100 Best Records of the 90’s: 100-81

100. Pearl Jam – Ten
Somehow everything that arrived in Nirvana’s wake was a bottomless pit of spectacularly uninspiring angst, put-on gravelly voices and greasy hair that would give Vidal Sassoon nightmares – all purely for the sake of it. Pearl Jam were one of the few to stand on their own as a band with individuality. Their debut ‘Ten’ delivered great songs inspired by home-grown Neil Young, wild MC5 and psychadelic firepower Hendrix with a kind of driven passion that was so absent from nearly every band at the time. It still sounds expertly crafted and exciting.

99. Blur – 13
Their previous album had a cover featuring a hospital patient being rushed into a ward. By the release of ’13’, it was clear the band were a terminal case: ’13’ is a wounded and confused mess, but in the best of ways. From seven-minute gospelized lullaby on the rare joys of being alive straight into self-destructive, paranoid fuzzy-noise-outs, then back to weary trudges through recovery; the record is never sure what to feel, but this just makes it all the more unpredictable. The clear highlight is ‘No Distance Left To Run’, Damon Albarn’s aching farewell to his ex-lover Justine Frischman. If your heart doesn’t melt when he says “I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep”, you may not have one.

98. Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas
‘Heaven…’ marked a departure for the dream-pop trio. This is because you could decipher around 10% of what Liz Frazier was saying as opposed to none of it. While the music is as weightless and wispish as rock(?) music comes, the songwriting itself is always focused and interesting. Don’t try and work out the lyrics – you will fail, and besides that, you don’t need them really. Its glimmering blurriness is half the appeal; it’s like travelling so fast that everything else seems slow and glacial.

97. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call
The extremely moody looking Cave on the front of ‘The Boatman’s Call’ can mean only one thing: it’s time for a break-up album and it’s a corker. Cave’s densely arranged sound is gone in favour of a more simplistic, stripped-back feel layered with quiet barfly pianos, wheezing organs and shuffling rhythms. His voice has rarely sounded better, probably since, more than ever, it feels like he’s singing about things that have happened to him, pouring his soul into every syllable.

96. The Stone Roses – Second Coming
Unfortunately, drastic change usually spells commercial disaster, even if it’s good. The gleaming British pop masterpiece of The Stone Roses’ debut was universally adored and still comes up pretty high in “best ever” lists. Their ‘Second Coming’ barely sounds like the same band and consequently disappointed a nation. This might be what Led Zeppelin would sound like if they sprang up in the middle of ecstasy culture. It’s a rougher, heavier sound, but the songs are still great, even if it’s not a classic.

95. Grant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon
The virtually unknown country-loving alt-rock trio Grant Lee Buffalo are criminally underappreciated, fleshing out America’s gloomy past and questioning its uncertain future. Opening with the moaning guitars of ‘Lone Star Song’ (written about the Waco Koresh massacre), it never lets its guard down whether it’s being anxious and serious or optimistic and love-ridden. Never giving into a cliché, and always with nagging doubts haunting the peripheries, why ‘Mighty Joe Moon’ is better known is anyone’s guess.

94. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
After one universally hated album with a synth-pop band (Y Kant Tori Read), singer/songwriter/pianist Tori Amos went about as uncommercial as you can get for a debut single: ‘Me and a Gun’, a disturbing a capella concerning her own real-life rape. The album that followed includes it, but mixed in with far more accessible and tuneful – but equally moving – songs. The delicate pianos and soaring vocals sometimes belie the acid tongue and pained subject matters found underneath. Somewhere between vulnerable beauty and fierce determination.

93. Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters
After Nirvana died with Kurt Cobain, Dave Ghrol swapped his sticks for strings and quickly became rock’s fastest rising cool dude in chief. I could have put any Foo Fighters album here, but their debut captures them in all their raw glory; they had far more craft about what they were doing than 90% of the other bands who sounded anywhere near similar. ‘Foo Fighters’ gets increasingly addictive the more you listen and listening now, it sounds like the blueprint for all mainstream American rock to come, but still trumps them all. It’s a credit to Ghrol’s songwriting that the fact that he was the drummer in one of the most revered bands of all time is but a footnote in his creative career.

92. Blur – Blur
Blur announced the arrival of Brit-pop with ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ and less than 5 years later kicked its ransacked corpse in a ditch with ‘Blur’, an embracing of the moody American underground that they had spent so much time railing against. Damon Albarn’s character studies and storytelling were gone in favour of heroin-muddied ramblings and Graham Coxon’s claustrophobic guitars. Somehow, people still loved this new uncomfortable sound in all its demon-exorcising glory, probably since, behind the tortured dirty-fuzzy sound, was a band who were hardly strangers when it came to writing classic pop songs, as well as pushing the boundaries.

91. Basement Jaxx – Remedy
How can anyone listen to ‘Remedy’ and not know that it was made by two bearded white guys in Hawaiian shirts? Even so, it’s the last word in hedonistic dance records with its Latin rhythms, squelchy synths, noisy sound effects and beats that could make Stephen Hawking jump up and down. Every time a singer appears they seem to represent someone else at this massive, borderline unsafe party and despite carrying its own sound throughout, every track is like a new refreshing angle on the same scene.

90. Cypress Hill – Black Sunday
Challenging The Grateful Dead’s title of “Most Stoned Band Ever”, Cypress Hill specialise in dope-addled, sneering hip-hop full of noisy squeals, squawking vocals and smoky basses. ‘Black Sunday’, the only LP of theirs I own, is a hazy, paranoid rap dream which is so edgy and menacing you wonder why they keep smoking the weed, but because it’s so good, it makes a surprisingly good advert for it.

89. Suede – Suede
Since David Bowie hadn’t made a truly great album since 1980, the people were in need of another brilliant pop band with an androgynous lead singer. Suede delivered with their combo of the aforementioned Bowie and The Smiths, each song dripping with perfect melodies, wistful melancholy and sexual misadventure.

88. Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted
Copies of ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ had circulated (without song titles) on cassette tape for a year before it was officially released. It’s one of those records that was bought by few, but loved by those who did. From near-perfect rough-n-ready guitar pop to shouty rock drives, all through a lo-fi and lower-budget sheen which just adds to the home grown feel.

87. Mudhoney – Superfuzz Bigmuff + Early Singles
Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ started grunge in all its filthy anti-grandeur. Finishing what they started, they continued to develop their sludgy sound, losing none of its initial power. Their primal peak was this EP (released later with the early singles) ‘Superfuzz Bigmuff’, named after their favourite guitar effects pedals. This is music that bypasses the heart and the brain and comes straight from the gut, entrails and all. Extremely simple, but blisteringly effective slime rock carried on Ryvita-thin razor-blade guitar chords.

86. The Orb – Orblivion
The Orb’s sprawling spaced-out-ness was never as accessible as it is here; half the time they almost sounds like pop songs but it’s still a fully fledged trip through all its ups and downs. Sonically, more adventurous and ambitious than 90% of other electronica records out there; listened to on headphones it really takes you places, and unlike their other records, there’s very few quiet bits; everything is happening, and it’s bloody marvellous.

85. Bonnie Prince Billy – I See A Darkness
Aside from looking more like a horse than Seabiscuit does, Will Oldham is one of the most influential folkie-type singer-songwriters out there and it’s pretty easy to see why from ‘I See A Darkness’. This sounds like the kind of record someone puts out when they know they’re going to die; everything is laid bare from the reflective comfort zone of ‘A Minor Place’ and the stunning, sorrowful lament of dread to come in the title track which was later covered by Johnny Cash.

84. Babybird – Fatherhood
Bored at home, unemployed Stephen Jones wrote and recorded around 3 or 400 songs on a tape recorder “no bigger than a VCR”. His third output ‘Fatherhood’ is a confused, shambling set of truly great songs – the most mature set he ever wrote, despite the genuinely horrible cover which shows him naked and wearing a pregnancy simulator. Sometimes you’re not sure whether or not he’s being serious and literally leaves you wondering whether to laugh or cry, such as on the bizarrely affecting/tongue-in-cheek ‘I Don’t Want To Wake You Up’ which sees him as a man refusing to accept the fact that his lover has been in bed, dead, for three days. The clear highlight however is ‘Good Night’, a near perfect, quietly affectionate song which distils the whole experience of an under-confident unrequited love experience into a single chorus: “I don’t blame you/ You’re always right/ I’m a bad day/ You’re a good night.”

83. Tindersticks – Tindersticks I
This is what Belle and Sebastian would sound like if they lost all their prozac and spent all their money on whiskey, cigarettes and black and white films. The shamelessly romantic and desperately down-trodden songs of Tindersticks’ debut attain a cinematic quality due to the dense textures – full of string flourishes and moody jazz influences – and Stuart Staples miserable mumblings and surprisingly little time is given over to guitars; but on top of the unique sound, the strength of composition reigns supreme. Its happiest moment is probably the opener ‘Nectar’, which is like ‘Day Tripper’ on a hot summer’s day by the local suicide bridge. In terms of quality though, nothing beats ‘Patchwork’; a beautiful lonely/wistful lament that sounds like a moment in a great film when the luck-less hero tells the girl how he really feels about her, preceding the moment when she kisses him on the cheek and walks away.

82. Sonic Youth – Goo
After ‘Daydream Nation’ (one of the best albums ever made – challengers to this claim will be sneered at), Sonic Youth followed with ‘Goo’, laying off the experimentation to deliver of their most commercial records, but remarkably one of their best. Just because it’s less obviously experimental, it doesn’t mean they don’t branch out on their repertoire: ‘Tunic’, told from Karen Carpenter’s perspective during her last days with the anorexia which finally killed her, is as emotional and unsettling as they ever got, while the unashamedly silly ‘My Friend Goo’ has a bass-line so dirty it could soundtrack the “Before” section in a Persil advert. There’s rarely a weak moment here; the howling guitars and rollicking soundwalls are all still here, but they’ve never sounded so approachable; case in point: ‘Titanium Expose’, which brilliantly alternates between rushing, driven choruses and slowly swaying dream-like verses.

81. Bark Psychosis – Hex
Although it carries the overall sound of cobwebbed toys in a dimly lit attic, Bark Psychosis’ debut LP is a lush, intricate affair which still sounds totally unique 16 years later. If it was released tomorrow, it would still be something novel. It never relies on any bangs or crashes to leave an impression; it wins on attention to detail and subtle beauty alone. One reviewer called it “Post-Rock” whereas it sounds more like “Post-Everything”. Freely dabbling in jazz drum rhythms, trip-hop basslines, shagged-out-Jesus-and-Mary-Chain vocals, grieving lyrics, quiet pianos, ambient keyboards, soul-searching guitars and the occasional marimba, accordion, glockenspiel and/or flute (but almost never at the same time), ‘Hex’ is genuinely dazzling despite rarely being loud.

Part 2: 80 – 71: Sunday 25th April.

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