“Good music was popular by mistake,” Tanya Donelly, lead singer of Belly and co-founder of Throwing Muses and the Breeders, once said of the early 1990s. “Then the crap took over again.” It's a meme that has become increasingly pervasive over the last decade or so, an idealized vision of a time when Bill Clinton was the fresh, young Democrat on the block, beepers were the hottest new tech items, and every major record label and Top 40 radio station was scrambling to discover the next big alternative to run-of-the-mill pop. It's human nature to look back on things with irrational fondness and nostalgia, overlooking the bad and romanticizing the good. But while the '90s had its fair share of “crap,” it's hard to deny that the “good” was exceptionally good.
One-album wonders weren't in short supply in the '90s, but many were far from disposable. And countless artists displayed an impressive ability to adapt, even as the industry swiftly reverted to the status quo by the turn of the millennium: Radiohead, who started the '90s as a bunch of Oxfordshire creeps destined for one-hit wonderdom, wound up becoming the most important band in the world by the end of the decade; self-proclaimed “loser” Beck evolved from slacker punk to pop-music hero; R.E.M., a band for which the tag “alternative” was practically invented, released one (or two) of the best pop albums of all time; the jokey, bratty Beastie Boys reinvented themselves as guitar-wielding rap gods; even Madonna, whose chameleonic shifts are now a given, was able to trascend an inevitable sales decline by staying ahead of trends and subverting societal norms. And, of course, Mariah Carey, the decade's reigning diva, went from Whitney clone to R&B chaneteuse to hip-hop skank all in the span of 10 short years!
The '90s was a time when socially conscious hip-hip (Arrested Development, Lauryn Hill, the Roots) stood toe to toe with gangsta rap (Dr. Dre, Nas, Wu-Tang) and actually competed. In hindsight, hip-hop, which continues to dominate today, was the clear commercial winner. But the more interesting battle was between alternative and electronica, the two most buzzed-about movements of the decade. Grunge—the bastard stepchild of punk rock and metal, and half-sibling of the Pixies and Sonic Youth—gave rise to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but it was electronica that ostensibly won the war, heard today in successful works by Radiohead, Kanye West, Timbaland, and others.
This list is as pure and unadulterated as music lists come these days. In the mid '90s, the act in our #2 spot recorded the best album of the decade…and then two years later, that same act recorded an even better album. That's how the numbers unambiguously shook out, and we've left them that way. Not all of the artists I've just mentioned made the final cut—even on our singles list. There simply wasn't enough room. The music was that good. Or maybe I'm just looking back with irrational fondness and nostalgia. Sal Cinquemani
It took an uncomfortably long time for Leftism to be released, with house purists fearing that the sullen trip-hop sound was taking over. Leftfield had silently been perceived as the saviors of dance-floor chaos, and with these 11 tracks, they ensured that the world's pill-popping ravers could enjoy some sweaty euphoria for a few more years at least. Leftism dabbles in tribal, trance, dub, and ambient influences without ever wholeheartedly embracing any one style, which helped forge a more intelligent breed of dance music, an all-encompassing sound that everyone wanted to make and everyone wanted to hear. Huw Jones
The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II: The Pharcyde
“Too black, too strong.” The Malcolm X mantra opens Public Enemy's “Bring the Noise,” but it applies in spades (as Maude Findley said, no racial connotation intended) to the Pharcyde's debut album, a raucous house party with enough lyrical verve and scruffy jazz sampling to match the South Central posse's straight-outta-the-gate flair for boastful good times (“Niggas on my Snoopy like the bird Woodstock/Getcha hands off my dick because I hold this cock”) and heartrending pathos (the tearjerker “Passin' Me By,” a threnody for a childhood love evaporated which reveals the likes of Arrested Development's “Mr. Wendel” for the clumsy Sunday-school parable it is). Eric Henderson
Vanessa Daou, Zipless
It's a small victory that Vanessa Daou was able to sneak “Near the Black Forest,” writer Eric Jong's ode to her untended bush, onto VH1's playlist for a short spell. Daou's is a whisper of a singing voice, and her husband's jazz-house compositions would have been a challenge for any pop radio programmer, but more importantly, the content of Zipless, Daou's interpretations of Jong's poetry, was far too sophisticated for general audiences. The lyrical and musical centerpiece of the album is the entirely spoken-word “Alcestis on the Poetry Circuit”; in her understanding of how restraint, imposed both from within and from without (“The very fact of her gift should cause her such pain/That she will take her own life rather than best us”), is countered by the discovery or renewal of one's sense of self, Daou empowers both herself and her listeners. Cinquemani
Pet Shop Boys, Very
For most of Very, Neil Tennant is as scabrous and arch as fans had come to expect, saying a lot and insinuating more on tracks like “Can You Forgive Her?,” where he baits a man by toying with his fragile masculinity (“She's made you some kind of laughing stock,” he quips, “because you dance to disco and you don't like rock”) before offering him a choice between crawling back to his tormentor or engaging in a bit of bi-curious revenge sex. The pompous disco din is perfectly suited to Tennant's campy character, and serves just as well for the surprisingly sincere rendition of the Village People's “Go West” that closes the album—a song of longing for freedom and belonging that only a songwriter as fearlessly queer as Tennant could have created. Matthew Cole
Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind
In hindsight, it's incredible to think that Bob Dylan's stock was ever wavering, but this is the context unto which he released Time Out of Mind. The '80s were a tumultuous decade for Dylan, and in the first half of the '90s he was suffering from a distinct creative drought, with the underwhelming Under the Red Sky earning a middling reception at best. Time Out of Mind introduced us to a new Bob Dylan, his world-weathered lungs revelling in this raw sound. “Love Sick” feels like it's sung from some dusty, eerie blues bar, while “Not Dark Yet” sounds like the dying words that his detractors had erroneously predicted. Jones
Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope
The strength of janet.'s singles gives that album a slight edge on our list, but there's no getting around the fact that Jackson's follow-up, The Velvet Rope, is handily the artist's most personal effort and, Rhythm Nation excepted, one of her most important creative statements, diving headlong into the politics of personal and sexual self-actualization. But unlike other topical pop records, and despite its sadomasochistic overtones, The Velvet Rope's textures are warm and inviting, striking a balance between soft and gritty that's reflected right in the album's title. Jackson's breathless dirty talk has since grown tired, but Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis's expert use of her looped whimpers and moans—and, of course, those luscious harmonies—on standout cuts like “My Need” and “Rope Burn” is nothing short of orgasmic. Cinquemani
Prince and the New Power Generation, Love Symbol Album
He may be a tiny man, but Prince has the biggest balls in pop music. Consider the unpronounceable symbol he used to title his “Love Symbol” album, the fact that he later changed his name to said symbol, that he declared the album to be a “rock soap opera,” and that it includes spoken-word interludes from Kirstie Alley. Putting every bit of that business aside, it's still damn near impossible to believe that Prince and the New Power Generation, easily the finest of his backing bands, were able to get away with an album of such deep funk and such a filthy take on contemporary pop and R&B. The Love Symbol Album was the decade's most unabashedly slutty-sounding record. Keefe
The Orb, Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
What a wonderful world, but what kind of world is it? It begins in what really could pass for the English countryside, with a rooster crowing at the break of dawn, before the Orb proceeds upward, into the sky and beyond, on a space odyssey of sorts. Gods, or aliens, contemplate vineyards and Minnie Riperton gets her mousey voice pulverized to a point that it suggests a ghost in a machine, and then the rooster crows again, as if to remind us that there's a way out of this sonic mindmelt. And just as you think you've landed back on Earth (the awesome warbling sound on “Perpetual Dawn” suggests someone jiggling their cheeks as if to stay awake), you're drawn into a fourth dimension. Where other groups jump across continents, the Orb bops across galaxies, creating supernovas of dubby, sometimes trip-hoppy ambient techno loaded with nooks and crannies from which heretofore unidentified surprises continue to emerge. Ed Gonzalez
Beastie Boys, Check Your Head
Having already released one of hip-hop's greatest party records with Licensed to Ill, revolutionized the art of sample-based hip-hop with Paul's Boutique, and, in doing so, seamlessly introduced the white Jewish MC into the cultural lexicon of East Coast rap, it would have made sense for the Beastie Boys to take a breather. Instead, the clown-princes of New York City went lo-fi, infusing and sometimes overpowering their rap roots with barreling post-punk drums, metal riffs, and sweaty funk grooves. At that, it's tempting to lay blame for the endless cultural embarrassment of rap-metal at their feet. I'd ask that we give props instead, because contained in that accusation is an acknowledgment that the Beastie Boys succeeded where pretty much every imitator, including our reigning rap-savant, Lil Wayne, has failed. Cole
Aphex Twin, The Richard D. James Album
Simultaneously too hot to handle and too cold to hold, Richard D. James's eponymous album is more fascinated by textures than almost any other electronic album ever crafted. Aphex Twin's beats aren't really beats at all, but rather more like cultivated mini organisms colliding clumsily atop a luminescent Petri-dish dance floor. If Kraftwerk once claimed “We are the robots,” Aphex Twin pulls back his android skin to show you the pulsating, quicksilver-pumping meat underneath. The album's occasional penchant for schoolyard grossout effects on the order of Ween (i.e. the punchline of “Milkman”: “I would like some milk from the milkman's wife's tits”) only proves he's human after all. Henderson