By The S&N Staff. Continuing with S&N’s countdown of the 25 most essential albums of the 90s, we’ve already tackled #25-21 and #20-16. Today we roll out the next five, and just like the decade they came from, they’re full of hope, sadness, and a little Rage:
15. Counting Crows, August And Everything After (1993): “Change, change, change,” Adam Duritz repeats again and again, almost drifting out with exhaustion from the catharsis of it all, on the last line of the last song of August And Everything After. It’s an ironic parting thought for an album that could easily be mistaken as just a retread of all that “safe” coffeehouse rock of the 70s—stuff like Van Morrison or The Eagles or The Band. But in 1993, during the heyday of grunge, there was nothing safe about it.
Counting Crows erupted thanks to the surprise success of “Mr. Jones,” a VH1-friendly rocker about dreams of stardom. Hidden within that song was a deep skepticism of fame and its promises, though, and Adam Duritz has famously wrestled with depression ever since. That clash between optimism and anxiety is all over August And Everything After. It starts with “Round Here,” a track about a cast of characters struggling to reconcile their childhood dreams with the mundane realities of adulthood. The same theme pops up again on “A Murder Of One”: “We were perfect when we started / I’ve been wondering where we’ve gone.” The lonely piano and accordion on “Raining In Baltimore” seep with a resigned acceptance even as Duritz stubbornly clings to possibilities: “I need a phone call / I need a raincoat / I need a big love / I need a phone call.” Upon multiple listens, you start to realize that every rose-colored line is repeated, usually several times—a sure sign not of conviction but of exactly the opposite.
No song captures all of this in one tidy package better than “Anna Begins,” a moment of absolute songwriting perfection. “I am not worried, I am not overly concerned,” Duritz sings six different times throughout the verses; he can try all he likes to convince himself but he’s fooling no one. And then the chorus breaks the clouds and all that doubt falters for a few shimmering bars: “This time, when kindness falls like rain / It washes me away / And Anna begins to change my mind / And every time she sneezes I believe it’s love and oh, Lord, I’m not ready for this sort of thing.”
The wordplay is poetry, the meaning is inquisitive and cutting and skeptical, like everything you’ve ever loved about Dylan. Despite the band’s softer image, it’s that element of cynicism that makes this music not so different from the era of Cobain and Vedder in which it was conceived. What sets it apart is how Counting Crows marry those doubts with a tone that leaks hopefulness through it all. For over twenty years now, I’ve listened to this album on both my darkest days and on some of my brightest—and somehow, in both settings, it ends up making total sense. —Spencer
14. Jeff Buckley, Grace (1994): “Of course there is grace and those halos of pain / Maybe he sang what he came here to sing,” Duncan Sheik once wrote of Jeff Buckley, trying like so many of us to find sense in the loss of yet another great rock star before his time. Grace was the only album Jeff Buckley would release in his lifetime, but for an album that conjures so many sad thoughts, it’s amazing how much joy there is in it. Buckley had one of those voices that seemed to cut through everything—through guitars and drums, and through the heartache of his own lyrics—like a beam of light that couldn’t be dimmed.
Much of Grace sounds dated today, so full of crescendos and vocal vibrato and unapologetic over-emoting; Buckley’s music makes the emo bands of a decade later sound like a Prozac nap. But his talents as a vocalist and a guitarist stand out that much more in an era where virtuosos are relics. And though the circumstances of Buckley’s death inevitably color the way we hear it now, it’s ironic that the album is best known now for giving new life to a forgotten genius, Leonard Cohen. Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” was so exquisite that every recording artist and street busker of the past two decades feels obligated to try and mimic even a hint of his magic. No one, Leonard Cohen included, ever will. —Spencer
13. The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness (1995): The White Album and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness are the only double albums worth a damn. That’s it, those two alone. You could argue that Mellon Collie is too long. It is. But from the music, to the lyrics, to the fable and fairy tale art work, to the band picture in the liner notes, it’s a perfect record.
Written during his most prolific period (he released 64 B-sides with the album’s singles), somehow across 28 tracks, Billy Corgan’s outsized ambition and ego hung together and the result is one of the 90s’ greatest records. The album had brilliant singles—“Tonight, Tonight” and “1979” are timeless. But it is the album’s sonic reach that made it different than anything the band had ever done. Mellon Collie was a 70s rock opera for modern times. Influenced by the past but eyes on the future, it showed how electronic music would change alternative rock. Sadly Mellon Collie was the full band’s last record, which really became and still is Corgan’s solo project. But for one record they put their differences mostly aside and were perfect. A group of weird Gen X kids, making music that spoke to the souls of weird Gen X kids. —Mark
12. Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (1992): It seems strange now, but in a world before Fox News and MSNBC, before Obama and the Tea Party, before #BlackLivesMatter and #Benghazi—politics was an afterthought. In 1992, a Harvard economics grad and an LA rapper with socialist leanings had plenty to say about that. And though they would go on to speak eloquently about racial and economic injustice over the course of four perfect albums, it was a battle cry of pure anarchy that became their most memorable statement: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”
That song, “Killing In The Name,” was a protest against police brutality that could have just as easily been inspired by the headlines of 2015, but in the atmosphere of Generation X disillusionment that dominated the 90s, it’s easy to see why that line, screamed again and again by frontman Zach De La Rocha, became stripped of its context. Rage Against The Machine might have preferred to have a very serious political conversation with their fans—to single-handedly bring back the art of protest music from its post-60s slumber—but fans just wanted to mosh. And Rage gave them plenty of reason. Fusing rap and metal in a way that seemed completely shocking, RATM’s self-titled debut created a new genre that felt harder than anything else in music; anthems like “Bombtrack,” “Bullet In The Head,” and “Know Your Enemy” made you want to bob your head one minute then throw fists the next. And Tom Morello, the intellectual center of the band, found freakishly innovative new ways to coax noises from a guitar we’d never heard before (or since). The formula found its perfect expression in the closer, “Freedom,” a multi-part bohemian rhapsody that truly earned the moniker, climbing then falling, climbing again then pausing, and then escalating one last time into an unholy William Wallace-like scream: “Freeeeddddooommm!!!! And then of course, because it was the 90s, the all-important post-scriptum: “yeah, right.” —Spencer
11. Oasis, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995): If S&N were staffed with Brits then Definitely Maybe would be the Oasis album of choice, but Morning Glory is the world conqueror. Oasis’s second album trades the fantastical, youthful bravado of Definitely Maybe for the unshakeable confidence of achievement. This would later devolve into pure delusion (Be Here Now), but don’t you mind that. Morning Glory is a triumph. It’s not a perfect album, but the lesser lights gain significance just by mingling with the great ones. You remember “Roll With It,” right? No, didn’t think so. It’s a decent song that lets you breathe between the roaring album opener “Hello” and the dizzying excellence of “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” The job of “Roll With It” is just to get on base, and it succeeds on that count.
“Wonderwall” is the song of the 90s. I know this because if you ever find yourself in a hostel anywhere in the world, there’s a dude leading a sing-along of “Wonderwall” on his beat up acoustic guitar. (He’ll then segue into the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under The Bridge” or a Beatles song; be sure to leave before it degenerates into a drum circle). Album closer “Champagne Supernova” is pure psychedelic joy.
But thinking on the lasting importance of Oasis has led me to a negative conclusion: I think Oasis’s success represents something terrible. Around this time, a certain backwards-looking overtook rock music; it has since conquered all of pop. What’s new is really just the conscious taking up of some past style and sound. Oasis successfully mines the melodic vein of The Beatles, adds a dash of the Rolling Stones’ swagger, and voila we have “new” music that instantly makes us nostalgic for some mythic past. This is how cultures collapse. —Antony