COMMENTARY: 20 records to define the decade

By Jenny Elig & Chas Hartman for The Post Ohio U. on November 1, 1999

Tori Amos' 'Little Earthquakes' (Atlantic, 1991)

Tori Amos shed her hard rock image for a more harrowing musical style on Little Earthquakes. Lyrical themes covered everything from past relationships to her traumatic rape experience. "Silent All These Years" and "Precious Things" capture the beauty of Amos' unique brand of piano-driven pop music. "Crucify" is the smash hit that put Little Earthquakes on the chart, but "Me And A Gun" would prove to be the absolute truest story in '90s mainstream music.

Beastie Boys' 'Ill Communication' (Capitol, 1994)

Mike D, Ad Rock and MCA reached their creative Mecca on this landmark '90s hip-hop album. Not only did these three New Yorkers capture rap perfection on tunes like "Sure Shot" and "Root Down," but they entranced listeners with smooth jazz songs like "Sabrosa." Ill Communication proved the Beastie Boys could move beyond the rap realm, especially on the rap-rock crossover hit "Sabotage." Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock are being hailed as the rap-rock poster boys, but the Beastie Boys are the originators.

Beck's 'Odelay' (Geffen, 1996)

The waif from California emerged from self-sequestering with such drawing hits as "Devil's Haircut," "Where It's At" and "Jack-Ass." Beck is a cowboy with a sampler, an abstract artist on a Greyhound, a roving genius with an eye for Western outfits.

The Breeders' 'Last Splash' (Elektra 1993)

The Breeders bred something new, wholly new. Though short-lived, they cranked out some down-and-dirty distorted ditties that still get everyone singing. The near-psychedelic riffs and cryptic lyrics remain enchanting into the new millennium.

Garth Brooks' 'No Fences' (Capitol, 1990)

Crooning from under a cowboy hat, Brooks' sweet voice got a lot of people to cross over from rock to country music. No Fences, Brooks' second CD, garnered him a lot of recognition with the songs "Friends in Low Places" and "The Thunder Rolls."

Eric Clapton's 'Unplugged' (Warner Brothers, 1992)

One of the first of many "unplugged" albums, Clapton got a chance to shed heavy production and strip his act down to acoustic guitar and talent. And it worked for him. Fans from the '60s were struck by this guitar virtuoso all over again. Fans from the '90s were drawn in by the passionate honesty lacking in the hyper-produced ballads common the decade before.

Dave Matthews Band's 'Crash' (RCA, 1996)

Ah, the staple of all college freshmen. The appeal is universal. These frat-rock poster boys capture the essence of dorm room life and casual sex. Crash catapulted Dave Matthews and his cronies to the very top, forcing over-play until even the Ultimate Frisbee players were saying "Stop with the damn song, already."

Ani DiFranco's 'Dilate' (Righteous Babe, 1996)

Ani DiFranco began as a simplistic one-person folk act, but demonstrated her ability to utilize numerous instruments on Dilate. As always, lyrical themes chronicled DiFranco's history of failed relationships. No other '90s singer had written such an excellent sendoff to a significant other than DiFranco did with "Untouchable Face." DiFranco writes songs with amazing clarity, which makes her the best folk songwriter since Bob Dylan.

Dr. Dre's 'The Chronic' (Interscope, 1992)

Dr. Dre quit the '80s rap supergroup N.W.A. to begin a legendary rapper/producer career. The Chronic perfected the G-Funk style with smooth cruise tunes like "Let Me Ride" and "Nuthin' But A Thang." Not only did this multi-platinum effort establish Dre as a bona fide rap mogul, but also it introduced the rap protege Snoop Doggy Dogg to the world. Dr. Dre rapped about his own glory on "Dre Day," and there is no other rapper who deserves his own day like this innovator.

Guns n' Roses' 'Use Your Illusion I & II' (Geffen, 1991)

Guns n' Roses brought the balls back to cock rock. More importantly, they brought back exciting rock music and a stage persona reminiscent of the Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, when they released Use Your Illusion I and II simultaneously, none of their listeners ever assumed the albums would serve as their final collection of original tunes. "Don't Cry" and "November Rain" displayed a softer side, but at the same time proved Axl's musicianship. The two Illusion albums were a tough strain on Axl's bandmates, but they ultimately gave Guns n' Roses enough respect to retain some of the Stones' mystique.

Lauryn Hill's 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill' (Sony/Columbia, 1998)

Be seduced by her beautiful voice; stay for the depth of soul Lauryn Hill represents. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill includes the personal, the simple and the complex; all real, all fascinating. No wonder she got so much attention for the album, rightfully garnering awards left and right.

Nine Inch Nails' 'The Downward Spiral' (Interscope, 1994)

Trent Reznor shattered the more straightforward approach of his debut with this sonic collection of industrial rock. The NIN frontman replaced his radio-friendly style with a distorted machine-gun guitar sound. Even when trying to remove himself from the mainstream, Reznor could not help but create a radio hit with "Closer." Truly a dynamic artist, Reznor became glorified as one of the '90s premiere musical creators. Other artists could wait five years to release an album and be forgotten, but not Reznor.

Nirvana's 'Nevermind' (Geffen, 1991)

Grunge rock became the phenomenon that destroyed the '80s nonsense and sent Michael Jackson into musical oblivion. Nirvana never craved or embraced success, but overnight, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" changed the face of MTV and created a new radio format. Distorted guitar and self-pitying lyrics ran rampant on the FM staples "Come As You Are" and "Lithium." Kurt Cobain's excellent songwriting and Lennon-like lyrics shone as Nirvana began a brilliant short-lived career in the mainstream.

Pearl Jam's 'Ten' (Epic, 1991)

While fellow grungers Nirvana failed to embrace success, Pearl Jam reveled in it for a short time. Singer Eddie Vedder and his four cohorts played the arenas, won the music video awards and graced the cover of Rolling Stone. The impatient mainstream kids enjoyed Vedder's easily comprehensible lyrics and the Led Zeppelin-like guitar licks. "Jeremy" and "Alive" maintained constant airplay on both alternative and classic rock stations. Pearl Jam left the artistic integrity to Nirvana, and wrote the kind of straightforward grunge songs that would insure longevity. They jeopardized their longevity with an ill-advised one-man battle against TicketMaster, but still maintained their success.

Radiohead's 'OK Computer' (Capitol, 1997)

With psychedelic space rock music and emotional vocals, Radiohead became the most important band in rock with OK Computer. They crafted a perfectly flowing collection of tunes, which compelled critics to proclaim them the Pink Floyd of the '90s. OK Computer served up one of the most complex songs in modern rock with "Paranoid Android." Amazingly, they carried over their songs to the stage with even more complexity.

Rancid's 'And Out Come the Wolves' (Epitaph, 1995)

After the punk overkill of the late '70s and early '80s, true punk ran back underground. Rancid is perhaps the most mainstream punk band with the most musical integrity. Better than Green Day, better than Offspring, Rancid won critical acclaim with And Out Come the Wolves. Yeah they rip off the Clash. But if you had to pick someone to rip off, wouldn't it be the Clash?

They Might be Giants' 'Flood' (Elektra, 1990)

TMBG is just too clever. With their third album, the duo busted out sharp, tight, insightful songs. Best described as artsy electro-pop with historical references and intelligent vocabulary, this album wreaked havoc on the status qho

Tribe Called Quest's 'Low End Theory' (Jive/Novus/Silvertone, 1991)

The scenario: an album packed with tight lyrics and true jazz beats, one of the most influential rap albums of the decade. Before gangsta rap stuck up the competition, this crew flowed melodically on "Check the Rhyme" and joined a younger Busta Rhymes in "Scenario."

U2's 'Achtung Baby' (Polygram, 1991)

Ireland's pride abandoned the typical guitar-bass-drum setup of The Joshua Tree with a more futuristic sound on Achtung Baby. Even with electronics, lead singer Bono reached the masses with "Mysterious Ways" and "Even Better Than The Real Thing." Like any other lyrical master, Bono always writes with heart and soul.

Wu-Tang Clan's 'Enter the Wu-Tang' (36 Chambers) (RCA, 1993)

Wu-Tang's second album focuses rhymes and beats into one. With eerie, lulling melodies in the background and clever rap in the foreground, Wu-Tang Clan launched sayings, clothing and a huge fan base.

Transcribed by Keith Duemling

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