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.
38. PORTISHEAD Dummy
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.