Top 10 Albums of the 1990s

10. Jane’s Addiction - Ritual De Lo Habitual

Ritual De Lo Habitual is a prime example of the “party, after-party” concept that so many bands attempt to create in their albums. The first six tracks of “Ritual” are blood pumping, show-going tunes that bring the “white man’s overbite” (’s%20overbite) out of anyone with an ear for summer jams and a good beat, but by the end of “Three Days,” the hangover sets in. Perry Farrell’s lyrics grow more wandersome as his vocals grow more weary, and the guitars take on a sudden tunnel-like reverb that stays with the songs, all the way down to the end of “Classic Girl.”

9. MF Doom - Operation: Doomsday

MF Doom could be a serial killer. No one would ever know. The MC keeps his mysterious image as well as he keeps his career: consistent and clever. Operation: Doomsday is one the most unique rap albums of the 1990s, sampling everything from The Beatles to the Scooby-Doo soundtrack. Doom is a self-proclaimed (and well-earned) urban legend in the rap game today, and his 1999 debut solo album helped solidify that position. What this album carries more than other rap albums of the same era is cinematography. The MC mixes in clips from old Fantastic 4 cartoons to tell his story of vengeance upon the music industry for ending his 1991 collaborative project “KMD” with Subroc and Onyx, and the fluidity of the final cut mashes perfectly with Doom’s tracks.

8. Portishead - Dummy

Portishead have been responsible for a multitude of nu-genres in the 21st century due to their mastery of a sound they practically created themselves: Trip-Hop. It’s spooky; it’s almost gothic at times, and other times it’s poppy enough to show up on Satellite Radio, i.e. “Sour Times,” the second track from Dummy. Portishead have a natural feel in Dummy — the band is confident in its strides, knowing when and where to place effects, while Beth Gibbons unleashes desperate and oftentimes throaty clusters of lyrics and flirts with the almost-upbeat rhythm she could be singing to, but won’t.

7. Sublime - 40 oz. to Freedom

Sublime are the quintessential “feel-good” band. Any punk group that can have deep reggae influences sans steel drum and maintain a decent amount of record sales and make unhappy music is doing it wrong (that, and it’s probably never been done). Ska, the genre itself, is widely responsible for any high school student of the 90s’ radical summer — the album is the spearhead to that growth: a fun-loving atmosphere about the benefits and consequences of partying just a little too hard.

6. No Doubt - Tragic Kingdom

The “Gwen Stefani“‘s of music come far and in-between: the vocalist from an award-winning punk band who goes on to record two incredible solo albums that draw sounds from R&B, 90s bubblegum-pop, Japanese instrumentals, and feature acts like Pharrell, Eve, and Akon — and then re-collaborates with her punk group years later. No Doubt stayed prominent throughout the nineties, achieving their highest nods from critics and fans alike with Tragic Kingdom, the album responsible for still-prominent hits “Just a Girl,” “Hey You,” and “Don’t Speak.” The 1995 release cemented No Doubt’s hold onto the charts, and eventually helped bridge Gwen’s way to solo-project fame.

5. Radiohead - Kid A

Last fall, Cullen Omori re-tweeted a fellow musician, who stated — in 140 characters or less — “Every time I listen to it, Kid A still sounds like an album from the future.” Radiohead have made history with their music for over twenty years with albums like The Bends and OK Computer; however, there’s never been another album with a sound parallel to Kid A. The album is haunted. “Standing in the shadows at the end of my bed,” Thom Yorke yowls in the title track, “rats and children follow me out of town.”

4. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream

Without question, the nineties provided a decade-long heyday for alternative rock. Bands explored their own sounds and learned from others’. Mixing elements of grunge and post-punk, Billy Corgan and the rest of the Pumpkins created a masterwork of an alt-rock album. Distorted guitars and quickly-paced snare rolls form the perfect backdrop to Corgan’s unsettling and truthful bark throughout most of the grinding tracks, while chimes and strings dominate the classic, woeful “Disarm” midway through the album. Siamese Dream is 90s-era rock’s genius brainchild.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Blood Sugar Sex Magik

When I bought Blood Sugar Sex Magik from T-Bone Records in the fifth grade, I thought I had become a man. These guys meant business: they used the F-word — but past all the F-bombs and sex talk were seventeen tracks of funk-rock beauty that would accelerate the already-famous Chili Peppers’ career to new, jock-in-sock filled heights. “Under the Bridge” and “Give It Away” are internationally familiar hits, whereas songs like “Funky Monks” and “Naked in the Rain” stay privy to the masses of those who follow(ed) R.H.C.P. through the end of the album, and who don’t mind putting Blood Sugar Sex Magik on repeat. Though the group took a more commercial turn in the mid-2000’s, their 1991 magnum opus remains a huge success and milestone of the alternative era.

2. Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral

Plain and simple: Trent Reznor is a genius. Nine Inch Nails dominated the “industrial revolution” of music, and there is no higher example of the band’s — consisting of primarily Reznor, backed by a touring band — reign of alternative charts than The Downward Spiral. The production quality, instrumental work, ambience, sudden turns and shifts in style, lyrics, and aggressiveness combine in the album to form the ultimate boundary-pushing work of the nineties. Reznor slices the consistent bass and key tracks with screeching bursts of guitar and synth, followed by oftentimes violently pounding, short inlays of drum tracks — then, like a mercy act, the harshness of the track is swallowed by a calm melody: soon, however, the mercy act becomes the calm before the storm, as the next track launches into a loud funk-wave of inevitable, ordered chaos. The album ex- and im-plodes melodies  quickly and profusely, a la “Heresy” and “Ruiner.” Downward Spiral is full of anxiety, that of which is battled out — and sometimes enforced — by Trent’s harsh, whisper-to-shout vocals. Today, Reznor is teamed up with fellow producer Atticus Ross, composing soundtracks to films, i.e. The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Nine Inch Nails provided the musician with the opportunity to experiment widely with the processes he still implements in his more recent projects, and The Downward Spiral’s influence remains just as apparent.

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

As a basic concept, albums that tell stories are better listens than albums that rely  on each track being unrelated to the last. Rush, Pink Floyd, Tom Waits, and The Who popularized the idea of spinning a yarn throughout multiple songs. The idea, while not adopted in many facets of popular music, is a consistently well-told method: introduce the broken protagonist, explain his harrowing challenge, describe his conflicts, and resolve the tale with a beautifully composed finale. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is a huge, anthem-esque bard’s tale about the lead singer/songwriter’s love story with Anne Frank. The mythos and legends concerning the album’s plot are hauntingly honest: Jeff Mangum, the singer, read “The Diary of Anne Frank” as an adult, and was immediately awe- and horror-struck at the intensity of her writing and story. Mangum fell in love. He moved away from his home and lived in a rented out (and supposedly haunted) closet space, where he wrote the entirety of Aeroplane in a year. Jeff returned to his band with the album’s concept: a love story about rescuing Anne Frank’s ghost from the Holocaust.

The album opens up with “King of Carrot Flowers, parts 1, 2, & 3,” in which Jeff describes teenage love affairs among a broken household, followed by an immediately-sarcastic hook, “I love you, Jesus Christ.” While the tracks sound reminiscent, there’s a youth to them, much like the fuzz-filled ballad “Holland, 1945,” a boisterously poetic song about losing loved ones in World War II. Though the majority of the 11-song album is most prominently filled with soft G, C, and E-chords from Mangum’s acoustic guitar, the strums are backed by a wall of trumpets, trombones, bagpipes, strings, and crash cymbals. The combination is a sloppily immaculate mixture of northern- and eastern-European folk music, Americanized and distorted to laudatory volumes and stretches of one-man-band-like bridges. Enveloped in the second half of the album is the eight minute track, “Oh Comely,” a wintry horror story about yet another torn home, focused primarily on describing a girl’s destructive self-discovery and the narrator’s desperate attempts to keep her out of harm’s way. “Oh comely / All of your friends are all letting you blow / Bristling and ugly, bursting with fruits falling out from the holes / Oh some pretty, bright, and bubbly friend / You could need to say comforting things in your ear.

The 1998 album was the last release the world received from Neutral Milk Hotel before Mangum unofficially announced his separation from the band. The work continues be a cult classic piece of music from the fundamental stages of indie rock, as story of Jeff Mangum and Anne Frank remains an unparalleled feat in song writing and composure.

Frank Ocean

Crack Rock

Channel Orange

Frank Ocean: Channel Orange

     In 2004, something beautiful happened to the radio. The Top 40 and Billboard chart-toppers were no longer safe and secure in their top spots. Pop artists ran for their lives as a new challenger to the Number 1 Spot emerged. Snoop Doggy-Dogg’s hit single dropped it like it was hot all the way to the bottom of the charts; Hoobastank finally found a reason to shove off; and Ashlee Simpson — well.

     Eight years ago, Usher Raymond’s “Confessions” hit record stores, went triple platinum in sales, and won three Grammies; though Usher created a name for himself early on in his career, this fourth studio album, notorious for singles “Yeah!” “Confessions 1 & 2” “Let It Burn” and “Caught Up,” is what truly made Usher a household name in R&B and “slow-burners about foolin’ around and having bastard sons.” A year later, R. Kelly began his “Trapped in the Closet” saga, sing-talking his way through the most melodramatic 22 tracks in the music industry, challenging the likes of fellow crybabies Adam Levine and Chad Kroeger. Albums like “Confessions” and “Trapped in the Closet” are what kept R&B interesting. After “Closet“‘s finale in 2007, Rhythm and Blues took a turn for the mundane. Usher and R. were no longer radio champions, Wheelchair Jimmy dropped a mixtape, and Prince tried (using “tried” lightly here) to make a comeback. In 2011, things changed.

     Frank Ocean, though noted for his songwriting for Justin Bieber, John Legend, and Beyonce, was not a big name in the Hip-Hop/R&B world. Frank joined skate-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All and was featured on a track or two, but didn’t ever stand out among the likes of fellow O.F. members Tyler the Creator and HodgyBeats; however, Ocean’s subtle existence soon changed with the release of a mixtape, “Nostalgia, Ultra.” The ‘tape, mixed and produced by members of Odd Future, hit the Internet and spread like some sort of infection out of R&B Hell — or, more likely, R&B Heaven. “Ultra,” heavily influenced by Frank’s love of video games and beautiful women, ran its course through every kind of music fan: the traditionalist soul singer, the (caucasian) pretentious hipster douchebag, the hip-hop enthusiast, and last but certainly not least, the ever-trendsetting ears of internationally-acclaimed rap artists Jay-Z and Kanye West, who featured Frank in two tracks from their collaborative album “Watch the Throne.” Any chance that Frank was still going unheard of in the industry vanished in less than one year. Soon enough, Frank was going on a solo tour and selling out every venue he hit, with ticket prices skyrocketing over $200 (trust me, I checked). Now, Frank has returned with his second release and first full album, “Channel Orange.”

     It feels like Frank has a lot more to say in his sophomore release: about the fame, about the travels, and most recently, about his admittance of first love with a man he met last year. The album opens up with “Start,” beginning with a sample from the original Playstation, an eerie yet oddly comforting computer-generated chime, a nod to the video game-related skits between the tracks of last year’s mixtape. Frank belts early into the second track, “Do you not think so far ahead? / ‘Cause I’ve been thinking ‘bout forever,” a high-strung plea for a definitive future with the muse of this emotional yet familiarly-short track. One frustrating element of “Nostalgia, Ultra” was the lack of graspable emotion in the majority of the songs; while a few tracks from the mixtape were strongly voiced and full of a remorseful truth, the majority of the release consisted of nearly fantasy-based lyrics that spun yarns of murder conspiracies and summer-y memories from California. In Channel Orange it’s clear that Frank sings a little more confidently about real life and its woes, though not forgetting his storytelling abilities altogether. “Sweet Life” is Frank’s half of a conversation with a girl about her upbringing along poolsides and lavish parties; the song presents itself with an air of mockery in the overblown description of a perfect life and Frank’s monotony over its detail. The two tracks following “Sweet Life” are companion pieces to the Gatsby-esque lifestyle described in the aforementioned song, one being a skit consisting of a woman saying “It’s not just money, it’s happiness,” and the other being the Benny & the Jets-inspired “Super Rich Kids,” which features the notoriously elusive Earl Sweatshirt and carries the same lackadaisical tone of wealth and boredom that “Sweet Life” did. “Super rich kids with nothing but loose ends,” sings Frank, “Super rich kids with nothing but fake friends.”

     ”Pilot Jones,” while not nearly as emotionally overwrought as other tracks on Channel Orange, comes as a refreshing reminder of “Novocaine,” from last year’s release. In both songs, Frank sings of meeting women in unlikely places (here being an airplane, of course), getting high with them, and then, you guessed it, having sex with them. Though an easily forgettable track on the album overall, the connection between it and “Novocaine” is uncanny and humorous. One of the most refreshing parts of Channel Orange was its shy away from the hip-hop beats that defined Nostalgia, Ultra so well. This becomes immediately apparent in “Crack Rock,” a song about exactly what it says it’s about. The track opens up with a jazzy R&B loop, followed by jittery bursts of organ and a continuous, gentle cymbal pattern. The lyrics open up with Frank discovering that, “You don’t know how little you matter until you are alone in Arkansas.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, Arkansas is a horrible, horrible place.

     ”Pyramids” is arguably the centerpiece of Channel Orange: a ten-minute ballad about sleeping with Cleopatra, filled with the jewels, palaces, and cats of any B.C.-baller. The song begins with a loop reminiscent of Europe — not the continent. The band. As in, “The Final Countdown” Europe. And for some strange reason that is completely alright, as it leads into one of the most intense lyrical experiences on the album, followed by a reverb-packed, synth-buzzing bridge that even includes a little bit of hornplay — and though horns are quickly becoming every popstar’s attempt at seeming different and progressive in their genre, the horns are appreciated in “Pyramids.” While the next track’s influence also resides in the ninteteen-eighties, “Lost” strays away from the arena-rock and more towards a “Jesse’s Girl” sound, with keyboard rolls and clipped guitar strums. “White,” featuring John Mayer, is a Starbucks-worthy instrumental jam, less than two minutes long and power-packed with smooth production, whereas “Monks” takes a different approach to the same concept of making every sound feel like a hot knife through butter; if you’ve ever listened to Wiz Khalifa’s “The Kid Frankie,” it isn’t hard to imagine the cheesy, 90s-era Stanley Clarke jazzy bass slaps that loop through “Monks.” The track, along with the follow-up track, “Pink Matter,” featuring Andre 3000, is a fantastic throwback and tribute to both stoner rap and funk, and Frank pairs both songs greatly with his vocals.

     While “Pyramids” might be the centerpiece of the album, the final full track, “Forrest Gump,” is byfar the most intriguing. “Forrest Gump, you run my mind, boy,” Frank starts, “runnin’ on my mind, boy.” Earlier this week, it was rumored that at least one track on Frank’s upcoming album would contain lyrics that further allude to his coming-out on July 4th. This would be that track; Ocean wastes no time in describing his nervousness and utter attraction to this mystery man with whom he fell in love. The song is both remorseful and hopeful, as it describes that, while Frank might have lost touch with “Forrest Gump,” he will see him again someday.

     Channel Orange was a successful follow-up to Nostalgia, Ultra; it was packed with new and haunting anecdotes, and the production was a no-fear turn away from the beat established in Frank’s previous release, which carries more notability than the lyrics themselves did. Jazz and funk influences were mastercrafted by Prince in a time before Frank Ocean, and it seems now that Frank himself is on his way to creating his very own sound with a similar tone. By drawing so many influences from the late seventies and eighties and late-nineties gospel crossover hits, Frank Ocean created a uniquely creative piece for himself.