For the second decade in a row, my #1 album has some awesome black and white photography from Anton Corbijn.

Introduction:  So these are my top albums of the 90’s.  Once again, these are studio albums only, so no live albums and no compilations of greatest hits, though both of those will be discussed here in this introduction.

Because I didn’t do a big massive post with all sorts of lists like in the 80’s, there are a number of subcategories that I didn’t already address.  For instance, the best debut albums of the decade, which, going down the list, would obviously be lead by Ten, followed, depending on your definition, by Little Earthquakes.  Other debut albums on this list include August and Everything After, New Miserable Experience and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  Jagged Little Pill is only the first album by Alanis Morissette released in the United States, not her actual first album and the massive success of Nevermind, Dookie, Throwing Copper and Siamese Dream often make people forget the much lesser known first albums by Nirvana, Green Day, Live and Smashing Pumpkins.  Ten is among the greatest debut albums of all-time and Little Earthquakes is up there if you count it as Tori’s first solo album but none of the others approach the list in my 80’s post.

In terms of live albums, while several artists put out very good live albums (Paul Simon’s The Concert in the Park, The Cure’s Show, Peter Gabriel’s Secret World Live, Genesis’ The Way We Walk), the dominant trend of the decade was the Unplugged albums.  MTV Unplugged went on the air in 1989 and the first album recorded on the show was released in 1991.  Beginning with Eric Clapton in 1992, ten Unplugged albums in the decade went platinum.  One of my favorites wasn’t officially released until 2011 (R.E.M.), though it was recorded in 1991 and I’ve had a bootleg of it since the mid 90’s.  The greatest and most important, though, was Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York, the album of which came out after Kurt Cobain died and showed how much depth (and not just power) his songwriting had and what a future Nirvana might have had before it.

A lot of greatest hits albums were released in the decade, some of them quite good, but to me, The Immaculate Collection towers above all.  True, it is missing two songs that should have been on there (“True Blue” and “Who’s That Girl”, which were released in the UK on a companion EP called The Holiday Collection) but nothing else really comes close.  But, there were also two box sets in the decade that were just as, if not more important, because they scoured the archives of two of rock’s most important artists: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 by Bob Dylan and Tracks by Bruce Springsteen.

In terms of non-score soundtracks (the best scored soundtracks are The Power of One, The Last of the Mohicans and Phantom Menace) and non-musical soundtracks (the musicals are dominated by Disney: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Nightmare Before Christmas, The Lion King but also South Park while the stage musical goes to Miss Saigon although 1991 saw the release of the Complete Symphonic Les Miserables, the only version with the entire musical) are a few choice titles: Singles, Clerks, Trainspotting, Grosse Pointe Blank.

I want to quickly mention a few “honorable mentions”.  That doesn’t mean that these were the next albums cut off the list at #51 and below though I at least gave consideration to all of these albums.  But none of these albums made the list and, as it so happens, none of them have any songs on the forthcoming Top 250 Songs list (several other albums that came close but didn’t make the list are discussed in pieces about specific songs from those albums in that upcoming list).  So, without even mentioning the artists or the years, is a few albums that I think bear mentioning presented in alphabetical order by artists: Waking Up the Neighbours, The Way to Salvation, The Gang’s All Here, Shepherd Moons, Heart in Motion, Secret Samadhi, Have a Ball, Mr. Happy Go Lucky, Nine Black Poppies, Into the Great Wide Open, Pablo Honey, The Bends, Lucky Town, Apollo 18.  If any of those names are unfamiliar, perhaps it will send you to listen to something new.

The Top 50 Albums

#50  –  Wildflowers  (Tom Petty, 1994)

This list was already set before Tom Petty died in early October, so this isn’t a token slot to a great musician just because he died.  It’s in here because it deserves to be in this slot (indeed, Rolling Stone ranked it #11 for the decade).  It’s actually, I think, slightly weaker than Full Moon Fever, which didn’t make my Top 50 for the 80’s, but by process of logic, you can realize that everything below #40 wouldn’t have made the 80’s list.  What is the best track on the album?  The beautiful title track?  The fantastic single “You Don’t Know How it Feels”?  The amusing “You Wreck Me” or “It’s Good to Be King”?  Petty was one of the great singer-songwriters in American rock history and I’m glad I got a chance to see him in concert.

#49  –  Metallica  (Metallica, 1991)

Often thought of as “the black album” because of its packaging, this is where metal’s foremost band hit its peak.  Just like I have never been into hip hop but I like Public Enemy, I have never been particularly enamored of heavy metal, but have always had a fondness for Metallica.  It began with And Justice for All, their solid 1988 album but this album kicks things up a notch.  The main reason, of course, is the presence of three outstanding singles (there were actually five singles but there are three for me that stand supreme): “Enter Sandman”, “The Unforgiven” and “Wherever I May Roam.”  This album would be their first #1 and would become the third longest lasting album on the Billboard 200 in the SoundScan Era (1991-present) at 390 weeks.

#48  –  Ray of Light  (Madonna, 1998)

The 80’s had been Madonna’s decade.  She had released #1 single after #1 single and had two amazing albums that brought her to the top of the pop world.  The 90’s weren’t as good on the creative side, with two soundtracks, two compilations, one album with three fantastic singles and a lot of filler and another album with some decent singles and again, a lot of filler.  Then came 1998 and Ray of Light.  None of the singles would be as good as “Bad Girl” and certainly not as good as “Rain”.  But what this album had that her previous two didn’t was strength, from start to finish.  I often listen to it and think there’s not a song that cries out to be in my Top 250 (and none made it) or even necessarily be on a mix tape (though some did end up on those), but the album is so good, from the ethereal “Drowned World / Substitute for Love” to the pop joys of “Ray of Light” to the haunting “The Power of Good-Bye” and “To Have and Not to Hold”, it’s the last really strong full album from Madonna to-date.

#47  –  Use Your Illusion I / II  (Guns N’ Roses, 1991)

What isn’t this pair of albums?  Who could have expected anything like this, based on what we had already heard from the group, but then, after getting this double dip of energy and song-writing, what would be left after this but hopes and empty desires?  The first taste of the albums, released months before the album, was the single “You Could Be Mine”, which certainly hinted at the hard rock that GNR was known for (and would turn out to be on the second album).  But then would come “Don’t Cry”, a much softer song and certainly one of their best, and it would turn out to have versions on both albums with different verses.  The hits would keep coming, with longer, deeper, more fascinating songs like “November Rain” and “Civil War” as well as a couple of interesting covers.  The two albums would really excite the fans who had no idea that this was it.  It would be two years before a disappointing album of covers hit stores and that was the end.  In one fell swoop, GNR showed they could release an astounding 150 minutes of music (almost as much as the first five Beatles albums combined) and yet, this was it for them as a band.

#46  –  Call the Doctor  (Sleater-Kinney, 1996)

If you asked several Sleater-Kinney fans what their best album is, you would probably get several different answers (my choice, by the way, is No Cities to Love).  You probably wouldn’t even be able to get much agreement on which of their four 90’s albums is the best.  I’m going with Call the Doctor, their second album, written in three weeks and recorded in just four days.  You could consider it the first real S-K album because Carrie and Corin had finally left their previous bands and come together as a real band or you could say it’s still the rough draft for Dig Me Out, by which time they had added Janet on drums and become the band that is now revered by so many.  This album gives us “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone”, their first great song, and probably the best song they would record before 2000.  It has an undeniable energy, with twelve songs belted out in just under 30 minutes.

#45  –  No Need to Argue  (The Cranberries, 1994)

This is the first of a lot of albums in the countdown that make me think of college.  That’s because alternative music was such a massive part of my life in college, listening to these songs on the radio, driving on backroads late at night, escaping from everything in life.  So, I think of listening to “Zombie” and what the Weird Al parody would be (see the upcoming song list), listening to my roommate about “Ode to My Family”, hearing “Ridiculous Thoughts” on the radio and being amazed that there were so many great singles while still finding times for softer, more beautiful songs like “Twenty One” or “Dreaming My Dreams”.  In fact, if there’s a weakness on the album it’s that one of the best songs on the sessions would end up as the b-side to “Zombie”, the amazing song “Away” that would become possibly more well known than a lot of the songs on the actual album because of its inclusion in a key scene in Clueless.  Tom Petty’s place was set before he died in October but I had actually written this entire paragraph months before Dolores O’Riordan died in January.

#44  –  Mirror Ball  (Neil Young and Pearl Jam, 1995)

It was the summer of 95 and I was painting houses and listening to the radio everyday.  Among the new songs coming out from artists that we had never heard of like Alanis Morissette and The Flaming Lips, there was suddenly this new album coming out in which the godfather of grunge was actually playing with the band he had practically adopted on the road the previous few years.  What it was, once I bought it, was something different than I expected.  With only one song co-written (and with backing singing) by Eddie Vedder, it was more like a new Neil Young album with just a slightly different tone than his last few albums.  But in the mid-90’s that was more than enough.  Ever since Freedom, Neil had been producing an amazing string of albums, going hard with Crazy Horse on Ragged Glory, then cutting back for the soft sounds of Harvest Moon and then mourning Kurt Cobain on Sleeps with Angels with some appropriate sounding live albums in between.  Now came a new, grungier album, with longer songs and, if you got the Pearl Jam single Merkenball, it made a more complete set.  More importantly, in a year that didn’t have a new Pearl Jam album, it kind of felt like, in spirit, we had a new Pearl Jam album.

#43  –  Americana  (The Offspring, 1998)

In 1994, The Offspring, a band, like me, that was from central Orange County, suddenly catapulted into stardom.  Their first two albums had failed to even chart but Smash, their third album, reached #4 and sold six million copies.  It was a very good album and came very close to making the list.  After a bit of a drop-off (commercially and critically) on their fourth album, they bounced way back with Americana.  It wasn’t just that they were proving how much they could still rock (and still with a sense of humor) with “Pretty Fly for a White Guy”, a pretty apt song about Orange County.  It wasn’t just the humor on “Why Don’t You Get a Job”, a song that becomes even better when you stick around for that final verse.  There was the energy of “Walla Walla” or their punk cover of “Feelings” or the single “The Kids Aren’t All Right”.  They had never been this good before (though they had been close) and they would never be this good again.

#42  –  The Boy with the Arab Strap  (Belle & Sebastian, 1998)

While it is If You’re Feeling Sinister that really gets the critical acclaim, to me it is The Boy with the Arab Strap that is the most accomplished album from Belle & Sebastian.  If your only experience with the Scottish band is from them being ignored or made fun of in High Fidelity, then you need to listen closer to their melodies, to their harmonies, to the music that they bring to life.  It is especially notable in the first three songs on the album, the best three song stretch on any of their albums, beginning with “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career”, followed by the group’s best song “Sleep the Clock Around” and then moving back to a lighter feel (though not necessarily a lighter tone) with “Is It Wicked Not to Care”.  It doesn’t just end with those three songs either, which is what makes the album as a whole, from “A Summer Wasting” to “Seymour Stein” to the title track, the strongest album in the oeuvre.

#41  –  The Downward Spiral  (Nine Inch Nails, 1994)

This is the point where it’s easiest to compare this list to the one I did for the 80’s.  After all, #50 on my 80’s list was Pretty Hate Machine, the first album from Nine Inch Nails (otherwise known as Trent Reznor and whoever the hell else he gets to work with him) and I declared that the band’s best album.  So, anything below this point clearly wouldn’t have made the 80’s list.  Yet, this is the album that really broke through for the band, taking them into the stratosphere, at least in terms of popular culture.  It involved Reznor getting deeper into techno, deeper into a negative way of thinking (to the point where he actually recorded most of the album in the same house where Sharon Tate was murdered).  The songs would become longer and more complex (five of the songs on the album are over five and a half minutes and the album itself runs over 65 minutes – in the pre-cd era it would have had to be two tapes or records) and two of the longest, “Closer” and “Hurt” would also be the two most enduring songs on the album.

#40  –  Grave Dancers Union  (Soul Asylum, 1992)

It can be rough when an album starts out brilliantly and then isn’t able to hold up that level of artistic achievement.  For many albums, that means the album as a whole doesn’t work.  But Grave Dancers Union is able to overcome that because the remaining nine songs are still strong enough, with a couple, like “Get on Out” and “Without a Trace” even stronger and because those first three songs are so fantastic.  From the opening blistering guitar on “Somebody to Shove” to the social issues at the heart of “Black Gold” through the song that made Soul Asylum suddenly make the leap from a small Minnesota band to a massive hit, “Runaway Train”.  Ironically, “Runaway Train” was the fourth single released off the album, eight months after the album’s release, but it was the one that lead to the album’s chart success.  It doesn’t seem quite fair that the band, who already had given themselves one of the best names a band would ever have would also come up with possibly the best album title of the decade as well.

#39  –  Last of the Independents  (The Pretenders, 1994)

By 1994, it had been four years since the last Pretenders album and that one, Packed!, was less a Pretenders album and more Chrissie Hynde going solo and grabbing people in the studio.  This album would never have the kind of reputation as the band’s great work in the first half of the 80’s but it is a very strong collection of songs as Hynde was moving into middle-age.  From “977”, a haunting song about domestic abuse and how people react to it to the beautiful “I’ll Stand By You” to the kind of rock songs that had made the Pretenders one of the definitive New Wave bands like “Hollywood Perfume” and “Night in My Veins”, this is a return to form.

#38  –  No Code  (Pearl Jam, 1996)

The first of five Pearl Jam albums on this list but that’s because they only recorded five albums in the decade.  In some ways, this is the most schizophrenic of the band’s albums, moving from slow songs like “Sometimes” and “In My Tree” right into harder rocking songs like “Hail Hail” and “Smile”.  But it shows the band’s range.  We get their most under-appreciated single in “Who You Are” (the lead single from the album, and so different from their previous singles that fans didn’t know what to make of it), a song that would become a fan favorite on concert (“Red Mosquito”), a song where Eddie actually doesn’t sing (“Mankind”) and a song that definitely shows the harmonica influence of working with Neil Young the year before (“Smile”).  It is true that the album ends on a bit of a weak note (“I’m Open” didn’t win the spot of weakest and weirdest Pearl Jam song to this point because of something that will be mentioned down below in the piece on Vitalogy).  But this might be the album that the more devoted Pearl Jam fans understand and that the more casual ones struggle to find a song to hook them.

#37  –  Siamese Dream  (Smashing Pumpkins, 1993)

This is one of those albums that broke through when I was in college and convinced people that a band’s debut album was a sign of amazing things, but like Nevermind (when I was still in high school), Dookie and Throwing Copper, this wasn’t the band’s debut, but merely the album that everyone first knew (and bought).  I don’t think there’s any question that it was “Today” that really hooked people in and helped spur massive sales of the album, selling over four million copies in the U.S. alone while their actual debut, Gish, wouldn’t reach platinum until long after this album had helped drive traffic back to it.  But “Today” probably isn’t even the best song on the album.  My own choice would be “Disarm”, with its brilliant use of the bell and many others would almost certainly argue in favor of “Cherub Rock”.  Perhaps what was most distinctive about the album was the way it made the Pumpkins sound like a British band (especially since the album’s rise coincided with the rise of Radiohead), both in the musical sound and in Corgan’s distinctive vocals even though they were a Chicago band.

#36  –  Levellers  (Levellers, 1993)

As will be explained way below, I came across the Levellers when I was a student at Brandeis in 1992.  This album would come out the next year, though the first I would see of it would be sometime in 1994 and that’s the year I associate with the album (it was released in the U.K. in the summer of 93 but I suspect it wasn’t actually released in the States until 1994).  The Levellers weren’t getting any airplay in the States and they really never would (I have never once heard a Levellers song on the radio).  This album continues the social consciousness that the band had merged with a post-punk rock ethos on the previous album.  While this album would be a big hit in Britain (charting at #2), it wouldn’t have a big song on it that really stuck out like their previous (or next) album.  But what it is, is a great collection of songs that work together because of the sound the band had developed (specifically, the use of the electric fiddle in conjunction with a guitar driven sound).  The best song, for me, is easily “Broken Circles”, a song I played any number of times that year but “Warning” kicks off the album with a blast (and a literal siren), “1oo Years of Solitude” has both literary allusions and social references and “Julie” shows the band’s musical growth.  “This Garden” would be labelled as the band’s single in the States (though, like I said, I never heard it on the radio) with its interesting mix of spoken word and song, just like their fantastic b-side from the previous album “Dance Before the Storm”.

#35  –  Time Out of Mind  (Bob Dylan, 1997)

Are there people who don’t think that this is the best album of Dylan’s later career (post-1989?)?  If so, they seem to be few and far between.  There are many who would probably deem it Dylan’s best album since 1975 but I’ll hold Oh Mercy above it.  After some disastrous work in the early 90’s, Dylan had been making a long, slow rise, with his 30th Anniversary Celebration, his third Greatest Hits and his Unplugged album.  Then came this work.  His voice had aged and gotten even harder but the material he had written was even more appropriate for it, with his deep intonation of lines like “I’m sick of love” and “It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”  If the lyrics weren’t necessarily the strongest work of his career, this was sort of like Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, a long dark night of the soul, with appropriate music and singing to match it.  It would even be topped off with “To Make You Feel My Love”, what for many, is Dylan’s best love song.  The album overstays its welcome a little, with a 16 minutes song ending a 72 minute album but Dylan hadn’t been this good in years and hasn’t been as good since.  I think part of why this album appeals to me as much as it does is that it was the only time I ever bought a Dylan album when it was released.

#34  –  Very  (Pet Shop Boys, 1993)

Like so many British bands in the 80’s, the Pet Shop Boys had been a magnificent singles band but their albums were a bit more uneven.  Then, after the longest wait of their career, they came out with this impressive 1993 album, which, while it only reached #20 on the U.S. charts, would be their (surprisingly) only #1 on the British charts.  These songs might not be as danceable as the 80’s singles but they are deeper, more musically interesting and just a great group of songs.  From the opening track, “Can You Forgive Her”, we’re in some different musical territory for the band.  There is actually a bit of social commentary in songs like “Dreaming of the Queen” and “The Theatre” and a bit of playfulness in “Yesterday When I Was Mad”.  And just because they weren’t as easy to dance to, didn’t mean they were less successful, at least in Britain, where the album spawned 5 Top 20 hits (while failing to even have a single song break the Top 100 in the States).  And all of this ends with a bit of fun, taking a song by such a ridiculous group as the Village People and re-imagining it in a way that makes it one of the most enjoyable singles of the 90’s: “Go West”.  I followed that song backwards, from singing along to it on a trip to Seattle, to finding the original album and realizing just how great the album as a whole was.

#33  –  Zeitgeist  (Levellers, 1995)

In the days before the Internet was readily available, I went to London for a class in January, 1996.  I had been waiting desperately for a new Levellers album, unaware that the new album had been out in the U.K. for five months and that there were several singles all in the Top 20.  I stopped in a Tower Records attached to a tube stop and found all of those glorious singles and I bought them all without having heard any of it because the damn album hadn’t made it stateside yet.  What I found when I was able to listen to the album itself was an even stronger collection of songs than the previous album, lead by the absolutely magnificent “Hope St.”, still one of the band’s best songs (and which would be re-imagined in a different way on the single).  The album continued forth their social consciousness and great rock in songs like “Exodus” and “Haven’t Made It” but also revealed a sense of humor in a song like “Just the One” (a longer version of which, with Joe Strummer, would show their influences on the single).

#32  –  Songs for Drella  (Lou Reed & John Cale, 1990)

Andy Warhol had died in 1987 and at his funeral, Lou Reed and John Cale, warring musical visionaries who had partnered and fought in The Velvet Underground with Warhol mentoring them, talked for the first time in ages.  That eventually lead to them working together on a project that would be a dedication to Warhol and to his life, with most of the songs from his point-of-view (Reed in a sense started early with his song about Warhol “Dimestore Mystery” on his New York album) and was supposed to end up with a tour as well until Reed and Cale remembered how much they hated each other and vowed yet again never to work with each other.  The album as a whole works so well because it does have a theme and a consistent voice but the most powerful songs are the hilarious “Smalltown” that kicks off the album and the moving “Hello It’s Me” that makes it so clear how much Warhol had meant to them.

#31  –  The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill  (Lauryn Hill, 1998)

A young (early twenties) very attractive female black singer leaves the group that had made her famous, strikes out on her own and becomes a massive success, with an album that is not only a huge seller but also a critical darling, amassing numerous Grammys.  So why is that Beyonce is one of the most famous women in the world and still selling massive amounts of music while Lauryn Hill, after the kind of album that everyone thought would lead to that kind of success burned out in the kind of popular culture explosion you so rarely see?  And the interesting question (which I can’t answer since I’m so unfamiliar with her music) is whether Beyonce’s work (most notably Lemonade) will ever quite hit the kind of critical acclaim that The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had when it was first released.  It would be nominated for 10 Grammys (a record for a solo female artist) and was the first hip hop album to win Album of the Year.  And it’s not hard to see why with such songs as “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (helped along with its brilliant video) and “Everything is Everything”.

#30  –  Under the Pink  (Tori Amos, 1994)

I only had a vague notion of Tori Amos and her music when I failed to respond to Columbia House and received her second solo album, Under the Pink in the mail.  I decided to keep it (which may or may not have had anything to do with her being a beautiful redhead) and as soon as I had listened to it, I knew I had made the right decision.  I don’t know what it was that first won me over.  I suspect a lot of it had to do with the beautiful opening song “Pretty Good Year”, which still ranks as one of my favorite Tori songs.  Then there are the magnificent singles which sound so different from what she had done on the first album (which I wouldn’t hear until later) and even from each other, “God” and “Cornflake Girl”.  The album, as a whole, isn’t as strong as Little Earthquakes and it meanders a little at the end with the last five songs taking up four more minutes than the first seven songs (including the 9:33 final song “Yes, Anastasia”).  In an unfortunate mix-up one of the strongest songs that was supposed to be on the album, “Honey”, was kicked off at the last minute because, as Tori has said in a live version I have of the song “because I am such a ding-a-ling.”  This album would also have something that will show up in some of the other albums on this list: a song that brings in a well-known guest vocalist (in this case, Trent Reznor on “Past the Mission”).

#29  –  The Ghost of Tom Joad  (Bruce Springsteen, 1995)

In early 1995, Bruce Springsteen released his first collection of Greatest Hits which included a reunion of the E Street Band for some of the new tracks.  That spawned thought of a full band reunion but, in the studio, that would have to wait until 2002.  Instead, Springsteen returned later the same year with this stark album that was reminiscent of Nebraska, his 1982 album that was more like a Pete Seeger album than the rock he had been producing.  From the opening harmonica on the title track, it’s clear that we’re in a bleak world, a world of desperation that is not entirely without hope.  For the Jersey boy who had been living in California, most of these songs are stories about his new state, about the people who are underserved, unnoticed, hunted, hidden, forgotten.  While the album is mostly about immigrants, it also deals with the forgotten working class (“Youngstown”) and those trying to right their previous wrongs (“Straight Time”).  It even finds time to end with a bit of humor, with “My Best Was Never Good Enough”.  Perhaps the thing that most shows the strength of the album is that way that its songs have been reimagined, from the new version of the title track later recorded for his 2014 album to the blistering live version of “Youngstown” on his Live in New York City album.  Springsteen had been the most consistently impressive musical artist of the 70’s and 80’s, with a string of amazing albums running from 1974 to 1987.  But this would be the best of his output of new material in the decade, as he would go back into the vaults for a fantastic box set in 1998 before emerging with the best album of the next decade with The Rising.

#28  –  New Miserable Experience  (Gin Blossoms, 1992)

This album started slowly for me, but then again it started slowly for almost everybody.  It was released in August of 1992 but, like most people, I didn’t hear of it until after the release of “Hey Jealousy” as a single the following June.  Eventually, that would be followed up by the release of “Found Out About You” as a single in October and eventually, by February of 1994, both songs would make it on to a mix tape of mine.  This lead to eventually hearing the entire album, which had been re-released a year after its initial release with new cover art (which is probably why you don’t recognize the original cover art to the right – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy with the original art).  With the great guitar hooks of Douglas Hopkins (who was dead by the first time I heard the entire album, having killed himself in December 1993) merging a modern rock sound with country music (well suited to a band from Phoenix), you got great songs like the first two singles or “Lost Horizons” or “Hold Me Down”.  While the band wasn’t entirely reliant upon Hopkins (he didn’t write “Hands are Tied” or “Allison Road”, two of the strongest songs on the album), it never quite was the same after they were forced to fire him (during the recording of the album) and none of their later albums would ever live up to what they did with this one.

#27  –  In Utero  (Nirvana, 1993)

How do you live up to the reputation of having released an album that seems to transcend music itself and embed itself into popular culture?  Perhaps by going the other direction and trying to make your album as radio unfriendly as possible and yet showing that you can still bring forth a powerful collection of songs.  Indeed, this album was considered so commercially unviable that apparently at first DGC refused to release it, hoping that they could have another success like Nevermind and not really thinking about how they could hold on to to the core base that had been established that would be pleased that the band was continuing to try to grow musically.  And it’s true that songs like “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Scentless Apprentice” weren’t made for the radio and titles like “Dumb”, “Rape Me” and “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” would make disc jockeys cringe.  But that ignores the force and power in the songs and the songs that seemed destined for hit status on college radio stations like “All Apologies” and “Heart-Shaped Box”.  It’s too bad that this would be the final studio album because the Unplugged album would only show how much depth there was to the band and by then it was all gone.

#26  –  Yield  (Pearl Jam, 1998)

The fourth ranked Pearl Jam album of the decade and still only just outside the Top 25.  This album was a considerable departure from the previous album, No Code, both in terms of its sound (more rock based and less experimental) and in its feel (because the songs were written more by individual band members than by Eddie Vedder himself and all five members of the band have at least one song on the album).  The heart of the album is the back-to-back songs “Given to Fly” and “Wishlist”, the two singles that would draw the fans back in.  It also helped that by this time, Pearl Jam had moved past their Ticketmaster fight and as a result, this was the first time I was able to actually see them in concert.

#25  –  August and Everything After  (Counting Crows, 1993)

In the bottom 25 albums on the list, there is a common problem in that the albums often kind of fade out at the end.  Most of them don’t close strong.  August and Everything After doesn’t have that problem and it will be much less of a problem with the Top 25 (which is part of why they are the Top 25).  While it mopes about a bit with “Ghost Train” and “Raining in Baltimore” (I do wish one of them had been dropped in favor of “Einstein on the Beach”) it then closes strong with “A Murder of One”.  In sleeps with angels, I had Kayce deride the Counting Crows because I didn’t want my characters to simply parrot my own musical tastes, but this album has been a fantastic revelation for me since the day I bought it.  Perhaps this says it all.  For my Year in Rock 1994 tape, I finished one side with “Round Here” the other with “Mr. Jones” (yes, it’s a 1993 album but it didn’t really get much radioplay until 1994) and then for another mix tape soon after, I included “Rain King”.  A year later, when making my Play It Loud tape (the songs I played the most), I decided I should continue to change things up with them and included “Omaha” (and there are days where it is my favorite song on the album but also days when those first three songs are – a lot of these songs will be in my Top 250) and later I would include “Anna Begins”, “Sullivan Street” and “A Murder of One” on different mixtapes.  When you’ve got that many songs on an album that end up mixtapes, you’ve done the job right.

#24  –  X  (INXS, 1990)

This is the first of four albums that all share a common circumstance: all four are by artists who featured on my 80’s Top 50 (all in the Top 40 in fact), all of them are 1990 albums and all of them I rank as the best albums from those particular artists.  So, while nothing from #41 or below on this list would have made my 80’s list, this album is higher than the #25 on my 80’s list, KickKick was a great pop album, a collection of 12 songs that were all great to listen to.  This is a deeper album with a more mature sound.  It didn’t have a string of hits like Kick had even if does start with a trio of songs that are just about as strong as any three songs on Kick, let alone three songs in a row: “Suicide Blonde, “Disappear” and “The Stairs.”  While the rest of the album can’t quite continue at that pace, it’s full of great tracks like “By My Side” and “Bitter Tears”.  What’s more, one of the great things the album does is not overstay its welcome.  At a time when albums were getting longer and longer, the band delivers 11 songs in just 41 minutes.  Because this album was given to me at a time when I didn’t own a cd player (I had asked for it on tape but my brother kind of ignored that) this was the first cd I ever owned and I’ve had it now for over 25 years.

#23  –  The Rhythm of the Saints  (Paul Simon, 1990)

Though this is a 1990 album, it is not one of the four mentioned just above, namely because Graceland is easily the best Paul Simon ever.  But this shares something with another album a few spots down, in that it is the follow up to a massively successful (critically and commercially) 1986 album that gets overlooked because the previous album was so amazing but actually belongs to be admired in its own right because it’s one hell of an album.  What it lacks, perhaps, is a bone fide hit like “You Can Call Me Al” or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes”.  It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying as “Proof”, the most radio friendly song on the album would get a video with Chevy Chase and Steve Martin.  But that kind of move ignores the pure beauty of a song like “Born at the Right Time” or that rocks with a great beat like “The Obvious Child”.  If Graceland had been Paul Simon’s African album this was his South American one, continuing to explore the rhythms from around the world and find a way to merge them with his pop sensibilities.  But all of those expectations from Graceland masked the success of the album – very good reviews, 2x Platinum, a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year and forming the basis for his magnificent Concert in the Park, one of the best live albums produced during the decade.  Sadly though, there would be a falling after this with Simon waiting seven more years before his next album and he hasn’t really had a quality album since.

#22  –  Sleeps with Angels  (Neil Young and Crazy Horse, 1994)

Neil Young had spent most of the 80’s wondering in an artistic haze only to emerge in 1989 with Freedom, an album that helped, with its follow-up the next year, Ragged Glory, to spawn grunge.  The next several years were filled with some of Young’s best work, from his soft and sweet Harvest Moon (which many would have in their own Top 50 lists) to this album, arising from the death of Kurt Cobain to bring an album that is part dirge for the fallen and part grunge masterpiece to remind us that even as he was nearing 50, Young hadn’t lost any of his edge.  Perhaps what best sums up the greatness of this album is deciding what is the best song on the album.  It’s not that there are three great choices but that the choices are so very different, encompassing the range of the album.  First, there is the title track, a mournful dirge for a lost rocker but one that is filled with the kind of electric grunge that Cobain himself had admired so much.  Then there is “Piece of Crap”, a song that rocks in a different kind of way as well as being full of the humor that Young likes to revel in.  Or perhaps the best track is the final song, a beautiful piano driven song called “A Dream That Can Last” which sounds absolutely nothing like either of those other two songs yet also seems to perfectly sum up the album.

#21  –  OK Computer  (Radiohead, 1997)

Sleeps with Angels was the 21st studio album from a man who had been releasing music since before the members of Radiohead were even born.  Neil Young was emblematic of rock’s history while Radiohead was its future.  The band had found a devoted following with its first two albums but OK Computer would be their first masterpiece (actually surpassed by their 2000 album Kid A, but I’m not doing a list for that decade).  Songs like “Paranoid Android” and “Exit Music (For a Film)” might have seemed obnoxious with their titles but were intricate pieces of music that I can’t really describe because I’m not a music critic.  Meanwhile, such songs as “Karma Police” and “No Surprises” showed that the band also knew their way around a melodic hook.  Because I hadn’t been a fan of “Creep” I hadn’t taken to Radiohead early on and I would have to work my way back to this album after “Optimistic” came out and completely won me over to the band but I was glad that I did.

#20  –  Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness  (Smashing Pumpkins, 1995)

At first glance, OK Computer and Melon Collie couldn’t be more different.  The former is a single album that didn’t hit the Top 20 in the U.S. and had no actual commercial U.S. released singles while the latter was a #1 album, sold over twice as many copies (in spite of costing twice as much) and had four Top 40 singles in an era where alternative bands often didn’t have singles released, let alone make the Top 40.  Yet, they are also quite similar.  Both are the critically acclaimed third albums of alternative bands that rose in the early 90’s fronted by men with distinctive non-traditional voices who were firm believers in the power of the guitar and both would earn nominations for Album of the Year at the Grammys.  In spite of a few lulls, which can be expected in a double album that runs 120 minutes, this is the high peak of the Pumpkins’ career.  It has “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, the huge single that helped propel the album to such great sales, quiet, less rocking songs like “Thirty-Three” and “1979” and it begins with a one-two punch that is the best thing the Pumpkins would ever do, the fantastic instrumental title track fading into their best song and one of the best songs of the decade: “Tonight Tonight”.

#19  –  Fear of a Black Planet  (Public Enemy, 1990)

Even if you are not a fan of a genre, when a work of art is so powerful, so inspired, so moving, you can overcome your own taste and enjoy it.  I have never loved hip-hop or rap.  But in college, I had a friend named Chris Dillon who insisted that this album was so good that it didn’t matter if you liked the kind of music it was, you could just sit back and listen to how good it was.  And he was right.  The power of a song like “911 is a Joke”, the rhythms of “Welcome to the Terrordome”, the humor of “Leave This Off Your Fucking Charts”, the anger in “33 1/3” and the sheer rocking beat of “Fight the Power” all mix together to provide the examples of why Public Enemy was a band that transcended its own musical genre and simply became one of the great bands of all-time.

#18  –  Vitalogy  (Pearl Jam, 1994)

Great bands are not immune from making a ridiculous choice even on a great album.  That’s why The White Album is still such a great album to listen to even when you have to endure “Revolution #9”.  I mention that, of course, because Pearl Jam provides their own “Revolution #9” on Vitalogy with their most ridiculously titled song “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”, a 7:43 mess that unfortunately concludes their third album.  The good news is that since it’s the final song, you can just stop the album after “Immortality” and you’ve done yourself a favor.  The down side is that it brings down an album that might have ended up much higher.  But fans were so hungry for the album (just a year after their second album) that they bought 34,000 copies the first week it was released even though it was only available on vinyl.  In fact, for 20 years, this would be the record in the Soundscan era (1991-present) until the hipsters brought vinyl back to take up all the space in the few stores that still sell music.  This would also be the first album in which the band would release a commercial single in the U.S., though that didn’t really work as the band intended, since the single, “Spin the Black Circle” was supplanted by radio stations as soon as disc jockeys got a chance to actually hear the album and immediately started playing “Better Man”.  This would also be an album that would be a pain to shelve because it is built in the opposite way from a normal cd case and you have to slide the disc out (for years, I actually kept the disc in my cd single case for “Spin the Black Circle” since both that song and it’s b-side, “Tremor Christ” are on the album).  But for all the annoyances (which, depending on my mood, can easily include “Bugs”, which is definitely one of the band’s weirder songs), this album works quite well, from the fantastic rocking of the album’s early songs (“Last Exit”, “Spin the Black Circle”, “Not For You”) to the crowd pleasers that would become staples of alternative radio over the next few months (“Better Man”, “Corduroy”) to two of the band’s less appreciated more quiet masterpieces (“Nothingman”, “Immortality”).  Even the packaging would be fascinating and would be very influential to me as a short little poetic piece on the same page as the “Immortality” lyrics would inspire some of my own writing.

#17  –  Throwing Copper  (Live, 1994)

When did I first buy this album?  I certainly had it by the end of 1994 when I made my Year in Rock tape because I used it to put “Selling the Drama” on one side and “I Alone” on the other.  I almost certainly had it earlier than that, before even “Lightning Crashes” was released as a single in September because I was already listening to the other tracks on the album by then, not just the future singles like “All Over You” and “White, Discussion” but the numerous album tracks that would end up on mix tapes over the years, songs like “Shit Towne” (I knew a lot of people who thought this song was about their town), “Waitress” (which, at a concert prompted Ed Kowalczyk to go into the riff from Reservoir Dogs about not tipping), “Iris” (one of the best rocking songs on the album.  What makes the album a bit strange is that I struggle to think of any album that is so strong throughout but that starts as weak (the slow building “The Dam at Otter Creek”, which isn’t a bad song but is a bit slow and meandering to open the album) and ends as weak (the hidden track “Horse”) as this one.  Live seemed to spring out of nowhere with this album which annoyed the hell out of my roommate George who actually already knew their first album, Mental Jewelry.  While their next album, Secret Samadhi, would be under-appreciated and is quite good, they would never hit pure paydirt again like they did with Throwing Copper, either in terms of critical acclaim or in sales (this album outsold all of their other seven studio albums combined).  This album also has a bit of weird personal trivia.  Only three times in the 90’s do I own both the current #1 album and the one it supplanted at the top of the Billboard charts (there are numerous years in the 80’s where I do that three times); the first time was in 1994 when Hell Freezes Over knocked MTV Unplugged in New York out of the top spot and the third time was in 1996 when No Code knocked Jagged Little Pill out of its fifth go around at the top of the charts.  The other time was in mid 1995 when Throwing Copper hit #1 and managed to knock off The Lion King soundtrack.

#16  –  Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1  (George Michael, 1990)

Here is the second of the four 1990 albums that were, in my opinion, career bests for the artists involved.  In that sense, this album, more than the remaining two, really goes with X because in both cases the 1990 albums didn’t sell nearly as well as their previous (1987) albums that were monster success stories but I think the 1990 album is deeper and richer, more mature.  I almost wrote a piece on this album a year ago when George Michael died because I have always considered it to be criminally under-appreciated, pushed aside in favor of Faith.  It was a nice justification then, a few months ago when watching the documentary on George Michael to learn that in Britain this album has always been viewed as the greater achievement (in spite of selling 1/5 of what Faith sold in the U.S., this album actually outsold Faith in the U.K.).  While “Freedom ’90” is the big single and is a truly great song, it’s the darker, less danceable songs like “Praying for Time”, “Heal the Pain”, “Something to Save” and “Waiting for That Day” that show the depth of the album.  There are two songs on the album which don’t quite work for me, “They Won’t Go When I Go” and “Soul Free”, so the album isn’t perfect.  But it’s more than just a great collection of songs; it’s a look into the depths of a man who had seen what success could bring him and happiness wasn’t part of that.

#15  –  Us  (Peter Gabriel, 1992)

My brain groups this album with The Rhythm of the Saints.  That’s because both are albums released by singers I really like, both were follow-up albums to massive 1986 hits (two of the best albums of the 80’s that were two of the first albums that I really appreciated as albums) that were mostly under-appreciated because they were the follow-up albums but are really, really good and because both of them were basically the end.  Paul Simon would wait five years before he would release another album and no album after 1990 would be all that good but Peter Gabriel would go an entire decade before another studio album and his output after that would be marginal.  I remember reading a really good review of this and buying it at the Newbury Comics in the Garage fairly soon after it came out (it couldn’t have been any later than three months afterwards since I left Brandeis).  Even though it did have a couple of songs that could have worked as singles (and did, to some extent: “Digging in the Dirt” and “Steam”, both of which are very good songs), it was clear that the best songs on the album were the longer, more ethereal ones.  The album’s opening track, “Come Talk to Me” ranks as one of my favorite album openers and one of my favorite long songs (it runs 7:06) while “Blood of Eden” is a beautiful, moving song (that helped me start to appreciate Sinead O’Connor, thanks to her backing vocals) and “Secret World” is a wonderful long song (7:01) to close out the album.  It even still has some of Gabriel’s humor, with the funny, catchy “Kiss That Frog”.

#14  –  Zooropa  (U2, 1993)

I remember my brother calling me and telling me he had bought the new U2 album the day it came out.  I remember telling him I had bought it at 10 in the morning the day it came out and I had him beat.  I’m fairly certain that, this early in my collecting cd’s instead of tapes, this was the first cd I ever bought on the day it was released.  People weren’t quite sure what to make of this album when it first came out.  First of all, it didn’t have an obvious single like the previous album had with “One” or “Mysterious Ways”.  It had great songs, but not ones viable for radio and “Numb”, what seemed like the obvious first single (complete with video) was, the band adamantly insisted, not going to be the first single.  Then there was the fact that they couldn’t tour to promote the album because they hadn’t actually finished touring for the last album (I have a bootleg of their concert in Dublin the month after this album was released with Bono introducing “Stay” by saying “It’s a fine thing writing some songs and putting out a record when you’re still on tour.  It’s another thing trying to learn to play the fucking things.”).  And not all of their experimental ideas on the album completely work (I really don’t like falsettos so “Lemon” is very low on my list of U2 songs and “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” is one of their weaker songs).  But they also have some of their best songs mixed in on this album and, as a whole, the album works really well, following on some of the musical changes they had made with Achtung.  From the ethereal sounds on the title track to the return of religion into their lyrics (“I left by the back door and threw away the key” in “The First Time” is a moving religious metaphor) to the sheer brilliance of “Stay (Faraway, So Close)”, one of their absolute best songs to the fantastic decision to bring in Johnny Cash with his deep, almost apocalyptic vocals for the bleak vision of “The Wanderer”, the album is one of their best and certainly their most under-appreciated.

#13  –  Jagged Little Pill  (Alanis Morissette, 1995)

On my forthcoming songs list, there are a few songs that are grouped together for a reason.  It’s a coincidence that this album is right before the next one because each of them has the same little feature that is simultaneously a pleasant little treasure and also really annoying.  I am talking about the hidden track that concludes the album.  In this case, the hidden track is called “Your House” but I had to guess at that for a long time because it’s not listed.  It’s one of the most moving songs on the album, with its haunting refrain “Would you forgive me love . . .”.  But to even find it you have to listen to the last track and then the space after it before finally getting to that hidden track (which I suppose is at least better than the way that Cracker hid “Euro Trash Girl”).  That’s all right though, since the album is worth listening to, from start to finish and has been since the day I bought it.  Alanis burst onto the American music scene by being willing to sing with some sexual aggression which made it all the more appropriate that she was on Madonna’s Maverick label.  She was young (just a few months older than me and she turned 21 just days before the album was released) and sexy and she sang with such fierce passion that she won over the audiences.  Really large audiences.  As mentioned above, the album hit #1 on the Billboard charts not once, not twice, but five different times.  It was the single best selling album, not only of 1996, but of the entire decade.  It would win Album of the Year.  Though hit singles like “You Oughta Know”, “Hand in My Pocket”, “Ironic”, “You Learn” and my own favorite, “Head Over Feet” she sang about relationships in a way you could relate to from either gender.

#12  –  Dookie  (Green Day, 1993)

Like I said, this is the second of two albums with a hidden track, tucked away after the last track (the annoying part about the hidden tracks, aside from making you guess the name of the song, is trying to isolate it as its own track for a mix cd – god, I miss mix tapes – this was a lot easier with mix tapes).  In Alanis’ case, it was a moving, haunting song about a broken relationship.  Here it’s a hilarious little song about the lack of a relationship.  In fact, a lot of the songs on this album are about the lack of a relationship or the inability to pull one off.  For a punk album that blows through its songs (even with 15 songs it run less than 40 minutes and only three songs even break the three minute mark and none break the four minute mark) it’s surprisingly strong on content, showing the alienation and loneliness of being a teenager and young adult and not knowing what the hell to do out in the actual world.  This album almost seemed to explode.  “Longview” hit the radio first, in February and before the semester was over and people were headed home for the summer everyone in the dorm seemed to know that, “Basket Case”, “Welcome to Paradise” and “When I Come Around” even though “Longview” was still the only song getting significant airplay on the radio.  But the album showed that the band could make strong social statements, relate to its audience and show a considerable sense of humor as well.  For years, it looked like Green Day had blown their wad on this album (an apt metaphor for it) because while they could so still the occasional great song (“Good Riddance”, “Minority”), it would be a decade before they came back and reminded everyone that they could do a truly amazing album and they basically haven’t looked back since.  Dookie and its 10 million copies sold (just in the U.S.) set the stage but it would be American Idiot (which, being in the 00’s, won’t get a full write-up) is the album that really clinched them being first ballot Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers.

#11  –  Violator  (Depeche Mode, 1990)

The third of the 1990 albums that were career bests for the artists involved.  Could this album be more different than the one that precedes it on the list?  That album had 15 tracks and ran less than 40 minutes.  This one has 9 tracks and runs almost 47 minutes.  That one had no song longer than 3:59 and this one has none shorter than 4:26.  That one was the major label debut of a new band of guys barely out of their teens.  This one is the follow-up to an album with a tour so massive that it spawned a double live album and has members all approaching 30.  The band in the preceding album are Berkeley guys who thrive on the old fashioned punk rock sound of a guitar, bass and drums.  This quartet of more fashionable Brits from Essex is electronic.  In both cases, though, the bands produce an amazingly consistent sound with songs filled with personal concepts mixed with social messages.  In both cases, the album sucks me in and drives me forward.  This album is driven, of course, by Depeche Mode’s best songs, “Enjoy the Silence” and “Personal Jesus” as well as great singles such as “World in My Eyes” and “Policy of Truth”.  This would be a darker album than the ones before and with deeper musicianship that would eventually turn the band towards playing actual instruments.  Indeed, the layering of sounds on “Enjoy the Silence” would help inspire the way the band would sound in the decade to come.  Depeche Mode would never again have an album this good but in their merging of electronica with mope rock, they provided the best they could do here.

#10  –  Flood  (They Might Be Giants, 1990)

The last of the 1990 albums that were career bests for the artists involved, but in this case, of course, I doubt there is anyone who would argue otherwise.  Certainly it is their best seller (their only platinum album) and it is generally considered their best by both critics and by fans of the group.  I know exactly when I first heard this album and, indeed, the first time I ever heard the band: the first week of June in 1990 when my friend Kati turned 15 and someone gave her the album for her birthday.  The song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” stuck with me so much that two years later, when I finally heard them again, I instantly knew who it was.  That first time, the album had seemed too silly and so I didn’t go for it.  When I heard it again at Brandeis, I was more receptive, especially as I heard it in conjunction with their next album Apollo 18.  I suddenly began to appreciate the group, an appreciation that would grow the next year when I met a huge fan at Pacific who introduced me to their first two albums and the song “She’s an Angel” won me over so much that I wrote it into the novel that will eventually hope end up on the blog.  I would eventually realize what a brilliant album this is, moving an forth between extremely silly songs and songs whose silliness masks a deeper meaning.  Like Green Day, the songs never last long (only three songs break three minutes and none break 3:30) but they stick with you and you’ll find yourself humming “Particle Man” or singing “Women and Men” or muttering phrases like “I will never say the word procrastinate again” (I had a sign of that phrase on my dorm door in 1993 with a line below it saying “Bwa ha ha ha ha!” – Erik and George).  Has there ever been an album that was at once this funny and this good?

#9  –  Nevermind  (Nirvana, 1991)

I saw it as a Buzz Clip.  MTV used to have something called Buzz Clips, when they would play a song that they wanted to push, cutting edge, alternative (usually) songs that they thought deserved airplay and they would debut as Buzz Clips.  That’s how I first saw a video for a song called “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song with a kick ass guitar riff and an awesome video.  I didn’t know then how great the entire album would be or how much the song would become an anthem and would kick off a movement.  Ironically, I almost feel less like I need to write about the greatness of this album, which you can find just about anywhere, called the best album of the decade by both Rolling Stone and Time, the 6th best by Pitchfork and ranked in the Top 10 all-time by Entertainment Weekly and would sell over 10 million copies in the U.S. alone and instead focus on why it’s ranked down here at 9th place behind not one, but two different Pearl Jam albums.  But I’ve always felt that way.  I always felt that Eddie Vedder’s lyrics were deeper and had more to say that Cobain’s and that while Nirvana is a fantastic grunge band, that Pearl Jam had a more mature, interesting sound.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a brilliant album and it’s proof that Dave Grohl should be chained behind a drumkit because he is one of the best drummers in the history of rock music and as a singer-guitarist-songwriter he’s a magnificent drummer.  I guess I’ll just say that of my Top 15 albums this is the one, by far, that I’ve listened to, start to finish the least.

#8  –  Vs.  (Pearl Jam, 1993)

School had started again and I was waiting.  In Utero had been released and though it would eventually turn out to be really good, it was also hard to listen to, especially since none of the songs were radio friendly.  The new Pearl Jam album was supposed to be coming out and I had, over the previous month, gotten more into Ten than ever.  And then it hit.  Radio stations got the album and I was driving one night and on came the dj of Portland’s alternative station who said that he had a chance to listen a little bit to the album and he wanted to play what he thought was one of the best tracks.  On came “Rearviewmirror” and I knew, I just knew that everything was okay.  This album was going to be just fine.  By the time the album was available in stores, all the stations had basically decided that “Daughter” was the song to play and it became the big radio hit.  It was nice because those two songs alone showed the depth of the album – the sheer rocking drive of the former and the beautiful slow melody of the latter, both dealing with interpersonal relationships.  When the album got released and I got it home, listening to “Go”, I knew the album would be a great balance, just like Ten had been.  The songs were shorter (an average of less than four minutes as opposed to almost five minutes per song) and the album lacked an amazing first side like Ten had with those first six songs but it was such a great coherent collection of songs that I wasn’t about to complain.  There are still a lot of days when I prefer listening to Vs. over Ten if for no other reason than the improved drumming.

#7  –  Our Time in Eden  (10,000 Maniacs, 1992)

I knew the Maniacs vaguely in the early 90’s because of radio airplay for “What’s the Matter Here” but until their Unplugged album came out, I mainly thought of them as Chelsea’s favorite band (although that gives her better taste than her dad).  After “Because the Night” got released, I bought the Unplugged album and was intrigued enough that I started listening to their other albums.  Eventually it became clear that a lot of the most intriguing songs had come from their latest album.  Then I finally listened to the whole thing, in around about 1995 or so.  I haven’t stopped listening to it.  In their early albums, 10,000 Maniacs sounded like what would happen if you took a lighter R.E.M. sound and merged it with a female vocalist but on this album, they find the balance between story songs like “Gold Rush Brides” and “Jezebel”, more poppy radio-friendly songs like “Few and Far Between” and “Candy Everybody Wants”, beautiful haunting songs like “Noah’s Dove” and “How You’ve Grown” and pure rock songs like “Stockton Gala Days” and, of course, the best songs they would ever record, “These are Days”.  There is a sound that I can’t describe that seems to run through all the songs that make it not only the best collection of songs they were to record in their career but a coherent album with a distinctive sound.  Sadly, like with The Police, after giving it their all on their best album, that would be it for them and though later the band would try to stumble on without Natalie Merchant, it was only a ghost of what they had done here.

#6  –  Little Earthquakes  (Tori Amos, 1992)

Tori Amos had tried the group effort.  But for her second album, she went back to what she was best at, sitting at the piano and singing songs that drew from her own experiences.  What emerged was a revelation.  What can I say about it?  I can say that my friend Chris Dillon gave me a mix tape with “Winter” on it and that made me seek out the rest of the album.  I could say that this album has the “best worst” song of any album in this decade (in that “China”, which is to me the weakest song on the album, is still better than the worst song on any other album) and in spite of that, the album had so much amazing material that there were four b-sides released on the singles for this album that are actually better than multiple songs on the album (“Sweet Dreams”, “Take to the Sky”, “Upside Down”, “Sugar”).  Who would have expected such a piano driven album to have such a strong vibe of sexuality in songs like “Precious Things”, “Crucify” and “Leather” yet they also speak to the dark things in life in songs like “Silent All These Years” and “Me and a Gun”.  I haven’t spoken much about what’s in the individual songs because so many of the songs on this album make my Top 250 list.  If there is one flaw in this album to me I can say that I discovered it by accident.  In the fall of 1997 I was listening to the album and I was accidentally listening to it on random and my computer resequenced the tracks and I realized that the album really should move the final three tracks (it put “Little Earthquakes” as track two which worked brilliantly) and the final two tracks should be “Me and a Gun”, with its bleakness, followed by the high end note of the brilliant piano on “Tear in Your Hand”.  In fact, every since then, “Tear in Your Hand” has been a constant closing song for mix tapes and cd’s because it’s such a brilliant song to close with.

#5  –  Out of Time  (R.E.M., 1991)

I came to R.E.M. a bit by accident.  I saw “Stand” on some video countdown some time in late 89 or early 90.  That followed with me learning about “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”.  Then I bought Green and became obsessed with “You are the Everything”.  All of this was coming to a peak in the Spring of 1991 when Out of Time was released and I was oh, so ready for it.  That it sounded unlike anything R.E.M. had done before, with elements of hip-hop (“Radio Song”), with songs where Michael doesn’t even sing but just speaks (“Belong”, “Country Feedback”), with an instrumental (“Endgame”), with songs that included mandolin (“Losing My Religion”) or B-52’s (“Shiny Happy People”, “Near Wild Heaven”, “Me in Honey”).  But among it all was one of the greatest songs ever (“Losing My Religion”) and one of the band’s most beautiful songs (“Half a World Away”, which instantly became the song that let you know if someone knew the album because it was a favorite of anyone who had heard it).  This was the first time I had ever bought a great album the day it came out, the first time I was out in front of knowing an album was great.  And how did the band reward me?  By not touring for the next four fucking years.  It didn’t matter because they had given me this gift and yet another gift down below.  I will say this one more thing about it – when I started actually getting rid of my old tapes (the store bought ones that had been replaced on cd), I never got rid of this one.  I still have it, with that first side (Time) and the second side (Memory), just like I’ve had it since 12 March, 1991.

#4  –  Achtung Baby  (U2, 1991)

It’s the sound of chopping down The Joshua Tree.  That was how Bono described Achtung Baby, from that opening riff of “Zoo Station” to the bizarre electronic distortion of “The Fly”, the first single off the album.  It was meant, in some ways at least, to help sell the record.  It was also meant somewhat seriously.  Yes, The Joshua Tree had been widely acclaimed as one of the greatest albums ever made, but did that mean that U2 then had to keep doing the same thing?  No.  They were free to reinvent themselves time and time again.  So, after an album that evoked the desert, both in its lyrics and in the sound of the songs themselves, they went to Berlin and immersed themselves in electronica.  Instead of baring their political souls, they turned to something more personal but also more cynical, looking at the way the world greets its icons.  So, yes, you could get a radio friendly song like “Mysterious Ways” but you could also get songs that are meant to be discovered by those who listen to the album, songs like “So Cruel” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”.  A song like “One” could be intensely personal and still political and universal at the same time.  Just because there was a driving beat and a harsh rhythm to songs like “Until the End of the World” didn’t mean that there wasn’t room for moving melodies in songs like “Ultra Violet”.  What emerged from Berlin was a new U2, one that was ready to give the world a spectacle to go along with its songs.  It was that rare thing – an album that was a massive commercial and critical hit and yet still so very different than what they had done before.

#3  –  Ten  (Pearl Jam, 1991)

The greatest debut album of all-time?  In my opinion, yes.  The only two that really come close are The Velvet Underground and Nico and Horses.  The Velvet Underground had been playing together for a couple of years before recording the album and Patti Smith was already a published poet who found a way to marry that to the nascent punk rock movement.  Pearl Jam, if you listen to their demos (which are readily available all over the place) was clearly a band that was waiting to germinate.  You had the combination of Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, first in Green River, then in Mother Love Bone.  There was Mike McCready, who joined them and they recorded the famous demos tape that made its way into the hands of a San Diego surfer named Eddie Vedder who added lyrics and sent the tape back to them.  That was the magic touch that was needed.  They already had the brilliant music in songs like “Alive” and “Black” but when added to lyrics like “You’re still alive / But do I deserve to be” and “I know someday she’ll have a beautiful life / I know she’ll be the sun in somebody else’s sky but why, why, why can’t it be mine” all they needed was a recording studio to put everything together.  It was clear from the album that this was part of a new musical movement.  This wasn’t punk (you sure as hell can’t be punk when the shortest song on your album is 3:20) and it was harder edged than most rock but wasn’t real hard rock like Guns N Roses.  This was grunge and it was grunge a month before Nevermind exploded and it’s worth noting that this album has sold almost three million more copies than Nevermind.  It is not a perfect album because the drumming could be better (my best friend John wants the whole album to be re-recorded with Matt Cameron as the drummer) and because the first side of it is so overwhelmingly brilliant (quite probably the best side of an album ever) that the second side can’t really hope to compete.  But when you get through the whole thing and there’s that little hidden bit at the end that brings you back to the beginning of “Once”, well, it makes you want to just flip it back over and start it all again.

#2  –  Levelling the Land  (Levellers, 1991)

The album that no one else would expect to be on here, unless of course you know me personally and have listened to it a gazillion times.  When I was a student at Brandeis I had a friend named Dave who was really into the Levellers, a post-punk band that was fairly well known in Britain (this album would go to #14 on the British charts) but that was almost completely unknown in the U.S..  Listening to the album, I was blown away.  This was exactly what I wanted in a band without even knowing it.  They were a perfect successor to the Clash (most especially in the brilliant line “The noise we thought would never stop died a death as the punks grew up”) and in later years they would even cover a clash song (“English Civil War”) and get Clash founder Joe Strummer to work with them.  But what really struck me wasn’t just their social consciousness (with songs like “Battle of the Beanfield” of “Sell Out” or “Another Man’s Cause”) but the way they had incorporated a fiddle into the post-punk sound.  It’s that fiddle that really adds a different kind of sound into this album (and all of their albums) and takes brilliant songs like “One Way” or “The Game” or “Fifteen Years” and kicks them up another notch (which is why their newsletter is called On the Fiddle).  Ironically, the album I’ve owned for over 25 years now and listened to hundreds of times isn’t even really the proper album.  “Fifteen Years” was originally a later e.p. (which I own) and the song was such a hit that it was added to later pressings of the album, as the third track according to Wikipedia (and on the 15th anniversary remastered version of the album that I also own) but originally, in the U.S. at least, it was added on as the last track and that’s key because it’s always seemed like a great album closer to me and that’s how I’ve mostly listened to it for years and years.  Any way you listen to the tracks, they form a coherent statement about Britain at the end of the Maggie era.  It’s a truly great album that inspired a love in me for this band that has forced me, countless times, to order their music from the U.K. when I couldn’t find it in the States (I’ve had three different people at various times bring me back Levellers albums from the U.K.).

#1  –  Automatic for the People  (R.E.M. 1992)

At midnight on October 5, 1992, I was standing in line at Tower Records in Harvard Square which is now Cardullo’s, the British food shop (and since they never seem to carry Jammy Dodgers or Jaffa Cakes, then what the hell is the point of a British food shop?) so that I could buy Automatic for the People the minute it was available.  It’s interesting that this list covers the scope of the decade but the top two albums on the list were both bought within weeks of each other (possibly within days).  I headed back to Brandeis and started to listen to it.  It took at least a day before I listened to the whole thing because I would get through the soft, perfect “Drive”, the up-beat (an almost perfect track two and used as the second song on many a mix tape) “Try Not to Breathe” and the fun, rocking “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and then I would rewind the tape and start over.  It would be a bit before I would get to the “Ride” side of the album with their hardest rocking song since Green (“Ignoreland”) and the final, beautiful three song sequence that completes the album “Nightswimming” (almost universally accepted as the best song on the album by everyone who bought it – you could tell the people who had the whole album because they talked about this song), “Man on the Moon” (the favorite song of those who didn’t buy the album and the only song Michael Stipe could sing without a lyric sheet) and “Find the River”.  “Find the River” was a perfect compliment to “Sweetness Follows”, the beautiful song that had finished the first side just like the softer melody of “Monty Got a Raw Deal” echoed “Drive” as the opening track of the second side.  When the album first came out, there was no question it was brilliant.  The question was whether it was actually better than Out of Time, which had just come out a year and a half before.  There didn’t seem to be a song that quite reached the heights of “Losing My Religion” but the more you listened to it and fell under its spell, it was clear that this was an album for all-time.

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