Today’s list is something I mentioned earlier—a brief consideration of my extensive music collection. Today I’m choosing ten albums, released in the 90s or earlier, that have remained compelling pieces of work for me. Some might not be that shocking and some you’ve maybe never heard before, but all deserve a good listen.
1. Abra Moore, Strangest Places.
I first learned of Abra through an ad for Visa. She was one of those “I lived in a van” singers in the 90s, and she had a brief moment with this interesting rock/country/folk album. The songs have held up because the writing, particularly the lyrics, is so interesting.
2. Belly, King.
A swan song for Tanya Donnelly’s short-lived band, King is a 90s-alterna-rock curiosity. Departing from the “confessional” tone of their first album, King snarls and bops with ferocious abandon and quiet restraint.
3. Dave Matthews Band, Under the Table and Dreaming.
I still think the first album is the best, but it took several years to grow on me. I bought it, sold it, and then bought it again a few years later. “Satellite” in particular is an enduring song, and “Ants Marching” is one of my favorites by him.
4. Duncan Sheik, Duncan Sheik.
How unfortunate that Duncan fell into a tweener marketing ploy with his first single, which is, yes, catchy—but good, and this album is lightyears beyond what “Barely Breathing” might make you think. Tender, unrestricted, and emotionally honest, his first collection is truly his most cohesive.
5. Fiona Apple, Tidal.
Why do I keep picking first albums? People gave Fiona a bad rap because she had some things to say and she was erroneously lumped into the Tori Amos bin. This first album is lush, disarming, with a youthful misstep or two—but still a classy debut by a promising and innovative artist.
6. Hole, Live Through This.
The first time I heard this band, it was a revelation for me. Courtney Love, while crazy, wrote a brilliant and provocative collection that borrows both from her history with the girl-punk band Babes in Toyland and brings in elements of pop influenced, no doubt, by her connection to Nirvana. “Violet” is a great example of this contradiction, but the album soars straight up from this first track to the last.
7. Luscious Jackson, Electric Honey.
Another last album by a great band, EH found these talented women finally gelling into some great catchy pop tunes with substance. An extension of their hit “Naked Eye,” the album is wrought with unforgettable melodies and guitar hooks.
8. No Doubt, Tragic Kingdom.
A nearly perfect album, No Doubt’s second major effort is, to me, one of the greatest examples of how personal torment can make great art. The collision of Gwen’s confessional lyrics with ska rhythms and pop hooks is an amazing conflict.
9. Radiohead, The Bends.
Although I love OK Computer (and nothing since) by this band, I think The Bends is a more even collection of songs, all of them tying back to the theme of how technology impacts our lives and makes us different human. Songs like “Just” echo their first hit, “Creep,” but amazing anthems like “Street Spirit [Fade Out]” really make this an album to hear again and again.
10. Tori Amos, Under the Pink.
I might be the only gay man in America who thinks this is a great album, but I prefer it to her other work. The striking irony of “God,” the hushed secrets of “Past the Mission,” the sprawling lush anthem of “Yes, Anastasia” all work for me. And other, smaller songs—”The Waitress” and “Cornflake Girl”—still hold up for me. I never was a cornflake girl. I thought it was a good solution hanging with the raisin girls.
Honorable Mentions: Violent Femmes, Violent Femmes; Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright.