Stitched Up’s founding father and I had yet another music-based, A-to-B conversation the other day in our WMUA Sports group chat. As the other 5 members did something else with their time while their notifications exploded (sorry not sorry, guys), the Venn diagram of Fitz and Andersen’s musical tastes expanded yet again.
Specifically, and I kinda forget how this came about, we were discussing the top albums of the 1990’s. We were rattling off albums and artists, agreeing and disagreeing as we progressed. What else is new?
The 90’s were quite the decade for pop culture. With random shapes and pastels on every single article of clothing you could think of,
hit-or-miss TV shows,
and iconic movies (too many to list; 1994 alone is packed enough to make a decade dank), the 90’s was a decade that will be etched in our minds for a long time.
But music just might be the most impressive section of pop culture from 1990-1999. As I was trying to come up with this list, I kept forgetting some straight up classics.
“AWH FUCK,” I’d tell myself, “(insert album) IS TOO GOOD TO LEAVE OUT! BUT WHAT ABOUT (insert another album)?!”
Knowing that I’ll have to discard some of these terrific works makes me feel like shite, but to quote Vinny the Gooch from Backyard Baseball, “That’s the way the donkey dances.”
It was truly 10 years of going off of the beaten path. From the 50s-70s, and for a good amount of the 80s, the kings of music fell under the rock n’ roll tree. Obviously, there were some huge pop stars in and before the 90s, and other genres were in their infancy to the public eye, but for the most part the heavy hitters were in a limited amount of genres.
But as the calender turned to 1990, music went through metamorphosis. Rap became a major genre full of cultural impact, grunge and alternative music stepped into the limelight and infected people like the plague, and artists changed the industry for years to come. Some of these albums have created waved that are still being felt in 2015, and will be felt for years to come.
There’s been some controversy between the difference of “favorite” and “best” or “greatest” albums of the decade, so let me just prelude by saying that I’m power ranking these. I’ve used the term before and I’m using it again here. To me, when I power rank something, it’s the combination of the two; the love child, if you will.
This kind of love making.
So while these upcoming albums are considered all-time greats, they’re also my favorites. Guess I just have a fantastic taste in music!
Again, it was hard to narrow this list down to just 10 albums, so before we start the countdown I’m obligated to shed some light on the records that missed the cut, in no particular order.
Oh, and before we begin, there’s no Vanilla Ice. Sorry, guys.
“Wait, Fitz, what?”
Dr. Dre, 2001 (1999)
Truly a timeless album that’s still bumped to this (Dre) day, but there’s a few things that keep this one out. One, it’s a bit too long. Does that sound weird? Sure. But sometimes in music you can have too much of a good thing. Great album with some sick instrumentals, but when all of the songs kind of blend together lyrically (that’s the second issue; I mean, it’s over an hour of Dre saying, “Yeah, I’m still good at rapping, and I still smoke weed and do the whole gangsta thing. Fuck you.”) it loses a few points for me. Dre’s a legend, and this is a terrific album, but just not top 10 for the decade.
Phil Collins, Tarzan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (1999)
Don’t laugh. Don’t. I’m serious, this album should come with a fire hazard it’s so good. I grew up with this shit and I’m not kidding when I say this is the best Disney soundtrack period. Hell, it’s maybe even the best project Collins has ever worked on. Eat your heart out, Lion King and Genesis. “Two Worlds,” “Son of Man,” “Trashin’ the Camp” with N FUCKIN’ SYNC, “Strangers Like Me,” and of course “You’ll Be In My Heart.” I mean come on!!!! You’re lying if you don’t think this is some good shit. Either that, or you’re heartless. The instrumental scores from the film don’t hold it’s weight so it’s just an honorable mention, but don’t disrespect this soundtrack. Hey, if the soundtrack for The Bodyguard can win Album of the Year (I know right?) then the one for Tarzan can get at least a lil’ face time from me.
A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory (1991)
While I respect the fact that’s it’s some bare bones, pure, and unadultured jazz and soul mixed with hip hop, I just wish this terrific album was a biiiiiiiit more polished. That being said, ATCQ paved the way for rappers for years to come by making hip hop more of a piece of art than just something straight off of the streets. With Low End Theory, rap was able to be utilized in an aesthetic way; the genre’s horizons were broadened. Guys like Kanye and KDot have clearly been influenced by Quest by stepping out of typical rap comfort zones (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy) and incorporating heavy jazz elements (To Pimp A Butterfly), and that all seemed to start with Theory.
Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape (1997)
This was the album that really put Dave Grohl’s new project on the map, and has some incredible tracks on it. “Monkey Wrench” is a staple in WMUA Sports broadcasts when coming back from commercial breaks, especially if Andersen is on the call. And speaking of which, I’d be willing to bet that he throws this in his top 10 (NOTE: I wrote this before he published his list; I’m a genius). But as good as it is, The Colour and the Shape to me is just too overmatched in the 90’s rock genre. Maybe that’s not entirely fair, but it’s the truth. It’s good, but certainly not one of the *best* 90’s albums. Close but no cigar, in other words.
R.E.M., Automatic for the People (1992)
Same deal. It has some great songs, but it just doesn’t do enough for me to have a top 10 spot. Not taking away anything from the album itself or R.E.M. as a whole, but there has to be cuts somewhere.
Obligatory Dwight Schrute clip.
Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
At its best, its top 10, maybe even top 5 worthy. “1979” is one of the best songs of the decade, “Tonight, Tonight” is criminally underrated, and Mellon Collie has some incredible tunes. But, much like 2001, it’s too much to swallow at once. It’s over two fucking hours long; if you expect me to sit through that whole thing without finding some waste tracks, you’re out of your mind. It’s the Pumpkins’ best album in my eyes, but it’s just overdone. Much like Bruce Springsteen’s The River, the extra content kinda detracts from the core of the album. I originally thought this was top 10 bound, but after further review there are other albums that are just solid from start to finish instead of plagued with lulls and waste tracks.
The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die (1994)
Now I love Biggie. He’s one of the best rappers from the East Coast and always will be remembered as a titan of the rap game. But my one issue with him, and this album specifically, is the complexity of it all. It’s tremendous, yes, but after you listen to it once, what else is there to gain from it? It’s not layered; what you hear is what you get. While other rappers can provide you with records that present new things to the consumer with every listen, Ready to Die is an album that comes right at you right away. It worked for Biggie, sure, but if this provided more complexity in order to intrigue me to play it again and again, it would be ranked a little bit higher.
Beastie Boys, Ill Communication (1994)
Again, solid but what you hear is what you get. It’s loaded with tracks and is timed nicely (clocks in juuuuuuust under an hour), but it’s a lot of the same throughout. Ill Communication seems to be a bit more polished version of its 1992 predecessor Check Your Head, but a lot of the tunes seem to mash up with each other. Nevertheless, RIP MCA.
Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
It gave us the gift that is Snoop Dogg, and was revolutionary to the rap game. In an age where using samples was all the rage in hip hop, Dre did his own thing and established himself as a prime producer. So in terms of the music itself, it’s top 10 worthy. But much like his sophomore effort mentioned earlier, Dre’s solo debut is full of lyrics containing sterotypical gansta rap elements. Nothing’s wrong with that; I’m not someone who wimps out over that stuff. However, I really love to see rappers reach for new topics and themes. Dre didn’t really do that with The Chronic. Musically, it’s iconic. Lyrically, it’s shocking yet par for the course at the time.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
Fuuuuuuuuck. This was tough to leave out. I don’t even have to explain how awesome some of the songs on that record is. But what makes this album just miss out is the fact that it didn’t venture too far off the beaten path for RHCP. If anything, it was just generally a bit more upbeat and a lot more horny. It hurts to cut it, but what can you do?
And now, without further adieu, the top 10 albums of the 1990s.
10. Pearl Jam, Ten, (1991)
I swear on my life that I didn’t intend for Ten to be tenth, but I guess that’s just the batty world of blogging!!!! Pearl Jam’s debut album gave us one of the biggest stereotypes of 90’s music: that everybody sang like Eddie Vedder.
Hootie song, yes, but still Eddie Vedder-y.
But they helped usher in the Northwest grunge movement in a tremendous way. Lyrically unique (who sings bitchin’ songs about a student killing himself in class?) and musically pleasing, Ten has stood the test of time. It’s got heavy and quick hitters, like “Even Flow,” long epics, like “Jeremy,” and powerful ballads, like “Black.” It’s an album that’s truly fit for all occasions.
9. Sublime, Sublime (1996)
Two words: Ska, paradise. Want some speedy ska? “Wrong Way” is the right way for you. Something a bit more? Practice a lil’ “Santeria.” Something chunky and funky? “What I’ve Got” has got you covered. And while my puns are absolutely horrendous (my segways are better; here’s why), this album ain’t. From top to bottom, it’s full of tracks you can just straight up vibe to. It’s just such a shame that Bradley OD’d; would’ve been exciting to see how this band would’ve evolved with him still alive. It just seemed so natural to these guys when they were at their best, which was this period and this album. To quote Spin‘s RJ Smith, “It might seem a daring experiment if it hadn’t so effortlessly sprung from a Long Beach surf scene that featured acoustic jams on the beach that naturally flowed from Wailers to Descendents classics. . . Sublime succeeds not just on vibe but on songcraft.” Indeed, the songs just flow so perfectly and play off each other in ways not seen since Bob Marley did it years ago. A 90’s staple indeed.
8. Nirvana, In Utero (1993)
You know how dark this album gets the second you hear the first note in “Serve the Servants,” and it stays that aggressive and grotesque throughout. And frankly, that’s what makes it so wonderful. Kurt Cobain’s disdain for everybody else, including himself (he wanted to name this album I Hate Myself And I Want To Die at first) is perfectly translated into liquid gold through grunge angst. They don’t try to be anything other than themselves here, yet they were still able to attract a broad audience. They didn’t follow the mainstream, the mainstream followed them, and this album proved why Nirvana is one of the few bands in music history that have that claim. Maybe it was due to their almost voodoo labeling from others (the album was banned from being sold by a few notable outlets due to concerns over the cover art and the song “Rape Me”) or maybe people were genuinely intrigued from the get-go. But make no mistake: Nirvana turned heads, and In Utero is a brief, but themed, look into the great unknown we call Kurt Cobain’s mind.
7. Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
“Wait, who’s Oasis? 90’s? OHHHHH THE BAND THAT SINGS “WONDERWALL” I LOVE THEM!!!!”
Yes, the album that brought us the most typical “college guitarist at a party” tune ever is a mortal lock for this top ten. No one’s denying that “Wonderwall” is a classic, but when that’s arguably not even a top two or three track on the album, never mind the best, that’s when you know an album is good. From top to bottom it’s filled with the Manchester group at their tip top shape. It’s structured perfectly; one songs flows right into another like a swiftly flowing river. Everyone knows the hits from it; “Don’t Look Back in Anger” and “Champagne Supernova” can be spotted from a mile away in this day and age, Killers style (NOTE: Again, written before Andersen; we both made Day & Age references on blogs about 90’s albums. Impressive). But it’s the deeper cuts that make this album special. It’s songs like “She’s Electric,” with it’s Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles feel, and the chilling “Cast No Shadow” that makes this record truly worthwhile. This is Britpop in its prime, and it’s an album that should never be forgotten. Oasis was huge for a reason; this is it.
6. Nas, Illmatic (1994)
Before 1994, there had never been a rapper who made such a giant and original impact on the game with their first record as a young adult. Then, 20 year old Nas rolled around. Illmatic is truly a once-in-a-generation album; how often do we see a young artist emerge from, seemingly, out of nowhere so viciously? Critics had no idea what to do with this album since they felt weird giving a new artist such high ratings. But how could you not? With the perfect utilization of East coast rap elements like boom bap and heavy melodies, Nas showcased his unique flow like a true legend. The amazing rhyme schemes, the clever word play, the incomplete sentence structure to make his tunes more like a poem than a banger, it’s simply something to marvel. Much like A Tribe Called Quest, Nas proved that rap could be used as a powerful form of poetry with Illmatic. Not many people can take their experiences of living in a ghetto immersed in gang violence and drugs, mixed with the struggle to escape from said enviornment, and turn it into an unleashing of their true artistic self like Nasty Nas did. For the same reasons, it’s equivalent to the East coast prelude to Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Illmatic has been, is, and always will be a quintessential piece of art in the rap genre.
5. Green Day, Dookie (1994)
It blows my mind how Green Day was able to create such a unique sound in an era dominated by people that tried to sound just like them. Few bands were able to match them, and no one did it better. Dookie, specifically, helped put pop punk on the map. Bands like blink-182, Sum 41, and Jimmy Eat World (to name a few) should tip their caps to Green Day and thank them for being pioneers in the industry. The album musically and lyrically paved the way for bands like these. While there’s heavy licks all over the place which make it suitable to be bumped on hit radio stations or while hanging out and having a good time, the lyrics are almost the exact opposite. Apathy runs amuck in Dookie. Self-deprecation, laziness, loneliness (“When masturbation’s lost its fun…”), all of these things are apparent in the songs and are relateable for the audience. Why? Because we’re clear as to who or what to be bored or mad about. But with that comes the fun out of it. It’s a mixture that is, or at least was, truly a rare bird in music. Again, a lot of people tried to imitate them, but no one could be Green Day. Dookie was and still is a perfect musical representation of boring ass life in Suburbia. Slackers unite!
4. Eminem, The Slim Shady LP
When moms nationwide are calling for your head, that’s when you know you’re doing it right as a rapper like Slim. I don’t really have to vouch for its musical elements; this album is bitchin’ and bumps unlike most other rap albums in the era. But what really launched Eminem was his appeal through his lyrics and his self representation. Sure, he’s got a liiiiiiiiiittle bit of misogyny in his earlier lyrics and might be a biiiiiiiiit vulgar, but he doesn’t truly mean it when he says all of those things. That’s just rap sometimes. But nevertheless, parents all over the place got their panties in a bunch since their kids were listening to him. Em’s response? It was the best one he could’ve given: fuck you. The whole album seems to revolve around the song “Role Model.” It sets the tone by saying that it’s absolutely bananas to expect Slim Shady to be a fucking role model for your kids. The opening lines are perfect: “Okay, I’m going to attempt to drown myself! You can try this at home! You can be just like me!” No kid should ever look up to someone who OD’s and whatnot like Marshall Mathers, yet parents were letting their kids listen to his stuff. It’s a topic in rap that was never really in the limelight until The Slim Shady LP came out. A lot of Eminem’s appeal was due to the fact that he was a white guy, but his lyrics proved he wasn’t just a gimmick. You don’t have to please all of the people, just the right people; The Slim Shady LP helped Eminem do the latter.
3. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
To quote the late and great Stuart Scott on a “This is SportsCenter” commercial, “Is it fun? No. But is it important?”
Radiohead has never been a band that stuck to the status quo. As much as I like them, I think they always look at themselves as a high and mighty, holier than thou group and they believe that nothing they do is wrong. They don’t have any songs you can really shuffle your feet to and aren’t really radio(head) friendly. Shit, their most playable song for the radio is about being a creep. But the thing with that is, they don’t always need to sound like a fun band. OK Computer is not the most lively album in the world and if you play it with the AUX cord in the car with your friends you’ll probably be forced to do a tuck and roll out of the trunk on the highway. But in turn, it’s an album that you can sit and ponder about. And clearly, there’s a lot to ponder about with it. The band, almost in a scary fashion, correctly predicted and evaluated the world we live in, in 2015, on an album released in 1997. Think about that for a second. Lyrically, they talked about the overwhelmingly evident dichotomy of how much safety we’re promised and how much we actually get on a day-to-day basis, the uncertainty of space and life itself, the then-looming and now-everpresent technology takeover, government issues leading to riots, globalization, and mental health, which we’re learning more and more about as time goes on. It’s easy to say now that these lyrics aren’t too far fetched, but when the album was released all of their concerns were futuristic outlooks. Incredible, huh? The best description of this album came straight from the horse’s mouth, lead singer Thom Yorke: “It was like there’s a secret camera in a room and it’s watching the character who walks in—a different character for each song. The camera’s not quite me. It’s neutral, emotionless. But not emotionless at all. In fact, the very opposite.” Indeed, Yorke constantly compared himself as a Polaroid, taking pictures of life speeding around him. The pictures help slow down the world a bit, as is the plea on the final track. They go about bringing these topics to the listener in haunting fashion, too; the constant battle being traditional rock elements and futuristic and technological productions creates a chilling blend from the start of “Airbag” to the end of “The Tourist.” So again, OK Computer isn’t really a fun album to listen to. Yet it’s Radiohead’s masterpiece, which provided listeners back in the 90’s to proceed towards the 21st century with caution. We may look back on this album in 100 years from now and call it the most important rock album of the era due to what it touched upon. But hey, who knows what’ll happen in the future? But for now, let’s just focus on Thom’s dancing.
2. U2, Achtung Baby (1991)
For the most part, bands stick with their genre. If a hard rock band starts as a hard rock band, they usually stay as a hard rock band. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and continues to be a duck for years, it’s usually gonna stay as a duck. Well, my friends, U2 is no duck. With their legendary 1991 album, the four boys from Dublin pulled off something we rarely have the pleasure of experiencing: we hear a band almost completely changed right before us in a beautiful
day way. After The Joshua Tree dropped in 1987, the media and the population saw U2 as a bad that was always serious or always looking for something to complain about; after seeing their past releases, it’s not hard to tell why that was a conception. U2 said, “Ight bro, you want personal? You want self-criticism? You want us to loosen up? Game on.” That’s exactly what U2 sought out to make: not another big, important, political statement, but an album that goes more in depth to spiritual, mental, and physical relationships, the media’s representation of themselves among other things, and the personal side of the human experience. You can tell that they’re sorta poking fun of themselves throughout, since the very first lyrics on the album, off of the grossly underrated “Zoo Station,” are “I’m ready, I’m ready for the laughing gas/I’m ready, ready for what’s next.” And in a way, while they didn’t intend to make a political album and while the personal layer is the primary layer, one can’t help but draw comparisons with the then-ongoing changes going on in Europe. The Berlin Wall was gone, the Soviet Union was about to be dissolved, and Europeans were beginning to become the most intertwined they would ever be. Achtung Baby emulates that tremendously. Older and more traditional rock n’ roll elements and newer and more experimental technological elements found in the Manchester music scene were mixed together in beautiful fashion. What at first seemed like a failed mission–Bono and The Edge were secluding themselves and clashing with Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. over which musical direction to go in–became one of the most important and overall best albums of the 90’s. The group should’ve known that would be the case when they recorded “One” right in the midst of their feud and saw how special this project was. Thanks, Brian Eno!
1. Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
AH, BABY DICK!
I mean, was this really a question? It’s the embodiment of everything 90’s: the desire for something more, the anger and angst that has built up in that specific generation, the great unknown in the music world, and the everything in between was bottled up in one album in the decade’s infancy. There’s not a single track that you would skip on that album. I’ll defend this until the day I die: Nevermind has the best first 5 tracks on any album, ever. I mean, look! “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” “Come As You Are,” “Breed,” and “Lithium” is toooough to beat. And after that come songs that would be hits on their own if it weren’t for those five: “Drain You” might be a top 5 Nirvana song in itself. The album didn’t intend to define a generation and be remembered for how superior it is in comparison to its competitors, yet here we are. The motto for Nirvana was basically, “Music first, then lyrics.” The music shreds, as we all know, but the lyrics are a little fuzzy. But I think that’s what makes this album so intriguing. With In Utero, we hear Cobain loud and clear: he fucking hates everybody. Here, I think it’s a bit more of that, but there’s something more in there. Something we, as a listener, don’t know. It probably all made perfect sense to Cobain, and if we knew 100% what he was talking about it would be crystal clear to us too, but the beauty of Nevermind is that we’re left searching for what Cobain was saying, if he was saying anything important at all. It’s what keeps me coming back to this album: I think of something new and have a slightly different opinion of it every time I plan it through. It goes back to the whole idea of not being the same thing with each replay. A lot of the songs have to do with Cobain’s relationship with Tobi Vail back in the day, but there’s certainly more to it. For better or for worse, we were never able to completely know what was going on in that mind of his. But that’s OK, because the closest thing to that is maybe the best way to remember the 1990’s.
As you can see, this was as tough as a two dollar steak. But that says something about the 90’s: it wouldn’t have been fun if it wasn’t tough. There’s been some tremendous recent artists, clearly, but we’re halfway through this decade and I’m sure the top 10 albums of the 2010’s won’t be nearly as tough as this list.
Agree/disagree? Hit me up on Twitter, @BfitzP17. Until next time folks, here’s the Carlton. The 90’s! Fuck yeah!