Top 100 Albums of the 1990s – Part 4

90s Month Staff Lists

What kind of self-respecting website would Strange Currencies be if we didn’t take an incredibly complex decade of music, and reduce it to a ranked list? The centerpiece of our celebration of the 1990s, this collaborative effort between our staff began as an attempt to create a comprehensive list of the decade’s most essential albums. However, as a long list of contenders was whittled down, the realization set in that even a list of one hundred records was bound to leave off a number of our own personal favorites. The resulting list attempts to reconcile our own idiosyncratic tastes with a nineties “canon” that the music press has worked to solidify, even before the decade had drawn to its Y2K-frenzied conclusion.

For the bulk of our contributors – born between the late-seventies and early-eighties – the nineties are a particularly personal decade, one that ushered us from childhood to adulthood. Though our slight variances in age may mean that our own idealizations of the decade differ – my personal sweet spot lands within the years 1994-1997 – the vast majority of the records on this list are ones that resonate for us as a whole. With that said, this four-part article will be followed up with a postscript that allows our individual contributors to point out what they feel their colleagues got wrong. Consider it our “honorable mentions,” or perhaps more accurately, our “ongoing arguments.” Enjoy. –MR


The Olivia Tremor Control

Music From the Unrealized Film Script, Dusk at Cubist Castle

1996

25

Granting a few notable exceptions, producers rarely get the artistic credit they deserve. Yes, musicianship is the necessary ingredient, but the mixing of those various ingredients is what changes it from mere sustenance to a triumph of the senses. That the necessary spark be something so techno-centric is an irony for another essay. What The Olivia Tremor Control and co-producer Robert Schneider manage to do on Dust at Cubist Castle is nothing short of astonishing. To compare the album to any other artist or period does it a disservice, however we are left with no other way to describe something so pure and nearly perfect in form.

The lushness of OTC’s orchestral sound belies an overall darkness to the album, and this existential disconnect drives the melodies forward. It is hard to find a specific standout amongst the first eleven or so tracks, with each seemingly being pulled from old Zombies records or the Nuggets compilation. Those that find fault with the record usually do so with the second half, which deviates from the denseness of the earlier, fully-formed songs with a sparseness of sound that rivals some of the decade’s other best instrumental work (including Talk Talk and Fishmans). It all culminates in the lengthy sonic meltdown of the “Green Typewriters” suite.

The combination – or rather juxtaposition – of the hyper-melodic with the completely unstructured generates tension across the record that cannot hold without a strong hand to oversee. That OTC could only sustain this tension across two releases (to date) speaks to the difficulty of settling for excellence when perfection is your goal. Oh, and as for Mr. Schneider, you’ve heard his work in a couple other places on this list, whether you knew it or not. Who needs credit when the work speaks for itself? –GB


My Bloody Valentine

Loveless

1991

24

Kevin Shields’ masterpiece sounds exactly like it looks on the cover. It took me a long time to accept this. For years, I listened to the album hoping that – all of a sudden – it would come into clear focus, and I would suddenly hear it the way that I was supposed to. Then I tried listening to it as a metaphor – for what, I don’t know. I thought its willful abstractions might be some sort of code for Shields’ eventual reclusiveness. Then, for a while, I just kind of gave up on it – assigning it a respectable 4/5 on RateYourMusic, knowing that I liked it, even though I was expected to love it. At some point, after about a dozen or so years, I just listened to it, as it is. No expectations. No analysis. Just absorbing the sound, the feel, the texture. For years I thought I needed a manual. Turns out I just needed to listen to the damn thing. –MR


Belle and Sebastian

If You’re Feeling Sinister

1996

23

Belle and Sebastian immediately stood out from the 90’s Britpop scene because of what they were not. They were not loud and brash. They were not vying for the headlines, feuding with and taunting other bands. At all. They refused to do any sort of promotion for their records, not even appearing in press photos. Their records were not filled to the brim with Les Pauls cranked to eleven, recorded in echoey caverns, aspiring to fill stadiums. In fact, If You’re Feeling Sinister and its predecessor Tigermilk – which was released mere months before it – are intimate antidotes to the drunken revelry of their peers. Champagne supernovae are brilliant, but they are product. If You’re Feeling Sinister is full of characters you know, or think you know, and characters live forever. Their creator, Stuart Murdoch, has called it his strongest collection of songs, and who am I to disagree? Also, if you put this on in the background when she comes over, you are so much more likely to get kissed than if you go cranking Gallaghers, Cockers, or Coxons. –MM


Cocteau Twins

Heaven or Las Vegas

1990

22

Cocteau Twins are one of those groups that seemingly never run out of great work, no matter how many albums they release. 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas is a symphony in noise that resides as the band’s swan song. The album itself is a relatively short piece, with a total runtime of thirty-seven minutes and twenty-four seconds. Heaven benefits from its small number of songs, as it keeps itself short and sweet, giving the listener all the more reason to put it on again. Cocteau Twins have this air about them in which they are able to concoct these highly atmospheric songs that exist in a world that it like no other, and Heaven or Las Vegas sounds like the music you hear in your dreams. It’s haunting and oddly familiar, though you can’t put your finger on it. From the vivid pads to the indistinguishable lyrics, it resides in a realm that only exists in your memories. –KC


Wu-Tang Clan

Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

1993

21

To me, Enter The Wu-Tang’s sonic palate is akin to how a composer would craft a soundtrack. RZA’s originality of melding of the boom-bap sound with evocative instrumentals, kung-fu samples, and spoken interludes is difficult to put into words. Some artists of the eighties suffer from samples that clash in a dissonant way, where RZA’s production of samples meld to complement each other. Enter The Wu-Tang is not what you would expect from an early-90s rap album. Given the previous decade’s mainstream commercialization of light-hearted hip-hop, the melancholy tone of Enter The Wu-Tang immediately sets it apart from its competitors. The rugged samples of the album envision similar textures to those found in industrial music, giving it an extra edge. The album is oddly fun, despite the rough sound and subject matter, (especially found in the opening of “Tearz”). As a welcome bonus, hearing the group incorporate nerd culture into their lyrics further adds to the its bourgeoning individuality. You can tell that while Enter The Wu-Tang was an artistic endeavor, it must have been incredibly cathartic for the lyricists work through their pain in such a poetic manner. –KC


Fishmans

Long Season

1996

20

At the risk of spoiling your own narrative of this sonic choose-your-own-adventure, here are the pages I followed while listening to this hypnotic opus:

The sprawling warehouse lures me in with the throbbing beats and raved-out rhythms promising a late night of tranced-out odyssey. As I move from room to room through black-lit neons and 1930s black-and-white French art films projected over pipe-fitted walls, I feel a force pulling me through the dank passageway, down the rusted metal stairway, the pulsing throbbing beat following me down the corridor, pushing, while the force pulls. [To follow the force, skip to track 6; to return to the main warehouse speaker room of pulsing beats, jump to track 47.] Wait. This is just one track. How do you skip tracks on a vinyl record? Someone get me this on vinyl, please. It’s best to just ride it out.

Spoiler alert, TLDNR: Just hit play. –GK


R.E.M.

Automatic for the People

1992

19

Though I fully acknowledge the cultural importance (and greatness) of Murmur, Automatic for the People is my favorite album by my favorite band. Reaching my orbit at a moment of personal significance – the summer before high school, shortly before moving to a new town – the album’s themes of introspection and acceptance were particularly resonant then, and remain so nearly thirty years down the road.

Even without a personal connection, Automatic for the People is a simply stunning record. Its gothic folk affectations have understandably cast the album as R.E.M.’s darkest work, but the baroque-inspired undercurrents give Automatic a warmth and elegance unlike anything else in the band’s catalog. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the remarkable trio of tracks that close the record out – perhaps the best three-song closing arc of any album. –MR


Weezer

Weezer

1994

18

Finding a unique perspective from which to review one of the most beloved albums of a generation is not easy. Liken it to being tasked with writing a review of “Jingle Bells.” How do you review something that so many people know. Not love – know. Sure, a lot of us love it, but really, how do you convince someone that has heard “Buddy Holly” four hundred times to go buy a copy of it? The answer is you don’t. Tim put it succinctly earlier in the list when talking about Beck’s “Loser”: who really needs to listen more than they already have?

Exactly. Move past “Buddy Holly” and “Undone.” Instead, go and be amazed at “My Name is Jonas.” Really listen to it, and hear the potential that unleashed a 20+ year epic career. After you pick your jaw up off the floor, skip to “Surf Wax America,” at once channeling The Beach Boys while also creating enough space of their own. If Weezer had stopped after the “Blue Album,” we would still be talking about it. The album is a career. It’s enough on its own. That we got Pinkerton, Maladroit, Everything Will Be Alright In the End, hell even Hurley, afterwards is a bit of an embarrassment of riches.

Tentpole releases like “Blue” often suffer under the weight of their own legacy. I’ll be the first to admit that the last time I had listened to it was when I set up my stereo speakers and used “Say it Ain’t So” to test the channels. That the album’s legacy has come to that for so many is a shame, but also a testament to its greatness. Like so many before them, whether that be Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, or even the oft-compared-to Cars, Weezer has been around long enough to become a musical villain of sorts. While lucrative, the strategy is not really fair to the legacy of their early masterpieces. My suggestion, if you are able, is to forgive “Africa” and every other cash grab, and try to listen again with fresh ears, for the rewards are great and effort is worth the time. –GB


17

Without Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise, Twin Peaks is another show entirely. The soundtrack is that perfect balance of beauty and melodramatic cheesiness that set the mood for a show that could be beautiful, melodramatic, and cheesy in equal measure. It would be impossible for me to review the soundtrack album without considering the context of the show because the two are permanently entwined in my head. I suppose if you were to throw this on without ever seeing Twin Peaks, you might cringe at the synth and wispy vocal tendencies. But if you’re a fan of the series, you’ll be whisked away to the Packard Sawmill – and hopefully not the Black Lodge – as soon as you hear the opening bass notes. It’s a damn fine album. If only it featured “Just You,” performed by hunky James Hurley, it would be perfect. –TRN


Nas

Illmatic

1994

16

So many superlatives have been hoisted upon the debut album of Nasir Jones: most influential East Coast rap album; first hip-hop record to make use of multiple producers; most-hyped and first to be widely-bootlegged rap release. And above all those, you’d be hard pressed to not find it on the short list of anyone’s best rap albums of all-time. It’s that good.

Illmatic checks all the boxes: impressive debut; densely poetic bars; brilliant track sequencing; tight production; arresting hooks; homage to the past; authenticity to the moment. It stands like a legendary time capsule of an era, bridging the gap from Native Tongue jazz- and blues-sampled breakbeats of the East Coast scene to the bombastic biographical narratives of Tupac and Biggie Smalls. Simply put, it deserves the superlatives. –GK


Radiohead

The Bends

1995

15

I had a friend that used to take pride in transferring the inventory stocking labels from the spine of CD cases to the dashboard of his car. It was a sort of a street cred scoreboard. He could point to the dashboard of that honest Grand Am and prove that he had heard of them first. I have serious doubt that this was his motivation, that it was done more as an homage to fandom, but the message it sent was clear. If you were in that car, and you had the honor of picking the next album up, you best not mess around. Come to play, or don’t come at all.

So in the winter of 1997, I found myself in the unique position of having both the coveted passenger seat (and its stereo navigator position), and a $25 gift certificate to our local chain record store. OK Computer had been released that previous summer, and Radiohead had just killed their performance on MTV’s The 10 Spot. Partly out of peer pressure, and mostly out of a desire to continue to have my teenage mind blown, I picked up a copy of The Bends. Moving past the slightly off-putting Xerox of a CPR dummy on the cover, I entered the album expecting another OK Computer. It’s hard to remember my initial reactions; what I can recall was likely a self-conscious worry about what people would think if I admitted the (albeit brief) sentiment that maybe The Bends was better than OK Computer (gasp!). If makes sense if you consider that I was a 17 year-old weaned on Live, Stone Temple Pilots, and The Smashing Pumpkins. It sounded enough like Pablo Honey to be familiar, but also fresh enough to warrant more interest.

Twenty-plus years on and armed with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of OK Computer and Kid A, I can see how The Bends was the only possible step Radiohead could take between “Creep” and “Paranoid Android”; how the album served as a weigh station on Thom Yorke’s journey. The threat is being too reductive and overlooking how truly unique the release was at the time, and how, within the context of the time, The Bends and OK Computer could be seen as possible rivals. With perspective and fresh ears, it’s not their greatest work, but it was their greatest within its moment, and should really be recognized on its own right, outside of the shadow of its more illustrious younger siblings. All I can say is that my greatest joy that day was getting to affix that CD label to the dashboard, and to prove that I could bring it. –GB


Weezer

Pinkerton

1996

14

This is it. I should recuse myself. I am clearly biased. I will state, unequivocally, that Pinkerton is my favorite non-Beatles album of all time. It’s not the best album of the nineties, or even of 1996 – the year of Odelay, The Score, and Being There. Also, it’s not woke. Much of the lyrical content is problematic. But they were earnest, honest emotional confessions, in a way that kept them from crossing that line into creepy territory like so much of Rivers Cuomo’ later output. 

So what makes Pinkerton the force of the second wave emo bands whose blueprints all copy off of Pinkerton’s homework? And why has it survived as a piece of art that endures the valid criticisms against it? Plainly put, it is just better than any other pop-punk, loud guitar rock album of the decade. Its melodies are equal parts Beach Boys and Bach. The guitar arrangements are loud, but also carefully orchestrated – arranged, at times, like a string quartet. 

Yeah, they are all songs about girls, but these aren’t good time characters of classic rock and roll. Pinkerton is a song cycle of confusion, exhaustion, exasperation, and regret that tells us much more about its narrator than any of the women he sings about. Over and over he is a passive admirer. He finds it impossible to approach his objects of affection, so he fantasizes about them and writes songs that they will never hear. Even when a song is addressed to “you,” the listener knows that this is not a conversation. There is no listener on the other end, except for Rivers’ KISS posters. 

None of this feels like romance. But there is still joy in the soaring choruses, because girls may hate you, and for good reasons (I’m sure), but you will always have a world where melody and crushing guitars will protect you for a few minutes; at least until “Butterfly” makes you realize that everything is your fault. –MM


Pavement

Slanted & Enchanted

1992

13

You can probably chalk it up to relative youth, but when I used to crank up Slanted & Enchanted, about two seconds into “Summer Babe” it felt like I had magically grown six extra arms and suddenly each of them was flipping the bird in a different direction. There was something about this disc that seemed to aggravate almost everyone I know. Which only increased its appeal in my eyes. 

I don’t think I could tell you now why S&E earned the reaction it got from my mid/late-nineties college peer group. I attended UC Tucson (formerly and sometimes incorrectly still called the University of Arizona) and as such, I thought maybe the hordes of Angelenos and San Diego kids took offense to “Two States,” but maybe that’s giving them too much credit for paying attention. More likely it was the recognition that time is a zero-sum game, and any time Steve Malkmus howled his way through “No Life Singed Her” was time not spent listening to Sublime or 311 or something. I’ll concede that many of Pavement’s most raucous moments and weirdest musical non sequiturs (“Wounded Kite,” anyone?) are found on this disc, so it won’t always be everyone’s first choice. –JL


Lauryn Hill

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

1998

12

Upon its release in 1998, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill felt like the first step in what would become a brilliant and long-lived career. A multi-Grammy winning album as successful commercially as it was artistically, the album was a brilliant blend of hip-hop, soul, and reggae that combined genres in a way that few, if any, had ever done before.

Instead, Miseducation was Lauryn Hill’s only true solo album – its creator having largely withdrawn from the music industry in the decades since. While it’s easy to listen to the album and wonder what could have been if Ms. Hill had continued to produce new music, more than anything, it stands as testament to the power of Miseducation. It was so powerful and clear a statement of purpose that Lauryn Hill is regarded as one of the finest female artists of her time, despite her legacy resting largely on this album alone. –TK


Nirvana

Nevermind

1991

11

Reviewing Nevermind is like ranking a Van Gogh. It’s absolutely redundant, because you already know it is a perfect piece of art before you hear it. As Nirvana’s sophomore album, and first on a major label, Kurt Cobain whipped the band into shape, devoting every waking second to practicing their songs. The culmination of their hard work is an airtight masterpiece that communicates struggles over gender, sex, sexuality, anger, mental illness, and suicide with grace. In hindsight, it seems inevitable for the album to have gained the success it did, as if nothing could have stopped Nirvana from becoming the most talked-about group of the early nineties. While the Beatle-level craftsmanship led to commercial success, the messages ultimately resonated with an alienated audience, leading the album to its true following. Overplayed or not, Nevermind continues to touch newer generations in giving a voice to any kid who feels isolated in this world. –KC


A Tribe Called Quest

The Low End Theory

1991

10

“My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop/I said, well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles.” With the first verse of the first track on The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest laid down the thesis for their entire second album: what’s old is new again. They use their inimitable voice to link early-nineties life to the Black experience of the last century, without ever losing the infectious groove that makes it all go down easy. With The Low End Theory, Quest found their purpose, realized their sound, and reached their pinnacle. This is canonical hip-hop that you need to hear, even – maybe especially – if your collection consists mostly of white guys with guitars. You will be glad that you did. –MM


Elliott Smith

Either / Or

1997

9

I spent my first night as a college student staring up at the fluorescent lights of my then-new dorm room, trying to find an album that I could relax to. My roommate was moving in the next day and I hadn’t bothered to get out of bed long enough to introduce myself to anyone new. This wasn’t anything new to me, I had spent almost every lunch during high school hiding away in some corner – writing bad poetry or listening to whatever artist I was obsessed with that week – but something was different this time. Sure, sulking around is a normal activity for most high schoolers, but I was an adult now. I was supposed to be meeting new people and making these next four years the peak of my life, but here I was sitting in my room alone listening to the same albums I always listen to.

At some point during the evening I had settled on listening to Either/Or. For whatever reason, I began to create a fictionalized scenario in my head in which I was at one of the many beginning-of-the-year parties going on around campus. In an attempt to escape some of the social anxieties and bad pop music parties tend to bring, I find a room to get a much needed break from all the noise and new people. Sitting on a small chair in the corner, strumming an old acoustic guitar, is Elliott Smith. He doesn’t seem to notice me, instead he’s playing “Between the Bars” for no one but himself. Hesitant to disrupt him, I slowly turn around to leave, only to look back and see that he had disappeared.

Writing this all down, it all feels like a weird situation to have come up with and to have remembered so vividly a year or so after I had originally thought of it, yet it has stuck with me as my defining “memory” of Elliott Smith. The image of Elliott Smith in a back corner room trying to figure out the last lyrics for “Speed Trials” or “Angeles” over the sound of a party he’s trying to escape, while fictionalized, just makes sense to me. Maybe it’s just how I relate to the album, but so much of the writing on Either/Or feels like those times I spent hidden away, trying to ignore all of the noise around me. –RG


Björk

Homogenic

1997

8

Remember the first time you saw your second grade teacher in the grocery store and it shook you to your core, because you had always thought they lived in the supply closet at school or something, and existed only for you? Björk’s voice possesses that quality. It’s transcendent and other-worldly and speaks to you as if you were in a cocoon and she is the cosmic Siri speaking to your subconscious. If I ever ran into Björk at the grocery store, I’d like to thank her for Homogenic. And while I’m sure her other classes were great and all, we really had something special that one year I was in her class. –GK


The Flaming Lips

The Soft Bulletin

1999

7

Good news, bad news. Good news is, The Soft Bulletin is the best psychedelic pop-rock album of the nineties. The bad news is, that assertion inevitably demands comparisons to psychedelic pop masterpieces like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper, and that’s just not fair. But let’s be honest, this cinematic romp of orchestral earnestness, underneath lush Mellotron and synthesizers, with drums that couldn’t possibly be more in your face, makes for a helluva fun listen. –GK


Guided by Voices

Bee Thousand

1994

6

One of my colleagues once confided in me that he had been putting off reading Marc Woodworth’s 33 1/3 entry on Bee Thousand, lest he pull back the curtains too far and discover too many mundane origin stories behind Guided by Voices’ most consistently-lauded album. One such example that comes to mind is Bob Pollard’s admission that the album title itself comes from a possibly stoned misreading of the name “Beethoven” (not the 18th century composer, but the drooling 20th century St. Bernard of movie fame).

In general, my curiosity tends to override in those situations, but in this case I can at least relate. I think I’d have been slightly disappointed to learn that a song as hauntingly beautiful as “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” had been lifted from… I don’t know, one of those weird off-brand telephone books that used to appear in your driveway overnight back in the 1990s, or something.

Bee Thousand was already over twenty years old when we had that discussion, and is now approaching thirty. What else can I say about it now? “Echos Myron” and “Hardcore UFOs” still sound anthemic as ever. If it’s right, you can tell. –JL


Modest Mouse

The Lonesome Crowded West

1997

5

I arrived for my first semester of college at Arizona State in the late summer of 1998, moving onto a campus that contained twice the number of people than lived in my hometown. Thrown into melting pot of kids from all over the country, my roommate may as well have been from another planet, forget about Minneapolis. After a few weeks it became increasingly apparent that we had little in common; my Pixies and his Phish were just not meant to jam together. Faced with an interminable semester, I escaped my assigned patchouli cell and started hanging out with my neighbor across the hall. She was from Bellevue, Washington and had managed to locate several other Pacific Northwest refugees in our dorm. Soon I was their adopted brother, allowed to join their cadre of post-grunge aficionados. Late that September, an offer to go see Sunny Day Real Estate came my way. A couple of regional bands were touring with them: 764-Hero and Modest Mouse.

College is about forming tribes, and our tribe held Issac Brock in the highest esteem. The Lonesome Crowded West had been released that previous summer, and most my friends had spent their senior years brooding with “Cowboy Dan” and trying to suss out the deeper meanings of “Bankrupt on Selling.” It may be true that the music you loved when you were nineteen is the music you are drawn to the rest of your life. It’s true because your sentimentality is highest at that point. Everyone wants to be a kid again, but none of us can ever go home.

I was able to see Modest Mouse a few more times during that era, but it was never quite as happy or exciting as that first show. The next time I saw them, during the Moon & Antartica tour, was a week after 9/11. They spent most of that show focusing on The Lonesome Crowded West. Most of us were in a mood to be alone with our thoughts, and the outdoor setting, on the approach path for Phoenix Sky Harbor, really didn’t improve our feelings of grief or dread. Whether they realized it on stage, it was the release that we all needed. The combination of band, collective mood, and set list are rarely so perfectly aligned. Twenty years on, it still stands out as one of the two or three show I will remember until I die, and is how I choose to remember that sad time. We were alone and together at once, firing our rifle into the sky. –GB


4

This may seem like an oddly “meta” thing to say toward the end of a ranked list, but making declarative statements about the worthiness of art is – and has always been – a fool’s errand. With that out of the way, here comes one such claim: OutKast are the greatest hip-hop group of all-time, and Aquemini is the best album that the genre has produced to date. I can already hear the grumbling: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, The Low-End Theory, Illmatic, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, To Pimp a Butterfly… These are all great records, for sure, but none match the combination of mind boggling lyrical deliveries, inventive production, indelible hooks, and fun in the same way as Aquemini (for what it’s worth, Kendrick’s masterpiece comes the closest).

With 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Andre 3000 and Big Boi established themselves as preternatural talents, and put southern rap on the map. On 1996’s ATLiens, they became the most inventive group on the scene, regardless of coast or region. In 2000, Stankonia would bring an overdue commercial crossover. 2003’s Speakerboxxx / The Love Below would make them one of the most successful acts of all-time, regardless of genre. However, Aquemini arrived at a perfect point of equilibrium: the precise moment where the duo had the confidence to try anything, and where they nailed absolutely everything.

Time has been kind to OutKast, and Aquemini in particular. While pop music is often painfully tied to its specific moment in time, Aquemini is the rare album that is both highly stylized, and yet feels timeless. It could come out tomorrow, and it would still blow our minds. –MR


Pavement

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

1994

3

There are days – many of them, in fact – where I believe that Pavement’s sophomore full-length is my favorite album of all-time. More than any other record on this list, it’s the one whose aesthetic I truly just get. It’s the creation of five middle-class guys, branded by outsiders as “slackers,” but with a sincere blue-collar work ethic. It’s the work of dedicated music fans, but none of whom would be mistaken for instrumental virtuosos. It’s smart and sarcastic. It’s wistful, suburban, casual; more West Coast than East Coast. And though it gives glimpses of sociability, it remains almost militantly introverted. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is not for everybody, but for those of us who love it, it’s the platonic ideal for American indie rock. –MR


Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

1998

2

Have you ever listened to something that fundamentally changed your life? I don’t mean just saying it; I mean hearing an album for the first time, and knowing that it will influence every music-based decision you will make for the rest of your life. I first heard In the Aeroplane Over the Sea in a Target parking lot in 2003, about six years after its initial release. By the end of the second “King of Carrot Flowers,” I was having a full-on religious experience, blasting out “I love you, Jesus Christ” from my worn out old truck’s speakers, indifferent to the looks I was receiving from passers-by.

In the Aeroplane changed me, like it did for lot of us. The idea of a concept record about Anne Frank sounds like a bad idea. It is only in the absolute sincerity and dedication to the idea that the record succeeds… and wow, does it succeed. Aeroplane presents itself unlike anything else, even its excellent predecessor, On Avery Island. Roughly twenty years from that first listen, I find myself hearing new bits with every revisit. It is a yard stick by which I measure other magnum opus records.

After those first few listens, I found myself questioning why it had taken me so long to discover Aeroplane. I changed up the record stores I frequented. I started reading more music sites, paying attention to production, and made the switch to vinyl. It showed me that it was time to give up on the MTV and commercial radio pipeline. Above all else, it is the record that made me less militant about what I thought I knew, and showed me the importance of opening my ears to open my mind.

The tendency when writing these brief reviews, especially now at the top of the list, is to overhype. I don’t think that is possible in this case. Having considered the nineties in this format, and hearing the depth of “The Fool,” the tragedy of “Holland, 1945,” and the gut-wrenching love of “Two-Headed Boy” within the context of their contemporaries, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea really is among the best that the decade – if not the century – had to offer. –GB


Radiohead

OK Computer

1997

1

In the introduction to “90s Month” I mentioned how the majority of contributors to Strange Currencies fall somewhere within the micro-generation known as “Xennials.” Rock-inclined as we tend to be, if we were a few years older, Nevermind would be the obvious choice for the top spot on this list. A few years in the other direction, and it probably would have been something like Arcade Fire’s Funeral that defined our coming-of-age.

Instead, we got OK Computer: an album that perfectly and presciently detailed the alienation, tension, and anxieties of a rapidly-onrushing millennium. Critically lauded upon its summer 1997 arrival, OK Computer hasn’t lost an ounce of its power in the nearly twenty-five years since its release. If anything, its place in the rock canon to which it was immediately elevated has only strengthened.

While so much of the digital and literal ink that has been spilled over this album has focused on those aforementioned bleak qualities, allow me to offer another perspective. OK Computer landed in our orbit at a cultural crossroads. Music journalism had long predicted the death of guitar-based music, promising a future that sounded a lot like The Prodigy. Stubborn, guitar-clutching rockists – as I was at the time – winced at the thought. OK Computer suggested a different path: one in which the lines between organic and electronic were blurred; one in which brilliant production and songwriting still mattered; one that was as beautiful as it was foreboding.

It may be hard to see it with twenty-five years of hindsight – and after Radiohead themselves would dive even further into a post-modernist sound – but in listening to OK Computer in late-1997, we could see the future. While I love those two previously-mentioned records that the slightly older or younger version of me might’ve held up as ideals, they both trade in either sounds or sentiments that look backward instead of forward. Trust me when I say that in 1997, even with the many fears that it inspired, the future seemed far more promising than the past, and OK Computer undoubtedly played a big part in that. –MR


Authors

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

  • Glenn Krake is the associate editor of Strange Currencies Music and a co-host of the nearly flawless podcast of the same name. He counts among his proudest achievements taking his daughter to her first concert: Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds in its entirety on its 50th anniversary (as a way of making amends for his own pitiable first concert: The Osmonds at the county fair).

  • Tim Ryan Nelson is a procrastinator and agitator who sometimes appears on the “Strange Currencies Podcast” to tell Glenn why he is wrong. Tim refused to participate in ranking the Beatles’ songs for Strange Currencies Music but was eager to rank their albums, if only to ensure that Revolver didn’t win. His favorite music is anything unpopular and annoying. He also likes kittens.

  • Remy is a contributor to Strange Currencies Music with a particular interest in Psychedelic Rock, Punk Rock, Funk/Soul, Hip-Hop, and Jazz. When Remy isn't writing for Strange Currencies Music, they enjoy playing guitar, watching movies, reading books, and playing with their dog Bowie.

  • George Budney is a guest writer for Strange Currencies Music. Though he has no musical talent himself, he has the good fortune of friends that do. His interests include music, old cars, dogs, and other fringe pursuits.

  • Matt McReynolds, of Strange Currencies' Arizona contingent, has had a song stuck in his head since before he can remember. He and Matt Ryan met outside a public library because of a Pitchfork Music Festival t-shirt. His bailiwick includes 50's - 60's rock and pop and country, 70's and 80's English new wave, Northwest Indie rock, and argyle socks (one of which he's wearing right now).

  • Strange Currencies contributor involved in self portraiture and music. Her favorite albums feature Flamingo Serenade by The Flamingos, Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise, Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails. When she isn’t writing songs, she spends her time researching history and collecting 1950s clothing.

  • I have been a melomaniac for as long as I can remember. By middle school, I had become a serious music collector. By high school, I had every record store in town mapped out in my brain and frequently made the rounds on the hunt for the classics and the obscure!

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