While Powerful Pistons Were Sugary Sweet Machines: My Favorite Albums 1990-1999

The 90’s were a hell of a time to be alive. You remember, don’t you? This newfangled thing called “alternative rock” was building steam and momentum while rap music (my other great love) reached astounding new heights. The Clinton that we actually liked was in the White House, and television’s Steve Urkel stole our collective hearts.

And probably some other things happened. You guys know the drill by now.

My Favorite Albums 1990-1999

Sponsored link (story continues below)

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Scott KANNBERG and PAVEMENT and Stephen MALKMUS and Bob NASTANOVICH and Mark IBOLD and Steve WEST; L-R: Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Mark Ibold, Steve West, Scott Kannberg - posed, group shot, in football kit, sitting in changing room (Photo by Mick Hutson/Redferns)


5. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See a Darkness (1999)

This record oozes creeping dread from the first piano chord of “A Minor Place.” Folk-rocker Will Oldham (the titular “Billy”) is a true American treasure, possessing an unforgettable cracked-leather voice and a penchant for dark-as-fuck music. I See a Darkness ( the titular track of which was covered by none other than Johnny Cash) is, predictably, one of the more pitch-black offerings in Oldham’s storied catalog. With track titles like “Death to Everyone” and “Another Day Full of Dread,” one can be forgiven for approaching this record with caution. While not exactly uplifting, Darkness contains a truly unique brand of haunting beauty, like a skeletal young bride still in her wedding dress. Oldham’s southern U.S. is a place of dirty fingernails and rust-colored liquor, dotted with feats of kindness and redemption.

4. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin

If Dark Side of the Moon has an heir apparent, one need look no further than The Flaming Lips’ magnum opus. Damned if I can tell you what the “unifying theme” is (whatever the fuck that means), but Wayne Coyne and company spin tales of death, disease and apocalyptic destruction with the weight and density of significance. Maybe it’s the lush production and orchestral elements, but the whole record feels brilliantly cinematic, like the soundtrack to a lost cult classic. From the dinosaur-stomp of “The Gash” to the existential crisis of “What is the Light,” the boys from Oklahoma are waxing philosophical and asking the big questions on this record. The fact that this seems lovably earnest rather than pretentious is a testament to the group’s commitment and sheer inventiveness.

3. Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

The really infuriating thing about Pavement is that they don’t appear to be trying at all. Their game-changing debut album feels so incredibly tossed-off and casual that I’m surprised they bothered to hit “record.” Of course, guitarists Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg were hiding some inventive guitar work behind that mask of apathy, but Pavement the group was really good at looking like they didn’t give a shit. Alternately bratty, witty, collegiate and noisy, Slanted spins indelible hooks out of jagged and dissonant chords. “Two States” preaches a divided California, while “In the Mouth a Desert” eases into political territory. The group even completely nails a genuine ballad (“Here”). If you liked 90’s slacker-rock, sooner or later it all leads back to Pavement.

2. Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand

I’ve written at length about this album for Rocknuts before,

so I’ll keep it brief this time around. This is an album of fractured, almost subconscious melodies that don’t register in your mind until it’s too late to do anything about it. “Hot Freaks” stays in your brain. “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” makes a home in your psyche. The finest, “classic-era” lineup of Robert Pollard’s indestructible Guided by Voices cranks their way through a double-album’s worth of songs with furious speed and startling brevity. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” barely has time to reach its shout-along chorus before it’s over. The group leaves us, the chorus-addicted wretches that we are, begging for one more taste of the good stuff. But by then another song is playing. And another. Bee Thousand is hundreds of tiny ideas, finally getting a chance to serve their purpose. GBV is both a source of hometown pride and musical inspiration to me, and Bee Thousand is the brightest of their many lights.

1. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Jeff Mangum displays such a wide range of emotion over the course of this album that it’s amazing he survived the experience. This surrealistic re-imagining of Anne Frank’s life, myth and fact violently colliding, is draining, both from exuberance and terror. “King of Carrot Flowers” invokes the innocence of an Aesop fable, while “Oh Comely” is loaded with haunting psychic dread, the sense that something really really bad is about to happen. And it does, kind of. Or does it? “I’ve always thought of the explosion of “Untitled” as the climax of the whole piece, a big-ass metaphysical missile that leaves everybody physically intact but hollows them out from the inside. Mangum’s damaged shells are the stuff of shattered dreams and violently thwarted expectations. Psychedelic indie rock has never before or since been so layered, appealing, or unforgettable. I spoke in my 70’s list about those albums that leave something  behind within you after you listen to them. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has enough ghosts to drive Dan Aykroyd absolutely fucking nuts, and these doomed characters in impossible situations will stick around long after the last sounds of “Two Headed Boy, Part 2” fade into the ambient wash of nothingness. The really important works of art have a way of being finished with you long after you’re finished with them, and to me this separates my “very good” albums from my absolute favorites.


Honorable Mentions

Radiohead – OK Computer

Fugazi – Repeater

Ween – The Mollusk

Ben Folds Five – s/t

Weezer – s/t

See you in the 2000’s!




(Photo of Pavement by Mick Hutson/Redferns)


2 comments to “While Powerful Pistons Were Sugary Sweet Machines: My Favorite Albums 1990-1999”
  1. Nice list. Some of mine:

    Green Day, Dookie
    Nirvana, Unplugged in New York
    Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie

  2. Dookie for sure would be an honorable mention had I thought about it at the time.

    While “Unplugged in NY” is probably my favorite (song for song) Nirvana record, it is ineligible (at least according to my rules) by being a live album and containing tracks from the group’s whole career.

    It would make my “Best Live Album” list, no questions asked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *