In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s, I described nostalgia for the decade as “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.” I went on to lament: “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.” So good, in fact, that we decided to dust off our lovingly curated list of over 400 albums to compile individual Top 10s for each year of the ’90s. Many of these titles are already widely—and rightfully—celebrated, but these lists also give us the opportunity to honor some typically overlooked gems. Sal Cinquemani
Honorable Mention: De La Soul, Buhloone Mindstate; The Cranberries, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?; Belly, Star; Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy; The Breeders, Last Splash; Meshell Ndegeocello, Plantation Lullabies; Pearl Jam, Vs.; Yo La Tengo, Painful; Boredoms, Pop Atari; Sunscreem, O3
10. 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
9. Janet Jackson, janet.
It wasn’t until the third album into her rhythm renaissance before Janet finally let herself explore her own heretofore underutilized pleasure principle. With two fingers, even. janet. (or Janet, Period) is absolutely off the rag. Taking a notable cue from Madonna’s Erotica escapades, Miss Nasty drops trou (except on the immortal cover art) and, like a moth to a flame, burns like a fire of good times even Leni Riefenstahl-lensed, production-number socialism couldn’t hope to mandate as effectively. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis may have worked with more disciplined results, but their sound never seemed so perceptibly opulent. As Christgau wrote, “The difference between hearing it on a cheap box and a booming system is the difference between daydreaming about sex and having somebody’s crack in your face.” If Janet is their own personal Dietrich, janet. is their Motown-tracked Scarlet Empress. Eric Henderson
8. Snoop Doggy Dogg, Doggystyle
Snoop Dogg’s career has proven to be more about durability than steady quality, finding the right hit just often enough to constantly stay afloat. Ranging through different riffs on his blunt-chewing, slang-dubbing persona, he’s never been much of an innovator, working in the safe milieu of established sounds. His best incarnation was undoubtedly his first, following in the footsteps of G-funk pioneers like DJ Quik and Dr. Dre. Like a soul record focused on bedding women without actually wooing them, Doggystyle sees Snoop putting on his best ice-cold loverman, soft and silky while dodging any admittance of feeling, constantly reminding us how he don’t love them hos. Jesse Cataldo
7. 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. Kevin Liedel
6. Björk, Debut
While the U.K. press ate it up, American critics, perhaps still beating off to the U.S.’s exalted alt-rock movement, were divided on Björk’s Debut. Though the album contains a healthy mix of trip-hop and jazz-pop, dance music dominates, a marked departure for the former Sugarcube. While the ballads don’t measure up to those on Post or Homogenic, dance singles like “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality” (found here in its original, more mainstream house-y incarnation) truly defined the “Björk sound.” The album is Björk’s most accessible to date, which is ironic considering one song includes over half a minute of the singer repeating “b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-baby” and another that was recorded in a bathroom stall. By titling the album Debut, Björk was acknowledging that it was simply a rehearsal for her forthcoming masterpieces, but even if she never recorded again, Debut was enough to cement her legacy as one of pop’s most forward-thinking performers. Cinquemani
5. Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
It turns out that Billy Corgan being an OCD-ridden control freak was a good thing, as it allowed the world to savor perhaps one of the most lush, artiest rock albums of all time. Long rumored to be singlehandedly recorded by Corgan himself, Siamese Dream married the slow, thick crunch of the Smashing Pumpkins’s early Sub Pop sound with a visceral, self-conscious melodrama. “Freak out and give in,” Corgan whispers in the album’s opening moments, “doesn’t matter what you believe in.” From the hammering string quartet that drives “Disarm” to the misleadingly sweet breakdowns of “Geek U.S.A.” and “Silverfuck,” Siamese Dream is a masterful blend of poetry and hate, and a velvet-fisted rock opus that elevated teenage angst into an art form. Liedel
4. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville
At the time of its release, rock critics couldn’t look past their instant hard-ons stoked by Liz Phair’s liberal use of four-letter words and her blunt statements of sexual desire to engage her debut album on its own terms. Now, nearly 25 years out, a whole new generation of indie kids have rushed to discredit Phair because of what had been written about the supposed novelty of Exile in Guyville. While Phair’s legacy may have been cheapened by some of her latter-day recordings, to reduce her debut to the “Even when I was 12” line from “Fuck and Run” or the entirety of “Flower” is grossly shortsighted, and it’s hard to imagine another rock album whose reception has been so consistently tainted by active misogyny. Jonathan Keefe
3. PJ Harvey, Rid of Me
PJ Harvey showed us her long snake moan on Dry, and with Rid of Me she rubbed it red and raw. That lunatic groan, her instrument of choice, is a force of supernatural nature that expresses a wide range of yearnings, and like the album’s crude production, it freakishly manages to be sly, seductive, and absolutely terrifying all at once. Yes, you don’t need to look at her face—or know that there’s a “Snake” on the tracklist—to understand that she fancies herself a medusa. Fertile with rage and desire, deserts are her stomping ground but also the place where she exiles herself from guyville, knowing what she could do to its populace. There’s nothing poignant here exactly, but you still feel sorry for the girl all the same. This most unusual siren, so existentially obsessed with seduction and annihilation, both loves and hates her powers. To murder or to commit suicide, that is her question. Ed Gonzalez
2. Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
On paper, this really shouldn’t have worked: Nine MCs jostling for position, spinning intense yarns enveloped in Staten Island street slang, sharing barely a hook between them on the album’s 12 tracks. Enter the Wu-Tang is an uncensored postcard sent directly from the streets to our speakers, an unhinged soundtrack to the underground made up of eerie soul samples and lo-fi dialogue snippets from old kung-fu movies. With these nine MCs, we also have nine completely contrasting styles: Method Man swaggers, Raekwon snarls, GZA clinically delivers the game’s most cryptic couplets to date, Ghostface Killah stands out for his unrelenting streams of consciousness, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard provides the most madcap hollers that hip-hop had heard before or has heard since. Huw Jones
1. Nirvana, In Utero
Following the glossy punk sound of their breakthrough Nevermind, the decision to recruit producer Steve Albini for Nirvana’s follow-up was quite clearly an effort to somehow distance the band from their newfound mainstream success. Albini’s stripped-down approach to recording In Utero caught Cobain and company at their raw and abrasive best, emphatically dispelling claims that the group was selling out. With the album’s gentler moments buried beneath dense cacophony and filthy riffing, the ugly categorically triumphed over the beautiful, warts and all. Jones
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