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The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s
Endtroducing…

10. DJ Shadow, Endtroducing... Ever since Edison invented the phonograph, a loud faction of musicians and critics has claimed that new recording technologies will rob music of its aura and obliterate the spontaneous beauty of performance. I want to send everyone whose entertained such arguments a copy of Endtroducing..., invite them to dwell in its unpredictable space of loops and samples and observe how masterfully DJ Shadow repurposes his source material in service of his own creative vision. When sampling from music by Björk, T. Rex, Metallica, and KRS-One, even the score to Blade Runner, he favors tones and textures over familiar melodies, and in that sense, it's the recordings themselves, rather than songs, that are his true medium. Endtroducing... is an experiment in hip-hop animism, with DJ Shadow drawing out the living essence of his record collection and channeling it in remarkable new directions. MC

Fear of a Black Planet9. Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet. Less revolutionary a statement than It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet holds up as a superior album years later, thanks to the Bomb Squad's most ambitious and most fearless production job, which pushed sampling into the realm of a legitimate art form. Informed by the controversy surrounding anti-Semitic comments made by Professor Griff and the subsequent fallout, Fear of a Black Planet is an incendiary album of political rage, with tracks like "Power to the People," "Revolutionary Generation," and "Fight the Power" tackling matters of disenfranchisement and oppression with a ferocious intelligence and vision. JK

Dummy8. Portishead, Dummy. In the wake of its dramatic, sinister follow-up, Portishead, and the stark, often dissonant Third, it's easy to forget just how lush, unassuming, even gentle Portishead's debut was. Even "Nobody loves me, it's true!," the hook of the album's biggest hit, "Sour Times," is less histrionic than it first seems, resolving with an expectedly calm and collected "…not like you do." A mix of tortured torch songs and noirish soundscapes in which Hammond organ, theremin, brass, hip-hop loops, and turntable scratches all figure prominently, Geoff Barrow and Beth Gibbons drew on a century of popular music—from the Velvet Underground to John Barry, from blues to jazz—to create a record that sounded at once vintage, modern, and timeless, and like nothing anyone had ever heard before. SC

Grace7. Jeff Buckley, Grace. Take one part Nina Simone and one part Frank Sinatra, marry them with the precise but unabashed roar of a Zeppelin record and the scrappiness of a folk-punk troubadour and you might start to come close to describing Jeff Buckley's music. Sometimes frightening, sometimes soothing, but always invariably sexy, his was a voice that, emerging in the wake of the pitch-imperfection of grunge's most famous screamers, seemed remarkable in both its precision and purpose. It's why he was able to make Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the ghostly English hymn "Corpus Christi Carol" his own, and his originals, like "Last Goodbye" and "Lover, You Should Have Come Over," songs that only he could sing. SC

Automatic for the People6. R.E.M., Automatic for the People. By 1992, R.E.M. had transformed from one of the originators of the alternative rock tag into one of the biggest mainstream rock acts in the world, and Automatic for the People confronted the band's uneasy relationship with that metamorphosis head-on. Michael Stipe's imagist poetry is at its most reflective and intuitive, as songs like "Try Not to Breathe," "Find the River," and the extraordinary opening cut, "Drive," all lay bare deeply personal insecurities about becoming one of rock music's elder statesmen. However twitchy R.E.M. may have felt about their massive commercial presence, Automatic for the People emerges as the band's most timeless recording for the way in which Stipe's lyrics and especially Peter Buck's guitar work translate their personal anxieties into meditations that resonated on a broad, populist level. JK

Odelay5. Beck, Odelay. Becks's music could be viewed as the antithesis of the grunge movement's dejection and angst. Odelay is Beck's magnum opus, a wacky jukebox record that blends countless sounds and styles with a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward musical conventions. Fundamentally, it's a giddy celebration of spastic genre-bending, where blues, folk, and country melodies are fused with propulsive beats and eccentric, monotonous rapping. And with tracks driven by Beck's unmatched ear for party-starting hooks, Odelay manages to remain coherent while nevertheless revelling in its spazzy unpredictability. HJ

Nevermind4. Nirvana, Nevermind. Just as Kurt Cobain's supposed dread of fame turned out to be a more complicated love-hate dynamic, Nevermind's confrontational pose is also a calculated bid for acceptance. Never as hard or as dangerous as the brutal bands from which Nirvana drew their inspiration, they nonetheless synthesized one of the best examples of hard influence softened into digestible material. The progression from raw to radio-friendly is often equated with dumbing-down, but here it was a twofold boon: creating great songs and opening, through Cobain's unabashed love for the bands he was weaned on, a gateway to a hidden world of fantastic music. JC

OK Computer3. Radiohead, OK Computer. A mere two years after The Bends established Radiohead as a uniquely serious force in the alternative music scene, OK Computer shattered the notion that Thom Yorke and company even belonged within the limits of a standard genre. On OK Computer, Radiohead places us directly into a Huxley-esque world that we only caught glimpses of throughout previous records, where the band—paranoid, helpless, and fatigued—is simultaneously alienated and entranced by the dominance of computers. In technology, there is both the beautiful and mundane: "In a neon sign scrolling up and down, I am born again," Yorke sings on "Airbag," and alternately, "One day, I am gonna grow wings, a chemical reaction," on "Let Down." The record glistens in the angst and pleasure of that contradiction, and its remote, disquieted beauty has rarely been surpassed. KL

Post2. Björk, Post. Björk's second album, Post, was designed as a mixtape of communiqués to friends and family from the singer after she migrated from Iceland to Europe: "Army of Me," a kick in the pants to her little brother; "Enjoy," a love letter to London; "Possibly Maybe," a farewell to ex-boyfriend Stéphane Sednaoui; "Cover Me," a message to producer Nellee Hooper ("This is really dangerous…but worth all the effort"); "Headphones," a Stockhausen-inspired electronic tone poem dedicated to 808 State's Graham Massey. From the industrial-strength "Army of Me" to the lush and cinematic "Isobel" to the eccentric big-band cover "It's Oh So Quiet" (which, if not for brass arrangements on songs like "I Miss You" and "Enjoy," would sound completely out of place here), Post is Björk's most scatterbrained work to date, but it's tied together flawlessly by the singer's singular whimsicality. SC

Homogenic1. Björk, Homogenic. If Björk's Post flattered the decade's penchant for eclecticism, Homogenic snapped all its trends into sharp focus even as it widened the scope with fin de siècle zeal. The Icelandic siren's "emotional landscapes" have never been more volcanically formidable ("I'm a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl"), more self-effacingly wry ("I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me!"), or more happily violent ("I'll heal you with a razor blade"). And her music has never been as confident, inquisitive, or uncompromising as it is here—realized with the considerable assistance of LFO's Mark Bell. All traces of "shhh, shhh" pastiche have been silenced in favor of neo-classical glowstick chamber music, and the album's build from the stabbing warpath of "Hunter" and the tolling majesty of "Unravel" (soul sister to Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves) to the celestial beauty of "All Is Full of Love" works with the unity of a great concerto. It's no exaggeration to muse that the century of Schoenberg, Debussy, and Prokofiev culminated in Homogenic. EH

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