After a month off dealing with a lot of mental health issues, I am back to continue talking about my favorite music of each decade. I hope you’ll find as much joy and knowledge from these albums as I’ve managed to.
10. All The Nation’s Airports – Archers of Loaf (1996)
Their earlier stuff is more critically-acclaimed, but I’ve struggled to connect with it the way this album has shaken me. It makes neighbors of screeching cacophony and naked elegance. It’s a little front-heavy, but that rarely stops me from going cover-to-cover with it. The storytelling lyrics (see “Assassination on Xmas Eve” and “Chumming the Ocean”) knit narratives that question the deaths of our main characters. I cry so fucking hard when “The traffic cop let some strangers get away…”
Postman’s Picks: “Scenic Pastures” will easily make the top 5 on my 90s songs list; “Assassination on Xmas Eve”; piano-vocal “Chumming The Ocean”; instrumentals “Bumpo” and “Acromegaly”
9. Jar of Flies EP – Alice In Chains (1994)
A bass guitar clinic; Mike Inez, previously Ozzy’s bassist, joined the tour for Dirt when their last guy was kicked out for drug abuse. So tour ends, he says he wants to stay on; he shows up for his first recording sessions with Alice In Chains, and he absolutely redefines the band. They entered the studio with nothing, hoping to test their chemistry with Inez, and one week later exited with this. In 30 minutes, it accomplishes more than most bands would expect to in twice that. When the band is this tight and focused, it gives vocalist Layne Staley room to express himself- “Why you act crazy? – Not an act, maybe…”
Postman’s Picks: Just most of the album; “No Excuses,” “Don’t Follow,” “Nutshell,” and “I Stay Away”.
8. Perfect From Now On – Built To Spill (1997)
I was going to put their previous album on this list, 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love. Whereas that disc leans a little closer to a 3-minute average track length, Perfect From Now On explores in long-form, the shortest of the 8 tracks clocking at 4:52. This makes it less obvious as an entry point into Built To Spill, but the quality and flow here are spectacular. Each one of these songs morphs as it runs. There are cellos. And Doug Martsch is among the most inventive guitarists in rock.
Postman’s Picks: Definitely intended to listen to cover-to-cover. I won’t pick singles for an album that has none.
7. 1990 – Daniel Johnston (1990)
Daniel Johnston was not a great singer. He was not a great pianist. He was not a great guitarist. He did not aspire to greatness. But what he did do was write a series of intense, visceral songs that smack with reality. I feel a pit open in my stomach when I listen to this album. It is among the darkest ones I know. Listening to Johnston grapple with not only loss and rejection, but also his acceptance in his Christian faith, is a jarring experience no matter how many times I listen. If you’re looking for real blues, Daniel Johnston in 1989 was just about the bluest boy you could point a finger at.
Postman’s Picks: “True Love Will Find You In The End” from which a quote is tacked on my guitar; “Some Things Last A Long Time”; “Don’t Play Cards With Satan”; tell me whether you laugh or cry when you hear “Funeral Home” for the first time.
6. 69 Love Songs – The Magnetic Fields (1999)
I definitely thought this was a stupid joke when I first heard about it. BOY, was I wrong. It has a few of the most moving love songs, and some of the most debilitating songs of heartbreak. It is hard to find time to listen to the whole thing, but I used to do it all the time when I worked in a factory with headphones. If you do, and you like to laugh and cry, then here’s the album for you. Very easy to sing along to.
Postman’s Picks: I think my favorite one is “Long-Forgotten Fairytale”; stiff competition from “Papa Was A Rodeo”; and “Love Is Like A Bottle of Gin”; opener “Absolutely Cuckoo”; the heartbreakers “I Think I Need A New Heart” and “I Don’t Want To Get Over You”; “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”.
5. Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos (1992)
The album I have known the shortest of the ones on this list; I don’t doubt its placement, though. Tori’s lyrical ability seals the promise of her piano skill. The chorus of “Girl” inspires my buried femininity: “She’s been everybody else’s girl – Maybe one day, she’ll be her own…” I think my favorite is the death-accepting “Happy Phantom”. She aches, and expresses it in a way that is occasionally explicit in its detail, and so very raw and believable. Her piano punctuates her structures and lends atmosphere. The guitar is used sparingly on this album, but its subtle uses add so much to Little Earthquakes.
Postman’s Picks: Opener “Crucify”; the core of the album, tracks 6-10, is so well-sequenced: “Happy Phantom,” “China,” “Leather,” Mother,” and “Tear In Your Hand”.
4. Flood – They Might Be Giants (1990)
TMBG is acclaimed for being fun, smart, snarky- and they were at their prime in all three categories here. Some of what they say can be brushed off as a joke: the Spiderman-callback of “Particle Man,” bitching about “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”, their fabulous cover of “Istanbul”. Some of it has to be stared down and taken very seriously, especially the storyline of “Your Racist Friend,” and the requiem for your dearly-departed returning as bags of groceries, “Dead”. “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed.” “Birdhouse In Your Soul” is simultaneously fun, funny, and uplifting. One of the preeminent bands in American pop music, to me.
Postman’s Picks: “Dead”; “Your Racist Friend”; “Letterbox”; “Particle Man”; “Birdhouse In Your Soul”; it’s like a greatest hits skipping around in here.
3. Automatic For The People – R.E.M. (1992)
It feels sparse and understated despite a vast range of instrumentation, in large part because of its brilliant dynamic changes and sequencing. It is longing, weeping, but at the same time with an eye toward the world. Most of my favorite moments are when it bursts forth, not shielding its doubts or anger; the best example of this is “Ignoreland,” a political call-to-thought that still applies today. But my most favorite song on the album goes just the opposite direction- “Nightswimming” lilts, fragile and nostalgic and personal, over an orchestral string arrangement by John Paul Jones. This album had already effected me before I heard about the Nirvana connection; if you don’t know, don’t go down the rabbit hole.
Postman’s Picks: “Nightswimming”; “Ignoreland”; this album is strongly suited toward consumption as one unit.
2. File Under: Easy Listening – Sugar (1994)
I found this on the shelf of cassettes at Record Den in Mentor, and bought it on an impulse. All I knew about Sugar was that it had Bob Mould, formerly of Hüsker Dü. I honestly still haven’t been able to get into his old band’s stuff (alas, they told me my Replacements fandom qualified me), but boy, I have seriously fallen in love with Sugar. File Under: Easy Listening is not an easy-listening album, but a rock record with influences from grunge, 80s alt-indie-rock, and My Bloody Valentine. Mould is an underrated songwriter with intelligent focus.
Postman’s Picks: “Your Favorite Thing” is the hot single; storytelling on “Gee Angel” and “Panama City Motel”; my favorite is “Explode And Make Up,” one of the finest closers I know.
1. Emergency & I – The Dismemberment Plan (1999)
I don’t know the names of the guys in The Dismemberment Plan, but they have probably the best rhythm section in rock and roll, and I mean ever. They also have Travis, the guy whose name I do know, writing words with bite. These lyrics read better than most of the shit my English professors made me read. “Memory Machine” supposes how people will think when they can backup their thoughts into a computer. “8 1/2 Minutes” asks how you would spend the time until the nukes hit. “Spider In The Snow” opens with this gut-punch: “The only thing worse than bad memories is no memories at all – From the age of 20 to 22, I had five friends, none of whose names I can recall…” The Dismemberment Plan’s musical acuity, paired with their eloquent way of capturing in their lyrics and tone life’s feelings of boredom and discontent and anxiety, make Emergency & I my favorite album of the 1990s.
Postman’s Picks: “You Are Invited” will very likely be my top song of the 90s; “The City” is so sad and so good; “What Do You Want Me To Say” is the one I wish my mother would hear; “Memory Machine” and “Gyroscope” and “Girl O’Clock” for the drummers to study.
These are great albums of the 1990s that I also recommend.
Loveless – My Bloody Valentine
Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space – Spiritualized
Apartment Life – ivy
Clouds Taste Metallic – Flaming Lips
The Soft Bulletin – Flaming Lips
The Bends – Radiohead
OK Computer – Radiohead
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – Smashing Pumpkins
MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana
Endtroducing… – DJ Shadow
Bee Thousand – Guided By Voices
The River – Ali Farka Touré
Selected Ambient Works 85-92 – Aphex Twin
There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – Built To Spill
Screamadelica – Primal Scream
A Northern Soul – The Verve
Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine
Either/Or – Elliott Smith
Frizzle Fry– Primus
Hangups – Goldfinger
Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette
Stunt – Barenaked Ladies
Apollo 18 – They Might Be Giants
Analphabetapolothology – Cap’n Jazz
American Water – Silver Jews
Different Class – Pulp
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? – Oasis
Homework – Daft Punk
Moon Safari – Air
In The Aeroplane Over The Sea – Neutral Milk Hotel
The Chronic – Dr. Dre
The Slim Shady LP – Eminem
Odelay – Beck
One Foot In The Grave – Beck
If You’re Feeling Sinister – Belle & Sebastian
Nothing Feels Good – The Promise Ring