Number 10. – In Utero – Nirvana
While Nevermind was poppy and filled with self-joy, In Utero is a total opposite where everything is dry, serious, and so much more hardcore. When Nevermind was released to such enormous success, Kurt went into a downward spiral. He wanted all of the benefits of fame without being famous, and he felt such pressure on him that his private life was even screwed up. So what is exactly on the album? A ton of abrasive feedback and other LOUD sounds, buried underneath of which are songs. Songs that come straight from Kurt’s soul, sung with more passion and emotion than ever before from the soon to be departed ‘voice of a generation’. We will never know what the follow-up to this record would’ve sounded like, if there even was going to be one. But one thing is for sure. Their final studio recording will be a collection of songs that will be treasured the same way most treasure albums like Led Zeppelin IV and Abbey Road. It’s unfortunate that what happened with Cobain happened, but one thing is for sure, they left in a blaze of glory, burning out, instead of fading away.
Number 9. – Individual Thought Patterns – Death
Death’s previous album Human had proved to Chuck that he simply didn’t need a full time line-up to fulfil his aspirations. Hiring some of the best musicians in metal, he created one of the true death metal masterpieces, with none of the personality conflicts and technical limitations that had caused him so much grief in the past. The production on this album reminds me a lot of Metallica’s …And Justice For All. Being surrounded by such intensely capable musicians also challenged Chuck to improve his own guitar skills and there’s no doubt that he was getting better and better with each Death album. One of the many great things about Individual Thought Patterns is enjoying the leads of both Chuck and Andy. It’s easy to distinguish between their two styles and while Chuck performs the majority of leads on the album more than admirably, it’s apparent that Andy is the more technical of the two. Once again there are no tracks going over the five minute mark, yet none seem rushed or over too soon. The band squeezed every drop out of each composition so nothing ever drags and they make constant changes in speed without losing the character or recognition that make tracks memorable. There’s a consistent quality from start to finish but if I had to pick highlights I’d go for Overactive Imagination, Trapped in a Corner, Jealousy, the title track and closer The Philosopher. It’s not even my favourite Death album, but it’s still miles ahead of the competition. While I feel Human, though an excellent album, represented Death’s tentative steps into the realm of prog/tech death metal, and as such wasn’t fully formed, here on Individual Thought Patterns, they’ve nailed it! And it’s not Death’s best album; they’re still improving their musicianship as they near the end of their discography, and I can’t say the same with any metal band out there.
Number 8. – Undertow – Tool
Tool’s first studio LP may not have the complexities of their albums to follow, but really how many albums do? And still to think a record this great was a debut is an incredible achievement, and even then they sounded like no else, having their own special head-turning sound in the 1990s. This may have been at a time where they were both at their most enigmatic and angry, and while in some respects this is their most popular album, with songs like “Prison Sex” and “Sober”, (which even as a hardcore lifelong Tool fan, those songs still are fantastic) it’s somehow looked down on, because why? It wasn’t as good as Lateralus? That certainly doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad by any means. Everything from the wonderfully constructed track, “Bottom” featuring Henry Rollins, to the devastating-epic of “Flood”, and the beautifully melodic “Crawl Away”, Undertow is simply a masterpiece and holds up just as well as the classic Tool albums, just in a different way. One of the best alternative-metal ever.
Number 7. – Houdini – Melvins
One of the most criminally overlooked bands ever, the Melvins have been making quality music since the grunge movement was in its infancy. During the Melvins’s days when grunge was at its peak, they were at their most creative. After their spacy, long albumLysol, Melvins went back to the wild songwriting inHoudini. Just a massive dose of heaviness. The first two songs are a real kick in the face, and “Honey Bucket” is like getting run over repeatedly by a car (but in the “good” way). I’ve just about played those tracks to death and still love ‘em, but “Joan of Arc” has become my dark horse favorite. Everything here is great (even “Spread Eagle Beagle,” sometimes), and I still love that look of confusion that people give their CD players when “Pearl Bomb” comes on. I admire how these guys seamlessly combine and defy multiple punk and metal genres, and they have a real wicked sense of humor too. Don’t even get me started on King Buzzo’s cryptic lyrics. Thanks to Mr. Cobain’s string-pulling, the Melvins have found themselves with a Major Label Budget and put it to good use in making their songs sound even clearer and more thunderous than ever before. Everything the Melvins released on the superb Boner label rules (except for Joe Preston, though perhaps I’m bitter that the circumstances didn’t allow for it to be Lori Black instead), but this is one of those examples where major label-funded production and lack of interference allow a band to make their most uncompromising album yet. There were a few underground groups that snuck through and made remarkable albums for the big guys around 1992-96 (back when seemingly everything and anything could be released), but Houdini is one of the best of them all.
Number 6. – Exile to Guyville – Liz Phair
What makes Liz Phair’s debut here one of the best albums I’ve listened to is that is comes so close to being the worst album I’ve ever listened too; her voice is deadpan and sometimes off-key, the guitars sound out of tune, the songs are unusually structured with a jilted feeling that the chorus (if there is one) coming too early and too late in the piece, and the track listing is put together with a reckless abandon. Sounds like a mess doesn’t it? And yet there is this essential element that makes it all work. I think it’s her personality that shines through in each and every track; a woman that is experiencing a life of independence and sexual freedom after a series of stifling relationships, and the associated ups, downs, lows and highs. This panoramic outlook on a very haphazard era of a 20 something’s coming of age almost demands and equally haphazard musical backing in order for the sentiments to work the way they do. Phair proved this on her next album ‘Whip Smart’, which was technically a better constructed album on so many musical levels, but left with far less of an emotional impact. Exile In Guyville is angry, bitter, confrontational, personal, thoughtful, intelligent, intimate, provocative, full of frustration, raw, it’s sometimes dark, other times it’s beautiful and poignant. But it’s always brilliant. Liz Phair set the bar high with this one, so it’s unsurprising she never went on to release anything nearly as good as Exile in Guyville.
Number 5. – Chrome – Catherine Wheel
Shoegaze Music, as I have come to realize, is something entirely ambiguous. Catherine Wheel has solidified this for me. Catherine Wheel’s second album captures them at a perfect moment in time: the moment they left behind any shoe gazing comparisons, but before they became a bloated, direction-less mess limping to a halt by the end of the 1990s. Chrome is faultless, throughout, and there are certainly not many records I could say that about with total conviction. Chrome is powerful and intense in its delivery, yet the sound is heavenly, enigmatic and pure. It is a rock record that in some ways sounds like no other; somehow feminine and svelte, yet intense, loud and frighteningly brutal. Opposites collide in a glorious explosion of pop noise as the listener finds singer Rob Dickinson at the very peak of his emotional powers as a performer and songwriter. Caught within these glacial walls of noise are melodies which languish in a kind of heart broken nostalgia; the haunted verses of “Crank”, the mournful powerhouse resignation of “Pain”, the sense of longing that drifts through “Strange Fruit”, the reverberating catharsis of the title track, the blissed out romanticism of “The Nude”. Make no mistake, here lies a most exquisite sphere of dark, beautiful rock music. And as you drift within this delicate yet violent dreamscape, ponder this: where on earth did Catherine Wheel lose this perfect, measured magic?
Number 4. – Souvlaki – Slowdive
Slowdive’s Souvlaki stands on it’s own. It needs not to be compared to other music that is not Slowdive as it stands on it’s own has not been matched by any of their contemporaries (if they had any) or any of the bands they influenced. The atmosphere is calm again suddenly. Some kind of otherworldly rainforest, walking on the forest floor whilst looking up at the layers. Dripping water and now dusk is setting in. Rachel Goswell’s amazing voice enters the fold. She possesses that ghostly, breathy voice displayed on Ballad of Sister Sue. I find it truly amazing the contrast between the haunting voice that whispers a sweet death and the angelic, higher register she possesses and on this particular track we are treated to both in unison. Souvlaki is the ultimate mood album. It’s probably the dreamiest record I own, Yes, more than even Loveless, and in my mind it’s just a little bit weaker. It’s precisely that level of dreaminess that makes it such a hypnotic, magnetic album. There are moments here when it’s beautiful, moments where it’s creepy, and there are moments where it’s really depressing, but there is never a moment where it’s any less than great. The vocals, the shimmering guitars, the undeniable atmosphere of the album… all of it adds up to a complete masterpiece that deserves better.
Number 3. – Focus – Cynic
The base of Cynic is in a highly technical breed of thrashy death metal with an emphasis on melody and texture provided by keyboards and other nontraditional metal instruments such as the Chapman stick. Vocals come in three distinct flavors: snarling male growls not entirely unlike what one would hear on a dusty copy of ‘Seven Churches’, sporadic operatic female clean vocals, and synthesized male vocals with a ‘robotic’ tone. The most logical adjective to use is, of course, ‘progressive’, as Cynic never ceases to change the direction or tone of their music. This album rarely settles down, with consistently shifting textures that trade off and overlap in what can only be described as organic manner. Frequently a technique will be employed where instrumentalists will slip one by one into the next movement until they have all collected before performing such a maneuver again, making this an oddly flowing listening experience. ‘Focus’, while not aesthetically for everyone, is an undeniably seminal work in the dimension of metal and progressive music. While only a certain segment might enjoy what is presented on this album, what is presented is an utterly necessary compendium of sounds that must be appreciated for what they allowed to be created more than what they are in and of themselves.
Number 2. – Jar of Flies – Alice in Chains
Rarely are EPs as important to the understanding of a band than in the case of Alice in Chains. Though their albums were dark and depressing hard rock albums, their two EPs were more stripped down affairs and slightly brighter. I wish they had done a full album of this sort of material, but between this and Sap there’s at least an album’s worth. Of the two, Jar of Flies is surely the better. It’s a bit more focused with better and more varied songs that make for an overall sublime listening experience. It’s not entirely acoustic, but even when the guitars are electric it’s far from the hard rock of Dirt. The best song of the bunch is I Stay Away, with its surprising orchestrations, and powerful performances, but that’s no small feat, with the album also featuring songs like the serene Whale and Wasp, full of layers of guitar and orchestrations. Rotten Apple is the closest to their trademark sound, and it’s also great. There’s not only a variety of styles shown here, but also a variety of emotions. Nutshell is about as sad and dark as music can get, but two songs later we have the totally upbeat and life embracing No Excuses. There’s also a couple of more bluesy songs at the end, which they pull off well. Don’t Follow is a more downbeat acoustic number, but it features great harmonizing vocals, and Cantrell shows surprising skill on the harmonica. Swing on This closes the album with electric blues, and it’s a bit of an anti-climactic end, but still rather good. The only bad thing I can say about the album is that it’s so short, but these are all amongst my favorite songs. Even despite the short length, it’s one of my favorite releases of the 90s, and it’d be well worth looking into.
Number 1. – Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins
Sometimes, when songwriting,drama and life come together appropriately, something magnificent can happen. One case of that is Siamese Dream. Siamese Dream is just so heavenly flawless that it makes it hard to express how great the record really is. Honestly, I am at a complete lost for words when trying to illustrate the importance of this album. It’s one I find to be the most rewarding and transcedent pieces of music ever imaginable. Siamese Dream clearly marked the separation between Smashing Pumpkins music and the Seattle’s grunge scene. While continuing their distinct guitar tone and hard rock roots, Billy Corgan added his sensitive view, creating at times an intrigue atmosphere of subtle psychological depth. Much of its uniqueness is owed also to his charismatic voice, raging from ethereal sweetness to blistering rage always in a very sincere and felt approach It could be me discovering it at such an early age and labeling it as one of the most profound experiences of my young life, but I don’t think so, because I consider this music to be timeless and no matter what age or generation that comes along can argue the fact that the Pumpkins created one of the greatest albums ever concocted. Filled to the brim with a stupendous set of songs like no other of it’s time. It’s really out of this world. Start’s off with one of the greatest album openers ever “Cherub Rock” and who cany deny that “Today” and “Disarm” are damn near perfection. “Rocket” is a fun little track and “Geek USA” is a hell of a heavy song to boost the album. My favorite has to be the enchanted “Mayonaise,” I don’t think anybody can argue the fact that that’s one of the Pumpkins finest. I could say that about every song on here, it is really that good. Shame the Pumpkins were never able to recapture this magic again, but I am perfectly content with this one. I can not recommend this enough. One of my favorite albums of all-time and it landmarked itself for being the best album of the 1990s!
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