Top 10 Rock Albums of the Late 90s

There is a narrative of the 90s now that after the death of Kurt Cobain, Rock fans’ only options were to either jump ship and get into Hip-hop and Dance music, accept whatever watered-down garbage-grunge, or sink into premature old-man nostalgia. This happened for many, and in my 2013 year-end post I felt the need to attack late 90s rock while making back-handed compliments towards Tricky. This might have been funny if you know I was in a rock band at the time and find self-deprecation amusing. But I’ve been thinking about it. I liked the idea of rewriting that period with me totally not even caring about Rock at that point because it makes the band’s complete failure seem like not a big deal. However, me care(d) a lot.

The big (non-fatal) disapointments of the late 90s were by the big alt-rock bands. Faith No More, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Helmet, all took a nose dive. Even Sonic Youth starting phoning it in. There was still Radiohead, I guess. I like Radiohead. (Sorry?) But there’s no reason to tell you OK Computer is a good one. It’s great. But it’s not making my list. Neither is Stereolab, one of my favorite bands at that time, but there’s no reason to reach even slightly into hyphenated compoundword quasi-genres or even any band with a keyboard player or DJ. There were still great rock bands, they just didn’t become household names. And yet, it was—and is—still possible to enjoy. Imagine listening to music your parents have never, and will never hear, or even hear of. This happened, to me.

(Also, I listened to all that other stuff at the same time. And there was some Metal but I feel like that's another list. Almost everyone I knew listned to all of that. I'm just saying, I accept that people born during or after the late 90s could be reading this, and: you did not invent that. That's all I'm saying. But hopefully we can still be friends because if not I am doomed.)

  1. Jon Spencer Blues Explosion | Now I Got Worry

    Some people don’t “get” JSBX. But some people’s favorite Nirvana album is Unplugged. I don’t get those people. The medium is the goddamn message and the medium is Rock. The Beat. The Guitar. The…Other Guitar. That’s pretty much it. Except that’s not really “it”. It’s the energy of the performance. I think an amp blows up in one of the songs. The followup to this was the more subdued and soulful Acme which is alright in my book, and technically more “late 90s” since it was ’98 and this one was early ’97 but was recorded in ’96 so it’s kinda on the borderline of being mid-90s, and I think there’s a distiction to be made in the general mood or trend of rock that is perhaps exemplified with those two albums, BUTT, when anyone says Rock died with Cobain this is the first thing I think of, played the hell out of this thing. Parts of it still give me the feeling of not caring if the world is about to end or whatever. Maybe I’m dumb.

  2. Sleater-Kinney | The Hot Rock

    I couldn’t possibly take a list like this seriously that did not include stone cold ’97 classic Dig Me Out. Yet, I didn’t have that record myself until post-2000. Many probably equate this release with Spencer’s Acme (The two groups also share the minimal drums&guitars setup.); there’s a few high-energy numbers, but the focus is on songwriting and those quaint pre-millennial themes like “questioning”, “introspection”, “ethics”, all those things that immediately became obsolete. Really it’s mostly about relationships like most of their stuff, but does it really matter what it’s about when the music is this great? The most original stance most bands took in the 90s was ripping off a different decade than everyone else, but there’s nothing retro about this stuff: mostly clean, linear, interlocking drum, guitar and vocal melodies in the style of no one before or since.

  3. Shonen Knife | Happy Hour

    Altho it starts off with an unecessary (but fun) psudo-rap number (a throwback to an earlier one, on 712, I’m guessing Tom Tom Club-inspired), this is mostly straight up pop-punk, the only such album that makes this list. I liked a lot of those bands like The Queers and Mr. T Experience but I feel the albums had a similar drop-off as the big Alternative bands. One reason this holds up over the intentionally funny or clever stuff can be found in the insanely hyper Ska of Cookie Day, charmingly years after anyone gave a shit about Ska with zero irony, and unlike some other of their songs, unambiguously literal: finishing off one of the simplest, happiest songs ever made with a truck driver’s key change, there is no implied wink, no hint of, “can you believe this?” You simply don’t. (And I can't belive it's not on youtube. I do believe this song begins with the offering a cookie to a dog, which I have never questioned until now. Get it.)

  4. Shellac | Terraform

    People seem to skip over this record when they talk about Shellac, maybe it’s just my experience. I think it’s just the name and artwork are kinda generic for the 90s. The songwriting is consistant, they have no hits and sound exactly the same on every record. They are beholden to no trend. But they happened to record and release a record in this time period so here they are. Starts with a long slow-burner you might skip but I don’t.

  5. Guitar Wolf | Planet of the Wolves

    I don’t even need to comment on this except that I didn’t think about the order of this list too much. If you don’t have this your situation is fucked and/or you don’t like Rock’n’Roll.

  6. Sebadoh | The Sebadoh

    There were very few rock records in the 90s you could have sex to cause everyone was on heroin or aggro or ironic or straightedge or some combination of those. You can only listen to the first side of Little Earthquakes so many times. (That doesn’t sound like an undersell, does it?) All Uncle Loobie is about is pot and lovin’. And maybe some speed. And co-dependency. Emotional turmoil. Which is all very sexy, with the right person. Until it isn’t. But then it is again, until it isn’t again. But then it really, really is, better than it’s ever been…until it really, really isn’t. But a record can always start over, which is why we love records. This record stands out as being somewhat “produced”, which somehow did not bother me at the time, and it still doesn’t, unlike other things which have bothered me quite a bit. On most days, I would prefer Bakesale or Harmacy, but haven’t had sex to either, so it’s hard to make a side-by-side comparison.

  7. Cramps | Big Beat from Badsville

    On a really good day the band I was in was mostly like the Cramps, if the Cramps were boring, depressed weirdos who couldn’t be bothered to come up with a gimmick. (We mostly had bad days.) I had to look this one up to make sure it was really a late 90s record. Feels like these songs have always existed. Actually better than their early 90s records if you ask me.

  8. Cake Like | Goodbye, So What

    I really had a thing for this band. Partly because I had a crush on Kerri Kenney from The State, and partly because I had not heard Dig Me Out. But I think they were good, all the albums. This one they get into harmonies. Maybe it’s hard to make them out to be “important” as a band that you need to listen to, but I guess this album in particular was a big deal (to me, I got it in the cutout bin). The emotion of this album is closure. It was something I wished I felt more than felt directly. Like listening to happy music when you want to kill yourself. You know. Right? Uh. They come up with some pretty original stuff musically if you haven’t listened to a whole lot of post-hardcore and indie pop stuff yet but I bet you have. The worst tho is if 90s bands comes up in some casual conversation and I mention this band and I get, “Oh, I love Cake!” Because, FUCCCKKKK YOOOUUUUU.

  9. Modest Mouse | Lonesome Crowded West

    Not my favorite album by them and no special memories attached, but it has some pretty killer songs. I guess I didn’t get into them until this record came out but I listened to the earliest stuff more, where it sounds like it’s barely hanging together. Hard to believe they eventually went more Pop. Good production does Issac Brock no favors, I mean, Lou Barlow actually has a nice voice. But the way he bends strings was crazy. Of course his hand is fucked up now. That was part of the appeal at the time, listening to it like, “He’s gonna totally fuck up his hand! That’s awesome!” We were sick fucks.

  10. Blonde Redhead | In an Expression of the Inexpressible

    To be honest, after I eliminated all of the records that were definitely in my heavy rotation at the time but that I felt could not really count, I had trouble coming up with a tenth record. So we have this. A great record, a Rock record (BR are now decidedly much more post-rock), a record I didn’t own until relatively recently, but which was played a lot on college radio. (In my memory, much earlier, like early-90s, but it turns out not.) There’s some pretty hard tunes on here but ironically, the song that got the most airplay was actually the least rocking. (Even a flute on that track, ye gods.) The vocal is so alien, and the way it’s produced, I guess it reminded me of went I first heard indie music on the radio, like Slint and Rapeman, it just overturns and upsets your expectations of what music could sound like or be about, but still be made by a rock band.


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Morning Musume. | WHY

Beautiful stars,
how many are there?
Beautiful voices,
like your singing.
Gentle breeze,
where does it go?
Gentle heart,
like your character.

Our lips meeting,
already, how many looks. Ah Ha Ha

As people, why do we cry,
As people, why are we lonely,
As people, why do we love,
As people, eventually, where do we go? Uh

Beautiful forest,
the birds, what about them?
Beautiful dream,
a dream you made.

Could our lips meet again
if our eyes are closed? Ah Ha Ha

As people, having fun,
As people, smiling,
As people, in love,
As people, forever, what… Uh

As people, why do we cry,
As people, why are we lonely,
As people, why do we love,
As people, la la la

As people, having fun,
As people, smiling,
As people, in love,
As people, forever, what… Uh


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Top 10 WFMU Premiums

I gotta level with you about a couple things. One: I don’t think I really have enough WFMU premiums to really have a good list of “the best”. Altho I’ve got more than 10, I’ve only been an active listener for the last 15 years, and most of those years I haven’t had enough cash on hand to go up to the premium level (a few came from the volunteer gimmie bin) but it’s less than 20. There’s like 70 of these things every year for…a lotta years. Two: Speaking of a lot of years, I’ve been doing this blog for almost 5. (That’s at least 27 in blog years, I don’t know.) I have not done what I consider 5 years worth of record reviews, it’s mostly bullshit. I might not have 5 years worth of record reviews, but I do have 5 years of record review queuing.

Because of my deep belief in and total commitment to utter absurdity, I intend to somehow review all of those records. And yet, if I see an opportunity to knock out more than one at a time, I’m taking it. So I’m just including all of the WFMU premiums that were in my queue in this list. Which is not fair to a lot of other premiums, but I’ll try to make up for it somehow with some honorable mention cheat like every other goddamn list I’ve done.

The premiums I speak of usually take the form of CDR mixtapes. There’s a variety of different non-musical premiums like t-shirts, videos, comicbooks and various tchotchkes. These are outside the scope of this blog. After going over the list I’ve also decided to exclude the insane LP of all locked grooves Running in Place which you can and must just buy from their store. (For less than a tenth of what I paid for as a premium, but whatever, that's cool. Good cause. I'm cool with that. Not an exclusive piece. I couldn't have really thought that at the time, right? It's cool.)

And of course, there are many premiums that are mostly talking, which are hilarious and completely worth your time, probably all available via file-sharing since they are very popular. But if have enjoyed those without donating, shame on you.

The WFMU marathon is on RIGHT NOW. (Last day.) And if you cannot donate money right now, at least listen so that you feel terrible about not donating in the future. But in that future, don’t feel terrible, donate. Or buy something directly from the store. You’re one of those people aren’t you, who complains about everyone selling out, but only puts money out for the art of those that have died of poverty-related circumstance? Of course you are. But you can change. The DJs and staff of WFMU are among the last non-sold-out people left, and most of them are still alive. But for how long? They seem to be in good health. I think. Don’t worry about it, I’m sure they’ll be fine. I mean, I’m not worried about it is all.

  1. V/A | Don’t Shoot the Toy Piano Player (2002)

    This is part of a class of premiums
    also available in the Crapola store
    . It’s like a best of other premiums you can’t buy, but even better as it’s a real, manufactured CD. (A 2-CD set in fact, with the fancy case and all.) This one is my favorite, as it contains the best songs from Scott Williams‘ 2000 premium Put A Motor in Yourself, which I almost include separately. You’ve got Kinski (fearing Mogwai), Peaches & Gonzales when they were billed as a duo (and feat. Feist), I like that live session better than the album. (Looking closer, a lot of these songs here were from sessions with Scott, but different songs, you should check out those archives.) Plus there’s early Mastodon from Diane Kamikaze and Lightning Bolt from Brian Turner and Dead Moon from Joe Belock’s show. All classic shit. Plus Rick Benson, who I don’t remember honestly, but I trust it was funny.

  2. Mike Lupica | Anti Static, Volume 1 (2009)

    Mike is like my older brother who wants nothing to do with me and who can blame him? I used to listen to his show Hey You Kids, Get Off My Lawn on WPRB when I was in high school (it really sounds like I’m making this up), where I first heard I lot of this music, which he hates having referred as “indie rock”, but it’s what me and other 35-year-old whippersnappers might call it. There’s a picture of Pier Platters on the cover, a record store I heard about for years but never visited before it closed. There’s a good write-up about it on his blog, which almost mirrors my own experiences, yet painfully more authentic.

  3. DJ /rupture | All AutoTune All the Time (2009)

    I got some mixed feelings about AutoTune, and I didn’t listen to this show that much, but within any style of music there’s gotta be someone doing it right, so I took the deep dive challenge with this. It really does date the music in the way you expect, but it’s like the way old Bollywood music put a ton of reverb on everything. You can come to appreciate it. There was supposed to be liner notes posted on his website but he apparently never got around to it. There’s plenty he wrote about it in general tho.

  4. Fabio | Drone Zone (2009)

    Just what it sounds like. [I had this listed on tumblr as "Drone Prone" for the last 4 1/2 years and nobody said anything. Thanks.] Chanting, sitars, hurdy-gurdys, and some of that Hermann Nitsch music it’s so hard to find a psychical copy of. “With EXTRA Strength Through Failure”

  5. HotRod | Drum Roll, Please (2009)

    This one is not like a mixtape, but like a series of continuous dance mixes, except not at all what you’d hear at a dance club. Mostly drum based, no info. Some of it’s obvious like there’s a Nine Inch Nails beat in there, but I’d love a full playlist on this thing. I was never sure if I knew the identity of this DJ so I didn’t ask.

  6. Stork | Rufus Harley Live at the Stork Club (2001)

    Simply a full live performance by Rufus on bagpipes and soprano sax with son Messiah on trumpet. The closest I got to seeing the man live while he was around, which is a big regret.

  7. Bryce | Flattery (2009)

    Byrce’s show is great because if you lose reception or there’s some glitch in the online stream, it’s impossible to tell if it’s part of the show or not. You could be sitting around thinking, “hey, I’ll just listen to nothing for a while, whatever”, until his soothing voice comes on the air, “that was Whole Lotta Nothing by Phil Nobody”. So this CD is not really like that. His own description is better than mine: “Melody on drums, strings for rhythm. Animals from instruments, animals as instruments. Musical switcheroos and other traditional curiosities.”

  8. Janitor from Mars | Stop the Clock (2003)

    One of those late-night shows that comes and goes, Japanese psyche mostly. Stuff I should know more about, but doesn’t stick with my as much as other J-music. He’s got an url with a tilda in it, so you know it’s serious.

  9. Ken | (Schwingin’ Mit Der Original) Axis of Evil (2002)

    Weird Pop from Italy, Germany and Japan. Another show that covers old J-pop is Rob Weisberg’s Transpacific Sound Paradise, but my taste overlaps more with Ken’s, except when it comes to cover art I guess, this one’s kind of a doozy.

  10. Dan Bodah | Beautiful Sounds Coming Out of the Ground: The Best of the Subway Music Series (2002)

    Sometimes you need to stay up all night wandering the streets of NYC, soaking in the ambiance, checking out the street musicians, writing terrible poetry in your head, etc. Other times you stay up all night in your apartment, maybe with your roommate who just doesn’t get it, man, listening to a radio show of ambient field recordings of NYC street musicians. Other times you listen to a CD of those recordings in the middle of the day which is not quite the same but it’s nice to have and how else is any of that stuff going to more than tears in the rain.

Honorable Mentions

  • Donna | Prattle (2002)
    This and the previous year’s Babble are both excellent collections of the most bizarre avant-garde and far-out tribal vocalizations imaginable. But this one went above and beyond with the CD design. If you have this one there’s like a one in ten chance I put the sticker on the CD.

  • Greasy Kid Stuff | Great Green Gobs & Other Delights (2001)
    The best GKS mix collects all the gross songs, including Weird Al and Dr. Demento hits of my misspent youth such as Fish Heads, songs the Muppets covered like The Sound of Worms and even Oscar the Grouch himself doing I Love Trash. Plus Shel Silverstein, Fred Lane, The Stinky Puffs, and you got Penn Jillette on the title track. All behind a lovely cover by Bob Piersanti. Too perfect.

Aaand I’ve got a Joe Frank CD in my queue which could have been from FMU but I’m pretty sure I bought it directly from the site so that’s it. Later. %

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