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100 Best Albums of the ’90s

From Moby to Nirvana, the records that defined a decade

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Rolling Stone picks the 100 greatest albums of the 1990s.

The Nineties as a musical era started late and ended early — kicked in by the scritchy-scratch power chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ushered out by the doomy piano intro of “. . . Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Anti-pop defeated by pop — full circle, all apologies. You’ve heard the story.

But the real Nineties were richer, funnier and weirder than that, with fake grunge bands writing better songs than some of the real ones, Eighties holdovers U2 and R.E.M. reaching creative peaks with Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People, Metallica and the Black Crowes co-existing on MTV, Phish tending to the Deadhead nation after Jerry’s passing — and Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer ceding their pop thrones in a few short years to Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem. — Brian Hiatt

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Rolling Stone‘s book The ’90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked. Copyright © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

65

Erykah Badu, ‘Baduizm’

That voice stopped you in its tracks. It recalled Billie Holiday a bit, sure, coming from high in the back of her throat, piercing the ear a little, but wasn't really it. Her music was up-to-the-minute jazzy hip-hop R&B, but her voice sounded ancient, with a splash of Northern hipness and a twist of Southern comfort. It was Erykah Badu, from Brooklyn via Dallas, her head wrap tall and tight, singing of knowledge and philosophy and fulfilling unrequited love in the next lifetime. She was the sister-in-music of D'Angelo and Lauryn Hill, the Earth Mother of Nineties boho soul.

Photos: SXSW 2011 Featuring The Strokes, Queens of the Stone Age, Foo Fighters, Erykah Badu and More

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

64

Sinead O’Connor, ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’

Everything that Lilith Fair later made trendy in the Nineties governs this album's haunting songs: introspection, empathy, accessible but inventive music and, most of all, an undeniable voice. Amid the album's springy New Wave melodicism, O'Connor's love of black music is evident, particularly in the gorgeous Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U." But above all, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got is audacious: O'Connor is singing about God and her own weaknesses, and contradicting rock's rules for tough chicks.

Rolling Stones's 1997 Review

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63

Mary J. Blige, ‘My Life’

She's just above average in technical singing ability, but this girl from the projects of Yonkers, New York, became a cultural necessity because she had Everywoman crosses to bear and a superhuman ability to make you feel her. On her second album, My Life, Mary J. Blige shows a rare gift for pouring her heart into a recording, to make her soul come through the speakers. Collaborating with Sean "Puffy" Combs on original songs and interpolations of tracks by Barry White, Curtis Mayfield and Roy Ayers ("My Life"), Blige displays her ongoing struggle to love herself, and, as she says on the marquee single, to just be happy. The subtly autobiographical album ended up making her a megastar and crystallized the burgeoning hip-hop-soul movement.

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62

Raekwon, ‘Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…’

The apotheosis of the Wu-Tang dynasty, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is powered by the RZA's somehow off-balance, hyperdetailed production, Raekwon the Chef's verbal intercourse — lyrics so dense you need the Staten Island Rosetta stone to make sense of them — and Ghostface Killah's brilliant supporting role. Ghostface's exuberance at finally getting to spit his style on the mike pulses through his every verse — where Raekwon comes off as a cool-criminal mastermind, Ghostface's larger-than-life persona leaps out through the speakers. Never before have the Tony Montana fantasies of young black men, the dreams of transforming giant bricks of pharmaceuticals into giant stacks of dead presidents, been portrayed with so much precision, poetry and pathos.

Raekwon Live At All Tomorrow's Parties New York 2010

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61

U2, ‘Zooropa’

Following up their earthshaking Achtung Baby, Zooropa further embellished the new model U2. These are the superstars, after all, who audaciously reinvented themselves on their eighth album — exchanging chiming guitar for funkier riffing and dense, hip-hop-meets-industrial production, unrestrained wailing for insinuating talk-singing, fever for a bubbling heat. Zooropa, their ninth outing, emphasized the shift: Instead of the mythic, desert-landscape cover shot of The Joshua Tree (1987), there's deconstructed video imagery; for the desperate spiritual questing of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," they substitute the monochromatic dead-end musings of "Numb."

Photos: U2 in Italy

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Photos: U2, the Rolling Stone Covers

60

En Vogue, ‘Funky Divas’

En Vogue got all dolled up in their finest girl-group threads for Funky Divas, looking sharp and looking for love along the border of hip-hop and R&B. They flaunt their vocal pizazz from the crowd-pleasing flash of "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It" and "Free Your Mind" to the succulent soul of "Give It Up, Turn It Loose." The En Vogue ladies had enough nerve to revamp a tune that Curtis Mayfield wrote for Aretha Franklin, and enough talent to bring it off — they made "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" sound weightless and dreamlike and sticky with bliss, as pure a summer pleasure as the radio gave up all decade.

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59

Cypress Hill, ‘Cypress Hill’

Cypress Hill's formula has been imitated so much, it's easy to forget how shocking it sounded at the time: crazy L.A. voices, scary Spanglish words, dusted Seventies funk beats that made you laugh out loud. B-Real and Sen-Dog come on as a hip-hop Cheech and Chong, praising the sweet leaf with a devotion rarely seen beyond the parking lot at a Phish concert. While the rappers twist their "Latin Lingo" into vato rhymes about blunts, guns and forties, D.J. Muggs pumps bongloads of bass into paranoid sound collages like "Hand on the Pump," and when you turn it up loud, the beat goes boo-ya.

Video: Cypress Hill at Lollapalooza 2010

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58

Janet Jackson, ‘Janet.’

As Black-American-music royalty, Janet Jackson has had every significant moment of her growth recorded. With Control, she had her cotillion. With Rhythm Nation 1814, she announced her political and sexual awakening. And with Janet., she celebrated becoming an erotic being. Using soul, rock and dance elements, as well as opera diva Kathleen Battle, Janet unleashed her most musically ambitious record, guided, as always, by producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Two albums before, she'd innocently sung, "Let's wait awhile." Now she boldly purrs, "If I was your girl, oh the things I'd do to you!/I'd make you call out my name/I'd ask who it belongs to!" Like Gloria Steinem with a six-figure video budget, she shows young women a way to have their sexual freedom and their dignity, to have their cake and be eaten, too.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1993 Review

57

Depeche Mode, ‘Violator’

For many Depeche Mode fans, Violator is the crowning glory of the boys' black-leather period. In "Sweetest Perfection," "Halo" and "World in My Eyes," they turn teen angst and sexual obsession into grand synth-pop melodrama, and their attempt at guitar rock resulted in a hit with "Personal Jesus."

Rolling Stone's Original 1990 Review

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56

LL Cool J, ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’

Recovering from the flop of 1989's Walking With a Panther, LL dusted himself off and brought a new edge and power to his big-mouthed style as he reached full manhood and hip-hop-veteran status. With huge punch lines, gigantic bravado and that LL voice filled with charisma and cool, Mama speaks of the less-dangerous side of street life — booming car radios and jingling babies and around-the-way girls with Fendi bags. The legendary Marley Marl supplied the wildly danceable funk, the album was a tomahawk dunk — and LL's career, once again, was in full effect.

Rolling Stone's Original 1990 Review

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55

Jane’s Addiction, ‘Ritual de lo Habitual’

You have to put up with stuff to enjoy a Jane's Addiction album: noodly jamming, hyperbole and a hippie-ish insistence on music's pagan power. But give them a chance and you'll find yourself immersed in the crashing waves of Dave Navarro's guitar and Steven Perkins' polyrhythmic drums, and hear in Perry Farrell's screeching the call of the good god Pan. Ritual is the album most likely to convert skeptics. Not only does it have two great singles — the game of sonic peekaboo "Stop!" and the anarchist manifesto "Been Caught Stealing" — but the whole record rides a groove that's as hard and frenetic as the Santa Monica Freeway leading right into these surfers' beloved curl. Hard rock became a weirder place.

Rolling Stone's Original 1990 Review

Video: Behind the Scenes at Jane's Addiction's Recording Sessions with Dave Sitek

Photos: A Brief History of Jane's Addiction

54

Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’

The grim ballads Bruce Springsteen purveys on The Ghost of Tom Joad make Nebraska seem like "Rosalita" — they veer perilously close to desperation. The title track is a prayer for revived idealism, and the album closes with "My Best Was Never Good Enough," a contemptuous dismissal of the Gump-style clichés people lean on, however irrationally, to get by. Surveying an American landscape littered with crushed hopes, Springsteen stares down the darkness but fights it only to a draw. That a rocker of this magnitude would make a folk album this forlorn spits in the eye of the rising Dow.

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Rolling Stone's 2002 Review

53

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

Throughout the album lonesome travelers and restless strangers battle their lives with drink, religion and the active search for somewhere better than here. "A little trouble makes it worth the going/And a little rain never hurt no one/The world is round/And so I'll go around/You must risk something that matters," Waits sings on "A Little Rain," with David Phillips' pedal steel sweeping through the background. No one needs convincing. It's a song older than Waits himself — older than Hank Williams, older than Robert Johnson — that Waits is chasing, the simple mystery of where life goes: "I don't wanna float a broom/Fall in love and get married and then boom/How the hell did it get here so soon?/I don't wanna grow up." Albums this rich with spiritual longing prove the validity of that effort, no matter the odds.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1992 Review

52

Pearl Jam, ‘Vitalogy’

The rugged, world-weary tones of Vitalogy were a head check for Pearl Jam, as Nice Guy Eddie Vedder and his stadium-grunge all-stars grappled with their strange new role as the world's biggest rock band. With their profile unexpectedly high — who can forget Sharon Stone proclaiming, "Forget Pavarotti, I wanna see Pearl Jam!" in Sliver? — Pearl Jam turned their confusion into the unapologetically anthemic guitar noise of "Not for You." Vedder caught his breath with the show-stealing ballads "Better Man" and "Nothingman," brooding over the fate of cowardly men letting good women slip away and struggling not to turn into one of those cowardly men himself.

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

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51

Massive Attack, ‘Protection’

The Nineties were the all-time high-water mark of silly genre names, and trip-hop may be the silliest of all. But Massive Attack really did invent a whole new style, manipulating hip-hop's boom and reggae's throb into their own slow-motion funk noir, inspiring Bristol, England, neighbors such as Tricky and Portishead to explore cinematic dance grooves heavy on the atmospherics. Their influence has spread to all corners of pop and rock, not to mention upscale shoe stores and cafes everywhere. Daddy G, Mushroom and 3-D made their most majestic statement on Protection, with colossal beats and first-rate vocal guests. Tricky makes a great cameo, but Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl steals the show in the eight-minute title track, a stand-by-your-woman soul ballad that takes off into outer space and gets home in time to do the dishes.

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