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Record Highs

Our Reviewers Look Back On The Decade's Best Albums.

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WE ASKED OUR short list of music scribes to come up with a what they thought were the 10 "best" albums of the decade, a dubious task at best. How in God's green acre could a single person pick 10 musical documents to represent an entire decade? What is the criteria, exactly, for the "best"? Does "best" mean most influential? And what genre are we talking about, anyway?

The contributors all have disparate tastes, listen to way more music than the average bear and, of course, have a lot of opinions. More often than not, the following lists reflect people choosing their favorite albums, and not necessarily the decade's most "important."


FRED MILLS

10. Ray Of Light, by Madonna (1998, Maverick). Proof that femme-dancepop doesn't have to be mindless diva warbling with a puppetmaster deejay, this psychedelectronica flipped the prime imperative on its head: free the ass and your mind will follow.

9. The Soft Bulletin, by The Flaming Lips (1999, Warners). See my comments on my number one pick for 1999.

8. Nocturnes, by Rainer (1995, Glitterhouse). An instrumental and spiritual epic, this found the Old Pueblo's late hero jettisoning his trademark blues-rock in favor of introspective atmospheres and textures so far beyond his guitar-playing peers that it approached Hendrixian greatness. R.I.P.

7. Gone Again, by Patti Smith (1996, Arista) and Ghost Of Tom Joad, by Bruce Springsteen (1995, Columbia). Two artists who'd taken a lot of time off to be with their families and, more importantly, to come to grips with who they were as they approached middle age. Smith's album was raging and redemptive, acknowledging what life (and death) naturally deals out; Springsteen's was reserved and reflective, unwilling to bow down before what society (and culture) unfairly deals out. Significantly, by the end of the decade, both had reclaimed their positions as essential touring performers as well.

6. El Corazon, by Steve Earle (1997, Warners). Roots, blues, folk and hard rock wedded to a poetic and politicized lyrical vision, Earle's masterpiece finally and firmly established him as being up there with the greats (Dylan, Springsteen, Lennon) without sacrificing any of his trademark (philosophically, at least -- by now he was clean and sober) appetites for destruction.

5. Lazer Guided Melodies, by Spiritualized (1992, Dedicated). The album that launched a thousand drones. From the ashes of Spacemen 3 emerged this free-thinking band that fused Velvet Underground and the Krautrockers of yore to a distinctively modern vision of what orchestrally inclined psychedelia could encompass.

4. Fear Of A Black Planet, by Public Enemy (1990, Def Jam). The album that busted the hip-hop dam wide open, laying the groundwork for every form of sample-based music to come. The record's sonic prescience -- and social conscience -- was unprecedented for its era. Ten years on, it's time to open that book again, courtesy of P.E. and like-minded youngsters such as The Roots, because hip-hop is currently stuck waist-deep in the mud.

3. Ten, by Pearl Jam (1991, Epic) and Nevermind, by Nirvana (1991, DGC). When all is said and done, the alternative music of the early '90s will be a footnote, a mere blip remembered more for its unfortunate fall-out -- the self-pitying, angst-filled, my-parents-abused-me rock that rose from the ashes of grunge and eventually mutated into rap-metal -- than for any lasting musical value. In that sense, these two records are anomalies. But they still stand up to repeated listens today, and that's the ultimate test of any album.

2. Sleeps With Angels, by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1994, Reprise). While most cite the full-on garage assault of Ragged Glory or the laid-back acoustic vibe of Harvest Moon as Young's best efforts in the '90s, this one captures a purer mood -- lyrically sorrowful and downcast yet musically edgy and desperate -- that seemed more suited to the decade's overall tone.

1. Achtung Baby, by U2 (1991, Island). As the decade began, U2 slowly woke up and realized it was turning into a caricature of itself. Result? Parody that caricature -- and, by reaching deep within themselves, the four lads from Dublin rediscovered their own soul, and how once again to make rock 'n' roll that encompasses the entirety of the human experience, from faith and love to humor and irony, from blindness and vision to madness and hope.


RON BALLY

SINCE THE '90S boasted too many great records to list just 10, I picked those titles that graced my turntable and CD player the most frequently over the past 10 years, as opposed to the decade's best or most influential records. Absolutely no reissues have been included.

10. Super Sound Racing, by Zeke (1996, I.F.A.). For all those greaseball psychos who worship at the meth-fueled altar of gear head degenerates like the Dwarves, Speedealer, Supersuckers, Quadrajets and Nashville Pussy, Zeke does not disappoint. Super cranked guitar leads, hot rod spewing lyrics and a nitro-fueled tank of funny-car explosiveness propel these perennial lube jobs into a slam-bang demolition derby of smoke, speed and fun.

9. Makers (1995, Estrus). Snarling garage punks from the mighty Pacific Northwest (home of '60s progenitors the Sonics and Wailers), the Makers redefine the impact of the trailblazing "Nuggets" compilation with plenty of snot-nosed attitude, fuzz-driven chops and onstage mayhem unequaled since Question Mark and the Mysterians stormed the airwaves in 1966.

8. Conquers The World, by Electric Frankenstein (1997, Nesak International). One of the most prolific punk bands on the planet today. If you think punk died with Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders and Sid -- think again. These Jersey lunkheads pride themselves on a fast-and-hard guitar attack lifted straight from the Bowery circa 1977.

7. Smash Hits, by Teen Generate (1995, Estrus). Rising from the fallen ashes of American Soul Spiders, this frenetic Japanese garage punk combo stole the best traits from the Flamin' Groovies, Radio Birdman, the Pretty Things and Chuck Berry. In turn, creating a genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for American trash culture and rock 'n' roll that has been unmatched since.

6 Monster Magnet (1990, Glitterhouse-German import). Debut release from the most innovative '70s-influenced progressive rock band to emerge since Hawkwind. Sabbath, Grand Funk, Kiss and an overall Teutonic drone abound in this toxic hybrid of strobe lights, distortion pedals and an overall sense of LSD ingestion and impending sonic doom.

5. Never Been Caught, by Mummies (1992, Telstar). Wrapped ridiculously from head-to-toe in gauze bandages, these San Francisco-based frat party rejects ruled the lo-fi garage scene stoked by the likes of the '60s godfathers, the Sonics, Wailers and Kingsmen with these convincingly reckless and frantic R&B-influenced garage organ pounders.

4. Destroy Oh-Boy, by New Bomb Turks (1992, Crypt). Columbus, Ohio, punk Neanderthals that out phlegm the originators, including their heroes the Dead Boys, Pagans and Rubber City Rebels. A non-stop three-chord guitar onslaught that annihilates like an outbreak of cholera in a leper colony. Garrulous frontman Eric Davidson's unmistakable vocal shredding completes the raw-as-meat scenario.

3. Blood, Guts and Pussy, by Dwarves (1990, Sub Pop). Bload-soaked speed-punk havoc from these highly confrontational kings of sleaze. Imagine the Misfits stoked on ounces of cocaine and angel dust watching Re-Animator on hyper-speed. Gonzo sex-addicted exhibitionists who broke all the rules.

2. Supershitty To The Max, by Hellacopters (1996, White Jazz-Swede import). Hellacopters is Sweden's heaviest punk-metal export since the Nomads hit these shores nearly two decades ago. Imagine the land of sugar-coated Abba pop imitators having the audacity to produce a '70s inspired riff-heavy fire-breathing dragon that incorporated the best elements of the Stooges, MC5, Motorhead and Blue Cheer. Pure fucking genius.

1. 30 Sizzling Slabs, by Devil Dogs (1992, Crypt). These NYC boozehounds followed the same turbo-charged path as the Ramones, Heartbreakers, Dictators and DMZ. Their entire unknown "greatest hits" studio output captured on one stupendous punk-drenched CD.


DAVE McELFRESH

FORGET THE OBVIOUS box sets and releases by names familiar to everyone. Here are 10 exceptional albums that probably only sold a few thousand copies. Come the apocalypse a few days from now, God will appear in the sky, saying, "Hadst thou dumped thy radio and spent thy bar bucks experimenting on off-kilter artists, I wouldst have spared thy planet." So check these out or all of us will die.

10. Antonio Brasileiro, by Antonio Carlos Jobim (1995, Sony). It's no overstatement to say that the late Jobim will be remembered as the Gershwin of Brasil, and cuts like "Blue Train" on this, his last album, further validate his three-decade status as the personification of Rio de Janeiro's beach-inspired eroticism and nonchalance. Bossa nova initiates may be hooked by Sting's fine interpretation of Jobim's classic "How Insensative."

9. Yo Miles!, byHenry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith (1998, Shanachie). While it's impressive that the recent Miles tributes of Mark Isham, Bill Laswell and the rest have emphasized the trumpeter's less popular latter periods, none of it has sounded as nasty as this collaboration between guitar wacko Kaiser and outside trumpeter Smith. Jazz seldom gets as obscene as what Davis played during the first half of the '70s, but these guys match his level of visceral aggressiveness all the way.

8. The Best Of The Flying Pickets, by The Flying Pickets (1991, Virgin Records). Four decades later, a cappella music still retains that limiting association with doo wop. Well, England's Flying Pickets cover familiar cuts by the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley, Madonna, Roy Orbison, Jackie Wilson and David Bowie (a killer take of "Space Oddity") without implementing anything apart from their tonsils and sense of humor. As far as contemporary a cappella groups go, they're better than the Nylons, maybe even better than the Persuasions.

7. I'm A Texan, by Gary Stewart (1993, Hightone Records). Honkytonker Stewart was a '70s country star who still sounds like he's about a drink away from setting the bar on fire over a broken pinball machine. He growls and warbles with a bizarre duck quack that nonetheless, by God, flaunts an authority that puts him in your face every bit as closely as Jerry Lee Lewis. He's still occasionally spitting out those lonely drinking-in-a-trailer songs which, word has it, pretty much defines why he doesn't record as much as he used to.

6. Titanic: Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage, by Ian Whitcomb and the White Star Orchestra (1997, Rhino Records). Whitcomb honorably turned down the position of music director for the Titanic movie when they wouldn't let him faithfully replicate what the ship's band really played (it wasn't "Nearer My God To Thee"). The musicologist/former British pop figure makes up for it here by implementing the same charts, play lists and instrumentation of the Titanic's orchestra.

5. The Secret Handshake, by Geoff Muldaur (1998, Hightone Records). There are Cajun, blues and R&B musicians, but not many who sound like the whole of the South. Muldaur, who was married to Maria during their stint in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band back in the '60s, sounds torn and tired here -- a mood far more personal than either the Saturday-night-fish-fry or South-is-gonna-rise-again mentality too typical of the region. Muldaur needs to be back on the scene again in a big way.

4. Red On Blonde, by Tim O'Brien (1996, Sugar Hill). While many bluegrass musicians continue to tether themselves to music older than their grandparents, this vocalist/mandolinist/fiddler chose to cover 13 great Dylan tunes. His selections aren't from the easy stuff either: the band kicks its way through "Maggie's Farm," "Tombstone Blues" and a wicked hambone version of "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Bluegrass making that rare stretch out toward rock.

3. Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot, by Tony Rice (1996, Rounder Records). Rice is a frighteningly clean acoustic bluegrass guitarist -- unquestionably one of the best pickers alive. He tends to prefer songs a bit more challenging and romantic than typical bluegrass fare, resulting in his career-long love of Lightfoot's fine folk writing. Here he flips between singing some of the best folk lyrics ever written and whipping off nosebleed guitar solos that will bring much depression to starry-eyed amateur pickers.

2. Oranj Symphonette Plays Mancini, by Oranj Symphonette (1996, Gramavision) and Shots In The Dark, by Various Artists (1996, Del-Fi Records). These two homages to Henry Mancini are both wonderfully odd; the first for mixing jazz, Kurt Weill and other eccentricities in reviving good songs associated with bad '60s singers, the second for letting younger bands like Friends of Dean Martinez and Man Or Astroman? throw darker colors at Mancini's resilient writing.

1. Jesus' Blood Has Never Failed Me Yet, by Gavin Bryars (1993, Point Music). The best album of the decade, in this writer's estimate. Composer Bryars made a tape loop of a British hobo singing a verse of a gospel song, then gradually built a monstrous, ever-shifting foundation of strings beneath the solo voice, ending some 150 verses later with the vocal support of Tom Waits. Hearing the destitute figure (who died before he knew of Bryar's project) voice such spiritual appreciation may shut more whiny mouths than just mine.


STEPHEN SEIGEL

10. The Lonesome Crowded West, by Modest Mouse (1997, Up). The ruminations of a bored indie-rock kid from the suburbs with outstandingly insightful ways to express that boredom, and Doug Martch-inspired guitar-playing chops to boot. No matter how far you drive, every mall in every city still has an Orange Julius.

9. No Depression, by Uncle Tupelo (1990, Rockville). The sound of scruffy, Midwestern punk rockers who studied their Gram Parsons and Acuff-Rose tunes like the Bible before Black Flag came along. They didn't invent the sound, but they introduced it to a whole new generation who might have otherwise been led to believe that Garth Brooks is, actually, a country artist.

8. Check Your Head, by Beastie Boys (1992, Capitol). This kind of stuff simply didn't exist before the Beasties: a hearty, groundbreaking stew that brought a combination of punk rock, hip-hop, dub reggae, and old school jazz-funk grooves to a mass audience.

7. One Foot in the Grave, by Beck (1994, K). While this album, which catches Beck in his traditional folk-blues mode, doesn't exactly prove why he's become so important in the cultural landscape as, say Mellow Gold -- which contained the groundbreaking marriage of folk and hip-hop that was "Loser," or the ingenious cut-and-paste of Odelay -- does, this is the Beck album I've listened to more than any other. Back-to-basics recordings of folk songs as only Beck can write 'em.

6. There Is Nothing Wrong With Love, by Built to Spill (1994, Up). Full of heartfelt romantic yearning, the band's first full-length captures the moment when Doug Martch was first discovering his guitar prowess. But the focus here is the songwriting, and Martch wisely never lets the pyrotechnics get in the way, instead documenting one normal guy's life growing up in Idaho, gazing up at the stars and trying to figure out what it all meant.

5. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Neutral Milk Hotel (1998, Merge). A completely stunning song cycle that takes place in a world inhabited by the Two-Headed Boy and Anne Frank, but whose essence is rooted in timeless human emotion. If the ultimate goal of music is some sort of spiritual transcendence, then this is one of the most successful albums ever released.

4) Nevermind, by Nirvana (1991, Geffen). There is a reason this album changed the course of music, and musical politics. In retrospect, it's a great album that marries the soft-loud dynamics of The Pixies, the pop smarts of Cheap Trick, and pure, unadulterated angst, the likes of which are only known to teenagers and Kurt Cobain. But at the time it came out, it was a shock not only to those who were used to insipid hair metal -- which, lest we forget, was all over the airwaves at the time -- but also to those who were well versed in Sonic Youth and Fugazi. One of the few albums I can recall hearing for the first time.

3. Fear of a Black Planet, by Public Enemy (1990, Def Jam). When the issue of whether or not sampling was out-and-out theft of someone else's work or a new, viable musical option was first being bandied about, the first artist that supporters of the latter argument pointed to was Public Enemy, who made no mistake in proving that sampling, in the right hands, was indeed art. Dense sound collages, courtesy of the Bomb Squad, provide the perfect apocalyptic backdrop for the most powerful MC to ever grab the mike: Chuck D spews (mostly) well-directed political venom with Flavor Flav along for comic relief. Rage never sounded so funky.

2. Bee Thousand, by Guided By Voices (1994, Scat). The sound of an ADD-riddled listener changing stations on the dial in the greatest radio city in the world. Just as you're grasping the wondrous hook of a fuzzy, '60s Brit-rock-inspired tune, another even better one comes along to take its place.

1. Slanted and Enchanted, by Pavement (1992, Matador). Pavement brought the noise to a power chord-sated audience, but beyond the chaos there were melodies to die for and the brainiest lyrics in rock. At the time it seemed like an accidental masterpiece, but subsequent releases have proven Pavement is the most consistent band of the decade.

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