20. THE BEASTIE BOYS- CHECK YOUR HEAD (1992)
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The Beastie’s took another left turn with their third album- a blend of rap, spaced out jazzy jams and the straight up hardcore of their early 80’s New York City roots. As a result “Check Your Head” sounded like nothing before it and foreshadowed the great blending of music in the new millennium to come. After the slept on, but later massively influential “Paul’s Boutique” in 1989, “Head” was the Beastie’s return to commercial success and solidified them as a cultural force for the entirety of the 90’s.
19. DIGABLE PLANETS- REACHIN’ (A NEW REFUTATION OF TIME AND SPACE) (1993)
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My vote for the most underrated and underappreciated album of the 90’s. Digable is unfairly dismissed as a one hit wonder after “Cool Like Dat” rode the short lived jazz rap wave to the top 20 in 1993. It’s a great song, for sure, but not even one of the three or four best songs on the album. Digable (made up on Doodlebug, Ladybug & Butterfly) brought a unique image and sound to alternative rap. “Reachin’” is full of chilled out jazz samples, and a free flowing hipster jazz influenced delivery and socially conscious lyrics. Their description of a day in New York City in “Pacifics” (NEW YORK IS RED HOT!!) gets me excited to hang in NYC like no other song.
18. R.E.M.- AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (1992)
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After its most commercially successful album to date (Out of Time) a year earlier R.E.M. moved in a darker, more acoustic direction with their music, creating their last full blown masterpiece to date. The majority of the songs on the album seem to be about death, loss & despair with only “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight” brightening the mood, but there is a deep beauty to the album and the songs flow together impeccably. The album ironically (for such a dark album) is 5 singles deep- including “Everybody Hurts”- one of the epic videos of all time & “Man on the Moon” which inspired the movie title for the biopic on Andy Kaufman, a hero of singer Michael Stipe.
17. LUCINDA WILLIAMS- CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD (1998)
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“Car Wheels” is Lucinda’s breakthrough album in that no one outside of music critics and alt country nerds knew who she was before its release. She still may not be a platinum seller but “Car Wheels” grew her fan base substantially. She even landed a performance on Saturday Night Live which is precisely when I became a fan. “Car Wheels” is also likely her best album- six years in the making after the commercial failure, yet damn great “Sweet Old World” in 1992. She focuses her writing on her rootless upbringing & longing, lust & loss she has experienced in the Deep South throughout her life. She has such a brilliant eye for the smallest of details and you can hear the heartache in her voice in every syllable she utters.
Buy “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
16. THE DISMEMBERMENT PLAN- EMERGENCY AND I (1999)
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This D.C. band’s third and best album. I slept on The Plan, even though they played basement parties at my college and included fellow MWC alumnus and brilliant bassist Eric Axelson- not seeing the light until I turned 30. The Plan combines “good!” emo- think Rites of Spring & Sunny Day Real Estate (not the later stuff) with post hardcore and a twitchy danceable beat influenced by the Talking Heads. The band blends their main influences with touches of New Wave, Soul & even Rap as well. “Emergency and I” though still only a cult classic, was a perfect signifier for the decade to come when an increasing number of bands would break out of their genres and allow for more freedom and variety in their overall sound.
Buy “What Do You Want Me to Say?”
15. LAURYN HILL- THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (1998)
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Lauryn, 1/3 of the mega successful Newark, NJ rap group The Fugees is a quadruple threat- writer, singer, rapper & producer. With “Miseducation”, she proved to be THE most talented member of her former group by frankly bettering the 6X platinum “The Score” and all of her former members solo records in every way. Her rap flow is impeccable, the album’s beats are jammin’, her lyrics are intelligent and socially conscious & her singing is beautiful. If I have one complaint it’s that the album runs a bit too long but it is certainly one of the best rap releases and overall albums of the decade.
14. TRICKY- MAXINQUAYE (1995)
Tricky, a veteran of trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack, saved trip-hop from becoming nothing more than middle of the road cocktail music for yuppies with this stunning debut- an album of challenging, experimental noise along with lyrics filled with angst & paranoia. Tricky’s next album would even be titled “Pre-Millenium Tension”. He’s not joking around! “Maxinquaye” also features a cover of spiritual cousin’s Public Enemy’s “Black Steel” sung rapped by a female – Martine. It’s not to be missed.
13. THE FLAMING LIPS- THE SOFT BULLETIN (1999)
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“The Soft Bulletin” was a brilliant right turn by the Lips after a decade of wackiness from Okalahoma’s finest experimental psychedelic rock crazies. This was the Lips most accessible album to date and by a large margin. They dialed down the shriek & sprawl of their past released and created a symphonic pop masterpiece filled with beautiful melodies and harmonies and songs about humanity- focusing on life and death itself both from personal and from societal perspectives. Although their sound changed rather drastically “The Soft Bulletin” is still unmistakably the Lips.
Buy “Race for the Prize”
12. MY BLOODY VALENTINE- LOVELESS (1991)
A groundbreaking noise-pop classic brought to you by notable perfectionist and recluse Kevin Shields. “Loveless” was the culmination of the shoegaze movement that MBV helped spawn with the1988’s album “Isn’t Anything”. “Loveless” is a game changing release that many bands tried to copy but none was ever able to replicate. The music seems to suggest a sex & drug haze with many layers of psychedelia and light airy and sometimes barely audible female vocals. The songs range from lush & ethereal to violent & noisy but always remain beautiful and completely unique. Shields has yet to record a follow up album as My Bloody Valentine justifiably feeling that he could never better it.
11. DJ SHADOW- ENTRODUCING (1996)
Josh Davis (AKA DJ Shadow) is a white crate-digging suburban California hipster who had made his name in the underground rap & techno scenes with a series of brilliant singles. His debut album, the aptly titled “Entroducing” is a mostly instrumental album made up entirely of samples, largely from old, forgotten vinyl only releases- most of which were never part of the public consciousness. Whereas earlier sample classics like “Paul’s Boutique” by The Beasties or “3 Feet High and Rising” by De La Soul used familiar samples from unlikely genres of music, don’t even bother trying to spot the samples on “Entroducing”. Often it is even hard to tell which genre he is sampling from. The overall album has a very chilled out, dream like vibe- the listener can get absolutely lost inside of it.
Buy “Midnight In A Perfect World”
Buy “Building Steam With A Grain of Salt”