A few weeks ago I covered ten of my favourite 80s albums. The 90s were the decade where I seriously got into music, and because of the disparate genres I listen to, there is simply no way that I can narrow this down to ten. So, my favourite albums of the 90s is split into two parts, and the second part will follow next Tuesday.
And it is roughly split by genre, I guess. One part covers metal and industrial, and the other alternative and electro – I'm going to cover the latter this week.
This is, of course, an entirely subjective list. The albums that are/were important to me are probably entirely different to others who read this, and to me that is half the fun of being into music – no-one's tastes are exactly the same. I've deliberately missed out a couple of the more obvious stuff as I've no doubt mentioned them before!
House of GVSB
For a while the darlings of the alt.rock press during the nineties, this was the last album of a period where the band apparently couldn't do any wrong. What they did was slightly unusual – groovy alt.rock with two bassists (one of them being co-producer and a keyboardist, too) – and that perhaps worked against them in that they never quite got the success that they deserved. After this near-perfect album (they flirted with electronic tracks, sampling and attempts at pop, in addition to the usual sleaze-filled rock in eleven tracks stretched over just forty minutes), they moved to a major label, where it went horrendously wrong. The band's last album was six years ago, and it appears unlikely that another will ever come.
You should hear: Super Fire, Disco Six Six Six, Vera Cruz
From a band that should have had success but didn't, to a band that got a huge amount of success, arguably, thanks to the work of another. It has been argued for years that were it not for the work of Curve previously, Garbage would never have had a "market". I see that to a point, but the first Garbage album was such a shiny pop gem that it perhaps would have been a success anyway. It had everything – a rock sensibility that somehow worked alongside the endless pop hooks, the Butch Vig production that simply shimmered, probably every track could have been a single, oh, and the outspoken, pretty, lead singer…There have only been three albums since this, with constant rumours of a status of less than harmony between the band that has hampered a number of tours over the years, and while their sound changed and evolved over the years, they have never reached the heights of this album again.
You should hear: Vow, Supervixen, Queer
In amongst the boom of "trip-hop" in the mid-90s, in my eyes this remains the pick of the albums from the period. Throwing in influences as diverse as Public Enemy, Michael Jackson, the Smashing Pumpkins and Isaac Hayes (all of whom are sampled, or in the case of the former, covered to thrilling effect), with a number of guest vocalists including an early appearance by Alison Goldfrapp, the album as a whole isn't half as relaxed as you might think: the main themes being paranoia, jealousy and fear…
You should hear: Aftermath, Black Steel, Suffocated Love
While they had been active in a number of different guises for nearly a decade before, it took this album to bring Underworld to wider attention. It's not hard to see why: this is a sprawling, trancey-techno album with no end of glorious moments. From the rambling vocals over driving techno of Dark & Long, to the cut'n'paste vocals and euphoric peaks of Cowgirl (Underworld were never better than this track – particularly in it's spectacular live version), it is all brilliant. To many this is an overlooked album, as Born Slippy.NUXX's success subsequently eclipsed it, which is rather unfair, really…
You should hear: Cowgirl, mmm Skyscraper I Love You, Dark & Long
Who knew that two young French guys making house music could be so much fun? While their live shows have now passed into legend of late, it is this album that laid the foundation for all the success that followed. Never taking itself too seriously, it's an album stuffed with fantastic dancefloor tracks and songs that are still on heavy rotation now, thanks to their equally brilliant videos (that'll be Da Funk and Around The World, then). If you don't think house music can be any fun, listen to this and try and tell me that again…
You should hear: Da Funk, Revolution 909, Rollin' and Scratchin'
A Northern Soul
There isn't a lot of indie albums that in hindsight I would recommend as the best of the period – many from the 90s "Britpop" boom really haven't stood the test of time – but this one has. Something of an epic album – only two of the twelve songs dip below five minutes in length – this was an album Richard Ashcroft maintained would make them stars, although their rampant drug use and intra-band fallouts conspired to end the band afterward for a while after the success never came. Ironically, of course, they reconvened a year or so later and then did become stars with the following album Urban Hymns, before yet more problems dogged them – and they of course reformed again last year. Anyway, this album is awesome – a mix of classic rock and psychedelia, a classic case of "looking up from the gutter at the stars". In addition to rocking tracks like the opening pairing, there is stuff like the staggering, reverb-drenched freak-out of Brainstorm Interlude, and the tear-jerking ballad History (all strings and Ashcroft's voice – and it is heartbreaking, too), which could probably make a statue weep. While Urban Hymns was great, this really is better.
You should hear: This Is Music, History, A New Decade
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Otherwise, in my eyes, the best indie was not coming from the UK in the mid-90s. One perfect example were the oh-so-slightly strange Pavement, who would go from being wilfully obscure to wannabe pop stars – often in the same song. This is probably their most straightforward album, where their indie-rock probably had it's broadest appeal, and in the main where they wrote their best album. And a few years after this, they were back in the press when Damon Albarn from Blur started singing their praises. I don't think anyone expected to hear Pavement in the latest Blur album, but that was what happened…
You should hear: Cut Your Hair, Gold Soundz, Range Life
Worst Case Scenario
Perhaps even more left-field than Pavement were this Belgian band, who somehow mixed rock, lounge, and the influences of Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart into something that had a far wider appeal than you might think. They are still around now, too, with a new album due anytime soon…
You should hear: Suds and Soda, Via, Hotellounge (Be The Death of Me
So Tonight That I Might See
Mazzy Star seemed to exist in a calm, lazy world of their own for a number of years, releasing albums of gorgeous ballads with a wierd, cryptic feel to almost all of them. This, their second of three albums, was by far the most commercially and critically successful. The album is wonderfully recorded and produced, too – listen to it on headphones and it sounds as if Hope Sandoval is singing to you and you only.
You should hear: Fade Into You, Mary of Silence, Unreflected
The Things We Make
By the end of the 90s, there was a new breed of indie band coming through, who had no interest in getting involved in the whole Britpop love-in, and instead were prowling the darker corners of human existence. Enter Six By Seven, who were just one of these bands, who released a taut, intense debut album that was simply dripping with loathing, both of the self and others. Live they were an equally cathartic experience.
You should hear: A Beautiful Shape, Spy Song, Something Wild