Sorry for no entry last week, my dear readers. I’ll make it up to you by skipping a regular entry in favor of part four of my ‘90s albums countdown! Check out parts one, two and three first.
20. When the Pawn… by Fiona Apple (1999)
If you were not already aware of how much I adore FionaApple, prepare for ultimate fangirl mode. Fiona is a queen and When the Pawn… is quite possibly my favorite album from her (her newest release, The Idler Wheel…, is a very close second). This album isn’t as jazzy as her debut, but Fiona manages to find the right mix of soulful and poppy. But there’s still some angst underneath all those gorgeous piano hooks, especially on tracks like “Limp” and “Get Gone.” Of course there are some general crowd pleasers (“Paper Bag,” “Fast As You Can”), but I think the real highlight on When the Pawn… has to be the final track, “I Know.” I saw this live and I won’t lie—I cried. “I Know” is a strikingly heartbreaking tune that shows off Fiona’s incredibly sultry voice perfectly. If you only know Fiona Apple for “Criminal,” you’re really missing out on her best stuff (though “Criminal” is still a fantastic song).
19. Mezzanine by Massive Attack (1998)
Didn’t I say you’d see more electronic artists as the countdown went on? I grew up listening to this album in my mom’s car (even though I had no idea what I was listening to at the time), but you might recognize one of these songs as the theme tune to House (that song is “Teardrop”). The rest of Mezzanine isn’t as delicate as “Teardrop,” but it’s still brilliant. Most of the tracks are sexy as hell, as is the case for most trip-hop bands. Just take a listen to “Inertia Creeps” or “Risingson” and try to tell me you don’t get all hot and bothered. Massive Attack has a way of making even the most complicated hook sound effortless—in fact, most of the beats in the band’s songs are a little weird, but in a good way. If you’re just starting to get into electronic music (or you’re only versed in dubstep), put on Mezzanine and prepare to have your mind blown.
18. Homogenic by Björk (1997)
Björk appeared earlier on this countdown with Post, but Homogenic is definitely my favorite album of hers. From the menacing opening track (“Hunter”) to the heartbreakingly beautiful closing track (“All is Full of Love”), this album is just flawless, and it’s Björk at her very best. Homogenic is the perfect mix of pop hooks and experimentation—it’s weird, but not too weird. The Icelandic pixie shows off her incredible vocal talent on tracks like “Joga” and my personal favorite, “Bachelorette.” Homogenic is full of stuttering beats, chilly string arrangements and lyrics that make you believe in love. I still think this is Björk’s best album and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. Some may be turned off by her more recent stuff (see the highly experimental and polarizing Biophilia), but Homogenic captures the true essence of this lovely lady.
17. Darkest Days by Stabbing Westward (1998)
Taking a detour from critically acclaimed albums for a second, let’s talk about Stabbing Westward. Not all of my favorite ‘90s albums are Pitchfork-friendly (see Creed and Dave Matthews Band), but they’re still perfect 10’s to me. I grew up thinking everyone knew who Stabbing Westward was because my parents let me listen to music I probably shouldn’t have been listening to at such a young age. My mom played the shit out of Darkest Days and I eventually fell in love with it. In case you weren’t aware, Stabbing Westward was an industrial band (though not quite as heavy as Nine Inch Nails or Ministry) that had a “Brandon Lee in The Crow” vibe. You may know for their arguably biggest hit, “Save Yourself.” The rest of Darkest Days is basically a dark concept album that follows four phases of going through a nasty break-up. It’s loud, emotionally raw and just plain badass.
16. Dirty by Sonic Youth (1992)
To me (and I guess to most critics), Dirty ranks pretty high on the list of great Sonic Youth albums. The title is also the perfect description of the noise you’ll hear for one solid hour. It opens with a solid wall of sound on “100%” and continues to let the guitars buzz, even on slower tracks like “Wish Fulfillment” and “JC.” If you don’t like distortion, I’d stay away from Dirty (but you’re totally missing out on some of the best noise rock you’ll ever hear). Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore trade off vocal duties throughout the album (Lee Ronaldo only gets one song, but it’s actually one of my favorites), and even though their vocal styles are different, I don’t prefer one over the other. I keep thinking, “Oh, well I like Kim’s songs more because of ‘Swimsuit Issue’ and ‘Drunken Butterfly.’ But wait, Thurston sings really well on ‘Sugar Kane’ and ‘100%.’ THEY’RE BOTH SO PERFECT.”
15. Vegas by The Crystal Method (1997)
More electronic artists! Like Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, this album was always on repeat in my mom’s car. Vegas was TheCrystal Method’s debut album, and remains the group’s most successful album to date. I think the record’s appeal stems from the totally random samples used in almost every song. For example, the album’s opening track, “Trip Like I Do,” samples dialogue from the ultra-cool Jim Henson movie, The Dark Crystal. “Keep Hope Alive” samples a Jesse Jackson speech. But perhaps the weirdest sample is in “Bad Stone,” which uses dialogue from a couple of Bill Cosby’s stand-up routines. Other than the samples, Vegas is just a rich electonic album with a huge sound. It reminds me of a massive wave that continuously crashes around me.
14. Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999)
Okay, so I know including this album is really cutting it close in terms of the time frame. Californication was released at the tail end of the ‘90s and its major singles didn’t even make it to the radio until 2000. But dammit, this is my favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers album and I will include it in this list if I so choose! I’ve heard a lot of criticism about this album, and I can see where it comes from. Yes, it’s not as funky as, say, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. And yes, it does sound a bit overproduced. But I’ve always had this strange connection to it since the day I first heard “Otherside” (also, this album’s predecessor, One Hot Minute, is pretty awful). John Frusciante comes roaring back to the band with some crazy awesome riffs, especially on “This Velvet Glove” and “Around the World.” Many of these tracks are a bit more personal than tracks on previous Chili Peppers album (even though a lot of critics called it “false empathy”), and I think that’s what makes Californication stand out to me. Yes, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is still an amazing album (and it’s probably objectively better than this one), but I will always prefer Californication.
13. Insomniac by Green Day (1995)
Finally, Green Day makes its first appearance on this countdown. You saw it coming. While most people tend to remember Dookie as one of the best Green Day albums, Insomniac is probably the most underrated album in the band’s catalog. This was kind of a big “fuck you” to all the punks back home who cried, “Sell-outs!” Insomniac is raw, nasty and honestly has some of the best Green Day songs ever. Billie Joe Armstrong and company manage to pack a metric ton of angst into just 32 minutes of music. The lyrics are so much darker than the songs on Dookie—“Geek Stink Breath” tells the story of a meth addict and “Brat” tells the story of a kid waiting for his parents to die so he can get his inheritance. “Brain Stew/Jaded” was the most successful single (they’re technically two separate songs, but they were released as a single track for radio play), but the real highlight on Insomniac (for me, at least) is “Panic Song.” That track was written by both Billie Joe and bassist Mike Dirnt as kind of an homage to panic attacks, and that really hits home for me.
12. Rubberneck by The Toadies (1994)
I’m fairly certain that I mentioned multiple times in my Toadies entry that this band is probably the most underrated band of the ‘90s. You know these Texas post-grungers for their hit “Possum Kingdom,” but the rest of the album it came from is beyond brilliant. The Toadies inject some Southern charm into their strange, post-grunge sound, and it’s kind of unnerving (in a good way). I mean, just listen to the lyrics on “Tyler.” That song is about some guy who stalks a girl and breaks into her house. “Possum Kingdom” is (supposedly) about vampires. And Todd Lewis really knows how to wail (with his voice, that is). There’s an underlying creepiness to Rubberneck that’s hard to find on other albums, and I just wish more people listened to this band and appreciated it. I saw the Toadies live quite a few years ago and they sounded incredible. Even their most recent album is almost Rubberneck quality. It’s really too bad they’re considered a one-hit-wonder.
11. Nevermind by Nirvana (1991)
Before you go shunning me for not putting this in the top 10, let me just remind you that these are my personal preferences. You’ll see Nirvana again, I promise. As for Nevermind—well, what can I say about this album that hasn’t already been said? The first time I listened to it, I felt like I had found the Holy Grail. I was a pre-teen with some manufactured angst and I absolutely worshipped this band in 5th and 6th grade. I remember listening to Nevermind with my friend Alex and deciding to start a band (that obviously fell through because neither of us could play an instrument). I also remember being completely devastated when I found out Kurt Cobain has died almost a decade prior to the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Even though this album belongs to Generation X, I can still feel the impact. I still love the three-chord simplicity, the gruffness of Kurt’s vocals, the often-nonsensical lyrics. Nevermind may be as old as me, but it feels new every time I hear it.