pun recognized, but not intended) the more conservative wing of the group's fans, but it broke new ground for Southern hip-hop and marked OutKast as one of the most creatively restless and ambitious hip-hop groups of the '90s.

 

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6. Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup

 

Stereolab was poised for a breakthrough release with Emperor Tomato Ketchup, their fourth full-length album. Not only was their influence becoming apparent throughout alternative rock, but Mars Audiac Quintet and Music for the Amorphous Body Center indicated they were moving closer to distinct pop melodies. The group certainly hasn't backed away from pop melodies on Emperor Tomato Ketchup, but just as their hooks are becoming catchier, they bring in more avant-garde and experimental influences, as well. Consequently, the album is Stereolab's most complex, multi-layered record. It lacks the raw, amateurish textures of their early singles, but the music is far more ambitious, melding electronic drones and singsong melodies with string sections, slight hip-hop and dub influences, and scores of interweaving counter melodies. Even when Stereolab appears to be creating a one-chord trance, there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Furthermore, the group's love for easy listening and pop melodies means that the music never feels cold or inaccessible. In fact, pop singles like "Cybele's Reverie" and "The Noise of Carpet" help ease listeners into the group's more experimental tendencies. Because of all its textures, Emperor Tomato Ketchup isn't as immediately accessible as Mars Audiac Quintet, but it is a rich, rewarding listen.

 

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5. Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt

 

Before Jay-Z fashioned himself into hip-hop's most notorious capitalist, he was a street hustler from the projects who rapped about what he knew -- and was very, very good at it. Skeptics who've never cared for Jigga's crossover efforts should turn to his debut, Reasonable Doubt, as the deserving source of his legend. Reasonable Doubt is often compared to another New York landmark, Nas' Illmatic: A hungry young MC with a substantial underground buzz drops an instant classic of a debut, detailing his experiences on the streets with disarming honesty, and writing some of the most acrobatic rhymes heard in quite some time. (Plus, neither artist has since approached the street cred of his debut, The Blueprint notwithstanding.) Parts of the persona that Jay-Z would ride to superstardom are already in place: He's cocky bordering on arrogant, but playful and witty, and exudes an effortless, unaffected cool throughout. And even if he's rapping about rising to the top instead of being there, his material obsessions are already apparent. Jay-Z the hustler isn't too different from Jay-Z the rapper: Hustling is about living the high life and getting everything you can, not violence or tortured glamour or cheap thrills. In that sense, the album's defining cut might not be one of the better-known singles -- "Can't Knock the Hustle," "Dead Presidents II," "Feelin' It," or the Foxy Brown duet, "Ain't No *****." It just might be the brief "22 Two's," which not only demonstrates Jay-Z's extraordinary talent as a pure freestyle rapper, but also preaches a subtle message through its club hostess: Bad behavior gets in the way of making money. Perhaps that's why Jay-Z waxes reflective, not enthusiastic, about the darker side of the streets; songs like "D'Evils" and "Regrets" are some of the most personal and philosophical he's ever recorded. It's that depth that helps Reasonable Doubt rank as one of the finest albums of New York's hip-hop renaissance of the '90s.

 

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4. Beck – Odelay

 

Unlike Stereopathetic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave, the indie albums that followed his debut Mellow Gold by a mere matter of months, Odelay was a full-fledged, full-bodied album, released on a major label in the summer of 1996 and bearing an intricate, meticulous production by the Dust Brothers in their first gig since the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique. Odelay shared a similar collage structure to that 1989 masterpiece, relying on a blend of found sounds and samples, but instead of lending the album its primary colors, the Dust Brothers provided the accents, highlighting Beck's ever-changing sounds, tying together his stylistic shifts, making the leaps from the dirge-blues of "Jack-Ass" to the hazy party rock of "Where's It's At" seem not so great. Like Mellow Gold, Odelay winds up touching on a number of disparate strands -- folk and country, grungy garage rock, stiff-boned electro, louche exotica, old-school rap, touches of noise rock -- but there's no break-neck snap between sensibilities, everything flows smoothly, the dense sounds suggesting that the songs are a bit more complicated than they actually are. Most of the songs here betray Beck's roots as an anti-folk singer -- he reworks blues structures ("Devil's Haircut"), country ("Lord Only Knows," "Sissyneck"), soul ("Hotwax"), folk ("Ramshackle") and rap ("High 5 [Rock the Catskills]," "Where It's At") -- but each track twists conventions, either in their construction or presentation, giving this a vibrant, electric pulse, surprising in its form and attack. Like a mosaic, all the details add up to a picture greater than its parts, so while some of Beck's best songs are here, Odelay is best appreciated as a recorded whole, with each layered sample enhancing the allusion that came before.

 

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3. The Olivia Tremor Control - Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle

 

Not the Beatles, but an incredible facsimile: on their sprawling 27-song debut opus, Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle, the Olivia Tremor Control manage to summon not only the sound of the White Album-era Fab Four, but also the unfettered creativity. The soundtrack to an unmade film about a pair of women named Olivia and Jacqueline and a massive earthquake dubbed the California Demise, the album incorporates a slew of influences and textures (including Beach Boys-flavored pop, psychedelia, Krautrock, noise, and folk-rock) and synthesizes them into a distinct homebrew of shimmering harmonies, guitar drones, backward tape loops, and inventive effects.

 

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2. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

 

Belle & Sebastian's second record, If You're Feeling Sinister, is, for all intents and purposes, really their first, since their debut in 1996 was not heard outside of privileged inner circles. And If You're Feeling Sinister really did have quite a bit of an impact upon its release in 1996, largely because during the first half of the '90s the whimsy and preciousness that had been an integral part of alternative music was suppressed by grunge. Whimsy and preciousness are an integral part of If You're Feeling Sinister, along with clever wit and gentle, intricate arrangements -- a wonderful blend of the Smiths and Simon & Garfunkel, to be reductive. Even if it's firmly within the college, bed-sit tradition, and is unabashedly retrogressive, that gives Sinister a special, timeless character that's enhanced by Stuart Murdoch's wonderful, lively songwriting. Blessed with an impish sense of humor, a sly turn of phrase, and an alluringly fey voice, he gives this record a real sense of backbone, in that its humor is far more biting than the music appears and the music is far more substantial that it initially seems. Sinister plays like a great forgotten album, couched in '80s indie, '90s attitude, and '60s folk-pop. It's beautifully out of time, and even if other Belle & Sebastian albums sound like it, this is where they achieved a sense of grace.

 

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1. DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.....

 

As a suburban Californian kid, DJ Shadow tended to treat hip-hop as a musical innovation, not as an explicit social protest, which goes a long way toward explaining why his debut album Endtroducing... sounded like nothing else at the time of its release. Using hip-hop, not only its rhythms but its cut-and-paste techniques, as a foundation, Shadow created a deep, endlessly intriguing world on Endtroducing, one where there are no musical genres, only shifting sonic textures and styles. Shadow created the entire album from samples, almost all pulled from obscure, forgotten vinyl, and the effect is that of a hazy, half-familiar dream -- parts of the record sound familiar, yet it's clear that it only suggests music you've heard before, and that the multi-layered samples and genres create something new. And that's one of the keys to the success of Endtroducing -- it's innovative, but it builds on a solid historical foundation, giving it a rich, multi-faceted sound. It's not only a major breakthrough for hip-hop and electronica, but for pop music.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Brainiac - Hissing Prigs in Static Couture

 

On their final full-length album, Brainiac move further into the unchartered territory that they explored on Bonsai Superstar, and perhaps because of that, the album seems initially less exciting. However, while they take a somewhat smaller creative step between these two albums than between Bonsai Superstar and Smack Bunny Baby, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture nonetheless offers up a fascinating dose of space-age sound bites, falsetto vocals and chant-along choruses. The opening four tracks are astounding, especially "Pussyfootin'" and the loopy "This Little Piggy." The middle of the album drags a bit, but it comes to a blistering conclusion with "Nothing Ever Changes" (recorded by Steve Albini) and "I Am a Cracked Machine."

 

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Swans - Soundtracks for the Blind

 

Choosing to extinguish the band name under which Gira and Jarboe had worked together for so long must not have been an easy step, but when they decided to end Swans with one last studio release as a prelude to a farewell tour, they did so with what turned out to be their biggest and best album ever. Interestingly, the double-disc, two-and-a-half-hour long Soundtracks makes no pretensions at being a uniform creation like The White Album or Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness; Gira's own notes indicate the song sources as being from "hand-held cassette recordings to found sounds, to samples, to loops, to finished multitrack recordings," recorded with ten different musicians. Everything from raging electric music in extreme to the gentlest of acoustic strums can be found here, ultimately being a perfect encapsulation of Swans' sound -- as much as any greatest-hits anthology could ever have been. "The Helpless Child," the epic-length Gira-sung piece previewed on Die Tür ist Zu, amazingly gets an even more brilliant revision here, while another similarly lengthy track, "The Sound," at once roars and whispers over its length in a way that early Swans -- much less many other bands -- could never have done. Other tracks continue Swans' then-recent practice of mixing random taped conversations with exquisitely arranged performances: "I Was a Prisoner in Your Skull" is especially noteworthy as the clear forerunner of Godspeed you Black Emperor!'s entire musical approach. Jarboe's own tracks are all winners, from the fractured, tempo-shifting techno of "Volcano" to the howling live version of a solo album track from Sacrificial Cake, "Yum-Yab Killers." Ending on the unexpected yet appropriate "Surrogate Drone," Soundtracks lets Swans bow out from recording on the highest note possible.

 

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Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die

 

Tortoise's production expertise hit an early peak with Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a work that not only references studio-centric forms like dub and electronica, but actively welds them to the group's aesthetic of sturdily constructed indie rock. The centerpiece is the 21-minute opener "Djed," a multi-part track which brought Tortoise's already impressive compositional abilities to a grand scale. It's almost a history of influences in miniature, first referencing tape music and dub for several minutes, then moving on to Krautrock with a chugging section incorporating wheezing organ and understated guitar chords. Halfway through, the band takes on minimalism with repeating figures of organ and vibes, then return to the green fields of their debut with a final few minutes of moody indie rock (though even this is spiced with a scratchy rhythm and various noise effects). With "Djed," Tortoise made experimental rock do double duty as evocative, beautiful music. The other songs on Millions Now Living are hardly afterthoughts, though; highlights "Glass Museum" and "The Taut and Tame" display the band quickly growing out of the angular indie rock ghetto with exquisite music, constructed with more thought and played with more emotion, than any of their peers.

 

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Weezer - Pinkerton

 

 

From the pounding, primal assault of the opening track, "Tired of Sex," it's clear from the outset that Pinkerton is a different record than the sunny, heavy guitar pop of Weezer's eponymous debut. The first noticeable difference is the darker, messier sound -- the guitars rage and squeal, the beats are brutal and visceral, the vocals are mixed to the front, filled with overlapping, off-the-cuff backing vocals. In short, it sounds like the work of a live band, which makes it all the more ironic that Pinkerton, at its core, is a singer/songwriter record, representing Rivers Cuomo's bid for respectability. Since he hasn't changed Weezer's blend of power pop and heavy metal (only the closing song, "Butterfly," is performed acoustically), many critics and much of the band's casual fans didn't notice Cuomo's significant growth as a songwriter. Loosely structured as a concept album based on Madame Butterfly, each song works as an individual entity, driven by powerful, melodic hooks, a self-deprecating sense of humor ("Pink Triangle" is about a crush on a lesbian), and a touching vulnerability ("Across the Sea," "Why Bother?"). Weezer can still turn out catchy, offbeat singles -- "The Good Life" has a chorus that is more memorable than "Buddy Holly," "El Scorcho" twists Pavement's junk-culture references in on itself, "Falling for You" is the most propulsive thing they've yet recorded -- but the band's endearing geekiness isn't as cutesy as before, which means the album wasn't as successful on the charts. But it's the better album, full of crunching power pop with a surprisingly strong emotional undercurrent that becomes all the more resonant with each play.

 

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Windy & Carl – Drawing of Sound

 

The second full-length release by Windy & Carl finds the Detroit-based duo building on the concepts first explored on 1994's Portal. Not quite formless enough to be ambient music, but more delicate than the driving rhythms of space rock, and with an almost folky indie pop edge, Windy & Carl's lengthy songs (only the opening "You" falls under five minutes; the other four tracks are in the eight- to 11-minute range) are their own little breed of psychedelia. Where bands like Charalambides make a virtue of their indistinctness, these songs can be maddening to a listener used to more song-based music, as they almost but never quite cohere into proper pop songs. Bassist Windy Weber's vocals are agreeably breathy and kittenish, but they're mixed so softly that understanding more than a stray phrase or two is impossible. Add the gossamer haze of Carl Hultgren's overdubbed guitars and the overall effect of Drawing of Sound is not unlike listening to a Cocteau Twins album, from the next room, while coming out from under anesthesia. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

 

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ATLiens over Reasonable Doubt.

 

Also amen to Illmatic and Endtroducing..., Maxinquaye should be higher.

 

P.S. Criminal underrepresentation of pop. :sad:

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Odelay low down the list at number 4. Had to be placed somewhere in the top 1, surely.

 

That's what I'm saying!

 

I can't believe I forgot to point out Mellow Gold for '94 :confused:

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I thought that the 90s lists would have more albums that I've heard of. Boy, was I wrong... :confused:

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1997:

 

 

 

10. The Verve – Urban Hymns

 

Not long after the release of A Northern Soul, the Verve imploded due to friction between vocalist Richard Ashcroft and guitarist Nick McCabe. It looked like the band had ended before reaching its full potential, which is part of the reason why their third album, Urban Hymns -- recorded after the pair patched things up in late 1996 -- is so remarkable. Much of the record consists of songs Ashcroft had intended for a solo project or a new group, yet Urban Hymns unmistakably sounds like the work of a full band, with its sweeping, grandiose soundscapes and sense of purpose. the Verve have toned down their trancy, psychedelic excursions, yet haven't abandoned them -- if anything, they sound more muscular than before, whether it's the trippy "Catching the Butterfly" or the pounding "Come On." These powerful, guitar-drenched rockers provide the context for Ashcroft's affecting, string-laden ballads, which give Urban Hymns its hurt. The majestic "Bitter Sweet Symphony" and the heartbreaking, country-tinged "The Drugs Don't Work" are an astonishing pair, two anthemic ballads that make the personal universal, thereby sounding like instant classics. They just are the tip of the iceberg -- "Sonnet" is a lovely, surprisingly understated ballad, "The Rolling People" has a measured, electric power, and many others match their quality. Although it may run a bit too long for some tastes, Urban Hymns is a rich album that revitalizes rock traditions without ever seeming less than contemporary. It is the album the Verve have been striving to make since their formation, and it turns out to be worth all the wait.

 

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9. Godspeed You Black Emperor! - F♯ A♯ ∞

 

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death." Few albums begin with such promise and foreboding, but this first full-length from Canadian genius collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor succeeds in the first few moments. F# A# (Infinity) contains three compositions that run the gamut from grotesque to sublime. The term "composition" seems an appropriate one to use as this band does not write songs. Each piece is at least 14 minutes in length, consisting of three to four sections. The band, a nine-member unit consisting of guitar, drums, bass, strings, keyboard, marimbas, and woodwinds, intersperses voice-over narrative with sprawling instrumental melodies. The arrangements move slowly, building from hushed silence to cathartic crescendo and back again. The narratives that accompany the music meditate on the corruption of the American government and the seeming emptiness of the postmodern era. At times, it seems that the music might offer hope, but alternatively, the haunting melodies can serve to emphasize the confusion encountered in these stories. As "Dead Flag Blues," the album's first track, unfolds, the speaker's voice is undercut by a poignant string melody and the piece builds to a beautiful peak. "Dead Flag Blues" is a four-part arrangement in an apparently symphonic pattern. A theme is stated, followed by a quiet interlude out of which the tension builds to disaster/epiphany and finally a quiet reprise of the initial melody is given. The albums second piece, "East Hastings," follows a similar pattern, producing brilliant results. "Providence" is the album's final piece, a bit longer than the others, but lacking the consistency and unity of its counterparts. The music on this album is unique and powerful. One would be hard-pressed to find any imitators of this revolutionary musical form created by GY!BE Its origins are as much avant-classical as they are rock & roll, and the band has achieved a true synthesis of the two forms, expanding them to new boundaries. This music is inherently inexplicable, and this is its beauty.

 

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8. Built to Spill – Perfect From Now On

 

Not many groups would take a major-label contract as a cue to put out an album where the shortest song is still a radio-unfriendly five minutes in length. For that listeners can thank their stars that Built to Spill isn't like many groups and Doug Martsch not like many artists. Perfect from Now On manages the amazing trick of being the band's best album to this point, Martsch and company using the opportunities for larger budgets and distribution to create an album at once inspiring and quietly emotional, not the easiest combination to pull off. With drummer Scott Plouf and bassist Brett Nelson as the other core performers, plus second guitarist Brett Netson and cellist John McMahon as key guests, the result is astounding all around. The length of the songs allows the band to create uniquely post-everything mantras, blending psych trances and drones, post-punk airiness and flow, and Martsch's affecting, tender singing and lyrics into a whole. Martsch's high tones and the guitar passion here helped fuel further comparisons to Neil Young -- to pick out one moment, consider the closing minutes of "I Would Hurt a Fly," feedback peeling out over the rhythm and strings -- but the Boise musician is his own man through and through. Selecting standout moments from such a solid disc almost defeats the purpose, but many examples still deserve further notice. "Stop the Show" builds to a dramatic, but not in the least bit hammy, shift from a roaring wash to a quick, clipped pace; Martsch's vocals and further sudden tempo switches are the icing on the cake. "Velvet Waltz" indeed plays at that musical pace, McMahon's playing and Martsch's heartbreaking, lovely lyrics and singing the core of a incredible song. "Untrustable/Part 2 (About Someone Else)" concludes a simply fantastic record.

 

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7. Biosphere – Substrata

 

Substrata (released, oddly, on the new age-heavy All Saints label) was the first full-length solo work released by Biosphere's Geir Jenssen following a three-year period of silence. The album was the first of three to appear almost simultaneously, however -- the other two being the soundtrack to the psychological thriller Insomnia, on the Norwegian Origo Sound label, as well as his third Apollo album -- proving he'd hardly been in hibernation. Interestingly, while many ambient artists have moved increasingly toward the integration of percussion and rhythmic sequencing, Substrata finds Jenssen almost completely abandoning the rhythmic elements of earlier works such as Patashnik and "Novelty Waves," focusing on dark, subtly melodic, often piercingly melancholic soundscapes that flow seamlessly from one to the next. The album recalls the more abstract moments of Global Communication's ambient works, as well as the glacial expanses of Jenssen's 1996 collaboration with Higher Intelligence Agency, Polar Sequences, and is quite easily among his most accomplished, satisfying works to date.

 

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6. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West

 

Talk about original -- this band has something for just about everyone. They can do quiet, brooding acoustics like "Bankrupt on Selling," dark and pounding thrashers like "Cowboy Dan," funky jump-around emo like "Jesus Christ Was an Only Child" -- just about anything. Throughout the whole album is a white-trash feeling and a sort of down-to-earth analysis of the state of the world, without sounding pretentious. Give this album a listen and you can be sure that you will be singing the rambling, catchy, almost whiny vocals in no time. If you dig indie rock at its very best, go pick this album up.

 

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5. Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

 

Functioning as a virtual catalog of mid-'90s indie rock trends, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is an astonishing tour de force from Yo La Tengo, establishing their deep talents as songwriters and musicians. Although the album may run a little long for some tastes, there are very few throwaways on the record -- even the shoegazer cover of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda" is a revelatory gem. But what truly impresses is the way the songs, ranging from hypnotically droning instrumentals to tightly written and catchy pop songs, hold together to form what is arguably Yo La Tengo's finest and most coherent album to date.

 

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4. Elliot Smith – Either/Or

 

Elliott Smith's third album sees his one-man show getting a little more ambitious. While he still plays all the instruments himself, he plays more of them. Several of the songs mimic the melody mastery of pop bands from 1960s. The most alluring numbers, however, are still his quietly melancholy acoustic ones. While the full-band songs are catchy and smart,Smith's recording equipment isn't quite up to the standards set by the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The humbler arrangements are better suited to the sparse equipment. "Between the Bars," for example, plays Smith's strengths perfectly. He sings, in his endearingly limited whisper, of late-night drinking and introspection, and his subdued strumming creates a minor-key mood befitting the mysteries of self. "Angeles" is equally ethereal -- Smith's acoustic fingerpicking spins out notes which briskly move around a single atmospheric keyboard chord, like aural minnows swimming toward a solitary light at the surface of the water. The lyrics are a darkly biting rejection of the hypercapitalist dream machinery of Los Angeles (it would make a great theme song for Smith's label, Kill Rock Stars).

 

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3. Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space

 

Spiritualized's third collection of hypnotic headphone symphonies is their most brilliant and accessible to date. Largely forsaking the drones and minimalistic, repetitive riffs which have characterized his work since the halcyon days of Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce re-focuses here and spins off into myriad new directions; in a sense, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, with its majestic, Spector-like glow, is his classic rock album. "Come Together" and the blistering "Electricity" are his most edgy, straightforward rockers in eons, while the stunning "I Think I'm in Love" settles into a divided-psyche call-and-response R&B groove, and the closing "Cop Shoot Cop" (with guest Dr. John) locks into a voodoo blues trance. Lyrically, Pierce is at his most open and honest: The record is a heartfelt confessional of love and loss, with redemption found only in the form of drugs -- designed, no less, to look like a prescription pharmaceutical package, Ladies and Gentlemen is pointedly explicit in its description of drug use as a means of killing the pain on track after track. Conversely, never before have the literal implications of the name "Spiritualized" been explored in such earnest detail -- the London Community Gospel Choir appears prominently on a number of songs, while another bears the title "No God, Only Religion," pushing the music even further toward the kind of cosmic gospel transcendence it craves. A masterpiece.

 

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2. Björk – Homogenic

 

By the late '90s, Björk's playful, unique world view and singular voice became as confining as they were defining. With its surprising starkness and darkness, 1997's Homogenic shatters her "Icelandic pixie" image. Possibly inspired by her failed relationship with drum'n'bass kingpin Goldie, Björk sheds her more precious aspects, displaying more emotional depth than even her best previous work indicated. Her collaborators -- LFO's Mark Bell, Mark "Spike" Stent, and Post contributor Howie B -- help make this album not only her emotionally bravest work, but her most sonically adventurous as well. A seamless fusion of chilly strings (courtesy of the Icelandic String Octet), stuttering, abstract beats, and unique touches like accordion and glass harmonica, Homogenic alternates between dark, uncompromising songs such as the icy opener, "Hunter," and more soothing fare like the gently percolating "All Neon Like." The noisy, four-on-the-floor catharsis of "Pluto" and the raw vocals and abstract beats of "5 Years" and "Immature" reveal surprising amounts of anger, pain, and strength in the face of heartache. "I dare you to take me on," Björk challenges her lover in "5 Years," and wonders on "Immature," "How could I be so immature/To think he would replace/The missing elements in me?" "Bachelorette," a sweeping, brooding cousin to Post's "Isobel," is possibly Homogenic's saddest, most beautiful moment, giving filmic grandeur to a stormy relationship. Björk lets a little hope shine through on "Jòga," a moving song dedicated to her homeland and her best friend, and the reassuring finale, "All Is Full of Love." "Alarm Call"'s uplifting dance-pop seems out of place with the rest of the album, but as its title implies, Homogenic is her most holistic work. While it might not represent every side of Björk's music, Homogenic displays some of her most impressive heights.

 

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1. Radiohead – OK Computer

 

Using the textured soundscapes of The Bends as a launching pad, Radiohead delivered another startlingly accomplished set of modern guitar rock with OK Computer. The anthemic guitar heroics present on Pablo Honey and even The Bends are nowhere to be heard here. Radiohead have stripped away many of the obvious elements of guitar rock, creating music that is subtle and textured yet still has the feeling of rock & roll. Even at its most adventurous -- such as the complex, multi-segmented "Paranoid Android" -- the band is tight, melodic, and muscular, and Thom Yorke's voice effortlessly shifts from a sweet falsetto to vicious snarls. It's a thoroughly astonishing demonstration of musical virtuosity and becomes even more impressive with repeated listens, which reveal subtleties like electronica rhythms, eerie keyboards, odd time signatures, and complex syncopations. Yet all of this would simply be showmanship if the songs weren't strong in themselves, and OK Computer is filled with moody masterpieces, from the shimmering "Subterranean Homesick Alien" and the sighing "Karma Police" to the gothic crawl of "Exit Music (For a Film)." OK Computer is the album that establishes Radiohead as one of the most inventive and rewarding guitar rock bands of the '90s.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Amon Tobin – Bricolage

 

Amon Tobin's jazz-jungle fusions as Cujo (for upstart label Ninebar) earned him many props, but that began to change with his debut for Ninja Tune. Blurring the already vague line that separates jungle's rhythmic meditations from those of the hottest jazz (Elvin Jones, say, or Jaco Pastorius), Bricolage manages a difficult hybrid of heart, soul, atmosphere, and brain-bending plunderphonics that loses neither perspective nor direction over the course of the albums. Like his preceding EPs Creatures and Chomp Samba (from which a few of Bricolage's cuts derive), the album mixes fast and slow but maintains a solid focus on innovation without sacrificing a sense of purpose. Somehow, Bricolage manages to be both consistent and consistently engaging, a feat few drum'n'bass LPs seem able to manage.

 

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Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind

 

After spending much of the '90s touring and simply not writing songs, Bob Dylan returned in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, his first collection of new material in seven years. Where Under the Red Sky, his last collection of original compositions, had a casual, tossed-off feel, Time Out of Mind is carefully considered, from the densely detailed songs to the dark, atmospheric production. Sonically, the album is reminiscent of Oh Mercy, the last album Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois, but Time Out of Mind has a grittier foundation -- by and large, the songs are bitter and resigned, and Dylan gives them appropriately anguished performances. Lanois bathes them in hazy, ominous sounds, which may suit the spirit of the lyrics, but are often in opposition to Dylan's performances. Consequently, the album loses a little of its emotional impact, yet the songs themselves are uniformly powerful, adding up to Dylan's best overall collection in years. It's a better, more affecting record than Oh Mercy, not only because the songs have a stronger emotional pull, but because Lanois hasn't sanded away all the grit. As a result, the songs retain their power, leaving Time Out of Mind as one of the rare latter-day Dylan albums that meets his high standards.

 

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Company Flow – Funcrusher Plus

 

Featuring material recorded over 1994-1997, Company Flow's official full-length debut, Funcrusher Plus, had a galvanizing effect on the underground hip-hop scene. It was one of the artiest, most abstract hip-hop albums ever recorded, paving the way for a new brand of avant-garde experimentalism that blatantly defied commercial considerations. Musically and lyrically, Funcrusher Plus is abrasive and confrontational, informed by left-wing politics and the punked-out battle cry "independent as f*ck." It's intentionally not funky and certainly not danceable; the beats are tense and jagged, and often spaced far apart to leave room for the MCs' complex rhymes. Bigg Jus and El-P's lyrical technique is so good it's sometimes nearly impenetrable, assaulting the listener with dense barrages of words that take a few listens to decipher. Even if this is all highly off-kilter, it's also a conscious return to hip-hop on its most basic, beats-and-rhymes level; hooks or jazz and funk samples aren't even considerations here. The production is spacy and atmospheric, often employing weird ambient noises and futuristic synths that clash with the defiantly low-budget production values. It's also quite minimalist, particularly on tracks like "Vital Nerve," which is basically just a three-note synth line over a beat, and the classic Indelible MC's single "The Fire in Which You Burn," where Co-Flow trades rhymes with the Juggaknots over a skittering beat and sitar drone. Other tracks have sci-fi and conspiracy theory undertones; some are set in an Orwellian dystopia, while some pointedly satirize corporate and capitalist greed. Yet there's also some straightforward realism, as on "Last Good Sleep," a frightening domestic abuse drama. Funcrusher Plus demands intense concentration, but also rewards it, and its advancement of hip-hop as an art form is still being felt. It's difficult, challenging music, to be sure, and it's equally far ahead of its time.

 

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Daft Punk – Homework

 

Daft Punk's full-length debut is a funk-house hailstorm, giving real form to a style of straight-ahead dance music not attempted since the early fusion days of on-the-one funk and dance-party disco. Thick, rumbling bass, vocoders, choppy breaks and beats, and a certain brash naiveté permeate the record from start to finish, giving it the edge of an almost certain classic. While a few fall flat, the best tracks make this one essential.

 

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Monolake – Hongkong

 

 

Hongkong compiles Monolake's early releases on Chain Reaction circa 1996-1997. There may not be any purer example of this influential German duo's early sound than the opening track, the mammoth "Cyan." Hongkong ends with two tracks from Monolake's release on the Din label, and also the previously unreleased "Mass Transit Railway." Not nearly as epic or as cinematic as the other tracks, these final three still incorporate strange samples, such as waves crashing on the side of a boat and a montage of Asian voices.

 

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The Verve and Bob Dylan wouldve been in my top 5.

 

This thread has been great and congrats on member of the month, very well deserved!

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I cannot agree more with Godspeed. East Hastings introduced me to them about two years ago, and their music is almost always phenomenal. (Crazy to believe that album is already sixteen years old.)

 

The Verve and Bob Dylan wouldve been in my top 5.

 

This thread has been great and congrats on member of the month, very well deserved!

 

Totally. Time Out of Mind is one of my favorite Dylan albums.

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The Verve and Bob Dylan wouldve been in my top 5.

 

This thread has been great and congrats on member of the month, very well deserved!

 

Cheers to the Parrot! :D I wonder what '98 will bring. :surprised:

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1998:

 

 

 

10. Tortoise – TNT

 

Expected by many to continue leading the post-rock brigade into a new fusion with dub and electronics, Tortoise instead turned yet another corner with their third album, TNT. Adding guitarist Jeff Parker to cement their musicianship as well as their connections to Chicago's fertile jazz/avant-garde scene, the band returned with a record of post-modern cool jazz, only slightly informed by the dub, Krautrock, and electronics of Millions Now Living Will Never Die. It shows from the first few seconds -- a lazy, slightly free drum solo frames a few tentative guitar chords and some teased effects, before the band kicks in with a holds-barred jam that encompasses a tremulous solo from trumpeter Rob Mazurek. With engineer/mixer/drummer John McEntire and company adding only a few post-production frills to the mix -- and those so complementary and subdued that they rarely even sound like effects -- TNT comes off as a surprisingly organic record. The evocative Spanish-style guitar on "I Set My Face to the Hillside" plays over an assortment of playground sounds, while "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazú Falls" deconstructs a classically angular Tortoise groove and re-emerges with an evocative, deeply affecting groove over shimmering vibes and precision guitar lines. There are plenty of nods to post-rock touchstones like Krautrock ("Swing From the Gutters"), dub, and minimalism ("Ten-Day Interval"), but Tortoise hardly sounds like a difficult band here. Instead of forcing studio experimentation to become an end to itself, the band mastered -- with a single, deft statement -- the far more difficult lesson of making technology work for the music.

 

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9. Pulp – This Is Hardcore

 

"This is the sound of someone losing the plot/you're gonna like it, but not a lot." So says Jarvis Cocker on "The Fear," the opening track on This Is Hardcore, the ambitious follow-up to Pulp's breakthrough Different Class, thereby providing his own review for the album. Cocker doesn't quite lose the plot on This Is Hardcore, but the ominous, claustrophobic "The Fear" makes it clear that this is a different band, one that no longer has anthems like "Common People" in mind. The shift in direction shouldn't come as a surprise -- Pulp was always an arty band -- but even the catchiest numbers are shrouded in darkness. This Is Hardcore is haunted by disappointments and fear -- by the realization that what you dreamed of may not be what you really wanted. Nowhere is this better heard than on "This Is Hardcore," where drum loops, lounge piano, cinematic strings, and a sharp lyric create a frightening monument to weary decadence. It's the centerpiece of the album, and the best moments follow its tone. Some, like "The Fear," "Seductive Barry," and "Help the Aged," wear their fear on their sleeves, some cloak it in Bowie-esque dance grooves ("Party Hard") or in hushed, resigned tones ("Dishes"). A few others, such as the scathing "I'm a Man" or "A Little Soul," have a similar vibe without being explicitly dark. Instead of delivering an entirely bleak album, Pulp raise the curtain somewhat on the last three songs, but the attempts at redemption -- "Sylvia," "Glory Days," "The Day After the Revolution" -- don't feel as natural as everything that precedes them. It's enough to keep the album from being a masterpiece, but it's hardly enough to prevent it from being an artistic triumph.

 

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8. Silver Jews – American Water

 

American Water, the Silver Jews' third full-length release, reunites David Berman and Stephen Malkmus and adds new members Mike Fellows, Tim Barnes, and Chris Stroffolino. Named after a poster Berman saw at his veterinarian's office for American Water Spaniels, the album boasts some of the Jews' best arrangements and playing, from the flute and brass-tinged "Random Rules" to the driven but eloquent guitars on "Night Society" to the wah-wah friendly, '70s-style pop of "People." American Water also varies in tempo and mood more than any Silver Jews album since Starlite Walker. "Send in the Clouds" and "Smith & Jones Forever" gallop along, while "We Are Real" and "The Wild Kindness" stroll. Though most of the album's lyrics aren't as personal as those on The Natural Bridge, they still feature Berman's detailed wit, like this couplet from "People": "The drums march along at the clip of an IV drip/Like sparks from a muffler dragged down the strip." The tight, sunny-sounding production sparkles on songs like "Honk if You're Lonely Tonight," and Berman's and Malkmus' twin vocals brighten songs like "Blue Arrangements" and "Federal Dust." As with all of the Jews' best work, American Water sounds like it was made for the band's own enjoyment, and the listener is just eavesdropping on their fun.

 

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7. Elliot Smith – XO

 

A year before his major-label debut, XO, was released, it seemed unlikely that Elliott Smith would even be on a major, let alone having his record be one of the more anticipated releases of 1998. He had certainly earned a great deal of critical respect with his low-key, acoustic indie records and was emerging as a respected songwriter, but he hadn't made much of an impression outside of journalists, record collectors, and indie rockers. An Oscar nomination can change things, however. "Miss Misery," one of Smith's elegantly elegiac songs for Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, unexpectedly earned an Academy Award nomination, and he was immediately thrust into the spotlight. He was reluctant to embrace instant celebrity, yet he didn't refuse a contract with DreamWorks, and he didn't shy away from turning XO into a glorious fruition of his talents. Smith's songs remain intensely introspective, yet the lush, Beatlesque production provides a terrifically charming counterpoint. His sweetly dark melodies are vividly brought to life with the detailed arrangements, and they sell Smith's tormented songs -- it's easy to get caught up in the tunes and the sound of the record, then realize later what the songs are actually about. That's a sign of a good craftsman, and XO proves that not only can Elliott Smith craft a song, but he knows how to make an alluring pop record as well.

 

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6. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs

 

Four albums in and Mercury Rev remain as surprising and daring as ever -- exchanging the volcanic noise and twisted sensibilities of earlier releases for ornate arrangements and ethereal strings, Deserter's Songs unlocks the beauty always hidden just below the band's surface, its lush harmonics and soothing textures bathing in an almost unearthly light. Standouts including the exquisitely waltz-like "Tonite It Shows" and the celestial "Endlessly" are like lullabies, their music-box melodies gentle and narcotic; even the most pop-oriented moments like "Opus 40" and "Hudson Line" share a symphonic, candy-colored majesty far removed from conventional rock idioms. Complete with its fractured instrumental interludes and odd effects, Deserter's Songs sounds like no other album -- for that matter, it doesn't even sound like Mercury Rev, yet there's no mistaking the record's brilliance for anyone else.

 

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5. OutKast – Aquemini

 

Even compared to their already excellent and forward-looking catalog, OutKast's sprawling third album, Aquemini, was a stroke of brilliance. The chilled-out space-funk of ATLiens had already thrown some fans for a loop, and Aquemini made it clear that its predecessor was no detour, but a stepping stone for even greater ambitions. Some of ATLiens' ethereal futurism is still present, but more often Aquemini plants its feet on the ground for a surprisingly down-home flavor. The music draws from a vastly eclectic palette of sources, and the live instrumentation is fuller-sounding than ATLiens. Most importantly, producers Organized Noize imbue their tracks with a Southern earthiness and simultaneous spirituality that come across regardless of what Dre and Big Boi are rapping about. Not that they shy away from rougher subject matter, but their perspective is grounded and responsible, intentionally avoiding hardcore clichés. Their distinctive vocal deliveries are now fully mature, with a recognizably Southern rhythmic bounce but loads more technique than their territorial peers. Those flows grace some of the richest and most inventive hip-hop tracks of the decade. The airy lead single "Rosa Parks" juxtaposes front-porch acoustic guitar with DJ scratches and a stomping harmonica break that could have come from nowhere but the South. Unexpected touches like that are all over the record: the live orchestra on "Return of the 'G'"; the electronic, George Clinton-guested "Synthesizer"; the reggae horns and dub-style echo of "SpottieOttieDopaliscious"; the hard-rocking wah-wah guitar of "Chonkyfire"; and on and on.

 

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4. Air – Moon Safari

 

Although electronica had its fair share of chillout classics prior to the debut of Air, the lion's share were either stark techno (Warp) or sample-laden trip-hop (Mo' Wax). But while Air had certainly bought records and gear based on the artists that had influenced them, they didn't just regurgitate (or sample) them; they learned from them, digesting their lessons in a way that gave them new paths to follow. They were musicians in a producer's world, and while no one could ever accuse their music of being danceable, it delivered the emotional power of great dance music even while pushing the barriers of what "electronica" could or should sound like. (Never again would Saint Etienne be the only band of a certain age to reveal their fondness for Burt Bacharach.) The Modulor EP had displayed astonishing powers of mood and texture, but it was Air's full-length debut, Moon Safari, that proved they could also write accessible pop songs like "Sexy Boy" and "Kelly Watch the Stars." But it wasn't all pop. The opener, "La Femme d'Argent," was an otherworldly beginning, with a slinky bassline evoking Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson and a slow glide through seven minutes of growing bliss (plus a wonderful keyboard solo). The vocoderized "Remember" relaunched a wave of robot pop that hadn't been heard in almost 20 years, and the solos for harmonica and French horn on "Ce Matin La" made the Bacharach comparisons direct. Unlike most electronica producers, Air had musical ideas that stretched beyond samplers or keyboards, and Moon Safari found those ideas wrapped up in music that was engaging, warm, and irresistible.

 

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3. Massive Attack – Mezzanine

 

Increasingly ignored amidst the exploding trip-hop scene, Massive Attack finally returned in 1998 with Mezzanine, a record immediately announcing not only that the group was back, but that they'd recorded a set of songs just as singular and revelatory as on their debut, almost a decade back. It all begins with a stunning one-two-three-four punch: "Angel," "Risingson," "Teardrop," and "Inertia Creeps." Augmenting their samples and keyboards with a studio band, Massive Attack open with "Angel," a stark production featuring pointed beats and a distorted bassline that frames the vocal (by group regular Horace Andy) and a two-minute flame-out with raging guitars. "Risingson" is a dense, dark feature for Massive Attack themselves (on production as well as vocals), with a kitchen sink's worth of dubby effects and reverb. "Teardrop" introduces another genius collaboration -- with Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins -- from a production unit with a knack for recruiting gifted performers. The blend of earthy with ethereal shouldn't work at all, but Massive Attack pull it off in fine fashion. "Inertia Creeps" could well be the highlight, another feature for just the core threesome. With eerie atmospherics, fuzz-tone guitars, and a wealth of effects, the song could well be the best production from the best team of producers the electronic world had ever seen. Obviously, the rest of the album can't compete, but there's certainly no sign of the side-two slump heard on Protection, as both Andy and Fraser return for excellent, mid-tempo tracks ("Man Next Door" and "Black Milk," respectively).

 

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2. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

 

Perhaps best likened to a marching band on an acid trip, Neutral Milk Hotel's second album is another quixotic sonic parade; lo-fi yet lush, impenetrable yet wholly accessible, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is either the work of a genius or an utter crackpot, with the truth probably falling somewhere in between. Again teaming with producer Robert Schneider, Jeff Mangum invests the material here with new maturity and clarity; while the songs run continuously together, as they did on the previous On Avery Island, there is a much clearer sense of shifting dynamics from track to track, with a greater emphasis on structure and texture. Mangum's vocals are far more emotive as well; whether caught in the rush of spiritual epiphany ("The King of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two and Three") or in the grip of sexual anxiety ("Two-Headed Boy"), he sings with a new fervor, composed in equal measure of ecstasy and anguish. However, as his musical concepts continue to come into sharper focus, one hopes his stream-of-consciousness lyrical ideas soon begin to do the same; while Mangum spins his words with the rapid-fire intensity of a young Dylan, the songs are far too cryptic and abstract to fully sink in -- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it's saying is anyone's guess.

 

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1. Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children

 

Although Boards of Canada's blueprint for electronic listening music -- aching electro-synth with mid-tempo hip-hop beats and occasional light scratching -- isn't quite a revolution in and of itself, Music Has the Right to Children is an amazing LP. Similar to the early work of Autechre and Aphex Twin, the duo is one of the few European artists who can match their American precursors with regard to a sense of spirit in otherwise electronic music. This is pure machine soul, reminiscent of some forgotten Japanese animation soundtrack or a rusting Commodore 64 just about to give up the ghost. Alternating broadly sketched works with minute-long vignettes (the latter of which comprise several of the best tracks on the album), Music Has the Right to Children is one of the best electronic releases of 1998.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

Arab Strap – Philophobia

 

Hearing "Packs of Three" begin Arab Strap's second full album with a gentle electric guitar strum and crisp drum beat is one thing, hearing Moffat softly sing "It was the biggest cock you'd ever seen, but no one knows where that cock has been" is quite another. Put the two together and that's Arab Strap in a disturbing nutshell, once again. With a number of guest performers on keyboards, strings, and other instruments, Moffat and Middleton once again create a series of tense, melancholy, and emotionally eviscerating numbers. Given the album title, meaning "fear of love," it's no surprise that happy-go-lucky tunes aren't anywhere to be found, but then again, that was never the Arab Strap M.O. in the first place. Lyrics as naked, realistic, and ugly as the cover paintings abound, their acid impact again, carefully shaped by the moody arrangements and steady pace throughout. The Albini-tinged production familiar from Week recurs here, but the songs themselves feel perversely gentler on the one hand, more anthemic ("Soaps" being a good example) on the other. The ear Middleton has for astonishing, subtle touches -- the soft reverb guitar loop ending "Here We Go," the combination of hum and crackle on "Islands," the piano/drum arrangement on "I Would've Liked Me a Lot" -- proves its strength time and again on Philophobia.

 

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Boredoms - Super æ

 

Surfacing again with an American release after a couple years of absence, the Boredoms showed themselves to still be truly a unique proposition with Super Ae. Taking some more of the prog/Kraut influences that crept into earlier efforts while still firing up the amps all around, Eye and his cohorts (forming a core quintet this time around) once again become the most out-there band in the world. "Super You" is a simply fantastic way to start, with initial whizzing stereo-to-stereo sounds leading into a wonderful collection of slow, ponderous death rock riffs that sound like all the Black Sabbath and Metallica wannabes of the world gathered to create one massive opening fanfare via guitars. Logically the Boredoms spike the punch by interrupting things with sped-up tape sounds and pitch changes, making the proceedings all the more fun. From there, Super Ae continues along to something close to a concept album; each track feels like a perfect lead in to the rest, while the whole sense is of one long, mantra-like piece, faster or slower as the band feels like it. The big change is that the volume is not so much used to stun as it is to maintain a general atmosphere while the rhythm section cranks along in semi-motorik style, a bit like Can with some even freer spirits at play. Not everything is total destruction in the Boredoms scheme of things, admittedly -- "Super Coming" has some hilarious cartoony vocals from all participants. "Super Are" begins with a serene keyboard performance and chanting background vocals before turning into a psych/acid folk drum/singing jam session á la Amon Düül or fellow countrymen Ghost. Needless to say, though, the amps and monster sludge kick in soon enough, and quite well at that! "Super Good," the album closer, also has a nicely calm way about it.

 

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Eels – Electro-Shock Blues

 

The Eels' second release, Electro-Shock Blues, is a much darker album than their underrated debut, 1996's Beautiful Freak, but just as rewarding. Singer/guitarist/songwriter E experienced many upheavals in his personal life between albums (the passing of several family members and close friends), and decided to work his way through life's tribulations via his music. The result is a spectacular epic work, easily on par with such classic albums cut from the same cloth -- Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, Lou Reed's Magic and Loss. For some of the most introspective and haunting tunes of recent times, look no further than the title track, "Last Stop: This Town," and "Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor." And although the lyrics deal almost entirely with mortality, the music for "Hospital Food," "Cancer for the Cure," and "Going to Your Funeral, Pt. 1" is comparable to Beck's funky noise, while "Efils' God," "The Medication Is Wearing Off," and "My Descent Into Madness" are all ethereal, soothing compositions. One of the finest and fully realized records of 1998, a must-hear.

 

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Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis

 

Achingly gorgeous and hauntingly stark, Mark Hollis' self-titled debut picks up where he left off with Talk Talk's Laughing Stock seven years earlier, re-emerging at the nexus point where jazz, ambient, and folk music collide. It's quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made, each song cut to the bone for maximum emotional impact and every note carrying enormous meaning. Hollis paints his music in fine, exquisite strokes, with an uncanny mastery of atmosphere that's frequently devastating. And if anything, his singularly resonant voice has grown even more plaintive with the passage of time, which -- combined with the understated artistry and minimalist beauty of tracks like "The Colour of Spring" and "Watershed" -- makes Mark Hollis a truly unique and indelible listening experience. His obvious understanding of the power of silence aside, one prays he doesn't again wait for the seven-year itch to strike before returning.

 

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UNKLE – Psyence Fiction

 

 

James Lavelle and DJ Shadow are unequal partners in UNKLE, with the former providing the concept and the latter providing music, which naturally overshadows the concept, since the only clear concept -- apart from futuristic sound effects, video-game samples, and merging trip-hop with rock -- is collaborating with a variety of musicians, from superstars to cult favorites Kool G Rap, Alice Temple, and Mark Hollis (who provides uncredited piano on "Chaos"). Since Shadow's prime gift is for instrumentals, the prospect of him collaborating with vocalists is more intriguing than enticing, and Psyence Fiction is appropriately divided between brilliance and failed experiments. Shadow and Lavelle aren't breaking new territory here -- beneath the harder rock edge, full-fledged songs, and occasional melodicism, the album stays on the course Endtroducing... set. Shadow isn't given room to run wild with his soundscapes, and only a couple of cuts, such as the explosive opener, "Guns Blazing," equal the sonic collages of his debut. Initially, that may be a disappointment, but UNKLE gains momentum on repeated listens. Portions of the record still sound a little awkward --Mike D's contribution suffers primarily from recycled Hello Nasty rhyme schemes -- yet those moments are overshadowed by Shadow's imagination and unpredictable highlights, such as Temple's chilly "Bloodstain" or Badly Drawn Boy's claustrophobic "Nursery Rhyme," as well as the masterstrokes fronted by Richard Ashcroft (a sweeping, neo-symphonic "Lonely Soul") and Thom Yorke (the moody "Rabbit in Your Headlights"). These moments might not add up to an overpowering record, but in some ways Psyence Fiction is something better -- a superstar project that doesn't play it safe and actually has its share of rich, rewarding music.

 

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^ Nice to see that most people on rateyourmusic.com seem to agree with you, the top CDs 1998 on there is

 

6. Elliott Smith - XO

5. Swans - The swans are dead

4. Outcast - Aquemini

3. Boards of Canada - Music has the right to children

2. Massive Attack - Mezzanine

1. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the aeroplane over the sea

 

Air with Moon Safari only comes in at #16 but personally I would also place that one in the Top 5.

Anathema with Alternative 4 and Nightwish with Oceanborn would be in there as well.

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Ray Of Light

 

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill

 

The Velvet Rope (for '97)

 

Also Aquemini and Homework higher

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Wow, I've never realised that 1998 was such a great year! :surprised:

 

I think that Saturnzreturn by Goldie deserves to be mentioned though. It was a seminal album for drum 'n' bass and electronic music in general.

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^Well, not as great as '97, but still really good IMO.

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1999:

 

 

 

10. The Olivia Tremor Control - Black Foliage: Animation Music Volume 1

 

If the preceding Dusk at Cubist Castle was the Olivia Tremor Control's very own White Album, then the labyrinthine Black Foliage is their SMiLE -- it's an imploding masterpiece, a work teetering on the cliff's edge between genius and madness. Torn at the seams between pop transcendence and noise radicalism, the group attempts to have it both ways, meaning teenage symphonies to God like "A New Day" rest uneasily alongside musique concrète-styled tape pastiches such as "Combinations" (which, along with the similarly styled, multi-part title track, is one of the many sonic motifs snaking its way throughout the record). There are at least enough ideas for five albums here, which is both Black Foliage's strength and its weakness -- it's impossible not to get lost inside of the OTC's swirling schizophrenia, and too often snatches of brilliance flash by too quickly to savor the moment. Moreover, with songs like "California Demise 3" continuing the oblique narrative running through previous OTC records, the artistic statement the record is making (and there undoubtedly is one) is impenetrable at best. Still, with each of the band's successive releases seeming like just part of a much bigger picture only now beginning to come into focus, maybe that's the point. Ultimately, Black Foliage just might be an end-of-the-millennium appeal that speaks directly and solely to the unconscious.

 

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9. Smog – Knock Knock

 

 

Smog's seventh full-length album, Knock Knock, proves to be singer/songwriter Bill Callahan's subtlest collection of songs yet. Indeed, one of the album's greatest accomplishments is its gently optimistic tone; if his other albums made a deadpan joke out of misery, on this album Callahan delivers the punch lines with traces of a grin. It's a moving album on many levels; not only do the songs have Smog's usual emotional intimacy, their subjects move away from difficult, claustrophobic situations toward maturity and acceptance. "Let's Move to the Country" and "I Could Drive Forever" are all about escape, whether it's from the rat race or bad relationships -- "I feel light and strong," Callahan sings on "I Could Drive Forever," summing up Knock Knock's lyrical tenor. But moving also implies distance. As the album travels the emotional spaces between people, Callahan himself seems more removed from these songs; more than ever, his songs read more like short stories than diary entries, particularly on "River Guard," about a warden watching prisoners swim, and the enigmatic "Sweet Treat." "Cold Blooded Old Times" and "Teenage Spaceship" capture the awkwardness of youth, while "Left Only With Love" accepts a lover's departure in stride. Musically, Knock Knock builds on Red Apple Falls's folky, flowing sound, but throws in twists like drum loops, electric guitars, and, surprisingly, a children's choir. "Hit the Ground Running" combines all three elements, driven by rolling guitars and accented with strings, with the children's choir urging Callahan on his way. "Held"'s drum, guitar, and feedback loops take a collage approach to a classic rock sound; along with "Cold Blooded Old Times" and "No Dancing," it's one of Callahan's most up-tempo songs since 1995's "Wild Love." Over time, Knock Knock reveals itself as one of Smog's finest moments.

 

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8. Wilco – Summerteeth

 

 

Jeff Tweedy once blazed the trail for the American rock underground's embrace of its country and folk roots, but as the decade drew to a close he also began spearheading the return of classic pop; simply put, what once were fiddles on Wilco records became violins -- the same instrument, to be sure, but viewed with a radical shift in perception and meaning. While lacking the sheer breadth and ambition of the previous Being There, Summer Teeth is the most focused Wilco effort yet, honing the lessons of the last record to forge a majestic pop sound almost completely devoid of alt-country elements. The lush string arrangements and gorgeous harmonies of tracks like "She's a Jar" and "Pieholden Suite" suggest nothing less than a landlocked Brian Wilson, while more straightforward rockers like the opening "I Can't Stand It" bear the influence of everything from R&B to psychedelia. Still, for all of the superficial warmth and beauty of the record's arrangements, Tweedy's songs are perhaps his darkest and most haunting to date, bleak domestic dramas informed by recurring themes of alienation, adultery, and abuse -- even the sunniest melodies mask moments of devastating power. If Summer Teeth has a precedent, it's peak-era Band; the album not only possesses a similar pastoral sensibility, but like Robbie Robertson and company before them, Wilco seems directly connected to a kind of American musical consciousness, not only rejuvenating our collective creative mythology, but adding new chapters to the legend with each successive record.

 

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7. Blur – 13

 

 

Blur's penitence for Brit-pop continues with the aptly named 13, which deals with star-crossed situations like personal and professional breakups with Damon Albarn's longtime girlfriend, Justine Frischmann of Elastica, and the group's longtime producer, Stephen Street. Building on Blur's un-pop experiments, the group's ambitions to expand their musical and emotional horizons result in a half-baked baker's dozen of songs, featuring some of their most creative peaks and self-indulgent valleys. Albarn has been criticized for lacking depth in his songwriting, but his ballads remain some of Blur's best moments. When Albarn and crew risk some honesty, 13 shines: on "Tender," Albarn is battered and frail, urged by a lush gospel choir to "get through it." His confiding continues on "1992," which alludes to the beginning -- and ending -- of his relationship with Frischmann. On "No Distance Left to Run," one of 13's most moving moments, Albarn addresses post-breakup ambivalence, sighing, "I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe while you sleep." While these songs reflect Albarn's romantic chaos, "Mellow Song," "Caramel," and "Trimm Trabb" express day-to-day desperation. Musically, the saddest songs on 13 are also the clearest, mixing electronic and acoustic elements in sleek but heartfelt harmony.

 

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6. Built to Spill – Keep It Like a Secret

 

 

Perhaps realizing that their time on a major label was likely limited, Built to Spill made a gutsy choice for Keep It Like a Secret, their second album for Warner Brothers. They embraced the sounds of a big studio and focused their sound without sacrificing their fractured indie rock aesthetic. In a sense, this is Built to Spill's pop album: every song is direct and clean, without the long, cerebral jamming that characterized their earlier albums. That's not to say that the album is compromised -- the songwriting may be streamlined, but Doug Martsch now packs all of his twists, turns, and detours into dense, three-minute blasts. This approach, combined with the shiny sonic textures, makes Keep It Like a Secret the most immediate and, yes, accessible Built to Spill record, but they steadfastly open their music up and breathe the way, say, Pavement did on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or Brighten the Corners. Built to Spill still demand that listener meet them on their own terms -- these just happen to be the easiest terms to understand in their catalog.

 

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5. The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I

 

 

The band's third full album is a firecracker, showing their at once passionate and sly approach to music -- take in everything, put it back out, and give it its own particular sheen and spin -- is in no danger of letting up. Knowing fans of the quartet have spoken on how it's clear that the bandmembers listen to everything from old soul to hip-hop and techno and back again, and there's no argument here based on the evidence of this disc. Travis Morrison's unusual vocals make a brilliant calling card for the band, high, a touch quavery, but never out of control, slipping into the mix like another instrument. Though the comparisons to fellow D.C. musical figure Craig Wedren are understandable, Morrison's voice isn't as piercing, with a warm, light undertow that's quite affecting. When he hits his best moments, like the downright anthemic but never breast-beating "What Do You Want Me to Say?," it's a wonder more people aren't talking about the guy. The rest of the band turn the indie rock stereotype on its head, avoiding aimless shambling jangle or emo's straightjacketing stereotype in favor of an unsettled mix that embraces sampling's jump-cut techniques and shifting rhythms where prominence is equally given to guitar, keyboards, and beat. It can be late-night jazzy mood-out or sudden thrash, but the quartet handles all approaches with aplomb and creative arrangements to boot. Drummer Joe Easley may be the band's secret weapon, able to keep the pace and swing just enough, though bassist Eric Axelson is by no means a slouch himself -- the dub-touched "Spider in the Snow" is a great showcase for both. The fact that "You Are Invited" is conceivably the world's greatest synth-pop/electro/guitar chime/post-punk song about trying to get to the right party -- and is emotional without being overwrought -- gives a sense as to this album's considerable strengths.

 

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4. The Beta Band – The Three E.P’s

 

 

That Oasis and Radiohead, the two biggest names in U.K. rock during the '90s, separately made claims in 1999 about creating a "Beta Band record" (even though neither band actually did) speaks volumes about the impact of The 3 E.P.'s. With reference points literally all across the map, the Beta Band still managed a sound that was startlingly fresh, broadly appealing to fans of jam bands, indie rock, electronica, and Brit-pop, which is no small feat in and of itself. Rather than a full-length debut, per se, The 3 E.P.'s is, as the name suggests, a collection of three limited-edition EPs which were released between 1997 and 1998 on the U.K. indie Regal Records. As such, the songs display an off-the-cuff charm which is as refreshing as it is unforced, revealing a natural progression by the band from humble folk/indie rock beginnings ("Dry the Rain," made famous in a brilliant scene in 2000's High Fidelity) to full-out psychedelic pop endings ("Needles in My Eye"). Throughout The 3 E.P.'s, rather than employing the typical verse-chorus-verse song structure exhausted by '90s alternative rock, the Beta Band successfully mines Krautrock, the Canterbury Scene, hip-hop drum loops, and even '70s funk and soul to build their songs around infectious beats, grooves, and melodies. And while many of the songs cause instant head-bobbing (witness High Fidelity), they are also helped along by Stephen Mason's alternately mantra-like and free-association vocal lines, which also manage to display a trace of sadness and introspection amid hippie-ish come-together sentiments. Despite a couple of experimental clunkers (the overly long instrumental "Monolith" and the rap during "The House Song"), it is precisely the Beta Band's skill at juxtaposition which prevents The 3 E.P.'s in being merely an exercise in met expectations (like the vast majority of '90s alternative rock). Although much of the album's popularity stemmed from its contrast with the tedious state of music upon its release, The 3 E.P.'s indeed transcends on many levels. Only a band without anything to lose or gain could create music like this, and in the end eclecticism has and will rarely sound better.

 

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3. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

 

 

So where does a band go after releasing the most defiantly experimental record of its career? If you're the Flaming Lips, you keep rushing headlong into the unknown -- The Soft Bulletin, their follow-up to the four-disc gambit Zaireeka, is in many ways their most daring work yet, a plaintively emotional, lushly symphonic pop masterpiece eons removed from the mind-warping noise of their past efforts. Though more conventional in concept and scope than Zaireeka, The Soft Bulletin clearly reflects its predecessor's expansive sonic palette. Its multidimensional sound is positively celestial, a shape-shifting pastiche of blissful melodies, heavenly harmonies, and orchestral flourishes; but for all its headphone-friendly innovations, the music is still amazingly accessible, never sacrificing popcraft in the name of radical experimentation. (Its aims are so perversely commercial, in fact, that hit R&B remixer Peter Mokran tinkered with the cuts "Race for the Prize" and "Waitin' for a Superman" in the hopes of earning mainstream radio attention.) But what's most remarkable about The Soft Bulletin is its humanity -- these are Wayne Coyne's most personal and deeply felt songs, as well as the warmest and most giving. No longer hiding behind surreal vignettes about Jesus, zoo animals, and outer space, Coyne pours his heart and soul into each one of these tracks, poignantly exploring love, loss, and the fate of all mankind; highlights like "The Spiderbite Song" and "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate" are so nakedly emotional and transcendentally spiritual that it's impossible not to be moved by their beauty.

 

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2. The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs

 

 

A true A-to-Z catalog of touchingly bittersweet love songs that runs the gamut from tender ballads to pithy folk tunes to bluesy vamps, the sheer scope of the record allows all of Merritt's musical personas to converge -- the regular use of guest vocalists recalls his work as the 6ths, the romantic fatalism suggests the Gothic Archies project, and the stately melodies evoke the Future Bible Heroes. The whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, however -- for all of Merritt's scathing wit and icy detachment, there's a depth and sensitivity to these songs largely absent from his past work, and each one of these 69 tracks approaches l'amour from refreshing angles, galvanizing the love song form with rare sophistication and elegance. Naturally, given a project of this size there's the occasional bit of filler, but all in all, 69 Love Songs maintains a remarkable consistency throughout, and the highlights ("I Don't Believe in the Sun," "All My Little Words," "Asleep and Dreaming," "Busby Berkeley Dreams," and "Acoustic Guitar," to name just a few) are jaw-droppingly superb. Also available as three individual releases, 69 Love Songs was nevertheless conceived as a whole and is best absorbed as such, with all of its twists and turns taken in stride; despite its three-hour length, the music boasts the craftsmanship and economy that remain the hallmarks of classic American pop songwriting, a tradition Merritt upholds even as he subverts the formula in new and brilliant ways.

 

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1. Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun

 

Two years passed since Sigur Rós' debut. By this time, the band recruited in a new keyboardist by the name of Kjartan Sveinsson and it seems to have done nothing but take the band to an even higher state of self-awareness. Even on aesthetic matters, Sigur Rós entitle their sophomore effort not in a manner to play up the irony of high expectations (à lathe Stone Roses' Second Coming), but in a modest realization. This second album -- Ágætis Byrjun -- translates roughly to Good Start. So as talented as Von might have been, this time out is probably even more worthy of dramatic debut expectations. Indeed, Ágætis Byrjun pulls no punches from the start. After an introduction just this side of one of the aforementioned Stone Roses' backward beauties, the album pumps in the morning mist with "Sven-G-Englar" -- a song of such accomplished gorgeousness that one wonders why such a tiny country as Iceland can musically outperform entire continents in just a few short minutes. The rest of this full-length follows such similar quality. Extremely deep strings underpin falsetto wails from the mournfully epic ("Viðar Vel Tl Loftárasa") to the unreservedly cinematic ("Avalon"). One will constantly be waiting to hear what fascinating turns such complex musicianship will take at a moment's notice. At its best, the album seems to accomplish everything lagging post-shoegazers like Spiritualized or Chapterhouse once promised. However, at its worst, the album sometimes slides into an almost overkill of sonic structures. Take "Hjartað Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm)," for instance: there are so many layers of heavy strings, dense atmospherics, and fading vocals that it becomes an ineffectual mess of styles over style. As expected, though, the band's keen sense of Sturm und Drang is mostly contained within an elegant scope of melodies for the remainder of this follow-up. Rarely has a sophomore effort sounded this thick and surprising.

 

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Honorable Mentions:

 

 

 

American Football - American Football

 

 

American Football existed for a blink of an eye, coming together in the late '90s in a small Midwestern college town out of a small but enthusiastic pool of young musicians. The band, consisting of Cap'n Jazz/Joan of Arc alumni Mike Kinsella as well as guitarist Steve Holmes and drummer Steve Lamos, played only a few live dates before devolving into a recording project and then silently disappearing altogether around 2000. Apart from a three-song EP, their self-titled 1999 album was all the trio left behind, its nine songs exploring a hushed, thoughtful take on the often more aggressive tones of the hardcore-birthed emo scene. American Football's songs dig deep into uncommon time signatures and jazz-influenced chords, and even implement understated trumpet and electric piano into their web of interlocking guitar runs and muted, softly smiling vocals. Happening concordantly with a thriving post-rock movement hubbed close by in Chicago, the band has hints of the same musical crosscurrents ofTortoise or Gastr del Sol, setting their songs apart from the flock. The airy riff in 3/4 time andKinsella's buried, eager vocals on opening song "Never Meant" set the tone for an album of soft-spoken yet high-spirited songs not quite like any of the band's emo contemporaries. The band seemed primarily focused on instrumental composition, with fully instrumental tracks like "You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon" and "The One with the Wurlitzer" standing out and vocals sounding like a floating, distanced element on many of the tunes that include them. The lilting, mysterious tone of the album is only occasionally broken up by an upbeat rocker like "I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional," where the band marries its jazz-influenced chops to the same kind of wide-eyed emo pop the Promise Ring was making at the time. Kinsella would go on to release solo material as Owen, drawing on the same soft-focus melodies he employed with American Football, but the collaborative magic he found with Holmes and Lamos would never quite be recaptured in any of the three's future projects. Every song here manages to sound meticulously constructed without diminishing the easy, often dreamlike feel of the album. The record is defined by a sense of possibility and youthful discovery, and stands out not just as an anomalistic emo-jazz hybrid but as a lasting, iconic statement in the often blurry history of independent music.

 

 

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The Black Heart Procession - 2

 

 

Imagine a black, marble staircase winding up to an esoteric temple. The sky around you is the color of blood mixed with Balsamic vinegar. The moon is yellow, and hangs low on the horizon while Eastern European bats streak low over your head. The sound of dragging chains can be heard in what must be the dungeon below. Despite all of this gloom and terror, you must go inside. Romance demands it. If you ever want to hold the love of your life again, you must face unimaginable terror to make it happen, and even then there aren't any guarantees. Obviously, it's hard to summarize the sound of the Black Heart Procession on their second album, 2. All struggling metaphors aside, they are brilliant in their attempt to articulate the difficulty of fighting through the slicing depression that a battered heart can induce. The band's evolution is as apparent as a third limb. Black Heart Procession may be the first band from a country-folk rock background to sew an array of alien sound samples and organs together with an ability to shift into a superb indie rock gear. All of these tools do nothing but complement the exquisite piano, guitar, and drums. Pall Jenkins' voice has grown light years from the last album, and the end result produces a yearning voice that gives a stunning side to pain.

 

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Boredoms - Vision Creation Newsun

 

 

Vision Creation Newsun finds Boredoms moving even further away from the random noise that marked their early output and settling into a loose, jam-oriented aesthetic. The first two tracks (no song titles here, only symbols) find Boredoms further investigating pounding tribal rock with propulsive drumming, energetic guitar work, and vocal chants. The overall feel bears some similarity to Super Ae, with tracks that draw from Krautrock and psychedelia, but Vision Creation Newsun adds a folk element, including softer instrumental textures like hand percussion, lengthy cymbal washes, and acoustic guitars. Some passages even flirt with new age, as they weave bird songs and the sound of falling water into the mix. These delicate touches aptly demonstrate the sonic range of Boredoms, but some of these meandering pieces can get tedious. Still, the highlights are many. Guitarist Yama-Motor is the star here, and most of Vision Creation Newsun's best moments come from his hypnotic style and deep bag of effects. He is equally at home with the Spacemen 3-style feedback shriek of the second track as he is with the minimalist acoustic work that dominates the latter half of the album.

 

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MF DOOM – Operation: Doomsday

 

 

The pretext for the album is very similar to that of Marvel Comics supervillain Dr. Doom; after MF Doom, then known as Zevlove X, had been devastated by the death of his brother and K.M.D. accomplice, DJ Sub-Roc, in the early '90s, Elektra dropped his group and stopped the release of its second album, Black Bastards, due to its political message and, more specifically, its cover art. Doom was left scarred with a lingering pain that didn't manifest until the late '90s as hip-hop's only masked supervillain on Bobbito Garcia's Fondle 'Em Records. Carrying the weight of the past on his shoulders, Doom opens and closes Operation: Doomsday with frank and sincere lyrics. In between, however, many of the villain's rhymes are rather hard and piercing. On his subsequent material, he developed a more steady and refined delivery, but on this debut, Doomwas at his rawest and, lyrically, most dexterous. The out-of-left-field edge of Doom's production -- which features '80s soul and smooth jazz mixed with classic drum breaks -- is indeed abstract at times, but his off-kilter rhymes are palatable and absent any pretentiousness. In fact, the album arguably contains some of the freshest rhymes one might have heard around the time of its release. There are more than enough obscure but fun references (i.e. "quick to whip up a script like Rod Serling" on "Go with the Flow" or "MCs, ya style needs Velamints" on "Dead Bent") and quotable jewels from the "on-the-mike Rain Man" to feed on.

 

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Mr. Bungle – California

 

 

Four years after Disco Volante, Mr. Bungle returns with California, which immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessors -- it's probably their most heavily orchestrated record to date and their most melodic overall, as well as the least dependent on rock styles. That's certainly not to imply that this is a tame or immediately accessible record, nor that Mr. Bungle has suddenly gone sane. There is a stronger lounge-music orientation to the group's trademark rapid-fire genre-hopping; we hear more pop, swing, rockabilly, country & western, bossa nova, Hawaiian and Middle Eastern music, jazz, Zappa-esque doo wop, arty funk, post-rock, space-age pop, spaghetti-Western music, warped circus melodies, and even dramatic pseudo-new age, plus just a smidgen of heavy metal. Sure, some of those sounds have appeared on Mr. Bungle records past, but the difference this time is the focus with which the band deploys its arsenal. California is their most concise album to date, clocking in at around 45 minutes; plus, while the song structures are far from traditional, they're edging more in that direction and that greatly helps the listener in making sense of the often random-sounding juxtapositions of musical genres (assuming, of course, that you're supposed to even try to make sense of them). As with any Mr. Bungle album, California requires at least a few listens to pull together, but its particular brand of schizophrenia isn't nearly as impenetrable as that of Disco Volante, even if it will still make you marvel at the fact that such a defiantly odd, uncommercial band recorded for Warner Bros.

 

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