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The 150 Best Albums of the 1990s

The 150 Best Albums of the 1990s
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There’s a dizzying moment when Jean sings a version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” (the cover would later be remixed as a duet with Bob’s son Stephen). The song folds into itself not just the original but the cover by Boney M. and the mordant sample of the cover by East Orange, New Jersey’s Naughty by Nature, evoking at once the Haiti that Jean left, the Brooklyn he arrived in, the Jamaica that Bob Marley knew, and the Jersey of the Fugees’ present. There’s something so moving about it—as if the song were trying to wrap its arms around the diaspora. –Tommy Craggs

Listen/Buy: Amazon | Apple Music | Spotify | Tidal


47.

Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (1997)

Dig Me Out is one of the rare rock albums that makes a case for rock as a revivifying force and does not whiff. Music is the air that Sleater-Kinney breathes; their voices are your favorite song, and you must know that committing to loving these women makes you liable to live in lyrical infamy. If you didn’t get the message, it’s there in their refined interplay and surging drama. In this corpus of sound, bolstered by robust rock, blues, and a fresh sense of playfulness, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss got their satisfaction and stoked appetites that other forces were intent on diminishing. It was their biggest success to date, shaking off the vestiges of the post-riot grrrl era and euphorically laying siege to the cloistered rock establishment. “Can’t take this away from me,” Brownstein sings on “Words and Guitar,” with matter-of-fact tartness. –Laura Snapes

Listen/Buy: Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal


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46.

UGK: Ridin’ Dirty (1996)

It was their third album, and their last chance. The Port Arthur, Texas duo Bun B and Pimp C had watched Jive Records bowdlerize their music for years—stripping samples, switching backing tracks, launching clueless and half-hearted promotions—and this time, their only request was to be left alone to make the album they heard in their heads.

Ridin’ Dirty was the result. Like Dr. Dre in the West, Pimp C dreamed of rap albums as layered and luxuriant as soul classics by Curtis Mayfield or Isaac Hayes. On Ridin’ Dirty, every breath sounds drawn in real time, every key feels pressed down by a finger right next to your ear. N.O. Joe, a mentor to Pimp C, played many of the drum tracks live, giving them the feel of a late-night band. Even Bun B’s mesmerizing verse on “Murder”—a blizzard of interlocking lines, enjambment, and darting emphases meant to show the world that the South contained a rapper every bit as technically fearsome as JAY-Z or Nas—was recorded in a single take, with no punch-ins. It sold respectably. Promotions and media coverage remained sparse. Pimp C, who passed in 2007, wouldn’t live to see Ridin’ Dirty become what it is today: The Chronic of the South, a single-album stand-in for “Texas rap,” and one of the most pained and enduring documents of street struggles ever recorded. –Jayson Greene

Listen/Buy: Amazon | Apple Music | Spotify | Tidal


Columbia

45.

Destiny’s Child: The Writing’s on the Wall (1999)

Legendary girl groups aren’t created overnight. Watch clips of a baby-faced Destiny’s Child rehearsing or revisit the countless interviews where former members detailed the “Olympic-style” training regimen that would catapult them to fame. Their work ethic and talent caught the industry’s eyes by the time the group’s members—initially Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and LeToya Luckett—were still in high school, and their second album, The Writing’s on the Wall, kept the world’s attention. Produced by an all-star roster of seasoned industry professionals like Missy Elliott, Kandi Burruss, Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Rodney Jerkins, the album combined sophisticated R&B production with the exuberant theatrics of young women. There were controversial and empowering anthems, homages to The Godfather and Set it Off, playful threats to have AOL shut down their email because a man wouldn’t stop messaging them, a slew of the decade’s most reliable party-starting bangers. It was also the launching pad for contemporary pop’s most enduring and evolutionary star, one that Beyoncé consistently pays homage to through periodic reunions and nostalgic home movie clips. –Heven Haile

Listen/Buy: Amazon | Apple Music | Spotify | Tidal


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44.

Stereolab: Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996)

“Olv 26,” the sixth song on Stereolab’s 1996 album Emperor Tomato Ketchup, opens with the pulsing of a drum machine, the hissy and primitive sort that were attached to electronic organs in the 1960s and ’70s. These “rhythm boxes,” as they were known back then, came with preloaded patterns for particular styles: waltz, cha cha, bossa nova, rock’n’roll. But to contemporary ears, their mechanized beats suggest rudimentary early stabs at genres that didn’t yet exist: synth-pop, house, hip-hop, techno. Stereolab’s fourth album lives in this historical interzone, coming off simultaneously like the past’s vision of a glorious future that never quite came to pass, and an attempt at recreating an idyllic past they never experienced for themselves. Lætitia Sadier, Tim Gane, and their cohort were students of the sorts of music the rhythm boxes were trying to emulate, but also of krautrock, punk, disco, classical minimalism—anything that found its groove through stripped-down repetition. On Emperor Tomato Ketchup, they synthesized all of it. The sense of lost futures was not only an aesthetic proposition, but a political one as well: Joyous in tone but often scathing in subject matter, the album imagined a borderless utopia of sound while denouncing the powers that be for preventing such a paradise from manifesting in the world outside your headphones. –Andy Cush

Listen/Buy: Amazon | Apple Music | Bandcamp | Spotify | Tidal


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43.

Le Tigre: Le Tigre (1999)

Evolving from Kathleen Hanna’s post-Bikini Kill solo project the Julie Ruin, Le Tigre were a leftist School House Rock girl group rolling their eyes at electronic music elitism. Their debut album opened with the question “Who took the bomp?”, inverting the doo-wop standard to declare that nothing is fresh, only repurposed. But Hanna and collaborators Johanna Fateman and Sadie Benning didn’t just offer criticism; there was also gray space, and solutions. “What’s Yr Take on Cassavetes?” is meditative proto-cancel culture wrestling with a problematic fave over a mechanical heartbeat, while “Hot Topic” suggests a host of artistic palliatives, from David Wojnarowicz to No Limit soldier Mia X. Above all, Le Tigre is pure, exuberant fun—not to mention the album that called Rudy Giuliani a “fucking jerk” before the rest of the country knew it to be true. –Claire Lobenfeld



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