Friday, February 21, 2003

10 best albums of the 1990's

I haven't done a blog in a while, and there's nothing that's stoking the political fires enough to make me want to write. Therefore...

I present my opinion of the best 10 albums of the 1990's. If you know anything about me, you know that I'm a hard-core metal fan, so that preference inevitably colors this list.

10. Loreena McKennitt / the mask and mirror (1994). While not her strongest album, it speaks volumes about the quality of her albums that I would still include this among my top 10 of the 1990's. Ethereal, textured, haunting: these are all adjectives that accurately describe the music. Ms. McKennitt's voice, however, is what really draws me to the music: her range is huge, and her power at the high end unmatched by any of the other non-Opera singers I've heard.

9. Pearl Jam / Vs. (1993). Their best album is also the finest example of alternative rock: plenty of anthems balanced with slower, more personal poems. With the exception of a few lyrical slaps at the vast majority of his listeners, Eddie Vedder has never sounded better, either as a lyricist or as a singer. If the Atlanta concert were a real album, I'd have put that here, but this is a close enough second still to qualify for my top 10.

8. Dream Theater / Images and Words (1992). The archetype of 1990's progressive metal, Dream Theater produced their best work early on and slid downhill shortly thereafter. Still, that fact does not diminish the beauty, technicality, or influence of this album, nor does it take away from the (admittedly still) virtuoso playing of John Petrucci, John Myung, or Kevin Moore. As progressive metal albums go, this is the best of the best.

7. Gamma Ray / Land of the Free (1995). This album marked a sea change in the future of European power metal: before this album, the genre was locked in a self-parody of bands attempting to reproduce Helloween's Keeper of the Seven Keys Part 1 but failing miserably. Gamma Ray finally managed to break out of the mold and produce this highly-influential opus of speed and happiness. Countless bands (including Gamma Ray themselves) have tried unsuccessfully to copy the formula that made this album so incredible, which may diminish its reputation among clone watchers; however, those of us who are connoisseurs of the Euro power metal genre know true quality when we see it.

6. Sarah McLachlan / Solace (1991). After the compelling but not-quite-arrived immaturity of Touch, Ms. McLachlan established herself as the "other" favorite Canadian pop singer with this collection of uniformly-strong tracks, from the high-energy "Into the Fire" through the wistful contemplation of "Home" to the cover of Donovan's "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." Her follow-up, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, receives most of the critical accolades as well as the strongest singles, but the songs on this album are simply more enjoyable overall.

5. KMFDM / Nihil (1995). While KMFDM had so many good albums in the 1990's, it was not difficult to pick Nihil as the clear winner among all of them. From the blaring guitar attack that Sascha never managed to properly incorporate into any of his later albums (including the last great KMFDM album, Symbols) to the infectious beats of "Juke Joint Jezebel" and "Disobedience," Nihil can be either a devestating aural assault or a calming, focusing drug, depending on the listener's state of mind. Despite being the only KMFDM album without the amazing Brute! artwork on the cover, it still qualifies as the best industrial metal album ever.

4. Megadeth / Rust in Peace (1990). Megadeth starts out the 90's with the last great 80's thrash album, only to find out shortly thereafter that the popular music world has forsaken them for a less pretentious style, strange as that adjective might seem when applied to these guys. This is the album that finally turned true metalheads away from the curious progression of Metallica, and toward Dave's vision of 1990's heavy metal; unfortunately, it was too late to really matter. IMO, it's simply too bad there wasn't enough room in pop culture for both metal and alternative.

3. Meshuggah / Destroy Erase Improve (1995). The album that really introduced me to metalcore also wound up giving me a taste for jazz fusion. DEI is a nearly perfect combination of aggressive and technical playing, combined with songwriting that leaves you wondering how such seemingly monotonous riffage can stick in your mind so easily.

2. Fear Factory / Demanufacture (1995). What can you say about possibly the finest example of industrial metalcore thrash ever made? Even moreso than Strapping Young Lad's City, which was certainly more full of raw emotion, this album is, if not in content, perfect at least in execution, buttressed by the aggressive yet dreamy vocals of Burton Bell and the inhuman drumming of Raymond Hererra. Although Obsolete had more hooks and was certainly more accessible, it doesn't even come close to dethroning this masterpiece.

1. Devin Townsend / Ocean Machine: Biomech (1997). This is the first album I ever heard that caused me to preemptively buy several copies to give to other people: like Vernor Vinge's Sci-Fi epic A Deepness in the Sky, this album is so good that I felt it my moral duty to introduce it to other people. Even after having listened to it over one hundred and fifty times, I still consider a run of this disc to be one of my most intense emotional experiences: the album runs from the heights of glory through the uncertainty of temporary setbacks to the depths of despair, its lyrics covering such topics as suicide, God, and death along the way.

This is not an album of singles: this is, in truth, one big song that must be listened to in its entirety from beginning to end, lest the full impact be lost or the message be divided into different parts in one's mind. It is like a Greek tragedy in structure, with the Hero starting out at the top, developing doubt through the course of the play, and in the end being defeated by some choice he made in ignorance long ago.

This is not simply my favorite album of the 90's; this is the best album ever made in any genre.

Honorable mentions: Symphony X, Twilight in Olympus; Sepultura, Chaos A.D.; Dark Tranquillity, Projector; Ministry, Psalm 69.

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