Geffen Records

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s
The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

70

Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York

In Utero raged against Nirvana’s MTV appeal with unprintable song titles and some almost unlistenable songs, which makes this live recording of their subdued and intimate acoustic set an astonishing page in their tragically short history. Kurt Cobain may never have been a showman, but MTV Unplugged affirms he was a tremendous performer and underlines the quality of the softer numbers in Nirvana’s repertoire. “All Apologies” is a haunting highlight, “Dumb” is bolstered by Lori Goldston’s sonorous cello parts, while a medley of Meat Puppets material sets us up for a sublime curtain call in which Cobain frailly howls the closing verse of Lead Belly’s folk classic “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

69

PJ Harvey, Is This Desire?

She is woman, hear her growl, shriek, tremble, and weep. The songs of faith and devotion that make up Is This Desire? are haunting elegies to women (whores and Madonnas alike) gripped by loneliness, wanting for rapture, united across time—a singular theme luxuriantly fleshed out. The happiest song queers the story of the Garden of Eden, but even that one ends in trouble. A lover’s kiss, like a trip to the river, brings solace, but doubt always lingers on the horizon. There will be gods, angels, and whales, but the mythic mood is never fatuous. Armed with some disarming melodies, PJ plays the prophet, delivering her gutsiest vocal performances to date, mystifying her characters’ insecurities with dazzling, freakish intensity. She is their Mary, and she weeps blood for them. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

68

Deee-Lite, Dewdrops in the Garden

This sampadelic, party-happening orgy is all about yearning. These club kids want nothing more than their freedom, and they sound as if they enjoy dropping the kind of shit that makes it seem like universes are exploding before their eyes. Call them, hold them, but leave the bittersweet loving at the door. Contradictory? No, they’re just blissfully mystified by the melodrama of life and their psychedelic beatboxing is their sass of choice. They frequently risk corniness, as on the seemingly-made-for-gay-pride-parades “River of Freedom,” but their fagaliciousness remains always soulful, playful, mythic even. This is Deee-lite’s “Pigs in Space,” and at the helm of this space-traveling, genre-evasive mind melt of pop-house is a brassy, draggy, gloriously bananas Miss Piggy: Lady Kier, a hippy-dippy mama we can all be proud of hailing as our queen. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

67

Ani DiFranco, Dilate

The title of her previous album may have been Not a Pretty Girl, but it was on Dilate that Ani DiFranco got real, real ugly. DiFranco turned the outrage and indignance she had previously directed toward political injustice on herself, and what keeps the album from sinking into navel-gazing or from becoming an insufferable downer are DiFranco’s conviction and the sincerity of her performances. “Superhero” is a damning read on her own status as a cult hero, pushing beyond mere self-deprecation into biting self-parody, but it’s “Untouchable Face,” which turned a simple “Fuck you” into a hook nearly 15 years before Cee-Lo, that best captures the balance of loneliness, rage, and wit that made DiFranco one of the decade’s most singular voices. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

66

The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin

Having spent the preceding decade as one of music’s most revered experimental pop acts, for 1999’s The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips jettisoned some of the problematic, self-consciously fey trappings of their previous work and distilled the elements that worked best about their distinctive take on modern pop into song structures that were as accessible as they were adventurous. The result was a deliberately constructed, refined new sound and a landmark album that was both influenced by and superior to the music of its era and which, in retrospect, stands as one of the finest, most important and influential albums of its decade. A testament to careful, selective editing, The Soft Bulletin recast the Flaming Lips as far more than a quirky cult act and laid the groundwork for their commercial and artistic breakthroughs in the years that followed. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

65

Beck, Midnite Vultures

In which Beck says, in essence, “All right, brain, you’ve got me this far. It’s time for the booty to take over.” One of the rare stupid albums from a smart musician that genuinely seems to trust the value of the former, Beck’s Midnite Vultures attacks any intellectual gestures that would obfuscate horndog satisfaction right out of the gate. “I want to find the logic of all sex laws,” he sings in the rollicking, Hee Haw-cum-Soul Train party jam “Sexx Laws.” And it only gets greasier from there, in a manner that should make all the lesbians scream. The viscosity of “Nicotine & Gravy,” “Peaches & Cream,” and “Milk & Honey” is self-evident from the titles alone, but Beck waits until the disc’s climax to guzzle the full two liters of pimp juice when he uses Prince’s falsetto to admit, “I want to get with you…and your sister.” Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

64

Beck, Mellow Gold

The 12 tracks that proved Beck wasn’t a one-hit loser, Mellow Gold is a curiously dark album from an artist who had not yet completely established his weird-cool credentials. The song that put Beck on the map almost seems like an afterthought when compared with the rest of Mellow Gold’s bizzarre, and at times nightmarish, alterna-rap-folk brilliance. Gliding effortlessly from grisly, pitch-bending hip-hop (“Soul Suckin’ Jerk”) to slacker pop adventure (“Beercan”) to gorgeous, surreal tragedy (“Blackhole”), Beck confidently stepped out from the shadow of the “Loser” label and gave us a preview of the inventive, genre-mashing artistry to come. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

63

Madonna, Bedtime Stories

Over the years, Madonna has cited influences as disparate as the classical composers who soundtracked her early dance training and, despite Kurt Cobain’s assertion that she “ignored” them, the punk bands from her days as a drummer in the East Village, but R&B had the most audible impact on her music during the first 15 years of her career. So to view Bedtime Stories as anything other than an extension of what she’d been doing all along would be remiss. And instead of simply following American trends of the time, Madge infused the album with the edgier trip-hop sounds that were happening on the other side of the pond. But it was her refined literary taste, from Proust to Whitman, and both the media and the public’s rejection of her sexual politicking that truly informed the singer’s seventh album. Whether licking her wounds over lovers (“Take a Bow”) or critics (“Human Nature”), Madonna has never sounded more emotionally vulnerable or more cerebrally plugged in than she does here. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

62

Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

The grungy art rock of Smashing Pumpkins’s Siamese Dream laid the groundwork for the baroque opus that is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness—perhaps not their most concise work, but one in which the band fully realized the potential of their darkly romantic sound. The ambitious concept album is notable for its contributions to the increasingly angsty, emo-ish direction of alternative music in the mid-’90s, but its real heart lies in the beautifully peculiar pieces that meld turn-of-the-century, art-nouveau visuals with Billy Corgan’s hot-n-cold emotions. Full of moments where abrupt emotional swings are the norm (the archaic, harp-driven ode that is “Cupid De Locke” next to the children’s book tale of “Stumbleine” next to the relentless machine gun riffs of “Fuck You,” for example), Mellon Collie is a graceful, wonderfully moody rock symphony. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

61

Tom Waits, Bone Machine

Tom Waits albums always carry a certain stink of vaudevillian excess, seemingly conceived more for a broad stage performance than intimate listening. Only Bone Machine remains so staunchly dedicated to its themes, uniform in both message and tone, creating a consistently entrancing experience. A pitch-black mediation on death, racking up the highest body count this side of a Nick Cave album, Waits tilts his gruesome instrument toward sinister ends, from wholesale slaughter for sport to invocations of end-times austerity. Many artists have plumbed this kind of dark territory, but who else has contemplated mortality on songs that sound like they were played on actual bones? Cataldo

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