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Essential Albums of the Early 1990's

posted Jul 21, 2010, 10:35 PM by Jay Lieske   [ updated Aug 21, 2010, 3:44 PM ]

(Originally posted on 22 May 2002, updated in summer 2010)

It's well into the Zeros decade, and this new decade finally has a different feel from the Nineties. Ten years ago, I was really into the new music coming out at the time; I followed the release schedule lists posted at record stores, and I avidly read the 4AD-L mail list to learn about bands. This music even led to my first exposure to the World Wide Web in 1993: the Eyesore web catalog of 4AD releases.

Nowadays music is less exciting, even though I listen to more of it than ever, thanks to the freedom of the MP3 format, which me listen to my collection everywhere and in any order. I look at early 90s music as a thing that came and went long ago, making it easy to pick out the best music of the era.

These are the albums and EPs that had impact on my life. When I hear these albums, I can be transported to particular moments in my life, or suspended in a certain mood. The dates are when I bought the albums.

Frank Black: Teeenager of the Year (April 1994)
My single favorite album of the decade, strong from start to finish. It combines the noise of post-Nirvana (and post-Pixies) guitar music with great New Wave-inspired production. The songs combine both science fiction ("Olé Mullholland", "I Want to Live on an Abstract Plain") and sweet romanticism ("Speedy Marie", "I Could Stay Here Forever"). Perfect.
Lush: Gala (January 1991)
In many ways, this was my first album of the 90s.  When I bought it early 1991, it opened my musical palate up to include distorted guitars and strong drumming. It started me on a shoegazing trail to Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Pale Saints, and Boo Radleys, with 4AD-L as my guide.
Slowdive: Slowdive, Morningrise, and Holding Our Breath EPs (October 1991)
Another 4AD-L recommendation. I bought Just for a Day after seeing the "Catch the Breeze" video on MTV. The sustained crescendo near the end of that song is one of the most beautiful moments in music; it can make me cry listening to it. I didn't care much for the rest of the album, though. But when I reached in the group's catalog to get their first 3 EPs, I got more of what I was looking for -- the fantastic attack of the opening chords of Morningrise, the grind of Slowdive and Avalyn 2.
Stereolab: Transient Random Noise-Bursts with Announcements (September 1993)
Jude had bought me Switched-On as a Valentine's Day gift the previous year, after we heard "Super Electric" at Kim's Underground, and I thought they sounded like my beloved Lush. But I didn't get into the band's long droning style with that album, nor with the followups Peng! and Low-Fi. Even though Space Age Bachelor Pad Music did intrigue me a little more, I still wasn't really following the group. Then I saw TRNBA at Vintage Vinyl, on a September day when I had gone out to look for Last Splash (and another disk). It was on display at the checkout, and I picked it up on a whim. It blew me away. I could live in the grooves of "Tone Burst" and "Jenny Ondioline" forever.
Cocteau Twins: Heaven or Las Vegas (September 1990)
I'd been aware Cocteau Twins for a few years by the time this came out. My first exposure was on the show "Goodnight L.A.", which ran music videos on KABC in Los Angeles in the mid-eighties, before everyone had cable (and MTV). They ran a video for "Aikea-Guinea", and both the images and the song were so beautiful. I've never seen the video again, but I went out and bought The Pink Opaque. Besides the one song, though, I didn't get into the group much, so their mid 80s stuff passed me by.
Then Stephan's friend Brian Behlendorf got him into the Twins a little, and Stephan sent me a tape of Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll in early 1989 after I left for Princeton. At the time, I was in living in a music desert (much like 2002), and I wasn't hearing much good stuff. But that tape transfixed me; I couldn't believe I had missed those albums. I went back and picked up the entire Cocteau Twins catalog; when Stephan sent me a This Mortal Coil tape, my obsession evolved into a full pursuit of everything on the 4AD label.
So when Heaven or Las Vegas came out, I was itching and ready for it.  I was rewarded an album full of beautiful and powerful songs, the product of the band at its peak.
And HoLV was the first real album of Jude's and my relationship. It was the first new music of mine that he got into; he painted some of his Real Comics paintings while listening to the album. Jude and I took Cammie to the Cocteau Twins show that fall, which was a real treat: sharing a concert with beautiful music and imagery as a couple and a family.
My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (November 1991)
After subscribing to the 4AD-L mail list for a while, I learned that the style of distorted, pretty guitar music I loved was called "shoegazer", and the big band in that style was My Bloody Valentine. So I picked this up in Greenwich Village and got hooked into the noise and drones.
Throwing Muses: The Real Ramona
Breeders: Safari
Belly: Slow Dust, Gepetto, and Feed the Tree EPs
I'd read about Throwing Muses on 4AD-L in 1991, but I my first chance to hear their music was the video for "Not Too Soon" on 120 Minutes.   I quickly bought The Real Ramona, and I love the whole album.  It's the perfect balance between weirdness, pop, and energy. 
Tanya Donnelly's followups in the Breeders' Safari and the first three Belly EPs all maintained that great balance.  I especially liked the Belly B-sides.
Dead Can Dance: Into the Labyrinth
I started following DCD from the springboard of This Mortal Coil's It'll End in Tears album.
Stereolab: Mars Audiac Quintet
The followup to TRNBA is another peak album. It has a more refined feel, yet still has the great grinding sound.
This Mortal Coil: Blood

Stereolab: Dots and Loops
After a few misfires (I didn't care for much of Emperor Tomato Ketchup or the Charles Long art piece songs), Stereolab surprised me by coming back with this great record. By this point they've entirely shed their Low-Fi grind and distortion, and created a High-Fi drone.
Portishead: Portishead
This album became the soundtrack to my last project at Princeton University, when I was developing the VRML math visualization environment in the Graphics Lab. I could really get into a good, focused coding mindset with this on headphones.
Medicine: The Buried Life