Number 10. – Liquid Swords – GZA
In the 90’s the Wu-Tang Clan was the biggest thing going on in the hip hop world. These guys were everywhere. They rushed onto the scene as a crew, but after that they played a game of divide and conquer as everybody got busy with their solo albums. In 1995 GZA was ready to bless the world with Liquid Swords, which was actually his second solo album, but his first as a member of the Wu. Compared to the hip hop that gets played on television or the radio, this sounds absolutely nothing like it at all. Liquid Swords is so unique and different, that it transcends hip hop. This record opened my eyes (or ears) to what a hip hop record can sound like and this shows you can achieve when you work outside its boundaries. Not only is this is a great achievement in hip hop, but also in music in general. There is a beautiful display of great lyricism from GZA. Even the mellow delivery of his rhymes are really a great touch and perfectly suits the music. Also, got to love the guest appearances from the other members of the Wu. But what I love about this record is the fantastic production from RZA. This is a very low key, and sparse sounding album. Even though a lot of the songs are sparse sounding, it’s somehow still has a really strong ominous atmosphere and it really keeps building up as the songs progress. The thing I love about Liquid Swords is that I feel truly immersed in the music from start to finish just like any other classic album. It is atmospheric, but in the most subtle way and any record that is able to do that is genius to me. If you have never listened to hip hop record and already have a preconceived notion of what hip hop sounds like, think again. Liquid Swords will definitely surprise you and make you regret not delving into the genre before.
Number 9. – Clouds Taste Metallic –
The Flaming Lips
A fantastic achievement! Shiny and jolly on the outside but has a sad and frightening core within. And the sound of the album is so clear and powerful. This is demonstrated right from Track 1: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship”. It starts with a simple piano figure playing under some quiet vocals about how it feels to have finished the album. Then after you think the song is over there is a ringing guitar playing the same figure as the piano had been and it sounds so loud and then without warning the drums thunder in and THEN the bass guitar and the sheer loudness of it knocks you back in your seat and then there’s feedback and bells and the whole thing is just a glorious riot of sound and you realise that you are in for a sonic treat. The Flaming Lips are now fully playing the studio like an instrument and every one of these thirteen songs is polished to perfection. But even better than the production is the songwriting. Jammed full of hooks and off-kilter pop smarts, every song is different and there are no weak tracks. Not only that but the songs get better and better, in the second half of the album the band enters the zone and each song tops the last as they sock it to you and bounce your emotions around while you just try to hang on and take it all in. This album epitomizes the best of The Flaming Lips: Bright cheerfulness and escapism as a front for uncertainty and depression.
Number 8. – Jagged Little Pill –
This album is one of those unusual cases of a young girl doing throwaway teen Pop and then maturing into something quite different. 90’s Radio Rock is the best way to describe it, except Morissette’s glorious vocals and the excellent instrumental backing give these songs a much needed boost. veryone’s heard the huge hits Ironic, You Oughta Know and Hand in my Pocket, and they should because they’re decade defining songs! That time has been unjust it seems to Jagged Little Pill. For all the crap that Alanis made before and after this, somehow, someway – for one brief period in her life she managed to sing her little heart out over some solid song construction, solid songwriting, good production, and performance. Jagged Little Pill came out of nowhere in 1995 and most of us were like, “who is this chick!?” Enormous attitude in her vocals, big emotion, honesty, integrity…at times super feminine & others the leading rocker chick singer of her age. The lyrics aren’t profound & the instruments are firmly background. But somehow all the pieces come together to form a great alternative sound, and just rock & roll enough. Its hard to say what is so special about it, there are no real great hooks or riffs just a really nice collection of songs by a very unique woman at the time. It’s very good Pop/Rock album, and one of the most important of the 90’s especially for women in Rock circles. Alanis showed that woman could be successful in that Rock game without being sex kitten or depending on men’s musical ideas. Kudos for Alanis!
Number 7. – The Bends – Radiohead
It’s amazing to think about, really. The step up from Pablo Honey to The Bends is just incredible. In just two years, Radiohead went from being just a run of the mill, generic, throwaway alternative rock band to being one of the best bands on the planet. I always thought of this as being quite a run of the mill alternative rock album in the mold of their debut, but after getting it off the shelf for the first time in a long time to give it a listen, it’s anything but run of the mill. I think it’s easy to look at this and compare it to something like Kid Awhich is full of experimentation, innovative sounds, atmosphere, soundscapes and when you look at them side by side, The Bends may look more basic and primitive. Not that there’s anything wrong with basic, but I love listening to Radiohead because of the boundaries they pushed. If Radiohead had stopped making music at The Bends, it’d get a whole lot more love and respect than it does. It really did bridge the gap between a very dull by the book sound to a sound that’d end up revitalising and redefining the genre as well as the decade, there’s early traces of them beginning to push themselves as well as the boundaries and you can see their experimental side on here. The shift in aesthetic is really quite apparent. It’s a gigantic leap forward artistically, it’s multi-layered and the ideas are just bigger and better. Thematically, it’s on a whole other level. As is the music. Everything about it is just great, the sounds the guitar made in particular but also the songwriting. This is where they started to hit their stride. This was the start of an unbelievable run of amazing albums, they never made a bad album after Pablo Honey and The Bends stands out as one of their best. Their third best, behind Ok Computer and Kid A. An album that should be on everyone’s shelves.
Number 6. – Tragic Kingdom – No Doubt
Quite possibly the best pop album of the 90s, it’s just amazing from start to finish. 14 songs that total in at just under an hour, and literally none of them are bad or even weak. The album’s just highlight after highlight, and you don’t even notice the length due to how great the songs are. Whether the band’s doing pop rock (Spiderwebs, Sixteen, End It On This), new wave (Just A Girl, Sunday Morning), somber ballads (Don’t Speak), neo-psychedelia (Hey You), disco (You Can Do It), ska punk (Excuse Me Mr, Different People), power pop (Happy Now), reggae (World Go Round) or even prog rock/art rock (The Climb, Tragic Kingdom), the result is always great and the songwriting, musicianship and vocals are all fantastic. Especially the musicianship, just listen to the amazing guitar work, keyboard work and those horn arrangements! If I did have one complaint though, it would be the drum sound on the album. The drumming is great, but sound-wise the drums sound a little thin and buried, which is a shame. Some may criticize Gwen’s vocals too, but it really all comes down to preference. I personally don’t mind her vocal style at all, I think it works incredibly well with the music. Some people may also criticize the lyrics, due to them mostly just being about relationships, but in my opinion when it comes to artists like No Doubt, the lyrics really don’t matter. Nobody should listen to a mid 90s pop rock album and be disappointed that the lyrics aren’t complex and intellectual. It’s just good music, and that’s all that matters. Unfortunately though because of how great this album is, the rest of the band’s discography looks much weaker by comparison. And in my opinion, the band really started to decline after this album, never releasing a truly great album again, which is a shame. Still, as it stands this album is an amazing collection of pop rock songs, and is definitely one of the best albums of the 90s.
Number 5. – Symbolic – Death
I always think within myself (yeah, that’s pun intended, the title-track rules) how long could’ve continued Death releasing masterpieces after each other? This is the third one in a row, and Sound of Perseverance will be the next one, Control Denied being the last. Chuck’s guitar playing is exemplary, so is Bobby Koelble’s, and the rhythm section is fearsome: newcomer Kelly Conlon on bass and drummer extraordinaire Gene Hoglan. That said, this is not just another masterpiece in their discography, but Symbolic may be their best album ever. There are some defining moments of originality and brilliance spread throughout the whole album. The intros and melodies of pretty much every song are mesmerizing, “Without Judgement” comes to mind. The first part of the opener “Symbolic” is quite brilliant, but tends to drag on for too long. Also amazing is “Sacred Serenity” (That did-in-did-da riff, in particular). Everybody’s favorite Death track “Crystal Mountain” and “1000 Eyes” is sublime, the incredibly technical melodic break is almost face meltingly awesome. Death’s rhythm section may very well be one of the best rhythm sections, if not the very best. The drumming is immaculate, some of the guitarwork is in fact, Visionary and above everything else in this genre. Symbolic is one of the most popular death metal albums of all time, and it’s classic status is justified and so is the endless praise showered upon it. Undeniably, There’s some challenging, visionary musicianship at display which is mind blowing but also very accessible, which I’m sure has inspired a lot of people to pick up their guitars and start their own bands. And yet, Death continues to get better as they’re nearing to the last album!
Number 4. – Post – Björk
Most fans and critics would tend to say that Bjork’s first two solo albums are similar and basically of the same style. This is a crass misunderstanding, it must be known. 1995’s Post is a gigantic leap forward from Debut. Bjork’s second international solo album, Post was produced only two years after Debut but the move forward is remarkable. The electronic elements on this album have not dated at all, and this album could quite easily be released today, a decade later, and achieve huge acclaim as one of 2005’s freshest and most innovative albums. Post is Bjork’s most diverse, schizophrenic, energetic album, full of surprises and quirks. Her voice is incredibly elastic and far more powerful and interesting than on Debut. The songwriting and production is first-rate, innovative and frequently interesting and fresh. It perhaps loses points because it’s not as cohesive or thematic as her later works, but this really needs to be investigated as a beacon of ’90s innovation. The critics always favour Debut, but Post is by far the better album of the two.
Number 3. – Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness – Smashing Pumpkins
This double album remains a high-water mark, not just a commercial peak for the band, but the last really big record of the alternative rock era. Mellon Collie deserves its all the success it achieved. It’s one of the most varied, far-reaching rock records of the last 30 years, moving from gentle lullabies to heavy metal epics via electronic pop and razor-edged alt rock. It’s true that there is a small handful of songs on here that don’t quite live up to the high standards set elsewhere on the record, but there is an undeniable quality to all the songwriting that makes this album stand out as influential to many more years of rock music. Lyrically, it’s far clearer than the muddy imagery that characterized Gish or Siamese Dream. This romantic spirit is audible, for instance, in the brilliant “Tonight, Tonight” and its call to live life in all the fullness of the moment, or the nagging anxiety of “Muzzle,” in which Corgan expresses his “fear that I am ordinary/just like everyone.” What works best about Mellon Collie, though, is that this epic mixture of pain, beauty, anger and nostalgia is reflected so cleanly in both the lyrics and the music. Corgan seems to be right on target here with his message, unfazed by the hypnotic buzz of the guitar attack. On later albums, the Pumpkins would unlearn this focus, heading instead for the colder ambience of synthesizers, drum machines, and vibrating guitar washes. While those experiments possess some merit, it seems clear now, years later, that Billy Corgan failed to grasp fully just what it is that made Mellon Collie so great: it possessed a clarity of vision, in both words and music, that he has never even come close to recapturing. Like most double albums, you can’t help but think Mellon Collie would have been better if the band had the insight to scale things back a bit with just the best tracks from the two albums. Even if the two discs had been released as two separate albums it may have worked better, but something about this album keeps me coming back. It’s the rare album in which anything feels like it could happen, and in this treasure trove of sound, often does.
Number 2. – The Great Annihilator – Swans
From starting the band in the sewers of New York to sky-rocketing into Godliness, Swans albums keep making masterpiece after masterpiece. However, I can argue with any music geek on why The Great Annihilator is their best album of the 1990s and it simply draws down to its accessibility to all listeners and fluid flow when going through track after track. To be blunt, if you already knew what Swans are all about, many of Michael Gira’s topics on all the things he hates & fascination with religion are all here & Jarboe’s flawless musical talent are all here, but in a much grander scale. Perhaps grander than any album that ever attempted by exploring and experimenting into new heights never been explored before. This world created on each song fully embraces all those who listen making you really believe that Swans are really this God-like figure in music. Annihilator saw a return to devastation in the form of straight-ahead aggression, rock textures and a rediscovered industrial bent — the difference here is the tribal stomp that carries the record. As always, there are new sounds and ideas at play — Swans rarely sit still. Some of Jarboe’s contributions sound like poetry set to music, whereas Gira finally rediscovers the anger he set aside years before. “Celebrity Lifestyle” is the closest they’d get to mainstream alternative rock, but leave it to Gira to tart things up with a line like “She’s just a drug addiction, and a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind.” A certain faction of Swans fans consider this the band’s peak, and they’re not wrong. Sometimes when you let Great Annihilator play, you get yourself drifted into a perfect meditative state where it could last as long. This level of awe displays so many best moments of Swans catalog that is eventful.
Number 1. – Alien Lanes –
Guided by Voices
Robert Pollard, frontman of Guided By Voices, made an excellent decision in quitting his job as an elementary school teacher and pursuing a career in music. One of the best songwriters of the 90’s, his imagination is limitless. Alien Lanes reflects this with pristine pop structures contrasting with 4 track production. The Beatles-esque shimmer of “Game Of Pricks” is a superbly written pop song, complete with musings of insecure middle-aged infidelity. “Watch Me Jumpstart” is a driving force, establishing the magnitude of the hooks very early on. While there are many short, fleeting songs which may initially be mistaken for snippets and inklings, these prove to be fully formed songs with no need to be extended when listened to repeatedly. These short songs also increase the power of the longer centerpieces of the albums, such as the poignant anthem “Motor Away.” While Alien Lanes receives some credit, compared to its predecessor, 1992’s brilliant Bee Thousand, it is relatively forgotten. Yet another strength of the album is its sloppy lo-fi production. While this may not sound like a positive thing, one trend of the 90’s was hideous over-production of decent music, effectively dating it and glossing over the true appeal of the song by trying to artificially sweeten it. The fuzz, hisses and pops of Alien Lanes ensure that it will be absolutely timeless. Music can’t get more bare than this. Essentially, all every song is, is hook. Ending before any partial imperfection can be found under the surface. That’s where the magic of this album is.