By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Lists, lists, lists; why do these freakin' rock critics love their lists so much? Well, for one thing, they're a way to keep track of an ever-rushing torrent of music -- a vine to hang on to for dear life as the rapids sweep us over the falls. This particular list is partly that -- an accounting of great albums from a pretty darn interesting and turbulent decade -- and it might be marginally useful as such, since the end of the '90s is getting relatively little attention amid all of the hoo-ha surrounding the end of the century and the millennium.
But in addition to showing us where we've been, these discs point to where we could wind up going. Consider them inspirational signposts for directions that rock might take in order to remain a vital and vibrant music as it enters its sixth decade, sidestepping the land mines of its three greatest nemeses: respectability, predictability, and nostalgia.
Eleven years after he left us wondering whether he'd burn out or fade away (as Rust Never Sleeps so poetically put the dilemma of rock and aging), Uncle Neil came thundering back with a loving return to feedback and the band with which he always delivered it best. No effin' way that "F*!#in' Up!" is nostalgia. If only the Rolling Stones or any of his other Baby Boom peers were going so noisily into that gray night.
2. Fear of a Black Planet
Def Jam/CBS Records, 1990
With shredding production by the Bomb Squad, Chuck D's booming-through-a-megaphone vocals, and tracks like "Fight the Power," "Burn Hollywood Burn," and "911 Is a Joke" rocking us hard as they rattled our political consciousness, this disc dropped a gauntlet for hip-hop that few have tried to pick up. Instead we've had lazy groove music from wannabe gangstas and playas, all of them unfit to touch the laces on Chuck's Nikes.
The sound of bed spins. One of the most disorienting and inventive guitar-rock albums ever recorded -- a hallmark for the instrument that will stand beside White Light/White Heat, Raw Power, and Marquee Moon as a road map for future noises.
4. Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience
Island Records, 1991
5. 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the life of...
Chrysalis Records, 1992
These two albums share something besides wordy titles: High points of "alternative rap," they were both dissed as being "soft," thereby ghettoizing smart lyrics and melodic invention while hip-hop came to be dominated by the aforementioned gangstas and playas. P.M. Dawn drew on the rich tradition of psychedelic rock from Revolver to Stevie Wonder, presenting a unique transcendental philosophy that transported sizable singer Prince Be out of the depressing surroundings of Jersey City, New Jersey, and plopped him down in a better, more colorful place. Meanwhile, Arrested Development came on like the '90s progeny of Sly and the Family Stone, presenting a joyous, sexy celebration of family, community, and roots. Two positive visions of the world that could follow the revolution.
Slash Records, 1992
Winning a place here for the unparalleled imagination of its strange soundscape, an atmospheric world where odd percussion clatters at midnight rituals, mysterious voices speak from back bayous, and unspeakable pagan sex rites take place in the underbrush. Who'd have expected this from the guys who gave us "La Bamba"?
7. Bricks Are Heavy
Slash Records, 1992
Because, Village Voice polls and "Year of the Woman" celebrations aside, the fairer sex is still not treated as anything but a novelty when it tries to rock as hard as the boys. With unrelenting anthems such as "Wargasm," "Pretend We're Dead," and "Monster," L7 earned its spot beside the likes of Motörhead, the Ramones, and AC/DC -- a great rock band plain and simple, not a great female rock band, fuck you very much.
A vision of the bizarre alternate universe on the other side of the fun-house mirror, but one that, under all the weirdness, still emphasizes the essential rock-and-roll attributes of hard-driving rhythms and solid pop songcraft. Resident genius Wayne Coyne is nothing less than a psychedelic Will Rogers for a new century.
9. In Utero
DGC Records, 1993
A better album than Nevermind, balancing unbridled explosions of energy ("Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle," "Very Ape," "Tourette's") with heartbreakingly beautiful pop songs ("Heart-Shaped Box," "Pennyroyal Tea," "All Apologies"). For the depths of its lyrics and the passion of its playing, all rock and roll to come will have to stretch far indeed in order to surpass it.
10. Live 93
Island Records, 1993
Proof not only that techno can be a live medium as exciting and spontaneous as rock, but that it can deliver songs that will stick with you like the best of Pink Floyd, leaving you humming along happily as you climb into the machine for the journey over the rainbow.
Flydaddy Records, 1994