Saturday, May 28, 2011

99 NIFTY '90s ALBUMS Pt 3 ['97-99]

61. DAFT PUNK Homework
Released January 20, 1997

The beginning of the greatest electronic duo in music history. Simultaneously simple and extremely effective, Daft Punk inspired international interest in French touch music while creating their own blend of acid house techno funk. Hypnotic singles “Around The World” and “Da Funk” are so minimal – each track on the album has no more than a dozen samples – but they are so blissful all the same. It doesn’t take much to make beautiful music, just a keen understanding of the right sounds for the right beat at the right time. Homework skillfully showed everyone interested in dancing how it’s done.

62. BLUR Blur
Released February 10, 1997

For their fifth album, the sardonic Britpoppers set their sights on American rock. Blur’s self-titled release found them redesigning their sound by turning into a fuzzy-amped rock band. “Song 2” and “Bettlebum” were the singles that proved the move marketable, but all of these songs show Blur getting slightly more sincere, a little less pompous and pretentious. Instead of trying to subvert a sound, they embraced it, which worked on a cross-continental level. Both sides of the Atlantic rocked along, turning Blur into international superstars and setting them up for the eventual break-up and Damon Albarn’s next big band.

Released February 25, 1997

A bewilderingly blissful mix of Beach Boys-inspired harmonies and dour lyrical introspection is felt in every quiver of Elliott Smith’s battered, whispery voice. Either/Or saw the singer moving more so away from his voice-and-guitar songwriting approach to include (slightly) more intricate arrangements with heavier self-instrumentation to work with, while retaining his use of multi-tracking vocals and sounds to create textures and layers. His last album before being heard on Good Will Hunting and going mainstream, Ether/Or is a testament to what one musician with a lot of voices and sounds in his head can create with the right drive.

Released April 7, 1997

The Chemical Brothers sorta became electronica’s Led Zeppelin by releasing their version of II, Dig Your Own Hole. Loud and bombast, paying dear tribute to the stuff that got them where they were while paving the way for many to follow, The Chemical Brothers made samples and keyboards sound like a factory of precisely manufactured noise. Guest vocalists Liam Gallagher and Beth Orton (along with some sampled Schooly D and Kool Herc) break up the instrumentality with superb lyrics and pitch-perfect delivery. The songs are massive, and that an entire electronica album can stay bangin’ so steadily is astounding.

Released April 8, 1997

Hate it or love it, Corin Tucker had a warble to her wail that demanded attention, which was quite befitting of the sounds coming from the group she was fronting. Sleater-Kinney was a rock-n-roll band, pure and simple – beyond all the politics and geography and timeliness, they made music to make you move, as aggressively as possible. Carrie Brownstein got a lot of distorted moaning out of her guitar, and it was always the perfectly complementary type of playing that genius players understand (when not to play as much as when-and-what to). Dig Me Out is their all-too-of-course breakout.

Released April 14, 1997

Violator is indeed the most monumental album Depeche Mode offered up in the ‘90s (with the former-keyboard-only group playing guitars and producing some amazing singles to start the decade off). Songs Of Faith and Devotion reaffirmed their status as the most popular electronic band ever (while showcasing their further influence from/on popular rock). But Ultra was the one that proved the band could withstand near-collapse and come out swinging. David Gahan never sounded more impassioned (for obvious reasons), Martin Gore’s lyrics remained masterful, and the band played with a subtle sharpness that made them sound more alive than ever.

67. RADIOHEAD OK Computer
Released June 16, 1997

First, Radiohead made the perfect early ‘90s rock anthem (“Creep”), and then they created the perfect ‘90s rock album halfway through the ‘90s (The Bends). What else could the band do but invert themselves before approaching the second half of the decade? OK Computer is not a ‘90s album, it just happened to be released in 1997. The first of Radiohead’s many “challenging” albums, this one reinvented the formulas for success and songwriting, all coming out as if from nowhere. OK Computer laid the groundwork for the future of not only Radiohead but also modern rock music at large. 

68. SPIRITUALIZED Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Released June 16, 1997

The band and album name alone give one the impression of being severely (ahem) medicated, but the pharmaceutical artwork and symphonically minimalistic mantra music only fuel that intense feeling of inebriation gained from listening to trance-induced tunes. Spiritualized was Jason Pierce’s second band to indulge in the transformative nature of repetitive melodies, but unlike Spacemen 3, Spiritualized embraced a more ethereal and lush orchestration accompanying the arrangements. Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space may be music to take drugs to, but it’s enchanting nonetheless. I’ve been sober and still seen the light found in these wonderful songs.

69. CORNERSHOP When I Was Born For The 7th Time
Released September 8, 1997

For Cornershop, When I Was Born For The 7th Time was the exact sort of reincarnation of the band’s sound that the title suggests. Blissfully banging beats all reined in by very British culture and very Indian heritage, Cornershop’s cornerstone album conveys everything that made them so chaotic and incendiary, but polished to perfection by Dan The Automator, who helped produce the sucker (he would go on to generate similarly groovy results with Galactic in the upcoming decade). Singer/songwriter/guitar-and-dholki player Tjinder Singh is a crafty wordsmith and the band deftly parties along, inviting all listeners to do the same.

70. BOB DYLAN Time Out Of Mind
Released September 30, 1997

It was kind of strange for the already-prolific-then-stagnant Bob Dylan in 1997 to end up releasing not only one of his best collections of songs ever, but one of the best albums of the decade as well. Time Out Of Mind is a darker and more brooding auditory affair than its predecessors, and an unlikely champion of the later-day Bob Dylan canon. Concerned more with the emptiness of disappointment and the promises of mortality, Time Out Of Mind was hardly the rebel raconteur’s music from the past. Instead, it pointed to where Dylan was headed in the next century.

71. MODEST MOUSE The Lonesome Crowded West
Released October 7, 1997

The Lonesome Crowded West is certainly Modest Mouse’s most difficult and abrasive album to date. It’s also highly rewarding, the type of sprawling rural rock down that they’re known for. While the production isn’t quite as clean or lush as on their debut This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing Left To Think About (or future major label works), the rawness works to the band’s advantage. Isaac Brock spits and screeches lyrical odysseys of in-the-sticks dystopia, Jeremiah Green and Eric Judy ricocheting along with him, changing up tempos while staying simultaneously tight-knit and mad as all hell.

72. DEFTONES Around The Fur
Released October 28, 1997

Sacramento-based heavy band Deftones were a cut above the rap-/nu-metal popular at the time they started getting national attention, but they clearly were some kind of “hardcore” band. Their aptly titled debut Adrenaline was indeed a ferocious creature. They followed it up with Around The Fur, which further testified that this was no ordinary loud rock group. The ‘Tones have evolved magnificently (and tragically) over the years, but it’s nice to go back and hear how tight-knit and focused they’ve always been, especially on these sessions. Around The Fur is uniquely melodic and furious and begging to move you.

Released October 28, 1997

Whether you cop the original single-disc UK version or the American two-piece set, Roni Size & Reprazent’s magnum opus New Forms represents so much of what made ‘90s dance music such an exciting and mind-bending experience. Not just purveyors of drum ‘n bass, the Reprazent crew threw in plenty of big beat, jazz, hip-hop and funk elements to keep things interesting. Roni Size’s beats are hard hitting, mechanical yet elastic, organic yet synthesized. And the flow of each song is carefully orchestrated, always expanding or exploring but never getting lost or irksome. Only Goldie came this close to classic.

74. ALABAMA 3 Exile On Coldharbour Lane
Released November 11, 1997

Larry Love’s irony-infused vocal sermons may be synonymous with the opening credits of The Sopranos, but his band Alabama 3 have been a “sweet god damn pretty mother-fuckin’ country acid house music” band (Larry’s word, which make no mention of the rock, blues, dance and gospel they incorporate into their grooves) since the mid-‘90s. Whether covering John Prine or quoting Mao Tse Tung or referencing Charlie Mingus, they know how to bring the noise like only the greatest can. If the churches in my neighborhood were anywhere near this soulful, best believe I’d be there front-and-center every Sunday morning.

75. ATMOSPHERE Overcast!
Released in 1997

The Andrew Hill album art homage may have been a clue towards the way MCs Slug and Spawn spit verses in circles around each other, building a rhythm in their rhymes with a cadence that matches what beatsmith Ant bumps on the turntables. Spawn left Minneapolis just before the Slug started touring and label representing. Before he was an indie rap household hero/villain, Slug was a hungry rhymesayer who couldn’t wait to cleverly place words, and do it with appealing arrogance. The beats are rugged, the poetry is raw. Overcast! remains a loud warning of what was to come.

76. AIR Moon Safari
Released January 16, 1998

While many electronica music makers (and fans) are concerned with getting their dance on, some just want some smooth music to mellow out to. French duo Air clearly is of the latter mold, and Moon Safari is a chilled-out ride to a place with suspended gravity. Though not entirely instrumental, this disc never conflicts with its own ambience, and the singers help keep things lively and lovely. They’d go on to score Sofia Coppola flicks and continue to get their laidback grooves on, but Moon Safari is the perfect way to introduce downtempo fans to the pleasures of Air.

Released January 27, 1998

Denver, Colorado may not be famous for having spawned the greatest Gothic country metal folk blues band in existence, but this does not change the fact that Sixteen Horsepower was a musical force unlike any in its time. Built around songwriter-and-multi-instrumentalist David Eugene Edwards and his spooky warbling-turned-screeching. 16HP’s second album Low Estate found them taking their gritty southern soulful alt-country rock into even darker territory. Conjuring backwoods fables of biblical proportions, Edwards unleashed hellfire in his yelps as well as his reverential and tension-mounting sermons. To skew the famous phrase: Rock and roll could never country like this.

78. NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Released February 10, 1998

Neutral Milk Hotel’s popularity seems to still be gaining momentum (they were recently mentioned in an episode of Parks and Recreation), despite the fact that front man and songwriter Jeff Mangum hasn’t written or recorded an album since In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. Perhaps he’s overwhelmed by the same obsessions that drove him to create his masterpiece, but Jeff Mangum hasn’t really made a NMH follow-up since. Which is okay. It allows this instrumentally kaleidoscopic record to stay shrouded in mystery, an alt-pop renaissance for thousands of future fans that have yet to discover the strange charms within.

79. DAVE MATTHEWS BAND Before These Crowded Streets
Released April 28, 1998

A lot of people love to badmouth Dave Matthews Band, but they are one of the most successful musical groups in the world. The reason for this is that they excel at their live musical presentations, as opposed to their studio ones, which are hit or miss. No album of theirs merges the needs of a successful hit album with the band’s ability to jam like Before These Crowded Streets, their last with international super-producer Steve Lillywhite. Getting dark, playful, contemplative and excitable in a way they never (in studio) had before, they expanded their boundaries while staying naturalistic.

80. BOREDOMS Super æ
Released May 25, 1998

If you can embrace the bizarre delights gained from listening to experimental cacophonic craziness, you couldn’t do much better than giving Super æ (pronounced “ah”) a spin. Osakanese noiserockers Boredoms have been jamming their strange little jams since 1986-ish, but this krautrock-inspired opus is perhaps their most ambitious-yet-accessible record yet. Along with its predecessor (Chocolate Synthesizer, a reference to Tom Waits’s “Chocolate Jesus”?) and successor (Vision Creation Newsun, their last album of the decade), this trilogy of weirdness is the crème de la crème of aural absurdity. Odd, sure, but these cats sure can groove when they want to.

81. BILLY BRAGG & WILCO Mermaid Avenue
Released June 23, 1998

Folk-loving heroes from both sides of the Atlantic got to pay tribute to one of America’s folk forefathers. Woody Guthrie’s guitar never literally killed fascists, but his words were often powerfully poignant. British bloke Billy Bragg was contacted by Guthrie’s daughter Nora, and given permission to take Woody’s completed-but-never-released lyrics and make them fit into music for a new generation. Bragg got Wilco to join in the cause, making Mermaid Avenue a great success – not just for staying faithful to Guthrie’s spirit, but also for being a mighty fine album from Bragg & Wilco in their own respective rights.

82. LUCINDA WILLIAMS Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Released June 30, 1998

Lucinda Williams is a hard artist to pin down for various reasons, but whatever your take on her is, you gotta admit that her voice can gut your soul like a quick knife. She’d been a recording artist for nearly twenty years when she released her fifth album, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, and had deepened her strong songwriting without every having to really expand on it. Lucinda’s take on country ditties can lean heavily towards blues or even rock at times, but she tells her poisoned tales with just enough rural weariness to always feel rustically alluring.

83. BEASTIE BOYS Hello Nasty
Released July 17, 1998

Their most beat-tastic album since Paul’s Boutique, Hello Nasty finds the Beastie Boys making friends with Mix Master Mike and still embracing adventurous musical moments. Sure, this album didn’t cause a ruckus quite the way Check Your Head or Ill Communication did, but all three MCs’ trademark old-school humor, insight and cadence is apparent from start to finish. “Super Disco Breakin’,” “Remote Control,” “Unite,” and the hit single “Intergalactic” are as funky and hard-hitting as any other hip-hop out there. They haven’t been quite as ubiquitous throughout the 2000s, but this capped off a nice decade for the Beasties.

84. BLACK STAR (Talib Kweli & Mos Def Are) Black Star
Released August 26, 1998

Whatever you call their debut (and so far only) album, it’s true: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, and they came at a crucial moment in hip-hop history when the music and culture was in chaos. Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls had been gunned down, and the likes of Puff Daddy and Jay-Z were stifling hip-hop as much as aggrandizing it. Burgeoning MCs Talib and Mos delayed putting out their own solo debuts after realizing they had an undeniable chemistry, and made a full-length LP that brought Rawkus Records to prominence, and made for a stronger introduction.

85. QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE Queens Of The Stone Age
Released September 2, 1998

Josh Homme’s brand “robot rock” still kept the ladies in mind, a quality missing from the majority of late ‘90s hard rock. After the break-up of “stoner rock” pioneers Kyuss, Homme started writing and singing his own songs, and Queens Of The Stone Age became the name for this strange outfit. Full of repetitive riffs and crashing-like-tsunami rhythms, this is the type of metal album that pushes everything over the edge while remaining in complete control of itself. Though its follow-ups are more widely acclaimed, their self-titled debut proved that they had the blueprint right from the get go.

86. OUTKAST Aquemini
Released September 29, 1998

Outkast were dead set on bringing the Funkadelic as much as the Parliament influence when expanding their dirty southern grit-hop sound that had already made them hitmakers on ATLiens. For their brilliant third album Aquemini, Big Boi and André continued to display how truly out of this world they were. The choruses were still dripping with energy and enthusiasm, and the beats and hooks alternating between synthesizer-drenched fuzziness and down-home funky instrumentation; Boi and Dré don’t hold back on the thick Atlanta slang and diction, either. How could something be so regional yet so intergalactic? Only Outkast couldn’t differentiate.

Released October 13, 1998

This two-disc set features remixes new and old done by Peter Kruder and Richard Dorfmeister, an Austrian duo well liked for their dub-tempo remixes of popular and obscure songs from many different genres. Like their highly successful DJ-Kicks album, The K&D Sessions is a continuous in-the-mix collection keeps things deeply grooving like none other. And even though Kruder & Dorfmeister still haven’t released a proper full-length follow-up (of original material) to their smash(ed) debut EP G-Stoned, Sessions proves to be on par with such auditory excellence. K&D make some of the best beats in the business, original or remixed.

88. REFUSED The Shape Of Punk To Come
Released October 27, 1998

While borrowing heavily from Nation of Ulysses and Born Against, Refused were still asking a very important question: With punk splintering into so many subgenres, and most of them being co-opted by the mainstream, what was punk? The Shape Of Punk To Come was Refused’s answer to that. This harsh, strange odyssey definitely has the elements of punk and hardcore, but also goes into some strange sonic places that many groups, even punks, would be afraid to tread. Refused’s swansong was simultaneously harsh yet experimental, daring yet striving for some semblance of past glory, and truly punk as fuck.

89. METALLICA Garage, Inc.
Released November 24, 1998

Well, The Black Album was legendary but also the beginning of the end. At least that’s what it seemed to signify when the Load/Reload albums came about. It seemed that Metallica had forgotten how to rock, when suddenly, they rediscovered their cover band roots. Paying homage to their $5.98 EP: Garage Days Re-Revisited, as well as many of their New Wave of British Heavy Metal influences, Garage Inc. proved that these guys still had the knack for getting heads banging. Jamming with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was next, but this captured Metallica as the raw dogs they are/were.

90. DAVID GRAY White Ladder
Released November 1998

The sad singer/songwriter bit had been done to death a thousand times by the end of the decade, it seemed. But then along came David Gray, who avoided what most adult contemporary musicians fall victim to: over-production. Gray backed up his guitar and piano with minimal electronic arrangements, subtle and sublime and completely effective. Instead of sounding like any other downtrodden singer, he made a distinct name for himself by blending beats with melodies. But it isn’t just the electro-acoustic fusion that keeps Gray interesting: His lyrics are simply yet evocative, and his voice is tender yet passionately powerful.

91. BONNIE ‘PRINCE’ BILLY I See A Darkness
Released January 19, 1999

Will Oldham is a man of many musical monikers, but he’s been more or less referred to as “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” since I See A Darkness, his most iconic album. The title track was covered by Johnny Cash, which speaks to the skill of Oldham’s songwriting. Though he usually sings in a harsh whisper, he knows what range means. His songs skip between darkly lustful and pleasantly wistful, always grounded in the roots of his Appalachian origins. These are folk songs that bring a smile to the heart, dark as they may be, still full of a certain joy.

92. BUILT TO SPILL Keep It Like A Secret
Released February 2, 1999

Many Built To Spill fans are probably curious as to how I could choose Keep It Like A Secret over any of their other ‘90s albums, all of them classics in their own right. I suppose I chose KILAS over There Is Nothing Wrong With Love or Perfect From Now On because it’s very reaffirming to see Doug Martsch and the band maintain a high level of the wistful yet whimsical style that made them so endearing throughout the decade. Easily their poppiest record (with songs shorter than usual), Built To Spill still jam just as furiously as before.

93. THE ROOTS Things Fall Apart
Released February 23, 1999

Hip-hop’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band couldn’t have been made by anyone besides The Roots. First, there were barely any rap bands in the ‘90s that didn’t also hyphenate themselves with metal. Second, they were another group that was constantly evolving, changing it up with every album. Here, Black Thought’s often-oblique lyrics came into sharper focus; his dense narratives float perfectly over waves of hip-hop cosmic slop. Detailed liner notes explain the elaborate recording process better than I could, but anyone can tell from first listen that Things Fall Apart unravels like no other album, hip-hop or otherwise.

94. EMINEM The Slim Shady LP
Released February 23, 1999

Eminem’s reinvention for his second album changed the cultural landscape, mostly for the better. Despite nearly twenty years of three Jewish white guys running around rapping, hip-hop was still considered to be a black thing. Lo and behold, Marshall Mathers affirmed internationally that color was beside the point if you knew how to spit correctly. The beats backing him hit hard (thanks largely to Dr. Dre), but The Slim Shady LP is a verbal extravaganza above all else; unlike any other LP, Em unleashed nasty, hilarious, scathing, twisted tales and fantasies with eloquence and ease on an unsuspecting world.

95. RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS Californication
Released June 8, 1999

Every rock cliché possible was threatening to destroy Red Hot Chili Peppers, or so it seemed at one point in the later ‘90s. But dang if the band didn’t come through, reuniting with original guitarist John Frusciante and releasing the transformative Californication. Retaining their funk sensibilities but approaching their song craft from a much more mature and world-weary perspective, RHCP created a successful end to the decade and made way for a new phase of their career as they readied for the next century. At times hard and edgy, at times restrained and contemplative, Californication remains their greatest album.

96. MOS DEF Black On Both Sides
Released October 12, 1999

Having already proven himself to be a stalwart traditional MC on the Black Star release, Mos Def decided to add a more soulful inflection for his next aural outing, which ended up being his solo debut. Mighty Mos stayed just as strong throughout the entirety of Black On Both Sides, by remaining engaging, playful, insightful and highly quotable. He wisely states, “We are hip-hop… Hip-hop is going where we’re going,” then unleashes the funk. Accessible yet hardly easy-listening, Mos Def’s charming sense of fun and swagger come through just as much as his commitment to being intellectual and stirring.

Released October 19, 1999

Purists probably prefer Prince Paul’s and Dan The Automator’s solo ‘90s works (notably A Prince Among Thieves and A Better Tomorrow). I, however, adoringly respect that two of the best producers of the decade decided to get together a satirical act of high-rollin’ hip-hop impresarios to parody the rap culture that was living a little too large at the time. While not as groundbreaking as Paul’s De La Soul productions, nor as trippy as Dan’s Kool Keith collaboration Dr. Octagonecologyst, Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So… How’s Your Girl? remains a fantastic album of collaborative hip-hop (with great guests galore).

98. LE TIGRE Le Tigre
Released October 26, 1999

A lot of noise was made in the name of feminism throughout the ‘90s, and some of it was decent music. Most of that decent music seemed to be composed by Kathleen Hanna, who not only fronted fem-punk pioneers Bikini Kill, but also got all electro-dance-pop sounding with Le Tigre. That should could reinvigorate and subvert punk twice – the first time sonically, the second through sheer do-it-yourself self-discovery – speaks to something found in Hanna that most riot grrrls didn’t have: genuine skill matched with presence. John Cassavettes? Slippery synths and disco-punk singalongs? Who knew electronica could punk like this?

99. FIONA APPLE When The Pawn Hits The Conflicts He Thinks Like A King…
Released November 9, 1999

Fiona Apple showed a lot of passion and a promise of skill of her debut Tidal, but there was a lot of naïveté floating around her as well. Luckily, nothing got in the way of her grander ambition, and she grew leaps and bounds as a songwriter and performer. By the time she dropped her 90-word-titled sophomore album at age 22, Fiona and the world were both ready for each other. Jon Brion’s production and arrangements well suit Apple’s rich turns of phrase and surprising twists and turns. This album showcases a musical talent unlike any other out there.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

99 NIFTY '90s ALBUMS Pt 2 ['94-96]

29. JAWBOX For Your Own Special Sweetheart
Released January 1994

The first band to leap from the seriously underground Dischord Records label into the mainstream was also the first indie band to not shift any of their abrasive-but-rhythmic style that made them sought-after darlings by the majors in the first place. Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart remained every bit as brilliant as their earlier works. Kim Coletta’s bass melodies were still cool as fuck, and singer/guitarist J. Robbins knew how to walk the line between pop pleasure and punk passion.  They had one more album in them before breaking up in 1997, but this is still their best.

30. GREEN DAY Dookie
Released February 1, 1994

What more can I say? Billie Joe Armstrong’s brother may have been in the more defining West Coast punk band (that’s Tim in Rancid), but Green Day were too busy having fun to care if they were truly punk. After two albums on Lookout Records, they graduated to the majors without losing one ounce of their obnoxious spirit or infectious rhythm. Every song on Dookie is a keeper, and though Green Day may have grown up eventually, this album will be an everlasting reminder of just how brilliant music can be when basking in the less-than-brilliant moments of life.

31. NINE INCH NAILS The Downward Spiral
Released March 8, 1994

Nobody bridged the gap between man and machine like Nine Inch Nails, and on The Downward Spiral, Trent Reznor merged pummeling drums, vocals and guitars with infuriated-sounding electronics and samples to perfection. Like Prince, Reznor was a multi-instrumentalist who could deliver a catchy hook, but he also worked within an established faith to challenge authority and embrace sin; like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, he used the concept album to exorcise his demons. Matching David Bowie’s Low-era arrangements with the electro-acoustic synthesis of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Reznor upped the ante for industrial, metal, rock and even pop audiophiles.

32. SOUNDGARDEN Superunknown
Released March 8, 1994

“Heavier than heaven” is a phrase coined by Kurt Cobain, but it applies really well to Soundgarden. They always came from a passionate, almost holy place – they were as close as the grunge generation ever came to doing Zeppelin-esque metal gracefully. (Apropos, they had an album called Louder Than Love.) But Superunknown is their superior release, an album that explained why an underground movement in Seattle had reached such widespread popularity. “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” graced MTV frequently, while “The Day I Tried To Live” and “Fell On Black Days” became anthems for a suddenly post-Cobain musical landscape.

33. NAS Illmatic
Released April 19, 1994

It’s right there in the title: Illmatic. Nas had an eloquent grasp of the English language so dense he could create his own terminology and have everyone instantly understand where he was coming from. He may no longer wear the crown, but this album helped Nas maintain his status as one of the greatest rhymers to ever rise from the underground and go on to superstardom. The beats are just as correct as the verbiage, making Illmatic nothing short of a classic. It’s quick, concrete, precise and perhaps the most cynically uplifting (or cautiously celebratory) albums of the era.

34. WEEZER Weezer (The Blue Album)
Released May 10, 1994

Wearing his influences on his sleeve (Buddy Holly, KISS, Dungeons & Dragons, X-Men, surfing and garages, from the sounds of it), Rivers Cuomo and his band made the kind of rock that was sorely missing in the midst of all the alterna-angst popular at the time. Sure, it had plenty of bitterness spiked throughout, but more consistent was that feeling of musical bliss, created by verses and choruses you can’t help but want to sing along with. There’s a reason Weezer is still as popular as they are, despite becoming quite polarizing. That reason is Weezer (that, and Pinkerton).

35. NOFX Punk In Drublic
Released July 19, 1994

Fat Mike and the boys really are one of the most successful bands (regardless of genre) to truly remain independent, solidified by the fact that NOFX have been touring and recording for nearly thirty years. Punk In Drublic remains a classic from a hard-hitting band that has not lost its luster over time. Unlike Green Day, The Offspring or even Bad Religion, NOFX stayed punk by refusing to sign to a major label and telling MTV to “leave us the fuck alone.” Punk In Drublic chugs at speed-of-light pace with a funny intelligence that only the best punks have.

36. THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. Ready To Die
Released September 13, 1994

Christopher Wallace (Biggie Smalls) may have been the most charismatic MC to ever grace a microphone. He combined the best elements of his lyrical forefathers yet sounded like something completely fresh when he dropped his debut. He was twenty-two years of age, but on Ready To Die, Big Poppa was already a wizened sage of the streets who could tell you everything that went down with Panavision precision. Insanely quotable, strangely likeable, unquestionably skilled and undeniably smooth, The Black Frank White gave us a work of stunning brutality and literary precision that made even non-rap aficionados’ ear perks up.

37. WEEN Chocolate and Cheese
Released September 27, 1994

Whatever weirdness Ween concocts always ends up sounding like the jam, because Dean and Gene are tremendous musicians who are just having fun making music. Chocolate and Cheese found the band’s sound diversifying significantly, staying strange and smartass but integrating even more genres (often at odds with each other) into the mix. There are some fine coulda-been hits in here, and every song gets better on repeated listening. Though barely known in mainstream pop culture, Ween have amassed a huge and devoted following due to their all-consuming peculiarity and complete willingness to try anything for the sake of music.

Released October 17, 1994

Dummy was a breathtaking, unique album when it came out, and a difficult one to understand when it is first encountered – brilliant but esoteric. It’s hip-hop. It’s rock. It’s pop. It’s none of the above by being a little bit of everything, absolutely unclassifiable but seductively sinister (and vice versa). Darkly alluring, robustly cinematic, Portishead was a band (not a solo DJ or a production group, but a full-on, honest-to-God band) that made a classic way ahead of its time. They’ve released two more since, neither living up to the grand sonic terrain charted out on this stunning debut.

39. NIRVANA MTV Unplugged In New York
Released November 1, 1994

Though Nevermind was more iconic and In Utero was more challenging (and rewarding), the most definitive Nirvana album turned out to be their least likely one. Their monumental “acoustic” performance for MTV Unplugged pretty much legitimized the program’s existence and also revealed a nervously moving side of Kurt Cobain and his band (the inclusion of Meat Puppet members Cris and Curt Kirkwood, cellist Lori Goldston and former-Germ-future-Foo-Fighter Pat Smear added immeasurably to that thick tension). The subsequent broadcasts (and album) revived interested in lesser-known works – originals and covers – and gave us one last honest look at an inimitable artist.

40. TLC CrazySexyCool
Released November 15, 1994

TLC girls weren’t full-on soul artists, but they sure displayed a good amount of it on CrazySexyCool. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chili were quite assured of themselves by the time they dropped their second album, blending their original R&B-meets-hip-hop styling with touches of soul, funk and rock, all inspired by that good, old-school radio pop. They got sexier than on their debut, but it never felt like a gratuitous move to sell more records – it stemmed from the fact that these young women were flourishing. Name me another ‘90s all-girls group that displayed this much simultaneous rascality and maturity.

41. TRICKY Maxinquaye
Released February 20, 1995

Sure, you could label it “trip-hop,” but Tricky was never that lazy, too busy pulling from many different places. Primarily influenced by soul, reggae/dub, rock, hip-hop and electronica, Tricky made a distinct voice for himself by never adhering strictly to genre restrictions. Rather than trying to follow in the footsteps of his former co-conspirators Massive Attack (he featured of their first two records to hit-making effect), Tricky – along with singer Martina Topley-Bird and producer Mark Saunders – forged his own sonic landscape in Maxinquaye, a place that is disorienting and uncomfortable, resigned and breathless and dark, but still somehow hopeful.

42. PJ HARVEY To Bring You My Love
Released Rebruary 27, 1995

1993’s Rid Of Me was overshadowed by that year’s other Steve Albini-produced album (In Utero), but by 1995, PJ Harvey remained an all-together different creature from the standard Lilliths that were prancing about airwaves and music fairs. Only Hope Sandoval could rival Ms. Harvey in musical mystique, but then again Hope never had to moan for her life the way PJ does on To Bring You My Love. This is the album that truly revealed Harvey for the theatrical beauty and thrilling beast she could be. Not even Björk can compete with the sheer intensity behind Harvey’s emotional output.

43. ELASTICA Elastica
Released March 14, 1995

Justine Frischmann and Justin Welch left Suede just before the band got huge, forming Elastica. While known for sharing a strong likeness to other band’s riffs at times, Elastica still packs quite a punch: there were hits galore in this debut album, and all of them made people want to crank their radios louder and get amped up. Besides, who cares if they copped a couple notes here and there? Led Zeppelin did it. Hip-hop was founded on it. Elastica took their ‘80s love of jagged pop and rocked those kinds of tunes out of a buzz saw guitar.

44. THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA The Presidents of the United States of America
Released March 1995

What other band could write a song called “We’re Not Gonna Make It” and then go on to get signed to a major label? The Presidents of the United States of America are a fun band, and this apolitical self-titled album never gets bogged down in its own almost-gimmicky cuteness. Kinda like Primus, they are irresistibly playful in their steady rockin’, and favor a bizarre take on traditional instrumentation – lead vocalist and “bassitarist” Chris Ballew borrowed a trick he learned from Mark Sandman and had his band play regular-sized six-string guitars with an odd amount/type of strings and tunings.

45. Björk Post
Released June 13, 1995

As mind-blowingly refreshing as her aptly titled Debut was, Björk fully came into her own with Post. Afterwards, it got all kinds of extra-weird. But in 1995, Björk was on a roll, having narrated odd lullabies across scattered beats on two of the decade’s best albums. Lashing out against all misconceptions about what pop and electronica were supposed to mean, Björk fused the two in a way that has been imitated (but never duplicated) ever since. Working again with Nellee Hooper along with Tricky, Howie B and Graham Massery, she mastered the art of eclectic experimentation meeting danceable grooves.

46. FOO FIGHTERS Foo Fighters
Released July 4, 1995

Making it look easy – going from drumming for Nirvana to fronting Foo Fighters – Dave Grohl proved that he could sing and play guitar as fiercely as he could pound away at a kit. On the breakneck self-titled debut, Grohl played all the instruments himself (save one guitar part played by Greg Dulli). “Hüsker Dü meets Cheap Trick” is the common description, but perhaps a better one would be “Nirvana by way of Tom Petty.” Which is to say that the Foo Fighters brand of songwriting created a loud-quiet-loud set of pop tunes perfect for any working-class rocker to enjoy.

47. GARBAGE Garbage
Released August 15, 1995

Drummer Butch Vig coolly kept his name off this project as long as he could initially, wanting the band’s trashy alternative rock fusion with a slick studio sheen to generate buzz based on its own merits (and not because he produced Nevermind and Siamese Dream). Garbage’s self-titled debut did just fine, thanks in no small part to Shirley Manson’s sultry vocals. Of course, Vig’s studio knowhow helped keep things dynamic and poppin’. Even the less-than-stellar tracks are leaps and bounds above mediocre music making, the kind that most radio was passing off as decent rock back in the day.

48. RANCID …And Out Come The Wolves
Released August 22, 1995

Dipping a bit into their past band Operation Ivy, Tim Armstrong (Billie Joe from Green Day’s brother) and Matt Freeman allowed hints of ska to help give …And Out Come The Wolves an extra dose of likeability in Rancid’s brand of punk (Lars Fredericksen’s extra vocals do their wonders as well). Having decided to stay with the independent label Epitaph, Rancid recorded a loving tribute to punk’s past (complete with Minor Threat inspired cover art) while staying a revivalist group failing to hold the music of their times to another’s standards. Never didactic, Rancid still got their point across.

49. TINDERSTICKS Tindersticks (II)
Released August 22, 1995

Tindersticks are a dark band, the deeply gutting sort of group of musicians who can take hold of your mind and make you fight for your soul. Darkly romantic the way Leonard Cohen or Ian Curtis can be, baritone crooner Stuart Staples has that kind of unforgettable voice plagued by too many bad thoughts as much as too many smokes. Even their worst albums are well worth your time, but Tindersticks’s first two, self-titled albums (especially II) highlight exactly what makes this band so astonishing: their baroque mix of symphonic rock, chamber pop, folk, jazz and blues is captivating.

50. NO DOUBT Tragic Kingdom
Released October 10, 1995

There is a certain charm to No Doubt and their rise to fame in the middle of the ‘90s. Their music was pop, sure, but a ska-and-punk-influenced brand that could have only come from the sunny state of California, the way it doled out feel good vibrations. Sure, I preferred Goldfinger’s skankier crunch back in the day, but Tragic Kingdom had something that no other band (pop, punk, ska or other) had: Gwen Stefani. A willingness to expand beyond their basic premise helped, too. No Doubt has aged fairly well, even for those not so keen on “Hollaback Girl.”

51. ROCKET FROM THE CYRPT Scream, Dracula, Scream!
Released October 10, 1995

Perhaps the best punk album of the ‘90s, Scream, Dracula, Scream! is also unlike any other album out there, punk or otherwise. On it, Rocket From The Crypt sound like a guttural James Brown backed by an on-the-one, double-timed The Who (augmented by a brass section) with as much appreciation for doo wop as ska music, pummeling out blissful mini-symphonies of tight-knit chaos. No matter what you call their special blend of musical fury, Scream, Dracula… is aural adrenaline, a doozy of a record from front to back that makes for great heavy (or party) music for any era.

52. THE SMASHING PUMPKINS Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Released October 10, 1995

Siamese Dream may be the better wall-to-wall guitar album, but Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the perfect combination of severe pomposity with visions of earphoria, delivered by a powerful band that hit the peak of its popularity and knew just what to do about it. Billy Corgan wrote a massive amount of material, and the wealth of tunes that Smashing Pumpkins recorded is astounding for its quality as much as its quantity. Not only is the 28-song Mellon Collie an epic rock monument, but the b-sides compiled for The Aeroplane Flies High boxset are also well-worth hearing.

53. RETURN OF THE DJ Various Artists
Released in 1995

For what it’s worth, Return Of The DJ is the only compilation album I’ve included on this list (well, we could argue about K&D Sessions when we get there). The opening track “Death of Hip Hop” perfectly describes why this album needed to exist: with mainstream ‘90s rap rampantly denying the importance of the DJ, the heads needed to be reminded of what hip-hop truly means. So here you have some of the most important names in “turntablism” proving how truly amazing two wheels and some records can be, all on one of the best mixtapes of all time.

54. DISPATCH Silent Steeples
Released in 1996

Three musicians (in every sense of the word – not only did everyone in Dispatch sing and play guitar, but they switched instruments throughout their live sets, performing on bass, drums/percussion, piano, harmonica or trombone while harmonizing) decided to give it the after-college try, moving to Boston and starting a passionate worldwide fanbase without the help of a record label or major radio airplay. Powerful vocals match beautifully with the playful instrumentation and exuberant spirit driving each song. The term “power trio” perfectly applies itself to Dispatch – to hear their brand of pop melodies is to understand wonderfully joyful music.

55. THE  FUGEES The Score
Released February 13, 1996

Soul, R&B, reggae and “jazz-rap” came together like none other on The Score, the breakout album by The Fugees. Their debut Blunted On Reality was assured, although a bit disingenuous. With The Score, The Fugees gave audiences a breath of fresh by not posturing themselves after the gangsta mentality dominating the charts at the time, while still speaking with urbane intelligence and sophisticated wit. Like most of the greatest bands, just as they were hitting their peak, they decided to call it quits, each member going solo. But their blend of soulful-yet-eclectic melodies and street-smart rhymes here remains immaculate.

56. BECK Odelay
Released June 8, 1996

Probably the most idiosyncratically creative multi-instrumental singer/songwriters out there, Beck was already an accomplished musician in his own right independently when his major label debut Mellow Gold was released, associated him with the anti-folk movement as much as the lo-fi one. Beck followed this up with his alternative-to-everything opus Odelay. Working with The Dust Brothers (who helped shape Paul’s Boutique into a sonic masterpiece), Beck fused alt-rock, anti-folk, country and hip-hop into his own vision of absurd rhythm and ironic, deadpan lyrics. The singles and non-singles alike create one of the most satisfyingly strange musical journeys of the decade.

57. SUBLIME Sublime
Released July 30, 1996

Sure, fusing punk and reggae and ska and dub had been done plenty before Sublime came around, but Bradley Nowell, Bud Gaugh and Eric Wilson created a special blend unlike any other. Sadly, Nowell died just before they could release their third album (and major label debut), an appropriately self-titled effort that encompassed everything that made the band’s sweet (or thrashing) melodies so infectious. The band could hop back and forth between speed and slowness, always sounding natural, and this track-for-track great record (nearly every song made it onto radio) is a moving reminder of a sublime band, indeed.

58. TOOL Ænima
Released September 17, 1996

Simultaneously over-praised and underrated, Ænima moved Tool from being another hammer-heavy rock band to something special, almost sacred amidst the growing tide of angst and self-doubt swelling throughout the later ‘90s. Finding connections between King Crimson, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, Metallica, punk rock fury and enlightened comedian (and their friend) Bill Hicks, Ænima showed a maturity seldom seen in rock (let alone music). Like the Deftones, these guys became huge in the midst of a burgeoning Nu Metal world but survived its inevitable destruction by outgrowing their origins to discover new sounds and expressions within a heavier din of noise.

59. BELLE AND SEBASTIAN If You’re Feeling Sinister
Released November 18, 1996

At a time when rock in America was meaning “Nu Metal” and in Europe was “Britpop,” alternative really was starting to mean, “Alternative to what?” Not quite the “old sad bastard music” that Jack Black painted it as in High Fidelity, Belle and Sebastian more represent the type of restrained ironic guy you knew in college – the one who was actually pretty sharp. They combine their balladry with a Skiffle-ish sense of not-quite jazz ‘n’ roll, and they came from a time when such quietness was mistaken for misery. Lush, wistful, twee – sure, it’s that, but mostly, it’s beautiful.

60. DJ SHADOW Endtroducing…
Released November 19, 1996

Anyone who thinks they have a big music collection would blush if they ever visited DJ Shadow’s storage unit(s!), housing thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of records. And who wouldn’t believe Josh Davis if he were to tell them that he’s listened to every one of those records? After all, that is how he cut-and-pasted his own psychedelic hip-hop masterpiece, Endtroducing. At a time when hip-hop was in a mutual slump, DJs were taking things back to the old school. Shadow, however, was pointing our way to the future, proving again that sample-based music is a legitimate art form.