The show-me slate
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.
1. Ragged Glory
Reprise Records, 1990
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.
My Bloody Valentine
Sire Records, 1991
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.
8. Transmissions From the Satellite Heart
The Flaming Lips
Warner Bros. Records, 1993
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
This lush, beautiful, and heartfelt effort should not be blamed for all of the tepid orch-pop that followed; it's more than strong enough in its own right to stand beside masterpieces such as Five Leaves Left, Astral Weeks, and Forever Changes.
12. Jimmywine Majestic
Red Red Meat
Sub Pop Records, 1994
13. To Bring You My Love
On these two albums the blues are warped, re-envisioned, and mutated into something new, alive, mysterious, and full of possibilities -- something that no one is ever gonna claim for Jonny Lang and his ilk. Subbing NyQuil for smack and Night Train for fine French wine, Red Red Meat gave us Chicago's most eloquent answer to Exile on Main Street (sorry, Liz), a muted epic about the search for bliss amid the flotsam and jetsam of an empty slacker life. In contrast, Polly Jean Harvey turned up the heat, seeking soulful/sexual catharsis by blasting away, as Lester Bangs wrote of Iggy Pop, "like a blowtorch in bondage."
Elektra Records, 1995
DGC Records, 1996
Look, I'm not exactly sure what post-modernism is, and neither is any other rock crit, but I think that when it's good, it sounds like these two albums. That said, you can talk all you want about cutting-edge electronic pastiches, but what I hear on Post is a willfully eclectic, cyber-hippie take on show tunes -- probably rock's finest since Bat Out of Hell. As for Mr. Hansen, this was the one where, under that genre-hopping kitchen-sink sprawl, the songs were actually strong enough to forgive him his overarching irony, anti-hipster posing, dopey blond bangs, and proclivity for break-dancing with Neil Strauss.
16. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Neutral Milk Hotel
Merge Records, 1998
The most striking record produced by the so-called Elephant 6 collective of giddy psychedelic pop bands, this hypnotic folk-rock-pop album is a journey through the twisted psyche of singer-songwriter Jeff Mangum. It's the sort of intensely personal epic that too few people have the courage to craft, in indie-rock or elsewhere, and never with such gleeful playfulness.
17. N'dea Davenport
Delicious Vinyl/V2, 1998
18. Things Fall Apart
What hip-hop and R&B need more than anything else is to reconnect with real instruments and vibrant playing, and here are two albums that do just that. The solo bow by the Atlanta-born vocalist of London's Brand New Heavies puts Lauryn Hill's much-hyped debut to shame in both the soul and the songwriting departments, while the Roots' latest is quite simply one of the most impressive albums that hip-hop has ever produced. The title hints at entropy and chaos, and the lyrics offer a vision of revolutionary change for a generation stuck in an endless cycle of exploitation and violence. But the real source of its power comes from the group's playing, which can rival the best of any of Miles Davis' bands.
The Music Cartel, 1999
Redefining the words "heavy rock," this English trio entered its rehearsal space/studio, fired up the giant homemade bong pictured on the back cover, and recorded an unbelievably dense, disorienting, 52-minute monolith of a song. Yeah, that's right: 52 minutes, one song, and a sound so monstrous it will leave you scooping your brain off the floor with a teaspoon.
Finally delivering on the promise of "Go" and other early rave standards, Moby unleashed a masterpiece charting the emotional connections between early blues, African-American folk song, gospel, hip-hop, house music, and techno, all within the context of his own ambient keyboard stylings, and delivered with the punk-rock intensity of his hardcore days. "Honey" and "Porcelain" set a new standard for melody and emotion in electronic dance music -- and, like all of the music on this list, it's going to be extremely rewarding hearing someone trying to top them.
DeRogatis' Top 10 Reasons for Living in 1999
1. Moby, Play (V2 Records)
2. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros. Records)
3. The Roots, Things Fall Apart (MCA Records)
4. Sleep, Jerusalem (The Music Cartel)
5. Smash Mouth, Astro Lounge (Interscope Records)
6. Blur, 13 (Virgin Records)
7. Macy Gray, On How Life Is (Epic Records)
8. Paul McCartney, Run Devil Run (Capitol Records)
9. Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope)
10. Wilco, Summer Teeth (Reprise Records)
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.