10 Great Rock Albums from the Desolate 1990s

Time for a list because as all observers of the Internet well know, if you make an article into a list, far more people will read it. But I do try to make mine interesting for people with an attention span.

Now, I started listening to music seriously in the late eighties (high school). I was a wannabe hippie sporting corduroy jackets and listening mostly to sixties and seventies music (along with some goth, Celtic rock and neo-psych). By the time I hit university in 1992, however, a desire had awakened in me (along with my first experiences of heavy drinking) to try to feel like a genuine part of the youth culture of my age; after all, I was living away from home and embarking on my life’s journey. I guess I felt I couldn’t be connected to my young n’ sexy peers while rocking “Nights in White Satin”. A lonely kid needs friends too, after all.

Looking back now, I can see why I had a problem finding my own taste in nineties music, because the nineties was and is the most musically execrable decade in pop history. It was the age of grunge, meaning people wearing mismatched rags and sporting questionable facial hair sucking all the fun out of classic rock sounds and moping around like something’s wrong with their First World lives (and yes, I mean Cobain here too. Never understood the appeal). That was followed by neo-grunge of the Creed variety, in which any remaining skill and intelligence was sucked out of grunge by baritone lame-os with goatees. It was the decade when hip hop hit its peak but then (arguably, I suppose) quickly declined into boasting pastiche. It was the age when metal went baggy-shorts “nu”, with vomitous results. It was the decade when we were so desperate for something tuneful, we were forced to listen to something called “Brit-pop”, which involved skinny people with bowl cuts massacring the sacred vibes of The Beatles, Stones and Kinks. Or “shoegaze”, which meant more, even skinnier people with bowl cuts making loud noises with delay pedals and staring at their … uh, Keds or something. Some guy who could write pretty decent songs but sang like a cat being tortured squealed and moaned about the world being “a vampire”, whatever the fuck that meant. The biggest grunge band had a singer who was (and is) so flat, he sounded like he was in the wrong key.

U2 started the decade with one of rock’s greatest albums, Achtung Baby, then began to suck so hard, it was like someone was paying them to do it (ironically, that just happened to them…). The corpse of a once-great rock n’ roll band named Aerosmith lurched around the stages of the world, making bazillions of dollars singing tripe about hot elevator sex.

And then there were the production techniques. If you thought eighties gated snares, plinky-plink synths and endless bass-slapping was bad, I present to you the cavernous drum sounds of the nineties, which were compressed to hell and louder than the vocals. The super-dry guitar sounds, too. Ew. Everything sounding so clean and sterile all the time. God, what a horrible decade.

This is not to imply that there was not creative work being done in the rock world, but you had to look pretty hard to find it.  A lot of the good stuff was in unhip genres that most twenty-year-olds didn’t listen to, like neo-prog or Celtic rock. Major label fare was mostly garbage, which it remains today — if you can still call the rotting vital organs of the music industry “major”.

Or of course, let’s not deny that the one vibrant area of popular music at that time was “electronica”, in which new technologies and fusion with hip hop and rock were creating an explosion of new variants of music like trip-hop, techno, etc.

But rock? It was dead, man, as a vibrant commercial entity. I’m glad it’s persevered and found new life with younger people today and with the revival of some older, worthier bands, but the nineties did its best to kill it off.

I’ve gone through my collection to find you ten albums from bands pretty new to the nineties that broke ground, did something new, or just plain did something well in all regards, for god’s sake. Bands that actually had an audience, if only sometimes for a brief, shining moment.

Oh, by the way, if you were super cool back then, you’ll probably look at this list and laugh. Hey man, where are the Pavement, Galaxie 500, Lisa Germano, Mazzy Star and L7 albums, dooood? This music you’ve listed here isn’t cool at all, maaaan. Well, go read another blog then. Pavement sucks.

All of this may sound rather glib, and I suppose it is. I mean, in any decade at any given time there are hundreds of thousands of musicians around the world making all kinds of wonderful music, and I’m sure there was in 1995 just as much as at any time before or since. But I’m talking in terms of what was presented to me as my ideal youth musical culture at the age when I was the exact target demographic. And it made me pine for “Nights in White Satin”.

When something christened “alternative” is playing stadiums and plaid is the big seller at The Gap, that’s not much of a culture. I’d rather listen to the 10 worst Foreigner songs on rotation for 24 hours than one off-key “alternative” song by an act that wants to appear counter-cultural but has no idea what that would even mean. And given a choice between Blur’s best and a spin of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society? Come on, now.

Grant-Lee-Buffalo-Mighty-Joe-MoonGrant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon (1994)

This California band was a real oddity for the time, an intellectually inclined three-piece led by Grant Lee Phillips, who later broke my heart by appearing on the godawful Gilmore Girls. Anyway, Phillips had a whole different take on American music, exploiting dark Yankee Gothic dust bowl historical imagery and an interesting guitar sound wherein he played electric guitar-style leads on an acoustic through an amp, which worked surprisingly well, creating some interesting feedback. He also wrote very tuneful music with interesting lyrics in the best tradition of twisted Dylan-esque American songwriting — when you could make out the words. Phillips has some of the most muddled enunciation of any singer I’ve heard. But fortunately he’s at his most coherent on this album, which has not one bad song on it and contains many weirdly compelling tracks, like the tragic Waco showdown brought to life in the soaring “Lone Star Song“, the earworm falsetto ballad “Mockingbirds“, the unhinged, weird serial killer odyssey “Sing Along“, the extremely dark, existentialist acoustic ballad “Happiness” and the frontier imagery of “The Last Days of Tecumseth”. Darkly rootsy like Steinbeck at his glummest but occasionally grandly proggy and glammy, this album basically sounds like nothing else I’ve ever heard in its fusions. And for the nineties? That’s a fucking miracle. Phillips remains a worthy songwriter but never reached these heights again.

heartwormWhipping Boy – Heartworm (1995)

Ireland’s Whipping Boy flew too close to the sun with this one. Singer Fearghal McKee was apparently self-destructive in that classic rock wastrel kind of way of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Shane MacGowan, etc. And he certainly had busloads of charisma, because the band’s actual music, while pretty good, is not exactly groundbreaking, sort of a mixture of eighties goth/dream pop with heavy guitars — dramatic stuff made more dramatic by the laconic Nick Cave-esque drawl of McKee as he related tales of violence and obsession through wonderfully poetic lyrics that would make his Irish literary forbears proud. In particular, the vivid imagery of domestic violence in “We Don’t Need Nobody Else” is very tragic and compelling, as are the memories of teen street hijinks in “When We Were Young“. McKee even shows a cheeky side in “Morning Rise/A Natural” when he intones a classic deadpan line about how they “built portholes for Bono so he could gaze across the bay and sing about mountains, maybe”. There is more pure potential shown on this album than on almost any other rock record I’ve heard — way more than Jeff Buckley ever showed. So of course, it didn’t do so well and the band was forgotten, but I still give this a good spin every now and then.

a-northern-soul-52cd3202f25deThe Verve – A Northern Soul (1995)

In the world of “Brit-pop”, everyone had an angle — some were Beatlesque, some were Stonesey, some were Kinksy, blah blah (and let’s not forget Kula Shaker trying to exploit the vibe of just one Beatle…). The Verve clearly went more for a psychedelic sound, and their debut was pretty much space-rock, more Floyd/Krautrock than the rest of the scene. However, for their second full-length they went daring and cranked up the amps for an album that fuses that same hazy, expansive psych sound with a more aggressive, riffy attitude and even traces of hard funk à la Funkadelic. It’s a remarkably raw, even savage and jammy-sounding album that probably shouldn’t have been successful (and they wouldn’t get “famous” until that overplayed song of theirs with the string samples a few years later…) but must have hit a nerve with some people; it sure did with me. The single was a bleak acoustic song about death (Richard Ashcroft is not exactly a cheery lyricist), “On Your Own”, but most of the rest of the album features the band laying down heavy grooves while Ashcroft spits out his anguish with that shaky charisma in his odd lyrics that sport a peculiar air of defiance; it’s not certain who he’s so pissed off at — maybe just life in a dreary northern English industrial city in general. The record is at its best when spaciest on songs like “Stormy Clouds” and “So it Goes“, but on the whole it’s a real trip of an album that, as I noted, goes way better played before or after some early seventies Krautrock than it does any Madchester vibes.

7cc2a9d76e18b2a14db3cdfcbc56b9cd64cf9b74Concrete Blonde – Bloodletting (1990)

This LA band started off by making gritty punk-influenced hard rock (“God is a Bullet”) but gradually softened its sound over its first few albums before laying this special opus on the world. And what an album! Bloodletting has a very smooth, glossy commercial veneer and spawned a couple of bone fide hits, but if you scrape just a little deeper you’ll find a very nocturnal Gothic mentality and highly developed sense of drama. Still, it wouldn’t be half as compelling without the stunning vocals of singer/bassist Johnette Napolitano, possessed of a big, husky, emotive cry of a voice that really conveys the heartbreak of the classic “Joey“. The other highlight, of course, is the spacious late-night melancholy of mid-tempo burner “Caroline“, but there are also some great hard rock moments on tracks like “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)” and “The Beast“. Two other things worth noting: the drummer is none other than Paul Thompson of Roxy Music, and James Mankey, the single guitarist in the group, is that rarest quantity: a player with his own distinct sound and style, making expert use of reverb and delay and an interesting use of ringing open strings. Hard to explain, but I could pick his playing out from others in a blind test within a few notes if I needed to. A very interesting band, and this was their high-water mark.

fPorcupine Tree – The Sky Moves Sideways (1995)

Steven Wilson was best known as guitarist in No-Man, a band that made an impression with their eccentric pop in the early nineties but soon fell a bit by the wayside, only to make a two-man comeback after the millennium. Experimenting on his own, his Porcupine Tree project was more a bedroom thing until Wilson started to use it to indulge his predilection for progressive rock of the Floydian variety, and space rock, which resulted in some great languid rock albums that eventually required a band to fully realize. Later, of course, Wilson would become the god of prog, not only leading a very popular late version of Porcupine Tree but making his own very prog solo albums and being the special mixer of choice for reissues of classic albums. This more formative album for young Steven is, however, a great example of that Floydian style I speak of, as Wilson works on his transition to prog guitar god and adds in ambient textures here and there (he also makes ambient music as Bass Communion). Things like the bigass title suite and the adjoining tracks like “The Moon Touches Your Shoulder” are best enjoyed together as one long, strange trip. I don’t know how much commercial impact Porcupine Tree had at that time (I only became aware of Wilson’s work a few years later), but I have to assume that discriminating listeners of prog-rock were snapping this up back in 1995, and you should now. And it was an important cobblestone on Wilson’s journey to such works  as The Raven That Refused to Sing and Other Stories.

CS1821808-02A-BIGJames – Whiplash (1997)

Large Mancunian ensemble (I’m not quite sure what all the chaps depicted in their band shots could possibly be doing) James made quite the splash with Laid and its ridiculously catchy hit title track. I like that album, hate that song. If you only knew that song you wouldn’t realize that most of the band’s music is very philosophical, to the point of mordancy. Melancholic, sorrowful ballads are all over Laid, which was why I enjoyed the album so much; Tim Booth is a good singer but an even better lyricist. The band improved on this formula with Whiplash, which I guess was just too real for most folks, because I hear it tanked, despite having a cracker of a single in “She’s a Star“. Brian Eno does his typical glorious Enossification on the production, and Booth’s lyrical pen got briefly very sharp, tearing strips off modern vacuousness on the bleak “Lost a Friend” (“My TV’s telling me that only money can make me happy”) and “Greenpeace”, loneliness (“Play Dead”), ultra-suicidal loneliness (“Blue Pastures“), consumerism (“Go to the Bank”) and any number of other topics, while the band’s particular variant of tidy dance music-tinged dream pop shimmers along underneath his various declarations. A very serious album that almost made nineties pop sound good for a brief, shining moment, and one that I still play from time to time.

511e4wqe7ZLHothouse Flowers – Songs from the Rain (1993)

Here’s the anti-grunge band: a cheery bunch of Irishman who dressed more like members of the Incredible String Band and played shamelessly soulful retro folk-rock music influenced by early seventies vibes, particularly the folk-jazzier stylings of Van Morrison. Now, I don’t care much for Van because incoherent rambling and bellowing is not my bag. Sorry. However, this band, which was apparently also quite influenced by Mike Scott’s (Waterboys) “Big Music”, put out a series of fun, inspirational and wonderfully melodic albums spurred on by Liam Ó Maonlaí’s enthused yelp of a voice and his vigorous piano tinkling. This is their best album because it’s a mixed bag with those joyful, gospelly tunes (“Be Good“), moodier, solemn ballads (“Good for You”) and (“An Emotional Time”), a couple of tracks that even verge on psych/prog (the sky-high, ethereal “Isn’t it Amazing” with its litany of famous inspirational rock song lines at the end), and then there’s the monolithic “Thing of Beauty“, which has to be, bar none, the most positive piece of music ever written. The lyrics are a veritable catalogue of life’s finest joys, from nature to love to parenthood and everything in between. I’m a very cynical guy; in fact, it might not be possible to be more cynical than I. And I can tell you that despite the inspirational bludgeoning this song delivers, not one line of it is cheese, and all of it rings true. Thanks for that, Hothouse Flowers — that tune still gives me a good pick-me-up once in a while.

41fy2cYv1JLManic Street Preachers –  Everything Must Go (1996)

Welsh band of deliberate misfits the Manics were a very strange premise from the get-go; the band was comprised of two fine musicians and two not very good ones. The lesser ones wrote the lyrics, which were aggressively confrontational about society, sometimes in a smart way, sometimes in a head-shakingly juvenile way. Their first album is an attempt to bring the New York Dolls glam-punk sound into the nineties, with those political jibes spat out as lyrics. The second album changes the sound suddenly to hard rock, with surprisingly successful results (mainly from the fine playing and singing of James Dean Bradfield). The third album, The Holy Bible, was a mess, a bunch of weird punk tunes with peculiar, outlandish lyrics that did not achieve much other than to provide a window into Richey Edwards’ inner torment. To me it’s more interesting than listenable; Edwards did possess some talents but he never truly realized them, disappearing for good (from the world, not just the band) shortly thereafter, and it seemed the Manics might end up a novelty footnote. However, when the others regrouped, it was in a stunning fashion with this album that combines retro sixties-pop production and vibes with punky energy and a killer set of songs. Bassist Nicky Wire managed to write a set of still edgy but classy, coherent and thoughtful lyrics that enhance tunes such as the title track and the legendary “A Design for Life” (“Libraries gave us power/Then work came and made us free”), as well as an interesting tribute to artist Willem de Kooning. A couple more good albums followed, but this distinctive and very intelligent little gem is their finest and is worth the purchase just for Bradfield’s talents.

2y12v6The Bats – Couchmaster (1995)

Cheating slightly here; The Bats actually got started in the mid-eighties, but I wanted to pay homage to The Kiwi scene. Isolated out there in the South Pacific, these sparsely populated islands produced a pop scene like no other, taking its cues from the calculated weirdness of Split Enz and going from there. Bands such as Blam Blam Blam, The Clean and later The Mutton Birds (see my article on them) presented a slightly skewed, small town, uncool but always melodic worldview that appealed to some of us skinny, pasty malcontents worldwide. The Bats’ thing was low-fi pop, with Robert Scott’s just barely on key vocals containing a nervous edge but propped up by Kaye Woodward’s lovely harmonies. What’s attractive about The Bats’ sound is a wonderful sense of melody; each tune is eminently memorable and hummable. On this, their finest album, a hazy, fuzzy production style adds a late-night atmosphere — not a druggy one, more like you’re too tired to sleep, sitting up with your fifth cuppa and gazing out at the streetlights. Some of the highlights are the jagged fuzziness of “Afternoon in Bed” (an irresistible song if I’ve ever heard one), the elegant, plodding “Around You Like Snow” and buzzy “Knowledge is Power“. One of the finest examples of independent NZ pop and an almost perfect album of modest pop writing.

I_Should_CocoSupergrass – I Should Coco (1995)

I didn’t like this band at first, if I recall the feelings of my twenty-one-year-old self; this cheeky little English three-piece came roaring out of nowhere with hair that made them look like extras from Planet of the Apes and boundless energy as they tore into their short, sharp punky/post-punky/power-poppy nuggets. And I was permanently lost in thought, the least fun chap in the world (I may still be). In hindsight, though, it’s amazing a young rawk band could sound this good; on a bill with The Jam in 1978, they’d easily have held their own. Later albums are calmer and exploit different kinds of retro-rock, from muscly classic rock riffs to psychedelia, but on this debut, it’s 1-2-3 go from start to finish, relentlessly energetic and frenetic on such killers as “Caught by the Fuzz“, “Strange Ones“, “Lenny”, “Alright“, etc., with barely a breather until the eccentric closer, “Time to Go”. Singer Gaz Coombes is both a tuneful frontman and an excellent guitarist for this kind of material. On the whole, while I don’t have a ton to say about it, it’s one of the best debut albums of all time, for sure, and started a run of albums of astonishingly consistent quality. If all Brit-pop had been this fun, I’d have been more into it.

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12 responses to “10 Great Rock Albums from the Desolate 1990s

  1. No Spiritualized? No Codeine? Aw.
    The verve are pretty great though…and I like Steven Wilson. Have not heard of some of these others, and will check them out. I guess I liked the 90s a bit more than you…to each their own though…

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    • Oh, there were lots of great bands around then, which is why I declared myself “glib”. After 2 years of writing endless positivity, I guess I needed a little rant. I think you would probably like that Bats album, though. And the Whipping Boy one is really something.

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  2. Yes, the 90’s really were terrible – I think I spent most of the 90’s catching up on all the good stuff I missed through having been born at the arse end of the 70’s. British teenagers in the mid 90’s were just as bad. A friend had let me borrow his copy of The Police’s Greatest Hits – someone else saw it in my pocket later that day and told me “Eugh – those are 80’s people. You want 90’s people”; then again it was the same kid who told me Pink Floyd were a lame dinosaur band, but quickly changed his tune when The Division Bell topped the charts. Poser.

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  3. I think like every decade, the 90’s had lots of shit – specially most of mainstream artists. But also some impressive albums and bands. Like Radiohead’s OK Computer, Devin Townsend’s Ocean Machine, Anathema’s Judgement, and even Dream Theater’s Images & Words.
    Interesting list, will check this stuff. I only know The Sky Moves Sideways – awesome album.

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  4. Nice to see Whipping Boy in there, had almost forgotten about that album. I agree about the greatness of I Should Coco too. A brief and wonderful blast of fresh side-burned air. I understand your lack of interest in Britpop, but what did you make of Suede’s “Dog Man Star”? Just curious..

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