By The S&N Staff. Over the past few months, S&N has been counting down our list of the essential 90s albums. So far, we’ve seen historic albums from Nine Inch Nails, Biggie, Green Day, Beastie Boys, Counting Crows, Rage Against The Machine, Oasis, and plenty of others. Today, we finally reach the top 10, and it should comes as no surprise that there’s hip-hop, nerd rock, and of course, plenty of grunge. We start with a band better known for their 80s output—and a 1992 masterpiece that may (or may not) be their best work.
10. R.E.M., Automatic For The People (1992): The inclusion of Automatic For The People on this list is proof to me that these lists are hopelessly flawed because the voting ends up a bizarre hybrid of objectivity, personal taste, and popular opinion. The result is nonsensical! Really, Automatic For The People is my least favorite R.E.M. album from this period of time. I adore Green (1988), their major label debut. One of my friends swears (and I’m tempted to agree) that the B-side of Out Of Time (1991) (from “Belong” to “Me In Honey”) has everything you need to understand R.E.M. Hell, I prefer the fuzzed, devil-may-care attitude of Monster (1994) to the relative safety of Automatic. And my all-time favorite remains New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996), which is the culmination of everything they were up to that point.
Ah, but on this list it was always going to be Automatic For The People. It is R.E.M.’s commercial peak, when they momentarily grabbed the title of “Biggest Rock Band in the World” before happily relinquishing it again. The hits, which are great, are what R.E.M. sounds like to people who don’t listen to a lot of R.E.M. “Everybody Hurts” is a pained ballad of empathy that I’m sure everybody needs at least one day in her life. “Man On The Moon” polishes the absurd, nonlinear lyrics that drove early R.E.M. into a pure pop song. “Drive” is a classic slice of the southern gothic. And “Nightswimming” itself “deserves a quiet night.” That damn song ages with you.
Now this is a fine showing for any album—and several of the other tracks continue to stand tall—but all of this does not add up to the truly quintessential R.E.M. album in the way that I suspect all honest people know that The Joshua Tree is the sound of U2 perfecting what they were working on. You can talk about U2 as before and after Joshua Tree. This is not the case for R.E.M. and Automatic For The People. It’s one strong album in a line of strong albums that plays with who and what R.E.M. is. There’s no objective reason to think of Automatic as superior to any of their work 5 years prior or later. It might be your favorite, and who could protest that? We all have moments when we wake up to something great. But it’s not their best. It’s the snapshot of a moment in which a jangly rock band from Athens, Georgia, on the wings of consistently beautiful music, happened to reach its commercial peak. —Antony
9. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992): Is it an oversimplification to say that Dr. Dre deserves the credit for introducing white people to hip-hop? Maybe, but not by much. Sure, suburban white adolescents had previously bought into the cartoonish brand of “rap” offered up by Vanilla Ice or M.C. Hammer or even Sir Mix-A-Lot. But those were novelty acts, one hit wonders whose appeal was more in the joke than in the song. Even the Beastie Boys paired genuine rhyming skills and musicality with a winking sense of irony, as if to confirm that white kids needed their hip-hop with a safe, sugary, candy coating. Then Dre came along.
“Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang” was everything that those rappers were not—it was dangerous, profane, and unquestionably an authentic reflection of urban black culture. And it was also fun. Obviously, gritty urban hip-hop was nothing new in 1992; Dre himself had been putting it out for years already with N.W.A., and there were Public Enemy and Ice-T and Grandmaster Flash and a whole host of others too. But that music was never really heard outside of the streets from which it came. Dre’s genius was that he found a way to make all that poverty and violence and social unrest sound slick—even sexy. And suddenly, a minority subculture was now taking over the mainstream and supplanting rock music as the single biggest driver of youth culture, not just in black communities but across every racial divide. It didn’t just change music, it changed movies and fashion and the very way we talk. That’s why it’s not hyperbole to say that The Chronic was quite possibly the most culturally important work of music released in the past half century.
Hip-hop has gone through so many evolutions since then, and as a result, it’s so easy for the music to sound dated after just a few years. But set aside The Chronic as hip-hop and just listen to The Chronic as music, and you’ll be shocked at how fresh it still sounds even today. The lyrical skill on display is undeniable; the album was the coming-out party for a young prodigy named Snoop Doggy Dogg. But it was Dre’s skills as a producer that made The Chronic timeless. Dre introduced the concept of melody to hip-hop; the choruses of “‘G’ Thang” and “Dre Day” and “Let Me Ride” had a sing-a-long quality that transformed rap from an assemblage of wordplay into actual songs. That, more than any other reason, is why the white kids finally tuned in. It seems like such a small thing, but the cultural legacy of that transformation is still reverberating—right along with Dre’s beats. —Spencer
8. Pearl Jam, Ten (1991): The musicians who would eventually form Pearl Jam may not have met but for a tragic death in the Seattle grunge community. Andrew Wood, lead singer of Mother Love Bone, the most popular grunge band of the late 80s and early 90s, had died of a heroin overdose. Devastated, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, the band’s guitarist and bass player, parted ways. Gossard turned inward and began writing some of the most intense music of his young career while working with another local guitarist named Mike McCready. Eventually, Gossard and Ament reunited and, along with McCready on lead, the group put together a five-song demo tape that fell into the hands of a California surfer named Eddie Vedder. After adding Dave Krusen on drums, Pearl Jam was formed and the band began recording its debut album in March 1991.
The result was Ten, an album that serves as a true extension of the band itself—a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The album’s breakthrough singles—“Alive,” “Jeremy,” and “Even Flow”— hardly need mentioning; their riffs and choruses have become so deeply intertwined with the grunge explosion that it is as if they emerged intact from Seattle itself. It is the remaining tracks, however, that bring the entire album, well, alive. “Once,” the opening track, introduces Vedder to the world with his roaring first lyric, “I admit it,” and then it barrels away into an alt-rock madness that’s picked up later with the force of tracks like “Porch.” “Black” and “Oceans” each appear at well-placed moments to drop the listener into mediations of loves had and lost (even if one of them may be about surfing). And then there’s “Garden,” the album’s most cryptic and underrated track.
Overall, Ten is a dark and serious album focused on depression, homelessness, and violence. But it is darkness on an arena-sized stage, with Vedder’s deep and earnest growl amplified to stage-diving quality by exceptional guitar leads and powerful low ends. It was also the only grunge era album to so finely fuse with the fading hair metal of the late 80s. For this metal head, this is more than enough for Ten to take its place above Soundgarden’s and Alice In Chain’s greatest work. Ten’s success may have spawned a legion of half-baked derivatives, but such imitation has simply been well-deserved flattery. —Jason
7. Nirvana, In Utero (1993): How do you follow the monumental success of an album like Nevermind? With an opening line like, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old.” How’s that for a lyrical middle finger to yourself? So begins In Utero, Kurt Cobain’s rebuttal to the joys of rock superstardom and the last word from a generational spokesman who never wanted to be one.
Cobain may have been the mastermind of Nirvana, but in retrospect, each of their albums were defined just as much by their respective producers. Here, that’s Steve Albini (best known for his work with The Pixies), who offered a middle finger of his own toward the polished production of Nevermind by giving the band a more visceral sound built on thundering drums and abrasive guitars. Gone were all of the overdubs and studio trickery; songs were recorded in single takes, the microphones intentionally placed at a distance to capture every last ounce of echo. The effect gave Nirvana a larger-than-life sound to match their reputation. But of course Cobain could never quite reconcile his internal desire to alienate with his innate talent for pop songwriting—a tension that gave Nirvana that rarest mix of popularity and artistic credibility—and so the band, after much internal wrangling, remastered the album over Albini’s vehement objections.
Thankfully, the result worked, and in many ways represented the two sides of Nirvana’s split personality better than any other release. The singles, “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies,” are every bit as accessible as the hits of Nevermind, with the latter track revealing new depth and range in Cobain’s songwriting. But then there are also all of those non-conformist moments like “Milk It” or “Scentless Apprentice” or “Tourette’s” that sound like nothing you’ll ever hear on a major-label release from a best-selling band. They’re gritty, filled with rage, and the vocals are almost unintelligible beneath the noise. You listen to those tracks now and you realize they are the sound of Kurt Cobain saving his own soul. At what could have been a crucial turning point in their careers, Nirvana faced the dilemma of either selling out or breaking boundaries—and exposed it as a false choice. —Spencer
6. Weezer, The Blue Album (1994): Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Smashing Pumpkins. Soundgarden. These are the bands you most likely think of when you think of the 90s. But as huge as they were, can you honestly think of that many bands from today who sound like them? Influence is a funny thing, because it’s often the band that flew under the radar during one generation that has the longest lasting impact on the next. Like Weezer. When we first listened to “Undone (The Sweater Song),” we heard all that overwhelming guitar fuzz and thought to ourselves, “sure, I’ve heard this before.” And maybe they had a quirkier sense of humor than all those self-serious grunge mopers we’d been hearing on MTV and the radio the past couple of years. But this was still familiar, accessible alternative music (which by now of course was the mainstream).
Then there was that video for “Buddy Holly.” Directed by Spike Jonze and putting the band smack in the middle of a Happy Days episode, it was edgy, nostalgic, and hilarious at the same time. And you thought, “okay, these guys are doing something a little different.” So you went to Best Buy and dropped ten bucks for The Blue Album (as the self-titled effort later became known), and you popped it in and heard a near-perfect record of power guitar pop. “My Name Is Jonas,” “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here,” “Say It Ain’t So,” “In The Garage”—each of them like the platonic ideal of a 90s rock radio single, and by all rights, having no business being packed together onto one disc. It all seemed so effortless. Success shouldn’t be so easy.
Little did we know that there was nothing effortless about it, as the more critically-acclaimed (and commercially disappointing) follow-up, Pinkerton, exposed. And little did we know that The Blue Album, as seemingly disposable as it sounded at first, was giving birth to a whole new sub-genre. They called it “nerd rock” at the time, focusing on the personalities of the band members and the antithesis-of-cool way about them. Look at that album cover again. Look closely. Four average guys, standing there awkwardly. Dressed in ill-fitting vintage shirts, khakis, whatever the hell they threw on that morning. Unsure what to do with their hands. Just looking at you. And nary a scrap of flannel, a guitar, or a lock of long hair to be seen.
It wasn’t nerd rock. It was the birth of indie as we now know it. And just like the guys from Weezer shopping at a suburban Target on the weekend, you probably didn’t even notice. —Spencer
8 thoughts on “The Projects: The Essential 90s Albums, #10-6”
@Jason: Couldn’t agree more about “Garden” … one of the most criminally underrated songs in Pearl Jam’s catalog! Glad you gave it a shout-out.
Word. I was never a big enough fan to nerd out on all their complete albums, but songs like “Garden” give me the feeling that there’s a whole separate Pearl Jam experience out there that I haven’t really discovered.
@Antony: You couldn’t be more wrong about Automatic For The People! Just kidding. I mean, it really is my favorite, and I think it’s the most complex and mature album they’ve done. As such, it’s less catchy and relistenable than Green, but to me, more satisfying nonetheless. And while as a child of the 90s I love Monster for its blatant trend-following (and some killer singles), I don’t know if anyone could say it’s “better” than Automatic—just because it really is such an obviously commercial switch in their sound. You’ve sold me on the praises of New Adventures, though: their last great album, and just an overlooked masterpiece when you go back and listen to it with fresh ears. It was R.E.M. at their least self-conscious, not even trying—and that’s what makes it so special.
@Spencer. Yeah, Monster does not deserve to be in the “best album” discussion. But it really isn’t about trend following…it’s not really grunge-y other than that it’s fuzzy. Glad you see New Adventures for what it is! We’ll just have to differ on our mildly different views of Automatic.
More importantly, you’re off about Weezer’s Blue Album. I don’t understand the comment about Pinkerton at all. What’s it supposed to show? It’s the beginning of emo — a different game altogether from indie. The Blue Album is perfect (not almost) and I don’t know anything that actually sounds like it. Maybe The Shins?
Maybe in trying to be brief about Pinkerton, I gave the wrong impression. Pinkerton is actually my favorite Weezer album. Lyrically, it’s got humor, but it’s also very personal and way more complex than anything they were attempting on The Blue Album. So my point was just that Pinkerton proved Weezer could do music with actual depth, and I think the two albums together kind of mapped out the early stages of what evolved into modern indie. While they definitely influenced emo, I don’t think it was limited to that. Death Cab comes to mind as a band that drew a lot of influence from Weezer, and pretty much everyone afterward was influenced by Death Cab, so you can kind of see the line I’m trying to draw.
Now I see the heresy you’re espousing. The Blue Album is brilliant and musically complex. That’s where the Beach Boys comparisons come from. “Simple songs” with real layers of depth. Lyrically it’s humorous like Pinkerton and joyful in real melancholy and pain in ways Pinkerton is not
Just to be clear, I’m only saying that I think Pinkerton is even better than The Blue Album. That’s no slight on The Blue Album. I love it. I just think Pinkerton is more personal and more lyrically inventive. The real shame is how the commercial failure of Pinkerton scared Rivers Cuomo out of ever writing anything that vulnerable or experimental again. I think we can all agree that everything after those first two albums was mediocre at best and complete crap at worst.
Excellent rundown. I never gave ‘Automatic For The People’ the full experience. I’ll give it a go. Looking forward to 1-5.