Edit early 2019: Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind really should be on this list. More overtly confessional than the oblique tricksterisms of his ’60s albums or the deliciously irresponsible emotionality of his best ’70s works, the ’90s Dylan is a kind of resurgent corpse, an atonal squall of a voice and a truly cadaverous guitar creak conjuring an aura of weary, beaten-down oblivion. Dylan’s early-life persona was that of a genre-hopping hellion, of a man who carefully cultivated, and reveled in, his own strategically, devilishly enigmatic nature, resisting any sedimentation with post-modern impishness. Here, though, any pretense of playful persona-hopping or teasing, libertine seditiousness has faded away, leaving little beyond the husk of a wounded enigma of a man having lost a center entirely, his ghosts returning to haunt a figure in search of a final resting place, in the form of a real “true” identity, to die with.
Which means that it’s the foreboding, death-stalked “Love Sick” – on which Dylan’s phantasmal voice drowns, barely subsisting above the perceptual thresh-hold barrier, and the scraped stupor of “Not Dark Yet” that form, and haunt, the heart of the album, capitalizing on over thirty years of hell-raising, and channeling them into a mournful moan that questions what’s been accomplished after all. It’s not a purely fatalistic perspective, though, and in songs like “Cold Irons Bound,” Dylan stages an encounter between murderous enmity and the unforgiving unknown, staving off oblivion with an insurgent violence that turns this amnesiac wake of an album into a shredded-larynx wake of death.
Edit early 2019: In fact, an edited-down Use Your Illusion would make this list, with songs like the “Right Next Door to Hell,” an opening molotov that sounds like “Welcome to the Jungle” dredged up from the bottom of the murkiest oceans of Axl Rose’s mind, the positively dazed “You Ain’t the First” on which the band give us their loneliest tumbleweed ever, “Dust N’ Bones,” the band exorcizing all their Stonsey-est demons, the truly amazing, paranoiac “Locomotive,” where the band’s jittery, irregular rhythms attempt to outflank Axl entirely and he bounces back with gusts of sheer manic frustration, the dustbowl rattlesnake “The Garden” on which a lurking Alice Cooper is positively venomous, “Coma,” which slowly metastasizes over 10 minutes like a cancerous malignancy, and the truly menacing “You Could Be Mine,” which burrows right down into the bowels of Rose’s violent possessiveness with a near-terrifying sense of clarity, the whole (hypothetical) album concluding with a violent, vulnerable howl that climaxes its pinball ricochet between toxic malevolence and disarming sweetness.
Edit late 2017: Totally forgot Mobb Deep’s 1995 album The Infamous, another truly grotty series of New York City stories that simultaneously diagnose the fallout of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, drop us into a netherworld of existential uncertainty, and acknowledge their own tenuous, uneasily-grounded attempts to fight back. Mournful and malevolent, sad and sinister, the duo of Havoc and Prodigy, rapping over almost gnarled, almost ravaged beats, play both doomed sears, daring to imagine a future they assume won’t ever actualize, and casualties of that vision, lamenting the tragic, numbing circularity of a ghetto life they are near-helpless to change.
The lyrics exorcize many demons, but it’s Havoc’s startlingly impressionistic soundscape which reigns supreme. Acknowledging how NYC rap had taken lo-fi samples to the precipice by 1995, The Infamous then dives right over the cliff into an oblivion of ghostly, half-present sounds, possibly stifled voices enveloped in darkness or objects resonating insidiously from unknown origins. (Thus, the long debates about the roots of some of their samples). Every song seems to have been given a hard, demonic sear, but all remain diffuse, like they could immediately collapse. Or like they’ve been wounded, brutalized, carrying an immeasurable amount of exhaustion as they take us, unfathomably and Charon-like, into the next verse.
It’s incredible stuff, a total about-face from a should-have-been also-ran duo who had already released a pop-rap album that failed on the charts, soundly savaged by the grimmer, more baleful likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas meditating on their everyday traumas, dashed expectations, and demented dreams in the five boroughs while Havoc and Prodigy were busy worshipping women’s bodies like ’80s leftovers. They returned with this incredibly doomy portent of failure and resistance, a full-on assault of an album but one that isn’t hostile. It’s merely distraught, an abyssal portrait of sheer abjection from two prophets of social destruction peering into a netherworld they know they didn’t make, but which they have no choice but to participate in.
Edit mid-2017: So, GZA’s 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 late-2015: 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.
Edit mid-2015: 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.
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.