Christ, I feel like a stegosaurus just remembering this shit. Look, I’m not tryna throw rose-colored shades on ye olde ’90s. We remember it fondly cuz we were young, just as every generation nostalgia-izes its own Back In The Day. And damn if we weren’t perfectly calibrated for toxic nostalgia fetishism – we were raised by fucking baby boomers, for fucksake! These people have been trying to convince us of their generation’s cultural supremacy for the last fifty years, and for maybe thirty-five of them it seemed to more or less work. How else to explain the cult status of That Thing You Do? My generation is nostalgic for a ‘90s movie that’s actively nostalgic for the ‘60s! WHAT’S WRONG WITH US???
Anyway, I’m no more immune to that shitty sense of “Omg, remember this song???” than any of my late-‘80s born brethren and sistren, but I’m here to set some records straight. In the vast chasm between the Spotify decade playlists and the stuff that winds up on Pitchfork countdowns – between authentically enjoying “Closing Time” and pretending to give a shit about Pavement – are the lost items. The ‘90s were a time of big singles, but without mp3s to pirate, most of us were forced to spend $13 on actual shrink-wrapped CDs – which, after we peeled them open, skipped to the hit songs, then heard the rest of the shitty tracks and realized our massive error, were placed right back on the shelf, where they remained until we threw them out on the way to college. 99% of the time this was the right call. For the other 1%, we have this list.
These are the top 5 ‘90s albums that are better than your poor brain remembers.
Rules and Exemptions
Caveat for the cautious reader: you’re reading a list made by a white guy who grew up in a Beatles & Stones household in the Philly suburbs. As such, this list will almost exclusively bend toward – you guessed it – ALT ROCK!!!! Like I say in my Top 5 First Principles of this blog, I really do my best not to be a fucking dinosaur, but when we’re dealing in nostalgia, we uncover the most basic versions of ourselves. Alt Rock was the way of the day for young people with my musical background in the ‘90s. And – lucky for you – I came of age in the late ‘90s, so “alt rock” to me basically means “bands that dressed sort of lousy but had serious major label cash and weirdly ubiquitous videos.”
You know, like The Wallflowers.
Bringing Down the Horse by The Wallflowers (1996)
While “One Headlight” might look in the rearview (ha!) like little more than a product of the same times that spat a pair of Grammys at Shawn Fucking Colvin, Bringing Down The Horse does an impossible job reasonably well. Namely, it makes the son of the most famous songwriter of the 20th century sound like his own man, self-assured and full of some genuinely not-terrible verse. I can’t be the only one who remembers follow-up single “The Difference,” an absolute fucking monster of electric folk, the kind of song Jeff Tweedy would write if he only had the stamina. “Invisible City” gets the intimate ballad game right, and “6th Avenue Heartache” is the best Springsteen burlesque I’ve ever heard. And fuck it, “One Headlight” is still awesome. You’re humming it right now, aren’t you, you nostalgic fuck?
Ben Folds Five by Ben Folds Five (1995)
‘90s kids whose rock music appetites lie at the intersection of quirky and catchy won’t soon forget Whatever and Ever Amen, Ben Folds Five’s legendary second album from 1997. But that album’s stature in super nerdy circles comes at the expense of the self-titled debut, a ripping statement of purpose that might be as good, might even be better than its follow-up. Right away, “Jackson Cannery” stomps all over your reservations about listening to a piano-based rock band, with “Philosophy” coming right up behind, affirming this band’s gift for anthemic songs about penises. This album doesn’t stop. “Where’s Summer B.?” gets surgical on the mundanity and monotony of small-town life. “The Last Polka” is vicious, as close as BFF ever got to melting face. And did you know Bette Midler did a version of “Boxing” in ’98? I know, right??!!!
Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop by Stone Temple Pilots (1996)
Shoulda been called Chronicle of a Death Foretold. After contributing precious little to the grunge boom – apart from perennial ‘90s playlist feature “Interstate Love Song,” off ‘94’s unterrible Purple – Stone Temple Pilots went and made the definitive rock album of the decade, full of force and groove and serious withdrawal symptoms. Tiny Music sounds like no other mainstream rock album of the time, giving psychedelia the Big, Dumb Drums treatment to boot. Here we find the band’s best rocker (“Big Bang Baby” or “Tumble in the Rough,” depending on who you ask and how much they like heroin), their best radio single (“Lady Picture Show”), and their best ballad (“Adhesive”), plus enough curiosities to shut up anyone still accusing them of being the bastard sons of Eddie Vedder. Alas, poor Scott’s dope habit fucked up the tour for this album and so it’s never gotten its due, save for among dorks like me who grew up listening to it while playing Twisted Metal 2.
All the Pain Money Can Buy by Fastball (1998)
Shut up and let me finish. First of all, you’re not fooling anybody: you love “The Way” as much as I do – you know all the words, you still feel the sadness tugging your gut when you think about those poor children who got left behind, and the only thing that soothes your aching soul is that fucking hook! Okay, now take your head out of your ass and give this thing an honest listen. It’s wall-to-wall power pop, which might’ve been exhausting if it hadn’t been such a welcome antidote to all the self-serious commercial alternative happening at the time. (Looking at you, Stephan Jenkins!) Which, I guess, is exactly what “The Way” gave the wrong impression of. But once you get past that, you’re in the land of hooks and riffs. Adam Schlesinger wishes he wrote “Better Than It Was” and “Sooner or Later.” And “Out of My Head” may as well be the sequel to “6th Avenue Heartache.” None of this is super original, but damn is it satisfying. And if Fastball’s mainstream stink scares you off, just consider that guitarist Miles Zuniga has a writing credit on a Spoon song(!).
Nimrod by Green Day (1997)
I’ll concede this one has plenty to do with nostalgia, but even among Green Day fans – a group I continue to (BEGRUDGINGLY) belong to – Nimrod occupies a weird space. Everybody likes Dookie, and diehards go apeshit over Insomniac, but Nimrod remains the album whose legacy was quickly usurped by its biggest single, the cultural juggernaut “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” As such, certain Green Day fans pretend to hate this song, which of course is stupid. When the album came out, “Good Riddance” was just a neat curiosity, buried at track 17 on an 18-track album. And it happens to fit perfectly with the album’s aesthetic, which can basically be described as “Green Day does fucking everything.” There are the songs you expect from this band: “Nice Guys Finish Last” is appropriately cynical, as is “All The Time.” But then there are the disarming tracks, like “Scattered” and “Worry Rock” and “Walking Alone” – songs where Billie Joe’s heart is affixed more firmly than ever to his sleeve. (He even plays harmonica!) This album doubles down on the self-loathing, and while it’s probably healthy that BJ moved on from this period, his songs would never feel this honest again. His maturity and wordplay would fall victim to his politics, and while Green Day might have some Grammys and a Broadway show to their name, they haven’t had an album this good in twenty years.
Did I leave some shit out? Did I get some shit right? Leave a comment or some shit!