The 12 greatest albums of the '90s

From Destiny's Child's "Writing's On the Wall" to the Pixies' "Trompe le Monde," the best albums of the 1990s

Published May 10, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

Flavor Flav and Chuck D. of Public Enemy at Radio City Music Hall, Sept. 8, 1994   (AP/Malcolm Clarke)
Flavor Flav and Chuck D. of Public Enemy at Radio City Music Hall, Sept. 8, 1994 (AP/Malcolm Clarke)

A couple of weeks ago, I listed the most overrated albums of the 1990s on Salon, from the bland mediocre lounge of "Endtroducing" to the mush-mouthed roots pap of "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" to the banal grunting of poor tortured Eddie Vedder. Inevitably, many commenters responded with rage. Or by sneering, "Oh yeah? Are there any albums you do like from the 90s?" So here is my reply: the 12 greatest albums of the 1990s.

12. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Murder Ballads" 1997

Nick Cave had a remarkable series of albums in the 1990s — I could easily have put "Henry's Dream," "Let Love In" or, especially, the rapturously romantic "The Boatman's Call" on this list. "Murder Ballads," though, stands out, if only because it's so ostentatiously, gleefully offensive — Eminem's gangsta fantasies seem pallid compared to the 14 minutes of high-spirited murder that is "O'Malley's Bar." The album doesn't seem like hollow provocation, though; rather, Cave's version of roots music via Kurt Weill desecration is exhilarating. The filthy reworking of "Stagger Lee" around a bone-scraping guitar lick and Diamanda Galas' glass-cracking shrieks; the transformation of Kylie Minogue into tragic gothic heroine in "Where the Wild Roses Grow;" the evil cabaret groove of "The Curse of Millhaven" — they all take country's storytelling impulses and deploy them in the interest of drooling misanthropy rather than sentimental nostalgia. It takes an Australian, maybe, to realize that the truest reverence for Americana involves, not Mom and apple pie, but saliva, blood and hate.

11. Kelis, "Kaleidoscope" 1999

Hip-hop and R&B fused in the 2000s by turning into a single gloriously slick ball of sex and pop. I don't have any complaints about where things ended up — but at the same time, it's hard not to pine a bit for the road not traveled. Kelis' "Kaleidoscope," with production by the Neptunes, suggests one alternative: an R&B that picked up on Native Tongue goofiness and smarts rather than on gangsta attitude, and a hip-hop that grabs hold of R&B's idiosyncratic Prince/Stevie Wonder loopiness rather than the lascivious slow-jam. Kelis winkingly wraps her throaty vocals around metaphors of mafias, game shows, roller rinks and Afrofuturism while the Neptunes mix cheesy electro-sound effects and sparse Low-End-Theory-worthy beats. From the arch Lauryn Hill snub in the intro to Kelis screaming like an enraged processed chipmunk on "Caught Out There" to the sweet Marvin Gaye save-the-children message of "Ghetto Children," the album is held together by audacity, wit and a conviction that R&B can do just about anything. It tanked commercially, helping to ensure that the future of pop would not, alas, be on Mars. Kelis and the Neptunes have all gone on to make more successful recordings together and apart, but despite its low profile, this remains their masterpiece.

10. Autopsy, "Mental Funeral" 1991

There are gloriously diseased heaps of awesome death metal from the early 1990s, but if I have to choose one to be the most glorious and the most diseased, "Mental Funeral" is it. Autopsy took a large slab of doom with its death; its songs lurch from lumbering Sabbath-esque elephant riffs to ranting breakneck rushes of head trauma and back again, an oozing cancerous stepchild of prog. Chris Reifert bellows and spits like a demon having its lower appendages fed into a wood-chipper while Danny Coralles' guitar spits out thick, clotted riffs and the occasional solo that squeals in pain before settling back into the grinding murk. While Metallica was turning thrash into a puerile adrenalin rush for the stadium seats (hello "High on Fire"), Autopsy was making metal by which to rot and/or be buried in vomit. You wouldn't think "popular" music could be so ugly, alienating and beautiful.

9. Virginia Rodrigues, "Sol Negro" 1997

Now that Marion Williams has passed on to perform for the angels, Brazilian Virginia Rodrigues has taken on the mantle of greatest living singer. All her albums are wonderful, but I think "Sol Negro," her first, remains my favorite. The opening track is a wonder, her contralto sweeping from way down low up into the stratosphere, the control absolute and weightless. "Adeus Batucada" is a flirtatious samba, her voice swinging with an earthy purity, and Caetano Veloso's "Lua, Lua, Lua, Lua" is a contemplative folk number, her tone lovingly caressing the moon of the title. And then there's "Veronica," a traditional a cappella performance that shows her roots in the church. It makes you wish that there weren't any instruments on the album, and that she were not just the best, but the only singer in the world.

8. Aphex Twin, "Richard D. James Album" 1996

Much as I adore the skull-fracturing "Ventol In (Video Version)" from the album "I Care Because You Do," I think I still overall prefer the "Richard D. James Album," and its more insinuatingly mellow form of disorientation. The album's lyrical invention rivals Brian Wilson's, though, as with the Beach Boys', there are disturbing, broken undercurrents — which here involve James' frantic, crippled beats. "Fingerbib" sounds like "Chariots of Fire" with the runners dodging incoming laser attacks from Muppets. "4" has to be one of the most awesomely stochastic rhythms ever perpetrated on disk; somewhere Timbaland was nodding along erratically. "To Cure a Weakling Child" and "Milkman" are rare forays into vocal samples; both are ostentatiously fey, fitting nicely into the Brit tradition of cramped elven creepiness from Comus to Donovan, but with sound effects that seem sent back by Skynet to destroy you. Ridiculously transcendent and transcendently ridiculous, "Richard D. James Album" still sounds, 20 years later, like a transmission from some impossibly advanced nostalgic future, where the music is weirder, and better.

7. Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers, "At the Ryman" 1992

The 1990s were a rough time for Emmylou, as she succumbed to the echoey New-Age-afication of Daniel Lanois. Snuck in at the beginning of the decade, though, this little-known live set may be her greatest album (the only other contender is 1980's "Roses in the Snow.") None of Harris' hits are on the set list; instead, it's an eclectic grab-bag of covers, starting with an achingly rocking version of "Guitar Town" that puts Steve Earle's version to shame, through the exquisite a cappella harmonizing on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" and reaching its pinnacle with several Bill Monroe tunes, including the instrumental "Scotland" and a rendition of "Walls of Time" that turns bluegrass into hippie folk without the cloying aftertaste you get from Alison Krauss. Harris' band, the Nash Ramblers, includes stalwarts like Sam Bush on fiddle and Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass, and even the between-song patter is a delight (the anecdote about Bill Monroe's grooming advice is a particular high point.) Much as I love Johnny Cash's "American Recordings," this is the country album of the decade -- loose, expansive, knowing, full of love for the music's traditions and its future.

6. Tribe Called Quest, "The Low End Theory" 1991

Everybody cites this as one of the best albums of the '90s, and everybody is right. Stripped-down and sparse, Skeff Anselm's production leaves the funk and jazz samples detonating oddly in space. The hooky bass of "Show Business" harks back to the fuller, more radio-friendly sound of the group's "People's Instinctive Travels;" the Pete Rock-produced "Jazz (We Got)" is almost impossibly cool, more bop than bop; "What?" is frankly silly, the honking sample waddling about like a tripping duck. All of it is tied together by Q-Tip and Fife's easily inventive flow, dispensing wisdom and nonsense with equal aplomb. "Girls love the jim, cuz it causes crazy friction/When it goes up in and fluctuates the diction/I still understand the (uh!) cuz that's what I met her for/I'm hooked on the swings, so just call me the music whore." Shakespeare would have been happy to write a penis joke that preposterously twisted and compacted. Like all the best hip-hop, "The Low End Theory" sees hip-hop as continuous with African-American music generally, making the album both a tribute and an inspiration.

5. Melvins, "Lysol" 1992

Avant-garde noise gods or Neanderthal metal knuckle-draggers? Long before Thurston Moore had figured out that he liked black metal, the Melvins were making pop music as art music as hideous walls of sludge. "Houdini" was their major label crossover attempt, and though it didn't exactly attract a large listenership, it's still probably the place to start for neophytes. But "Lysol" is the bleak, ear-melting Thing. The monstrous 17-minute opus of "Hung Bunny" and "Roman Bird Dog" is the centerpiece; all shapeless, slow drone feedback until around the halfway mark, when Dale Crover manufactures some forward propulsion by dropping large chunks of granite onto his drum kit. Even more evil, though, is the band's cover of Flipper's "Sacrifice," a grindingly slow protest and celebration of war. "Can't you hear the war cry?/It's time to enlist/The people speak as one /The cattle, the crowd/Those too afraid to live/Demand a sacrifice." King Buzzo alternates between a feral brontosaurus bellow and a choked whisper as Crover and bassist Joe Preston trudge across shattered bodies hard enough that you can hear the bones crack. "Lysol" was a huge influence on sludge, doom and drone to follow, but none of its many imitators ever split eardrums the way the Melvins split eardrums. This, right here, is the apotheosis of heavy.

4. Shonen Knife, "Happy Hour" 1998

Punk might have started out as a rude raspberry to the bloated classic-rock establishment, but by the '90s it was even more engorged with critical balderdash and puling authenticity than the corporate excess it was supposedly deflating. But if Kurt Cobain was selling out by solemnly taking on the mantle of rock savior, Shonen Knife was keeping it real by remaining cheerily inoffensive and unabashedly consumerist. "Happy Hour" is the Japanese trio's best album not because it strives for genius or has any particular ambition, but simply because it's got one great hook after another with relentlessly oddball lyrics about cute animals and foodstuffs. "Don't be afraid of missing your bus/you will catch your bus" is a bittersweet koan for hapless urban dwellers if there ever was one; "Fish Eyes" is a crunchy pop ode to the disturbing results of seeing the world wrong way 'round (listen to it while reading "The Shadow Over Innsmouth"); "Dolly" is a lullaby to cloned sheep dreaming like butterflies. None of it changed the face of music; none of it will ever prompt Greil Marcus to gush about Gnosticism. But your kids quite possibly will love it. If you need a definition of the lost soul of punk, that'll do.

3. Pixies, "Trompe le Monde" 1991

The Pixies' last classic album, "Trompe le Monde" has higher production values and less of a songwriting/singing role for bassist Kim Deal. For both those reasons, some fans were leery of embracing it. To me, though, it's clearly their best — the clean sound and crazy multi-part arrangements providing the perfect background for Black Francis' manic-monster vocals and Joey Santiago's use of surf-guitar as assault weapon. Even the between-song traditions are mini-masterpieces; David Lovering's drums coming in like a jackhammer on "Head On," or the one-beat switch from the jagged underwater goofiness of "Palace of the Brine" to the ecstatic shoegaze of "Letter to Memphis." Goofball throwaway inside jokes are scrambled up together with unrepentant snottiness just as hardcore and metal get thunked against surf or early rock, so something like "Subbacultcha" sounds like Chubby Checker being dismembered by "an erotic vulture … all dressed up in black (black!)" Maybe the last balls-out rock record that comes across like it's stealing a march on the '60s boomer gods rather than pining for them, it makes even the decent white alt guitar bands after it (like the White Stripes) sound vaguely slow-witted.

2. Destiny's Child, "The Writing's On the Wall" 1999

"The Writing's On the Wall" ushered out the slow jam and ushered in a new era of R&B — super-produced, drenched in attitude and built on songwriting rather than grooves. Kevin Briggs is no Timbaland, but (as with many producers after him) his collaboration with Beyoncé seems to have prompted him to elevate his game, resulting in a layered wonder of blips and vivisected glissandos sliding and bumping amidst DC's harmonies, Beyoncé's powerhouse lead vocals and ABBA-worthy hooks that you can't get out of your hindbrain with a backhoe. The lyrics are top-drawer sex war provocation, as the band harangues deadbeats, stalkers and cheaters, while gleefully boasting about their own indiscretions (on "Confessions") and lust (on the nursery-rhyme flirtation of "Temptation" — "oops I forgot, I got a man.") Beginning with Beyoncé's strutting first lyrics "Hey, how you doing, well I'm doin' mighty fine" and ending with the pyrotechnic harmonies on the "Amazing Grace" outro, this is an album that planned to take over the world, and largely succeeded. No music shaped the 2000s as much as this one — and just about entirely for the better.

1. Public Enemy, "Fear of a Black Planet" 1990

Each track on "Fear of a Black Planet" is a Frankenstein monster of a sound collage, stitched together with all the seams showing — lumbering, lumpy, but still somehow managing to rock and funk simultaneously. The lyrics, too, achieve the same kind of gracefully clumsy ferocity, whether it's Flavor Flav manically explaining the problems of inner city emergency response, a takedown of "Driving Miss Daisy" or Chuck D's bizarre laid-back lover-man vamp about the politics of interracial dating in "Pollywannacracka." Even the skits, usually a source of dread in hip-hop, are virtuoso statements of purpose: "Incident at 66.6 FM", a remix of a PE interview, remains almost miraculously listenable on the 66th, or 100th, play. Plus, I just realized that "Fight the Power" samples Uriah Heep. How great is that?



As a bonus, the runners-up I considered before arriving at this one true list:

Aaliyah, "One In a Million"
Beastie Boys, "Check Your Head"
Bjork, "Post"
Mariah Carey, "Butterfly"
Johnny Cash, "American Recordings"
Changing Faces, "All Day, All Night"
Deicide, "Once Upon the Cross"
de la Soul, "de la Soul is Dead"
Doughnuts, "Age of the Circle"
Missy Elliot, "Supa Dupa Fly"
fIREHOSE, "Flyin' the Flannel"
Goats, "No Goats, No Glory"
Le Tigre, "Le Tigre"
Obituary, "Cause of Death"
Outkast, "Aquemini"
Fejat Sejdic, "Guardian Angel and Lost Lamb"
Snoop Dogg, "Doggystyle"
Sonic Youth, "Dirty"
Squarepusher, "Music Is Rotted One Note"
Townes Van Zandt, "Rear View Mirror"

By Noah Berlatsky

MORE FROM Noah Berlatsky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1990s 90s Music '90s Nostalgia Destiny's Child Music Nick Cave Public Enemy The Pixies Tribe Called Quest Video