October 15, 2019
My favorite albums (1990s), vol. 3
I wasn’t listening to most of these albums in the 90s. I was born in 1984. I was paying attention to a few of these albums when they happened, but for the most part this list was formed in the 2000s with me looking over my shoulder. Now that I’ve finished my list, I notice how little I wrote about the albums themselves. Like most folks, the music I love is tangled up with my own life. I guess that’s why it seems reasonable to me to begin a discussion about Nevermind in a computer class six years after it was released.
— Chris Harrell
10. NEVERMIND (1991) Nirvana
I know by all rights this should be at the top of the list. Probably number one or, at least, two or three. It makes my defense much easier that this is a list of my 10 favorite albums of the 90s rather than a list of the greatest. You can judge me, but you have to take my word that this list is accurate. I’m picking Nevermind to represent Nirvana, but I wouldn’t argue with In Utero or, assuming live recordings count, Unplugged. What a way to kick off a decade of music.
I remember listening to Nirvana a lot in seventh grade, especially in computer class. Timmy, one of the first kids in our grade to start learning guitar, got us listening. We all knew the album, because everyone who grew up in the Nirvana explosion knew it. But now we were getting old enough to flirt with teenage angst. Now it mattered for us. I associate this album with Timmy, because he’s a great real-life example of a new generation picking up guitars and getting interested in a new kind of music. Even if that “new” kind of music was six years old.
Producer | Butch Vig  Label | DGC  Released | September 24, 1991
9. THE CARNIVAL (1997) Wyclef Jean
It’s a play, complete with the 500 mandatory interludes required in any 90s hip hop album. This was one of few albums with a parental advisory sticker that middle school me was able to slip past my parents. I remember that the parental advisory sticker was an actual sticker and not inked onto the cover art, which is probably how I got it past my folks. I listened to The Carnival a lot in the back seat of our family mini-van through the headphones of a Sony Sport Discman. Even today, if a person says “not me” in a certain tone of voice, regardless of whatever I appear to be doing, be sure you don’t have my full attention until my brain completes the circuit with my favorite lines from “Street Jeopardy.”
Not me, it could never happen to me
Professor says what you wanna do? Sell drugs or get a degree?
Looked at him and smiled with 32 gold teeth
And said what you make in a year, I make it in a week
In the video for “We Trying to Stay Alive,” Wyclef and his lady friend enter a disco and take center stage on the dance floor. But the good times are short-lived, as Pras enters the disco and a dance off of sorts begins. Wyclef challenges Pras to step outside to settle this dance off dispute through … a dance off! I loved the video then, and I love it now. It even won over my sisters, who were less than enthusiastic about hip hop at the time. I’m sure the credit for their interest should go to that wonderful Bee Gees’ bassline. It’s one of few true rivals to the bassline in “Billie Jean”.
Producers | Wyclef Jean, Jerry Wonda  Label | Columbia  Released | June 24, 1997
8. VERSION 2.0 (1998) Garbage
If including greatest hits albums wasn’t cheating, and if Absolute Garbage had come out in the 90s, I’d put it here. But Version 2.0 has most of Garbage’s best songs, anyway. Albeit this sound hasn’t held up, but I love when Garbage does it. What is this sound anyway? Google “genre classifications of Garbage” and stand back. The classifications are only useful for baiting the pretentious music taxonomists in your life into saying them aloud — industrial, post-grunge, electro-rock, electro-grunge, grundustrial … This word soup is as unburdened by the need to actually convey information as a corporate job title.
I found Version 2.0 after the 90s and don’t have a lot of memories of Garbage beyond a vague recollection of watching Shirley Manson fly some sort of post-grunge tie fighter in the music video for “Special.” It’s a bad video, but the song shows what I like about Garbage. The songs always feel kinda dirty. Not necessarily sexual, though that’s there for sure, but that feeling you’re looking at something beautiful through slime-covered glasses. The songs wallow in the mud, never telling you to be better than you are. In “Special,” rather than forgive, Manson taunts, “I have run you down into the ground / Spread disease about you over town.” The inspirational message from Garbage is that if we’re depressed or lonely, it’s probably someone else’s fault, and we only care what they think because we’re damaged, too.
Producer | Garbage  Label | Almo  Released | May 4, 1998
7. ON EVERY STREET (1991) Dire Straits
I was seven and didn’t realize what I was watching, but this album showed me what happens when a music geek falls in love with a new album. My Dad had this album playing constantly for what seemed like, and probably was, the better part of the year. His favorite Dire Straits song is still “Planet of New Orleans.” Listening to his music is probably what drove me to the camp of listeners paying more attention to lyrics than melodies. I remember feeling very worldly when Pop clued me in that “Heavy Fuel” was a metaphor for alcoholism. Later on, out in our garage listening to the Dire Straits mixtape that Pop had made for me, I shared that insight with my cousin, John, impressing him with my ability to decode subtle lines like, “Last time I was sober, man I felt bad.” I wouldn’t rank “Heavy Fuel” as high on my list of Dire Straits’ favorites now as I would’ve back then, but I would rank Mark Knopfler as my favorite guitarist.
Producers | Mark Knopfler, Alan Clark  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | September 10, 1991
6. AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (1992) R.E.M.
Like Nevermind, I know this isn’t ranked high enough. It should be in the one, two or three slot. I didn’t feel particularly connected to in it the 90s, and that’s OK. Eight seems young to process Automatic for the People. If it isn’t a perfect album, it’s close. I get jealous when older friends talk about anticipating this album and how, what they finally heard was so much better than they’d imagined. I got to see R.E.M. one time before they broke up. I went with Joe and Adam, two older friends that had that experience I envy with Automatic for the People.
Years later, I was at a wedding party with Adam. He’s a big, happy man who’s never met a stranger. April, another friend and the younger sister of the bride, came with two of her sorority sisters. April’s friends, who to be fair were out of their element, spent most of the day wandering the party like two marginally disgusted Jane Goodalls studying drunken primates. Towards the end of the evening, with only family and the committed inebriated remaining, one of the girls mentioned that her uncle was a fashion consultant or something for Michael Stipe. Adam stopped cold and said, “You mean like the Michael Stipe of R.E.M.?”
She paused, trying to figure if that were somehow offensive, and warily replied that was who she meant.
“Well then,” Adam bellowed, “You can tell your uncle that Michael Stipe’s music has brought this drunk, hairy, redneck from eastern North Carolina to tears on more than one occasion.”
Producer | Scott Litt, R.E.M.  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | October 5, 1992
5. EXILE IN GUYVILLE (1993) Liz Phair
My friend, Alan, has a great people-who-fancy-themselves-music-snobs-getting-to-know-each-other-question. What’s your pass judgement album? Your album that if you learn in the first ten minutes of talking to someone that they own it then you assume they’re probably pretty cool. It’s Exile in Guyville for me. It has all the great things for this question. The great songs: “6’1,” “Divorce Song,” “Help Me Mary,” and, of course, “Fuck and Run.” The great lyrics: “I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas.” The conversational fodder needed to fuel bar arguments: Is Liz Phair a sell-out? What does sell-out even mean? Does being a sell-out do anything to diminish the art?
Then there’s the great story that the album is a song by song response to Exile on Main Street from a woman’s point of view. I didn’t learn any of this, or even know of the album, until 2005-ish. That’s when my friend, Joe, introduced me to it during one of many rides to the excellent used bookstore in Chapel Hill. It was the perfect time for my introduction, and I soaked it up like a sponge. I burnt myself a couple of CDs of alternating tracks of Exile on Main Street and Exile in Guyville, and looked back nostalgically to the Chicago music scene in 93, when I was nine years old living in rural eastern North Carolina.
Producers | Liz Phair, Brad Wood  Label | Matador  Released | June 22, 1993
4. OK COMPUTER (1997) Radiohead
This is the last album I’m self-conscious about not ranking higher. This, Nevermind, and Automatic for the People.
I’d been hearing about Radiohead since 1997, when the video for “Paranoid Android” was all over MTV. I didn’t like the song or the video. It freaked me out. The fat, leather-clad cartoon guy in the video hacking himself all to pieces with the ax, titling the song “Paranoid Android,” and the disconnected guitar jumping all over the place were all too disconcerting for me at thirteen. I didn’t know “Climbing up the Walls,” made “Paranoid Android” look like a lullaby for comforting a frightened child. But in 2007 or 2008, I made an announcement to my friends, Joe and Robin. I proclaimed I’d been considering buying In Rainbows because the idea of a pay-what-you-want album interested me. A band with that sort of confidence and the fan base to support it seemed promising. Joe and Robin stopped arguing about who was better at tennis, smirked at each other, and simultaneously deadpanned, “Yeah dude, Radiohead is probably worth checking out.” I’d stated the musical equivalent of “I was thinking of trying pizza.”
Joe, who’s marvelously indignant when necessary, exploded into a diatribe, “Yes listen to them! Jesus! You listen to Pink Floyd, and they wish they’d done with entire catalogue what Radiohead does in a song. Radiohead is to Pink Floyd what Jorge Luis Borges is to Gabriel García Márquez.”
That last sentence, pretentious as it may be, got my attention. I bought In Rainbows and within six weeks had the rest of their albums.
Producer | Nigel Godrich  Label | Parlophone, Capitol  Released | June 16, 1997
3. MIGHTY JOE MOON (1994) Grant Lee Buffalo
Grant Lee Buffalo was Grant Lee Phillips’ band. Grant Lee Phillips was the troubadour on Gilmore Girls. That’s the quickest way to explain who he is to most people, which is a shame. Imagine if someone explained Bob Dylan as the guy who played Alias in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. I think Phillips can laugh at the cosmos’ gallows sense of humor, because he’s a funny dude.
My friend, Joe, thinks Grant Lee Phillips is the best songwriter. I doubt Phillips would agree with Joe outright, but I bet he’d think Joe was onto something. A few years ago, Joe, Robin and I were going to see Phillips perform and as we walked up to the club, we saw Phillips crossing the street. His arms were full and dropped something. Robin ran over, scooped up whatever Phillips had dropped, and introduced himself as a friend of Joe. Let that sink in. Joe likes Grant Lee Phillips so much that that it seemed rational to Robin to introduce himself like an underage freshman trying to gain admittance to a senior’s house party. “Oh hey, Grant, it’s cool for me to be here, I’m Joe’s friend.” Grant looked flustered and rushed across the road. Robin caught up, handed over whatever Grant had dropped, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be intrusive. I was just trying to help, and my friend really loves your music.”
“It’s OK,” said Grant. “I just didn’t want to get hit by a bus. That also would have been pretty intrusive.”
Producer | Paul Kimble  Label | Slash, Reprise  Released | September 20, 1994
2. SUMMERTEETH (1999) Wilco
I think most folks think Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco’s best album. I do. But Summerteeth, the album that proceeded it, is my favorite.
A trend I’ve either noticed or made up is that great bands often write their best lyrics on the album that immediately precedes their best album. For the sake of me having something to say, let’s assume there’s something to my theory. I think this is because peak albums usually occur when a band hits the magic combination of enough time to be seasoned, enough confidence to push boundaries, and luck. Of course, the peak is only clear in retrospect. But when the peak occurs, a few things can happen that solidify it. First, the band is satisfied with their new sound and decide to stick to it so subsequent albums sound vaguely duplicative. Second, the band pivots and never quite hits on that magic combination in their new direction. Finally, the band can push its peak sound event further and end up in avant-garde realms most folks no longer find musically appealing.
I suspect most songwriters get comfortable enough to flex with their lyrics before they get comfortable enough to throw the map out the window and pioneer a new sound. So just before all the skill and confidence go into the music and the lyrics and the arrangement and all the other things I’m not musically inclined enough to understand, that energy is focused where the songwriter’s more comfortable, the lyrics.
On Summerteeth, Jeff Tweedy may not have quite been ready to mix all the crazy sounds that magically meld into “Ashes of American Flags,” the layering of his lyrics is amazing.
We fell in love
In the key of C
We walked along
Down by the sea
You followed me down
The neck to D
Producer | Wilco  Label | Reprise  Released | March 9, 1999
1. MONARCH (Lay Your Jeweled Head Down) (1999) Feist
I make no apologies here. This album is number one because it contains the best song. Feel free to explain all the ways I’m wrong, how I’ve broken the rules of this album list. I don’t care. This album came out in the 90s but if it had come out in a different decade, it would be in the one spot there.
“The Mast.” is an absolutely, unbelievably, drop-dead, gorgeous song. Not to sell the other songs on the album short, “It’s Cool to Love your Family,” “One Year A.D.,” “Monarch,” and “Still True,” are fantastic. But if you build a fires on the sun, even if they’re big fires, it’s easy to overlook them from Earth. There is no argument to be made for the “The Mast” that it doesn’t make better on its own. The way it shifts between soft and loud, but always sounds delicate. The way her voice is flawless but sounds like it could break at any moment. The nerve to be that honest and perfect vulnerability laid bare. Her lyrical timing, “And I don't need to see you every single day / But I'd like to.”
The first time I heard “The Mast” was on a mix. Afterwards, I bought every album she had for sale and I still couldn’t find the song. Then I learned there was some mystery surrounding the Monarch (Lay Your Jeweled Head Down). It was Feist’s first album, but she no longer sold it or performed any songs from it.
On eBay in the mid-2000s, copies of Monarch (Lay Your Jeweled Head Down). didn’t pop up often and were outrageously expensive when they did. So I satisfied myself with some bootleg internet recordings and years later, managed to grab a rerelease vinyl copy. I don’t know why she won’t play it. It feels kinda gross to speculate, so I won’t. But it is beautiful.
Producer | Dan Kurtz  Label | self-released  Released | August 24, 1999