Oh, the 90s. From bringing grunge to the mainstream to serving as a defining decade of hip-hop, the 90s radically altered the musical landscape. It’s difficult to truly determine which albums left the deepest mark, but with their Top 100 Albums of the 90s lists, both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone Magazine have attempted to do so. And now, 30 years after the start of the 90s (my god), I’m listening my way through these lists, reviewing the albums as I go.
Full disclosure: this is a completely biased review of both Pitchfork’s and the Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Albums of the 90s lists. There are albums on these lists that I hold near and dear, and albums on these lists that I really, truly do not like. And it is in embracing this spirit of musical subjectivity that I review them. I’ll try anything once, and albums are no exception. As I work my way through the lists, I’ll be choosing winners between the albums and keeping a running tally of which publication I agree with more.
If while reading this you have any thoughts/opinions/disagreements/compelling arguments about any of my choices, hit me with an email at [email protected]–I’m always down to talk music!
With that, let’s begin the countdown.
Pitchfork: The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld
This made me want to be in a pitch black room, shuffling my feet and sporadically twitching different appendages. It’s like a church sermon from the year 3020. Would I listen to any of the songs independently from the rest of the album? No. Would I ever listen to this album again? Also no. When I closed my eyes, did I feel like I was floating through the galaxy in a space module? Absolutely.
Rolling Stone: Moby’s Everything Is Wrong
Oh, Moby. Beautiful, wonderful, erratic Moby. This album took me through 13 different different moods in the span of 45 minutes. Magnificent.
Winner: Everything Is Wrong.
While Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is certainly experimental, there’s something to be said for accessible experimentation. And in that sense, Everything Is Wrong achieves greater success. Moby fuses pop, rock, and techno in a wonderfully cohesive way.
Pitchfork: Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx
Raekwon and Ghostface bring each other to life in this. They build on each other and build on RZA’s beats, all the while creating a rap narrative seminal to the 90s. Damn.
Rolling Stone: Luna’s Penthouse
Imagine lying in the sand at dusk on a summer day, watching the world melt around you–that’s what this album feels like. We float through our youth in a daze, and Penthouse captures that.
Winner: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.
Though Penthouse aligns more with my taste in music, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is the clear winner. It’s culturally significant, it played an influential role in the development of later rap, and it combines Raekwon, Ghostface, and RZA’s musical and personal chemistry into a potent, impressive album.
Pitchfork: KMD’s Mr. Hood
Humor-infused race politics and pure 90s rap. Well done.
Rolling Stone: Buena Vista Social Club’s Buena Vista Social Club
Enchanting guitar, mesmerizing vocals, and true to its Cuban roots.
Winner: Buena Vista Social Club.
I majorly admire KMD’s ability to rap about such a politically-charged topic while maintaining a sense of humor, but even so, I have to pick Buena Vista Social Club. Musically, it’s incredibly well done. Commercially, it’s a smashing success–no small feat for a Spanish-singing band. But what’s most powerful about Buena Vista Social Club is its backstory. Brought together by American guitarist Ry Cooder, this is a band of Cubans whose musical careers ended under the reign of Fidel Castro. Yet years later, having lived through a dictatorial regime, they revive their art and find great success doing so. Now that is powerful.
Pitchfork: Mogwai’s Young Team
This is a rollercoaster of guitar songs. Some are ethereal and slow, others are hectic and thrashing. It’s a gorgeous mix.
Rolling Stone: The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs
Now THIS is a concept album!!! As the name implies, this album consists of 69 love songs, chronicling everything fabulous, terrible, intoxicating, addictive, strange, giddy, and confusing; everything that makes love love. And in this exploration of emotion, The Magnetic Fields also explore genre after genre. Clocking in at 2 hours and 52 minutes, 69 Love Songs is a musical anthology for the ages.
Winner: 69 Love Songs.
I mean come on. Listen to “The Book of Love” and you’ll understand.
Pitchfork: Herbert’s Around the House
This is like electronic music for people that don’t like electronic music. Very chill, very palatable. It puts me in a state that is halfway between wanting to dance and wanting to sleep. I like.
Rolling Stone: Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II
This is 2 hours and 36 minutes worth of ambient electronic music. This album is like a Tim Burton twist on the tracks you hear in a Vinyasa yoga class. Some songs are mellow and pleasant, some are strange and anxiety-inducing. Maybe I just don’t get it. Probably?
Winner: Around the House.
I will be the absolute first to admit I know nothing about electronic music. BUT, I liked that Around the House had some vocal action, and that it walked the line between upbeat and mellow. Also, it’s an hour shorter than Selected Ambient Works, Volume II.
Pitchfork: Massive Attack’s Mezzanine
This album is trip-hop (I’d never heard that term before). I didn’t love listening to it, but definitely see how it served as a major influence on bands like Radiohead.
Rolling Stone: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged Performance
Heartbreakingly beautiful, this album haunts me. Kurt Cobain gives his rawest performance, just months before his death. Please watch this performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” on Youtube.
Winner: MTV Unplugged Performance.
MTV Unplugged really allowed Cobain to perform his songs with the rawness, poignancy, and pain that they were written with. This isn’t to say that Nirvana’s studio albums don’t exhibit these emotions, but in this performance, the pain is palpable. In this, we see in Kurt Cobain what so many of his fans saw in themselves. If there is one Nirvana album you listen to, let this be it.
Pitchfork: Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year
The solo album of ex-Pixies lead singer, this album is a whole mess of erratically wonderful music. Though punky and guitar-driven, Teenager of the Year seems to have mastered the melody. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard this album before. Standout songs: “(I Want to Live on An) Abstract Plain” and “Speedy Marie.”
Rolling Stone: Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue
Ah, this album feels like good times. Taking Woody Guthrie’s forgotten lyrics, Bragg and Wilco created summer day, windows down music. Guthrie would be proud.
Winner: Teenager of the Year.
This album is so good! Melodic punk, what beats that?
Pitchfork: Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind
What can I say about Bob that hasn’t already been said? Thoughtful lyrics, understated sounds–it’s lovely. Standout songs: “Standing in the Doorway” and “Make You Feel My Love.”
Rolling Stone: Air’s Moon Safari
The emblem of French electro-pop–très cool.
Winner: Time Out of Mind.
This album is thoughtfully and beautifully made, proving the power and longevity of Bob Dylan.
Pitchfork: Scott Walker’s Tilt
The album starts off with a ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in a dramatic opera. Dark and dramatic, it’s pretty spooky. That said, if you want an album that could serve as the soundtrack to a dark, twisted film, you got it.
Rolling Stone: The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin
A winding, wonderfully eclectic effort. It’s hard to describe because it’s so uniquely itself.
Winner: The Soft Bulletin.
This was an easy one.
Pitchfork: Tortoise’s TNT
Very therapeutic. Full of mesmerizing instrumentals, the album ebbs and flows between genres, mixing guitar, chimes, soft drums, and mellow electronics.
Rolling Stone: Pixies’ Bossanova
Aggressive and thrashy with a pop-infused Pixies sound.
My personal bias is really coming through here. Bossanova is just a sick album and I like it best. Music criticism is good, but sometimes it’s really as simple as that.
Pitchfork: Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas
Gorgeous, mesmerizing, enchanting vocals. It makes me feel like I’m in a candy-colored dream.
Rolling Stone: Aaliyah’s One in a Million
Available on Youtube. Sexy and self-assured, Aaliyah really knows how to command a song. This is an album of seduction if there ever was.
Winner: Heaven or Las Vegas.
Close your eyes and let this album move through you.
Pitchfork: Squarepusher’s Music Is One Rotted Note
I definitely don’t know the definition of post-rock, but apparently that’s what this is. Again, I fully admit my total ignorance of electronic music, but this sounds like a mix of electronic and jazz. It’s nice.
Rolling Stone: Tom Petty’s Into The Great Wide Open
I’ll preface this with one thing: I LOVE Tom Petty. Like, absolutely adore. So, I am admittedly very biased towards this album. The title song (along with all of the others–Petty doesn’t make a bad song) is incredible, and so is the music video.
Winner: Into the Great Wide Open.
Again, personal bias rearing its head. Acknowledging that, this album nonetheless proves Petty’s ability to make really fantastic music decade after decade after decade. Not many musicians have achieved, or ever will achieve, the longterm success that Petty did.
Pitchfork: Wilco’s Being There
Simultaneously gentle and aggressive, Being There is a beautiful embodiment of the emotional spectrum. There is something so comforting about this album.
Rolling Stone: R. Kelly’s R. Kelly
As is to be expected, this album is unbelievably smooth. Say what you will about R. Kelly, but he has a voice like honey.
Winner: Being There.
Stealing a line from someone, this album feels like an old friend. It is done perfectly.
Pitchfork: GZA/Genius’s Liquid Swords
This album flows. It’s hard, precise, and seemingly effortless.
Rolling Stone: De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead
Find this on Youtube. Combining rap with all kinds of samples, it is funky.
Winner: Liquid Swords.
I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable on rap, but GZA is pretty unreal.
Pitchfork: Destroyer’s City of Daughters
Very stripped down and minimalist. Accompanied by little more than vocals and an acoustic guitar, the thoughtful, poignant lyrics are given room to breathe and live.
Rolling Stone: Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
An understated alternative album that gets better with each listen. It’s a seductive lullaby with a spattering of thrashy sounds.
Winner: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.
It’s intimate and soft-spoken, but it’s so alive.
Pitchfork: Massive Attack’s Blue Lines
Technically hip-hop, but it’s certainly more than that. It combines soft beats, ambient sounds, and notable vocals, creating an album that is totally smooth.
Rolling Stone: Pulp’s Different Class
Oh this album puts a smile on my face. It’s cheeky, self-possessed, and purely fun. It feels like it could be a cousin of Bowie–the quirky cousin that always has a perfect suntan.
Winner: Different Class.
British pop with an eccentric confidence–a true joy to listen to.
Pitchfork: Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus
Youtube. Underground hip-hop, this album is equal parts smooth, entrancing, and intellectual. The beats are subtle, and the lyrics occupy the limelight.
Rolling Stone: Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar
If you can picture Marilyn Manson in your mind, you already have a good idea of what this album sounds like.
Winner: Funcrusher Plus.
This could very well be another case of me not understanding the music, but I really just can’t comprehend the draw of Marilyn Manson (Marilyn–please don’t sacrifice me to Lucifer for saying this).
Pitchfork: Pixies’ Trompe le Monde
Pixies are so identifiable in their sound, and this album is some of the best of it. God they’re good.
Rolling Stone: Fiona Apple’s Tidal
Okay, I’d heard all the hype about Fiona Apple. After this album, I understand.
Fiona Apple’s soul–sacrificed in the form of music. (P.S. don’t these two album covers look so good together?)
Pitchfork: Sonic Youth’s Goo
I love this album and I love Sonic Youth. The album is perfectly punk and maintains Sonic Youth’s noisy experimental tendencies. Also, “Kool Thing” is nothing short of iconic.
Rolling Stone: The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
Billy Corgan may get tons of bad press, but there is nothing bad that can be said about his music. This album is the best of the Smashing Pumpkins; it’s aggressive and punk, it’s tender and heartbreaking. There are 28 tracks on the album, and it would take just under that amount of fingers to count the great songs on it.
Winner: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Goo is great, but it’s no Mellon Collie. This album is the Pumpkins at their peak and their most prolific. It’s rebellious, whining, aching, resentful, longing, accepting, and utterly unapologetic. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is an album for the ages.
Pitchfork: The Breeders’ Pod
If there’s one thing I love, it’s girl punk. I’m a total sucker for it, and The Breeders are the best of it. Pod is sultry, haunting, and provocative.
Rolling Stone: Bjork’s Post
Okay color me impressed. Bjork is way harder than I expected her to be. She’s like a mischievous pixie woman, capable of being dark, tricky and powerful, but also light and ethereal. And through it all, she is supremely confident.
I saved every song on Pod to my master playlist, but Post is WOW. It’s an album that demands to be listened to.
Pitchfork: The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde
This is old skool hip-hop with a vein of jazz running through it. It’s easy on the ears and far from boring.
Rolling Stone: The Breeders’ Last Splash
Two Breeders albums back to back! Oh baby. Where in Pod the Breeders were undeniably touching, in Last Splash they’re unapologetically thrashy. They’re harder, pushier, and a hell of a lot of fun, but they’re still as haunting as their previous album. As I said in #81, the Breeders are simply the best.
Winner: Last Splash.
This album is combative, girlish, manic. The Breeders possess musical prowess; they’re hostile and haunting and everything in between.
Pitchfork: Dr. Dre’s The Chronic
Bow wow wow yippee yo yippee yay (I know that’s Snoop, but still). There are so many iconic tracks on this album. It is hard as hell, as is to be expected from Death Row Records.
Rolling Stone: Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand
Legitimately every single song on this album is fantastic. One of my favorite albums so far.
Winner: The Chronic.
It’s just too iconic of an album not to win. I don’t care how far removed you are from the rap world, you undoubtedly know AT LEAST one of these songs. That said, Bee Thousand is one of my favorite albums on the list so far. How do I even begin to compare the two?
Pitchfork: Stereolab’s Mars Audiac Quintet
Hypnotizing. This album blurs the line between alternative, electronic, and rock, switching between both English and French. I love it.
Rolling Stone: Oasis’ Definitely Maybe
As has probably already become clear throughout this review, I’m a sucker for a lot of things. Oasis is one of them. This album may be my favorite of theirs–it’s chock full of great songs that have been eclipsed in all the “Wonderwall” hype.
Winner: Mars Audiac Quintet.
It kills me inside to not choose Oasis, but Mars Audiac Quintet is too good.
Pitchfork: Primal Scream’s Screamadelica
Combine the Rolling Stones with the Gorillaz and you get a sound somewhere in the neighborhood of Primal Scream.
Rolling Stone: Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory
Good ol’ Neil Young rock ‘n’ roll. Tried and true.
Imagine being able to combine completely disparate sounds and genres and create something incredible–that’s what Primal Scream did with Screamadelica.
Pitchfork: Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs
I really liked this one, though I have a hard time explaining it. It’s one of those albums that weaves through genres seamlessly.
Rolling Stone: The Rolling Stones’ Bridges to Babylon
The Stones are legends, but I’d be lying if I said I really liked this album. There’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s nothing super noteworthy about it. It’s fine, it’s good. And strangely, the most standout song on the album is the one that sounds the least like the Stones–the reggae tune “You Don’t Have to Mean It.”
Winner: Deserter’s Songs.
There were a number of songs on this album that really caught my attention, and all for different reasons. It traipses between all sorts of sounds, and does so in a really gorgeous way.
Stay tuned for my thoughts on #75-51…
And while you wait for my next countdown, check out Pitchfork’s and Rolling Stone’s lists to get their esteemed commentary on each album: