By The S&N Staff. All things must end. And even though it took almost as long to count down our favorite albums of the 90s as it did to actually make it through the 90s, we’re finally ready to give you our top five. While it should come as no surprise that bands like Nirvana and Radiohead top out our list, you just may be surprised at which order they placed once the final votes were tallied.
5. Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream (1993): What can I objectively say about Siamese Dream? I’ve listened to this album so many times that it’s part of me. While people were taking sides in the great debate of Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, I opted out and threw my lot in with the Smashing Pumpkins. They suited teenage me very well—a group of misfits who didn’t quite belong, whose angst was matched only by the ambition of their sound.
Listen to Siamese Dream again. The layers of guitars are beautiful. There’s a bed of fuzz low in the mix that keeps you wrapped in the songs as you’re jerked around by the wild contradictions that are the Pumpkins. Billy Corgan’s voice turns from cracking choirboy to a howl on a dime. And can anyone layer vocals like Corgan? Jimmy Chamberlain’s drums thunder and yet show a jazz-sense of intricacy and delicacy. All of this wouldn’t mean much if the songs weren’t there. “Today” and “Disarm” still own your local alternative radio station. “Silverfuck” epically unwinds, exhausting all that is rock’n’roll. In its wake, the Pumpkins leave the listener with two stunning ballads—“Sweet Sweet” and “Luna”—to take you gently into the night. The truest testament to Siamese Dream’s greatness are the two songs co-written by Corgan and James Iha: “Soma” and “Mayonaise.” Fuzzy, tough, beautiful, melodic, and epic. Everything I’ve said about the album is contained in “Mayonaise.” It’s the best Pumpkins song and possibly the best song of the 90s. “Fool enough to almost be it / Cool enough to not quite see it / . . . / Try to understand that when I can, I will.” —Antony
Okay, okay, he’s not wrong. You’re supposed to pick OK Computer. But you want to pick The Bends. Deep down, you know this. It’s Radiohead right before Radiohead became Radiohead. Fans of the band will know instantly what I mean. This is the album that first hinted that Thom Yorke and company might be more than just another alternative band—that they might be capable of something historic. And because of the point in time that it straddles, it’s the perfect mix of listenability and weirdness, of pop and experimentation, of beauty and noise.
The first few echoing chords of “Planet Telex” are like a ghost announcing itself, which was shocking back when all you knew of Radiohead was the safe radio accessibility of Pablo Honey, but makes perfect sense now. The title track, “The Bends,” blows you sky high. “High And Dry” is warm and sweet. “Fake Plastic Trees” just might be the perfect power ballad, crescendoing like the love child of Jeff Buckley and Bono. “Nice Dream” sounds like, well, a nice dream.
There are so many painstakingly pretty moments throughout The Bends, like the haunting “Bulletproof (I Wish I Was)” or the ominous darkness of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” We’ve come to expect this of Radiohead. But what we forget is just how much they used to rock. “Just” may not be as good as its video, but it’s funky and aggressive in a way that the band would never sound again. “Black Star” and “Sulk” are sweeping, melodic slices of idyllic power pop. And those ferocious guitar hooks on the chorus of “My Iron Lung” are just of out of their fucking mind.
This is where it all ended and all began for Radiohead. Guitars and love songs gave way to Moog synthesizers and Arthur C. Clarke imagery. But for one perfect album, all of that coexisted on a single disc. —Spencer
3. U2, Achtung Baby (1991): I’ve thought a lot about U2’s career arc (I wrote about it here). They fascinate me. Part of it is that I was very late to understanding U2. Yes, there was a girl, who gave me a little extra incentive to figure out a band I’d kept at arm’s length. Perhaps under the influence of love, I was converted. I felt the spiritual elevation that so few bands are able to harness. U2 as a force cannot be denied, and maybe that’s why forty years in, they continue to inspire both intense devotion and nearly pathological animosity.
There are two reasons that Achtung Baby lands so high on this list. The first is simply that it’s a great album. The second is that with Achtung U2 pulls off a rare feat: the album is a radical turn in the band’s image and sound while still mysteriously continuing to sound exactly like themselves. It reminds me of the paradoxical conclusion Gonzalo, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, comes to after the play’s climax. He says, “all of us [found] ourselves when no man was his own.” That’s what Achtung is for U2.
They were facing the daunting task of following up The Joshua Tree (which I assume would land very high on an S&N Best Albums of the 80s list). If the desert spirituality of Joshua Tree is U2’s American album, Achtung Baby is then their return to Europe. Recorded partly in Berlin just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and in Dublin, the album aches and yearns. It breathes the exhaustion and hope for what comes after walls come down. The sonic texture of the album is an electronic one. Today, it sounds ahead of its time, especially since popular rock was pivoting toward the alternative sounds of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. But it’s hardly “U2 goes electronic”—the electronic sounds create the atmosphere and set the ground for many of the songs.
You know that “One” is a perfect song. Seriously, drop your hang-ups about the song being “over-played” or whatever, and listen like it’s the first time. The final stanza is what U2 has always wanted you to know: “One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should / One life with each other / Sisters, brothers / One life, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other, carry each other / One, One.” Through the difficulty and suffering our differences can create, we still at the end of the day “get to carry each other.”
What keeps Achtung Baby alive is not the power of the massive singles, but the strength of the other songs. To me the secret heart of the album is “So Cruel.” It pulses, driven by the drums and a processed bass sound. The lyrics show the grittier view of love that’s such a part of the album. It’s sensual and wounded. To me, “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is the link between Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. It would’ve been epic on the previous album, while here there’s a distance in its sound—it’s got a beautiful sweep but sounds like a fading dream. Perhaps my favorite song on the album is “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World.” It’s a small song by U2 standards. It feels lived in to me. The electronic elements sit very comfortably with The Edge’s chiming guitar. The lyrics seem to collapse the desire to make a difference (arms around the world) with the love of an individual (arms around the girl). I like the way its simplicity sets the listener up to really feel the experimental nature of the next two songs. Then, the album ends on the worldly church hymn (listen to that opening organ) of “Love Is Blindness”—a stunning closing song to U2’s finest album. —Antony
2. Nirvana, Nevermind (1991): “The Knack and the Bay City Rollers getting molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” That was how Kurt Cobain explained his goal for Nevermind. Surrounded by an expanding group of Seattle-based bands, he wanted Nirvana to go beyond the typical grunge rock archetype. He wanted something more than detuned guitars and restrictive conventions; he fundamentally sought melody among the distortion.
Heavily influenced by The Pixies’s use of loud-quiet dynamics, Nevermind perfected the art of the clean, stripped-down verses and the scream of full-throated choruses over raging guitars. See “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “In Bloom,” and “Lithium,” three of the decade’s best songs within the first 20 minutes of the album. Other tracks, such as “Breed,” “Territorial Pissings,” and “Stay Away,” round out the general havoc of the album so well as each brings us closer to Cobain’s dysfunction, while “Polly” and “Something In The Way” provide acoustic reprieves. Also, of course, there is “Come As You Are,” another of the album’s extremely successful singles and my favorite track, with its lyrics of constant contradiction (“Take your time/Hurry up”) intended to force reflection on our perceptions of human behavior. Although it may be hard to believe today, many, including the band, maintained extremely low expectations for the album, yet Nevermind ultimately became the definitive sound of 1990s rock music.
For those whose teenage years spanned the 1990s, Nevermind took on a larger-than-life existence. We honestly weren’t sure what the hell we were singing about, but we screamed “Smells Like Teen Spirit”’s “A denial!” at the top our lungs. Power chords never so fully lived up to their name! In a single album, Nevermind established a generation of alternative rock fanatics. No one said it better than Spin in their 1991 review: “[Y]ou’ll be humming all the songs for the rest of your life.” —Jason
1. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997): Among pop music geeks like the writers for S&N, it’s a commonplace to say things like “Radiohead is the only band that matters,” or, if we’re looking to make a point, “Other than Radiohead, __________ is the only band that matters.” This is, of course, rhetorical nonsense. Mattering is one of those slippery words that assures you the ability to carve out some sort of victory if your claim is ever challenged.
But here’s the thing: I believe it. Every time I’ve seen Radiohead live, I was awed and moved. It’s religious. But something seems off about that. Hearing a crowd of thousands sing along to “No Surprises”—”You look so tired and unhappy / Bring down the government / They don’t, they don’t speak for us / I’ll take a quiet life / A handshake of carbon monoxide”—is a very strange feeling. It’s defiant, not defeated. Maybe it’s the peace that comes with dispelling illusions. Your life situation might not change—you still have that “job that slowly kills you”—but now you’re clear-eyed about the whole thing.
OK Computer is an album in the proper sense of the word: 11 songs and one android soliloquy. It might even be a perfect one (another frequent music geek topic of conversation). Each song borrows strength from what comes before it and what comes after it. You screech into the album’s world with “Airbag”—getting your second chance when “an airbag saved my life”—and you drift away with the album closer, “The Tourist”—its refrain, “idiot, slow down, slow down.”
The album is not a concept album, but it’s thematically tight. The songs are sketches of modern individuals. Our lives are permeated with technology. You hear it in the lyrics, but you also feel it in the music. Every guitar buzz and computer beep builds the never-silent backdrop of modern life. The whole thing seems surreal, frequently drifting until it isn’t. Then the scene turns nightmarish like when the guitar cuts into “Paranoid Android” around 3 minutes just after the narrator freaks out, until it rather abruptly returns to the acoustic-driven section of the song and its floating, anxious calm. That is, until it, in turn, gives back in to the cutting guitar that brings the 6-minute epic to a close.
I don’t want to break OK Computer down by song because it should be thought of as a whole album. But let me pull two songs out that stand apart for very different reasons. “Karma Police” was the massive single. It has a life independent of the record because it was on the radio all the time. It was thrilling to hear it come on. At the end of the century, big songs were allowed to start with lyrics like: “Karma police / Arrest this man / He talks in maths / He buzzes like a fridge / He’s like a detuned radio.” Things aren’t really like that anymore. While “Karma Police” belongs to anyone with a radio, “Let Down” exists for me as a personal song. The song is about that feeling you get when you should be enjoying yourself, but everything—the people, their concerns and interests, the music, the decor—just seems transparently put-on. The distance between you and everything else opens up, and well, at such moments, “Let Down” is a great comfort—sympathy and surrealism in the same dose.
I want to make some great pronouncement about OK Computer being unique or as the progenitor of some beloved subgenre of music, but I don’t think it’d be true. OK Computer might be Radiohead’s best album, with emphasis on the might. They followed OK Computer with the electronica-soaked Kid A. It was radical and nothing to this day sounds like it. It’s unique in a way that OK Computer is not, though there would not have been a Kid A without the declaration of intent that is OK Computer. But maybe you like music with “songs” you can identify (square that you are); then you might harbor a strong affection for 2007’s In Rainbows. In any case, the point is that OK Computer stands alongside several arguably as-great albums in their discography.
Maybe OK Computer was the last great album in some “classic” sense of the term, then? Hardly. Sure, truly great albums are rare beasts in the age of the instant single-song download, but they are not extinct. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, The National’s High Violet, and LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver come to mind as real contenders, all working similar musical terrain as Radiohead. In the end, OK Computer is not the beginning or the end of anything. It’s a tightly structured album, impressively produced, with songs that continue to live nearly twenty years later, and that’s enough for it to deserve its place on top of the S&N list. —Antony