100 Best Albums of the '90s - Rolling Stone
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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.


Marilyn Manson, ‘Antichrist Superstar’

Suddenly armed with a strange mix of cartoon outrage and actual tunes — not to mention first-class Trent Reznor production — five Florida shock rockers go nationwide in their jockstraps. The record uses atmosphere from goth, disco from Ministry and Nine Inch Nails and ideas from that distinguished old sonic philosopher David Bowie. But what really makes it rise beyond the recherché is Manson himself, an Ohio-raised youngster who manages to graft charm, of all things, onto his bullshit.

Rolling Stone's Original 1996 Review

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Fiona Apple, ‘Tidal’

In the aftermath of Alanis, the airwaves were crawling with troubled ingénues singing tragic ballads about their haunted eyes, but somehow Fiona Apple stood out as a bad, bad girl. Apple's husky voice and jazzy melodies give an unexpected weight to her confessions on Tidal, as the nineteen-year-old New York art waif broods over adolescent malaise in off-kilter, insinuating piano ballads like "Never Is a Promise." She also comes up with a knockdown theme song in the anomalously hard-rocking "Criminal," the anthem of a young woman who's been careless with a delicate man and even more careless with her delicate self.

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The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’

"I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone," wails master Billy Corgan on "Muzzle," from this double-disc epic. Fear can be a great motivator, and Corgan used it to build his Taj Mahal, a sonically dazzling monument to gloom and glamour. Accused of not being punk enough, Corgan showed on Mellon Collie what punk might be if Steven Spielberg got hold of it. The angry songs distend rage and alienation via beautifully ugly guitar-drum attacks, while the wistful ballads flip hate around and turn it into exquisite, unquenchable longing. Take that, hipsters: Ordinary angst can be grand.

Rolling Stone's Original 1995 Review

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Bjork, ‘Post’

Yeah, Björk's music is 'post' — post-rock, post-apocalyptic, flashily futuristic in tone. But it's also "pre," tapping emotions untamed by rational thought. The electronic soundscapes she creates on Post, with the help of English dance-floor stars like Nellee Hooper, Tricky and Howie B., give her lots of room to roam. And she goes everywhere, from the junk-filled cliff top of the whimsical "Hyper-Ballad" to the psychic deep forest of "Isobel," in songs that link the rhythms of early drum-and-bass to the vocal lines of Icelandic folk singing, with a dash of musical comedy thrown in for a lark. Inventing her own genre, Björk presents what she calls "an army of me" — the many battling voices inside one woman's hyperactive brain.

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Photos: Rock & Roll Moms


Guided by Voices, ‘Bee Thousand’

GBV's six previous albums (released in limited editions on minuscule indies) were brilliant, but Bee Thousand was a tour de force by a good old-fashioned American basement genius. A rotating group of thirtysomethings based in Dayton, Ohio, Guided by Voices mined familiar territory: classic English pop rockers like the Who, the Kinks and the Beatles, albeit filtered through latter-day Beatlemaniacs like Cheap Trick and Robyn Hitchcock, as well as low-fi avatars like Daniel Johnston and Pavement. Recorded on a four-track machine, Bee Thousand sounds like a favorite bootleg or a beloved old LP whose worn grooves now reveal only a blurry jumble. Amp hum, sniffling musicians and creaking chairs all inhabit the mix, but the homespun production only underlines the strength of the songs — low-fi or not, there's no denying an astonishing rush of guitar-pop glory like "Tractor Rape Chain."

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

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Oasis, ‘Definitely Maybe’

While stateside bands agonized over fame, Oasis announced, "Tonight, I'm a rock & roll star." Indeed, the title of this debut album — a blast of guitar muscle, sneering vocals, retro hooks and arrogant flash — is the only ambivalent thing about it. "You can have it all/But how much do you want it?" the brothers Gallagher ask in "Supersonic," and the answer is, a fuckin' lot. The hits came later, but this is where Oasis established a beachhead on these shores in the war to restore British rock to the throne.

Rolling Stone Original 1998 Review

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Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’

To kick-start the Nineties, Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse, cranked the amps and, as a songwriter, took a look back to see if anything was still standing. There's some blood on the tracks ("Love to Burn," "Fuckin' Up"), but "Days That Used to Be" and "Mansion on the Hill" revisit the era of peace, love and granola with a sentimentality that Young rarely permits himself. The long guitar solos are this album's real story, however. They're ragged and glorious, indeed, and they turn this look back into a look ahead: The guitar barrage of grunge is right around the corner.

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The Rolling Stones, ‘Bridges to Babylon’

Maybe it was the biz markie sample on "Anybody Seen My Baby?" that suggested the Rolling Stones were up for invigoration on Bridges to Babylon. Not that their rockers ("Flip the Switch") or ballads of taunting regret ("Already Over Me") are missing. It's that everything sounds vivified — from the reggae swagger of Keith Richards' "You Don't Have to Mean It" to Mick Jagger's hedonist manifesto "Saint of Me." A bridge to the twenty-first century? For the Stones, Babylon will do just fine.

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Belle and Sebastian, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’

This instrument-switching Scottish outfit represented the ultimate triumph of twee, that British subgenre that applies rock-style hipness and amateurish fervor to unrock interests such as coffeehouse folk, French 1960s pop and the works of Burt Bacharach. Casually led by real-life choirboy and Smiths admirer Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian attached cello, trumpet and strings to a skiffle beat and melodies devised after hours of lonely listening to vintage Top Forty radio. Not since Nick Drake had so quiet a band spoken so loudly.

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

Photos: Belle and Sebastian Stay Loose


Rage Against the Machine, ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’

Rage Against the Machine's first two records sound better than they used to, now that we know they were leading up to something. But they sure don't howl or move like The Battle of Los Angeles. Tom Morello is the most adventurous metal guitarist since Eddie Van Halen Hagar-ed out, and his boombastic sonics in "Born of a Broken Man," "Ashes in the Fall" and "War Within a Breath" rumble like crosstown turntable traffic. Zack de la Rocha has figured out how to project with his major-threat mouth, while bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk beef up their arena muscles. As a result, Battle captures Rage in all their stadium-shaking ferocity, blasting righteous propaganda to the cheap seats. Rage's macho bluster trips up their politics; even the kinda-sorta-feminist "Maria" is the sound of real men stuck on their own potency. But hopefully that's a temporary glitch — with Battle, Rage have already pushed their noise and their message further than the Clash ever dreamed possible.

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Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, ‘Supa Dupa Fly’

The Don of Virginia beach, Missy claimed hip-hop and R&B as her own playground with more ambitious flair than any other mogul, male or female. She has it all: songwriting skills, a voice that drips soul whether singing or rapping and the coolest name in showbiz. She also had Timbaland, whose dubbed-out aquaboogie rocked bodies with a whole new funk style. They were two kids out to conquer the world, and they did with "The Rain," turning an Ann Peebles oldie into an interstellar booty patrol. Missy struts her stuff through jams like "Sock It 2 Me" and the hysterical "Izzy Izzy Ahh," throwing in the words beep beep whenever she could fit them and just generally getting her vroom on.

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The Chemical Brothers, ‘Dig Your Own Hole’

In "Block Rockin' Beats" — the bulldozing fusion of high-stepping funk, twisted dub games and massed, tortured-machine screams that opened their second album — Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons of the Chemical Brothers created the "Whole Lotta Love" of Nineties sampledelia, a clubland monster with rock & roll guts and symphonic dynamics. On the rest of Dig Your Own Hole, particularly the Beatlemaniac swirl of "Setting Sun" and the Day-Glo surge of "The Private Psychedelic Reel," the British DJ duo showed that (a) playing other people's records — sliced, diced and blown to ingeniously reconfigured bits — is a valid form of composition, and (b) dance music is a matter of both mind and body.

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DJ Shadow, ‘Endtroducing…’

A mad scientist who obviously doesn't get out of the lab much, DJ Shadow spends Endtroducing rewiring the Mo' Wax sound he helped invent. This snootiest of British dance labels made stars out of train-spotting DJs, hooking up countless samples and special effects into a hypnotic pastiche of tripping, hopping beats, and Shadow was its biggest star of all. The dystopian New Age of Endtroducing sounds like an alien spacecraft touching down on the autobahn late at night, probably to check out Earth's used-vinyl bins. Endtroducing is headphone macro­dub with a crafty Californian sense of humor, and the lamentable fact that DJ Shadow has spawned a thousand corny knockoffs doesn't stop grooves like "Building Steam With a Grain of Salt" from ringing out like hell's bells. This is DJ culture at its boldest: steeped in the past but zooming into the Space Age future.

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Tricky, ‘Maxinquaye’

Stepping out from the pioneering British trip-hop group Massive Attack, Tricky put a match to his own sweet-leaf mix of Jamaican dub tricks, industrial post-punk clang and vintage Bronx-projects hip-hop, and blew the smoke all over the dance floor. The contact high was a whopper. Ripe with impending apocalypse (the dark, heaving menace of the grooves) and battered-warrior soul (vocalist Martine's maternal vigor, Tricky's low gangsta mumble), Maxinquaye is the end-of-the-century counterpart to Public Enemy's mid-Eighties black-power addresses: voodoo rhythms and guerrilla mixology celebrating the survival of the fittest and the inevitable victory of the righteous.

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Wyclef Jean, ‘The Carnival’

Back when the Fugees' The Score was selling more records than Nike was selling shoes, Wyclef Jean was just one of two dudes backing up the gorgeous Lauryn Hill. With The Carnival, Wyclef was exposed as a real talent, a scion of De La Soul and Bob Marley who rhymed in Haitian patois, sampled the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," brought in the Neville Brothers and Celia Cruz and dedicated a song "to all the girls I cheated on before." He pokes fun at hip-hop's conventions as well as himself, while displaying serious producing, guitar-playing and comedic skills, not to mention a wealth of imagination, ambition and musical courage. Clef is that rare and necessary thing: the brilliant class clown.

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R.E.M., ‘Out of Time’

Made in the wake of the 1988 power-chord mother Green and the no-arena-left-unturned world tour that followed, Out of Time was an exercise in folk-pop understatement that, perversely but deservedly, made R.E.M. bigger than ever. For all of its apparent melancholy (the raindrop sound of Peter Buck's mandolin, the bleak sigh of a pedal steel guitar), Out of Time is a grand lift, elegant sanity with sure-shot songwriting. In "Losing My Religion," "Low" and "Country Feedback," Michael Stipe sings not only about lapsed faith and consuming loss but of quietly regaining ground and equilibrium. And you get the big-grin bounce of "Near Wild Heaven" and "Me in Honey," because redemption is always a good excuse to go dancing.

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review

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Counting Crows, ‘August and Everything After’

An artfully crafted, intimate song cycle, August and Everything After seemed to explode on impact. Vividly produced by T Bone Burnett, its post-punk bleakness married to old-school rock influences, August became that rare album over which both alterna-kids and classic rockers could bond. Sure, there are a few moments when you can hear how badly the Crows want to be Van Morrison, the Band, R.E.M. and, yes, Bob Dylan, but those don't offset the divine inspiration of "Rain King," "Round Here" and "A Murder of One."

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The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Life After Death’

Having sex, dealing drugs and making the heads of niggas who fucked with him rock & roll are the cornerstones of the B.I.G.'s landmark double album; Big's heavy voice, light flow and distinctive lisp slalom between biting comedy, frightening threats and narratives so sharp that you could tell the temperature in the room where the bullets were flying. Rhyming over melodic funk with his trademark diction, Brooklyn's finest made what was almost an L.A. album, topped off with a loving tribute to the City of Angels. "Going Back to Cali" is a chilling counterpoint to the album's final three songs, answers to the beef with Death Row that haunted Biggie for the last year of his life.

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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.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review


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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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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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.

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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."

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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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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.

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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


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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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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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

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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


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


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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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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