The 90s by far is one of my favorite decades for music. It brought to the forefront genres like grunge, alternative rock and the reemergence of the female frontwoman. Here is a list of the top 10 music albums of the 1990s, part two (for part one, click here).
Number Ten: Soundgarden – Superunknown. Superunknown is the fourth album released by grunge/rock band Soundgarden in 1994. The album peaked at #1 in Australia, New Zealand and on the US Billboard 200 chart, while also reaching #38 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 90s; the band won two Grammys for hits like “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun,” while other singles from the album include “The Day I Tried to Live,” “My Wave” and “Fell on Black Days.”
“Black Hole Sun” is arguably the most popular song from the band to this day, and its accompanying video is also memorable in all its bizarre, weird visuals. Said Chris Cornell of the song, “lyrically it’s probably the closest to me just playing with words for words’ sake, of anything I’ve written. I guess it worked for a lot of people who heard it, but I have no idea how you’d begin to take that one literally.” While the hits on the album are definitely noteworthy, other tracks you should check out include “Head Down” and “Like Suicide.”
Number Nine: Hole – Live Through This. Live Through This is the 1994 album from alt-rock band, Hole. The album title comes from a quote from the film, Gone With the Wind. The album peaked at #8 in Belgium, #52 on the US Billboard 200 chart, it was featured on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and in the US has sold over 1.6 million copies (as of 2010.) Front-woman Courtney Love has stated her influences at the time of making this album were Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division and the Pixies. The album’s opening track, “Violet,” displays how Hole still had their hard-rock edge carried over from their 1991 debut, Pretty on the Inside; supposedly the song was written about Love’s relationship with Billy Corgan, and the track is one of the best on the album. However, the band has stated that they wanted to show a softer side for their second album; “Miss World” embodies the best of both of these worlds.
Kurt Cobain allegedly sang back-up vocals on songs like “Asking For It” and “Softer, Softest”; this latter song is especially powerful, whether you interpret it as a song about a relationship or child abuse. When she sings about “milk,” it’s clear she’s talking about semen (Hole definitely did not shy away from taboo or controversial issues.) By far my favorite song on the album is “Doll Parts,” which coincidentally is the one song Love wrote on her own. When she screams, “someday you will ache like I ache,” I get chills and also reminisce over singing this song in the past, dedicating it to a person at the time who really screwed me over. Say what you want about Courtney Love’s personal life, but the woman knows how to write good music.
Number Eight: Marcy Playground – Self-Titled. Marcy Playground’s debut, self-titled album was released in 1997, and while you probably know the band from their chart-topping single, “Sex and Candy,” this band deserves better than to be called a one-hit-wonder. “Saint Joe on the School Bus,” while being a song about being picked on, also makes references to the biblical Mary and Joseph, while “Sherry Fraser” is a tribute to someone lead singer John Wozniak dated, remains friends with and who did the visual artwork for 2009’s Leaving Wonderland…in a fit of rage.
Other notable tracks include “A Cloak of Elvenkind” and “One More Suicide.” However, my favorite track on the album is “Opium,” whose slow, dirge-like melody and lyrics describe the drug perfectly: “I’m so happy / I’m in heaven / oh the seizures come from opium.” At about two minutes in, the rocking guitars come in, making the song even more enticing. Also addictive are the humdrum vocals of John Wozniak.
Number Seven: Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual. Ritual de lo Habitual is the 1990 album by alternative rock band, Jane’s Addiction. The album contains the fun, jangly “Been Caught Stealing,” which peaked at #1 for four weeks on the US Modern Rock chart. “Stop!” is a track that was written in 1986, peaked at #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, features a Spanish intro and opens up the album perfectly. “Classic Girl” is a charming track written by Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro; the music video for this song featured clips from the movie Gift, which starred Perry Farrell and his current girlfriend.
“Then She Did…” is my second favorite track on the album; supposedly it was written about Perry Farrell’s mother who committed suicide when he was four years old. However, it’s also a tribute to Xiola Blue, a friend of Farrell’s who died of a heroin overdose in 1987. This is evident in the lyrics, “will you say hello to my ma? / she was unhappy, just as you were.” Although Jane’s Addiction is alt-rock, songs like “Then She Did…” and “Three Days” are definitely in the vein of progressive rock.
This latter song, which runs over ten minutes, is by far the best on this album. It opens up with Farrell talking, describing a scene of “a city of candles”; essentially this song was written about Farrell’s spiritual experience with two women experimenting with drugs and sex, and this was depicted on the album cover. It contains insightful and poetic lyrics like, “true hunting is over / no herds to follow / without game, men prey on each other” and the chorus, “we saw shadows of the morning light / shadows of the evening sun / till the shadows and the light were one.”
This album, particularly the second half, takes you on a mystical journey. You can hear the Eastern and psychedelic influences in their work, making Jane’s Addiction a band that often defied genre.
Number Six: Bjork – Homogenic. Homogenic is the fourth studio record from Icelandic queen, Bjork. The album was released in 1997 and peaked at #2 in France, #4 in the UK, #5 in Austria and #6 in Australia. Bjork has stated in regards to the album, “In Iceland, everything revolves around nature, 24 hours a day. Earthquakes, snowstorms, rain, ice, volcanic eruptions, geysers… Very elementary and uncontrollable. But at the other hand, Iceland is incredibly modern; everything is hi-tech. The number of people owning a computer is as high as nowhere else in the world. That contradiction is also on Homogenic. The electronic beats are the rhythm, the heartbeat. The violins create the old-fashioned atmosphere, the colouring.” It was extremely difficult to pick the best album of Bjork’s from the 90s, as I’m also a fan of 1993’s Debut and 1995’s Post. However, I felt that Bjork’s now trademark sound of mixing electronics with string instruments was best exemplified within Homogenic.
One of the best tracks on the album is the beautiful “Joga,” which was written as a tribute to Bjork’s best friend, which is evident in lyrics like, “all that no one sees / you see / what’s inside of me / every nerve that hurts / you heal.” “Unravel,” which Thom Yorke once mentioned was one of his favorite songs, displays the combination of speaking and singing that was used by Icelandic choir men, while it also describes the mourning of a lost love.
“Bachelorette” (along with “Joga”) were written with Sjón, an Icelandic poet; apparently Bjork wanted to “use epic lyrics.” Themes of love and lost relationships are present in tracks like “Immature” and “Pluto.” “All Neon Like” is based partly on a poem the artist wrote in 1996 called “Techno Prayer”; I recently saw her perform this track live, and I was blown away. By far the best track on this album is the concluding “All is Full of Love,” which is a wonderful song about how love isn’t just present in relationships; love is all around you.
Number Five: Sarah McLachlan – Mirrorball. Mirrorball is Sarah McLachlan’s 1999 live album. The album contains hits like “The Path of Thorns (Terms)” off of 1991’s Solace, as well as six tracks off of 1994’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and six tracks off of 1997’s Surfacing. Sarah is special in that even her hit songs that have received generous radio airplay do not get old (such as “Angel,” “I Will Remember You,” “Building a Mystery” and “Adia”- all of which are featured on this album.) Hits of a smaller degree are included as well, such as “Possession” and “Sweet Surrender.” However, the highlights of Mirrorball include lesser-known songs, such as “Ice Cream,” “I Love You” and “Hold On.” Tracks like “Good Enough” and “Do What You Have to Do” bring tears to my eyes to this day; the latter features the haunting lyric, “deep within I’m shaken / by the violence of existing for only you.”
However, if you only listen to one song from this album, I urge you to listen to “Fear.” It differs enough from the original to make it unique yet maintains the same sense of urgency when Sarah sings, “I fear I have nothing to give / and I have so much to lose.” Every song on this album is pure poetry, and the live versions of these songs are even better than the originals in my opinion.
Number Four: Bush – Sixteen Stone. Sixteen Stone is the debut album from British alt-rock band Bush, released in 1994. The album features some of the band’s biggest hits to date, including the beautiful “Glycerine,” the addictive “Comedown” and the rocking “Machinehead” (the latter two songs were featured in the 1996 film, Fear.) However, they also had success with other tracks like “Everything Zen,” which peaked at #2 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart and #5 on the Canadian charts. One of my favorite tracks on the album, “Little Things,” peaked at #2 on the Canadian charts and #4 on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
The song features the brilliant lyric, “I’d die in your arms / if you were dead too” and makes several symbolic references to drug addiction. By far my favorite track on the album, however, is “Alien.” It essentially is a love song with a rock edge (although I admit, when I first heard it I thought Gavin was singing “beautiful brain” instead of “beautiful rain.”)
Number Three: Third Eye Blind – Self-Titled. Third Eye Blind released their debut, self-titled album in 1997. It features hits like “Jumper,” “Semi-Charmed Life” and “How’s It Gonna Be” (personally I love the following lyric from the latter track: “I want to get myself back in again / the soft dive of oblivion.”) However, the ‘charm’ of this album can be found in lesser-known tracks, like “Losing a Whole Year,” “Thanks A Lot,” “London” and “Narcolepsy.”
Songs like “Motorcycle Drive By” display the band’s trademark of being able to describe an external experience in an internal way that makes us want to become friends with the narrator; the chorus of the song is, “there’s this burning / like there’s always been / I’ve never been so alone / and I’ve never been so alive.” “God of Wine” isn’t the only rock ballad on the album, but it’s the best by far, featuring lyrics like, “she takes a drink and then she waits / the alcohol it permeates / and soon the cells give way / and cancels out the day”; the song then crescendos into an excellent guitar melody.
Lastly, “Graduate” is an awesome rock song whose melody will stay with you long after it’s over (it was also featured on the soundtrack to Can’t Hardly Wait.) I saw these guys live a few years back and they were amazing.
Number Two: Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged. The MTV Unplugged series featured artists in an intimate setting performing acoustic songs. One of the best the series had to offer was Alice in ChainsUnplugged, released in 1996. The album features songs from their underrated EP, Jar of Flies, including “No Excuses” and the haunting “Nutshell,” which the band opened up with. This album features four tracks off of 1992’s Dirt, including “Rooster,” “Down in a Hole,” “Would?” and “Angry Chair.” Unplugged also features four tracks off of the band’s 1995 self-titled release, including “Sludge Factory,” “Heaven Beside You,” “Frogs” and “Over Now.” The band introduced a new song, which they played last (“Killer is Me,”) as well as two songs from their especially underrated EP, 1992’s Sap (“Brother” and “Got Me Wrong.”)
This album (and DVD) are special in that they include moments where we see Layne Staley as human (he messes up on “Sludge Factory” and shouts “f***!”) It was also one of the last times Layne Staley ever performed with the band, making it even more bittersweet. Throughout the performance, Layne wore sunglasses, as if trying to shield his pain and addiction from the audience, although he does take off the glasses before “Sludge Factory,” which is one of the songs he wrote along with Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney. Layne was amazing on this album, emitting so much sound and emotion while barely opening his mouth. You can tell his band members cared about him; in particular, Cantrell can be seen lovingly gazing at Layne, proud and astonished that Layne was able to pull off this performance so well.
Number One: Jeff Buckley – Grace. Grace is the 1994 album from the late Jeff Buckley, and it was his only completed studio album. Although it initially received mixed reviews, the album is now considered a classic, having sold over two million copies worldwide. Besides containing the beautiful Leonard Cohen cover “Hallelujah” and singles like “Grace,” “So Real” and “Last Goodbye,” the album contains the psychedelic/pop ballad “Dream Brother” and the relaxed break-up song, “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” The album also contains a cover of James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine,” and “Eternal Life,” which is one of the heaviest tracks on the album, featuring lyrics like, “eternal life is now on my trail / got my red glitter coffin man / just need one last nail.” While I feel that every track on this album is amazing, my personal favorite is the opener, “Mojo Pin.” Although the live version beats the original, the original still is pure poetry.
The chorus contains the following words: “don’t wanna weep for you / don’t wanna know / I’m blind and tortured / the white horses flow / memories fire / the rhythms fall slow / black beauty I love you so.” Although “Mojo Pin” could be a reference to heroin, here is what Jeff had to say about the song: “Sometimes if somebody you feel you need… the whole universe tells you that you have to have her, you start watching her favorite TV shows all night, you start buying her the things she needs, you start drinking her drinks, you start smoking her bad cigarettes, you start picking up her nuances in her voice, you sleep in safe sometimes the most dangerous thing…” I wish this talented artist was still around creating brilliant music.