It’s been twenty years since one of the greatest periods in modern music. Let’s take a look back at the best albums of 1993.
It’s been a good long while since the list obligatory has dived into an analysis of the best years of music gone by. Now that we’ve gotten the big three out of the way (1967, 1977, and 1991) things can get really interesting. It is my contention that every year in modern music has spawned truly great works, you just have to have ears wide enough to appreciate them. Part of that ability is in understanding the context within which the music was created. Not only what came before and after, but what environmental and social circumstances created that special time and place for the art to grow.
One of the most fruitful periods to analyze in modern music is the 1990s. Almost universally celebrated and equally strange, you have the explosion of alternative rock and even a glimpse into a world without grunge music. At the same time, hardcore rap has officially gone mainstream thanks the constant video airplay on MTV. While 1991 is given all of the credit as the year that changed music, I honestly prefer a lot of what was going on in ’93. This is when we moved past grunge into full-blown ‘alternative rock’. I’ve spoken before about the punk movement really being about a deconstruction of genre. To me, this was the final step of that movement. Other than a few production aesthetics that seemed to take hold (why was EVERYTHING so flat?), it really did seem like you could hear just about anything. So, let’s just dive in and explore what was going on twenty years ago. For the first time ever in a normal column, there were so many good choices this week that I considered expanding the list past ten. That would probably have been more representative, but I’m far to lazy to write a twenty selection column. So, you’ll just have to accept a whole lot of honorable mentions. Oh, and most of us are about to feel very, very old. I warned you.
10,000 Maniacs – Unplugged
Yo La Tengo – Painful
Vic Chesnutt – Drunk
U2 – Zooropa
Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen
Suede – Suede
Stereo MC’s – Connected
Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle
Sheryl Crow – Tuesday Night Music Club
Sebadoh – Bubble & Scrape
The Reverend Horton Heat – The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds
Red House Painters – Red House Painters
Radiohead – Pablo Honey
Primus – Pork Soda
The Posies – Frosting on the Beater
Phish – Rift
Paw – Dragline
Paul Westerberg – 14 Songs
Mercury Rev – Boces
The Melvins – Houdini
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Extra Width
Jesus Jones – Perverse
The Jesus & Mary Chain – The Sound Of Speed
Jamiroquai – Emergency on Planet Earth
James – Laid
Iggy Pop – American Caesar
Helmet – Betty
Girls Against Boys – Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby
Fugazi – In On The Kill Taker
The Fall – The Infotainment Scan
Duran Duran – Duran Duran (The Wedding Album)
Depeche Mode – Songs of Faith and Devotion
Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
Cop Shoot Cop – Ask Questions Later
The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps
Buffalo Tom – Big Red Letter Day
Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish
Big Head Todd & The Monsters – Sister Sweetly
The Auteurs – New Wave
The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
Machines of Loving Grace Concentration
The Flaming Lips – Transmissions From The Satellite Heart
Cowboy Junkies – Pale Sun, Crescent Moon
Dinosaur Jr. – Where You Been?
The Breeders – Last Splash
Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville
Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne
Pearl Jam – Vs.
a notable exclusion.
This week’s notable exclusion was a bit of an easy one. Let’s face it, Nirvana has gotten plenty of coverage. So much so that even the mention of their name on a website inspires the sort of poisonous comment board backlash that makes you want to toss your monitor out the window. For the record, I think Nirvana deserves every bit of the attention they get. Only those of us old enough to remember it truly realize the sea change that came with Nevermind. Mainstream music had been atrocious for every part of life I can remember before it and the bands that were launched on its back after could claim nearly a quarter of my current record collection. So, it is with a bit of sadness that I’m excluding Nirvana’s final LP In Utero from the list. This is an undeniably great record. Go back and give “Heart Shaped Box” a listen today. It still sounds raw and fresh. Pop music could direly use an inject of that kind of passion. Nevertheless, this week’s column is going out to those records that maybe didn’t get as much ink but helped define the time period regardless.
10. The Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
With our first selection, there is an album I would expect will end up placing very highly on a good many lists of the greatest hip hop albums of all time. I can be absolutely sure that a good many of my own friends will likely disagree with its ‘low’ placement here. Regardless, 1993 will stand as a historical watermark in hip hop with the grand introduction of none other than the Wu-Tang Clan. In the late 1980s, cousins Robert Diggs, Gary Grice, and Russell Jones formed a group named Force of the Imperial Master, also known as the All in Together Now Crew. Each member recorded under an alias: Grice as The Genius, Diggs as Prince Rakeem or The Scientist, and Jones as The Specialist. The group never signed to a major label, but caught the attention of the New York rap scene and was recognized by rapper Biz Markie. By 1991, The Genius and Prince Rakeem were signed to separate record labels. The Genius released Words from the Genius (1991) on Cold Chillin’ Records and Prince Rakeem released Ooh I Love You Rakeem (1991) on Tommy Boy Records. Both were soon dropped by their labels. Embittered but unbowed, they took on new monikers (The Genius became GZA while Prince Rakeem became RZA) and refocused their efforts. RZA discussed the matter in their release The Wu-Tang Manual, stating “[Tommy Boy] made the decision to sign House of Pain over us. When they dropped me, I was thinking, ‘Damn, they chose a bunch of whiteboy shit over me.'”
RZA began collaborating with Dennis Coles, better known as Ghostface Killah, another rapper from the Stapleton Projects apartment complex in Staten Island. The duo decided to create a hip hop group whose ethos would be a blend of “Eastern philosophy picked up from kung fu movies, watered-down Nation of Islam preaching picked up on the New York streets, and comic books.” Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) was recorded at Firehouse Studio in New York City from 1992 to 1993. The album was produced, mixed, arranged, and programmed by RZA, and was mastered at The Hit Factory in New York City by Chris Gehringer. Because of an extremely limited budget, the group was only able to record in a small, inexpensive studio; with up to eight of the nine Wu-Tang members in the studio at once, the quarters were frequently crowded. To decide who appeared on each song, RZA forced the Wu-Tang rappers to battle with each other. This competition led to the track “Meth Vs. Chef”, a battle between Method Man and Raekwon over the rights to rap over RZA’s beat; this track was left off the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album but surfaced on Method Man’s debut, 1994’s Tical.
Upon its release, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) received positive reviews from most music critics. In an article for The Source, The Ghetto Communicator wrote “This record is harsh, but so is the world that we live in. For B-boys n’girls who come from the core of the hard, this is the hip-hop album you’ve been waiting for”. Rolling Stone‘s review was decidedly ambivalent, praising the album’s sound, but noting that “Wu-Tang…are more ciphers than masterful creations. In refusing to commodify themselves, they leave blank the ultimate canvas—the self.” Entertainment Weekly was more enthusiastic, giving the album an ‘A’, and writing that “With its rumble jumble of drumbeats, peppered with occasional piano plunking, Enter has a raw, pass-the-mike flavor we haven’t heard since rap was pop’s best-kept secret.”
In his consumer guide for The Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau gave the album an ‘A-‘ rating, indicating “the kind of garden-variety good record that is the great luxury of musical micromarketing and overproduction”. Christgau found the group “grander” and “goofier” than their “West Coast opposite numbers” and concluded “Expect the masterwork this album’s reputation suggests and you’ll probably be disappointed–it will speak directly only to indigenous hip hoppers. Expect a glorious human mess, as opposed to the ominous platinum product of their opposite numbers, and you’ll realize the dope game isn’t everyone’s dead-end street”. Music journalist Touré declared of the album, that “This is hip-hop you won’t find creeping up the Billboard charts but you will hear booming out of Jeep stereos in all the right neighborhoods.” However, Enter the Wu-Tang had surprising chart success, despite its raw, underground sound. It peaked at number 41 on the Billboard 200 chart and reached number eight on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip Hop Albums chart. The album continued to sell steadily and was eventually certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America on May 15, 1995.
Since its release, Enter the Wu-Tang has risen in stature to become one of the most highly-regarded albums in hip hop. The album was originally given a rating of 4.5 mics out of 5 in The Source magazine in 1994, however, it was given a classic 5 mic rating in a later issue of the magazine. Similar to The Source, XXL magazine gave the album a classic rating of “XXL” in its retrospective 2007 issue. In the book Spin Alternative Record Guide, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) has a critical rating of 8/10 from Spin. In 2003, Rolling Stone named the album among their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, asserting that “East-coast hip-hop made a return in 1993.” The magazine later listed it as one of their Essential Albums of the 90s. The Source cited Enter the Wu-Tang as one of the 100 Best Rap Albums, while also naming “Protect Ya Neck/Method Man” and “C.R.E.A.M.” among the 100 Best Rap Singles. MTV declared it among The Greatest Hip-Hop Albums of All Time. Blender named the album among the 500 CDs You Must Own. Publications based outside of the United States have also acclaimed 36 Chambers as well; Australia’s Juice magazine placed it at number 40 on its list of 100 Greatest Albums of the ’90s, and Les Inrockuptibles ranked it number 59 on a list of The 100 Best Albums 1986–1996.
9. Morphine – Cure For Pain
While revisionist history has it that Pavement was the greatest underground band of the 1990’s, in truth I really didn’t spend much time listening to them during that decade. For me, that role was exclusively filled by an odd little band called Morphine. Morphine was formed by Mark Sandman, Dana Colley and Jerome Deupree in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1989. The band combined blues and jazz elements (particularly that signature low tone saxophone) with more traditional rock arrangements, giving the band an unusual sound. Sandman sang distinctively in a “deep, laid-back croon”, and his songwriting featured a prominent beat influence. The band themselves coined the label “low rock” to describe their music, which involved “a minimalist, low-end sound that could have easily become a gimmick: a ‘power trio’ not built around the sound of an electric guitar. Instead, with sly intelligence, Morphine expanded its offbeat vocabulary on each album.”
The band enjoyed positive critical appraisal, but met with mixed results commercially. In the United States, the band was embraced and promoted by the indie rock community, including public and college radio stations and MTV’s 120 Minutes, which the band once guest-hosted, but received little support from commercial rock radio and other music television programs. This limited their mainstream exposure and support in their home country, while internationally they enjoyed high-profile success, especially in Belgium, Portugal, France and Australia.
Most well-known of Morphine’s five albums is their 1994 sophomore effort, Cure For Pain. While “Buena” is undeniably the album’s signature moment, many also associate the band’s sound with “Thursday”, being the song many of us remember for its very own segment on Beavis and Butthead. The tale of Thursday afternoon trysts with a married woman that end up with the protagonist high-tailing it out of town, “Thursday” carries that signature Morphine grind and slightly scary, Waits-esque beat storytelling. Sadly, after five albums the band called it quits in 1999 following the death of singer Mark Sandman due to a heart attack. Nevertheless, Cure For Pain remains as proof of Sandman’s ability to craft an utterly unique and enjoyable work. This was purely a product of the 1990s and one that I will always treasure.
8. Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See
Mazzy Star has deep roots within the Californian Paisley Underground movement of the early 1980s. To think that this band once shared the stage with the likes of Jellyfish both confuses me and produces a little chub. Of course, that could just be Hope Sandoval’s voice. David Roback, along with his brother Steven, was one of the main architects of leading Los Angeles psychedelic revival band, the Rain Parade. Leaving that band after their first LP, he founded Clay Allison in 1983 with then-girlfriend, ex-Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith. Soon after the publication of their sole release, the 1983 double A-sided single “Fell From the Sun”/”All Souls”, Clay Allison renamed themselves Opal and released the LP Happy Nightmare Baby on Rough Trade on December 14, 1987. With Roback as its musical catalyst, Opal were a direct precursor to Mazzy Star musically — often featuring the same psychedelic guitar drones and similar hints of blues and folk that would later appear on Mazzy Star recordings. Meanwhile, Sandoval – who was in high school at the time – formed the folk music duo Going Home in the early 1980s with fellow student Sylvia Gomez. Both were devoted followers of the Rain Parade, and after a 1983 concert by the band in the Los Angeles area, Gomez entered the backstage area of the venue and gave Roback a copy of Going Home’s demo tape, featuring Sandoval on vocals and Gomez on guitar. Upon hearing the tape, Roback offered to produce a still-unreleased album by the pair. When Smith left Opal under cloudy circumstances in the middle of a tour supporting The Jesus & Mary Chain, Sandoval was tapped as her replacement. The rest is wonderful history.
Despite Smith’s departure, the U.K. division of Rough Trade retained Roback’s original record deal, contractually obligating him to supply a follow-up to Opal’s debut LP. As a result, Roback and Sandoval continued to tour and record material under the Opal alias for the next two years, during which time they completed production on Opal’s planned second album, titled Ghost Highway. Much of the material found on Mazzy Star’s debut album originates from this period, with the band only changing their name shortly after renegotiating a new record deal with Rough Trade. Roback initially conceived of the band’s name as the singular idiom Mazzy, while Sandoval later suggested coupling it with the word Star, as starlight – along with numerous metaphors and various allusions to distant light – had been a recurring theme of her poetry since adolescence.
The American branch of Rough Trade folded in late 1990, briefly leaving Mazzy Star without a record label. Within weeks, the duo’s contract was picked up by Capitol, who re-released She Hangs Brightly on November 4, 1990, and released their follow-up, So Tonight That I Might See, on September 27, 1993. A year after its release, the album yielded an unexpected hit single. “Fade Into You” peaked at number 44 to become their first Billboard Hot 100 single, while also reaching a career-high peak of number 3 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. On April 19, 1995, the album was certified platinum by the RIAA for shipments in excess of 1 million units. The album also peaked at number 68 in the U.K., and as of November 2001 had sold over 40,000 copies there. Pitchfork listed “Fade into You” at number 19 on their Top 200 Tracks of the 1990s list.
Though Sandoval has released a few solo records since the breakup of Mazzy Star, there hasn’t been much evidence of the greatness that was So That Tonight I Might See since. Like The Cowboy Junkies’ Margo Timmons’, Sandoval has the sort of voice that captures your imagination forever. “Fade Into You” is a song that not only defines it’s time, but really any time that I find myself alone in a room, longing for someone else. Every now and again, that’s just the kind of medicine you need.
7. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me
If there is one artist amongst them all that makes my insides all gooey, it is PJ Harvey. An artist that couldn’t have exploded any time before this decade came to help define it and I loved every single second. Harvey’s first two albums were recorded in quick succession and their histories intertwine. In October 1991, she released her debut single “Dress.” She signed with indie record label Too Pure and relocated to London with her band mates. Almost immediately after the single’s release, she began to receive serious positive attention from music critics in both the UK and United States. This led to several major record labels vying to sign her. Harvey was initially reluctant to sign to a major label fearing she might lose artistic control of her music, but eventually decided to sign with Island Records in February 1992. A month later, Too Pure released her debut album Dry, containing both “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig”, her second single. Island would later distribute Dry under its Indigo imprint.
The band toured extensively in the UK and US to support Dry. Harvey turned down an offer to play the Lollapalooza festival in the summer of 1992, but did play the Reading Festival that August. By this time, non-stop touring had begun to take its toll on Harvey’s health. She suffered from what has been described as a nervous breakdown, brought on by a number of factors including exhaustion, poor eating habits, and the break-up of a relationship. Making matters worse, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where she had been accepted for study, refused to hold her place for her any longer. She left her London apartment and retreated to her native Dorset. While recuperating in October 1992, she worked on the songs that would appear on Rid of Me.
Musically, Rid of Me is more raw than what Harvey had written for Dry. On her first album, she experimented with two-guitar harmonies (“Happy and Bleeding”) and acoustic guitar (“Plants and Rags”). The songs on Rid of Me, however, are played mostly with one electric guitar, and heavy distortion is used on many of the tracks. She also used vocal distortion on “Hook” and “Yuri-G”. Most of the songs are played using just guitar, drums, and bass. Only four songs on the album use additional instruments (strings are used on “Man-Size Sextet”, “Legs”, and “Yuri-G”, and organ is used on “Hook”). She was still drawing heavy influences from American blues music, especially Howlin’ Wolf, who she was particularly interested in at the time. Stylistically the record was a natural progression from the heavily guitar-driven punk-blues of her debut, though it also embraced both the noisy elementary dynamics of the Pixies (she claimed their Steve Albini-produced 1988 debut Surfer Rosa as one of her favorite albums), and 1960s-1970s blues-based rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Rid of Me was released on May 4, 1993. It immediately started to draw praise from music critics in the U.S. and Great Britain. Melody Maker raved that “No other British artist is so aggressively exploring the dark side of human nature, or its illogically black humour; no other British artist possesses the nerve, let alone the talent, to conjure up its soundtrack”. Veteran UK broadcaster (and maybe the all-time classic musical ‘tastemaker’) John Peel, a supporter of Harvey since the beginning of her career, added “You’re initially so taken aback by what you’re hearing. But you go back again and again and it implants itself on your consciousness.” The San Francisco Chronicle called Harvey “A talent and a singular voice that demands to be heard.” The album also drew attention from more established musicians. Elvis Costello, for example, commented that a lot of Harvey’s songs “seem to be about blood and fucking”, a statement Harvey disagreed with. At least sonically, I think I’d agree Costello.
Steve Albini’s production of the record proved controversial. Critics were divided over whether his recording complemented Harvey’s voice or buried it. On the positive side, it was written that “Albini deftly balances heavy feedback and distortion with unexpected quiet breaks, making this release more musically diverse- and ultimately more satisfying- than PJ Harvey’s debut.” But others considered the recording too harsh, saying “Steve Albini’s deliberately crude production leaves everything minimal and rough, as if the whole album were recorded in somebody’s basement, with the drums set up in a bathroom to clatter as chaotically as possible.” Another review called it simply “a trial to endure”. Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine tried to reconcile Albini’s production with Harvey’s songs. He admitted the album has a “bloodless, abrasive edge” that leaves “absolutely no subtleties in the music,” but theorizes that Albini’s recordings “may be the aural embodiment of the tortured lyrics, and therefore a supremely effective piece of performance art, but it also makes Rid of Me a difficult record to meet halfway.” In time, I think Albini can be vindicated however. Flat production was just a fact of the 1990s and has since helped define that time period. On Rid Of Me, it only serves to amplify the desolation of Harvey’s songs and sharpens the edge of a necessarily harsh record.
Harvey herself was pleased with the end result. “I do everything for myself primarily,” she said, “and I was happy with it. I don’t really listen when people say good things about my work because I tend to not give myself praise about anything. But I was really pleased with Rid of Me. For that period of my life, it was perfect. Well, it wasn’t perfect but as near to as I could get at that time”. She remained friends with Albini afterward, finding in him a kindred spirit. “People read things in and make him what they want him to be,” Harvey said. “He’s the only other person I know that that happens to besides myself. People have a very specific idea of what I am- some kind of ax-wielding, man-eating Vampira- and I’m not that at all. I’m almost the complete opposite.”
Rid of Me entered the UK album charts at number three and quickly went silver, and enjoyed a Top 30 hit in the single “50 ft. Queenie”. In the U.S. it generated major college-radio airplay and expanded her growing fan base. It also won considerable critical acclaim and featured in various Top Ten album-of-the-year lists in respectable press, like The Village Voice, Spin, Melody Maker, Vox and Select. Spin gave it a rare ten out of ten review rating. Rid of Me was also nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, but lost to Suede. If anything its critical stature has grown over the years—Rolling Stone selected it as one of the Essential Recordings of the 90s, and in 2005, Spin ranked it the ninth greatest album of 1985–2005 after it had ranked it only the 37th greatest album of the 90s after To Bring You My Love at number 3. In 2003, the album was ranked number 405 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time. In 2011, Slant Magazine ranked Rid of Me as the 25th Greatest Album Of The 90s.
6. Grant Lee Buffalo – Fuzzy
The first concert I ever saw was Smashing Pumpkins on the Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness tour. The opening band for that tour was a group called Grant Lee Buffalo. While I loved the Pumpkins show, I never shook how enthralling Grant Lee Buffalo was, and particularly their lead singer Grant Lee Phillips. His voice floats and flutters in a way that is purely his own. At the time, they were supporting their third record, Copperopolis. While I will always love that record and most pick Mighty Joe Moon as their personal favorite, the group’s debut is an oft under-appreciated work from a very under-appreciated group. Phillips writes that their first album, Fuzzy, “would galvanize the sound of Grant Lee Buffalo, i.e., the acoustic feedback howl of overdriven 12-string guitars, melodic distorto-bass, tribal drum bombast, the old world churn of pump organs and parlor pianos.”
Born in Stockton, California, Phillips began playing the guitar in his early teens and persevered throughout high school. At age 19 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked tarring roofs to fund evening classes at UCLA and the possibility of forming a band at weekends. He eventually dropped out of college and linked up with an old friend from Stockton named Jeffery Clark. In the late 1980s Phillips lived on campus at CalArts with future wife Denise Siegel, whom he met at a party through a fellow student and first Shiva Burlesque bassist, James Brenner. Phillips lived and informally took art classes, went to public lectures, film screenings and immersed himself in the constant goings on of the school’s World Music program until 1990. Shiva Burlesque released two LPs Shiva Burlesque (1987) before work on Mercury Blues (1990) Brenner was replaced by Paul Kimble thus completing what would be the basis of Grant-Lee Buffalo. But due to the late 80s/early 90s Los Angeles obsession with spandex and glam metal, Shiva Burlesque made no commercial impact. Phillips and Clark disbanded in 1990. Phillips began playing solo around Los Angeles under the stage name Grant-Lee Buffalo.
Following those handful of solo shows at clubs around Hollywood, Phillips recruited ex-Shiva members Joey Peters (drums) and Paul Kimble (bass) for rehearsals as Grant Lee Buffalo in mid-1991. Phillips was now writing lyrics as well as music and the trio quickly built up a local following, selling out clubs on the strength of Phillips’s intense performance. His political storytelling was delivered in a recently discovered voice: both a soaring falsetto and a nourishing drawl that matched his aggressive acoustic guitar stomp and pouting physicality. One song, “Fuzzy”, was released on Bob Mould’s Singles Only Label in 1992 to huge critical acclaim and led to Grant Lee Buffalo being signed to Slash Records. The debut LP, also called Fuzzy, was released a year later, upon which Michael Stipe of R.E.M. declared it “the best album of the year hands down”. In 1995, Grant-Lee Phillips was named the critics choice for Best Male Vocalist of 1995.
Fuzzy is an absolute anamoly on this list (just as Grant Lee Phillips was for the decade). As much as we all love the 1990’s in retrospect, only those of us who actually experienced it will remember that the music was generally pretty dire. During the first part of the decade, gangsta rap had completely taken over for acts like MC Hammer and hair metal was put to a thankful end by the alternative rock of Nirvana and Pearl Jam or the harsher metal of Tool, Rage Against the Machine, and Helmet. I think we can all agree that these were good things, but it hardly left a place for anything with a hint of pleasantry. Fuzzy was a record that dared to acknowledge folk music and even (gasp) glam. At some points, Phillips’ songwriting even sounded like something taken directly from the Burt Bacharach songbook. This likely explains why Fuzzy (as well as our next selection for the list) received such ruefully little attention from the media and fans alike. Luckily for us though, it did get released and remains a wonderfully bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty dreary musical landscape.
5. Jellyfish – Spilt Milk
The story of Jellyfish begins in 1989, San Francisco. Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning were playing together in a band called Beatnik Beatch. When Sturmer and Manning’s songs were turned down by bassist Chris Ketner, in favor of his own tracks, they decided to make it on their own. Manning contacted guitarist Jason Falkner, who had still been unemployed since the breakup of his band, The Three O’Clocks (from the same Paisley Underground birthing ground of Mazzy Star). Sturmer on drums, Manning on keyboards, and Falkner on guitar made up the nucleus of Jellyfish for their first LP, Bellybutton, in 1990.
With Bellybutton, Jellyfish would cement their power pop sound, informed by the Beatles, Beach Boys, Queen, Cheap Trick, XTC, and Badfinger. Bellybutton would also produce the band’s best Billboard success with the single “Baby’s Coming Back” reaching #62 on the Hot 100 Chart. The album would also produce two of the bands signature tracks with “The King is Half-Undressed” and “The Man I Used To Be”, the former of which was nominated for an MTV Video Award. But trouble would arise after the supporting tour for the album, as Jason Falkner, tired of being just the band’s guitar player, would leave to begin a moderately successful solo career in the pop underground. Touring bass player Chris Manning also left the group due to his dislike of the road life. Unfettered, Sturmer and Manning added bassist Tim Smith and readied for their next release. While Bellybutton may have introduced Jellyfish’s sound to the world, 1993’s follow-up Spilt Milk galvanized it. That first record was a nice little collection of early-Beatles influenced pop songs. Spilt Milk, on the other hand, was conceptually complete record, boasting much more satisfying explorations in sound (thanks in no little part to the melodies of Roger Manning).
So complete was this new sound that finding out that the band was a three-piece was an absolute shock after hearing the record. Instruments and harmonies fade into and out of the recording surgically and artfully. The album opens with “Hush”, an unassuming tip of the hat to the Beach Boys, then immediately moves into the full rock bombast of “Joining a Fan Club”. From the first notes of “Fan Club” you know that these men are showmen, and they fully intend on providing us with the most epic experience they can. Another of the album’s best tracks, “The Ghost at Number One”, picks up on a theme started in “Joining a Fan Club” that makes this group really interesting. This is a band that obviously revels in the grandeur of pop and rock, they are a far out there as you can get. But, on both of these tracks they provide a social critique on the nature of pop stardom. It’s a line that Jellyfish walks really well; between completely over-the-top saccharine shallow pop and deeply meaningful and artistic songwriting. The epic “Brighter Day” is the soundtrack of some kind of insane circus (ala Carnivale), while bringing home an invariably positive message. It is probably my favorite album closer of all time.
As good as the record was, Spilt Milk received a fairly lackluster commercial response. The band seemed to be around at the exact wrong moment for pop songs. By 1993, rock radio was dominated by alternative rock, and anything as happy as Jellyfish just wasn’t ‘cool’ anymore. While the band was promoted well, with several live performances on MTV and media coverage in almost every major U.S. news outlet, the album just barely broke the Billboard Top 200. Shortly after its release, creative differences between Sturmer and Manning would cause Jellyfish to break up permanently. Sturmer and Manning continue to be extremely influential today (even if under the radar). Andy Sturmer has recorded with the Black Crowes, Ozzy Osbourne, and the Merrymakers. But his greatest achievement, and you have no idea how much pleasure it brings me to write this, is that he’s big in Japan. Sturmer has picked up regular work producing for the likes of YUKI and Puffy Ami Yumi. Roger Manning has played with several influential underground acts, including TV Eyes, Imperial Drag, and Moog Cookbook. He also co-wrote two tracks for the Lost in Translation soundtrack, has performed on multiple Beck tracks, and remixes for the French electro-heroes Air. Now that the Nevermind storm has passed, it looks like Jellyfish’s day has finally come. Look at artists like Scissor Sisters, The Feeling, The Ark, Mika, Maroon 5, Darkness, Jonathan Coulton, fun., Emil & Friends, Los Campesinos!, and Muse and then listen to an album that was released a decade before any of them debuted. Spilt Milk is a historical landmark for power pop. Maybe other than Canada’s Sloan, Jellyfish championed this entire genre with a sole release for much of the decade.
4. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders
Midnight Marauders is the third album by possibly my favorite hip-hop group ever, A Tribe Called Quest. It was released just two years after Tribe’s second album and mainstream breakthrough, The Low End Theory, and reached number 1 on the R&B/HipHop Charts and number 8 on the Billboard 200 in 1993. Midnight Marauders was a critical and commercial success, especially the first single “Award Tour”, becoming their highest charting single to date. It peaked at number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and number 1 on the U.S. Hot Rap Singles Chart. The single features Trugoy from De La Soul on the chorus. Subsequent singles released from the album were, in order, “Electric Relaxation” and “Oh My God” which featured a sample of former Leaders of the New School Emcee Busta Rhymes on the chorus. The same sample of Busta Rhymes was also used on the last track of the album “God Lives Through”.
The listener is guided through the program by a robotic voiced woman played by Laurel Dann. As this voice tells the you at the end of “Award Tour”, the meaning of the album’s title derives from a figure that “seven times out of ten, we listen to our music at night”, hence the “Midnight”, and that the word maraud means to loot, and A Tribe Called Quest are “maraud[ing] for ears”. One of the group members, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, described the album’s name this way: “We decided to call the album ‘Midnight Marauders‘ because A Tribe Called Quest are like sound thieves looting for your ears.”
Midnight Marauders is one of three A Tribe Called Quest albums on The Source‘s 100 Best Rap Albums. On January 12, 1994 it was certified and it reached platinum status one day less than a year later on January 11, 1995. It is also one of three A Tribe Called Quest albums to be certified platinum by the RIAA. Ego Trip named the album number 2 on their list of Hip Hop’s 25 Greatest Albums by Year 1980-98. Exclaim! made Midnight Marauders one of its 100 Records that Rocked 100 Issues in 2000. Pitchfork placed it at number 75 on its list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1990s. The New Nation said it was number 11 amongst the Top 100 Albums by Black Artists. OOR Moordlijst (Netherlands) said the record was number 31 of The 100 Best Albums of 1991-1995. Spex (Germany) put Midnight Marauders at number 19 on their 1001 The 100 Albums of the Century. In perhaps the album’s strangest award, The Guardian named the record as one of their 100 Albums That Don’t Appear in All Other Top 100 Album Lists. Guess they don’t read that many other lists. Regardless of the accolades, Midnight Marauders is one of those precious few records that not only still sounds fresh today, but can be put on in nearly any social circumstance and help everyone hearing it have a good time. That alone makes it a pure classic.
3. Björk – Debut
Björk is one of those artists that became an icon of the 1990s and it all started with 1993’s Debut. The album was released in July 1993 on One Little Indian Records in the United Kingdom and Elektra Records in the United States. Björk worked with producer Nellee Hooper who co-wrote five of Debut‘s songs with her. The album mostly consists of love songs relating to subjects such as her boyfriend Dominic Thrupp, her producer Nellee Hooper and to love of life itself. Musically, the songs on this album took a different direction from previous albums with her former band The Sugarcubes, with the backing music ranging between house, jazz and trip hop styles.
Most of the songs from Debut were written years prior to the production of the album. While still performing as the vocalist of Icelandic alternative rock group The Sugarcubes, Björk approached both Ásmundur Jónsson of Bad Taste and producer Derek Birkett of One Little Indian Records with a demo cassette of her own songs. These demos included versions of songs that would appear on Debut, including “The Anchor Song” and “Aeroplane”. Björk had put aside these songs stating that “I was in punk bands and [the songs] weren’t punk.” After the Sugarcubes went on hiatus, Björk moved to London, where she and Birkett worked on the details of what would become Debut. Björk had already written half the songs for Debut in some form, but had nothing recorded. With no producer in line to work with, she continued to compose songs with 808 State member Graham Massey in a friend’s home in Manchester where she would write songs that would be included on later albums, like “Army of Me” and “The Modern Things”. As well as working with Graham Massey, Björk wanted to work with jazz musicians and contacted Oliver Lake and Corky Hale to record jazz arrangements to some of the songs. After meeting producer Nellee Hooper, the two completed production on the album in 1993. On Debut‘s initial release, the album sold far greater than her label predicted, charting at number three in the United Kingdom and sixty-one in the United States. The album was certified gold in Canada and platinum in the United States. Debut received widespread critical acclaim from British critics who praised Björk’s vocals and the choice of a wide range of musical styles on the album. In the United States, the album received more mixed reviews, with some critics complaining about the lack of rock music on Debut. That seems hilarious in retrospect.
Five singles were released from Debut: “Human Behaviour”, “Venus as a Boy”, “Play Dead”, “Big Time Sensuality” and “Violently Happy”. “Play Dead” was recorded after the album’s release and was later issued as a bonus track in a few regions. All five singles charted in the United Kingdom with only “Human Behaviour”, “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality” charting on dance and modern rock charts in the United States. Despite the continued praise from critics, Björk did not find Debut to be one of her best albums stating that she will and has made better music on later works. At the 1994 Grammy Awards, Michel Gondry’s music video for “Human Behavior” was nominated for best Best Short Form Music Video, but lost to Stephen Johnson’s video for the Peter Gabriel song “Steam”. At the 1994 Brit Awards, Björk won awards for “Best Newcomer” and “Best International Female”. Shortly after the Brit Awards, Björk was sued by Simon Fisher, a musician she collaborated with in 1990. Fisher’s claim stated that he had co-written “Human Behaviour”, “Venus as a Boy”, “Crying”, and “Aeroplane” and sought damages of over ₤20,000. Hooper and Björk went to court with Fisher shortly after the release of Björk’s album Post. Judge Robin Jacob found Fisher only seeking credit for one song instead of four and cleared Hooper and Björk of all charges stating that Fisher’s charges rendered him “unreliable, diffuse, and vague”.
Critical reaction to Debut was generally positive. The British music press spoke positively about the album, with Q giving it four out of five stars calling it “a surprising, playful collection” while the NME wrote that Debut was “an album that believes music can be magical and special.” The Independent gave Debut a favorable review noting that Björk had “fashioned an amazing array of contrasting arrangements, whose musical diversity never interferes with their clarity of vision.” American reception was more mixed. Musician magazine praised the vocals of the album, stating “what makes [Björk’s] singing memorable isn’t the odd assortment of growls, moans and chirps she relies upon, but the emotions those sounds convey.” The New York Times described Debut as “an enchanting album”. American critic Robert Christgau gave the album a “neither” rating, indicating an album that “may impress once or twice with consistent craft or an arresting track or two. Then it won’t”. A negative review came from Rolling Stone who gave the album two stars out of five calling the album “utterly disappointing” blaming producer Nellee Hooper, suggesting he “sabotaged a ferociously iconoclastic talent with a phalanx of cheap electronic gimmickry.” Michele Romero of Entertainment Weekly gave the album a “C”, saying, “On a few songs, [Björk’s] breathy mewl is a pleasant contrast to the mechanical drone of Sugarcube-like techno-tunes. But most of Debut sounds annoyingly like the monotonous plinking of a deranged music box. Wind it up if you like — eventually it will stop.” Debut rated highly in British end of year polls. The NME ranked Debut at number one on their list of “Top 50 LPs of 1993”. Melody Maker placed the album at number six on their list of “Albums of the Year for 1993” calling it “a fantastic debut”. In 1994, Q included the album on their list for top fifty albums of 1993. Björk reacted to the positive reviews hesitantly, stating that if she’d “delivered exactly the same album and I came from Nottingham, I’d have got completely different reviews, normal down-to-earth ones” and that Debut “was a bit of a rehearsal and it’s really not that good. I can do much better.”
Later reception was also positive. In Spin magazine’s alternative record guide, the album received a rating of nine out of ten stating that the choice of Nellee Hooper as producer was a “stroke of genius” and Björk’s vocals were “awe-inspiring”. Heather Phares of Allmusic gave the album a five-star rating, stating that Debut is “Possibly her prettiest work, Björk’s horizons expanded on her other releases, but the album still sounds fresh, which is even more impressive considering electronic music’s whiplash-speed innovations.” In 1999, Q placed Debut in their list of 90 Best Albums of the 1990s. In 2010, it appeared in Spin‘s 125 Best Albums of the Past 25 Years list, at number 33. In 2011, Slant Magazine placed the album at number 29 on their list of the Best Albums of the 1990s, claiming that “Debut was enough to cement her [Björk’s] legacy as one of pop’s most forward-thinking performers.” In 2005, Björk again argued that she thought the album wasn’t as strong as her later efforts: “It’s hard to judge yourself but I don’t think [the early albums are] my best. Debut was the album that went the highest up there in terms of what is ‘Björk music’. But I think that the persona I created, which was entirely accidental, is better captured on the later albums.” Regardless, Debut was a watermark record that defined Björk as an iconoclastic figure in modern music.
2. The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
For some reason, I can already feel the burning gaze of skepticism falling down upon this selection. Let me say this once and for all; The Smashing Pumpkins first two albums are classic pieces every bit as deserving of praise as Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Alice in Chains’ Dirt, Pearl Jam’s Ten and (yes) Nirvana’s Nevermind. I view any and all criticism of this statement as plainly ridiculous. Yes, Billy Corgan may be a complete donkey, but Gish and Siamese Dream are both nearly perfect records. After releasing the Lull EP in October 1991 on Caroline Records, the band formally signed with Virgin Records, which was affiliated with Caroline. The band supported the album with a tour that included opening for bands such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, and Guns N’ Roses. The band relocated to Marietta, Georgia in late 1992 to begin work on their second album, with Butch Vig returning as producer. The decision to record so far away from their hometown was motivated partly by the band’s desire to avoid friends and distractions during the recording, but largely as a desperate attempt to cut Chamberlin off from his known drug connections. The recording environment for Siamese Dream was quickly marred by discord within the band. As was the case with Gish, Corgan and Vig decided that Corgan should play nearly all of the guitar and bass parts on the album, contributing to an air of resentment. The contemporary music press began to portray Corgan as a tyrant. Corgan’s depression, meanwhile, had deepened to the point where he contemplated suicide, and he compensated by practically living in the studio. Meanwhile, Chamberlin quickly managed to find new connections and was often absent without any contact for days at a time. In all, it took over four months to complete the record, with the budget exceeding $250,000.
The stories about the Smashing Pumpkins sessions during this period are legendary; complete with rumors about Vig and Corgan sleeping in the studio for Siamese Dream for weeks at a time. Corgan’s desire for musical perfection put further strain on the already-frayed relationships between the band members. Vig later recalled, “D’arcy would lock herself in the bathroom, James wouldn’t say anything, or Billy would lock himself in the control room”. Corgan often overdubbed Iha’s and Wretzky’s parts with his own playing. Wretzky stated that Corgan only performed most of the guitar and bass parts because he could lay them down in recording easier and with far fewer takes. Stories of the album’s recording had circulated in the music press. Corgan admitted there was some truth to accusations of tyrannical behavior, though he felt the press misunderstood the situation. Virgin began to grow impatient with the album’s recording as it went over budget and became behind schedule. The band, however, would not let the company cut corners if it meant compromising the sound. By the time recording was completed, Corgan and Vig felt too emotionally exhausted to mix the record. Corgan suggested that engineer Alan Moulder mix the album, due to his work on Loveless by My Bloody Valentine. Moulder booked two weeks in a studio to mix the album; the mix ended up taking 36 days to complete.
Siamese Dream was released on July 27, 1993. The following week, it debuted at number ten on the Billboard charts. The album received critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly gave the album a ‘B’ rating; reviewer David Browne praised the band for living up to industry expectations of being the “next Nirvana” and compared Siamese Dream favorably to Nirvana’s Nevermind. Browne concluded, “In aiming for more than just another alternative guitar record, Smashing Pumpkins may have stumbled upon a whole new stance: slackers with a vision.” Critic Simon Reynolds disagreed; he wrote in his review for The New York Times that “fuzzed-up riffs and angst-wracked vocals are quite the norm these days, and Smashing Pumpkins lacks the zeitgeist-defining edge that made Nirvana’s breakthrough so thrilling and resonant.” Robert Christgau of the Village Voice gave the album a three star honorable mention, selecting “Geek U.S.A.” and “Today” as highlights.
Siamese Dream earned The Smashing Pumpkins their first Grammy Award nominations. The album was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album, and the group was nominated for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal at the Grammy Awards of 1994. The album is frequently included in lists of the best albums of the 1990s—the Alternative Press ranked it fourth, Pitchfork ranked it 18th, and Spin ranked it 23rd. In 2003, the album was ranked number 360 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. I view most complaints against the Smashing Pumpkins in the same way I view old complaints about Husker Du ‘weakening’ hardcore punk in the 80s. With Siamese Dream, they introduced an element of harmony that hadn’t really been prevalant in ‘grunge’ music before. The music is both hard-edged and beautifully orchestrated, setting this album apart from its contemporaries and keeping it precious to my own heart.
1. Tool – Undertow
Just at the beginning of the most frustrating part of one’s life, Tool’s Undertow came to save the day in mine. I was fourteen years old when I first heard Undertow and it immediately made an impact. I would throw a ball against the basement wall every night. I claimed it was to work on my pitching, but I know now it was just an outlet for an angry white suburban teen that hadn’t yet found the sweet mercy of drugs. This was during what I consider to be the last days of radio’s ability to be a grand gatekeeper. Just before internet was a household item, we still needed radio and MTV to ‘break’ new groups and dictate taste. It’s hard to remember that rock radio helped break the grunge movement by supporting Nirvana’s Nevermind with constant airplay. Given the limited rotations and single-minded mainstream focus of today’s major market radio, it is almost unthinkable that radio would be responsible for introducing anyone to something fresh. Nonetheless, in the mid-nineties radio was still a massive player in tastemaking. That was certainly the case as I was throwing the ball with all of my fury one evening and those first bass lines of Tool’s “Sober” came blasting out of the little boombox speakers in my parents’ basement. I stopped dead in my tracks, turned to look at the radio, and stood silently until every note of the song was finished. I distinctly remember thinking, “What is THIS?!?”. I couldn’t wait until the next break and called the station to find out who had written the song. Less than a week later, I owned Undertow. Fifteen years later, I’m still listening to it.
After almost two years of practicing and performing locally in the Los Angeles area, the band was approached by record companies, and eventually signed a record deal with Zoo Entertainment. In March 1992, Zoo published the band’s first effort, Opiate. Described by the band as “slam and bang” heavy music and the “hardest sounding” six songs they had written to that point, the EP included the singles “Hush” and “Opiate”. The band’s first music video, “Hush”, promoted their dissenting views about the then-prominent Parents Music Resource Center and its advocacy of the censorship of music. The video featured the band members naked with their genitalia covered by parental advisory stickers and their mouths covered by duct tape. The band began touring with Rollins Band, Fishbone, and Rage Against the Machine to positive responses, which Janiss Garza of RIP Magazine summarized in September 1992 as a “buzz” and “a strong start”.
The following year, at a time when alternative rock and grunge was at its height, Tool released their first full-length album, Undertow. It expressed more diverse dynamics than Opiate and included songs the band had chosen not to publish on their previous release, when they had opted for a heavier sound. The band began touring again as planned, with an exception in May 1993. Tool was scheduled to play at the Garden Pavilion in Hollywood but learned at the last minute that the venue belonged to L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, which was perceived as a clash with “the band’s ethics about how a person should not follow a belief system that constricts their development as a human being.” Keenan “spent most of the show baa-ing like a sheep at the audience.”
Tool was immediately something completely different from their contemporaries in heavy metal. Maynard James Keenan is a force of nature, but unlike frontmen Phil Anselmo, Paige Hamilton, or Rob Zombie, Maynard wanted to make sure you understood every single word that came from his mouth. Tool didn’t care about shredding. Their music plodded methodically, and yet was more raw and intense than anything else that was going on in the genre. Every note on Undertow is perfect. This is the kind of album that you can’t help but listen to from beginning to end. When it’s over, Tool has wrung every bit of emotion from you; leaving little more than the husk. That sort of cathartic value makes Undertow more than a great metal album; it makes it one of the best records made in the nineties. If you listen to Undertow today, it has yet to lose that energy. In a way, this is why I don’t listen to any new metal. I’m still waiting for someone to make a record this good. According to Allmusic, Undertow helped heavy metal music remain prominent as a mainstream musical style, and allowed several later bands to break through to the mainstream. It was released at a time when grunge was at the height of its popularity, and pop punk was slowly beginning to gather mainstream attention. Allmusic saw the album’s success in the “striking, haunting visuals that complemented the album’s nihilistic yet wistful mood.” It was eventually certified double platinum by the RIAA on May 14, 2001. As of July 7, 2010, Undertow has sold 2,910,000 copies in the US.
In 1993, Undertow was named one of the “Top 10 Records of the Year” by Entertaiment Weekly. By January of 1995 the band was voted the “Number One Artist” readers think Spin should be covering (ahead of Green Day, Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam). This was a full year before they would begin recording tracks for Aenima. In addition, Raw magazine named Undertow on of their 90 Essential Albums of the 90s. Visions placed it as one of The Best Albums 1991-96. Pause & Play put it at number 11 on their list of The 90s Top 100 Essential Albums. Finally, Classic Rock magazine put Undertow at number 87 on their list of The 100 Greatest Rock Albums of All Time. Undertow is more than all of that to me however. This was one of the very few albums released in my lifetime that seemed to have a special aura surrounding it. You could feel the album gaining steam with each new day. This album made Tool the kind of band that every music fan ‘had’ to like. You couldn’t deny it. I can count on one hand the amount of albums that I’ve seen carry that power since then; Radiohead’s The Bends, The White Stripes’ White Blood Cells and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot among them. I can’t imagine what this period of my life would have been without this record, but even better I can’t imagine what my own view of music would be today without it. Undertow wasn’t just one of the greatest albums released in 1993, but of all time.
Think I got something wrong? Want to add your own list or nominations? Make sure and leave a comment below.
No synthesizers whatsoever were used during the writing of this column.
Read previous ‘a list obligatory’ columns here.