Now is the time when retrospective “Best of” lists are popping up trying to summarize the standout albums of the 1990s, which helped in defining the decade. Unfortunately, there are so many deserving LPs that are often underrated by critics and overlooked by many in compiling these lists. For every album by Beck inducted into the “Best of the 90s” canon, deserving records by the Lemonheads and Belly are tossed aside. Moreover, for every obvious choice by a well-established artist, more subtlety brilliant follow-ups are considered superfluous and therefore overlooked. Listed below, ordered by release date, is a collection of albums that are too often underrated and overlooked as the best albums of the ‘90s.
Without You I’m Nothing, 1998
Placebo has never really been taken as a serious band. Probably because of lead singer Brian Molko’s ridiculously nasal delivery and the group’s propensity to sing about the recreational drug use. Underlying Placebo’s focus on drug use is a magnificent loathing and self-pity that oddly results in an ironic self-reflection. Although Placebo has stated that it was disappointed with the outcome of Without You I’m Nothing, the album showcases the band at the height of its concentration on drug abuse and how that can result in a moral panic of sexual and emotional self-loathing. Plus, the lead single “Pure Morning” is magnificently bizarre. Album highlights: “Pure Morning”, “Brick Shithouse”, “Scared of Girls”, and “Without Your I’m Nothing”.
Celebrity Skin, 1998
Poor Courtney Love. Poor crazy, train-wreck Courtney. Celebrity Skin was the beginning of her brief upswing as a respectable artist possessing all the talent and charisma she believed she had. This album is often overlooked in favor of Hole’s superior sophomore album, Live Through This (1994). However, Celebrity Skin is a stellar album in its own right. Remarkably, Hole managed to update its sound to compete with the increasingly slick recordings permeating throughout the rock scene. And where Live Through This found strength in its sparse and simple yet superbly poetic (and prophetic) lyrics, Celebrity Skin is replete with more intricate and loquacious (but never overbearing) lyrics. Also, this was the first album for Love written after the death of husband Kurt Cobain, resulting in some intense emotional complexities.
The Smashing Pumpkins really shot themselves in the foot when after their over-popularized and overrated double album Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) was done, they announced that their next record would be an “electronic” record. Having just fired drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for being a drug addict involved with the death of their touring keyboardist, Adore ostensibly divided most every fan as the album sold half of its predecessors and became known as the record that became the demise of one of the biggest ‘90s bands. Hindsight would reveal that Adore is actually a more “acoustic” and delicate offering from a group that up until this point was stuck on teenage-angst alt-rock. Adore showcases a band progressing and maturing like only the best act can, exploring both the Pumpkins’ romantic and adventurous sides.
I’m not entirely sure why when Phair released her third record Whitechocolatespaceegg it was reviled by so many of her die-hard fans. At the time, it was Phair’s most accessible record… at the time. With greater production values and a new-found love of variance in her recordings, spaceegg is a wonderful pop record that shows how versatile Phair can be. Unfortunately, spaceegg is often overlooked for one of two reasons: 1. Fans see it as a indication of Phair moving past the indie/underground roots of her style; 2. Her practically consecrated 1993 debut Exile in Guyville is on every “Best of the ‘90s” list and God forbid there be any more than one entry from a female artist. Particular album highlights: pretty much every song on the album.
Sheryl Crow, 1996
Let’s face it. As good as 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club was, it kind of made Ms. Crow sound like a light-weight country star. Moreover, every album after her sophomore effort just cemented her spot in world of “female-artisits-who-are-super-popular-but-suck” genre. However, just before she started down that slide of suckery, she released this self-titled LP, which to her credit showcased her abilities as a songwriter more so than her debut. What resulted is the coolest album Crow has ever released. Preceded by the mega-hit “If It Makes You Happy”, the album is precisely where country music should have gone. Particular album highlights: “Oh Marie”, “Hard to Make a Stand”, and “Maybe Angels”.