1. PUBLIC ENEMY Fear Of A Black Planet
Released April 10, 1990
Making incendiary grooves to match the intensity of Chuck D’s verbose rhymefests is surely no easy feat; therefore, Public Enemy belongs to the aptly-named Bomb Squad as much as Chuck and Flavor Flav. Thanks to Fear Of A Black Planet, they all dominated the ‘early 90s (as they did the late ‘80s) with their protest anthems by taking the best of the bombastic beats and rhymes at the time and meshing that with a sense of political awareness and societal disdain unmatched by anyone then or since. When they asked “Who Stole The Soul?” it was a fair question.
Released June 21, 1990
No Depression became a ubiquitous term for a certain type of rockin’ twang (or periodical), but Uncle Tupelo started off as more of a punkish garage band before adopting an obvious affection for country and blues. Their debut was recorded to feel loud and live, the way a great bar band gets your heart thumping. Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy would go on to form their own seminal bands afterwards, but Uncle Tupelo would not have been a bad way for them to make their mark on musical history: country made from distorted guitars as well as broken hearts.
Released August 27, 1990
There’s a reason this is one of the best-selling albums in the world ever. And it isn’t just, to paraphrase Rob Sheffield, because he filled a gap created by the absence of Bruce Springsteen. It’s because Garth Brooks had charm, the simple-man type of straightforwardness that country music was leaving behind (following rock-n-roll’s evolution) as it made it’s way towards a more glamorous form of rural pop expressionism. “Friends In Low Places” is an anthem of downtrodden celebration, and the rest of No Fences follows in a similar no-frills suit. No other popular country album from the decade compares.
Released March 27, 1991
In the crashing sounds and unfolding chaos of the music and lyrics contained within Spiderland, one can hear not only a strange and twisted fairytale but also the sprouting of future inspiration. “They only sold a couple thousand records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.” Brian Eno might’ve said that about Velvet Underground, but it’s just as true for Spiderland. One can’t help but hear a hint of Slint in Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emporer, Sigur Ros, Explosions In The Sky, and countless other bands who have found the joy in making weird noise.
Released April 4, 1991
Each of Massive Attack’s albums from the ‘90s are remarkable listening experiences. Blues Lines wins not because is it one of the finest formed debuts ever (regardless of era), but because in 1991, a year many artists new and old released their most mind-blowingly great work, it remains the best album of the year. As pop-based as Nevermind, as innovative as Loveless, as cultural as The Low End Theory, and as party-ready as Screamadelica, Blue Lines is a soulful album that happened to create “trip-hop” as well as push electronica (and lots of other music) in exciting new directions.
Released May 13, 1991
De La Soul may have seemed like warm and positive guys on their masterpiece debut 3 Feet High and Rising, but they could see exactly where hip-hop was heading – and it clearly pissed them off. While retaining much of the quirkiness and sense of humor that made their first record such a success, the crew also got more edgy and outspoken with De La Soul Is Dead. Distancing themselves from the hippie tag they had received in the beginning, they kept producer Prince Paul on board along with the smorgasbord pop culture references, and created their second brilliant album.
Released May 14, 1991
Les Claypool may just be the best bass player ever. If not technically the most proficient (though I’m very curious as to who could beat him in a pluck-and-slap-off), his sense of spunk, strange wit and silliness have made him unlike any other singing bassist out there. Primus really struck a different chord during their early ‘90s rise to prominence, and their major label debut Sailing The Seas Of Cheese saw them well welcomed with the adoring catchphrase “Primus sucks!” Rock’s bizarre boundaries hadn’t been pushed this far since Frank Zappa was at the height of his unabashed absurdity.
Released August 13, 1991
Cypress Hill’s brand of stoned-out funk created a blueprint for ‘90s hip-hop: thick throbbing bass, elastic and exaggerated rhymes, that unmistakable mental aroma of omnipresent smoke… Even they couldn’t recapture the sounds created for this perfectly eerie cartoon of an album (although DJ Muggs came pretty damn close with Soul Assassins, Chapter I). B Real’s nasally raps delivered with subdued seriousness made him stand out from all those other potheads. Made for and by inebriation, Cypress Hill was probably the first album of the ‘90s to defiantly not take itself so seriously yet revolutionize a genre on several levels.
Released September 23, 1991
It cannot be said that Primal Scream failed to learn and grow with each new album. They finally found the perfect nexus point between everything they had attempted within the last decade when they got around to writing and recording Screamadelica. Their third album flawlessly (as in, timelessly) combines the jangly garage rock, psychedelic indie pop, trippy acid house and various dance music (isn’t gospel a form of dance music?) they had flirted with throughout the years. They continued to expand their sound going forward, but Screamadelica was everything coming together as one for that gratifying moment of perfection.
Released September 24, 1991
“Any 30-second snippet of The Low End Theory will go further to convince of the album's greatness than anything I can write. I could easily write an entire book on this one album and still feel like I've hardly said anything. Still, I could do worse things with my time than try to capture even an iota of the enthusiasm I feel each time I play this album. The Low End Theory is a remarkable experience, as aesthetically and emotionally rewarding as any work of music I can think of.”
-Dave Heaton, Pop Matters music editor and fellow believer
Released October 29, 1991
Everything that made West Coast hip-hop part of the “golden age” early ’90s is ever-present on Death Certificate. It’s funny to me that former “The Most Dangerous Man In America” Ice Cube is now making family franchises. Then again, the guy wrote Friday, so I suppose people are capable of anything. There was a time when Ice Cube was possibly the best (if not the baddest) MC in the mainstream, and this album (while not as blistering or blustery as AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted) is the funkiest thing he released in the midst of his highest creatively flourishing career point.
Released November 4, 1991
Neither under- nor over-rated, My Bloody Valentine is that kind of band that buckled under the pressure of following up a masterpiece that perfectly followed up a masterpiece. Loveless came after the much-loved Isn’t Anything already wowed fans and critics alike. That it broke apart a band and a label only adds to its charms, but the real treasures are all buried in the mix of these lush walls of sound. Kevin Shields may have been driven mad by the mixture of visions, control and pressure, but we can stay thankful that Loveless is here to bless our ears.
Released in 1991
Coltrane proved that great music could be a chaotic chasm of sound in which artists created an atmosphere and then explored its details. Sonny Sharrock was another free jazz originator, a guitarist of immeasurable skill that understood the myriad sounds one could get from the instrument. He had a part in many fine bands and recordings throughout his all-too-short lifespan, but his last album was undoubtedly his best effort. Ask The Ages pushed the boundaries of what jazz (and all music) was capable of. There’s not a wasted note on this album – and for jazz, that’s saying a lot.
Released February 12, 1992
Plenty of artists love to cloak themselves in their own mythmaking, but few have done it so succinctly as Richard D. James, the man of many aliases and so many differing back-stories that either none or all of them are true. Aphex Twin is his most well-known alias, and this debut proved him to be so talented that even if he hadn’t bothered with all those tall tales he’s still be just as colossal a figure. Mysteriously titled Selected Ambient Works 85-92, it’s a chilled-out electronic experience ahead of its time, preceding every dance-music-to-not-dance-to act that you can name.
Released April 20, 1992
Everything that is fresh, exhilarating and mystifying about a great album from a new band can be found on Pavement’s lo-fi debut. Slanted And Enchanted beats its shinier studio successor Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain only because it is a perfect example of a band showcasing something strong and seductive from the get go. Stephen Malkmus is a gifted songwriter, and what began as a studio project turned into a defining band of off-kilter rock-n-rollers doing right. Picking up where the Replacements and R.E.M. left off, Pavement gave the early ‘90s a true (ahem) “alternative” to the grunge-pop rock culture.
Released May 5, 1992
I almost gave it up for 1994’s Hard To Earn, because it may be the best hip-hop summer-soundtrack album of all time. But ’92’s Daily Operation really was the tipping point, where mainstream acceptance of hip-hop allowed Gang Starr to emerge as the most successful one-DJ-and-one-MC crew of the decade. 1991’s Step Into The Arena established their mature mixture of raw jazz samples and deep streetwise rhymes, but Daily Operation showcases the group perfecting their art. No finer duo – regardless of genre – held it down so well in the ‘90s (with the possible exception of Everything But The Girl).
Released November 6, 1992
If the Thích Quảng Đức cover art doesn’t let you know how fiery this music will be, then the first minute of opener “Bombtrack” will give you a pretty clear idea of how volatile Rage Against The Machine could be. Their self-titled debut was a slap in the face of all the so-called protest rocking of the alternative nation, proving just how furious this kind of music should be. Inspired by Public Enemy, Faith No More, Bob Dylan and Pantera, Rage Against The Machine inspired a wave of metal in the ‘90s that couldn’t equal this kind of intensity.
Released December 15, 1992
He may not have invented the art of chopping up a Parliament sample into laid-back funk, but Dr. Dre perfected it by the time he dropped The Chronic on the world. Handling the production for N.W.A. is one thing; Dre is far from a gifted lyricist, so it’s a dicey move releasing a solo album when you’re nobody’s favorite rapper. It meant nothing but a G thing to Dre, who enlisted plenty of talented rappers to back him up as he let his sublime beats reign supreme. He not only introduced us to Snoop Dogg, but the term G-funk.
Released in 1992
Notes From The Underground is like Birth Of The Cool; the genius behind them would go on to do far more adventurous (and oftentimes rewarding) work later. But you can’t deny a classic that captures that moment when something special began. The last decade of the 1900s was a weird one for jazz (several genres, really), but MMW filled many a-void by catering to several genres’ love of jamming and improvisation. All of their skill, energy and creativity is in full effect on this crisp acoustic debut. The grooves shake with skittish cool and bop with a funky sway.
Released in 1992
Several albums on this list that are hard to categorize, but Basehead’s debut may prove to be the hardest. Which is funny, since Basehead’s music is far from challenging. Not that there’s nothing rewarding on Play With Toys; it’s simply not distracting or too chaotic. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Michael Ivey recorded most of the album in his home with the help of outside musicians, and everything gels, the jams sounding like nothing else. They are spacey, almost hazy, with Ivey’s half-rapped-half-sung lyrics spilling like a smooth (if sometimes stressed) stream of consciousness. Also, it’s a great record to get drunk to.
Released in 1993
A self-admitted black Jewish vegetarian beatnik-inspired musician from the Bronx decided to give MCing a try, knocking out skilled rhymes with a ‘60s counter culture-inspired voice. Justin Warfield only released one hip-hop album of his own before venturing off into a career in rock-related music, and come to think of it, My Field Trip To Planet 9 has many rock-driven beats, hooks and samples. Teaming with Prince Paul (immortal producer, and founding member of former groups Stetsasonic and Handsome Boy Modeling School) helped him blend rock and rap in a way unheard of in the early ‘90s (or since).
Released May 18, 1993
Hard to believe that there was ever a Jackson in music cranking out better pop gems than Michael, but 1993 was The Year Of Janet. Janet Jackson may have started out as nothing more than a pop charts music maker, but with janet., she got soulful, grown up and powerfully seductive. Featuring flourishes of rock, dance, R&B (and even Chuck D!) mixed in with her pop, Ms. Jackson proved herself to be an artist in her own right, dominating the scene for a couple of years, until she and Michael collaborated for the unbelievably groovy single “Scream” in ’95.
Released June 22, 1993
Not just because she wrote “Divorce Song,” Liz Phair is credited for much of the female singer/songwriter movement of the ‘90s. In retrospect, all she really did was cleverly subvert a Rolling Stone album to maximum effect. She was hardly the only musician to combine lo-fi indie rock and sticky-catchy pop in the ‘90s, but she did so with such verve and sarcasm that it resonated louder than her contemporaries. She also did it with skill, something few of her imitators possessed. She quietly blipped off the radar, but Exile In Guyville was a strong statement while it lasted.
Released August 30, 1993
It’s hard to define why Last Splash is practically perfect, but lemme try. Kim Deal’s singing is soft, twisted, and often delighted. And The Breeders sure could play, sounding highly punky, a touch jammy, and fairly into shoegaze. Or whatever. They rock is the point (Kurt Cobain famously called their debut Pod one of his favorite albums) – quick and catchy Rock. More than just their superhit single “Cannonball,” Last Splash is a strange alchemy of so many different styles of ‘90s “alternative” rock. And the fact that it came from the Pixies’ bass player was all the more amazing.
Released September 1993
Mark Sandman was quite the deep-toned hard-nosed crooner, but his “low rock” band Morphine was an even more bewildering beast than his twisted narratives alone suggest. Morphine (Sandman on bass, along with drums and saxophone –when they weren’t jamming on other instruments) never found mainstream success within America but thrived nonetheless, thanks largely to enthusiastic international support. Their mixture of blues and jazz into rock arrangements was like no other, and they never once felt like a gimmick band. Quite the opposite; Cure For Pain is immaculate proof of what a soulful and creative group of musicians Morphine was.
Released October 5, 1993
Greg Dulli is the kind of singer you love or hate, but his savior of misbehavior shenanigans have helped make him a musical icon. While The Afghan Whigs never got their just due, this album helped them with flirt with the mainstream. So it goes; most artists are better off not being tied to a major label’s revenue stream. Combining punk rock fury with a certain swagger meant for funk and soul, The Afghan Whigs created an aching masterpiece of late night debauchery-makin’. Gentlemen is that essential thing, a flawless record about the pleasurable pains of loss and love.
Released November 9 1993
The superest of super hip-hop crews came correct at the start, each of the nine members of Wu-Tang Clan expressing philosophy and eccentricities deep within their rhymes and finding ways to match their humorous and taunting flows. Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) created new ways of making music and doing business, with a raw-and-rugged sparse style of beat perfected by RZA (sampling kung fu flicks as much as soul records) providing a perfect soundtrack for each of the rappers to turn themselves into comic book warriors of a new school battleground, the streets of Shaolin (Staten Island, New York).
Released November 23, 1993
He wasn’t the tough thug that West Coast rappers were supposed to be, but Snoop Dogg knew something about gangster funkiness and he delivers his lines with smoky smooth appeal. Doggystyle followed up on the promise Snoopers showed on Dr. Dre’s “Ain’t Nuthin’ But A G Thing” with a solid debut produced by Dre that brought the flavor of a fresh house party. This is the best cut-to-cut hip-hop party album since EPMD’s Strictly Business, an album you put on when you want to guarantee the crowd will be dancing. Neither Snoop nor Dre ever got this good again.