Nine Inch Nails (1994)
It’s dark, it’s brooding, and it’s responsible for two tracks that will forever hold their own unique distinctions in the history of music : “Closer” is undeniably the best strip-club song of all time, and “Hurt” provided the basis for the best cover song of all time, courtesy of Johnny Cash. Aside from the peculiar fascination Trent Reznor had with pigs at this point, the album is without notable weaknesses. Virtually every note and word has a purpose, usually sinister.
Ben Folds Five (1997)
The funny thing about Whatever and Ever, Amen is that it isn’t what two sizable chunks of the music world think it is. Most followers of popular music only know “Brick”, the wildly successful pensive single about struggling with the emotions of an abortion. Those familiar with the group’s first album might assume it’s more of the kitschy silliness pervasive on the their debut. Like most everything in life, the truth is somewhere in between. This album bounces like many of Folds’ melodies, from the ridiculous to the sublime, and back again.
Take the most passive, friendly, proper, dainty person you know. Wait until they get dumped by their significant other. Lock them in a room. Play “This Love” for them, three times. That room will be destroyed.
That’s what the blistering, dirty, boiling raw anger of this album can do to a person. God knows it’s not for all occasions, but when it’s time to purge some ugly feelings, there’s nary a better sonic conduit for them. Vulgar Display of Power is definitely a contender for music’s most descriptively perfect album title.
Master of Puppets could very well be #1 on this list if the criteria was strictly the music. If all you hear is loudness when you listen to Puppets, you’re missing the brilliance. Here, maybe this will help. The album is a cornucopia of time signatures and tempos. Alas, the criteria reaches into areas this album falters in, primarily cohesiveness as a collection of songs and timelessness. Still, the layered beauty of “Orion” begs for a listen at least once per season.
A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
Any person invested in the rap scene in the Nineties can rattle off at least a dozen bars from this album. There’s not one track of filler, and just like the Black Star effort earlier in this list, the album shows off two elite emcees doing what they do best with an effortless interplay. The Low End Theory takes the formula a step further, though, with beats that are classics in their own right slithering under the flow. Tribe was even nice enough to mix two trademark styles into one music video back in the day. Oh yeah, and “Scenario”, sporting a awesomely dated Mac-based video.
Yeah, it’s a better album than Nevermind. Unplugged in New York didn’t pack the culture-shifting punch of Nevermind, but it stands as a snapshot of a legendary band at the peak of their creative powers. Not only did the band resurface existing tracks from their catalog (avoiding most of their hits), they ventured out to obscure covers as the basis for beautifully warm renditions. Start to finish, it’s a more satisfying listen than Nevermind.
Zero 7 (2001)
What makes Simple Things great is a host of characteristics that are the inverse of #27 Vulgar Display of Power. Where Vulgar was masterful at whipping the listener into a frenzy, Simple Things induces the listener to just chill the fuck out. “In The Waiting Line” had moderate exposure on the Garden State soundtrack, but as a whole the songs loosely bleed into one another, variations on a lazy, drifting theme. You can sample the vibe of the disc on “Destiny”, below. Pretty cool video, too.
Nine Inch Nails (1989)
It sounds dated as all hell today, but Pretty Hate Machine served as my bridge from the steaming pile of dung that was mainstream pop music in the late Eighties to the coming rock revolution in the early Nineties. If you were young and angsty when this album dropped, you bought (or dubbed!) this album. Odds are, you mourned a breakup sitting in your room whispering along to “Something I Can Never Have”. Or maybe that was just me. Though the instrumentation hasn’t aged well, the raw emotion and passion on display throughout are timeless.
Dave Matthews Band (1994)
What the hell happened to Dave Matthews Band? One day they reigned as the Kings of College Radio and everything right with music, the next day they’re the punchline in cutting references to schmaltzy soft rock tripe. Ok, maybe twenty years separated those points, but still.
In ’94 though, Under the Table and Dreaming sounded like a painting with a 256-color palette when everyone else was working with 16 colors. The lush depth of the music, the inclusion of horns and strings without sounding forced, lyrics that struck collegiate minds as really fuckin’ deep man… DMB had it all back in the day. When the music is pried away from the memories we’ve saddled it with, though, it holds up well on its own merit.
Counting Crows (1993)
This album would be at least three spots higher if Adam Duritz’s voice wasn’t so fucking whiny. The “I really need a raincoat” line in “Raining in Baltimore” is like metal nails on an amplified chalkboard. Nonetheless, August and Everything After is a near-perfect pop album. “Time and Time Again” boils down the melancholy essence of the album to perfection at the midpoint of the work. Plus, I always thought this was a badass album name.
The Decemberists (2005)
Everything about The Decemberists pointed to “will not like.” Foofy hipster types? Check. Outrageously inexplicable insistence on writing songs from a Revolution-era time perspective? Check. But I’ll be damned if this band does not make great fucking albums time and time again. The inclusion of Picaresque at #20 is essentially a Lifetime Achievement Award; really any of their albums could have been placed here, and instead of having a six-Decemberists-album streak overwhelm the countdown, I’m putting their best album where their entire body of work would have rated. The three-song arc of “16 Military Wives”, “The Engine Driver”, and “On The Bus Mall” is a perfect microcosm of The Decemberists’ scope and inspiration.
Tori Amos (1994)
It’s hard to stay objective when discussing Tori. As much as I love her, I have to admit some albums have uneven mixes of greatness and excess, and in general the album quality has descended from her early days. Under The Pink, though, serves as her high-water mark. Tori strayed far from the pop pretenses of her debut, turning up the dials on the piano’s presence, edgy lyrics, and more adventurous song structures.
Blues Traveler (1994)
If nothing else, this album introduced an entire generation to the harmonica. Novelty aside, Four never really has a drop-off point after the hit single “Run Around” that leads off the disc. “Hook” is appropriately named, with an eminently sing-along-ready chorus. “The Mountains Win Again” is nothing short of beautiful. These songs have, for a reason I can’t identify, held up better than those of their contemporaries, Dave Matthews Band.
Guns N’ Roses (1987)
I mean, it’s Appetite for Destruction. Owning this album was mandatory for any white suburbanite not yet collecting Social Security in the Eighties. Operating under the assumption that the virtues of the album are common knowledge, I’ll explain why it’s not ranked higher on the list.
The album sounds incredibly anchored to when and where it was made, and being that was the ghastly time-place that was Los Angeles in the Eighties, well, no bueno. Axl Roses’s lyrics, also, are downright cringe-worthy once you exit your adolescence.
Pearl Jam (1991)
Eleven songs, titled with thirteen words. Unlike most of the “grunge” (in quotes because that word bothers me) colleagues, the songs on Ten hold up very well decades later. The album serves as a template for how to produce a string of hits without sacrificing artistic sincerity. Simultaneously, the tracks feel intimate and grand. “Alive” is a prime candidate for the classic rock song young adults in the next generation will wistfully get drunk to right before closing time.