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15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

Photo by Zyanya BMO on Unsplash

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Unfortunately, there are so many deserving LPs that are often underrated by critics and overlooked by many in compiling "Best of"decade 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.

15. Placebo - Without You I'm Nothing [1998]

Placebo have 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".

14. Hole - 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.

13. Smashing Pumpkins - Adore [1998]

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.

12. Liz Phair - Whitechocolatespaceegg [1998]

I'm not entirely sure why when Liz 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.

11. Sheryl Crow - 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".

10. Skunk Anansie - Stoosh [1996]

Much like Meshell Ndegeocello, the mainstream buying public simply don't like their lead singers as anything other than male, white, and heterosexual. Because of this, this ass-kicking band gets frequently dismissed because of the screeching, bald, black lesbian that fronts this motley crew. Unfortunately, Skunk Anansie's 1995 debut Paranoid and Sunburnt was fairly uneven, but reeked of what the group was capable of. The ensemble's follow-up, Stoosh, a softer but more precise effort, proved that it wasn't like any other band—it was capable of shifting and reinventing its sound. Much more successful in the UK, Skunk Anansie never managed to find its footing in the US, which is a shame, because Stoosh a brilliantly accomplished '90s alternative rock record.

9. The Cardigans - First Band on the Moon [1996]

"Lovefool" was probably the worst thing to happen to the Cardigans. It branded this shockingly versatile band as a "one-hit wonder", which is a travesty because the remaining 10 tracks from this, their sophomore release, combine to make a surprisingly crafty pop record. First Band on the Moon is a brilliant LP overlooked for being nothing more than Swede-Pop lite. Although it never succeeded in meeting the success of "Lovefool", First Band on the Moon was a turning point for the Cardigans, who tightened their sound and specialized it for each release. Their previous two records, Emmerdale and Life reeked of immaturity and of a band finding their balance. On First Band, the Cardigans found that balance.

8. Tori Amos - Boys for Pele [1996]

This album is often overlooked simply because Tori Amos' brilliant Little Earthquakes (1992) is the one record in her catalog that is chosen for inclusion in most "Best of the '90s" lists. However, it's this, her "sonic novel", that is a truly inspired masterpiece, underrated as well for its often-times inaccessibility. There's no denying that Amos' quirky and confusing tendencies have alienated many music fans, but if you just suspend your disbelief for five seconds, you'll find yourself enveloped in one the most chaotic and emotional rides that ever graced "break-up" music. Boys for Pele begins with the stark "Beauty Queen/Horses" and gallops through various heavy weight themes such as blood sacrifice, suicide, adultery, religion, and the South. There are so many musical shifts and nuances that Boys for Pele is truly we-inspiring and is just as deserving a place in the "Best of the '90s" canon as her debut.

7. Belly - King [1995]

There were a number of female alterna-darlings in the mid-'90s: Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair, Kristen Hersh, and Tanya Donelly. Women were making a big impact, proving that rock wasn't relegated solely to men. Unfortunately, most of these women get passed over for their more mediocre male counterparts when anyone does a thorough reflection of the best music to come from the decade. Although many fans will argue that Belly's debut Star is the superior of the two albums, after the occasional sloppiness of the first record Tanya Donelly's post-Throwing Muses band tightened its act, took some songwriting lessons, and produced this magnificent 11-track rock record. Brimming with shining guitars and Donnelly's sweet high-pitched voice, King epitomized the Gen X phenomenon, giving it a contemplative voice that was too often dismissed as fatalistic.

6. Sam Phillips - Martinis and Bikinis [1994]

Few of you probably even know who Sam Phillips is. Once a Christian rock star, now a superb songwriter, Phillips truly outdid herself with this, the best album of her career. From the darkly comedic record cover of Philips lying on a bed with a row of dead men underneath, to the sparse and affecting cover version of John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth", Martinis and Bikinis contains both some of the best conceptual and emotional songs ever to grace the pop scene. Often overlooked by the sheer fact that most people haven't even heard this album, it's unfortunate that most people haven't discovered Philips earlier. Particular album highlights: "I Need Love", "When I Fall", and "Black Sky".

5. The Lemonheads - Come on Feel the Lemonheads [1993]

The Lemonheads' cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" got them on commercial radio. But it was their follow-up Come on Feel the Lemonheads that showed what a mastermind of alterna-pop lead signer Evan Dando can be. Arguably the inspiration for such pop/rock indie-darlings as Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins, the Lemonheads' music often overshadowed by Dando's notorious drug abuse and the revolving door of bandmates. Come on Feel has a continuous one-two punch, beginning with "The Great Big No" and ending with "Big Gay Heart". Unfortunately, this record never gave the Lemonheads the push into the limelight that they deserved, mainly because many other bands like Gin Blossoms and Tonic developed the proper amount of suckiness to get to the top of the charts.

4. Meshell Ndegeocello - Plantation Lullabies [1993]

At some point Meshell Ndegeocello was pigeonholed as a weepy female singer/songwriter—probably because she toured with Lilith Fair for a couple of years. It's a shame really, because her debut album Plantation Lullabies is nothing short of a masterpiece. The album is a whirlwind of insightful political and social thought—regurgitated in the most verbose manner in many graduate sociology courses—tempered with some heartbreaking, emotional tunes. Ndegeocello played practically every instrument on this album, earning her the idiom of "the female Prince". The powerhouse tune that takes the cake though is the post-feminist kick-ass "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)", which is made better (if you can believe it) by its stunning video. Plantation Lullabies encompassed every bit of the '90s that everyone in the '90s refused to acknowledge.

3. Madonna - Erotica [1992]

There was a whole lotta naked Madonna being thrown at us in the early '90s. Unfortunately, her (let's admit it) amazing nakedness obscured the quality of this, her most adventurous record. A gritty and dirty release, Erotica is often overlooked as the album that came out after the mega-hit single "Vogue". Although there are moments that falter on the album, conceptually and cohesively it was the first time that Madonna proved that she could create a full-focused and intense little record, as only a true sexual icon could. Though Erotica failed to produce a number one hit, tracks such as "Erotica", "Bad Girl", and "Secret Garden" remain among the best of her career.

2. Annie Lennox - Diva [1992]

When the Eurythmics announced that they would be parting ways, there was some speculation that Annie Lennox would flop without her partner-in-crime David Stewart. She floored pretty much everyone when "Why" hit and proved that a partner would only provide needless filler to her magnitude. The aptly named Diva was less a reflection of Lennox's persona and more an intelligent and beautifully crafted album by the solo female singer. The record managed to remain on the charts for 72 weeks, and proved that mainstream hits can favor diversity when she released singles "Walking on Broken Glass" and "Little Bird".

1. En Vogue - Funky Divas [1992]

En Vogue had class coming out of the wazoo, and it wasn't until its 1992 sophomore release Funky Divas that this became painstakingly apparent. En Vogue, the girl-group brainchild of Thomas McElroy and Denzil Foster, recorded a masterful R&B classic with this LP. Rollercoastering through a topsy turvy of various musical genres, Divas managed to remain intact as a solid R&B album. Terry, Maxine, Cindy, and Dawn proved that pop stars can be sexy without being half-naked floozies. Unfortunately, this stellar record is often underrated simply because En Vogue was (admittedly) not created by any organic means. The girls were brought together by their producers, and for too many, this form of music making was too cold and sterile to be truly worthwhile. Little did we know that this would fail to be an issue about 15 years later.

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This article was originally published on 9 May 2012.

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