Last week, my colleagues and I were discussing what we thought were the 1990s “perfect albums.” Our lists had few similarities, but one of two consistent nods to the decade’s most influential releases.
For the record, a “perfect album” is a cohesively original set (or successfully produced unified collection) of songs that, ultimately, tended to define the era, the band, the moment, the culture, etc.
Here’s my ultimately irresponsible list, in no order:
Automatic for the People, R.E.M.
They were once my favorite band of all time and I owned just about everything they put out. But this was the album that, to me, really crystallized what they were capable of. Yeah, “Everybody Hurts” was polluted by too much airplay, but it got too much airplay because it captured something. Seemingly pedestrian at times, I think this album transcends both rock and folk music and becomes something different and unique.
Favorite cuts: “Drive,” “Nightswimming”
OK Computer, Radiohead
The band’s last decipherable output, in my opinion, but one that placed them squarely on the vanguard of what rock would mean in our next decade. Radiohead trailblazed the return of synths, computerization, and cultural disenfranchisement, floating among these elements the strangely mystical lyrics that warned of a future in which we pray aliens kidnap us from the planet.
Best cuts: “Karma Police,” “Exit Music (for a Film)”
Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos
The original is still the best. Although Tori has traveled down many a road diverging in her musical wood, this first album—bold, unique, uncompromised, aggressive—reopened the door Kate Bush left ajar years before. Although she owes a debt to many who came before, including Led Zeppelin, Tori was a tiny woman who roared.
Best cuts: “Mother,” “Little Earthquakes”
Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt
As much about breaking up as it is about the economic chasm in Anaheim, No Doubt’s second album is definitely my favorite and showcases a band rising out of its own ashes (suicide, failed romances, band member departures) into greatness. Gwen Stefani’s weirdly charismatic voice holds center stage with the boys here, a factor that almost destroyed the band when everyone tried to make her the centerpiece of the entire band.
Best cuts: “Sunday Morning,” “Excuse Me, Mr.,” “End It on This”