The Top 136 Or So Albums Of The Nineties

An Introduction to this Learn’d Topick by Ned Raggett, Esq.

Elsewhere on this Site of Goodness, your kind host Tom Ewing is letting you know about the top 100 singles of the decade in his estimation, which you should be checking out first. So why this list, then?

Tom notes that some of the best songs of the decade never surfaced on an album [quite true] and that "…album-based rock criticism has its own rhetoric, mostly concerned about whether a record will last and where it stands in relation to the established critical pantheon" [especially, and annoyingly, true]. Hopefully I won’t be presenting that kind of chin-stroking canon-building hoo-hah here, guilty as I can be of it sometimes [or all the time, for all I know!], preferring just honest takes on the records that made me happy, regardless of how important or not the world at large deemed them. Though in fact, what I’d like to do here first is wax elegaic, because a summation of this decade’s best albums makes excellent sense when albums as we know them are about to be rendered obsolete in many ways.

What? Yes. When Tom alludes to ‘album-based rock criticism,’ he also slyly notes that the medium is very much the message. The latter half of the twentieth century is the window in which the vinyl/cassette/CD medium – three variants of one basic mean – has come to flourish and dominate. Given that recorded music is barely over a hundred years old, it has been fascinating to realize in how swift a period of time the ‘listening experience’ has been codified, in certain ways, as that of silent appreciation of an unchanging set of songs, which is what most album listening involves. Needless to say, of course, it is not the only way to listen to recorded music and never has been, thus radio, dancehalls, mix tapes, live DJing events and so forth. But the method described is the dominant one in terms of both sales and, therefore, attendant discourse. If, say, live DJing was the backbone of the record industry, it would be the putative norm criticism would react to. But it isn’t and here we are in the world of Rolling Stone, Q, and The Wire, to mention three of many particular album criticism models. Arguably Downbeat in the fifties provided the template, as postwar jazz became the ‘serious’ musical moneydriver in contrast to rock and roll’s claimed frivolousness, and therefore more immediately deserving of deep thoughts regarding long-playing vinyl artifacts. Since then, we have seen canonical [and anti-canonical approaches absorbed as canonical] album criticism models flourish, capturing an unspoken musical experience in words as best as possible.

But this is about to change probably for good, thanks to technology’s apparently endless march. While the hype regarding mp3s and so forth has mostly remained that during the latter part of the decade – from a strictly capitalist point of view, the market is promising but still very small, and limited by infrastructure and other technical issues – ten years will see this change radically. Enough initial toes-dipped-in-water scenarios have occurred, wherein increasingly bigger name acts have made songs available for free download to entice album purchases and, far more importantly, for download of a song for direct purchase independent of an album. While this is on the face of it little more than an extension of the basic philosophy of vinyl [and CD, etc.] singles, it’s not that hard to extend this situation wherein a musician can eschew formal ‘album’ releases in favor of simply uploading newer songs as they are recorded to a central location. From there, purchasers can take what they want, make their own mixes from an extensive back catalog, select some songs but not others from the newest batch, and so forth. No doubt discussion and planning for such a possible variety of approaches is going on right now, and will only accelerate.

All this will help to undermine, slowly or quickly, the current presumptions about album releases as predetermined forms needing to always be adhered to. The album model is not set in stone, but a creation of the technologies and limitations available in the mid-century: how much you could fit on any one side of a vinyl slab, the attendant size of the product and need to create art or design works of that size, and so forth. As much as vinyl fetishists kicked against the compact disc dominance of the last two decades, CDs at least fit a familiar listening model still. The rise of this new model, which like every other musical medium will get increasingly cheaper and with wider access for both purchasing and actual creation of music, is a much different kettle of fish. Uniform ‘releases’ may become increasingly irrelevant when two different consumers judge the same batch of songs from an artist and select only those which please them, and therefore only keep those. If one person’s Album X is different from another’s, and both are notably different [in amounts of songs, running order, whatever] from ‘the Album X sessions’ database all tracks were downloaded from, the potential implications for both albums as an artifact and the methods in which recorded music collections are criticized will play out for years to come.

This said, predicting the future down to the last crossed t is never possible. This may all be too utopian on the one hand, too radical on the other, for instant acceptance on many levels. But the potential is strong for things to turn out this way, very strong indeed. Hail, then, the discrete music album, something which is soon to no longer be the one way. Inasmuch as this is a celebration of excellent records from the past ten years, this is also an acknowledgement that ten years from now we will be all quite surprised at how we talk about music. It won’t quite be like the way I’ll be doing it here anymore.


SO WHY 136?

When I suggested this nutty thing – and when Tom agreed with alacrity! – I took some time one afternoon and looked through my collection. I had a basic rule of thumb – whatever it was that I would choose had to be something I owned and enjoyed. I am not interested in what I’m supposed to like, but in what I actually like.

So that should serve as an initial warning right there – like Tom is doing with his list, I pretend no universalist approach. If your favorite album of the decade was indeed Nevermind, say, more power to ya – it’s nowhere on my own list, though I don’t mind it as a record. The opinions expressed herein are mine unto eternity, but should you disagree, my general reaction is, "That’s cool." That’s why your list is different from mine. ;-) If you don’t see something you love on here, the reasons are:

  1. I haven’t heard it. And if I haven’t heard it and you are convinced I must hear it this second, then drop me a mail and life is happy. And indeed, any and all feedback is welcome and loved – is where to write.
  2. I have heard it. When you drop me this putative mail as above and I tell you that I would rather jump off of cliffs onto piles of offal rather than have to encounter anything from Crash or Jagged Little Pill or Bakesale again, then you’ll know.
  3. I have heard it and I enjoy it enough, but not to the point of actually ranking it anywhere. Random examples – Nevermind, Ten (about half of it), anything by Godspeed you Black Emperor!, anything the Fall have released this decade, etc.

And while on the subject of bias, you’ll note a lot of UK bands who employ stylists on my list and a large absence of US bands who are rough and rootsy. Not only do I make no apologies, I am willing to through the switch on whatever cosmic control ensures that bands like Phish, the Black Crowes and Rage Against the Machine, to name three on a very long list, disappear and are forgotten forever.

Anyway, I went through my collection and noted down album names as I went, things that made me go, "Hell yeah, this was great." My limitations – had to have been released in the 1990s as a discrete album, while compilations I allowed only if all tracks on it were also released in the 1990s. Aside from that, anything went.

When I was done, I counted up what I had, and realized there were 136 albums on the list. For a second I thought about maybe paring this down to 100, but then concluded, "To hell with it. That’s as much an artificial distinction as anything, so who the heck cares? 136 it is!" After going through and creating a general order of things, I then realized that I had left some albums out that I shouldn’t’ve on my first time through. But since I had already written out the order of albums and wasn’t about to do that again – I’m not that persnickety, I hope! – I happily reserve the right to plug into the list from time to time things which I left out first time through. Thus, ‘136 or so’ – we’ll see if it stays around there!

Like Tom’s list, mine starts at the bottom and works its way along. If you’ve read through all this, you don’t need to read through any more! Onward into the list!

Ned's Nineties


2. DEPECHE MODE - Violator

3. SMASHING PUMPKINS - Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

4. TALK TALK - Laughing Stock


6. JANE'S ADDICTION - Ritual De Lo Habitual

7. MOGWAI - Young Team

8. MERCURY REV - Yerself Is Steam

9. PET SHOP BOYS - Behavior

10. THE WEDDING PRESENT - Seamonsters

11. APHEX TWIN - Selected Ambient Works Vol II

12. MASSIVE ATTACK - Blue Lines

13. THE COCTEAU TWINS - Heaven Or Las Vegas


15. VARIOUS ARTISTS - Law Of The Jungle

16. PRIMAL SCREAM - Screamadelica

17. SLOWDIVE - Just For A Day

18. DEPECHE MODE - Songs Of Faith And Devotion

19. THE HOUSE OF LOVE - The House Of Love


21. ORBITAL - Orbital 2

22. PULP - Different Class

23. SPIRITUALIZED - Lazer Guided Melodies

24. SMASHING PUMPKINS - Siamese Dream

25. PORTISHEAD - Dummy

26. PM DAWN - Of The Heart, Of The Soul, And Of The Cross: The Utopian Experience

27. KRISTIN HERSH - Hips And Makers

28. MORRISSEY - Beethoven Was Deaf

29. NINE INCH NAILS - The Downward Spiral

30. RIDE - Nowhere

31. RADIOHEAD - OK Computer

32. THE SUNDAYS - Reading, Writing and Arithmetic


34. SEEFEEL - Quique

35. MENSWEAR - Nuisance

36. MERCURY REV - Deserter's Songs

37. LOW - I Could Live In Hope

38. MOGWAI - Come On Die Young

39. SAINT ETIENNE - Foxbase Alpha

40. VERVE - A Storm In Heaven

41. MARC ALMOND - Twelve Years Of Tears

42. SUEDE - Coming Up

43. THE BETA BAND - The Three EPs

44. CHAPTERHOUSE - Whirlpool

45. ERASURE - Chorus


47. JAMES - Laid

48. OASIS - Definitely Maybe

49. UNDERGROUND LOVERS - Leaves Me Blind

50. DEPECHE MODE - Ultra

51. CRANES - Forever

52. ROY MONTGOMERY - Scenes From The South Island

53. WEEN - Pure Guava

54. PLACEBO - Without You I'm Nothing

55. LABRADFORD - Mi Media Naranja


57. THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS - Exit Planet Dust

58. DEAD CAN DANCE - Toward The Within



61. PULP - This Is Hardcore

62. THE WALKABOUTS - Satisfied Mind

63. THE GOD MACHINE - Scenes From The Second Story

64. LULL - Cold Summer

65. PET SHOP BOYS - Very



68. PJ HARVEY - Rid Of Me

69. SISTERS OF MERCY - Vision Thing

70. R.E.M. - Automatic For The People

71. THE YOUNG GODS - Only Heaven

72. JULEE CRUISE - Floating Into The Night

73. POSTER CHILDREN - Junior Citizen


75. SWANS - Soundtracks For The Blind

76. BUTTERFLY CHILD - The Honeymoon Suite

77. PETER JEFFERIES - The Last Great Challenge In A Dull World

78. MARILYN MANSON - Mechanical Animals

79. MORRISSEY - Southpaw Grammar

80. CHRIS ISAAK - Baja Sessions

81. WINDY AND CARL - Depths

82. THE PRODIGY - The Fat Of The Land

83. SLOWDIVE - Souvlaki

84. THE SQUIRRELS - What Gives?

85. STEREOLAB - Transient Random Noise-Bursts With Announcements


87. OL' DIRTY BASTARD - Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version

88. CHAINSAW KITTENS - Pop Heiress

89. LOVELIESCRUSHING - Bloweyelashwish

90. GUSGUS - This Is Normal

91. A TRIBE CALLED QUEST - The Low End Theory

92. GOO GOO DOLLS - A Boy Named Goo

93. BLACK TAPE FOR A BLUE GIRL - Remnants Of A Deeper Purity

94. PLACEBO - Placebo

95. RED HOUSE PAINTERS - Down Colourful Hill

96. GORKY'S ZYGOTIC MYNCI - Introducing

97. MINISTRY - Psalm 69

98. HOOD - Rustic Houses, Forlorn Valleys

99. GUIDED BY VOICES - Crying Your Knife Away

100. JULIAN COPE - Peggy Suicide


102. Happy 2 B Hardcore

103. THE VELDT - Afrodisiac

104. AMP - Perception

105. TORI AMOS - Under The Pink

106. THE CHURCH - Priest = Aura

107. LONG FIN KILLIE - Houdini

108. RIDE - Going Blank Again

109.PULP - His 'n' Hers

110. CHRIS CONNELLY - Phenobarb Bambalam

111. STRANGELOVE - Time For The Rest Of Your Life


113.MOMUS - The Little Red Songbook


115. THE BOO RADLEYS - Giant Steps

116. NEGATIVLAND - Negativconcertland

117. NO MAN - Loveblows And Lovecries: A Confession

118. THE FLAMING LIPS - Zaireeka

119. HIS NAME IS ALIVE - Home Is In Your Head

120. CRANES - Wings Of Joy

121. PORTISHEAD - Portishead

122. SLOWDIVE - Pygmalion

123. L7 - Bricks Are Heavy

124. LYCIA - The Burning Circle And Then Dust

125. CATHERINE WHEEL - Adam And Eve

126. GOO GOO DOLLS - Hold Me Up

127. BUTTERFLY CHILD - Onomatopaeia

128. BASEHEAD - Play With Toys


130. TRUMANS WATER - Spasm Smash XXXOXOX OX And Ass

131. MARK HOLLIS - Mark Hollis

132. DIVINE STYLER - Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light

133. THE PALE SAINTS - The Comforts Of Madness

134. PELT - Empty Bell Ringing In The Sky

135. MAIN - Firmament II

136. THE AFGHAN WHIGS - Gentlemen

Need a second opinion...? Tom Ewing's Top 100 LPs of the 90s

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