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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Top 100 Albums of the 1990s


Staff List by Admin
It's been just over four years since Pitchfork published its first-ever Top 100 feature, Pitchfork's Top 100 Favorite Albums of the 1990s, and looking back at that list a lot has changed: our perceptions of the decade are different now, our personal tastes have expanded, our knowledge of the music has deepened, and excepting myself, Mark Richardson and Brent DiCrescenzo, the staff has turned over twice. It got me to thinking about how the musical landscape, too, continually changes. Revisionism ushers in new classics which had simply been forgotten, or altogether undiscovered, and while most truly essential albums will always be represented on these types of lists, even their relevance can be dictated by current trends.

It occurred to me that, since we have the means, it might be worthwhile to revisit these lists every few years and see how they change. So, over the past few months, the current Pitchfork staff convened to tabulate their revised individual lists, with the ultimate goal of presenting an updated list of 1990s records that have remained essential into the first part of the new decade.

A big surprise for me was just how different this new list is from the old one, and how many more albums we all felt deserved inclusion that, unfortunately, a list of only 100 records could not encompass. Among the casualties were Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power, Chavez, The Wrens, Throwing Muses, Spoon, The Roots, Mos Def, Happy Mondays, Archers of Loaf, Amon Tobin, Jay-Z, XTC, Morphine, Royal Trux, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Drive Like Jehu, Orbital, Super Furry Animals, Sunny Day Real Estate, Sebadoh, Snoop Dogg, Method Man, Mobb Deep, Low, Codeine, Flying Saucer Attack, The Sea & Cake, Underworld, Polvo, Shudder to Think, Trail of Dead, Cornershop, Shellac, Gang Starr, Gastr del Sol, John Zorn, Coil, Jawbreaker, Autechre, and countless others. But something we could all agree on were that the albums that did make the list belonged there.

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100: The Orb
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
[Big Life; 1991]

At the very start of the 1990s, The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld managed to make ambient house a perpetual "next big thing" for the rest of the decade. As fearless psychic peregrinators, Dr. Alex Paterson, Thrash, and around 20 other musicians loaded the record up with BBC Shakespeare performances and Apollo 11 recordings, then hit the spaceways, making stops in Detroit clubs, Indian dancehalls, London philharmonics, and Tibetan monasteries. It made for an album that could appeal to everyone from new age receptionists to dubheads to prog-rock pharmacists.

Lest it be forgotten, this is also one of the most supremely hypnotizing drug albums ever. There are more rocket launches here than a New Years' Eve Kiss concert in Los Alamos. Under carbonated cosmo-fountains of astro-juice, the Ultraworld expedition encounters pulsing photon beats and God himself ("And the mountains shall drop sweet wine and the hills shall melt"). It's simultaneously liquid enough to put you to sleep and frighteningly exotic enough to hype your nerves up on the way to the rave. House music was now officially epic. --Alex Linhardt

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099: Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
[Loud; 1995]

is "ghetto haiku"
still the leading Wu cliché,
or..."cinematic?"

but here it's true, like
magnetic poetry mixed
up by Kool G. Rap

Rae and Ghost, lovers
never more opaque, slanged-out
wandering the streets

black mafioso
inventors, raw rhyme spitters
(Deck kills "Guillotine")

yet other rappers
bring their lucid best-- Nas on
"Verbal Intercourse"!

and beats aren't dull or
inert as older chambers;
"Ice Cream", "Knowledge God". -- Mullah Omar

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098: KMD
Mr. Hood
[Asylum; 1991]

How much more fun can you have with race politics? On KMD's 1991 underground hip-hop classic, the clueless, white-as-starched-napkins Mr. Hood disses Onyx's mom, Sesame Street's Bert helps us hunt for Little Sambo, and the group's political speechifying rolls masterfully over scratchy old R&B samples. It's not only a crime but also a mystery why this is still out of print-- especially considering MF Doom's current prominence. In KMD, he went by the name Zev Love X, fresh-faced instead of metal-faced, but still dropping rhymes from his mouth like coils of rope; Onyx, who quit after this record, and the late DJ Sub-Roc fill out the trio. What happened after this record is legend: Their grittier and lower-fi follow-up, Black Bastards, was pulled by their label for years, and Sub-Roc was unfortunately killed in an accident. Yet with all that tragic baggage-- and all of its angry rhetoric and heavy themes-- Mr. Hood is still a blast to listen to, an easy-going record rich with neighborhood stories, folklore allusions, some of the funniest skits of all time, and one classic cut after another. --Chris Dahlen

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097: Mogwai
Young Team
[Jetset; 1997]

Mogwai weren't the first rock band to stack up thick, hypnotic layers of ambient drone, thread in some raw cellos and violins, maximize the rushing crescendo, and then proudly brand the result "post-rock." But they are, inarguably, some of the most successful noodlers their field has seen. Dealing in pedals, ploys and big, galactic drama, Mogwai consistently capture the experience of loping up every last hill in Scotland, then tumbling back down with a gorgeous, triumphant blast of sound. While Mogwai's output may be perpetually swelling, it's hardly facile: Young Team, the band's stunning 1997 debut, pulled together unexpected bits of found sound, carefully tinkered piano, and plenty of now-trademark crashing guitars, each lulling wave of sound eventually punctuated by an explosion of feedback or jarring soft-loud shift. Successfully transcending the tedium of instrumental drone rock, Young Team remains a thrilling listen, dynamic, arch and occasionally terrifying: Check the unforeseeable guitar eruption three minutes into "Like Herod". You will fall out of your chair. --Amanda Petrusich

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096: Herbert
Around the House
[!K7; 1998]

The title of Mathew Herbert's first proper full-length under his own name is a pun, of course-- one that states his M.O. quite nicely. Around the House is playful and open-ended, veering from straight pop to exercises in sound manipulation, but its comforting 4/4 post-disco beat puts it all in the vicinity of house music. The title also alludes to the common objects that served as sound sources throughout the record, something that for the listener is incidental.

Herbert has always thrown a light on his composition method, going so far as to spell it out formally and draft a written manifesto for music creation, but the "how" of Herbert's music is easy to ignore as you immerse yourself in his sound. Around the House, save a long soundscape at its end, is airy, spacious and warm, the aural equivalent of late fall afternoon sun. The record has no duds, but the highlight is definitely "So Now", which, elevated by collaborator Dani Siciliano's vocals, is one of the greatest pop songs in Herbert's oeuvre. Given the limitless sonic possibilities of the computer, Matthew Herbert is a genius with limitation. --Mark Richardson

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095: Massive Attack
Mezzanine
[Virgin; 1998]

It's hard to improve on Brent DiCrescenzo's original review of this album, which pointed out that Mezzanine absorbs light. Even in the blacklit genre of trip-hop, nothing hit the low register like the pulses of the brooding "Angel" or the choked-out, smoked-out vocals on "Risingson". But what saves this from being a mere opium drip soundtrack are the flashes of pop: the subtle hooks, the dependable songwriting, and-- most of all-- the spare use of Elizabeth Fraser's high vocal wisps. On "Teardrop" and especially "Group Four", the contrast between that fleeting beacon and the void below evoke far more drama than their writing ever could-- like some classic mythological painting where the gates of heaven are just barely in sight of whatever's damned at the bottom. --Chris Dahlen

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094: Frank Black
Teenager of the Year
[4AD; 1994]

Though originally panned by critics and fans for its bug-eyed sense of humor and perceived lack of focus, Frank Black's Teenager of the Year has since come to be regarded as the defining statement of his solo career. Spanning 22 sprawling tracks and more than 60 minutes, it's not an album that quickly reveals itself, but beneath its initially rabid veneer lie moments brilliant enough to rival any of the Pixies' 1990s work, and Black's greatest lyrical achievements. Witness "Speedy Marie", whose profoundly romantic lines, like many on the album, exhibit a near-poetic depth: "Wise is the tongue, wet of perfect thought/ And softest neck where always do I/ Lay my clumsy thoughts." "White Noise Maker" laments the modern age with a vintage amplifier as its central symbol: "That billboard prose shining on me/ And it shines because/ It's been so long since my Telstar/ I hope it crashes in the sea." "Headache" details its namesake with the evocative turn, "My heart is crammed in my cranium and it still knows how to pound."

These songs serve not only as examples of Black's lyrical ingenuity, but also his mastery of the three-minute pop song. This album is, in fact, filled with evidence of Black's songwriting proficiency: From the bouncy piano pop of "The Vanishing Spies", to the wistful rocker "Calistan", to "Freedom Rock", "I Could Stay Here Forever" and "Space Is Gonna Do Me Good", Teenager of the Year is the kind of cerebral pop masterpiece that could only be deemed a disappointment in the wake of such an indomitable precedent as the Pixies. --Ryan Schreiber

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093: Bob Dylan
Time Out of Mind
[Columbia; 1997]

Bob Dylan will always be understood as a stubbornly prolific songwriter, his magnificent, fuck-off scowl belying a throbbing penchant for unadulterated self-expression. In the post-Blood on the Tracks 1970s, Dylan served up loads of unilaterally unwelcome records about his newfound (and adamant) embrace of born-again Christianity; when necessary, he shot the appropriate sneer at open-mouthed detractors, refusing to play any other material at his live shows. In the 1980s, he spit out a few insufferable quasi-dance experiments (see 1985's Empire Burlesque), an infamously wretched Grateful Dead pile-up (1989's Dylan & The Dead), and embarked on an, um, ambitious never-ending world tour. In the early 1990s, we glimpsed a brief return to traditional acoustic folk, a greatest hits record, and then, finally, in 1997, the stunning Time Out of Mind.

Dylan's groundbreaking work in the 1960s had already provided him with a valid, non-expiring pass for late-millennium stumbling; Time Out of Mind wasn't especially necessary to preserve his legacy, a fact that makes the record feel even more quintessentially Dylan-esque. Unexpected, unprecedented and wholly remarkable, Time Out of Mind contained Dylan's strongest songwriting since in two decades, a gritty, dark and hauntingly spare lamentation of mortality and love. Opener "Lovesick" stands as one of the most heartbreakingly vitriolic love songs ever recorded, while "Standing in the Doorway"-- with its delicate electric guitar and plaintive vocals-- sees Dylan at his most vulnerable. Indeed: Bob came back, again. --Amanda Petrusich

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092: Scott Walker
Tilt
[Drag City; 1995]

Scott Walker's retreat from the public eye in the 1980s only assisted his ascent into the realm of the avant-garde. His 1984 Climate of the Hunter LP hinted at a newfound interest in eclectic ambience but was nothing compared to the creative supernova of 1995's Tilt. Here, Walker's music wasn't completely removed from his classic 1960s existential baroque-pop, but rather allowed to evolve naturally into a bizarre and engaging dark suite of art-songs. "Farmer in the City"-- a tribute to Italian art-house director Paolo Pasolini-- connects Walker's affinities for cinematic orchestral arrangements and weighty, minor key balladry. "The Cockfighter", like many of Tilt's tracks, uses natural ambience and subtle electronic touches to establish a mood, and then suddenly erupts into abrasive, aggressive avant-rock, as Walker operatically wails, "It's a beautiful night!"

In fact, Tilt resembles nothing so much as an extended, post-modern aria; its structure defying the simple arrangement of verses and choruses, it delivers a faithful presentation of stream-of-consciousness self-discovery and even dementia. The most ambitious moments ("Patriot [A Single]", "Bouncer See Bouncer") elude description entirely, but are stunning examples of what can happen when an artist is allowed to explore his muse on his own terms. The chilling "Rosary", featuring only a trembling Walker accompanying himself on guitar, perhaps betrays the intense isolation at the heart of Tilt, but it also exposes his raw-nerve expression as both a beacon of originality and something capable of truly moving emotional resonance. --Dominique Leone

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091: Tortoise
TNT
[Thrill Jockey; 1998]

Consider this post-rock's problem child. TNT marked a confluence of avant-garde jazz, indie rock and minimalist lite-techno that circuitously landed itself in territory carefully avoided by traditional rock albums: easy listening. Never too abrasive, yet consistently challenging, TNT was like a hypnotic snowglobe that refused to settle without ever having required shaking. Tortoise showcased their musicians' talents with an improviser's bent, leaving behind the sometimes production-centric electronic dub leanings of Millions Now Living Will Never Die in favor of a more inspired, organic feel. You can feel the groove in the album's opening minutes: fragmented loose drum forms slowly take shape behind scattered angular guitar chords, only to fall perfectly in line for a subdued, but determined, steady full-circuit instrumental jam. From there the doors are thrown wide open until the mesmerizing tones of "Everglade" float you home. Tortoise let you inside for this one, so just keep it down and don't touch anything. --William Morris

090: Cocteau Twins
Heaven or Las Vegas
[4AD; 1990]

Initially, the glacial textures conjured by guitarist Robin Guthrie on Heaven or Las Vegas may seem like frozen artifacts from a forgotten shoegazer past. But behind its icy exterior lies the album's beating heart-- a core of ungodly gorgeous songs that is every bit as moving and relevant today as it ever was. Elizabeth Fraser's vocal performance, more straightforward here than on any of the Cocteaus' 80s output, is strikingly nuanced, imbuing the record's haunting melodies with an entirely unique and entrancing character. The songs themselves are remarkably complex, weaving crisp electronic beats, monolithic synthesizers, effects-laden guitar, and Fraser's stately and angelic voice into a seamless sonic velour. --Matt LeMay

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089: Squarepusher
Music Is Rotted One Note
[Warp; 1999]

Perhaps it was unexpected that one of the pioneering electronic music performers of the 1990s would produce a truly definitive post-rock album, but of course, Squarepusher has always been excitable. Tom Jenkinson's striking 1998 release bore more in common with Herbie Hancock's Headhunters than it did anything in his own catalog-- or, indeed, all of Warp's. The jazz fusion-informed bass figures on his previous albums only hinted at what must have been an extensive background in the genre, but this sound came to the fore on Music Is Rotted One Note, and did so with a vengeance. "Chunks" bursts out of the gate like a funky jungle cat, sounding like something ripped off the cutting room floor of Miles Davis' On the Corner sessions. "Don't Go Plastic" dropped the hyperspeed drums (also courtesy of Jenkinson) and vintage Fender Rhodes piano, applying extremely subtle electronic manipulations. One of the most obvious accomplishments of the record was its success in updating a model long since to have been perfected. However, it's the dark, hazy mood Squarepusher sustains that gives the album life. --Dominique Leone

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088: Wilco
Being There
[Reprise; 1996]

Jeff Tweedy's first post-Uncle Tupelo venture began as all-around underwhelming substitute for hungry, belt-buckled alt-country fans: Wilco's humble debut, the twang-heavy country-pop offering A.M., contained virtually no hints of the band's potential for subtle sound-sketching. It wasn't until 1996's double-disc, the 19-track Being There, that Tweedy and company began tapping into the skittish, textured atmospherics that would-- nearly six years later-- secure them a fixed spot in the American canon. Being There is a notoriously inconsistent effort. Deeply ambitious, its missteps (see the overstated, Stones-lite faux-boogie of "Monday") were ultimately incapable of sullying the transcendence of its epic successes. Among those, opener "Misunderstood" pit 60s psychedelia (pinging strings, studio fuzz and unexpected splats of sound) against a sweet, spare piano melody, while "The Lonely 1" cemented the band's ability to eschew sentimentality without sacrificing warmth. Being There was Wilco's original coming-of-age, an occasionally awkward, ultimately profound transformation into something altogether new and beautiful. --Amanda Petrusich

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087: GZA/Genius
Liquid Swords
[Geffen; 1995]

This blurb is coming to you live from a Wal-Mart laptop at my grandmother's funeral. GZA is bragging on a cassette I'm playing through headphones hooked up to a karaoke toy. The family curse is in full effect: My cousin's been hit by an SUV, my mom's boyfriend is wheelchair-bound after a fall at his junkyard, and four people in our party have contracted a virus, including the girlfriend I dragged along. Let's just say this tape befits a climate of localized terror. Too band the word "ultrasound" already has something to do with babies, because RZA's peak production deserves its own noun to encapsulate the tense beats and samples that dipped Cold Chillin' round-beat cartoonishness in Scorsese dread-mospherics (a style Eminem lately lives to crib).

Liquid Swords was the rare Wu-Tang splinter project that didn't feel like a footnote to 36 Chambers: The songs seem driven by bassists, hit more like metal than funk, and are strewn with gangsta detritus (rough neighborhoods, bitch cops, doomed children). The album's hosts are impolitic enough to threaten that their challengers will go out like Brandon Lee and Pan Am Flight 103, breaking up their boasts with martial-arts dialogue about using older styles to avenge themselves. The bent, Bomb Squad-esque horns of "Living in the World Today" rank among hip-hop's most unnerving, while the retarded keyboards of "4th Chamber" and "Killah Hills 10304" are way sicker than they ought to be. The echoing ampitheatrics rock as scarily as they did when I first heard them, in the days before we judged music with our hard-earned modems: I was sweeping up pigeon shit in the attic of a indie record store shut down by a chain's emergence across the street when-- oh god, no. My cassette just snapped. --William Bowers

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086: Destroyer
City of Daughters
[Triple Crown; 1998]

An acoustic guitar and some CB fuzz was all the yelpy brainball Daniel Bejar needed to join the untradition of songwriting greatness, hurling forth more political metaphors for love than early Songs: Ohia. Like the work of the Silver Jews' David Berman, the lyrics steal the often-awkward show: "The ties that blind us bind us." "Steeples don't hurt any more than they used to hurt." "Boys set fire to the seasons." "Impenitent brothers, sway to the song of a new heretical dawn." "Nothing does a body good like another body." "Maybe I know where to run/ Brother, I know where to hide." "I am a tastemaker and I kill things/ I am not a tastemaker and I kill things." "And Jennifer, your haltertop, a consecrated altar/ But I've run my hands and knees in shame there one too many times." "Outlandish schemes for the Andover dreams/ We've weaned ourselves off of and off of and off of." "You were so cruel, and it was her house." "Modern times, modern minds/ Signs, signs, everywhere, signs." "A pleasantry the blonde in you responded to." "I just finished the book, and some of it's true." "Go girlish down the aisle." Damn straight, darn tooting and dark purposes. --William Bowers

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085: Massive Attack
Blue Lines
[Virgin; 1991]

In 1990, hip-hop was steadily winding its way into the mainstream, and aside from a handful of hardcore acts (Public Enemy, NWA), the genre was splitting into two camps-- creatively bankrupt pop-rap like Hammer and Kid N' Play, or softer, accessible edutainment like Tribe, LL and Brand Nubian-- neither of which were too appealing to those with subversive leanings. Needless to say, it was time for the Brits to bring some much-needed fog and terror. The first lines of "Safe from Harm" were like a smooth kick to the velveted head: "Midnight rockers/ City slickers/ Gunmen and maniacs"-- and this was one of the romantic songs! Massive Attack's amalgamation of vintage dub, ambient starkness, hip-hop beats, siren divas, and drawling, purring raps was the sound of the street, whether you were in an embrace in the park or a gunfight in the alley.

3D, Daddy G, and Mushroom packed all the talent of Bristol (including reggae superstar Horace Andy and a young anti-go-getter then known as Tricky Kid) into a cellar and drew up smoke. 3D and Daddy G invented stoned insouciance a year and a half before Snoop would debut on Dre's The Chronic, tossing off smooth antinomies and meandering stories at a slug's pace. And when they were conjoined to earthy strings, minimalist samples, and Shara Nelson's voice, it incontestably changed the world's perception of the resonance of rap. --Alex Linhardt

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084: Company Flow
Funcrusher Plus
[Rawkus; 1997]

It can safely be assumed that El-P is the only rapper who has ever listed Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Terry Gilliam as his primary influences. As well as being one of the most prominent producers in underground hip-hop today, this is the kind of lyricist who calls himself a "sycophant" and other rappers "vainglorious." Yet, unlike many of the underground intelligentsia's other offerings on Rawkus, this ain't soft self-contemplation. El-P, Big Juss, and Mr. Len might know who Jackson Pollack is, but they also know his art looks a hell of a lot like splattered blood all over the park. On Funcrusher Plus, tales of molestation, murder, and assaults on capitalism were encapsulated in dense, smart, impenetrable lyrics without precedent, delivered at a fractured pace that required more listens than mortality will permit.

No one was prepared for the accompanying beats. As Big Juss puts says, they're "hardcore like Kool G Rap made for concert piano." Minimal percussion, piano and trumpet raise their heads over the walls of a police state. The beats are utterly disconcerting, like funk squeezed of their essence, popped into shells, and heard through dusty gramophones miles away. Purposefully defying anything remotely resembling mainstream sheen, the rhythms are sheer stuttering, shambling masterpieces, as sporadic and calamitous as gunshots. There was only one thing more dystopic and frightening this decade; I believe it was called the Zaire dictatorship. --Alex Linhardt

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083: Pixies
Trompe le Monde
[4AD; 1991]

The surrealistic heights of Doolittle were never replicated, and by the time of Trompe le Monde, the Pixies' in-band squabbles had become common knowledge. Yet this still made a powerful finale, recasting the ingredients that had caused fans to fall so deeply in love with the Boston foursome in the first place. While somewhat skimpy with the dreamy vocal interplay of Frank Black and Kim Deal (when someone says "4AD," I still think of that ghostly echo), the best songs smoked regardless, boasting brilliant drums fills and scattershot rhythms, an unpredictable compositional sense, and Black's increasingly opaque lyricism. His words sounded sexy even when they didn't make much sense, and "U-Mass"' "Oh kiss me cunt/ Oh kiss me cock" remains one of rock 'n' roll's better come-ons. It was all in the chemistry, even when nobody was talking to one another. --Brandon Stosuy

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082: Sonic Youth
Goo
[DGC; 1990]

After spending most of the 1980s flaunting their Branca-inspired free-form guitar squall, seminal noise-rockers Sonic Youth tumbled into the 90s with Goo, the largely anticipated (and comparably amiable) follow-up to 1988's groundbreaking Daydream Nation. The band's first album after switching to major DGC, Goo was a notoriously "transitional" record, with Sonic Youth cramming their feedback-heavy dissonance into a slightly more focused aesthetic and pushing memorable melodies without compromising their much-beloved contentiousness. By demanding full creative control and limited A&R capacities from the label, Sonic Youth unknowingly etched a successful template for future indie bands yearning for the double-dip of major-label distribution and indie-like sovereignty. --Amanda Petrusich

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081: The Breeders
Pod
[4AD; 1990]

Pod is a blissful mindfuck of a record. Deal may have played coy and seductive throughout, but there was something subtly sinister to her cooing-- like a siren or a schoolgirl concealing a butcher knife, her methods of enticement immediately struck as inherently destructive. This dynamic was fully realized in the songs themselves, which came across like the product of a band caught in a constant cycle of self-destruction and rebirth. Sure, the songs were catchy-- frighteningly so, in fact-- but that just served to make them all the more poignant when they fall apart. Deal's tobacco-stained delivery and Steve Albini's sharp, make-up-free production make songs like "Oh", "Doe", and the unforgettable "Iris" are as oddly wrenching as they are outwardly pretty and well-constructed.

More than a decade later, this record remains deliciously inscrutable. Sometimes it's disarmingly gorgeous. Other times it's punishingly gritty and violent. Usually, it's both. Pod's bipolar cover of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" perfectly encapsulates the record as a whole-- whether Deal was playing it cool or tearing shit up, she seemed to be enjoying every second of it. --Matt LeMay

080: The Pharcyde
Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
[Delicious Vinyl; 1992]

Offshoots of the same Los Angeles Good Life open mic night that brought up Freestyle Fellowship, Project Blowed and Jurassic 5, The Pharcyde also adopted the same flippant disregard for structure, preferring to build upon a loose sing-song style influenced by their jazz upbringings. Combining a love for both traditional hip-hop and abstract jazz, their unflinching cadence changes and spectrum of vocal tones made for not just one of the most distinctive rap records of the decade, but also a defining voice for the youth of the 90s: defiant and original but keenly aware of the past.

Personifying hip-hop as a partner in marriage, admonishing the crooked nature of police officers, and lamenting lack of success with the opposite sex were just a few of their prerogatives, as they rolled across J-Swift's diversely smooth production canvas, mashing Jimi Hendrix with Quincy Jones one moment while flipping James Brown unlike anyone else ever would the next. These days, Fatlip is recovering from a drug problem, and SlimKid3 flails in the grip of Scientology, but in 1992, they represented the fresh face of hip-hop through frantic vocal manipulation and gorgeous jazz backdrops. Essential. --Rollie Pemberton

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079: Dr. Dre
The Chronic
[Death Row; 1992]

I graduated from college in 1992, and during my time at Michigan State University, Public Enemy dominated the hip-hop landscape. Great singles by Young MC and Digital Underground were also popular, but PE was the perfect rap foil to what was then called "college rock." That year, however, things changed-- mostly due to The Chronic. On that album, the West Coast gangsta fantasy took wing, boosted by Dre's deeply funky sound and the brutal dreams of nearby Hollywood. The spectrum of nihilist violence on The Chronic is numbing, ranging from gangland territorial pissings to vengeful prison rape-style scenarios to naked misogyny.

With his feminized Slick Rick-inspired flow, Snoop Dogg manages to make a lot of this somehow charming-- or at least a little funny. Dre is occasionally awkward on the mic (he would later improve as a rapper), but Snoop is bursting with the skill and energy of someone who senses his big moment has finally come. Oddly, the backing tracks now sound rather thin and cheap, miles from the slick sound for which Dre has deservedly become famous, but the relative low fidelity works in this context. Dr. Dre's debut was a watershed moment. Every hip-hop record after had to address The Chronic in some way, either embracing or rejecting what it popularized. Hip-hop's indie/mainstream split started here. --Mark Richardson

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078: Stereolab
Mars Audiac Quintet
[Elektra; 1994]

One summer, my entire driving soundtrack consisted of Peng!, Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements and Mars Audiac Quintet. The propulsive opiate repetitions of Stereolab's radical elevator music went well with shifts in cloud formations and managed to slow-down the frantic New Jersey traffic patterns. In some ways, Mars Audiac Quintet is the least ambitious record of Stereolab's early-90s period, but it still sounds savvy: Check the subversive "Ping Pong", which contrasts sunny-day musicality with anti-war economic theory. Better yet are the hopeful sentiments expressed within the dreamy "Wow and Flutter": "I thought IBM was born with the world/ The U.S. flag would float forever/ The cold opponent did pack away/ The capital will have to follow/ It's not eternal, imperishable/ Oh yes, it will go." Death as a liberating force: If we die, it seems IBM will die, too. --Brandon Stosuy

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077: Primal Scream
Screamadelica
[Sire; 1991]

While Nirvana were summing up the past and changing the economic landscape of U.S. indie rock, a handful of the UK's guitar bands were altering the sonics of that country's indie sounds by engaging with and absorbing the ground-shifting acid house and rave movements. Unlikely members of that future-think fraternity were retro chameleons Primal Scream, whose Screamadelica made an immediate and seismic impact. Featuring collaborations with producers such as Andrew Weatherall and The Orb, Screamadelica thumbed its nose at issues of authorship (and not just with Bobby Gillespie's penchant for lyrical larceny) and rock music's limiting confines of bass, guitar, drums, and vox. Live playing met process music and all that mattered was what came out of the speakers, a buoyant blend of the immediacy of 60s/70s psych and rock with the texture and elasticity of acid house, dub and deep house.

A clarion call for rock fans to stop fighting the future, Screamadelica made no effort to hide its mission statements. Even its song titles read like calls to arms: "Movin' On Up", "Come Together", "Don't Fight It, Feel It", "Shine Like Stars", "Higher Than the Sun", "Slip Inside This House". From the sanguine rattle and hum of the dub version of "Higher Than the Sun" to the heart-lifting melody of "Come Together", Screamadelica's atmospheric and imaginative hybrid of past, present and future captured its moment in vivid color and splendor, and it still radiates with a kaleidoscopic glow. --Scott Plagenhoef

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076: Mercury Rev
Deserter's Songs
[V2; 1998]

Leaving behind the transient random noise bursts and free-ranging psychedelia that made Mercury Rev notorious (they were once kicked off a Lollapalooza tour for being too loud), Deserter's Songs wove a beautiful orchestral tapestry that gave us our first unfiltered peak at the heavenly glow producer Dave Fridmann would later perfect. "The Hudson Line" burst open with Grasshopper's ecstatic guitar, "Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp" treated us to a promenade in outer space, "Endlessly" made a generation of hipsters fall in love with bassoons and musical saws, and Jonathan Donahue's strange pack-a-day-choirboy voice levitated in the Technicolor explosion of "Opus 40". Deserter's Songs is at once a lullaby, a trip, and a triumph. You'll never hear "Silent Night" the same way again. --Joe Tangari

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075: A Tribe Called Quest
Midnight Marauders
[Jive; 1993]

Heralded as one of the charter members of the conscious rap compendium collectively known as the Native Tongues, A Tribe Called Quest rose to the upper echelon of the industry through their accessible grip on the conveyance of modern problems. They discussed the social ramifications of the N-word, detailed the myriad possibilities in late-night New York, pontificated on various strategies of attracting the opposite sex, and managed to confuse the practical definition of gravity, all while informing the listener of their vast superiority to their peers. Saddled with derivative face value, a deep listen to this record unveils the sound that helped promote the current chilled vibe-oriented underground (Frank and Dank, Madlib, Little Brother) while maintaining a purely independent view of the New York hip-hop landscape of the time.

Further developing the low end sound that made them famous, ATCQ collectively produced a jazz-hop clinic that finds itself equal parts Pete Rock, Buckshot and Diamond D. Their natural use of hard drums and smooth samples were par for the course, with their major triumph being the chiming piano, upright bass and cold groove of "Electric Relaxation". In combining extremes and extrapolating their original concepts, ATCQ made an album suitable for both city driving and sexual encounters. --Rollie Pemberton

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074: Ride
Nowhere
[Sire; 1990]

Those drums are the very thunder of irritated gods, I tell you. Laurence Colbert's kit sounded like giants battling in a cavern, and guitarists Andy Bell and Mark Gardener stretched old-fashioned jangle into heavenly drone and walls of breathtaking feedback. Bassist Steve Queralt was the axis that everything swirled around, and he kept it all tethered as best as he could. Opener "Seagull" is the ultimate musical bloodrush, an army of guitars fanning out as the bass snaps to and the drums clear away any opposition. "Polar Bear" is a stunning climax, freezing Bell and Gardener's everyman harmonies in a vault of ice that Colbert ultimately shatters. The real stunner, though, is "Vapour Trail", a masterful swath of guitar condensation arcing across the pop stratosphere that simply defies gravity. Nowhere was Ride's greatest achievement, and remains one of the greatest statements of the UK's shoegazer movement. --Joe Tangari

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073: Brainiac
Hissing Prigs in Static Couture
[Touch & Go; 1996]

Bridging the gap nicely between the nearly quaint spazcore of Bonsai Superstar and the outwardly experimental Electro-Shock for President EP, Hissing Prigs in Static Couture boasts three of Brainiac's best compositions: the one-two punch of "Pussyfootin'" and "Vincent Come On Down", and the penultimate frenzy "Nothing Ever Changes". Bands don't come much tighter than Brainiac were at this creative zenith, and Hissing Prigs finds these Daytonians unusually in control of their rabid freakouts, even maintaining their earlier releases' charming uneasiness. No talk of Brainiac is safe from the blemishing journalistic mention of singer Timmy Taylor's untimely death, but there's a reason for that: At all times the talented frontman managed weirdness without alienation, a balance that so few vocalists venture to strike in the first place, let alone achieve with this magnitude. --Nick Sylvester

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072: Silver Jews
American Water
[Drag City; 1998]

American Water is one of the great roadtrip records, with its loafing, resplendent guitar lines reverberating from Odessa to Malibu. Though it's fundamentally westward bound, it still sounds like five guys-- two of which are indie heroes (David Berman and Stephen Malkmus)-- sequestered in a basement, churning out affable trots without any particular incentive. The guitar exchanges are as penetrating as Berman's wit and the rhythm section's obstinate blues ensures that nothing gets too maudlin. The solos, illuminating and serene, are played like they might actually be better than the songs themselves. With melodies and inflection cribbed from The Band and Abbey Road, it's like Berman's vocals are crossing the country in a car fueled by wah-wah pedals, honky-tonk, and endlessly bent strings.

They're staggering songs, and it's a shame Berman had to go and write lyrics that were even better to distract us from them. He delivers his lines like someone reduced to monotony because he's felt so many emotions he can barely summon enough effort to express them anymore. His loitering, sing/speak offers blatant rebel posturing ("I am the trick my mother played on the world"), stoned observations ("My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors"), and genuinely affecting romance ("Before I go I gotta ask you, dear, about the tan line on your ring finger"). It's probably the most charismatic band no one listens to, making an album it takes years to hear because you just keep endlessly repeating the first song. --Alex Linhardt

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071: Dr. Octagon
Octagonecologyst
[Dreamworks; 1996]

The winner of the award for the "most creative uses of the word 'rectum,'" Octagonecologyst is an underground hip-hop classic starring Kool Keith's most famous persona, Dr. Octagon, whose blindingly scatological rhymes mixed sci-fi, sex fantasy, and medical horrors (chimpanzee acne? moose bumps?). Rolling on DJ Q-Bert's scratching and Dan the Automator's production-- which bumps like a space-station bootycall-- Dr. Octagon's even, surreal flow comes straight outta Jupiter on "Earth People", camps up the EC comic book of "halfsharkalligatorhalfman", and then slides into slow delirium on "Blue Flowers". Even if there's something voyeuristic about studying this man-- who in real life, may or may not have done time in Bellevue-- it works because it's gripping, not gawk-worthy: Keith is in control of his delusion, and he unravels it into a kind of virtuosity. Look away and you'll miss one hell of a brilliant car wreck. --Chris Dahlen

070: Jawbox
For Your Own Special Sweetheart
[Atlantic; 1994]

As the first band to leave the Dischord nest for the proverbial "bigger, better things," Jawbox broke a few DIY hearts when they signed to Atlantic. Subsequent dismissal would later fragment the band, but not before they laid down their magnum opus, For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Simultaneously violent and sublime as J. Robbins' gravelly rasp flies over the crunching chords of "Savory", or the drunken lurch of a wayward bassline collides with a tower of guitar at seventy miles per on the ominous "Motorist", all the gears turn in unison, creating a near perfect blend of heavy, uncompromising rock and an overarching sense of melody. The balancing act is flawless; Jawbox started in Fugazi's shadow as all Dischord bands inevitably do, but for a moment, superceded them, managing a feat that their ancestors wouldn't duplicate for several albums. --Eric Carr

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069: Jeff Buckley
Grace
[Columbia; 1994]

It's difficult to imagine the world of contemporary singer/songwriters without the influence of Jeff Buckley. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine Radiohead in their current guise without the eerily affecting songcraft of Grace and its argument that modern rock needn't be just another run-through of post-Nirvana dynamics. Buckley's voice-- if not as recklessly expressive as his father's, certainly as overtly seductive-- soars angelically over his own chiming guitar figures. Gary Lucas (ex-Captain Beefheart) provides additional guitar and co-writes two of the best songs: "Mojo Pin"-- an epic transfiguration of Debussy with the heavenly grandeur of Led Zeppelin-- and the title track, which is at once perfect pop and an otherworldly declaration of freedom from the constraints of the material world.

Even as Buckley's vision seems incapable of disguising itself, his reinterpretations of Nina Simone's "Lilac Wine", Benjamin Britten's "Corpus Christi Carol", and especially Leonard Cohen's deeply affirming "Hallelujah" seem definitive. Grace ends enigmatically yet perfectly with "Dream Brother", as good an epitaph as any for an artist having clearly unfinished business in this world. It would have been nice to see where Buckley's promise would have led, but Grace will continue to spur on the midnight romantics for as long as it's within earshot. --Dominique Leone

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068: Elliott Smith
XO
[Dreamworks; 1998]

A singer/songwriter with a major label recording budget is, as they say, kind of like a mule with a spinning wheel-- no one knows how he got it, and damned if he knows how to use it. But rather than obfuscating his songwriting gift with syrupy string sections and armies of backup singers, Elliott Smith used his Dreamworks debut, XO, as an opportunity to further focus the emotional power of his previous releases. Melancholy and grandiosity may seem mutually exclusive, but on XO, they're combined to wonderful effect, each crystalline guitar line and majestic piano arpeggio adding momentum and depth to Smith's gorgeous and impassioned vocals.

Indeed, the most striking thing about XO may very well be the elegance and restraint Smith brings to his songs. Smith always managed to say a lot with a striking economy of sounds and words, and not a single note here seems forced or gratuitous. Though Smith was being preened for stardom at the time of its release, there's not a self-indulgent moment to be found on the record-- even its most elaborate parts seem infused with the unassuming spirit of Smith's own musical discovery. XO shows a man poised to take over the world, still content to find new and moving ways to sing about it. --Matt LeMay

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067: Mouse on Mars
Iaora Tahiti
[Too Pure; 1995]

It's difficult to name the best Mouse on Mars album because Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma have such different goals for each. Over the course of their career, they've made atmospheric soundtracks, collaborated with vocalists, and dabbled in noise. No two records sound alike. But Iaora Tahiti is often cited as a favorite simply because it's so damn listenable. With its squishy, organic synths, swaths of space and dub references, Iaora Tahiti just feels good, especially the record's first half. Eventually, Mouse on Mars would head off in more abstract directions, but here, there's nothing deep or challenging about songs with names such as "Saturday Night Worldcup Fieber". The record's second half is filled with longer, more intense tracks that touch on techno and drum-n-bass while incorporating guitars and live drums (some people called this post-rock, see), but Iaora Tahiti never strays too far from pop. This is sunny electronic music operating in accordance with the pleasure principle. --Mark Richardson

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066: Tricky
Maxinquaye
[Island; 1995]

The influences peel off like stickers on a notebook. Utilizing Bomb Squad-confrontational production and subtly primitive IDM textures, Tricky's uniquely muddy form of soundclash shocked the mid-90s listening populace with his merger of angular, raw sampling, dark synth innovation, and pseudo-intellectual lyrics to build the convention-destroying music of Maxinquaye. A collaborative effort from a former husband/wife team, Adrian Thawes and singer Martina Topley-Bird, demonstrated a bizarrely genuine chemistry in such shielded music. Topley-Bird's distinctively British dialect developed a refreshing retreat from her more typical peers, yielding a more modern voice for a changing musical landscape. As she sings, Tricky's monstrously cracking vocals shadow hers to make the listening experience a more personal feat than many pieces before it.

Borrowing more than lyrics from his previous tenure guesting for Massive Attack, Tricky's producer/singer relationship is stronger than the interplay in more linear genres, making this an obsessive work of customization. Unforgettable moments appear frequently, from the gorgeously hard drum break of "Ponderosa" to the clicking future saloon shootout screamer of "Strugglin'" to the Michael Jackson-sampling "Brand New, You're Retro". It's hard to imagine the landscapes of modern electronica and underground hip-hop without this record's influence. --Rollie Pemberton

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065: Daft Punk
Homework
[Virgin; 1997]

This is the kind of homework kids used to get in Paris, way back in 1997: French disco-breaks, dance-funk, and baguettes (a dietary staple from the "pretentious" food group). The latter is part of a balanced breakfast; the former two would be combined by Daft Punk to create the instantly accessible, so-simple-they're-unstoppable electro-fusion beats of Homework, the surprise success of which single-handedly brought French progressive house to worldwide prominence. Dmitri from Paris didn't show his work, and Air were just looking off Daft Punk's paper anyway; "Da Funk" is the original, with a sleazy, distorted vibe that sounds like 1970 imagining music in 1997, and still absolutely slays on the floor. Homework is a testament to elegance through simplicity, brilliant in its form. But Daft Punk never let that distract the listener; they would rather you just kept right on dancing. --Eric Carr

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064: The Breeders
Last Splash
[4AD; 1993]

Like many records of the early 90s, Last Splash was a casualty of the alternative rock boom-- a wildly experimental album with a highly accessible standout single (in this case, two: "Cannonball" and the facetiously straightforward "Divine Hammer") that sent throngs of teenagers scrambling to buy it as quickly as to sell it back, and ten years later, it still has yet to fully overcome its reputation as a bargain-bin staple. This album, of course, was clearly never intended for mainstream consumption: its jarring blasts of feedback and screeching noise, angular vocal melodies, instrumental jam sessions, and unusual wordplay even seemed alien to some Pixies fans. Yet anyone open-minded to experimentation and the advancement of the form reveled in its brilliant, boundary-breaking melodies.

Kim and Kelley Deal beamed with girlish charisma and sibling chemistry, carefully crafting an album whose diversity was outweighed only by its artistry. "Invisible Man" is an aching pop ballad overdriven with distortion and longing; "No Aloha" opens with a disorienting vocal line and punchdrunk Hawaiian guitar before being swallowed by a vortex of chugging, blissful guitar pop; "Do You Love Me Now" is a searching love song that swoons like lovestruck 60s girl groups; "Saints" looks forward to summer with Jim MacPherson's skipping drumbeat and the Deal sisters' anthemic one-line chorus. Last Splash proved Kim Deal had more to do with the Pixies success than anyone had previously thought, and was so tight even its B-sides are classic. --Ryan Schreiber

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063: De La Soul
De La Soul Is Dead
[Tommy Boy; 1991]

From the beginning, they knew their style of speak wouldn't be wholly accepted. Developed as an affront to the success of their debut album Three Feet High and Rising, De La squashed the D.A.I.S.Y theory, while tilting their sound toward denser and more introspective ends. The new incarnation of De La lampooned thug rappers, hip house, demo-toting hopefuls and Burger King employees, while tempering their more light-hearted humor with darker territory like child rape and crack addiction. Not only did the group manage to master the art of the skit and invent myriad off-kilter rhyme schemes; they also contributed the first notable concept album to hip-hop, basing this record around the meta subtext of a listening session with a discarded copy of itself.

Prince Paul stood tall as the figurehead for obscure production tricks, taking sample-based fare into a new level of conscious beat design. Enter song manipulation mastered: tracks from Funkadelic's Maggot Brain morphed into a depressive jazz piano bass march, "Rhythm and Rhyme" samples transformed into a clattering horn prance through a mine field. De La Soul Is Dead boasted absurd levels of diversity, changing face at nearly every turn, yet always maintaining the group's already-distinctive style. --Rollie Pemberton

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062: Aphex Twin
Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II
[Warp; 1994]

Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II has few identifiable beats, choruses, or hooks. It doesn't even have song titles. Often, there's nothing but timbre. If you're lucky, a track might contain faint, arrhythmic squeaks. At its most approachable, it's a pop song attenuated to a classical structure and stripped of its purpose. It's music the same way the Bible is some book. Reportedly written in Richard D. James' lucid dreams, the pieces are lighter and more natural than death, necromantic vocals occasionally emerging out of tangible textures only to instantly recede.

On a couple of tracks, James audaciously manages to transform ambient Stockhausen/Reich-inspired phantasms into something a deaf man might almost call funky. On the more "disturbing" tracks, the incontestably sonorous-- perhaps even religious-- melodies seem to elliptically elude themselves and quietly uproot peals of static and a bitter spirit of languor. It simultaneously pledges to fulfill every desire and expose us all to fates terminated in Arctic graveyards. As an aftershock, it also spurred on one of the great trajectories of pop music in the 1990s, influencing everyone from Radiohead to Timbaland. Cloistered cubicle-dwellers and yoga instructors everywhere gobbled up every Aphex mouse pad and called him the messiah. Mojo called him the next Mozart, and in The Ambient Century, Mark Prendegrast compared one of his songs to Chopin. These are probably overreactions; then again, after buying this album, I've rarely had an inclination to listen to anything else. --Alex Linhardt

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061: Pulp
Different Class
[Island; 1995]

In the UK, an oft-asked question throughout the summer of 1995 was "Blur or Oasis?" The correct answer was "Pulp." Months before the Blur-Oasis duel-- and about 15 years into their career-- Pulp reached #2 on the singles chart with "Common People", a rare moment of inspired anger and vitriol amidst the empty nationalism of Britpop. The song's bitter claim that "You'll never fail like common people/ And watch your life slide out of view" could have been aimed at Damon Albarn and his embrace of lower-class culture, the new anti-intellectualism of laddist slumming, or the conservatism of then-burgeoning Noel-rock. It was probably a bit of all three, simply disguising itself as the story of a brief fling between some anonymous low-rent bloke and the heiress to a family fortune.

Pulp's Jarvis Cocker wrote the bulk of Different Class after the success of "Common People", and it oozes with the confidence, ambition, and relief of a man who, after years of trying, was finally in the right place at the right time. He had to get it right and, spectacularly, he did, articulating the rage of the misshapen and the chronicling the dreams and small victories of broken people with a sparkling and biting blend of wit, panache, class warfare, sexual politics, and glorious (and "Gloria"-borrowed) pop hooks. In the process, Sheffield: Sex City's uncommon heroes proved themselves worthy of the record's titular compliment, and managed to avoid treading the same bloated, conservative waters in which their contemporaries eventually drowned, becoming Britpop's most transcendent stars and one of the UK's most engaging pop acts. --Scott Plagenhoef

060: Palace Music
Viva Last Blues
[Drag City; 1995]

The influence of Appalachian folk music is tremendously manifest in Viva Last Blues, Will Oldham's third album under the Palace moniker. But rather than simply copping the rustic mystique of early American music, he chose to recreate it on his own terms. Combining stark acoustic numbers with Neil Young-style rockers, Oldham managed to expand his sound significantly without sacrificing the character and intimacy of his early offerings. Producer Steve Albini leaves every instrument crisp and distinct, allowing Oldham's songs to shine through with no intrusive atmospherics. And as with all of Oldham's most compelling work, the songs on Viva Last Blues are absolutely timeless, utilizing an oft-antiquated vocabulary but never sounding like the product of any specific time or place.

Of course, no discussion of Viva Last Blues would be complete without acknowledging "New Partner", a fan favorite and possibly the finest song Oldham has ever written. "New Partner" reveals itself over time-- immediately striking for its melodic beauty, repeat listens reveal unsettling undercurrents in Oldham's lyrics and delivery. Like the best of his work, "New Partner" offers up a unique and striking take on the ageless themes of love, sex and death, and here, it's hard to tell if Oldham even acknowledges any difference between the three. Oldham enlisted a talented (and credited) band for this album, including Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein, and the extra investment paid off in spades: Viva Last Blues still stands as one of Oldham's best and most-loved records. --Matt LeMay

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059: Elliott Smith
Either/Or
[Kill Rock Stars; 1997]

Elliott Smith's third and final independently released full-length has always been the favorite. His elliptical lyricism and slithery song structures moved beyond the overwrought metaphors and folk regularity of his previous material to arrive at this logical, if unforeseen, conclusion. Achingly spare, these songs were hushed and intimate, devoid of the distance that came with multi-tracked instrumentation, and hadn't yet adopted the more obviously George Harrison-inflected melodies of XO and Figure 8. And even while those two records were brilliantly outstanding achievements, neither were as diary-like or tightly musical as this one.

I lived in Portland when Either/Or was released and felt an added kinship with the sense of place, the street names, and local events. He was the poet laureate of that always rainy town, and as time went on, "Say Yes" would become the hollowed-out wish of those hapless kids I'd see at shows, uncomfortable in their bodies but cocky with their obsessive grasp of musical minutiae. But here, it's clear that he wrote it for himself, not for them, and the insight into his character makes its impact doubly powerful. --Brandon Stosuy

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058: Jesus Lizard
Liar
[Touch & Go; 1992]

Around the time of Liar, Jesus Lizard played a sweaty, half-nude show at CBGB's. Midway through their set, frontman David Yow somehow knocked himself out via contact with an angry audience member: He fell off the stage, the rest of his band followed, and I jumped over two or three kids to watch the melee unfold. That sense of danger and melody hasn't resurfaced in rock-- not even in the fiery realm of black metal or the forced antics of keyed-up art-kids from New York who punch their fans with duct tape.

Featuring graduates of seminal bad-asses Scratch Acid and Rapeman, this Chicago foursome (with important Texas roots) looked like handymen or real-life truckers and laid down significantly heavy staccato rhythms, pleasingly violent guitar riffs, and an unsurpassable lead-bass-- all for Yow to eviscerate with his dense, aggravated growl. Dropping in the midst of the tiresome grunge era, Liar was a punk slap: from the pummeling "Boilmaker" onward, it's a tight dose of unrelenting punchdrunk whoop-ass. Plus, these guys weren't dopes: Like their ally and regular engineer, Steve Albini, they were darkly funny and just really fucking smart. --Brandon Stosuy

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057: Brainiac
Bonsai Superstar
[Grass; 1994]

Many bands surface ahead of their time, come off eerily futuristic, or sample creepy MacinTalk voices but mark my words: few, if any, will achieve the perennial anachronism and the sheer and spastic outerworldliness of Brainiac. Bonsai Superstar was the Ohio quartet's second effort-- first with the permanent addition of guitarist and future Enon founder John Schmersal-- and proved tangibly that the finest dissonance is the most mature harmony. Track after track, the band indulged in the most manic of rhythms, matched in intensity by certifiable madman and vocalist Timmy Taylor whose delivery, whether hushed, overdriven or vocodered, was always unsettling. Perhaps that was because the album captures Brainiac at that momentous threshold between raw, nervous energy and cold calculation. --Nick Sylvester

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056: A Tribe Called Quest
The Low-End Theory
[Jive; 1991]

"Trustafarian" jibes aside, it's easy to see why this landed in the collections of so many people who could give a shit about hip-hop. The jazz-based beats are melodic but hard, and all the upright bass gives the front half of the album an intimate feel. But it's Q-Tip and Phife's deft rhymes that make each track sound like an interview, a confessional, or a career advice seminar. They sum up the state of their lives-- the girls, the rap promoters, even their pager habits-- in lyrics so right they etch themselves in your brain. This disc's raw beats trumped the fuller production of Midnight Marauders on this list, which reflects not just how tight and flawless this record came out but how well it served the MC's power to connect: This is the talent that taught the Lollapaloozers what hip-hop was all about. --Chris Dahlen

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055: Spiritualized
Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
[Dedicated; 1997]

Jason Spaceman (neé Pierce) left the planet a long, long before this, but the realization doesn't truly hit until Ladies and Gentlemen: If you go high enough, you might make it to outer space, but you'll never find your way to Heaven. There must be a bittersweet charm that comes with the knowledge that you've pushed as close to the boundaries of the aether as anyone ever has, though. Close enough to hear echoes of the angelic gospels from the other side; close enough to imagine the ultimate peace available there; close enough to feel the sting of never truly reaching it. All the loss, pain, and regret of the life left behind is exorcised forever with the blues and the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll, and drugs (lots of them) fill in the rest. Up there in his space capsule, Pierce finds out what Major Tom already knew: drugs may expand the consciousness, but knowing God is larger than anyone can comprehend. That, however, didn't stop Pierce from trying, and amen. --Eric Carr

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054: Blur
Parklife
[SBK; 1994]

Americans still have difficulty understanding the impact and importance of this record. The Labor party manipulated Damon Albarn into a political icon, inviting him with Noel Gallagher to 10 Downing. Even as a drunk, coked tart Albarn had the sense to turn down the offer. Despite his public ego, Albarn has always been keenly self-aware and subtly self-deprecating-- essentially British. Parklife's facade sounded royally appointed and funded, sophisticated and ornate, overlying sharpened satire. This dynamic keeps the album eternally fresh. New, young ears can marvel at Graham Coxon's guitar molding post-punk into mellifluous melody. Old listeners settle into the harmonies and Naugahyde nostalgia. In an era of one-dimensional emotion, Parklife set itself uninvited at the classic album table, nicking from every china plate and bottled beer. --Brent DiCrescenzo

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053: Weezer
Pinkerton
[DGC; 1991]

In 1996, it was something of a shock to see Weezer jump from the sungazing confines of the Blue Album to a stalker-heavy concept album about blue balls. Soundscan numbers reflected this, chasing the band off the charts and back into the cult status preferred by their core fans. But Pinkerton soon became the Little Album that Could, building up enough steam during the band's hiatus to bring Rivers Cuomo, et al out of retirement, for better or worse (okay, for worse). It's still easy to see how people looking for some more "Buddy Holly" quirk were frightened away, what with Pinkerton's ferocious Frid-drums, overdrive switches stuck in the "on" position, and Rivers Cuomo's disturbingly literal lyrics. (There had to have been a few restraining orders filed in Cambridge after its release.) But songs like "Why Bother?" and "Falling for You" are sing-along catharsis that should be prescribed to people with social anxiety disorder, and "The Good Life" is a beerglass-swinger for the indie set. Modern emo may have sprung from Pinkerton's Asian art loins, but I'll be damned if it ain't the catchiest LiveJournal blog I've ever heard. --Rob Mitchum

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052: PJ Harvey
Rid of Me
[Island; 1993]

The press' wild acclaim for 1992's Dry sent Polly Harvey into seclusion. She couldn't write, she received disturbing fan mail, and in her London flat, the pressure to record finally sent her into a nervous breakdown. Rid of Me was the fast result: a kicking, screaming temper tantrum that fed on fear, gore and carnage. With Steve Albini at the production helm in the same snowy Cannon Falls, MN studio that birthed Nirvana's In Utero, the 23-year old Harvey, with bassist Stephan Vaughn and drummer Rob Ellis, created this explosive art-punk classic-- a volatile mix of abused whimpers set to tiptoeing guitar and dead space, and tortured shrieks flailing against sharp, disharmonic feedback and raw noise. Harvey's lyrics are at their most schizophrenically confrontational here, vividly depicting explicit sex acts in stark, gruesome detail and fighting back aggressive lovers with depraved, psychotic threats: "No other way/ Cut off your legs/ Did you ever wish me dead/ Oh lover boy I'll feed the head/ No you must no you must not go away/ How will you ever walk again?" Rock doesn't come uglier. --Ryan Schreiber

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051: Stereolab
Emperor Tomato Ketchup
[Elektra; 1996]

Stereolab released countless singles, EPs, and full-lengths during the 1990s, but Emperor Tomato Ketchup remains their most definitive and recommended statement. For a group that reveled in resurrecting Continental obscurity, from Neu! to Krzysztof Komeda, Emperor Tomato Ketchup sounded wholly futuristic and alien. Producers Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire perfected their craft, as each song gurgles and grooves in minutia. It's a sound so unique that tracking its influence to date ends at Timbaland and the Neptunes. In addition, the bold, gaudy album cover stands as one of the best of the decade. For a band like Stereolab, this matters immensely. --Brent DiCrescenzo

050: Outkast
Aquemini
[LaFace; 1998]

The overrated Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is garnering props for its audacity-- and its solo format, something The Melvins and Kiss have attempted themselves. But despite the recent and late critical praise, Outkast haven't surpassed the spacious grooves of their third full-length, Aquemini, an album on which they merged astrological signs and didn't need separate CDs to get the job done. From the ridiculously pimped-out cover art, to the spot-on production and perfectly placed live instrumentation (check the horns on the epic "Spottieottiedopaliscious"), to the languid Southern sprawl of the near-nine-minute "Liberation", Aquemini is smooth and well-conceived. Plus, it includes Outkast's greatest track to date, "Rosa Parks": The politico-historical-dance-step chorus ("Ah ha, hush that fuss/ Everybody move to the back of the bus/ Do you wanna bump and slump with us?/ We the type of people make the club get crunk") should make anyone a decent hip shaker. --Brandon Stosuy

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049: Tom Waits
Bone Machine
[Island; 1992]

When all the grandpaboys made their death-is-coming-to-get-me albums in the 1990s (Reed's Magic & Loss, Dylan's Time Out of Mind, et al) only one of them didn't go all selfish. Tom Waits told transcendent, cinematic stories set in barns, colosseums, nursing homes, bars and temperamental oceans from the viewpoints of religious alcoholics, hairy-chested ex-cons, embittered nonagenarians, jilted Ophelias and would-be suicides. Waits' wails were lizardly and warm throughout; Bone contains the finest showcase of his Frank-Oz-meets-Francisco-Goya pipes.

Although it's a mystic love song, "Earth Died Screaming" was scary enough to turn the staunchest global-warming skeptic into an environmentalist. No existential ballroom could clear its floor without Ralph Carney's mournful woodwinds accenting "Dirt in the Ground". The myths of Christ, Lucifer, Sleepy Hollow and Johnny Cash blend on the chiller "Black Wings", which suggested that saviors are born out of gossip. Joey Ramone would go on to cover "I Don't Wanna Grow Up", and Waits would go on to outlive the beautiful bastard. If you don't weep to the twilit sendoff "Who Are You", then I must ask who the hell you think you are; of course, the chorus' question could easily be turned on its consummate-actor source. Waits, Beck and Radiohead form the trifecta proving that the "Best Alternative" Grammy can get something right, but only Waits fisted every Yankee idiom into a stain-pocked opera gown. --William Bowers

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048: Portishead
Dummy
[Go! Discs; 1994]

I put on Dummy recently, expecting it to have aged miserably. In fact, it almost seems fresher now than it did nearly a decade ago, when it defined trip-hop for the mainstream, merging the eerie darkness of Massive Attack with hard-edged, sludgy hip-hop beats. The album still vividly evokes gritty alleyways and urban black holes, Beth Gibbons' languid torch croon dripping like ether over warm, crackly vinyl and shadowy guitar. Her longing, sensual lyrics were ripe with forbidden sexuality, but the tightly mic'd, ominous instrumentation and close, whispered vocals oozed claustrophobia. In 1994, this album's seismic blast rippled across the globe from a Bristol epicenter, influencing a legion of leaders and followers to spin their own dark webs; that it's one of the few trip-hop statements that still shatters preconceptions today merely proves how forward thinking it really was. --Ryan Schreiber

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047: Oval
94diskont
[Thrill Jockey; 1995]

The differences between the last three proper Oval records are there, but you have to listen closely for them. Nothing in Oval's catalog, however, sounds like 94diskont. On 1994's Systemische, Markus Popp-- then working with Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger-- stumbled upon the idea of fusing drones from Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works, Vol. II with the sound of CD skips. On 94diskont, the germ of that idea flowered into a fully realized album. The centerpiece is the 24-minute "Do While", which is repetitious in the best possible way, cycling through the same sections with variations. If you listen to it on headphones you get an idea of what it would be like to have four ears. Sounds appear as multi-layer holograms, with both sources and ghosted copies simultaneously vying for attention, a piece of sonic trickery used to create some of the most serene and aquatic music of the 90s. The flipside (it's worth getting the vinyl of this one for the extra 12-inch of "Do While" remixes, including an outstanding reworking by Mouse on Mars) both refines the experiments begun on Systemische by adding depth and texture, and foreshadows the greater density and sharper edges of Oval's late-90s work. This record is why Markus Popp was called the new Eno. --Mark Richardson

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046: Air
Moon Safari
[Astralwerks; 1998]

Air should be ashamed of themselves. Thanks to albums like Moon Safari, international stereotypes of Frenchmen as nothing more than muss-haired playboys stroking a woman with one hand and an analog synth with the other are forever reinforced. Oh sure, some will tell you that they're merely reflecting the society that birthed them, and that the hyping of the Frug Life is the only way off the hard streets of Nice or Cannes. It's possible to praise the album for its skillful positioning at the intersection of electronics and organics, gracefully balancing on the border of adult contemporary at moments and composing underwater Moog symphonies at others. You can probably even credit Air for bringing the vocoder back into style-- especially if you're Cher. But by creating an album infamous for being the best makeout album of the decade, Air has done a great disservice to their country, portraying all Frenchmen as nothing more than oversexed Champagne-swigging keyboard players. Va te faire! --Rob Mitchum

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045: Godspeed You Black Emperor!
F# A# Infinity
[Kranky; 1998]

Admit it: You got goosebumps the first time the narrator got to the bit about mothers clutching babies and the violin rose up in the background like the collective cry of the wounded, lonely, and destitute. F# A# Infinity is a creaking, majestic tribute to the end of days, the tyranny of market forces, and the power of loosely scripted, collectively imagined music. Despite the heavy presence of reverb and electromagnetic vibrations of steel of strings, Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s first album sounded ancient, like a thought that had existed for centuries but was just now being articulated. Real life samples-- the rumble of a distance locomotive, the shouting of a street preacher, airwave static-- added an unsettling layer to the brooding instrumental textures woven by the violins, cellos, and alien guitars, and the music somehow felt undeniably political, even if a direct message was nowhere to be found. If F# A# Infinity taught us anything, it's this: the Apocalypse will be beautiful. --Joe Tangari

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044: Boredoms
Super Ae
[Birdman; 1998]

Super Ae is where the aesthetic of the "new" Boredoms, introduced earlier the same year on Super Roots 7, crystallized. The randomness and adolescent spurts of their past releases disappeared, and instead, Boredoms became a superhuman tribal rock machine. The brilliant thing about Super Ae is that it wrests abrasion and aggression from the hands of the nihilists. Nowhere is such positive and triumphant music performed with such balls-out intensity. There is noise, distortion, screaming, pounding, but there is neither anger nor rage; instead, Super Ae is a celebration of something. Life? Freedom? Community? Nobody knows, really. This album, like Eye's vocals, works completely on a pre-verbal, instinctual level. "Boredoms are like a moon on a lake," Eye would later say. "Only there is no moon and no lake. Only Boredoms." That koan makes a little more sense after listening to "Super Shine". Super Ae is the most uplifting music I know. --Mark Richardson

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043: R.E.M.
Automatic for the People
[Warner Bros; 1992]

Growing up in Atlanta, worshiping R.E.M. was a requisite. Naturally, as a supposed punk transplant preteen from New Jersey, I forced myself to hate them. Chemistry, 1991, the blonde girl in the front row turns around to get my vote in her Georgia Rock survey: "R.E.M. or Drivin' N' Cryin'?" Looking back, it's preposterous to even see the two bandnames together. The reason being Automatic for the People. Remove it from their discography, and R.E.M. would go from mixed-bag major label over-attempts to fumbled hard rock. In other words, they wouldn't even be around today, and "Losing My Religion" would track between "Fly Me Courageous" and "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" on Now That's What I Called the 80s XI: DiXIe & The Stone Mountain Laser Show. The dark "Drive" completely reframed the band in my Fugazi-tinted eyes as dark and troubled, and it was an sparse, acoustic ballad. This opener led what was the most mature, rich, and rococo record of the decade-- a work necessary for every cellar, waiting to be pulled up when the biased bullshit of adolescence has passed. --Brent DiCrescenzo

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042: Fugazi
Red Medicine

[Dischord; 1995]

With Repeater still standing as possibly the last great gasp of punk, and already idolized for their tireless DIY ideals, Fugazi could have simply continued treading water and been canonized among the patron saints of independent music. But theirs is always the road less traveled; Red Medicine was the most self-consciously divergent album of Fugazi's career, eclipsing their signature broken, socio-political vitriol with greater excursions into downtempo dub, ambient bursts, and out-and-out noise. Eclipsed, but not forgotten; the jagged blare of "Do You Like Me?" immediately shows that they haven't given an inch, and the slow drone of "Long Distance Runner" shows just how far they've come. For so many bands that made their names on youthful determination, creativity, and simple enthusiasm, the onset of "maturation" is less a creative zenith than an emotional palsy, but on Red Medicine, Fugazi grew up without aging a day. --Eric Carr

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041: Yo La Tengo
Painful
[Matador; 1993]

Though they'd already made their name on a series of alt-country strumalongs and covers albums, Hoboken, NJ's Yo La Tengo didn't truly find themselves until 1993's landmark Painful, a drugged-out and drony homage to The Velvet Underground that fired off feedback like rounds in wartime and dreamt of quiet rural nights from within the heart of the city. Ira Kaplan's guitar squall seemed in sonar communication with Thurston Moore's somewhere uptown, James McNew's Farfisa buzzed along in dissonant accordance, and Georgia Hubley's drumkit crashed like I-95 pile-ups, translated the rattle of riverfront machinery, and whispered secrets to a newfound crush.

It was their first real rock album, alternately heartbroken and lonely and drowning its cries out with fiery, frustrated fretwork (the embittered "From a Motel 6" and "I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long"), or innocently falling in love against dreamy, escalating guitar figures and warm, soft blankets of organ ("Nowhere Near", "The Whole of the Law"). But the standout was unquestionably "Sudden Organ", whose nominal pun (the track opens with its namesake) belies the stellar freakout within: the quintessential Yo La Tengo song, "Sudden Organ", stunningly balances Kaplan's minimal, buzzing guitar, Hubley's brilliant cascading drumbeat, and McNew's rampant organ-smashing with one of the best pure indie rock songs of the decade. Painful was the album that made Yo La Tengo a band to reckon with, and marked the true start of the unstoppable decade-long run that would make them one of indie rock's most revered and canonical bands on record. --Ryan Schreiber

040: Aphex Twin
The Richard D. James Album
[Warp; 1996]

Richard D. James' intelligence isn't measured by I.Q., but B.P.M., and that makes his namesake album Steven Hawking. Jackhammering drill-n-bass clicks and cuts are incongruously combined with the lacy ambient electronics he built his reputation on, and the whole stunted, mismatched lot couldn't sound more perfectly composed. One of the most aggressive combinations of disparate electronic forms when it was released, the almost-brutal contrast between its elements creates a seal that's locked in freshness since way back in 1996. Other, less-inspired compositions from this era are often too easily dated by their technology, and sound stale compared to modern variations; RDJ is one of the most impressive exceptions. The strength of this album lies in its structure; the ebb and flow of the pieces mimics classical composition, while simultaneously weaving rapid-fire beats no earthly booty could shake to, bitterly dividing the left and right hemispheres of the human mind. The left side hears the rhythms and lighter-than-air melodies and wants to dance, dance, dance. The right side knows that's a pipe-dream, and locks itself into contemplation of the album's technical precision. The only concord: pure awe. Awe, and then a coma; it's tough when your brain can't agree with itself. --Eric Carr

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039: Olivia Tremor Control
Dusk at Cubist Castle
[Flydaddy; 1996]

Having consumed and possibly memorized the entire back catalogs of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and hundreds of other acid-damaged 60s psych-rock creations, Athens, Georgia's Olivia Tremor Control created this conceptually ambitious yet highly accessible full-length on a four-track recorder-- just like their heroes. At 27 tracks, Dusk at Cubist Castle bubbles over with such astonishing precocity, braiding dreamy, convincingly drugged-out soundscapes with washes of guitar noise, thick vocal harmonies, tape manipulations, and layer upon layer of percussion and overdubs. Contributions from every key member of the Elephant 6 collective-- Will Cullen Hart, Jeff Mangum, Robert Schneider, The Bill Doss, Julian Koster, John Fernandes, Eric Harris, and others-- ensured that, no matter how ambitious their concepts, the band's results would remain grounded and highly accessible. And sure enough, like the genre's greats, the Olivia Tremor Control balanced their experimental oddity with nuanced songcraft, coming away with tracks as overstuffed and complex as "Revolution 9" but with all the charm and charisma of "Wouldn't It Be Nice". If only every collective vision could achieve such unity. --Nick Sylvester

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038: The Jesus Lizard
Goat
[Touch & Go; 1991]

If the Jesus Lizard isn't the most sorely-missed band on this list, it's only because they're one of the most sorely underrated; they filled the filthy, abrasive void left by the seminal Big Black with a little filth to spare, and nothing proves that better than Goat. With Steve Albini's engineering assistance, The Jesus Lizard turned every last screeching, clanging, hook-heavy riff into the sound of imminent catastrophe; then they plugged it in to a power-mad rhythm section, drove it into your living room, shit on the rug, spit in your face, fucked your wife, cheated on your taxes, and drank straight from the milk bottle. If hell hadn't run out of horseshoes, David Yow would have been the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse, and if the voting hadn't been rigged, he would've been the fourth, right in front of pansy-ass Famine. Feeding off every ounce of the spiraling chaos behind him, Yow channels it all into righteous, bile-soaked howls and eerie threats. He's got a grudge against everyone-- fucking everyone-- especially you, you fucking mouth-breather. --Eric Carr

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037: Magnetic Fields
69 Love Songs
[Merge; 1999]

Chuck D once claimed that love is a minimal subject, sex for profit. Thankfully, the cynical and oft-described misanthropic Magnetic Fields leader Stephen Merritt doesn't agree. What's more, "spineless" and "mindless" are a couple of adjectives that could hardly describe Merritt's audacious, ambitious pet project, the triple-disc 69 Love Songs. These songs, ranging from deft genre exercises to Merritt's expertly crafted takes on electropop and the classic American songbook, demonstrated a rich melange of wit, intellect, and craft rarely found in modern guitar pop. Some, such as the near perfect "Asleep and Dreaming", function as traditional love songs, but many of Merritt's tales aren't about sexual fulfillment or happy endings. (Hell, most love songs don't even have happy endings-- some of them just have endings, and still others never even had beginnings.) Merritt also realizes that love-- romantic or otherwise-- isn't only felt in extremes, and over the course of his magnum opus, he also frequently captures the absurdity, beauty, and pain of love in its more ephemeral and fleeting incarnations, a feat mirrored by the record's restlessness and eclecticism. So, sorry, Chuck: Not all love songs are selling sex for profit. Some are pitching passion, hope, lust, frustration, and redemption. These are 69 of them. --Scott Plagenhoef

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036: Wu-Tang Clan
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
[Loud; 1993]

This is the sound of accidental fame. Something as unique and unusual as this record isn't supposed to find itself at the height of commercial viability; it's supposed to smolder underground, hidden from the view of mainstream America, who surely would not be ready for such a challenge. But America was ready, in part because this one challenged convention, not listeners. Sure, its sloppy drum programming, bizarre song structures, and unpolished sound quality disturbed commercial rap purists, but the talent was so inherent and obvious, and the charisma so undeniable, that it propelled the Wu-Tang Clan to the height of the rap game, and today stands not just as the hip-hop classic that introduced the concept of obscure thematic characters (each member's name references old kung-fu movies), but also bridged the gap between traditional old-school sensibilities and the technical lyricism of today.

Half the charm is in the cast's idiosyncrasies: ODB's hovering sing-song, Raekwon's fake stutter, Ghostface's verbal tics, Method Man's hazy, dusted voice. But RZA's dusty yet digital production style also helped legitimize the use of more diverse sample sources to the hardcore New York rap massive, breaking away from James Brown beats and embracing a style that turned the Underdog theme into the menacing coda for a group of underground terrorists. These formulas have been attempted several times since: the Ghost/RZA duet, the "Protect Ya Neck" lineup, the Russell-on-the-chorus "fun" song. But it never quite works the same. Never again will the Wu possess the raw energy, hunger, and complete disregard for hip-hop's musical standards that they entered the gate with. 36 Chambers maintains what was once music's universal truth: "Wu-Tang slang'll leave your headpiece hanging." --Rollie Pemberton

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035: Boards of Canada
Music Has the Right to Children
[Warp; 1998]

Upon first listen, Music Has the Right to Children can sound deceptively effortless and simple-- 60 minutes or so of layers of analogue melodies, a bit of scratching, and a parade of downtempo beats and fragmented vocal samples. Yet this pioneering collection of pastoral folktronica is one of the most engaging and emotionally captivating electronic records of the decade, full of delicate textures and tones such as "Telephasic Workshop" and "Turquoise Hexagon Sun", and moments of almost painfully fleeting beauty like "Roygbiv".

Here, the Scottish duo Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin sculpted a fluid, gorgeous and signature sound that comes across like the score to the memory of childhood. Like a slideshow or a box of photos and postcards, it's an evocative arrangement of faded or clouded memories and half-remembered events, people, places and times. Like the imperfect notions of memory or nostalgia, it elicits a complex range of sentiments-- from regret to confusion to anxiety to boredom to loneliness-- as it seems to strive to mirror or reconstruct the emotional and psychological landmines of the past and nourish the soul. --Scott Plagenhoef

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034: Beastie Boys
Check Your Head
[Grand Royal; 1992]

I have no problem admitting that when Check Your Head first came out, it was my favorite record ever. Well, times have changed but there's little doubt that it's one of a handful of albums from the 1990s almost everyone can agree is a classic. By the time Check Your Head was released, the Beasties had something of a reputation for radically changing their sound with each release, and this album didn't disappoint. Their fusion of blaxploitation funk, hardcore punk and old-school rap was almost unprecedented; songs like "Funky Boss", "Gratitude" and "So What'cha Want" couldn't have been made by anyone else. Co-producer Mario Caldato, Jr. wrapped the entire thing in vintage, analog haze as the Boys went off on any funky tangent that hit them. They enlisted Biz Markie to wax eloquently about themselves, and then obliterated him with a hardcore cover of Sly Stone's "Time for Livin'"; they got all retro with the Santana instrumentals, then let MCA deliver arguably their best rap in "Professor Booty". Check Your Head not only established The Beastie Boys as Gen-X ambassadors of cool, it also opened the door to a whole school of post-modern, hip-pop (Beck, anyone?). Furthermore, like all their best stuff, it sounds as fresh today as when it was made. --Dominique Leone

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033: Nas
Illmatic
[Columbia; 1994]

With Nas spitting spools of ghetto philosophy over a tightly sequenced collection of lush instrumentals provided by a dream team of producers (including DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and Large Professor), Illmatic is the meticulously crafted essence of everything that makes hip-hop music great; it's practically a sonic strand of the genre's DNA. On the classic "The World Is Yours", Nas self-consciously kicked verses about writing rhymes and wove rhythmic inspiration into his trademark smooth delivery while Pete Rock's debonair rolling piano motifs and steady drum breaks flawlessly captured the indifferent winds of time passing; while on "Life's a Bitch", over a heady instrumental of thick layers of bass, and pensive Rhodes flourishes, Nas reminisced about waking up on his twentieth birthday ("My physical frame is celebrated 'cause I made it"), and finding newfound motivation facing the hardships of life in the projects of Queens ("I switched my motto, instead of sayin' fuck tomorrow, that buck that bought a bottle could've struck the lotto"). Even Nas' archenemy Jay-Z couldn't deny the brilliance of Illmatic on his diss track "The Takeover". Maybe he understood, as everyone does, that this was the original blueprint. --Hartley Goldstein

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032: The Notorious B.I.G.
Ready to Die
[Bad Boy; 1994]

It's difficult to listen to Biggie's all-too-prescient 1994 debut, Ready to Die, without feeling it was a gift dropped from the heavens, a consolation prize for a life that would surely be taken before its time. Released the same year as Nas' landmark Illmatic, Ready to Die seemed to encompass the polar opposite of Nas' modest street philosophizing. Complex in execution, and ambitious in scope, Biggie's debut was an unmercifully vivid, sprawling, abstract manifesto, where his meticulously detailed narratives of drug hustling, graphic gang violence, and always humorous tales of lady-trouble, rubbed shoulders with harrowingly lucid dream-like melodramas of violence and death.

This intoxicating brew of magical realist rhymes, delivered in BIG's dusty caramel drawl atop unrelentingly crisp soul-laden instrumentals, demanded concern, acceptance, fear, and jubilation all from the listener, and frequently all at once; one minute he'd triumphantly rhyme, "Super Nintendos, Sega Genesis/ When I was dead broke, man, I couldn't picture this" ("Juicy"), and the next he'd be staging his own suicide, pathologically raging, "When I die, I want to fuckin' go to hell/ 'Cause I'm a piece of shit, it ain't hard to fucking tell" ("Suicidal Thoughts"). Indeed, Ready to Die is Biggie's own autobiography: a story of desperate, hard living wherein this tragic figure faces his vices and flaws, and then desperately numbs them into submission through the intensity of his own sensational and vitriolic rhymes. --Hartley Goldstein

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031: Wilco
Summerteeth
[Reprise; 1999]

After four years, it's difficult to believe that there are still people who pine for Wilco's early alt-country days. But sure enough, these people are out there, refusing to see the quiet, almost accidental genius of Summerteeth, the album that saw Jeff Tweedy cement himself as a master of poetic imagery and the band come into their own as craftsmen. The record unfolds like a series of epics in miniature-- the elegantly worded domestic drama of "She's a Jar", the dreamscape menace of "Via Chicago", the orchestral uncertainty of "Pieholden Suite"-- evoking an America full of people struggling, but always somehow clinging to hope. Tweedy's world of ashtrays, imperfect love and longing was uncomfortably inviting, and somehow, even the band's wrong notes sounded perfect on this unconsciously, unfailingly brilliant album. --Joe Tangari

030: Liz Phair
Exile in Guyville
[Matador; 1993]

Alright, so I'll just come right out and say it: It's been all downhill for Liz since this one. Nevertheless, I don't see her predilection for slickness and radio-courting as the true engine of her decline-- even if Exile's gauze-thin sound suits her better (remember that Brad Wood and Casey Rice were practically The Matrix of mid-90s alterna-rock). Rather, what seems to have faded is Phair's translational gift, giving the sausage party that is the indie scene a rare taste of estrogen, sugar-coated with mid-fi packaging. Beneath the overanalyzed potty-mouthed surface of songs like "Fuck and Run", "The Divorce Song" and "Flower" were relationship testimonials that offered a flipside to the woe-is-me posturing of indie's many passive-sensitive gents, while also impressively maintaining an audience balanced along gender lines. That she's moved on is hardly a crime, but Exile fortunately remains a feminine counterbalance to the current wave of tattooed acoustic self-loathers. --Rob Mitchum

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029: Modest Mouse
The Lonesome Crowded West
[Up; 1997]

These 74 ambitious minutes emphatically shoved this three-piece out in front of the acts to which they'd been compared (an impressive list topped by Built to Spill, the Pixies, and Daniel Johnston). Sporting a crown of sagebrush and bleeding beer, Isaac Brock barked and whimpered this disc from atop some craggy creative peak while his guitars got into the spirit of Stephen King's directorial debut Maximum Overdrive and began to play the hell out of themselves. All of Brock's major preoccupations are realized here: intoxicating wanderlust, elementary science tidbits, compartmentalized feelings, situational ethics, dogs, and pioneer pentness. Entities that Brock calls "God" and "Christ" get treated like narrative Play-Doh, popping up as sadists, impish tykes, and Robert Evans.

Songs morph and metastasize: "Lounge (Closing Time)" is a three-act morality play about nights out, "Cowboy Dan" probably constitutes Ugly Casanova's cantankerous, shape-shifting manifesto, and the epic of misanthropy "Doin' the Cockroach" builds to extreme-sport proportions that reduce potheads to noting that, bro, if you take "shit" out of "catharsis" it leaves "a scar." Half of the album is creepily and dreamily confident (Brock even fashions his own "jive," or Isaabonics), while the rest reveals a vulnerability ("Trailer Trash" and "Bankrupt on Selling" are effing sob-reapers). Calvin Johnson and Phil Ek perfectly captured the surf-prom post-grunge, while letting Jeremiah Green sound like The Meters' Zig Modeliste. Brock's mystic view of cities and realist's view of the pastoral make the record an Iliad for soul-searching casual cokeheads on the lemon-water diet. --William Bowers

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028: Pixies
Bossanova
[4AD; 1990]

The Pixies' history is marred by several pockets of impolite internal conflict-- none quite as dicey as the months directly preceding the release of their third full-length, 1990's Bossanova. During the band's post-Doolittle hiatus, frontman Black Francis embarked on a solo tour and Kim Deal dug into side project The Breeders, whose debut, Pod, was released later that year. The band eventually settled down to record Bossanova (tellingly, the record doesn't feature a single track written by Deal) with Doolittle producer Gil Norton.

The album expertly maintained the Pixies' abrasive-but-endearing mix of boy/girl harmonies, flip-flopping structure, and freewheeling guitar jabs, while folding in bits of surf-rock (resurrecting The Beach Boys' beloved theremin for lead single "Velouria"), bizarre sci-fi lyrics, and some sweet, hook-heavy choruses. Bossanova's agreeable sound temporarily divided Pixies fans, who questioned the band's supposed embrace of pop formula, but the record ultimately stands as a testament to their maturity: without sacrificing the gnawing innovation of their earlier releases, Bossanova made demanding but accessible space-rock a public necessity. --Amanda Petrusich

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027: Guided by Voices
Alien Lanes
[Matador; 1995]

I loved Guided by Voices, but I was not yet in love with them when I saw them on the tour supporting Alien Lanes. Two hours, some free beers from Bob himself, a wicked leg cramp, and, I dunno, fifty tunes I was only marginally familiar with at the time had me checking my watch. The mic twirls and leg kicks were fun for a novelty, but after so long... And then came "Watch Me Jumpstart". I experienced a moment of clarity regarding music unlike any before or any that would come after. Monumental chords shook the ground beneath me, and the significance of Robert Pollard's epic call to stand and be counted really hit me.

The Who, The Beatles, and all GBV's other obvious touchstones differed from the people I was watching onstage in one critical respect: Those other bands were "rock stars"; Robert Pollard was just the most average guy in the world, blessed with the skills of a master songsmith and boundless imagination. He's no rock star, but he gets to play one every day of his life, and the large-hearted wonder he beams as a result of that opportunity is like nothing I've ever found in any other music. Alien Lanes was the band's first real chance to show this to the world at large; Bee Thousand came first, and gets all the attendant acclaim, but (to paraphrase), that is not to say that Alien Lanes is not the best they've ever been. --Eric Carr

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026: Weezer
Weezer
[DGC; 1994]

An album so substantial the band misguidedly attempted to tap into its resonance through cover graphics a mere two releases later. In 1994, 70s rock had come to mean either a bastardized version of Led Zeppelin or a bullshit reconstruction of punk rock. As guitar nerds, Weezer sought influence there but found true inspiration in forgotten bubblegum power-pop like Cheap Trick, The Raspberries, 20/20, and The Quick. Most impressively, Rivers Cuomo rescued the thrilling guitar solo from finger-tapping metal and disregarding grunge/punk. A decade later air-guitaring to the album feels far less embarrassing than singing along. With the help of Spike Jonze, Weezer kept joy alive in arena rock, making the critical repositioning of Weezer as some emo touchstone even more absentminded. They called themselves Weezer, knowingly, for chrissakes. --Brent DiCrescenzo

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025: Yo La Tengo
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
[Matador; 1997]

If you're the paranoid conspiracy-buff type, you might credit the critical untouchability of Yo La Tengo to nepotism within the fraternal critical brotherhood, seeing as Ira Kaplan was once a member of our illustriously Pale Old Boy's Club. Good thing, then, that the trio put out fantastic albums like I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, so we can keep our reprehensible cronyism under history's bedcurtain. After YLT's first phase culminated in Painful, acronym-of-power ICHTHBAO found them exploring a variety of sounds: quiet cricket-accompanied drone, rillyrillylongloud drone, radio-friendly post-organ drone, Beach Boys-cover-that-sits-on-a-single-chord-for-as-long-as-it-takes-you-to-read-this-blurb drone. But don't let the terminology fool you into thinking these landscapes are Midwestern flat; "Moby Octopad" and "Autumn Sweater" are cut-up pastiches assembled in almost DJ-like fashion, while "Deeper into Movies" and "Sugarcube" might be the last time we see Kaplan trailing feedback exhaust. I'm not entirely positive that bossa nova confectionery like "Center of Gravity" was the correct door leading away from this crux, but I Can Hear the Heart is a brainstorming session better than most band's endpoints. --Rob Mitchum

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024: Built to Spill
There's Nothing Wrong with Love
[Up; 1994]

True or false: Doug Martsch is the Peter Frampton of 1990s indie? Sure, he might not have the hair, the tight pants, or the voice box, but it's difficult to think of another soul more worthy of resident guitar god; maybe J Mascis, but he never brought the pop side like King Framp. That's the side most in evidence on There's Nothing Wrong with Love, before Martsch started bringing the sprawl in spades. Humble, wry song-tales about heads-up-seven-up, Albertson's stir-fry, and Bowie-hating stepdads abound, while earnest tracks like "Twin Falls" and "Big Dipper" set the pace for the entire Northwestern indie-pop scene. Ooo baby I love the way that dark cello elbows its way into the wishlist of "Car", the way Doug's craypaper voice lends a layer of giddiness to the slack romantics of "Reasons", the way the louds and softs of "Some" still pack a wallop. If you feel like I do, you think Perfect is closer to perfect, but there's very little wrong with There's Nothing Wrong with Love. --Rob Mitchum

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023: The Beta Band
The Three EPs
[Astralwerks; 1999]

There was a flurry of internal debate over whether The Three EPs, The Beta Band's stateside release of their very first recordings, should be considered in the final tallies of this list. Indeed, it's not a proper album so much as it is, literally, a conveniently packaged compilation of three extremely different releases from the Scottish quartet. In the end, the record was allowed in for reasons much greater than its album-like presentation: The Three EPs is much more than an album precisely because it isn't an album. Its twelve tracks comprise an unfathomable degree of consistency and musical variety without pretense or calculation, effortlessly taking part in traditions as disparate as straightforward Brit-rock, ambient electronica, and Latin funk.

Completely unintentionally, The Three EPs achieved so much musically with a cohesion that rarely exists in even intentionally ambitious albums. For this, it's rightfully celebrated, but not so much as because it was simply brilliant-- a wildly diverse statement of intent that opened and closed with beautifully experimental folk-pop, but burst open like a supernova somewhere between. With The Three EPs, The Beta Band announced their arrival, and, headed toward the dawn of a new age, no one felt any desire to look back. --Nick Sylvester

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022: Built to Spill
Perfect from Now On
[Warner Bros; 1997]

After being called up to the big leagues, Doug Martsch and his supporting cast put on some muscle for this one: Despite consisting of a mere eight tracks, Perfect from Now On was puffed up to a statuesque 55 minutes. It mined the same melodic fortune of golden pop-nuggets as its airtight, single-serving predecessor There's Nothing Wrong with Love, but stashed them within a dense maze of anthemic guitar wails and groove-laden jams. Larger-than-life distorted guitar melodies and compulsive progressions twist, turn, overlap, collapse, and dissolve into fragmented grains of hypnotic propulsion, lending a sense of weightlessness to the mix.

Despite being twice as dramatic as earlier work and three times as broad in scope, not a single moment of overindulgence or estrangement exists. Many songs ("Velvet Waltz", "Kicked It in the Sun", "Untrustable, Pt. 2") effortlessly shift direction several times, tossing away an album's worth of innovation in a matter of minutes. Martsch's sincere high tones consistently delivered artless lyrical gold, whether he was unraveling the philosophical narratives of the afterlife ("Randy Describes Eternity") or offering heart-rendering observations above perfectly wielded Mellotron effects and guitar rhythms that make me blush. Built to Spill were never a perfect band, but for one moment, they came close. --William Morris

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021: Björk
Homogenic
[Elektra; 1997]

Björk's evolution into starchild siren was pretty surprising given her predisposition for flighty, often jarring musical juxtapositions. Homogenic was arguably her first fully formed statement as a passionate, forward-thinking ambassador to electronic pop. I'm reminded of her spiritual godmother Kate Bush's 1985 release Hounds of Love, in the way Homogenic fuses state-of-the-art production techniques with its protagonist's idiosyncratic song forms and instantly distinctive alto call. The mysterious, punchy impressionism of "Hunter", spacey new age of "All Neon Like", and malleable, beatless wonder of "All Is Full of Love" are just a few examples of the album's compassionate, slightly off-center romanticism. LFO's Mark Bell produced many of the tracks and he gives Homogenic a futuristic tinge despite trading the florescence of Björk's previous efforts a wider pallet of pastels. Only on the experimental house of "Pluto" does she step out from her cocoon in a fit of rage, although even then an air of intrigue envelops the track. Homogenic, living up to its title, is one of the most perfectly formed records of any era, and it is entirely possible that Björk will never approach this level of consistently enrapturing beauty again. --Dominique Leone

020: Björk
Post
[Elektra; 1995]

It's an interesting fluke that, statistically, Björk's two greatest albums just happened to wind up right next to each other on this list: after all, few artists on this list could rival her in terms of innovation, vision, talent, and high-yield experimentation, and Post was the record to establish this. Though it continued in the excellent tradition of 1993's Debut, this album was so much more-- a forward-looking amalgam of vibrant electronic pop, animated production, and intelligent beat-mongering. "Army of Me" storms in all dark and menacing, but with a sense of awareness that only Björk could filter through such a stark concoction. In videos like "Army of Me", or the theatrical, West Side Story-inflected "It's Oh So Quiet", which adumbrated her role in Dancer in the Dark, you can see in her eyes that she couldn't be more comfortable in her own skin. This record is packed solid with ambition, yet lacks any misplaced self-awareness. She may come off as otherworldly, but as she showed on tracks like "Possibly Maybe" and "You've Been Flirting Again", she's more grounded than any of us. --William Morris

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019: Beck
Odelay
[DGC; 1996]

Before he wanted to have a rocking chair and a sweet tea conversation with you on his front porch, before he wanted to sex you up (and your sister, too), and before he wanted you to break his heart and leave him for dead, Beck just wanted to rock you. Of course, he wanted to do it in his own folksy, blues-infected, psychedelic, hip-hop, fragmented-sense-of-self sort of way, but... was that so much to ask? On a rare record that received as much underground attention as it did critical and commercial acclaim, the Dust Brothers were released from the chains of The Beastie Boys' old basement to help map Beck's every-angle approach. His salvation-army nation buckled at the knees to "Where It's At", learned how to get up to get down for "The New Pollution", and bobbed along blissfully to "Devil's Haircut". I blasted in with "Novocaine" on every mixtape I made for a year. And despite all the jagged ends and dissociated means, the end result was as cohesive as an album this multi-faceted could dare to be. Hell, it won the man a Grammy-- but more importantly, it won everyone that listened some cool. And for that we will be forever indebted. --William Morris

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018: Smashing Pumpkins
Siamese Dream
[Virgin; 1993]

Little did any of us initially realize that "Today", Smashing Pumpkins' red carpet to the glorified frat houses of alternative rock radio, took part in something much greater: sophomore release Siamese Dream was borne out of the band's intense personal and interpersonal turmoil-- so much so that Billy Corgan was left in the studio to play most of parts by himself. Nominally, Siamese Dream implies some duality: the album title reflects at once its confidence and its vulnerability, its anger and its broken-heartedness, its honesty and, however therapeutic, its self-deceit. Avoiding the sparse, punchy grunge tropes of the time, Corgan opted instead for personal and melodramatic epics told within grandiose walls of sound that seemed to function as the music's own consolation. The fanged opening moments of "Rocket" speak to this effect, and comprise some of the most potent moments in 90s rock. Smashing Pumpkins never again achieved this degree of sincerity-- compare the poignant yelp of "let me out" in opener "Cherub Rock" to the nasally embarrassment of "God is empty just like me" in Mellon Collie's "Zero"-- but then, shouldn't one decade-defining album be enough? --Nick Sylvester

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017: Public Enemy
Fear of a Black Planet
[Def Jam; 1990]

The Bomb Squad's last stand, Fear of a Black Planet, is like Spike Lee hurling a trashcan through Huey Newton's boutique. Snatches of guitar swiped from Purple Rain entwine soul-shattering shouts, tornadoes wallop 1960s R&B, obtuse DJs get smothered by their own turntables, and propulsive shards of static blanket the horizon. If you don't like the music, you can at least use it to soundtrack Armageddon drills. Chuck D.'s flow is like shredding civil rights speeches through 50 rhyming dictionaries. He is anti-white, anti-black, anti-history, anti-government, anti-1950s rock, anti-homosexuality, and anti-self. And he still stands for more worthwhile causes than any politician since the New Deal. This is the only album on our list I've seen taught in grad seminars on ethics. Even Flava Flav-- against every imaginable obstacle-- somehow converts his appointed role as "Official Buffoonish Timepiece" into bitterly incisive domestic policy criticism. And then there's "Welcome to the Terrordome"-- half of James Brown's entire oeuvre compressed into a five-minute Orwellian cannon aimed directly at Chuck's truculent paranoia. Hell, the whole goddamn 20th century was a Terrordome. There was only one misstep: "In 1995, you'll twist to this." Sorry, Chuck, it's 2003 and we still haven't caught up. --Alex Linhardt

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016: The Dismemberment Plan
Emergency & I
[DeSoto; 1999]

There's a reason why this record rode a slingshot into the top 50 of Pitchfork's first 90s list without so much as a month passing between its release and the feature's print date: Travis Morrison and the Plan didn't hold a thing back. On this, their third and penultimate album, they recklessly careened through an all-encompassing sonic landscape and nailed every possible, terrifying angle along the way: "What Do You Want Me to Say" seethes with rabid frustration; "Gyroscope" and "The City" are wantonly pop-inflected slices of wistful melancholia; "Memory Machine" and "8½ Minutes" jut out with razor-sharp abandon; "Spider in the Snow" and "The Jitters" swim in demoralization and reflectiveness; "I Love a Magician" is warped by its own maniacal impulses; "Back and Forth" is the flammable, anthemic call-to-arms for a revolution that demands you stop giving a shit. The album's lyric book reads better than half the modern volumes on my bookshelf. Modern R&B should have as much rhythm. Modern rock should have as much balls. --William Morris

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015: Radiohead
The Bends
[Capitol; 1995]

This-- the album that sprouted Radiohead's own branch on the cred tree-- washed our mouths clean of Pablo Honey's fractured rock aimlessness and served as an aperitif for what they had in store. An anthemic revival of sorts, it was the first in a series of 90-degree turns in terms of vision and style. Lacking any real agenda-- a trend to be developed later in the band's career-- the record simply exemplifies rock's sterile beauty. On The Bends, Radiohead are as much an eruptive force as they are an introspective and calculated machine as acoustic and electric structures commingle in perfect harmony. Stripped of all pretension, the straightforward yearning of "High and Dry" and "Fake Plastic Trees" come off as crystalline products of Thom Yorke's innermost despair. "Just" threw a knockout punch into the air, and the stop/slow motion video for the enchanting "Street Spirit" replaced the Ouija board at late-night get-togethers. As accessible a first listen as it is rewarding a thousandth, this was the first glorious peek into Radiohead's psyche. --William Morris

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014: Belle & Sebastian
If You're Feeling Sinister
[The Enclave; 1996]

"Make a new cult every day"? For a few years, Belle and Sebastian's second album, If You're Feeling Sinister, did just that. Back then, the band's legend was built around the band's self-propagated myths, and their evasive attitude toward touring and the press. Their debut, Tigermilk, was pressed only on vinyl in a limited edition of 1,000 copies, and those that heard it usually did so via nth-generation dubs. Further adding to the band's mystique, Capitol Records subsidiary The Enclave folded shortly after releasing Sinister in America, leaving precious few copies of the album in circulation.

When the shroud was lifted, what was revealed was this delicate record: If You're Feeling Sinister was not just a lush blend of folk-pop and 80s indie pop sensibilities, but also a condensation of the singular worldview and sharp lyrical- and character-oriented songwriting of Stuart Murdoch. "Nobody writes 'em like they used to/ So it may as well be me," he shrugged on "Get Me Away from Here, I'm Dying". And for a few years, this was a good thing, as Murdoch traced a legacy that included The Smiths, Felt, and the bands of Postcard and Sarah Records rather than dabbling in soul-boy pastiche. Trading in S&M and Bible studies, romance and lust, and tales of childhood woe and insensitivity, Murdoch's introspective and sensitive characters sought solace in books, found anxiety on walks home alone, and harbored sinister sexual desires. It clicked with many-- and when thousands of people took pictures of their obsessions, what developed was the sublime poetry of a reclusive Scottish lad, a band whose rich details were worth devouring, and a Kafka reader lounging in front of a morning window, bathed in red. --Scott Plagenhoef

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013: Nirvana
In Utero
[DGC; 1993]

In Utero could have been a complacent, cookie-cutter follow-up to an album that set the bar impossibly high; instead, it seethes with visceral rage and purpose. Listening to Kurt Cobain rip his heart out and hold it up for all to see is just as bracing now as it was ten years ago, but the thing that strikes me most these days is just how much Cobain's sarcastic humor creeps into his music. "If you ever need anything/ Please don't hesitate to ask someone else first/ I'm too busy acting like I'm not naive," he shouts on "Very Ape", over guitars honed like razors by recordists Steve Albini and Bob Weston. He's making a joke, but in the process, revealing what was perhaps his most tragic flaw. Cobain's naivete and idealism ultimately made the cynical world of corporations and media limelight too much for him to bear, but he left us with a beautiful swansong and perhaps even a bit of closure in "All Apologies". Nirvana were an important gateway to the underground for thousands of kids in an era when new sounds were much further than a single mouse-click away, and a lot of us were never the same after they were gone. --Joe Tangari

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012: Slint
Spiderland
[Touch & Go; 1991]

Driving into Louisville from the east-- following Interstate 64 through the epic dips of West Virginia-- the roadside is littered with dirty little bits of Americana: strips of black rubber ripped from tired truck tires, big, yellow billboards angling towards the closed doors of Gentlemen's Clubs, signs promising wholesale cigarette outlets, offers of fresh, steaming biscuits three miles on right. It's a propulsive roadway, sprawling and forceful. That Slint, the unlikely and (still) underappreciated progenitors of cerebral post-rock, hail from this landscape is not entirely inappropriate: Spiderland, Slint's landmark second record, is comprised of bits and pieces of a million disparate American roadsides, a lurching, complicated portrait of self-contained discontent.

Born from the rubble of Louisville's Squirrel Bait, Slint subverted common ideas about volume and tempo, inspiring a new generation of intense, discordant players, from the Dirty Three to Sigur Rós to contemporary torch-bearers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Spiderland itself is a heady, chilling listen; the irregularity of its hypnotic melodies, fractured beats, and mismatched lyrics demand a new kind of appreciation, independent of traditional notions of songcraft. With its half-mumbled, half-hollered vocals, deliberate percussion, and drone-gone-aggressive guitars, Spiderland's urgency is almost traumatic to swallow: despondency never tasted so real. The record's reputation can at times seem more ubiquitous than its songs, name-checked by impish upstarts with a kind of glib, dismissive familiarity. In truth, Spiderland's influence is far more thorny and convoluted than its pat spoken legacy could ever convey. Turn up the volume and get out of its way. --Amanda Petrusich

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011: Talk Talk
Laughing Stock
[Polydor; 1991]

Laughing Stock seems to gain more acclaim with each passing year. That may be the result of all the bands-- electroacoustic, free folk, post-rock or what have you-- who are struggling to reach what Talk Talk achieved: a record that makes its own environment and becomes more than the sum of its sounds. "Entrancing" barely describes the effect of Laughing Stock. Where its predecessor, Spirit of Eden, was transcendent, this record aims for something more complicated-- slow then abrupt, quiet then jarring, it emulates nature through its unpredictability. The ensemble blends organs and fluttering violas, rutting blues guitar and harmonica, the breathless persistence of Lee Harris' drumming, and-- most of all-- Mark Hollis' vocals, as gnarled as bark and as bare as a psalm.

On paper, the songs are almost skeletally spare. So, too, are Hollis' almost indecipherable lyrics with their obtuse, nearly Pagan imagery, but in performance those bones are stretched out to hang noise, silence, and repetition, from the crashing of "Ascension Day" to the fleeting breeze of "New Grass". The trumpets on "Taphead" spill like gold ink in water, and the shapeless guitar at the center of "After the Flood" is the core of a work that echoes the mass of great natural forces. Against these backdrops, Hollis wanders through themes of reaching and faltering but instead of a struggle, you hear a man at peace: it's the same sureness that guides the band, as they use these mundane tools to express something greater than themselves. --Chris Dahlen

010: Guided by Voices
Bee Thousand
[Scat; 1994]

Forget lo-fi. Though often cited as the defining album of the misleading faux-genre, there's a lot more to Bee Thousand than tape hiss. At its core, this record is one of the most unique and inventive pop records ever made; the best and brightest hooks from rock's golden age filtered through a fractured and kaleidoscopic vision of hardcore UFOs, hot freaks, and robot boys. As an album, Bee Thousand can barely contain itself. The numbers are striking enough-- Robert Pollard and his Dayton cronies plow through 20 songs in a mere 36 minutes. But what's really amazing is just how many good ideas Pollard manages to cram into the album's slender frame. While many songwriters are content to beat a single strong hook to death, Pollard approaches his songs like an excited child, working through a single idea with unabashed enthusiasm and then eagerly moving on to the next. The fact that this record was recorded in a basement rather than a studio seems entirely essential to the album's epic and unforgettable nature. With more and more overproduced studio artifacts from the mid-90s sounding painfully dated, Bee Thousand still seems vibrant, relevant, and timeless. --Matt LeMay

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009: Bonnie "Prince" Billy
I See a Darkness
[Palace; 1999]

My beleaguered "generation" and I may attempt to protect ourselves from emotional harm (and our grim inheritance) by stockpiling absurdities, but we will probably still go prostrate during a moment of disarming simplicity, pathetic mortality, or genuine romance. I See a Darkness is rife with such moments (though the exultant finale of "Nomadic Revelry" defies categorization). Will Oldham's latest moniker is his canniest since back when he went by variations on Pushkin, and under this banner, his work has retained the bawdiness, hybridity, and compassion that characterized the Russian poet. In this guise Oldham exploits a salty freedom and an epicurean brio; on this album, his least "country," he was a bulimic Falstaff milking medieval dread/mirth. Sung sans-warble, these non-sequiturial folk anthems, seasoned with Robotussin Skynyrd licks, confirmed that Oldham is indie's detached and brilliant DeNiro. (After all, the Bonnie Prince Charlie of history was called "The Young Pretender.") A masterpiece of comic negation, "Death to Everyone" invokes a holocaust, "coming kids," "hosing," and how "balls burn." That the late Johnny Cash rendered ISAD's title track as a sobriety hymn only deepens the song's mystery, as well as the album's sense of play. --William Bowers

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008: Pavement
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
[Matador; 1994]

Given the mean age of Pitchfork staffers, this list should be absolutely dripping with My First Indie Album teary-eyed recollections. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the one album guaranteed to start me a-blubberin', as I remember how discovering "Cut Your Hair" through (no shit) The Countdown to The Headbangers' Ball was my gentle push down the greasy slope of elitism. Which is why I'll forever treasure it as the essential Pavement album. What's remarkable about the album is not its shoestring budget technique, but how friggin' epic the material sounds despite (or possibly because of) being crammed into such humble surroundings. From the Skynyrd-coda of "Stop Breathing" to the California Adventure of "Unfair" to the Quadrophenia mods vs. rockers battle of "Fillmore Jive", Crooked Rain is an album recorded in basement Cinemascope. The twangy monolith at the center, though, is "Range Life", paradoxically featuring some of Stephen Malkmus' most evocative imagery alongside some of his most petty, albeit hilarious and OTM, whining. It's the score to the inevitable slow-motion retrospectives of Pavement's career, and the most moving song of their tenure-- even if you can't really bang your head to it. --Rob Mitchum

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007: DJ Shadow
...Endtroducing
[Mo'Wax; 1996]

Sampling was by no means 1996's innovation, and certainly wasn't anything new to hip-hop by the middle of the decade; one could state accurately, in fact, that sampling lies at the core of the genre's very musical foundation. But that's just the thing about ...Endtroducing: Though Shadow still insists otherwise-- to the point that he is said to have made a habit of moving this very record from the "electronic" section of his local record store to the "hip-hop" section-- the album is effectively genreless. It may rely on hip-hop technique, but Shadow mined the dankest of this nation's record bins to unearth for himself an entire sonic spectrum that melded jazz and funk loops with forgotten horror movie samples with layers of ambient noise, to create one of the most dark, foreboding, and original musical statements ever. To date, the album still sounds like no other.

Across the board, tracks like "The Number Song", "Organ Donor", and "Midnight in a Perfect World" became curious points of intersection for listeners of otherwise disparate music, and one can't help but think ...Endtroducing brought the possibility of hip-hop to die-hard rockcentrics. "Organic" is an understatement; ...Endtroducing is living, breathing Weltgeist, its form self-determined and unusually cohesive, given its vast breadth and bottomless well of innovation. With DJ Shadow's debut, other hip-hop in 1996-- no, other music period-- couldn't help but "suck." --Nick Sylvester

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006: Nirvana
Nevermind
[DGC; 1991]

For a while, it seemed there were nothing but grunge bands: Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Green River, Screaming Trees-- and virtually all of them hailed from Seattle. On the surface, it makes sense that Nirvana, with their flannel overshirts and ripped jeans and greasy hair, would be lumped in with the movement. Yet I can't think of a single Nirvana-influenced band that ever got airplay in the 90s, or a single Nirvana song that carried all the actual attributes of true grunge music. Grunge, as we came to know it through MTV and commercial alternative radio, consisted of craggy and/or heavily reverbed, jangly guitars, mumbling ponytailed vocalists, and giant stadium drums not all that far removed from the hair-rock whose cultural relevance the genre supplanted. Grunge begat Collective Soul, Creed, and Nickelback. Where do Nirvana fit into this legacy?

Well, maybe they don't. With all the facts laid out, Nirvana begins to look much more like a plain old punk band that happened to exist at the heart of a cultural movement they wanted nothing to do with. Their influences-- not the classic rock roots of their Seattle brethren, but 70s post-punk and 80s college rock-- spoke to this categorization. Approximating Nirvana's sound with the time-honored [band] + [band] = [band] equation leads you to such dazzling dream-sums as Buzzcocks meets Sonic Youth, Vaselines meets Melvins, or Pixies meets Raincoats. Sure, there will always be those who insist that Nevermind was more of cultural import than musical, but they will also be full of shit: Nirvana are, a decade later, still regarded as the greatest and most legendary band of the 1990s. This band proved to a whole new generation that technical prowess has no bearing on quality, inspired their fans to seek out the music that slipped beneath the commercial radar, and then had the balls to be ridiculously, unthinkably fucking brilliant. Anyone who hates this record today is just trying to be cool, and needs to be trying harder. --Ryan Schreiber

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005: Pavement
Slanted & Enchanted
[Matador; 1992]

During one of his manias, rock writer Camden Joy protested a Macintosh-sponsored New York Music Festival via posters adorned with lyrics from Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row", the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", and... two songs from this album. One poster cited the "minions and slaves" passage from "Here", the album's only concession to reverb. The other poster read, "WHY A MUSIC FESTIVAL $???$$ ZURICH IS $TAINED", easily taking a slice of Slanted's random wordplay and imbuing it with a polemical passion. In comparison with the dead art foisted on the proletariat by any number of status quo cadres disguised as rock bands, Slanted is a radical, liberating document. Even the most reductive version of this album's genesis can't sully it: sports-loving stoner brats in oversized t-shirts got conscripted to a burnout drummer and recorded a slapdash do-it-yourselfer that blew up like the proverbial Gremlin in the microwave, increased the market share of both Matador and Drag City, proved that lo-fi could go grandiose, and briefly gave us yanks a band as inscrutable as the best undergrounders of Britain and Germany.

Pavement's most danceable and puzzling album contains segments of sassily oblique spoken-word, patches that go down like prog played at 78rpm, and jams that crucify humorless punk on a whittled Slinky. Meanwhile, frontboy Stephen Malkmus made the preemptive Stroke: a cute diva who could scream as if he suffered from womb envy, his meticulous apathy "paved" (har! oh shit!) the way for Julian Casablancas' blase ferocity. The crenellated toss-offs on this disc blended intense love for noise with unorthodox pop instincts, answering Achtung Baby with slack-toned gravy, and saunter-stumbled into rock history with a graffiti ethic that denies the listener a murkless horizon. The eternal students in this band would probably joke that "magnum opus" sounds like the name of a defendant in a Nordic date-rape trial, but damn if they didn't helm one. Fertilized by fellow obsessive record collectors Sonic Youth, Slanted sounds, somehow, like a manifesto after all them years, from when "Two States" proclaims, "There's no culture!" to the opening of "In the Mouth a Desert": Yup, Steve, we can treat the planet like an oil well. --William Bowers

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004: Neutral Milk Hotel
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
[Merge; 1998]

There are very few albums that resist categorization quite so effortlessly as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. For forty staggering minutes, Jeff Mangum short-circuits all conventional modes of expression, forging a private language that is endlessly intriguing and haunting in the truest sense of the word. Mangum sings as if possessed, painfully conveying fractured and moving tales with the imagistic skill of a brilliant novelist. He gnashes his teeth at the fabric of time, then wraps himself in it like a blanket, channeling the violence of his personal past through a claustrophobic frustration with his dejected present. His band, whose contributions to Aeroplane remain criminally underappreciated, elevate Mangum's songs from chilling sketches into vibrant opuses, fully realizing the antique otherworldliness of Mangum's storytelling.

Opening with the achingly gorgeous nostalgia of "The King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1", Aeroplane immediately plays upon a potent conflation of cultural and personal past. The world of Aeroplane is haunted by Anne Frank-- the specter of childhood's unimpeachable innocence amidst the unfathomable horror of the holocaust. In the feverish "Oh Comely", Mangum longs to save her in "some sort of time machine." By "Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2", the album's indelible and heartbreaking closing track, he seems to have resigned himself to loving a ghost, singing with a thoroughly unnerving blend of heartbreak and exhaustion: "In my dreams you're alive, and you're crying/ As your mouth moves in mine, soft and sweet." The way people have been affected by Aeroplane is ample proof of its power and uniqueness. Like all classic art, it is widely misunderstood; yet to some, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has become a riddle the likes of The Wasteland-- an impossibly rich text that begs to be deciphered, yet continually evades any singular interpretation. --Matt LeMay

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003: The Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin
[Warner Bros; 1999]

As an aging, sarcastic man, The Flaming Lips remain my favorite contemporary group because they demolish two short-sighted contemporary rock 'n' roll notions: you have to be young and serious. Wayne's salt-and-pepper beard, pea coat and bullhorn raised the bar for any musician pushing forty. Another debatable myth dispelled by The Soft Bulletin is that heroin destroys. Steven Drozd's addiction to the horse was hard and heavy right through the production of Yoshimi, and his addition to the band clearly took them to their current creative level. Aside from Keith Richards, has anyone produced such godlike music while mired in the junk, that it almost seems like an endorsement for the drug?

Remarkably, the band's music maintains a general air of feel-goodness while their lyrics concern sobering subjects as bleeding, bites, and mortality. Death seeps from within every sweeping disco-ball light bath of a song, deep down to the drummer's gums. A year after The Soft Bulletin's release a spider nailed my calf, corroding the skin. When detailing the infection I was constantly comforted by a poorly (perfectly?) sung refrain of, "When you got that spider bite on your leg!" That's cultural impact. The Flaming Lips: the official soundtrack of near-fatal insect bites. --Brent DiCrescenzo

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002: My Bloody Valentine
Loveless
[Creation; 1991]

Is there anything new that can possibly be said about Loveless? Any stone as yet unturned? So much has been written about this album, and so much of it reads the same: "It's about tension, noise vs. melody, ugliness vs. beauty... It's a return to the womb... It foregrounds the background and favors texture over development... Kevin Shields is Brian Wilson... Smart went crazy..." It's all true, of course. There's no arguing with any of that, just as there's little reason to talk about this album which so many people love. When it comes to Loveless, we understand each other so well that we nod and grunt like we're standing in front of Hank Hill's house. For me, it's been that way for some time: Seeing the letters "M", "B" and "V" next to each other in a review of another band's album is enough to get said record on my "music to check out" list. I suspect I'm not alone.

Now that Kevin Shields is in better health and is slowly returning to the scene, he's explained that Loveless was something of an albatross for him, that he never could find a proper way to follow it. He should be comforted by the fact that no one else has been able to follow it, either. I've long dreamt of an album that was "Like Loveless, but more," but I haven't found it. And so many hundreds of albums have tried. Perhaps this is the sound of a single idea perfected. We should move on and continue to explore the vast spectrum of sound and feeling music provides, but we'll always return to Loveless for what it alone can deliver. --Mark Richardson

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001: Radiohead
OK Computer
[Capitol; 1997]

The end of the 90s will be seen as the end of the album. The rise of MP3 technology and file downloading returned pop music consumption to collective pre-Beatles mindset, where songs are judged as singles. Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac were shallowly criticized as B-side collections because they were downloaded and assembled as such on home computers. "Treefingers" and "Hunting Bears" were torn apart, not a piece of a 60 minute or so record, but as worthwhile 34-minute download times (this, remember, was right before DSL/Cable). The resurgence, and arguable final entrenchment, of manufactured Pop Stars by their handlers over supposedly more artistic fare-- and more importantly the acceptance of such common pleasures by critics-- razed the significance of the complete album. Which is why OK Computer, and it's Best Albums Ever companion Loveless, eternally top these polls: somehow we doubt we'll ever see their like again.

Modern thinking has led to debates and revisionism over the effect of tracks like "Electioneering" and "Fitter Happier" on OK Computer's importance, as if removing "Turd on the Run" and "Pet Sounds" would somehow make Exile on Main Street and Pet Sounds five-and-a-half-star albums. What's interesting in the case of "Electioneering" is that, at the time, it stood as the one track most similar to the beautiful guitar rackets of "Just", "Creep", and "My Iron Lung". The band even performed the song on The Tonight Show upon the album's release. Beyond its political intent, the song could have fit easily on Radiohead's two previous albums.

Regardless, any arguing or defending of the record seems pointless and redundant. Which is why it's here at the peak. It should be reiterated, however, just how much better OK Computer is than Loveless, and why people somehow forget this. Loveless, a masterpiece of form and noise, impresses the brain like stylized photography. Surely, it is breathtaking. It provides the senses with a romantic, heightened ideal of music, experienced through an unbreakable medium. The sound overwhelms to such an extent that multiple listens are unnecessary and taxing. OK Computer, in contrast, sounds crystalline and liveable-- a true, enterable aural landscape packaged with press-delivered mythology describing its creation (Thom Yorke singing on his back staring at Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman's castle ceiling).

Those overly familiar with this album's details doubt its brilliance only in the way a Loveless-like beauty sitting across the restaurant from your mate questions your life commitment. You haven't seen the armpit stubble, shower drain residue, high-school poetry, morning dental state, and Disney-induced tears of Loveless. Psychologically, one needs those fantastic diversions, but there has to be something real to return to again and again. OK Computer simply is the anxious, self-important, uncertain, technologically overwhelmed 1990s. --Brent DiCrescenzo

Original here

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Time has revealed Jeff Buckley's Grace as more of a studio production than a real singer-songwriter creation. It is in so many ways a tragedy JB died and could not fulfill his promise as an artist as well as a person.

There's now versions of Hallelujah that make his cover, which has been over-marketed by his record label and estate, sound less emotionally authentic.

Calling him "the James Blunt of 1994" on Drowned in Sound may be overly harsh, but without getting to hear Grace free from Andy Wallace's slick production for Sony, the real legacy of this recording becomes more ambiguous through time.

Holmeslaw said...

Some albums missing:

Oasis - Definitely Maybe
Paul Weller - Wild Wood, Stanley Rd
Rancid - And Out Come The Wolves
face to face - Ignorance Is Bliss
Bad Religion - Stranger Than Fiction
Jawbreaker - Dear You
Refused - The Shape Of Punk To Come
Rocket From The Crypt - Scream Dracula Scream
Social Distortion - White Light, White Heat, White Trash
Green Day - Dookie

james said...

The Orb
The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
[Big Life; 1991]
Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
[Loud; 1995]
KMD
Mr. Hood
[Asylum; 1991]
Mogwai
Young Team
[Jetset; 1997]
Herbert
Around the House
[!K7; 1998]
Massive Attack
Mezzanine
[Virgin; 1998]
Frank Black
Teenager of the Year
[4AD; 1994]
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james wilkins


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