Geffen Records

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

50

Genius/GZA, Liquid Swords

The splintering of Wu-Tang’s original eight-headed incarnation created a diverse series of glittering shards, with the group’s penchant for malice and pitch-black ghetto noir settling into Liquid Swords, which finds RZA twisting his trademark samurai movie samples into atmospheric hedging for a lean, claustrophobic nightmare. Unlike Ghostface Killah’s multihued true-crime narratives, the stories here are harsh and muscular renderings of a grim gangster underworld, with drug deals and murders painted in chiaroscuro austerity, absent of the bluster and fuss that has dominated so much of the genre’s fascination with crime. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

49

Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

The formerly ambitious collective may have settled into a latter-day comfort zone of fuzzy twee inflected with black humor and veiled Christian morality, but there was a time when Belle and Sebastian’s shrewdly sad voice still seemed new and sparkling. Tigermilk established the group’s foundation, reshaping the lonely narratives of outsider kids into tales of forlorn virtue, and If You’re Feeling Sinister cemented its allure, with song after song profiling sad-eyed teenagers raised to near-sainthood by Stuart Murdoch’s lovingly precise lyrics. Carrying the Scottish mantle of astute, defeatist pop crafted in lightly adverse conditions, the band made their fragile constitutions into their greatest asset. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

48

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…

It was difficult for any of the nine Wu-Tang MCs to really stand out on Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), which made the Clansmen’s first round of solo efforts an all-the-more exciting prospect. And for Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… cemented his reputation as the group’s most captivating storyteller. RZA’s beats have a rich cinematic quality, which endow these tales of death and drug-fuelled excess in New York’s criminal underbelly with an especially grand scope. Ghostface Killah co-stars and features on almost every track, his immeasurably strong chemistry with the album’s major player on “Knuckleheadz” and “Crimonology” standing out as cast-iron highlights. Then, there’s “Guillotine (Swordz),” a group track where Inspectah Deck and GZA join the party for one of the most searing displays of rhymes-over-refrain in the Wu-Tang canon: Staten Island wordplay at its stark and chilling best. Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

47

Madonna, Ray of Light

Don’t call it a comeback. Because while Madonna’s immediately preceeding genres of choice (R&B, adult contemporary, Broadway) were quickly rendering her relevance a thing to be admired only in the past tense, her chart prowess was still in fine form. No, Ray of Light was a rebirth, the sound of a queen, sitting on her throne, taking inventory of her icy, empty fortress—and not liking what she saw one bit. From “Drowned World” to “Frozen” to “Mer Girl,” water is a recurring theme, serving as a symbol of purification throughout. Madonna’s lyrics are notably devoid of any trace of cyncism here, and though it’s tempting to interpret her “answers” as obvious or absolute, it’s her sense of wonder and searching—and, of course, Patrick Leonard’s gorgeous melodies and William Orbit’s immaculate yet playful production—that elevates Ray of Light above mere New Age hogwash. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

46

The Chemical Brothers, Surrender

What do you do when your breakthrough album gets co-opted by the media and unfairly saddled with the responsibility of defining an entire, ostensibly “new” genre? Most acts would probably try to branch out to distance themselves from the embarrassment, but if you’re the Chemical Brothers, you stick to your guns and come up with a blitzkrieg of whirling dervishes that show just how much ecstasy can be milked from a basic formula. Surrender rewrites no scripts, reinvents no wheels. All it does is beat its listener into grinning submission with more of the very same chunky drum licks, funk samples, and druggy EQ tweakery that put the Chemical Brothers on the map in the first place. Innovation is overrated. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

45

Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

What can be said of Trent Reznor’s industrial odyssey that isn’t gleaned from the monstrous presence of “Closer”? Though “Hurt” went on to receive a second life in America’s mainstream music consciousness and “March of the Pigs” is ultimately a more interesting track, “Closer” is The Downward Spiral in six, awesomely frightening minutes: intuitive, conceptual, highly self-aware, and a perfect slice of beat-driven horror music with a brain to go with its lumbering limbs. With Nine Inch Nails’s sophomore effort, Reznor proved that he had an ear for hitting the space between the extremes, balancing melody and erosion, hooks and white noise, ecstasy and dread. The Downward Spiral is nightmare and dream as one: at times inspiring, but almost always scary as hell. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

44

Massive Attack, Mezzanine

What’s a decade in review without a bit of willful hyperbole: Massive Attack’s Mezzanine boasts the strongest opening sequence of the ’90s and one of the strongest opening runs of the rock era period. “Angel,” with its dirty, druggy bassline is the heaviest track in Massive Attack’s catalogue, while “Risingson” serves as a warning to the club scene where the group made their name. “Teardrop” may have lost some of its luster thanks to its use as the theme song to House’s procedural health-care snark, but it still works as the record’s moody centerpiece, and “Inertia Creeps” follows it with a structurally brilliant, ominous tone poem. The remainder of the album is fantastic on its own merits, but it’s that Side One that makes Mezzanine a classic. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

43

Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Underneath all the marching-band tempos and piles of instrumentation, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea stands out as one of the most effective examples of dread cloaked in bright, hammering noise. From the three-part intro of “King of Carrot Flowers,” where a solitary acoustic strums are slowly buried by a clamoring wave of new sounds, these songs act as exercises in raw emotion padded with the kind of busy din that distracts from the heartrending gloom of the lyrics. Over everything is the quivering voice of Jeff Mangum, the de facto force behind this singularly sustained explosion of melancholy. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

42

A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders

Overstatement would seem to be a thorny but tempting issue when it comes to A Tribe Called Quest, but all things considered, it’s not that much of a stretch to dub them the greatest rap group to ever grace the planet, nor their 1993 masterpiece Midnight Marauders one of the greatest, most influential hip-hop albums ever produced. As a touchstone of rhyming inspiration for a whole generation of rappers, Midnight Marauders has no equal: One can easily hear the catalyst for Madvillain in the scratchy, jazzy “Award Tour,” and the manic explosiveness Busta Rhymes would later bank his career on in “Oh My God.” In an age where much of rap has become tired and stale, Midnight Marauders endures as an archetype of pioneering hip-hop. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s

41

Basement Jaxx, Remedy

As far as critical analyses go, I defer here to Armand Van Helden, who knew exactly what he was saying when he claimed Basement Jaxx’s Remedy took house music and fucked it square in the ass. Not that he had to wrack his brain too hard to come up with the metaphor. It’s right there on the cover: lots and lots of golden-brown ass. Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe dropped their muscular manifesto at the height of house revivalism, but they stood virtually alone in their ability to assimilate a seemingly endless variety of genres and sounds. Remedy reverberates with the energy of Daft Punk, the experimentalism of the Chemical Brothers, and the compositional elegance of Masters at Work. Nothing partied harder like it was 1999. Henderson

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