Monday, 8 February 2010

Top 10 Albums of the 90s

Hello again, friends. It's time for another list, seeing as my music related one got me a decent amount of views, and a few new followers on the right there -> (and for the first time, followers that I don't even know, which is awesome). This time it's the 90s, probably the decade I'm best acquainted with for music. As a result I'm doing this in terms of albums, a slightly harder ordeal, not just in difficulty making a list, but in difficulty actually writing about them. I tell you, there's so much to say, and trying to narrow it down to a few paragraphs explaining my thoughts and how it's changed how I see music etc, not an easy task. Keep that in mind, please!

Hopefully this'll be a small reminder to a spare few that the 90s wasn't just the further decline of mainstream pop music to an extent, and still had some really really fucking awesome stuff that stands up to any other decade.

10. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Ah, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, the album that divides one of my social circles clean in two. Some people see this as God's gift to music and the human race, perfection in the form of an album. Some people definitely not called Adam have bought this album more times than they've had hot dinners. Others, however, see this album as overrated and nothing at all worth mentioning in a list such as this, but still kinda ok. My feelings on this album? It's pretty god damn great, but I can see why some people would be underwhelmed.

If you look at things like the chord sequence of the opening track King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 1 it's just 3 pretty basic chords cycled throughout the song. But the production of the acoustic guitar (so thick) and the near perfect and hilarious lyrics make this and the next track one of the best 2 part album openers ever, and Two Headed Boy, Pt 2, is one of the saddest and appropriate closers I've ever heard.

The strength in this album lies in Mangum's lyrics rather than anything I can objectively explain about the musicality of a lot of these tracks (except Untitled, which I can explain as being a fucking awesome curve ball thrown out of left field), because for some reason it manages not to matter. It's easy to see it as slightly unremarkable, but occasionally it'll hit you just right and knock you onto the floor, and you'll remember why it's acclaimed so.

Stand Out Tracks:

Two Headed Boy, Pt 2
King of Carrot Flowers, Pt 1
King of Carrot Flowers, Pts 2 & 3

9. The Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

I had Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness for about a year and a half before I got this album. With Mellon Collie, I found that the more lush, beautiful tracks such as the title track and "Tonight, Tonight" were much better than most of the hard rock stuff, like "Zero". This album is almost all hard rock numbers...but they're all completely fucking awesome. If I ever want to rock out, I just put on this album and go silly to Cherub Rock. By the time I get to the quiet multilayered clean guitars in the last 2 minutes of the anthemic Hummer, I feel like I'm in a perfect place. The line "I wanna go home" in Spaceboy, not by the line itself, but the way it's sung so longingly makes you feel Corgans alienation.

It's hard to exactly pin point where the Pumpkins peaked, because they've made at least 1 or 2 great tracks even in their darkest periods. But this is definitely them at their most consistent, pumping out the most gold of any of their other albums. Sitting through this in one listen isn't only easy, it's a pleasure.

Stand out tracks:

Cherub Rock

8. Pavement - Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

This was my introduction to Pavement. After listening to Cut Your Hair on repeat for days, I had to buy "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" when I saw it in HMV, staring at me seductively in that way only albums can.

From the get go, it's astounding. Silence Kid (yes, Kid, not Kit, you fuckers) is the perfect sound of a band starting up, getting ready, and then jamming to perfection, flowing seamlessly into track two's Elevate Me Later. The album remarkably churns out pop masterpieces at an astonishing rate. Lyrically, this album's a strange one. The lyrics a lot of the time by themselves aren't anything particularly special, but in the context of the songs, they fit perfectly for reasons I can't explain.

And then we get to that closer. That perfect, perfect album closer, Fillmore Jive, consisting of maybe the best 6 minute jam ever. "Round and round and round and round she goes" sends shivers up and down my spine every time I hear it, and I always have to pause it just after the song ends so I can bathe in awed silence after what I just heard. This is the indie rock kid's musical bible, and for good reason.

Stand out tracks:

Fillmore Jive
Silence Kid
Heaven is a Truck (hugely underrated)
Cut Your Hair

7. Red House Painters - Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

The album on the list that I've had most difficulty placing. I think that if each song was as good as the 5 stand out tracks I've listed, it'd probably be number 1 or 2 on this list. The music here is seriously the most honest and pain painstakingly real stuff I've heard in a long time, subjects such as the horrible regret of having a violent past or the feeling of a memory that you long for that you'll never get to experience again, and that one in particular hits me pretty hard.

It's inconsistent though, a trait that hasn't helped a lot of Red House Painters albums. But what's good, is perfect. And by perfect, I seriously mean the epitome of what music like this should strive to be like. Brown Eyes could have taken over the world, and Katy Song could have made it weep.

Stand out tracks:

Brown Eyes
Katy Song
Down Through
Grace Cathedral Park

6. Sigur Rós - Ágætis byrjun

Magical. Just really, seriously magical, a journey in the form of music. The beautiful Intro suddenly plunges you hundreds fathoms below the ocean in Svefn-g-englar, with a submarine in the distance. What's really amazing about this band is just the effort they'll go into to create these sound scapes. The feeling of massive underwater caverns and an almost mutant whale is created through the brilliant use of a bow and an electric guitar, rather than, I dunno, sampling a sound of a whale.

The reason I'm mentioning the astonishing atmosphere created in this record is due to this element being, in part, not as explored or as well executed nearly as much in their later records. This is Sigur Rós at their prime, pushing them up and above other bands known for doing long orchestral songs, and into something else entirely. But it's also important to note that the record isn't just a whole bunch of atmosphere with some music on the side, the song writing itself is also incredible and powerful, and Jónsi is one of the most original vocalists ever.

I also think that it deserves to be mentioned that Viðrar vel til loftárása is better than any other song on any other of the albums on this list. I think it was the first song I properly really just outright weeped to.

Stand out tracks:

Viðrar vel til loftárása
Ágætis byrjun

5. Elliott Smith - XO

XO marks the end of the indie "do it yourself" albums of the majority of Smith's 90s career. After he was signed to Dream Works, with it came the budget starving artists dream of. There were fears that having this opportunity would ruin everything that was Elliott Smith, which was (as previously mentioned) "do it yourself" acoustic arrangements that spoke directly from the soul. Luckily these fears were quickly and stylishly extinguished with the opening track Sweet Adeline, with it's transition from intimate acoustic goodness to an explosive ensemble of a full band set up. Rather than being filled with a "good grief, what has he done?" doubt upon listening, it's more of a "this is fucking awesome, I could get used to this" kind of feeling.

Hell, in some ways, this album could be argued to be even more intimate than his previous works. I Didn't Understand, a song consisting of a choir of him and over dubs of his voice, shows him at his most open, with nothing, not even instruments, separating him from the listener. The song Independence Day is possibly the greatest song of his whole career (strange, because it was only added to the album in the last minute). Waltz #1 probably creates the most vivid imagery of any Elliott Smith song, at least for me. It's like ghosts ballroom dancing, and it's beautiful.

This album's important to showcase that just because an indie artist signs onto a major label, it doesn't mean that they've lost their soul. Or, at least, it doesn't have to. The main thing this probably meant to Elliott was that he could finally quit playing every instrument himself.

Stand out tracks:

Independence Day
Sweet Adeline
Waltz #1
Oh Well, Okay
I Didn't Understand

4. Radiohead - Ok Computer

I remember the first time ever hearing anything off of Ok Computer. It was when In Rainbows was first announced (but not released), and a forum I frequent was pretty much going nuts with excitement. I decided to see what the big deal was with this "Radiohead", so off I ventured onto youtube to listen to a random song. It ended up being Paranoid Android, and I was pretty much blown away from the get go.

I spent the following weeks listening to Ok Computer over and over again via MySpace (oh, those were the days), amazed that rock music could sound this perfect. All the different parts coming together, yet sounding completely, for lack of a better word, tight. I'd never paid much attention to things like how fucking great the bass can be in songs, like Air Bag, even when it's subtle and not completely in your face. I think this might have been the first incredible album I ever listened to.

In truth, the placing of this album in the list suffers a little because I've had this for longer than any other album by a decent margin, so it's worn slightly thin. It probably deserves the number 1 spot for context, in that it pretty much encompasses 90s technology paranoia perfectly, while the others aren't exactly era specific.

And yet, this album is a complete oxymoron in that despite what I said about it encompassing the 90s, it feels like the subject matter being talked about is happening right here, right now. Almost a prediction, a look into the future. This album makes me feel that Thom Yorke was onto something we weren't aware of.

Stand out tracks:

Paranoid Android
The Tourist
No Surprises

3. Jeff Buckley - Grace

Jeff Buckley is kind of an enigma to me. He came out of nowhere, released 1 near perfect album, and before anyone knows, he died. In ways, his death upsets me more than with any other artist, because we saw so little, and it was so shockingly good. If he was to improve from album to album in the way that, say, Radiohead improved after Pablo Honey, I'm pretty certain he could've taken over the music industry.

It's easy to remember Buckley simply as that guy with the (absolutely fucking incredible) voice, or the guy who did the amazing cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, because both of those things are entirely true. But what's easy to overlook are his strengths as a song writer, the consistency of his songs, and how well his personality translated into his work. The songs here are some of the greatest ever, whether they're sweet and sombre, or completely otherworldy.

Grace is the best debut album I've ever heard from any artist, bar none. He's critically acclaimed and reguarded as a legend by a large number of people, all because of this, and thank fuck that we have it.

Stand out tracks:

Mojo Pin
So Real
Last Goodbye
Almost every damn one (note: not an actual song title)

2. The Dismemberment Plan - Emergency & I

This album does something which no other album in this list does (even number 1), which is to remain completely 100% stellar throughout. There are no dips, there is no "best part" and "worst part". Every song, every damn one, is essential to this album.

The musings Travis Morrison gives on this album manage to be both pressed into reality and the super natural. You are Invited, a song about a guy going to a bunch of parties, while simultaneously being about a super natural VIP card to get into anywhere on Earth, is a brilliant example (along with being a perfect song). The City, a song seemingly about how where you live doesn't make it your home, and if someone important is missing it can completely change the feel of a place, is beautiful. Memory Machine, a song about a machine that can "wash away the grief" of the human race, is crazy, brief, and incredible.

I wish more bands would throw songs about nuking the whole of planet earth just to fucking "kick start something" into an album, and then end on a sentimental song about when music hits you just right, and all the memories it brings up. Always shifting, never clashing. That's something you've got to get used to when listening to the Plan.

Stand out tracks (Like I said before, literally every damn one, but uh):

Memory Machine
The City
Back and Forth

1. Elliott Smith - Either/Or

Once again, I've failed in the last minute at not including 2 albums from the same artist. I gotta say, I gave the idea of putting "Emergency & I" at number 1 a lot more thought than I imagined I would, but in the end I had to be honest with myself; this album really does everything it tried to do perfectly.

I remember, once a long time ago, I was reading a list of the top 10 saddest songs ever. Number 1 was "Elliott Smith - Discography", which admittedly I chuckled at, though I wondered what he would have thought about it. It's a pet peeve for me when people refer to emotional works as being "sad". In fact, the whole correlation between emotional works equalling only sadness annoys me. A more accurate description would be real.

Between the Bars, a fan favourite, and a love song from the perspective of a beer bottle and the comfort it gives you, how it keeps the people you don't want to be still while you find that brief moment of bliss, while still having that element of oblivion, almost like you're being tricked. It isn't just "a love song", or "a sad song". You don't know what it is other than beautiful. When Elliott talks about losing a girlfriend that showed him the light after what seemed like an eternity of 1 night stands in Say Yes, he does so with an optimism that's incredibly sweet. "Situations get fucked up, but turn around sooner or later" is probably the line that most effectively encompasses what the song is about. It's more of a "Things may seem bad now, but they'll get better. I'm glad I got to experience this moment" song than what you'd expect it to be like, given the subject matter.

What makes this album better than Emergency & I, Ok Computer, Grace, or his other outstanding album in this list (XO)? Well, the other albums are master pieces composed and arranged with utmost perfection, ready to take on the world. Either/Or, however, feels like it was made in secret. Every word, every chord, every note, every instrument (literally) him and him alone. The fact that there were 12 (and probably loads, loads more that I don't know about) other songs made from these sessions that weren't released until a decade later makes you realise just how lucky it is that this hasn't gone unheard.

Music made with no one to please, yet managing to be perfect. This is something you feel is lucky that it actually exists.

Stand out Tracks:

No Name No. 5
Say Yes
Between The Bars

Here are some other strong contenders that didn't quite make it:

The Dismemberment Plan - The Dismemberment Plan Is Terrified
My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
Red House Painters - Down Colourful Hill
Elliott Smith - Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith - Roman Candle
Radiohead - The Bends
Bj örk - Homogenic
Boards of Canada - Music has the Right to Children
DJ Shadow - Endtroducing
The Flaming Lips - The Soft Bulletin
Heatmiser - Mic City Sons
Jeff Buckley - Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk
Michael Jackson - Dangerous
Portishead - Dummy
The Smashing Pumpkins - Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

What's to come: top 10 songs of the 90s, top 10 albums of the 2000s, and I might try tackling other decades as well. However, before I do those, I'll probably get back into proper blogging. Y'know, the stuff I write about that I'm too embarrassed about to post links to on Facebook, unlike these lists. I even manage to make these too personal, though.

That's everything. Questions? Complaints (GRR!)? Feel free to leave me a comment. Be as anonymous as you like, if that's your thing.


Tom Bown said...

Awful list

(Also Origin of Symmetry was released in 2001. YOU IDIOT!!)

Jack Bz said...

Hahaha shit *edits*

zak said...

i try to keep it in mind but i can't understand why you would leave a qestion maark off xo lover should hav come over and grace from grace although redemption is there when you say every song is great and electiniring from o computer but for lack of a better word this list was tight

Jack Bz said...

Because listing every song on an album in the "stand out tracks" removes the point of including said section.

Jack Bz said...

Also shut up the stand out tracks are the least important part of this.

Andrew said...

love all these albums. wouldve put Loveless in my top 10 though. for some reason ive never heard of the Dismemberment Plan

Jack Bz said...

Loveless would definitely be number 11! And haha yeah, I thought they'd be the ones people didn't know (and Red House Painters). You should definitely check out D Plan's albums "Emergency & I" and "Change", which is probably better but didn't come out in the 90s.

Andrew said...

i definately will check them out. yeah actually i havent heard Red House Painters either, BUT i really love Sun Kil Moon which is the singers solo project, so i assume i would like them

Nina D'A said...

This is a great list, 90's were such a good decade for music.
Are you a fan of Boards of Canada or Blonde Readhead?
I have recently borrowed a few albums from Liam, and they are great!
You should do a list in two years time, and see how much or little your taste has changed.

Nina D'A said...

I spelt redhead wrong, that is such an insult.

Jack Bz said...

I put Boards of Canada in the "almost made it" list so yeah, I'm a fan! Blonde Redhead...I have 2 albums of theirs, and I dunno. For some reason I'm finding it hard to really enjoy them, even though they're not really abstract or anything. I guess I'll give it time.

Also, thanks!

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