So after a couple of weeks of work, here are my top twenty albums of the 90s. There is again a Spotify playlist accompaniment to it, which is this time missing four entries, which with it being the top twenty is a little frustrating…
This was a really, really tough list to compile. To keep it to one hundred albums, I set one simple rule – each artist would only feature once. This has, of course, meant that a few obvious albums may be missing, and indeed there are a few others I had to cull too, as even with one album per artist I still had a "shortlist" nearing 150.
While I still try and keep the broad focus of the music covered here to the wider sphere of industrial music, I also listen to other music, and thus the spread here is perhaps a bit wider than you might otherwise expect. You know what, though? Try some of this music. Especially the stuff you don’t recognise or don’t know. Go for it – I love hearing new music that someone else has enthused about, trying to understand what’s so awesome about it. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it will take days or weeks to click, and hopefully, something here will do that to you.
Time to cue the music. You can listen along on Spotify or Youtube. Links to the right, and as the rest of the posts are added, the navigation links below will go live.
Gothic, doomy metal dirges that actually have some semblance of an understanding of irony, and are on first name terms with “Mr Tune”? It’s a wonder that they got away with this, but really, this album is still bloody marvellous. Even if the cover of Neil Young track Cinamon Girl, in retrospect, isn’t very good, the rest of it still worth listening to (Note: this was already in my top twenty long before the news broke that Pete Steele had died during April).
/Fun With Knives
/Dependent / Metropolis Records
Maybe it’s the fact that he released his first great album in some time last year, but this album deserves a little more attention than I’ve given it in the past. Yes, maybe it’s the forerunner of bad techno taking over industrial music and diluting much of the scene to something many older folk are shaking their head at, but this is how it should and could be done. You see, it’s not just the techno beats, there are the downtempo, pitch-black tracks like There Is No God, the seething three minutes of hate of Speedball OD, and not to mention the deceptively pretty Slut, which needless to say is anything but. Much, much better than hindsight may at first suggest.
When they returned to the dancier-stylings of “Screamadelica” after the all-too-retro “Give Out But Don’t Give Up”, it was a bit of a surprise to see Primal Scream submerge themselves in sounds as murky as this. The results were fantastic, though, in the main – with the exception of the godawful Star – and somehow, with the brooding lead single Kowalski, they managed to resurrect a long-forgotten seventies road-movie called Vanishing Point…
The only album of it’s kind that could possibly beat Massive Attack, Tricky’s debut solo album was more than a bit special – this was a leap into the unknown that was so self-assured it re-used parts of lyrics from his former parent band, (co-incidentally, as I recall) used the same sample as a Portishead single, turned Public Enemy into thrash-metal, made Michael Jackson’s Bad cool again, and generally stuffed so many of his own ideas in amongst the samples that it was hard not to shout for an encore when the album closed.
Loser was a massive hit, slacker anthem…and something of a red herring. For when the follow-up proper to Mellow Gold arrived, after a couple of low-key albums that were not especially popular (perhaps they didn’t have the poppier side of the debut), it knocked us all sideways. Why? Where do I start – the Dust Brothers production team were certainly part of the brilliance, but I half suspect their sonic trickery and outlandish experimentation seemed only to encourage Beck to take as many risks as he liked, and the result was an album as diverse as it was accessible, touching probably on every single form of music Beck had an interest in, but never allowing the listener to get bored by all the chopping and changes by it having a flow that was, well, fresh. Go back and listen to it, if you haven’t heard it in a while. It’s still as brilliant as it was in 1996.
All-but bookended by nearly half of the running time of this monster of an album in just two tracks, this album is much more than just those two. It’s also rather more mellow for much of it than its reputation suggests, with pretty excursions even into vocals (Aidan Moffat’s marvellously downbeat look at the dying embers of a relationship in R U Still In 2 It), and lengthy tracks where not a lot seems to happen. Which only, of course, makes the loud moments even more astonishing – Like Herod‘s crashing guitar riffs that leap out of the shadows at you when you are least expecting it every single time, With Portfolio‘s attempt at making a spaceship materialise between your ears, and of course the magnificence of Mogwai Fear Satan, where the band actually made a song that was sixteen minutes long that doesn’t feel too long. In fact, it feels too short.
The band that made prog tendencies cool again? God only knows, but one thing they did do was add some long-needed intelligence. That of questioning everything, of opening your mind to new ideas, oh, and having a decent sense of humour, too. The music was pretty fucking good, too, all things considered – complex, multi-faceted songs with time-signatures many other bands seemingly weren’t aware existed, that at the same time were accessible to many without going too far down the route of prog-wankery.
/Rage Against The Machine
It’s not only Killing In The Name, as all of us surely know by now. In fact, it’s all ten of the songs here, that burn with an astonishingly bright flame of political and righteous fury, that almost all became rock anthems in their own right, and also sent many guitarists (aspiring and actually famous ones) scurrying away trying to work out how the fuck Tom Morello managed to pull off the technical tricks that he did. And let’s not forget the rhythm section, either, without whose bedrock these songs would never have had the clout that they did. Oh, and the production is so perfect you can hear every single detail as it was intended – something very, very few albums can ever lay claim to.
Rob Zombie may have been suffering from diminishing returns ever since – and particularly since his attention has mainly been taken by filmmaking – but that doesn’t diminish the fantastic achievement that this is. Stuffed with instantly memorable songs – frankly the main reason this is here rather than La Sexorcisto – it’s also immense fun, with tongue-in-cheek B-movie (and Shaft) samples, songs about said B-movies and no real hint of the real world anywhere here. Just as well, really.
/Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
Probably the greatest indie-rock album released, as far as I’m concerned. Slightly shambling, deeply cryptic at points, but always tuneful, life-affirming and also of course hugely influential. Oh, and it’s pretty much the perfect summer album, too, such is it’s uplifting feel, not to mention it featuring three peerless singles at least. Not bad for a second album, but while the debut was a promising sketch, this is the equivalent of a renaissance masterpiece in comparison.
Perhaps where the art of sampling reached its pinnacle – only The Avalanches have come even close to the creativity shown here since – this sublime album was famously created entirely from samples of old records DJ Shadow had found rooting through his preferred record store. And the results were astonishing – blunted, mellow, mainly instrumental hip-hop, with the odd vocal appearing thanks to the samples that seem to float above it all. So brilliantly assembled that it should be exhibited as a work of art.
/Worst Case Scenario
To many, the idea of marrying Beefheart, alternative rock and jazzy atmospheres may have little appeal, but it’s remarkable just how well this worked out. A smoky, end-of-the-party feel pervades through much of this remarkable debut album, where influences are shown clearly but they still forged an identity for themselves. But then, with tracks as distinctive as the raucous-but-melodic Suds and Soda, and the gorgeous musing on getting old of Hotellounge (Be The Death Of Me), how could they possibly not? Later albums may have refined the formula a little – and they still remain a precious and unique band over fifteen years on, despite numerous line-up changes – but the debut is still their best and most notable, particularly as it was so different.
It might be Pitchshifter’s most commercially successful album (or at least, I’ll be bloody surprised if it isn’t), but with a synthesis of their past and future so perfect it was hardly going to be anything else. They swiftly went from being a well-respected-but-not-enormously-popular industrial-metal band to being top of the metal pile in the UK in one short leap, and all it took was a little bit of smoothing of some of the edges. That, and wholesale adoption of drum’n’bass rhythms that created their most danceable album, too, not to mention unleashing a number of live track stalwarts that are still there in the live set well over ten years later – I should know, I’ve seen this band fifteen times live over the years.
This album is where the balance between industrial and metal was perfected, and despite many, many attempts since, the bar still hasn’t been raised any higher than this. There is no understating Rhys Fulber’s contribution to this – his work on sampling and electronics, not to mention the uber-industrial production that suggested such precision in the recording could only have been completed by cyborgs, rather than the band themselves. But let’s not forget the number of metal anthems that this album unleashed (pretty much all of side one, for starters), even if astonishingly Replica is probably the weakest song here. Which says a lot about just how good the rest of it actually is.
/The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts
/Burning Heart Records
If you’re into metal/punk/hardcore and have never heard this album? Firstly, what are you doing here, and secondly, you know you keep seeing every band worth their salt name-checking this? Well, they are all correct. It may not have forged a new form of punk as the title suggested, but it was adventurous enough to bring in different influences, and it also served as a reminder in the alternative late-90s musical landscape that punk didn’t have to be poppy, and it still could be a form of protest music as it was always intended. Bristling with fury, they meant every word of it, and it felt like it, too, as the riffs socked you in the gut every time.
/Author of Pain
I’ve never been able to nail down exactly where this now sadly long-forgotten band fitted in. A bit goth, a bit electro, a bit industrial, they were dark and brooding with an intriguing habit of making vocals almost an afterthought (almost all of the vocals were performed by members of other bands), and the BPM rarely went anywhere close to that approaching dancefloor-friendly levels. Not that it really mattered, as the atmosphere was the important bit, clearly, and the album worked better as a greater whole anyway.
By far the most intense and dark of all of the bands that experimented with industrial rock in the 90s, even so, this has one foot firmly in both camps. There is a lot of electronics and samples, but equally the songs themselves are built around the usual rock band setup, just with Scott Benzel’s deep, growling vocals, heavy, almost funky basslines, and guitars that are rarely that high in the mix. But it’s the atmosphere, more than anything else that makes this album. It’s oppressive, brooding and with a sheer hatred of humankind in particular, it has a calm nihilism that is almost unmatched by any other album. Some feat with songs you can hum along to.
/White Light From The Mouth Of Infinity
/Young God Records
Inexplicably one of the only Swans albums not to see a full re-release on Young God records (most does appear on Various Failures, but it’s not the same), this for me is their best album by a country mile. Featuring none of the musical extremity that they were famous for in the 80s, instead, it strips things down to a near-acoustic album (along with some electronics and the odd appearance of a full band), and all of the pushing to extremes is done by Michael Gira’s elegant wordplay and his deep, rich baritone – with lyrics revolving around the usual themes of despair, hate and love. And often all three. I’m just hoping I hear some of this magical album in the autumn.
/Hissing Prigs In Static Couture
/Touch & Go Records
As I noted in making I Am A Cracked Machine my best track of the 90s a few months ago, this band were light years ahead of their time, and sadly appear to have been forgotten by many journos as various new bands have begun appearing sounding an awful lot like Dayton’s finest. Anyway, let’s recap. New-wave-electro-punk-rock with a great line in vocal treatments, samples and fucked-up lyrics, nothing ever really made a whole lot of sense with this lot but somehow it all just worked. If you can hunt out a copy, go get it. Now. Or ask me to play it you next time I see you – it’s rarely left my iPod ever.
/Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
Seventy minutes detailing heartbreak, heroin addiction and love in more detail than the listener perhaps needed to know, but the music that surrounds it is utterly, utterly astonishing. Taking the droning, spaced-out rock from previous albums and taking it to a whole new level, this album took an age to be produced and mastered simply because Jason Pierce wanted the “perfect” sound. The time and effort was worth it, as he did reach the perfect sound after all, and every single song is pretty much perfect in composition too. So how a remaster/re-release could improve on it was a question that was finally answered late last year, when it was shown that it could sound even more amazing – and it wasn’t just the “proper” version of the title track that made it that way, either. And live? This album exists on another planet in the live arena.