Picking up where yesterday left off, here is the second installment of my Top 10 Rock Albums of the 1990's. Read yesterday's post for my criteria and evaluation process. It was very complicated and even involved trigonometry, so don't test me.
5) Nirvana's In Utero:
Cobain shucked Butch Vig's production in favor of a grainier, more punk sound for the real follow-up to Nevermind (Incesticide was more a collection of B-sides and extra material). Like Vitalogy, In Utero tests the listener's patience, showing a remarkable leap forward in songwriting ("Heart-Shaped Box," "Dumb," "All Apologies"), an uncanny knack for punk/pop melody ("Rape Me," Pennyroyal Tea"), and a persisting affinity for all things abrasive, challenging, and weird ("Milk It," "Tourette's"). Like Pearl Jam, Nirvana decided to make their next "big statement" on their own terms, growing musically while still writing good hooks (for what it's worth, I think this was more an inevitability than an exercise in pop songwriting--Cobain couldn't not write a catchy melody if he wanted to). Still, the album, unlike Nevermind, is not instantly engaging or enjoyable; most songs take at least a handful of listens before their brilliance starts to shine through ("Serve the Servants," "Frances Farmer..."). Still, with a closer like "All Apologies," and the forthcoming, "You Know You're Right," as an indication of what would've come, In Utero still reveals a band with as much genius as inner turmoil.
4) R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People:
This was one of the first two albums I really latched onto while my taste in music was at its most formative years. I have no clue how this tape ended up in my house, to whom it was a gift, and by whom it was given, but I owe them a few hundred thank-you notes. With the possible exception of Pearl Jam's Yield and The Bends, I can't think of any other albums as musical as this--meaning that every part of every song is loaded with subtle melodies, brilliant background performances, perfect arrangement, etc. At a time when alternative music was becoming mainstream, R.E.M. emerged with a 60-minute reminder of why they were the Godfathers of the scene, only this time the message was optimism instead of cynicism, hope rather than despair ("Everybody Hurts," "Nightswimming"). This album gives you the impression that, at this point in their career, R.E.M. was churning out 10 great songs a day--everything is so seemlessly brilliant that it's frustrating to listen to now, from a songwriter's standpoint. And while Out of Time had the greatest song ("Losing My Religion") and Monster sold the most, Automatic remains the strongest testament to the songwriting genius of one of America's absolutely best bands.
3) Radiohead's OK Computer:
After the success of The Bends, Thom Yorke was likely asking his band his own question, "Where do we go from here?" Oxford's finest reconvened to produce a truly classic album, and possibly the most sophisticated pop album of the decade. While The Bends captures Radiohead in all their postmodern pop-rock perfection and Kid A will reveal them as true musical visionaries, OK Computer occupies the crucial point of transition: all of The Bends' accessibility with all of Kid A's imagination. And, if most of Radiohead's lyrics have seemed repetitive in the last few years, it's likely because Yorke's simply reworking the themes he established and executed best in OK Computer. When asked what, if anything, the band would change about the album, Colin Greenwood (the bassist) replied that they had "overdone 'Climbing Up the Walls,'" which seems now complete lunacy. This album has everything: the recognizable hits ("Karma Police," "Paranoid Android"), engaging experimentation ("Climbing Up the Walls," "Exit Music"), perfect sequencing ("No Surprises" between "Climbing Up the Walls" and "Lucky"), and all the highest high points and highest low points you'd expect from a great band in their prime. For all its seeming complexity, maybe its message is as simple as the final refrain: slow down.
2) Pearl Jam's Ten:
Here's the other album that, alongside Automatic for the People, got more play than Wilt Chamberlain. Absolutely every note of this album screams relevance, urgency, and almost necessity; when Stone Gossard's guitar announces the beginning of "Once," it's every bit as refreshing and immediately gripping as the opening progression of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Not only did this album give the world another timeless anthem ("Alive"), a new brand of socially-conscious rock ("Even Flow," "Why Go," "Jeremy"), and the arrival of the decade's most gifted singer, it teamed up with a handful of other albums in 1991-1992 to usher in the rock's most important era in twenty years. Every second of this album is sharp, tight, and memorable--even now, Pearl Jam concert-goers sing along to Vedder's vocal trills at the beginning of "Black" because even those are catchy and irreplacable. I'm biased, because Ten could be the best album of my favorite band, but they're my favorite band partly because of this album. It's every bit as relevant and enjoyable today as when it arrived fourteen years ago.
1) Nirvana's Nevermind:
A surprise to nobody, I'm sure, but I need to preface this pick. I actually believe there are a handful of albums that are actually stronger, more consistent, and more mature than Nirvana's breakthrough LP. However, even that is a very short list, and no other album from the decade can come close to matching Nevermind for its cultural significance. Hair metal had all but killed contemporary rock and, at the time of Nevermind's release, powerpop ballads dominated the charts as many critics were pronouncing the "death of rock." But with four chords and some scratchy vocals, Kurt Cobain catapulted his band from relatively unknown to instantly great in a matter of weeks when Nevermind came out in December of 1991. Just a few points to illustrate its importance at the time:
1) Nevermind hit #1 by knocking off Michael Jackson's Dangerous in the first week of 1992. Many think the bizarre sales numbers were due in large part to kids returning the copy of Dangerous they got for Christmas for Nevermind.
2) Ten sat on shelves unnoticed for nearly 9 months before the success of Nevermind brought mainstream attention to other Seattle bands. TEN sat unnoticed. Jesus.
Of course, pop music was redefined from January of 1992 on, but it's important not to overlook the strength of these songs. With Nevermind, Cobain kept the promise that he made with "About a Girl"--that he was the rare songwriting talent that could pull a pop song out of even the most unlikely of genres. Every song comes through with speed, immediacy, and power: four minutes of furious perfection, then quickly finished, only to pick back up again in two or three seconds. Nevermind isn't merely the product of twelve great songs or good lyrics or outstanding production or smart marketing; it's what happens when, once in a generation, the right artist makes the right album at the right time, and everything that follows is nothing short of transcendent.
Also considered (a few of them....there were many):
Pearl Jam's Vs.: The hardest omission. This really should've been on the list, but I happen to prefer the aesthetics of Vitalogy better.
Weezer's Blue Album: The progenitor to everything good about geek rock but, unfortunately, everything bad about emo. If Weezer had combined Pinkerton's maturity with the Blue Album's hooks, they would've really had something.
Counting Crows' Recovering the Satellites: The Crows at their rocking, balladeering, most vibrant best. "Long December" alone would give any album consideration.
Stone Temple Pilots' Purple: A better, broader, take on their grungy, Core beginnings. This album has some "quintessential 90's" songs, and a hilarious secret track.
Of course, you're more than welcome to disagree with me. In fact, bring it. I want you to.