October 8, 2019

My favorite albums (1990s), vol. 2

As someone born in 1975, I should be a musical child of the 1980s. And in many ways, I am. Those were the formative years that shaped my tastes. However, it was the 1990s where my musical proclivities were fine-tuned. Those were the years of growth and development; that was the decade of high school and college, of becoming a man. My favorite music of that era reflects the period.
— Matt Lail


Right in the midst of grunge taking over the music scene, the boys from Athens, Ga., decided to zig while everyone else zagged. Of course, in true R.E.M. fashion, they weren’t necessarily pivoting in response to what was going on in the world. Instead, R.E.M. decided to transition from what R.E.M. had been doing. So, in 1992, on the heels of a monster hit in “Losing My Religion” and the album Out of Time, R.E.M. unleashed Automatic for the People. It’s essentially an album about death and loss. With a couple of exceptions, there is very little electric guitar on this album. But there are a lot of strings, arranged courtesy of Led Zeppelin’s version of Mike Mills, John Paul Jones. Automatic for the People — for the reasons just mentioned — is HIGHLY unconventional, especially for a band that was at their creative peak AND at the top of their commercial selling power. Oh, and they didn’t tour for this one. (Warner Bros. must have been having a cow.) But what an album it is. It still managed to spawn major commercial hits (“Drive,” “Man on the Moon,” “Everybody Hurts”), as well as critical and fan favorites (“Nightswimming” and “Find the River,” to name just two). When the dust had settled, R.E.M. was still arguably America’s greatest band. And they had done it their way. As Michael Stipe sings in “Drive”: “Hey kids, rock and roll / Nobody tells you where to go, baby.”

Producer | Scott Litt, R.E.M.  Label | Warner Bros.  Released | October 5, 1992

2. NEVERMIND (1991) Nirvana

Growing up in Dunn, N.C., meant that I was almost close enough to listen to North Carolina State’s student radio station, WKNC, airing from Raleigh. On clear nights, we might be able to listen to “Chainsaw Rock.” My best friend, Stan, came to school one day in late 1991 or early 1992 going on and on about this band he heard — sorta — the night before on KNC. The reception was spotty, but the impact was clear. “I couldn’t quite make out the name, but I think the DJ called them ‘Marijuana,’” said Stan. He even went to a record store in Fayetteville (Record Bar, perhaps?) and asked the clerk if he had any “Marijuana.” I don’t recall what happened after that. I’m sure it was humorous. It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that we realized that “Marijuana” was actually “Nirvana,” and the song was, naturally, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” For me, this was “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “A Hard Day’s Night” all rolled into one. Nirvana changed everything (at least momentarily). I even remember one of the guys from Motley Crue or Poison or some other hair band saying that when he saw the “Teen Spirit” video, he immediately realized how silly and inconsequential they seemed at that point. But Nirvana was WAY more than just that song and the cultural touchstone they became. There is not a dud song on Nevermind. It’s perfectly balanced; the second side, though not as heavy on radio and MTV hits as the first, is as strong a side as they come. (Kids, back in the day, there were albums and cassettes with two sides. Look it up.) For a short time, Kurt Cobain was teenage America’s cardigan-wearing Elvis. But then he, too, eventually left the building. But not before he got the “Weird Al” Treatment.

Producer | Butch Vig  Label | DGC  Released | September 24, 1991

3. ACHTUNG BABY (1991) U2

It’s kind of hard to comprehend now, because Achtung Baby is now considered “classic” U2, but it was such a departure for the band when it was released in 1991. After all, we were not that far removed from the enormity of The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum. While those albums showed the Irish band’s embrace of America, Achtung Baby seemed to be the band’s open-arms return to Europe and the land of cobblestone alleys, tiny cars and cloudy skies. Hell, after taking over America by biblical proportions, you now have cover art that features Bono in drag and a naked Adam Clayton — with a carefully placed “X” to cover up his, uh, shillelagh. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but it was with Achtung Baby where U2 took the step from the “biggest band in the world” to the “best band in the world.” The shows just got bigger as well from that point on. Even the opening notes of “Zoo Station” were different than anything they had done before. And the muffled/garbled voice of Bono + electric drums? I did a double-take to make sure I had put in the right CD. Achtung Baby was not devoid of hits — no way. “Even Better than the Real Thing,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “The Fly” and, of course, “One” — all were radio staples. A couple of those remain concert staples as well. If people were tired of U2 after Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum (especially the movie), then they were out of luck. They were still everywhere and on top of their game. They were still full of themselves and anthemic (though a little bit less serious). The naysayers would finally get their way — but it would take a couple more albums to get there.

Producers | Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno  Label | Island  Released | November 18, 1991

4. SIAMESE DREAM (1993) Smashing Pumpkins

Most people probably haven’t heard Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish, which is a shame. But almost everyone has heard Siamese Dream. And for good reason. From the drum roll-to-rock frenzy that is “Cherub Rock” to the melody of “Today” (a song about suicide, actually) to the beauty of “Disarm” — and everything in between, Siamese Dream was a classic from the minute Billy Corgan and Butch Vig put the final guitar layers and finishing touches on it. In the end, it was Corgan’s masterpiece. It’s too bad he went a bit nutty after.

Producer | Butch Vig  Label | Virgin  Released | July 27, 1993

5. OUR TIME IN EDEN (1992) 10,000 Maniacs

It’s probably sexist of me, but I just don’t typically find myself drawn toward bands or acts with female lead singers. Not sure why. I mean, just look at this list. (Or this one, even.) But with Natalie Merchant on vocals, 10,000 Maniacs was just magical. And not unlike Automatic for the People, the Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden just hit me at the absolute perfect time. “These Are Days” probably made up roughly 30 percent of America’s senior class songs in 1993. “Candy Everybody Wants” was a radio staple, but the entire album is a jewel — highlighted by Merchant’s soaring and lilting voice. She would catapult the mainstream success of 10,000 Maniacs to some solo success not long after, but the real masterpieces were with the band she helped form in 1981. It’s hard to reference this album without also acknowledging the beauty that was the band’s MTV Unplugged performance and subsequent album. They were a band that translated very well to the more subdued Unplugged stage.

Producer | Paul Fox  Label | Elektra  Released | September 29, 1992

6. OUT OF TIME (1991) R.E.M.

By around 1990, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was pretty much over the guitar. He wanted to try something new. He needed to try something new. So Buck did what any self-respecting guitarist would do: He picked up the mandolin. R.E.M. would not be the same again. They would still be a jangly band, but those jangles would come from a slew of new instruments. The amazing part? It worked. It worked REALLY well. In fact, Out of Time would spawn the band’s biggest ever hit in “Losing My Religion,” which was helped immensely by the video. Out of Time, on the back of “Losing My Religion,” would go on to sell 18 million albums worldwide. It also won three Grammys. Not bad for a baroque album that also included “Shiny Happy People.”

Producers | Scott Litt, R.E.M.  Label | Warner Bros. / Concord Records  Released | March 12, 1991

7. WEEZER (BLUE ALBUM) (1994) Weezer

My friend Stan (of Nirvana / “Marijuana” fame) introduced me to a song during summer break after our freshman year of college. It was so damn catchy, and a line about looking “just like Buddy Holly” seemed appropriate for a time where black-rimmed glasses were en vogue. The song was, of course, “Buddy Holly” by Weezer, the biggest hit from their eponymous debut album (affectionately called “The Blue Album”). But Weezer also spawned critical hits in “Undone — The Sweater Song” (still one of the most underrated music videos of all time) and “Say It Ain’t So.” This album was like an homage to nerds with references to Dungeons & Dragons and comic books, along with nods to music heroes like KISS. It was an album for the losers — but with the losers getting the last laugh.

Producer | Ric Ocasek  Label | DGC  Released | May 10, 1994

8. CRACKED REAR VIEW (1994) Hootie & the Blowfish

It’s unfortunate that they became the butt of jokes (see Jerry Maguire, for instance), but South Carolina’s Hootie & the Blowfish laughed all the way to the bank with their first major label release Cracked Rear View. “Hootie” had great timing. It was the perfect antidote to those who were suffering from “Grunge Fatigue.” Catchy melodies and even catchier choruses — and even MORE catchy videos equaled pure gold. Or platinum, rather. The album went platinum 21 times over, thanks to some megahits like “Hold My Hand,” “Only Wanna Be With You” and “Time.” And despite the pure pop of it, Darius Rucker & Co. managed to pay homage to several legit music heroes like Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe. In addition, Hootie name-dropped (subtly) one of the best Carolina bands of that era in Chapel Hill’s Dillon Fence. Unfortunately, people began to get “Hootie Fatigue.” When the band toured this past summer, they showed they still had chemistry as a band, and they still sold out amphitheaters all over America. A quarter century later, the album more than still holds up. When they played in Raleigh this past summer, they didn’t open with one of the big hits, but instead the album’s opener, “Hannah Jane.” They proceeded to play just about every song from the album.

Producer | Don Gehman  Label | Atlantic  Released | July 5, 1994

9. WHERE YOU BEEN (1993) Dinosaur Jr.

First, an apology. For my high school beach weekend in 1993, I drove a couple friends to Myrtle Beach, S.C. I think we listened to Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been the entire way there and back, probably a total of roughly eight hours. But I don’t apologize for ranking this album among the top 10 albums of the 1990s. This is as complete an album as any other one on this list. Where You Been showcases band leader J Mascis’ ability to write melodic, soulful hymns completed shrouded by waves of distortion and his own cracking voice. As a songwriter, Mascis is among the best. Had these songs been given to other, more polished artists, they could have been top 40 hits. But with his own unique touch, they stand on their own as Dinosaur Jr.’s masterpiece.

Producer | J Mascis  Label | Blanco y Negro / Sire  Released | February 9, 1993

10. BLUE SKY MINING (1990) Midnight Oil

This one just barely squeezes into the category of “Best Albums of the 1990s.” No, not because it’s not superb — it truly is. But because it was released in February 1990. Sure, Blue Sky Mining doesn’t have a signature, worldwide hit like Midnight Oil had with “Beds are Burning” or even “The Dead Heart” off their previous album, Diesel and Dust, but Blue Sky Mining is a more complete album. Yes, it features the environmentally and politically charged vocals of chrome-domed and lanky Peter Garrett. Yes, it still is very specific to themes unique (mostly) to Australia. And, yes, it is so SO earnest. But songs like “Blue Sky Mine,” “Forgotten Years” and “King of the Mountain” showed the Oils at their melodic peak. Throw in jewels like “River Runs Red” and “One Country” (I dare you to not get chills listening to that crescendo at the end), Blue Sky Mining is an album that proved that the Oils were not just a one- or two-hit wonder, but a band willing to take on the world — or at least Exxon.

Producers | Warne Livesey & Midnight Oil  Label | Columbia  Released | February 9, 1990


Ten (1991) Pearl Jam

Girlfriend (1991) Matthew Sweet

Your Arsenal (1992) Morrissey

The Chronic (1992) Dr. Dre

Zooropa (1993) U2

Last Splash (1993) The Breeders

In Utero (1993) Nirvana

Ring (1993) The Connells

Monster (1994) R.E.M.

Vauxhaul and I (1994) Morrissey

Throwing Copper (1994) Live

Under the Table and Dreaming (1994) Dave Matthews Band

Dookie (1994) Green Day

The Bends (1995) Radiohead

New Adventures in Hi Fi (1996) R.E.M.

Odelay (1996) Beck

OK Computer (1997) Radiohead

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