Edit: So, GZA’s startlingly impressionistic, vehemently volatile, hypnotically frigid hip-hop horror show Liquid Swords should be in the top five on this list. Don’t know how I forgot it. Best rap album ever.
Edit: personal need dictates that I inform you this list probably should have been just Ty Segall albums, but I’ll get back to him at some other point. Maybe a retrospective? Seriously, his stuff is uniformly terrific, concrete-primal howling sludge gutter-punk death-marked psychedelic proto-punk, and all that good stuff. He’s also ridiculously prolific. Do check him out.
Also I probably could have included almost every Sleater-Kinney album, but you should just check them out, and especially their new release No Cities to Love. It is the best rock (not metal) album I’ve heard in a very long time.
And finally, do give it up for Dinosaur Jr., who are instrumental in the development of many of the albums I hold dear from the past quarter-century. Their best stuff was released just outside of the time period this list covers, but their recent return to making albums has yielded at least two stellar rock records, 2007’s Beyond and 2009’s The Farm, and they probably should have been on this list.
But first, the honorable mentions: Some albums were seriously considered, but were tainted with an air of homework. Alt temper-tantrums like Arcade Fire’s Funeral, REM’s Automatic for the People, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and My Morning Jacket’s sterling Z just fell prey to my proclivity for abrasive, dangerous sounding music in the end, skirting a little too close to the fluffier qualities of indie music to cut it on the list (they’d all be shoo-ins for a top fifty though). Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would have been the greatest pure pop album of the past twenty five years (and it still sort of is), but it needed a slight trim around the edges (extended length being the great bane of all modern albums). The Arctic Monkeys’ AM is a brilliant album in concept but falls slightly apart in execution after the first half (it’s still a real corker of midnight-in-the-club crooning vampire rock though). And while hard rock/ metal bonafides pop up every which way through the ensuing list, 1990 boasted a pair of pummeling thrashers in Megadeth’s Rust in Peace and Judas Priest’s Painkiller that just missed. 1991’s unwieldy monstrosity Use Your Illusion (Guns n Roses, but you already knew that from “unwieldy monstrosity”), if paired down to one album, would be just about the most fascinatingly confused rock album of the past quarter decade.
33. Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, Ry Cooder 2011
Just when it seemed like the 2010s weren’t going to get at least one great protest album, an old-timer who sounds even older had to come and save the day by mucking it up a little. But if Ry Cooder’s cantankerous spirit isn’t matched perfectly to his whiskey-soaked gravel-pit of a voice, his whiplash, acid-spewing guitar will do the trick. The album’s real surprise, however: giving us a tongue-in-cheek slice of caustic snark when we all expected a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Cooder’s album captures an off-the-cuff youthfulness, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t loaded with all the wisdom and finesse of a seasoned veteran letting off some steam around the campfire. Better still, his weathered voice crawls through the album, coaxing even the most insubstantial number along to stand on end and sing along with his ghostly, moonshine-induced spirit. While many (too many) great albums strive for fine wine, Cooder’s flippant but maniacal brew is a Moonshine with plenty of bitters infused.
32. Foundations of Burden, Pallbearer 2014
Sometimes heavy metal seems like an arms raise to grow louder, rage harder, pummel with more turbulence, and raise hell. With all respect to the rulebook, the all-time metal Gods, Black Sabbath, laid the testaments down bare by ensuring slow and steady would win the race. Rock bands have forgotten that recently, but, braised in pensive, ever-suffering melancholia, Pallbearer proves their forefathers proud. Foundations of Burden is an album of profoundly little hubris, cosmic yet earth-stricken and never going for the easy catch in its slowly winding dread sand-blasted with odd, contorted angles and suffering hopelessness. It is metal at its least ostentatious and most quietly rewarding, never unloading with staccato thrills but instead brandishing the broad-sword of the long-haul. Songs weave in and out of each other, never granting us the benefit of a proper beginning or ending, for that would establish the form and normalcy of “songs”. Pallbearer isn’t interested in giving us the easy way out by allowing us stopping places. They are travelers, slowly but surely siphoning off joy and skulking– us as passengers forced into submission along with them – to their doom. It is an album infused with the pallor of the grave, and nothing could be metal than that.
31. Definitely Maybe, Oasis 1994
Above all, Definitely, Maybe is a statement to the sunny optimism of the mid-90s and stands in stark contrast to the early 90s recession that accompanied, and perhaps coaxed forward, the rage-and-depression-fueled grunge explosion a few years before-hand. Of course, by this time the corporate gods were aligning in their eternal quest to re-invent dangerous music in more upbeat and safe forms, breeding that eternal stain on music history, post-grunge. This genre took the literal grunge of grunge, namely the distorted guitar, and little of the more subversive emotional or mental danger and depression synonymous with the aesthetic in general; to paraphrase Roger Ebert, they understood that a band can distort a guitar, but they did not understand why. Oasis emerged along with other bands like Blur, Weezer, and the Foo Fighters in their quest to “save” late 90s rock by taking it corporate without ever slumming in the post-grunge muck. It was a noble quest, but a failed one.
But, for one album, Oasis remembers a different story: even commercial rock music used to be a dangerous affair, the kind built on adolescent nightmares and dreams more than anything else. And if grunge was the last gasp of the nightmarish, the Britpop movement headed by Oasis at least emerged to give us the dream one last time. These guys were rock stars and they reveled in the fame, the money, and the pure cheeky adolescent delight of playing guitar solos up on stage for adoring fans and going home afterwards, probably to imbibe in the carnal pleasures that fill the desires of teenagers everywhere. They weren’t ashamed of it, nor did they want to be. They were just kids having fun and raising a fuss while doing it. At least for one album, the Gallagher brothers were a modern-day Van Halen, true rock-stars to the core.
30. Good Kid, MAAD City, Kendrick Lamar 2011
If it took a bombastic, domineering, egotistical figure like Kanye West to take rap into the stratosphere (after Outkast decided they didn’t care anymore), Kendrick Lamar does nothing short of crashing it right back down to Earth. What’s more, Lamar makes damn sure he finds the grittiest, grimiest muck to land in. Compton raised, this is a young talent who explores the eternal dialectic of rap, the tension by which it births its danger: the melding of high and low class, or icy, chilly intellectualism with streetwise, pragmatic thoughtfulness. It all comes together on the self-destructive, contemplative single “Poetic Justice” and the cognitive-dissonance of “Swimming Pools”, but this is an album statement first and foremost. Something happened in the past twenty years – no one’s really sure what – where rap music went from the knife-on-your-spine decay of the Wu-Tang Clan to the warm, sunny soul-drenched pop of today. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t necessarily know either, but he’s doing more than his part to figure out what went wrong.
PS: I haven’t heard To Pimp a Butterfly yet, so excuse the absence. Although “The Blacker the Berry” is a combative monster mash of a song, and the best single song Lamar has yet made.
29. Ghosts of the Great Highway, Sun Kil Moon 2003
Neil Young has released several good albums in the early 21st century, but the best by a mile is an album he didn’t have a thing to do with. Sun Kil Moon’s 2003 album would be all esoteric intellectualism if it wasn’t so damned emotional, channeling the anti-perfectionist raggedness, the real-world despair, the humanist ache of a vocal chord, and the cathartic playing which favors rising and ebbing emotion over precision that all came together to make Young one of the most affecting artists of the 20th century. The connection is somewhat explicit when the album’s best song (the haunting “Carry Me Ohio”) references the same misbegotten state that centered one of Young’s best songs (“Ohio”, in CSNY of course). If most of these songs are airy folk whose lightness belies a deadened anxiousness, the album is not short on rocking out either – Mark Kozelek (who is essentially synonymous with Sun Kil Moon) knows how to let the feedback fly in a few seriously grungy, dissonance-drenched amp-crushing grit-monstrosities. Even in these cases though, he knows how to let the music breath, linger, and imply rather than demand. I’m still waiting for one more truly great Neil Young album like everyone else, but …well, like Ronnie Van Zant (misguidedly) said, sometimes “Neil Young (isn’t) around”.
27 and 28. Yeezus and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye West 2013/2010
Neither of Kanye’s two 2010s albums is perfect, and Kanye has made it 100% certain that he absolutely does not care in the slightest. Both works, each ribald and rambunctious in their own way, are studies in chaos, but one sees a soul cracked open and the other a soul unleashed. Fascinatingly, the albums lash out at one another, and yet form a cohesive whole grander than either on its own. Lascivious and locquacious, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a vortex of his id, ego, and superego clashing like the royalty Kanye knows they are. Grand, sprawling, and with the heart of a space-ace conqueror, it feels unhinged in its messy, baroque excess and sky-high, all-devouring ambition. Yeezus keels things over, seeing the battle of emotions rusted over and finding the apocalypse of the mind ready to make play with the world around it. If Fantasy entangles ebullience and melancholy, Yeezus’ libido is frayed, snarled, and hauntingly blunt in its stripped-barren muscle-bound quality. Famously, Fantasy saw Kanye look away from autotune forever, and in his cheekiest bid of all, Yeezus saw him dig open the grave, grab the mechanized pitch-adjuster monstrosity by the skull, and throw it around haphazardly for all to hear. He makes amends with the device only to read it past itself, jumping pitches like a madman to break the device in its tracks on tape, subversively and self-consciously positioning it as the altogether fake beast it really is. It is an album of profound meta-text. Plus, “New Slaves” may be the creepiest song of the new decade.
26. Angel Dust, Faith No More 1992
It’s a right shame that the reigning mad kings of San Francisco left no real legacy on the music world beyond the masses of antiseptic, anemic, insipid nu metal artists which would come to take this band’s esoteric but pertinent blend of rapped (barked) vocals and concrete rock and knock it down to the lamest common denominator. But that does little to diminish the primal power of Faith No More, most typified by their indescribable left-field masterpiece Angel Dust, which takes the kitchen-sink approach to rock about as literal as any album ever. Songs combine slinky, indecent funk bass, ethereal, alien keyboards, glammy heavy metal guitars, jungle-gym drums, and a calliope’s worth of horn and synth compliments at staggered, jagged angles seemingly for the hell of it. Naturally, it’s all presided over by the maestro-of-madness Mike Patton’s caustic vocal stylings, which have him go from impassioned croon to devilish low-hung growl to chalkboard screech on the drop of a dime. Even the big hits, the soft-to-loud confrontational gang vocal “Midlife Crisis” and the mockingly straightforward “Everything’s Ruined”, are weird beyond belief. Faith No More is the rare band that can seemingly do it all, and yet they meld together their diverse interests with finesse that never feels didactic. It’s a howl of an album, a battering ram with finishing-school diction, a jester’s lunacy, the matter-of-fact push-and-pull of a titanic tidal wave, and the buoyant spunk and cheerful danger of a surfer breathing air deep down into the chaos below.
25. In the Aeroplane over the Sea, Neutral Milk Hotel 1997
Shockingly egoless and soul-barring by the standards of modern indie, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea puts to shame the eighteen years of twee alternative anti-emotion that has consumed indie music in the following years. It’s a brutal, unmitigated assault of abrasive vocals and cavernously strummed guitar twang, splitting the difference between Wilco’s earthen roots take on alternative rock and Nirvana’s more insidious, destructive, anti-spirited slant on the same. “Oh Comely” is the highlight, one of the greatest “long” songs ever recorded, and one of the most directly expressive, destroyed aural pieces ever written. Something about it just feels like volcanic ash, and it never goes away. The whole album rampages however, feeling remarkably frail and unadorned in a way no album since has quite managed, even as dozens of alternative albums attempt it year in and year out. Better still, it is a paean to a time when “alternative” was a mighty calling card to dissenters and dissidents everywhere, a legitimate air to the rock ‘n’ roll throne of underdog undergrowth, to the difficult, and to the dangerous.
23 and 24. Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon, Neil Young 1990/1992
Neither of Neil Young’s early 90s albums holds a candle to his prime mid-70s output, but the pair of them highlight the man’s incomparable talents better than anything he’s released in the past thirty five years and are all the more effective for their individually cohesive aesthetics. Ragged Glory is, if the name doesn’t give it away, the concrete-slab album. Young and his band of merry troubadours-in-flannel let their primitive melodies and spur-of-the-moment, torn-and-frayed jam sessions play out with almost undisclosed fury and tempestuous torrent. At every point they favor spontaneous vigor and youthful tomfoolery to rival anything the (then) newly rejiggered punk scene was creating in terms of unremitting mischief and provocation (on the eve of the genre’s explosion into the mainstream, “Fuckin’ Up” is a grunge anthem from the godfather of the genre). Harvest Moon is its polar opposite, a deliberately slight, wearisome album where Young sounds almost ready to fall apart with each word, his bones dried and his soul worn to heartbreaking effect like an old man ready to give in to the world around him. One album is so lively it feels almost unfinished, like it just crawled out from the electric womb (to its benefit of course). The other sees the specter of death as close as its ever been. But both seem all the purer and more startling for this contrast, expressing two sides of the Young coin in a markedly distinct fashion.
While nothing on either album hits the highs of “Hey Hey My My” (two songs, the first wistfully plaintive and mournfully tired and the second savagely poetic and coarsely unhinged, which define the rock ‘n’ roll experience more than any pair of songs ever have), the two albums are a treatise on the same duality. A duality, by the way, that was typified by the early 90’s rock scene, when grizzly, snarling hard rock and melancholy singer-songwriter musings were reuniting for the first time in over a decade. Young had grandfathered this melding, but here he decided to separate the two, galvanize the dichotomy and leave two statements of his majesty, two variations on a theme, and let you take your pick. If nothing else, it is an artist who found beauty in rejecting technical proficiency and normative songwriting logic shoving that sound into the modern time period, when normative songwriting is as commonplace and insidious as it’s ever been. Of all those la-di-da precious 70s singer-songwriters, Young is the only one who knew that rock music was at its core about lowering itself into the primordial ooze and relishing the accidents of letting the music take you where it will. Well into his golden years, he’s still expressing this theme as best as he can. He’s aging gracefully without ever maturing, and that is the best case scenario for any rock star.
22. Rid of Me, PJ Harvey 1992
PJ Harvey aspires so hard to be a modern-day Bob Dylan that she ends up reading the folk-meister past himself, echoing his abrasive alternative qualities and taking them to their logical, and far more dangerous, extreme by pumping up her ragged, anguished guitar to metal-levels. She’s one of a number of big mid 90’s female singer-songwriters, but where-as they were comfortable with a sub-Stevie Nicks level of adult contemporary balladry, Harvey chews them up and spits them out whole. She’s furious, and her erotic anger burns over in every song, finding her equally dissonant and righteous when taking on achingly flawed humanity or mythic, monstrous beasts. This is the unrepentant danger that rock used to epitomize, here rendered by a woman who refuses to stand-by for any man, and who gives us her own brand of feminism unafraid of the need for “respectability”. While others go for nuanced lyrics and carefully arranged, professional music, she goes straight for the throat with an attack that triangulates goth, punk, and metal. Nothing can contain her, and that’s a feminist statement you can take with a shot to the gut.
19, 20, and 21. RAP Music, Run the Jewels, and Run the Jewels 2, Killer Mike and EL-P 2012, 2013, 2014
Damn, Killer Mike has it together, even when he’s slowly allowing it to all come apart. And he’s found the perfect partner in crime in DJ EL-P. Together, these two hopscotch across styles and throw sounds and lyrics together in a concoction that approaches genuine assault. RAP Music is a primal statement on race relations in modern America, poised and composed yet unleashed and ready to cause a ruckus. Mike casually masters form and rhythm and stream-of-consciousness self-destruction while steadily breaking down and revealing a disconcerting, wounded vulnerability over the course of an album that flows from relaxed to distraught and comes around the bend to hopeful and prideful by the finale. On some level, though, it’s merely an appetizer for the dueling dichotomy that is Run the Jewels and its successor, albums that see the pair wielding EDM and electronica influences like encrusted jewel accompaniments to their buster-filled rap crown. In doing so, they move RAP Music’s concern over past and present toward the unforeseeable future. Plus, and this has to count for something, these guys seem to be the only valuable musicians today who actually understand the value of actually, you know, releasing music on a regular schedule.
18. Black Messiah, D’Angelo 2014
D’Angelo sure took a long time to release this album, and he sure made it worth the wait. His quiet sigh of a work showcases both his own plaintive fury at the world around him and his years of personal anxiety and paranoia brought on by image issues and low self-esteem. It feels readily primed like a powder-keg, quietly weary like a street-poet forever lost in hopeless romanticism, and snarky and sly like a crawling king snake slithering right up the middle. It’s a confrontational, bitter album, but it subsumes everything into a murky joy, a quiet ode to maintaining hope in the face of adversity cut through with a pained realization that hope is often nothing more than a fool’s errand. Contemplative and lovely, the whole album unspools like a late-night spontaneous slam poetry session suffused in a trippy haze of despair and far-out cosmic fluid. The after-midnight tone of the album sees D’Angelo sly and stoned, ambidextrous in the way he blankets the music in a lovely croon and undercuts it with carefully pummeling dire riffs. Above all, in the way it eschews song structure and directness for circularity and interweaving insanity, this album shows that D’Angelo understands the most important tool of any artist-prophet: if you want to make a politically radical album, make it artistically radical too (plus, even when he’s being conventional, as on opener “Ain’t That Easy”, he’s merely making the best funk song in decades). It is a work directly in confrontation with modern society, left so perplexed and puzzled it looks through the binoculars, stares it down, cuts through the tangled web of wreckage, and does the only thing left: walk boldly into the barren wide open.
17. The Woods, Sleater-Kinney 2005
That opening note, man. I don’t have to defend The Woods, for it says all we need to know in the first ten seconds. The best rock song in a decade, “The Fox”, positively explodes with lacerating, unfettered blues-punk energy, opening this band’s best album with a barrage of skull-shaking aural desecration that hardly approximates a guitar and then giving way to the most frightening light-fable ever found in music. Rock music spent the better part of the past forty years trimming its nails, growing up, putting on a suit, and generally fitting into society. “The Fox” re-grows the claws, shreds through the clothing, and returns the genre to the wilderness from whence it came. It howls at the moon and tears through any prey in its path. It is a bestial tone poem, even a deconstruction of the idea of a rock song.
The real deal about this album though: it never lets up. The Woods retains the raw, frazzled vigor of their earlier releases whilst ably paying homage to the sun-scorched history of psychedelic hard-rock. Staking its claim on guitar-heroics that split the difference between lava-lamp fluidity and pure molten rock not seen since Hendrix’s heyday, The Woods knows rock’s history while never forgetting its own propulsive forward push into the future. Original riot grrrl’s Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein expand their sound with provocative, earthen Zep influences, but they don’t for a second sacrifice any of thick-as-granite buzzsaw splurge and indefatigable improvised dirge that made them one of the purest, most primal rock acts of the modern era. This is the ruthless wave of sound that caught the essence of rock ‘n’ roll for a generation that had forgotten what the word means. Check out their comeback album No Cities to Love too. It is better than anyone could have imagined, and should hopefully see this trio (Janet Weiss destroys her drum kit in third position) onto a new stage of an already incomparable career.
16. Ritual de lo Habitual, Jane’s Addiction 1990
The first band to meld alternative/punk and metal in a way which explored, rather than hid, the tensions between them, Jane’s Addiction are about as unsung a hero as rock music has. “Stop!” is the brightest, most whimsical blast of punk fury alternative music ever heard (and damn can Dave Navarro destroy a guitar). Or maybe it’s the most technically accomplished and dexterously fluid song punk forgot to make, but either way Perry Farrell’s demented shriek invades the human mind better than anyone since Neil Young, and Farrell has carnivalesque cunning on his side too. The second half of the album is especially potent, with the band dropping the ripcord rage and taking a bold step into the unknown, abandoning all pretense of form and expanding to bible-length, free-flowing epics, including their desert-exploring Stairway-companion “Three Days”. Many bands would expand upon the Jane’s Addiction formula, most notably Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, but few ever did it with the wacky left-field weirdness and genre-melding pathos of Perry Farrell and friends. Perry Farrell is rock music’s Pee Wee Herman, and Ritual de Lo Habitual is his playhouse.
15. Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, Wu-Tang Clan 1993
Never before had a rap album, or any album maybe, sounded so dirty, so grimy, and so damn proud of it. It’s got nine lyrical MCs of immeasurable talent individually battling it out for air time like bears fighting for scraps, but it’s the street-maestro RZA’s central production that proves the glue that binds them together uneasily and creates hip-hop’s most amorphously tight family. Capable of going from water to ice and back again in the span of seconds, his lo-fi murkishness stretches an aural soundscape upon which his fellow sooth-sayers can deal out knowledge on everything from street crime to Shakespeare with a startling seriousness like poker-players with a game face a mile wide. I could pick out songs, but the whole album is a confrontation waiting to happen, a mad lyrical brew set to kill that weaves a conflicting tale of perpetual human indecency and stunted inhumanity. The way the group sounds like they love and hate each other simultaneously, backed up by the broken-down family aesthetic that has made them rap’s greatest collective, is one for the ages. So is the album, although it isn’t for the faint of heart.
14. OK Computer, Radiohead 1997
Sinewy and soulful yet gaunt, stripped-barren yet multi-faceted, and reflective yet boastful, OK Computer is the culmination of the modern alternative aesthetic at its luminous best. It wraps up the weirdness of Jane’s Addiction and the anthemic purity of the The Smashing Pumpkins and manages to tear away whatever 70s and 80s flamboyant excess remained in the particular brand of sideshow rock ‘n’ roll kitsch epitomized by those alt rockers. OK Computer boils away what grungey goodness remained at the show-off core of their previous album, The Bends, to distill a certain intellectual discomfort that feels at once alive and dead. It is a very secretive album, but it bursts out in expansive new spaces, carving out its own niche as Thom Yorke breathes when we expect him to sing and Jonny Greewood coaxes arcane, uncomfortable sounds out of his guitar like no one in the modern era. It feels both always-existent and always in the making, shimmeringly, gorgeously human and menacingly otherworldly, deeply personal and intimate yet ever-expanding to fill the limits of the unknown universe. Perhaps no album filled with so many hard angles has ever been so lovely to listen to, so gentle and yet so slithering, so totally empty and pallid and yet so fulled with careening sonic spaces. This is rock music that splits the difference between human and machine. Or maybe it challenges the dichotomy and brings it to its knees. Or renders the difference meaningless. It’s always hard to tell with Radiohead, and that is their magic.
13. Songs for the Deaf, Queens of the Stone Age 2002
The best album by the best rock band of the 2000s plays like a greatest hits of rock music, capturing the acidic pop-nuggets of the 60s (“Another Love Son”), the best bass-heavy blasts of pure rock righteousness this side of the 70s (“No One Knows”), glammy stomping numbers right out of the 80s (“Do it Again”), and the deranged left-field cemetery dirge of 90s grunge and swooning, crooning, deranged alt-rock (the title track). But best of all, as on “Go With the Flow”, it manages to do sheeny modern rock, loaded up on post-Foo Fighters era commercialism and safe precision, right. Namely, it does so by tying it up and throwing it into the trunk of a car packed with the sounds of the past and sending it off on a road-trip to the lost desert of time that the band calls home.
The real key to Queens’ take on sunny California classic FM staples is their little slices of seedy, demented humor grabbing trucker music by the horns and twisting it ever so slightly until it begs for mercy. Vampy and strutting and with an attack equal parts sand-blasted metal, strung-up guerilla warfare, and sinister, slithering funk (QOTSA being perhaps the only modern rock band to do funk with buoyancy and no hint of leaden chug), this deranged carnival sideshow piece of nocturnal, bubbling toil-and-trouble hits like a bag of bricks and then walks away with a sassy strut. Even when it is relatively poppy, there’s a naughtiness on display that alchemizes backyard BBQ bluster in something more uncanny, digging up the leaden qualities of the genre and smacking them with fricasseed glam and undead drawl. It is an album by musicians who, above all, just love being musicians, taking us on a car ride and doing classic rock music with a sort of demented happiness we don’t see anymore. And, of course, playing with it, mad scientist smirk and all, to add a little perk to the dead-and-buried genre’s step.
12. In Utero, Nirvana 1994
Long-discussed as Kurt Cobain’s anti-consumer, anti-fame album and his refutation of the success he found after Nevermind, In Utero is an untamed mind at its worst. Which, of course, makes it rock music at its best. Cobain’s defection from rock ‘n’ roll royalty boasts lyrical tensions and complications both ravenous and tangled-up. It provides a tremulous but tantalizing glimpse into the mind of a superstar always more comfortable with burning out than fading away. But it’s the music of the album that really wins over – the carnivorous metallic grind of a charging beast ready to, if not take over the world, at least lash out at it as it goes on one last trip around the sun. In doing so, of course, it gets too close to the round ball of energy for comfort– but damn if it doesn’t burn with the passion it always dreamed of before it burns out. In Utero is the sound of rock ‘n’ roll resilience unleashed and fangs drawn. And on the final song, the wistful “All Apologies”, the sound of rock finally put to rest, quavering and then comatose in the span of an instant, and ready to look past the hell of society’s making and into a future of hope and hopelessness. It isn’t sure which will prevail, but that is what makes Nirvana, well, Nirvana.
11. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, The Smashing Pumpkins 1995
Perhaps no other album sums up all that was great (and all that was indulgent) about early 1990’s rock music. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness sees the Smashing Pumpkins sacrificing any semblance of restraint or coherence for a profoundly beautiful cluster-bomb of a double album just waiting to find all audiences. Billy Corgan, eternally troubled by the multitude of ideas swarming around in his head, forces gross, raging, deeply ugly heavy metal (the all-time snotty angst-anthem “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, the primitive “Zero”, the destructive “Where Boys Fear to Tread”, the pummeling “Bodies”) up against some of the prettiest human despair you can find (“1979”, “Thirty-Three”). If flirting with prog wasn’t enough, he throws in at least two all-time European epics for good measure (stripped of the egotistical wankery of prog too, with just enough personal confidence and panache thrown back in to seem sufficiently brash). And while his rockers kicked up dust on Gish and shook the earth on Siamese Dream, here they throw the conventional respectability of anthemic lighter-starters to the wind in favor of exploring an electric guitar’s capacity to dismember, dismantle, and disfigure on scorchers like “XYU”. The rock songs, “Bullet” aside, aspire not to kickstart a mosh or burn the barn so much as to splinter the soul and plunge untold psychic depths of existential angst while excavating the far-reaching fringes of the genre’s potential.
It isn’t a tight album, nor always a judicious one, but that fascinating messiness was very much part and parcel with the spirit of classic rock. Billy Corgan, and the Pumpkins, are all bombast and ego and no humility, but so were a great many classic rock bands as they crafted album-statements that succeeded in spite of their flair for the indulgent. Corgan isn’t really so different from the basic template of the early 90s grunge dirge epitomized by the likes of Nirvana. But by indulging himself a little, and letting some of that high-flying classic rock air into the muckish gutter so important to grunge, he gets to have it both ways; he elevates “raw” with prog-like accompaniments without sacrificing the bottom-end. In doing so, he also creates a complicated, contradictory statement to the best of rock music over the course of the preceding thirty years, throwing styles against one another with abandon, even when no one would have thought they would make sense together. This is a person with a vision, remember, and even if that vision is a bit much to handle at times, the seriousness and intimacy with which he treats exploratory bombast ensures it never tips over. Sometimes you just get to have it your way, and, at least this once, we should be thankful Billy Corgan got his.
10. Blue Album, Baroness 2009
They released a much heavier album before-hand and a much more commercial, and indeed more pastoral album afterwards, and while both were strong efforts, this Savannah, Georgia sludge-metal outfit hasn’t produced another album statement quite like 2009’s Blue Album. The simultaneously gorgeous and grimy cover art (painted by main axe-man and singer John Baizley) is a perfect reflection of the band’s sound – at once sublimely beautiful and teeth-gnashingly brutal, both stark and lush, and jagged in its chaos even as it flows like a thick slab of Southern-fried molasses. The undeniable highlight is the stunningly intricate dueling tension of “A Horse Called Golgotha” which functions equally well as a road-rage anthem and a jazz-inspired work of serious scriptural study. But “Swollen and Halo” manages to almost match it for darkened psychedelic beauty. Knowingly distant yet oppressively close, and both plain-spoken and otherworldy, The Blue Album found Baroness seeing their more famous semi-sound-alikes Mastodon releasing their career-best Crack the Skye, and in this Southern-fried duel, Baroness matched them for both leathery ferocity and potency.
9. Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy 1990
Neither as survivable nor as destructive as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back, Fear of a Black Planet is nonetheless about as provocative as a mainstream album has ever been, ably indicting targets a mile wide with aged candor and youthful vitality and laying down confrontational spitfire backed by a radically assembled, anti-social slice-of-life soundscape and dynamic, abrasive, multitudinous lyrics. Chuck D’s whiplash vocal delivery and ambidextrous framing intersects with sinister, sinuous music equally at home with lush soul and grimy, anatomical gutter-funk. Fear of a Black Planet is wholly aware of its own history in recombining and galvanizing several decades of African-American music. Better still, it is entirely ready to throttle this music into the modern era with a blast of street poetry and futurist retro-rebellion. Politics has never been more fun than on the abrasive, molotov-cocktail-in-a-club that is “Fight the Power”, which, even at its most congenial, conveys subtle aggression more than radio-meltdown.
8. Aquemini, Outkast 1998
Outkast is about the most critically lauded musical act of the last fifteen years, which is why it’s all the stranger than no one bothers to remember that they are a twenty year old band. Stankonia made them superstars and it will forever remain their high watermark, but their previous album, 1998’s Aquemini, matches it for adventurousness and alternative derring-do, even if it lacks its successor’s raw impact. Plus, the hit single, “Rosa Parks”, is the best thing the duo of Big Boi and Andre 3000 ever did: a stunning call for racial pride that name drops the famous civil rights activist and has the guts to simultaneously uphold her ethos while critiquing black America’s desire to find success only in white-washing themselves. It is, above all, a bold call for African Americans, asking them not to fit in with white society but to stake out their own identity in the world through the strengths of black culture the duo sees missing in white society. It’s a brash, confrontational claim, one wrought with complication and even confusion, but it burns with what goes beyond racial pride and turns braggadocio into pure radical Black Power.
And, like much of the best of African-American music throughout history, it does so in the guise of pop music, deceiving us into thinking it likes mainstream society while subtly indicting us, turning us on our heads, and giving us a jab in the ribs. It even goes so far as to break into a wolfy harmonica hop-scotch late in the song, coming unhinged as it drops all pretense of form and structure to shoot straight for the stratosphere. That’s what Outkast does best, and they never did it better than on this five minute blast of pop-anarchism. Like the entire album – one that welcomes both ripcord stream-of-consciousness spitfire and thoughtful, cosmic reflection – it’s also Outkast reclaiming the threatening danger of rock ‘n’ roll – brought forth from the fires of slave music and African culture and white-washed over time – by returning it to its ragged roots.
7. Crack the Skye, Mastodon 2009
A recipe if you will: one pinch of wandering sludge to take the low road, a dash of self-satisfied prog to elevate it into the stratosphere, thrash around to fill in the empty bubbles with enough drum fills to overflow a stadium. Mastodon’s high-watermark and the best metal album of its decade saw the apocalyptic dirt-and-thunder metal band ascend into the stratosphere on high-flying space-tinged cosmic prog, taken to penetrating heights on the multitudinous “The Czar” and the “The Last Baron”. Drummer Brann Dailor’s jazz-tinged fill-heavy whirlwind drumming continues to set the standard for the instrument, bolstered by increasingly technical and fluidly emotive guitar work from the band’s famously democratic musicians (who double-up on guitar and triple-up on vocals here). Dailor’s own higher-pitched, more melodic voice on more populist but no less hard-hitting tracks like “Oblivion” also complements and challenges the unleashed growls of Troy Sanders and Brent Hinds. Meanwhile, “Divinations” is Metallica submerged in an Okefenokee swamp of paranoia. Mastodon increasingly experiments with form and challenges verse-chorus-verse structure on this album, which melds metallic grit and fury, sky-high hooks, and woozy atmospherics into a cohesive, challenging whole. Perhaps more importantly, it managed to cover all bases in supreme style while proving the band refused to rest on its laurels with same-sounding albums. Crack the Skye remains Mastodon’s most prog-speckled album yet, and in an era when most progressive metal is regressive in nature, they do proud by the term. A woolly mammoth of an album with the limber cunning of a weasel.
6. Blood Becomes Fire, Beastwars 2013
By 2013, Black Sabbath was flailing about their former glory, Mastodon was on the fast-track to pop metal, and everyone else in the metal game was better left unmentioned. Clearly someone from down under was none too plussed, and New Zealand sludge-meisters Beastwars were sent up from the fires below to remind us what the opening of the gates of hell should sound like. Channeling the modern stoner metal of bands like Sleep and Kyuss and living by the mantra of down-tuning their guitars until the instrument damn-near breaks from the catatonia, Blood Becomes Fire improves on the band’s debut with a foul-tasting odor so primitive and cathartic it burrows a cavern into your soul. The blood-curdling despair and hopeless malaise of the vocals, the fire-and-brimstone guitar, the pitch black bass, and the galloping four-horseman drums all recall the black-hearted primordial stew and tempestuous jazz of a young Black Sabbath. And in a year that saw the return of doom metal’s past with Sabbath’s first album in many a year, Beastwars found light in the darkness, stumbled upon life in death, and laid the genre’s future out for all to see.
5. Stankonia, Outkast 2000
Rap music’s manic modern manifesto, Stankonia saw Outkast enter the new millennium by taking it to task and laying it to waste. The misunderstood-at-the-time “BOB” is the best track, and probably the best rap song of the past fifteen years. Fast, furious, operatic, multi-sectioned, and with one of the most subversive gospel-by-way-of-block-party choruses ever, it’s one of the few songs with no real ancestral sound. Furthermore, it is the perfect encapsulation of a duo always interested in melding low-slung, jackhammer grit and roller-coaster adventurousness. Elsewhere, the slinky “So Fresh, So Clean” is uncommonly naughty, “Gasoline Dreams” is their ultimate hard-edged statement of American tensions (that would fit well on Run DMC’s Raising Hell), and the evocative super-hit ballad “Ms. Jackson” is an all-time classic. But this long album is as much about its dangerous groove as any one song. Intermixing rock voodoo with leathery soul, nocturnal strut, and prowling feral smut, Stankonia has dozens of antecedents but no true parent. Jittery, angular, and reckless, yet as smooth as Southern syrup, this is pop music with few precedents on earth. Fittingly, it’s out of this world.
4. White Blood Cells, The White Stripes 2001
With all apologies to their later, seminal Elephant and the criminally underrated Icky Thump, White Blood Cells is not only The White Stripes’ best album (and the best album White has been involved with), but a rabble-rousing, barn-burning definitive statement for lo-fi, disharmonious production. Lo-fi, disharmonious production that has been branded into the hide of mainstream music like a scab that only hurts more when itched. White’s scuzzy sound approaches broken, and he knows this with such confidence he never lets us forget it. Scratch that: he shoves it in our faces. This is minimalist music that rejects complication and uses black-and-white to create its own form of grey. It’s a brash, youthful, cantankerous rock ‘n’ roll gift from the only true bona-fide rock-star of the 2000s. White, a rock ‘n’ roll lifer with the anxiety of an Angry Young Man, combines equal parts charming but unnerving innocence (“We’re Going to be Friends”, where childlike approaches demented) and angry, murderous danger (“I Think I Smell a Rat”, “Offend in Every Way”, the angry autumn of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”). But the sticking point through thick and thin is White’s almighty axe, a magic wand that takes the components of Mad Jack’s funhouse and stews them into a witch’s brew that quickly becomes a thrashing whirlpool of a gasoline-guzzler.
Back-to-basics rock has been all the rage in the modern millennium, yet too many artists lose themselves in audience-baiting post-Clapton white-boy blooze and the need to establish their “respectable” and “authentic” credentials (see The Black Keys, White’s eternal nemeses). White just sticks up his middle-finger with a glass menagerie equal parts Chuck Berry, Motorhead, and the Sex Pistols. Like all of them, he’s ready to kick down the doors of “authenticity” with his own bluster and bombast. Take note: that is true authenticity, and White is rock music’s missing link.
Best song: “The Union Forever”, White’s left-field interpretation of Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane, done up like a deranged field marshal leading a parade of humanity’s biggest dreams and worst nightmares into uneasy agreement with each other. It seems strange, but what better subject for White, modern music’s biggest egotist, to tackle than the most perfect film from cinema’s grandest, most oppressively opulent, and most dangerous egotistical mad scientist, Orson Welles. Both men deal in style, style, and more style and have a bag of tricks bigger than the mansions they probably buy just because they’re bored. It’s as if White is tipping his hat to the man, a rare statement of modesty for a person who knows not the meaning of the word. He wants to acknowledge Welles, a fellow paranoid genius destroyed, like the titular Charles Foster Kane, by the system which he tried to abuse and which came to abuse him. Jack White is rock music’s PT Barnum. Tacky, sure, but dammit, he earns it.
3. Siamese Dream, The Smashing Pumpkins 1993
For all The Smashing Pumpkins achieved as a tight-knit family and for all Billy Corgan’s devouring egotism would render him a shell of an artist decades later, the early Pumpkins successes were primarily outlets for Corgan’s prismatic personal strife and transitive fascinations. From the dreamy yet soaring hard rock of “Cherub Rock” to the raging metal of “Geek USA” and “Quiet” to the lushly subdued balladry of “Disarm” and “Today”, this album is the ultimate linchpin to any argument about how The Smashing Pumpkins were the last great band to unite hard and alternative rockers together in a blissful mosh-pit of pure musical perfection. And all of this stemmed primarily from Corgan’s marauding mind. At some level, this set him up for failure, especially when the transitive became aloof and lost amidst its own torrent. But when Corgan was on, his mind was an inter-dimensional portal to a vexing alien world where corrosive and gentle were not bitter enemies, but old friends ready to challenge the world together. Everything on Siamese Dream approaches us with bald-faced personalization. Whatever their means of arriving, whether lurching along Corgan’s bitter stab wound of a voice, coasting on a post-hippie psychedelic high provided by lush strings and a cacophony of loose, limber, vestigial instrumentation, or riding the flurry of expressive waves that are Corgan’s guitar poisons, everything Corgan has to offer is devoutly, rampagingly his own.
Still, they are not only his. Describing the band, and the album, plays like a laundry list of superlatives: they had breadth and depth, a songwriter of unrivaled passion and nuance, a penchant for flirting with pop hooks without losing themselves to the dregs of populism, and a tempest they could unleash like the dogs of war at a moment’s notice. And they boasted a sense of wonder and profound humanity that birthed songs, for all their hard-rocking dirt and menacing Gothic qualities to rival The Cure, that were ultimately rooted in a powerful and anguished humanism and lush optimism. All of which is not to mention Jimmy Chamberlain, the best drummer of the past twenty years, backing them on the skins, kicking up some dust and transforming the air into torrential wind. Best of all, these guys were soft blanket maestros and off-kilter, rabid rockers who could ascend from the sewage to the heavens and vice versa on the drop of a dime, captured to best effect on their epics “Hummer” and “Soma”. Corgan always had a very thinly veiled contempt for indie rock, transforming “alternative” into a harbinger of destruction rather than a sick joke. He never achieved that goal better than here.
2. Superunknown, Soundgarden 1994
Soundgarden was always the most delightfully immature and upsized of the big four grunge bands, reveling in head-banging excess and providing the closest link between upbeat 80s hair metal and metal of the old fashioned doom and gloom variety. Superunknown saw them do the thing no rock band should do: mature. But if they went mainstream, they did it with a desire to dive head first into the sphere of maturity and tear it a new one. Superunknown boasts a go-for-broke catharsis that bridges punk anarchy with an elemental, primeval grind that dances around jungle fury. They grow up, but don’t forego their teenage years, ingesting a profound melancholy in their lurid, patently evil inferno of distortion and echoed wails. There’s a tension when they try to rock out, as on “Spoonman”, “The Day I Tried to Live”, or the blistering “Superunknown”, that conveys something more demented than anthemic.
And demented it is: from the woebegone dejection of Kim Thayil’s riffs on “Fell on Black Days” to Chris Cornell’s worrisome croon on the down-tuned omen of personal destruction “Head Down” to the churning monster of a closer “Like Suicide”, this is an album that sees a band coming to terms with the limits of head-banging to riveting, harrowing, and beautifully destructive effect. It feels as comfortable as it does disconcerting, and it is often at its best when it straddles the deep chasm of emotion lying in wait between them. It is, in 1994 and twenty one years later, a sound that feels forever organic and future-bound, an unholy amalgamation of the expansive expressiveness and guttural crawl of blues, the uncontained rage of punk, and the kitchen-sink power of metal that seems as new and refreshing today as it will ever seem. It is the sound of a band spiraling into the void of depression and erupting in a bloody cacophony,
1. Dirt, Alice in Chains 1992
One of the most resolutely depressing and self-destructive albums I’ve ever heard, Dirt captures the sounds of people simultaneously on the creative rise, falling down into mental and physical destruction, and at a social standstill in life. Highlights are numerous, from grand sigh of “Down in a Hole” to the deconstructed punk-metal of “Them Bones”, to the existential scream “Would?” that closes the album, but the whole cloth of the work is troubled and tormented like nothing else in hard rock music since. Even on lesser songs like “Junkhead”, little nuances of clashing joy and sorrow ring out (such as when the band’s latent psychedelia rears its head in a few-note guitar slurry, pepping up a drony verse, and transforming the guitar into a pained flower crying with wistful longing). Dirt creeps and crawls out of the sides of the album, wrapping itself around everything in its path, swallowing hope and joy whole. It is brutal and direct, never willfully obtuse or exploratory at the expense of its primal pulses, but it always resists the easy manipulation of grandiose sadness for a more elemental form of melancholy. It is a profoundly morbid album, sludgy and aimless and expansive not to let light in but to wander around in a murkiness so lost it has trouble finding the speakers to be heard in the first place.
So many bands have aped Alice in Chains over the past twenty years (sometimes it feels like they’ve done more harm than good to the world, unfortunately), corrupting their already corrupted sound by turning it into corporate cool-angst and sacrificing all that was unholy and melancholic about the band by trading it in for bone-headed post-grunge gestures. For reference, even this album’s “Sickman”, its biggest move toward belabored, dumb cock rock, stumbles into nuance in the form of an icy drone to chill the fires of hell cutting through its verses. The de facto “optimistic” song “Rooster” defines optimism only as an alien-like counter to the norm, a necessary but false belief more useful for pragmatism than honesty. It, like this sickened, murky disquiet of an album, is difficult to sit through but impossible to turn away from, the kind of work with no real catharsis to provide respite from a band throwing us out of the frying pan and into a gloomy limbo of our own making. It isn’t a happy song; rather, it is a song that tempts us with happiness and then reminds us that this version of manipulative happiness is a lie we tell ourselves to overcome our lives.
In the early 90s, Alice in Chains never really “fit”; Soundgarden were the old-school metal heads, Pearl Jam the arena rock saviors, and Nirvana the alt-and-punk faithful, but Alice in Chains were lost somewhere in the middle, trapped and tortured by their own troubles. This sort of loss creates sounds that feel not like they were created but rather were stumbled upon, discovered, and confronted. The rock world has not since, nor did it ever, dare lurch and haunt and lose like Alice in Chains, and it maybe never will. Rock music like this should stay lost. It makes finding it all the more rewarding.
Bonus: A duo of much beloved, quintessential alternative rock releases were ineligible for this list because they had to go and be released in 1989, but they unearth exactly that disorienting sound infected with messianic malaise that birthed the underground alt-rock revolution throughout the 80s and exploded into the mainstream in the early 90s. This is the sound of music with something to prove, hungry and humble in equal measure, and the opposite of anything associated with alternative rock today.
Disintegration, The Cure 1989
With 1989’s Disintegration, Robert Smith and the Cure changed things up from the pop-perfection of 1987’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me (with songs such as the disorienting edge-of-sanity fluff “Why Can’t I Be You?” that melded pure pop-confection with unnerving gaudy histrionics to convey cognitive dissonance par excel lance). That album saw the band bringing breadth to new heights by shooting for the stars in every which way and succeeding with sound after left-field sound. This one tightens and focuses even as it claws around to fill every lose chasm it can find. Slabbing sound like husks of schizophrenia, Disintegration is a mood album that eschews song structure in favor of indulgent emotion and alternately restrained and explosive soundscapes; picture a version of Neil Young’s Everyone Knows this is Nowhere where heroin and cocaine battled it out for victory. Although it boasted a big hit in the comparatively tight, deceptively sad “Lovesong”, most of the songs emphasize formless ambiguity and hypnotic groovy cosmology above anything resembling structure. The shimmering “Pictures of You” lingers in the empty spaces of the mind, and the stunning “Fascination Street” rings as much tension and seductive naughtiness as humanly possible out of its deconstructed bass-line, repeated ad nauseum throughout the song and subtly built up to astoundingly doomy extents. With just enough light peeking through the surface (and for this band even light was a dark and stormy indication of carnivalesque insecurity to come), this is as hypnotically listenable as mournful decay ever got.
Doolittle, The Pixies 1989
Released on the eve of alternative rock rushing the show and taking no hostages, Doolitle works as both a marker of things to come for alt in the early 90s and a prideful culmination of the work the genre had done to ceremoniously undercut all that was popular in the music world throughout the 80s. In some ways, Kurt Cobain was the house that The Pixies built, and if it was never entirely stable, that was part of its bruised, transitory, bleeding appeal. Everything that would later crescendo with Nevermind was already in full bloom here: a flurry straight from the spillway, a pent-up anger cut through with shimmering melodicism, a certain playful quality to destruction, distorted guitar fireworks, and vocals on the edge of falling off a cliff. With songs such as the de-facto case study of soft-to-loud “Debaser” (glorious fun) and the subdued, ribald “Gouge Away”, the tuneful “Waves of Mutilation”, the atmospheric, breathy existential classic “Where is My Mind?”, as well as all-time alt-anthem “Monkey Gone to Heaven”, Doolittle is an expression of teen underdog confusion not captured by the anemic glam rock popular at the time. Better still, it never loses itself to miserablism, the one true weakness of the band that built a three year empire on their name.