music / Columns

The 411 Music Top 5: ’90s Rock Albums

May 5, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

First of all, a big thank you to reader and commenter AvatarNeo for suggesting this week’s topic. Whatever we think of the 1990s and its mesh of hyperactivity and affected apathy, few can argue that the decade produced anything other than great guitar music. On both sides of the Atlantic it was a boom time for guys and gals armed with a six-string and some subversive lyrics.

Now, before we begin, the key question is: what do we mean when we say rock music?

This is tricky to answer. In the spirit of the question I’m going to try and isolate what I believe to be “rock albums”, largely because it will allow us to return to 90s metal, indie, punk and industrial LPs in the weeks and months to come. (Plus, you never know, I might have a word with Jeremy about doing a 90s Top 100 at some point).

So what was my method?

Well it wasn’t remotely scientific, I said an album name aloud, closed my eyes and said the genre that first came to mind.

For example: “Rust In Peace by Megadeth…metal”. “Different Class by Pulp, oh this is tough, indie”. “Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement, not so tricky, straight indie”. “The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips, oh bloody hell, hmmn….it certainly doesn’t feel like rock”.

Right so that’s my dubious methodology, but, before we begin, I will ask, as always:

1. Leave plenty of comments below so we can make a Readers’ Top 5 90s Rock Records next week.

2. Keep suggesting Top 5 topics and I’ll keep writing them.

5. Automatic For The People by R.E.M. [1992]

It’s worth saying at the outset that I found this fifth spot incredibly difficult to fill, not due to a paucity of options (the 90s overflowed with great rock albums), but because the decade happened to embrace two of my least favorite aesthetics: humorless severity (see Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) and obnoxious blokiness (see Oasis). So I find myself in a strange position. I love Ten, Vs., Badmotorfinger, Definitely Maybe and their ilk, but, truthfully, they are never the records I reach for first – and I want these Top 5’s to be about honest reflections and truthful choices.

So it’s Automatic For The People that makes the cut. Despite embracing a raft of rich strings and a knee-slapping dollop of acoustic guitar, R.E.M.’s landmark record remains a resounding rock recording. Populated with some of the most luscious and potent sonics of the band’s career, Automatic For The People nevertheless has a dark, discouraging silence at its core. The phenomenally weighty “Drive” echoes into the void, the powerful chords of “Everybody Hurts” promise escape, but get sucked back down towards an intimate ache, while the somber “Sweetness Follows” submerges a potentially rousing acoustic beneath dense musical fog. In other words, this multi-million seller isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but it is a record that perfectly captures that feeling of being alone with dark, unnerving thoughts swimming in your subconscious. Automatic For The People: a fiercely insular record that plays out on a great American scale.

4. The Shape Of Punk To Come by Refused [1998]

Yes the word “punk” is right there in the title and, while many attempted to imitate Refused style, no one – including Refused themselves – ever really recaptured the experimental/fusion rock, lightening in the bottle that is The Shape Of Punk To Come. By infusing the throat shredding howls of punk with post-hardcore’s arena ready scope and the 80s indie jitters of The Feelies, as well as a love of classic Jazz composition, these hell raising Swedes created an album that was neither punk, indie, jazz or hardcore. This is sound of the broad sweep of music history cascading in on itself as the stabbing intensity of the guitars explode, not into insular screams, but out into head banging, meaty riffs. There’s wirey awkwardness, fearsome precision, but still a sense of loose rock bravado. Refused are deeply anxious and yet they manage to cruise majestically – and it’s this sense of freedom and the promise of endless possibilities that sees The Shape Of Punk To Come follow in rock’s tradition of loose and dangerous experimentation, as opposed to the harsh strictures of any niche genre.

3. The Bends by Radiohead [1995]

This was very nearly the slot belonging to OK Computer – a release that reasserted the sense of ambition, intellect and adventure at the heart of the rock album – but when it came to typing out the name in bold, I couldn’t help feeling that The Bends is Radiohead’s signature rock album. Radiohead are, at heart, a ridiculous band. Their considerable achievements ensure that the Oxfordshire band are treated with a hushed and fawning reverence, but in the enduring spirit of Pink Floyd, behind that thick layer of gloom, lies a preposterous apocalyptic paranoia that blends perfectly into the band’s intergalactic folk and eerie English horror sensibilities. The Bends is the last moment when Radiohead’s contorted angsts felt petulant and human, rather than existential or alien. The band are seething; raw emotion runs through their veins as the guitars explode with a triumphant masochism (listen carefully and you can hear a Queen influence on the title track’s solo). Blend the best arena rock songs Radiohead have ever written with ballads that remain hauntingly singular two decades on and you have one of the 1990s greatest records.

2. In Utero by Nirvana [1993]

Your preferred Nirvana LP probably comes down to a matter of taste: prefer scratchy, intensity and wild under produced wrath? Then give Bleach a spin. After the crisp sound of band simultaneously perfecting The Pixies quiet-loud dynamic and conquering the world with bulldozing riffs and wrecking ball choruses? Then Nevermind is the one for you. In Utero is the tougher sell – it is knowingly awkward. The riffs are still monumental, but rather than pounding eardrums or filling the void, they seek to slip beneath the skin. Songs like “Scentless Apprentice” were designed to surround the listener with thick black low lying cloud, to dislocate any firm footing and sing/scream to the malevolent voices lurking in the back of your cranium. It’s not all blisteringly aggressive, however; Kurt still displays a knack for distorting and subverting the Great American Songbook. “Rape Me” is both a cry for help and a thumb in the eye to tradition, a beautifully contrived monstrosity. In Utero, despite the darkness and thick choking smoke that surrounds it, is still full of sublime pop, but never joy. The tone is defiantly set during the album’s most glorious moment: on the masterpiece “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge Of Seattle” Kurt resignedly rasps, “I miss the comfort in being sad”. Well if that’s gone? What’s left?

1. Pinkteron by Weezer [1993]

“It’s not even the best Weezer album of the 1990s” I hear you cry; well it’s certainly arguable, but for me Pinkerton is River Cuomo’s definitive rock statement and Weezer’s finest outing. There’s a sardonic rawness that infects every corner of this fiercely teenage record. Rivers’ angst is so vociferous that it’s easy to picture Pinkerton as a piercing ache beneath the flesh that an excitable, barely contained teen has scratched at such a frenzied pace that his fingertips are bloodied and his arm mangled. If practically every hook is a dream to be screamed and squealed behind gritted teeth, then the guitar work is a hedonistic explosion; a fumbling, clattering and utterly majestic mess that leads to a series of suitably mastabatorial explosions. Drake certainly didn’t invent post-fame woes as Rivers’ headspace is revealed to be a confused wasteland, left ruined by a series of sexual conquests and self-loathing relationships. The key to this record’s success is its ability to transform (through the band’s impeccable pop chops) these insular insecurities into a universal angst that bumbling teens and frustrated 40-year-olds will both instantly recognize.

The Reader’s Top 5: One Hit Wonders

5. “Inside” by Siltskin [Suggested by D2K Virus]

This was a huge hit in the UK and is a proper 90s rocker in its own right, but I’m going to let D2K Virus tell the song’s story:

Levi’s needed a guitar riff for their next ad campaign, and they recruited jobbing musician Peter Lawlor to come in to lay down the track that would be used in ad. Naturally, when the ad hit the airwaves there were a lot of people asking who recorded the song used, which was unsurprising given the number of #1 singles that came off the back of Levi’s ads in the 80s and 90s – and this is where the story gets odd.

Contrary to the version of events usually trotted out, the band Stiltskin did exist prior to the ad, although their abject lack of success is the reason Lawlor took the Levi’s gig to pay the rent, but in terms of the song itself it was an example of trying to fit a song onto the riff he’d laid down knowing it’d be a success.”

4. “Return Of The Mack” by Mark Morrison [Suggested by JSawyer80]

The vocal intonation is utterly legendary, as is the silky bridge (which could have been a smash hit chorus in isolation) but when combined with an effortlessly addictive chorus you have a timeless one-hit-wonder. Sure, it’s a little too polished and cheesey, but DJs have no fear when dropping this classic into a contemporary RnB mix.

3. “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” by Modjo [Suggested by Johnny Durrant]

“Lady Tonight” is another beautifully understated gem from the European Dance scene of the late-90s-early-2000s. Before bombast was the order of the day, dance music used to be dominated by a sense of romanticism and hidden melancholy (minor chords and major hooks). Modjo are happy to vibe at mid-tempo as they smartly repurpose Nile Rodger’s metallic guitar work – turning Chic’s disco brilliance into something fantastically contemporary – evidently, Daft Punk were taking notes. (Modjo may well have been inspired by Moloko’s 1999 hit “Sing It Back”).

2. “In A Big Country” by Big Country [Suggest by JSawyer80]

How to explain Big Country? Well this Scottish FM radio rock outfit managed to meld Celtic rock with a solid spin on Americana and the result is a sound that, well, no one has really replicated since. “In A Big Country” has a see-saw lilt in its addictive verses and a strange instrumental hook that feels like a hybrid between a demented guitar or some seriously synthetic pipes. Surprisingly, the song was a huge hit in Canada as well as in the UK.

1. “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes [Suggested by Johnny Durrant]

Linda Perry’s stand out moment of transcendent brilliance still resonates to this day. “What’s Up” positioned itself between the abrasive rawness of Alanis Morrissette and the neo-hippie movement that gave 4 Non Blondes their signature (and easily parodied) look. The song is a triumph of wild enunciation in the service of one cavernous, time-is-standing-still, now-wail-along-with-me chorus. Linda Perry would top the track’s success writing for others, but 4 Non Blondes were doomed to sink beneath the weight of their staggering breakthrough hit.

Bonus: I just remembered my favorite one hit wonder from my childhood that I didn’t include in last week’s list: “Spaceman” by Babylon Zoo.

Remember to share your favorite 90s Rock Albums and suggest some future Top 5 Topics!