The 1990’s were certainly more simple musically than the 1980’s (at least my tastes were)– I liked Modern rock or Alternative rock or whatever you want to call it. The 1980’s were insane comparing from where the decade started to where it ended. What were the best albums of the 1980’s? Talk about to each his own– Thriller, Purple Rain, Born In The USA, Scarecrow, Appetite For Desctruction, The Joshua Tree, and take your pick from Madonna and you’re at seven albums right there. I’d throw in both Tim and Let It Be from the Replacements and Hang Time from Soul Asylum. Hard Promises from TP would be in there too. It’s a tough decade to rank because I went from being 14 to 24, when you’re still figuring out what you like and what you don’t like. My 1980’s self wouldn’t have had any Jimmy Buffett, my now self would have all 8 of his 1980’s albums in the top 60 or so. I’ll try to give you a quick top 10 (or so) from each year (in no order of ranking, plus the Buffett album from that year):
1980: Back in Black (ACDC), The River (Bruce Springsteen), Nothin’ Matters and What If It Did (John Mellencamp), The Kings Are Here (The Kings), London Calling (The Clash), Dirty Mind (Prince), Zenyetta Mondatta (The Police) Crimes of Passion (Pat Benatar), New Clear Days (The Vapors), Panorama (The Cars), Argybargy (Squeeze), Glass Houses (Billy Joel), Hi-Infidelity (REO Speedwagon)
1981: Hard Promises (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), Escape (Journey), Tattoo You (The Rolling Stones), Ghost In The Machine (The Police), Beauty & The Beat (The Go Go’s), Private Eyes (Hall & Oates), Tonight I’m Yours (Rod Stewart), Freeze Frame (J. Geils Band), Business As Usual (Men at Work) Working Class Dog (Rick Springfield), Coconut Telegraph (Jimmy Buffett)
1982: American Fool (John Mellencamp), Long After Dark (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), 1999 (Prince), Thriller (Michael Jackson), Imperial Bedroom (Elvis Costello), Vacation (The Go Go’s), Rio (Duran Duran), Convertable Music (Josie Cotton), H2O (Hall & Oates), What Time Is It? (The Time), Eye of The Tiger (Survivor), Built For Speed (The Stray Cats) Somewhere Over China (Jimmy Buffett)
1983: Synchronicity (The Police), Murmer (REM), War (U2), She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper), The Distance (Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band), An Innocent Man (Billy Joel), Rebel Yell (Billy Idol), Colour By Numbers (Culture Club), Uh-Huh (John Mellencamp), Cuts Like A Knife (Bryan Adams) Madonna (Madonna), Lawyers In Love (Jackson Browne), One Particular Harbor (Jimmy Buffett)
1984: Let It Be (The Replacements), Purple Rain (Prince & The Revolution), Born In The USA (Bruce Springsteen), Like A Virgin (Madonna), 1984 (Van Halen), All Over The Place (The Bangles), General Public (All The Rage), Talk Show (The Go Go’s), Reckless (Bryan Adams), The Unforgettable Fire (U2), Private Dancer (Tina Turner), Zen Arcade (Husker Du), Reckoning (REM), Ice Cream Castles (The Time) Riddles In The Sand (Jimmy Buffett)
1985: Tim (The Replacements), Scarecrow (John Mellencamp), Southern Accents (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), No Jacket Required (Phil Collins), Whitney Houston (Whitney Houston), Heart (Heart), Play Deep (The Outfield), Around The World In A Day (Prince), New Day Rising (Husker Du), Brothers In Arms (Dire Straits), Fables Of The Reconstruction (REM), Last Mango In Paris (Jimmy Buffett)
1986: Slippery When Wet (Bon Jovi), So (Peter Gabriel), Graceland (Paul Simon), Life’s Rich Pageant (REM), 5150 (Van Halen), True Blue (Madonna), Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams (BoDeans), The Bridge (Billy Joel), Different Light (The Bangles), Licensed To Ill (The Beastie Boys), Crowded House (Crowded House), Back In The High Life (Steve Winwood), Look What The Cat Dragged In (Poisen), I Can’t Hold Back (Eddie Money), The Way It Is (Bruce Hornsby & The Range) Floridays (Jimmy Buffett)
1987: Appetite For Destruction (Guns ‘N Roses), Hysteria (Def Leppard), The Joshua Tree (U2), Sign “O” The Times (Prince), Pleased To Meet Me (The Replacements), Faith (George Michael), Bad (Michael Jackson), Tunnel Of Love (Bruce Springsteen), The Lonesome Jubilee (John Mellencamp), Bad Animals (Heart), Document (REM), Outside Looking In (BoDeans), Heaven On Earth (Belinda Carlisle)
1988: Hang Time (Soul Asylum), Green (REM), Surfer Rosa (The Pixies), Lies (Guns ‘N Roses), Nothing To Lose (Eddie Money), Daydream Nation (Sonic Youth), If I Should Fall From Grace With God (The Pogues), New Jersey (Bon Jovi), Never Die Young (James Taylor), Everything (The Bangles), Fisherman’s Blues (The Waterboys), Look Sharp! (Roxette), If My Ancesters Could See Me Now (Ivan Neville), Open Up and Say… Ahh (Poisen), Hot Water (Jimmy Buffett)
1989: Don’t Tell A Soul (The Replacements), Dr. Feelgood (Motley Cru), The Raw and The Cooked (Fine Young Cannibals), Doolittle (The Pixies), Full Moon Fever (Tom Petty), Like A Prayer (Madonna), The End of the Innocence (Don Henly), Pump (Aerosmith), Runaway Horses (Belinda Carlisle), Journeyman (Eric Clapton) Steel Wheels (The Rolling Stones), Garth Brooks (Garth Brooks), Home (BoDeans), Off To See The Lizard (Jimmy Buffett)
Oddest thing I found looking up those albums? The Rolling Stones released 29 studio albums and thus far there have been 30 compilation albums released.
Looking at that list, I’m tempted to say that the 80’s had far better albums than the 90’s. But I sure as hell go back to the albums from the 90’s a lot more to listen to.
Back to the 90’s:
9. Buffalo Tom– “Big Red Letter Day”
Released: November 11, 1993
The Boston alt\rock trio hit their stride with their 4th album, “Big Red Letter Day”, arguably the most underrated album of the decade. The band’s previous album, “Let Me Come Over” from 1992, was good, but not great– but showed flashes of the brilliance that would follow with the songs– “Taillights Fade”, “Larry” and “Velvet Roof”. “Big Red Letter Day” was introduced to the world in a Nike ad– one of the first ads that was basically just a music video– ads that are run-of-the-mill now– but I remember thinking how cool I thought this Nike ad was that used “Sodajerk” as it’s music. “Big Red Letter Day” doesn’t have a bad song on it– 11 straight good songs– 41 and a half straight minutes of great music. The album received 4.5 out of 5 stars from AllMusic and garnered the band a peak at national success– like a lot of 90’s bands, the success was fleeting, they made more great music, but never reached the heights they probably deserved. Time will look kindly on this fantastic album.
Key songs: Sodajerk, I’m Allowed, Tree House, Would Not Be Denied, Torch Singer, Late At Night, Anything That Way
8. U2– “Achtung Baby”
Released: November 19, 1991
It’s really getting hard to rank them at this point– all the albums left have at least six great songs on them– a lot of the rankings at this point are basically just how much fun I had during the album or listening to the album or what might have been going on in my life at the time the album was out. It was heresy at the time, but right away I said I liked Achtung Baby better than The Joshua Tree. “Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “One” were immediately two of my favorite U2 songs of all-time. Achtung Baby began U2’s 90’s re-invention from a politically charged, earnest band to a more lighthearted and self-depricating band. “Mysterious Ways” kicked things off as the first single (“The Fly” was actually first, but didn’t catch on) and as a critic wrote: features a danceable beat, funky guitar hook, and conga-laden percussion, as well as mystical lyrics about romance and women. Achtung Baby received rave reviews across the board, getting the ultra-rare 5 out of 5 stars from AllMusic, 4.5 out of 5 from Rolling Stone and an A from Entertainment Weekly. It has sold over 18 million copies world-wide and cemented U2’s status as one of the biggest bands in the world.
Key songs: Even Better Than The Real Thing, Mysterious Ways, Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?, One, Until The End Of The World, The Fly, So Cruel, Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World
7. R.E.M.– “Automatic For The People”
Released: October 5, 1992
“Alternative” music hit hard around 1990– “grunge” coming out of Seattle was nothing more than throwing flannel on and adding a guitar lick or two to the “alternative” sounds that were already out there. REM had certainly been one of the pioneers of “alternative” or “college” rock– since their debut album in 1983. After 1991’s “Out of Time” sold 12 million copies, expectations were through the roof for the Athens band’s next album. REM had intended for “Automatic” to be a return to their harder rock roots, but ended up making an album that was even further from “rock” as “Out of Time” was. Peter Buck has said that “Automatic” came from the themes of “the sense of loss and mourning inspired by turning thirty”. Many critics, as well as Peter Buck and Mike Mills, consider “Automatic” to be REM’s best album (I obviously agree). REM again chose not to tour after the album’s release (they didn’t tour after “Out of Time” either)– the no tourning and Michael Stipe’s appearance sparked rumors that the lead singer was dying– rumors that were all untrue. “Automatic” ended up selling 10 million copies, and along with “Out of Time” (12 million) are the band’s two best selling albums. “Automatic” received 5 out of 5 stars from both AllMusic and Rolling Stone (and just about everyone else) and an A from Entertainment Weekly– making it perhaps the best reviewed album of the 1990’s. Reviewer Paul Evans wrote, “despite it’s difficult concerns, most of Automatic is musically irresistable”…. and Ann Powers of The New York Times wrote: “Even in the midst of such disenchantment, R.E.M. can’t resist its own talent for creating beautiful and moving sounds. Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry can still conjure melodies that fall like summer sunlight. And Stipe still possesses a gorgeous voice that cannot shake its own gift for meaning.” Time Magazine’s Guy Garcia wrote, “that a so-called alternative band can keep its edge after conquering the musical mainstream” and that it “manages to dodge predictability without ever sounding aimless or unfocussed”. It’s odd that an REM album with only 3 “rockers” on it (Ignoreland, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight and Man on the Moon) would be their best– but REM proved without a doubt that they could throw ballads up against anyone and “Automatic For The People” cemented their status as one of the best bands in the world.
Key songs: Drive, Try Not To Breathe, The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight, Everybody Hurts, Sweetness Follows, Ignoreland, Man On The Moon, Nightswimming, Find The River
6. Third Eye Blind– “Third Eye Blind”
Released: April 8, 1997
In April of 1996 Third Eye Blind frontman Stephen Jenkins challenged Epic Records executive Don Massey in a meeting to let the band open a huge San Francisco gig. Hype had been surrounding the local band for over a year, so Massey took Jenkins up on his challenge and let Third Eye Blind open for Oasis at the San Francisco Auditorium. The band was called on for an encore– which is completely unheard of– an opening act getting screamed back for more. More and more hype insued and 3EB ending up signing with Elektra Records after an LA showcase where the band wowed everyone again. “Third Eye Blind”, their first album blew out of the gates on the strength of lead single “Semi-Charmed Life”, which roared to #1 on the Modern Rock chart and stayed there for eight weeks. Though the album only peaked at #25 on the Billboard charts, it stayed in the Billboard top 200 for a monster 104 weeks (which only happens when great single after great single after great single is released). The album ended up selling over 6 million copies and was the band’s biggest seller. Numbers aside, this album is ranked so high because it was so damn fun to listen to– from the goofy, electro charged “Semi-Charmed Life” (those little red panties they pass the test) to the desperate howling of “Graduate” to the pleading “Jumper” and the crescendo buildups of “Losing A Whole Year”, “How’s It Going To Be” and “Motorcycle Drive By” to the singalong anthem “God of Wine”. We were on to the later years of our “going out” careers, but Third Eye Blind made it fun again.
Key songs: Losing A Whole Year, Narcolepsy, Semi-Charmed Life, Jumper, Graduate, How’s It Going To Be, Thanks A Lot, Motorcyle Drive By, God of Wine
5. Gin Blossoms– “New Miserable Experiece”
Released: August 4, 1992
August of 1992– kind of when it all started to happen. “It’s All Happening. It’s Happening.” The Tempe, Arizona band’s first album stumbled out of the gates with poor sales and luke-warm reviews. Then a song called, “Hey Jealousy” hit the radio about a year after the album’s release and everything changed. “Hey Jealousy” became a pre-bar, during bar and post-bar staple and anthem for the time. Everyone bought the album and everyone realized it was the rarest of rares: there wasn’t a bad song on the record. The Gin Blossoms took their name from an old photo of WC Fields, that was titled “WC Fields with gin blossoms”– the drinkers eyes and cheeks, filled with colors that shouldn’t be there. After becoming wildly popular in the Tempe bars, the Gin Blossoms signed a major label deal and immediately learned what that entails– people telling you how to do something differently from what you’ve been doing, even though what you’d been doing had been making everyone at the bar pretty damn happy and satisfied. Thus the name of their first album– “New Miserable Experience”. Founding member, lead guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins drank heavily and became the most disallusioned of the group and fought constantly with the label. Seeing no alternative, the group replaced Hopkins as lead guitarist. The huge success of the album, lead by Hopkins penned singles “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About You”, were tempered by Hopkins dismissal and then suicide on December 4, 1993. It’s probably no surprise that the Gin Blossoms never again struck such a chord with their music. “Hey Jealousy” was a rip-roaring single about begging your way back to an old flame– “Lost Horizons” a poetic take on yearning for a relationship and life itself, to feel new again, “29” a pleading take on wanting to grow up, but not having the slightest idea of how to (Generation X in a nutshell). “New Miserable Experience” hit the stereo at 3015 E. Calhoun Parkway and really never left. It’s still one of my go-to listens.
Key songs: Lost Horizons, Hey Jealousy, Mrs. Rita, Until I Fall Away, Cajun Song, Hands Are Tied, Found Out About You, Allison Road, 29, Pieces of the Night, Cheatin’
4. Johnny Clueless– “Kissed In Kansas”
Well, what can I say…. If I made this list ranked on how much fun I had listening to an album (both the cd and live) it might be at #1. Overrated? Probably. They never did match the urgency of this original album again– a lot of good songs on the later albums, but nothing quite as much fun as the stuff on this one. There were Minnesota music fans from this era who would choose Tim Mahoney or GB Leighton over Clueless, and I never got that. This album was far better than anything those two ever did. (I guess anyone who hung out at Champps in Minnetonka would disagree and anyone who went to St. Cloud St. would agree). All I know is I wore this sucker out. I heard many different times from friends and relatives from way out of state who’d play this album and get this repsonse: “who is this? this is awesome!” The album had enough local success to give the band the tiniest taste of fame: a Billboard magazine article, a gig on the “Jenny Jones Show”, and an opening slot on a Cheap Trick tour… like a million bands before them, they teetered on the brink of success, but never broke through. When it was all said and done, the band sold around 30,000 cd’s– far more than 98 percent of bands ever will, but not what the hope was after this fantastic debut. A LazyEye article once said: Since Johnny Clueless formed in 1992 as a beer-drinking, good-time party band at St. Cloud State, they’ve seen their dreams become more and more lofty. “When we started out,” Brown said, “all we wanted was to be able to play at the bar we hung out at.” That first bar was The Red Carpet in St. Cloud. And then The Cabooze in Minneapolis. They might have topped out with a gig at Cedar Fest in the summer of 1997. The first time I ever saw them play was at Melvin’s in Spicer on a summer night in 1994. A rocking cover of the Scooby Doo theme song got me to whip a 20 bill on stage. Music Fest the next summer back at Melvin’s was one of my favorite live shows I’ve ever seen and an over-served me chatted Steve Brown up at the bar for an hour after their gig. What Jim Walsh wrote about the Gear Daddies is true for most Minnesotans from the early 90’s– but for a small few of us, it was even more true for Johnny Clueless. A little perspective here: there have been 720 non-pitchers who have played in a major league baseball game and never got a hit– with the most hitless at-bats belonging to Larry Littleton, who played for the Cleveland Indians in 1981 and was hitless in 27 plate appearances. But here’s the deal for all 720 of those guys: in their home towns, growing up, in t-ball, little league and in high school– everyone who saw them play thought they were the best baseball player they had ever seen. Johnny Clueless had a helluva run.
Key songs: Think You’d Agree, Girl, Callous Man, The Biggest Bed, #5 Wheel, Million Years, Grandma’s For The Weekend, Do It Over Here, An Hour Away
3. Pearl Jam– “Ten”
Released: August 27, 1991
Yes, “Ten” was released a month before “Nevermind”– for some reason a lot of the compare/contrasters always liked to play the “Pearl Jam just copied Nirvana” card. Both bands were based in Seattle and immersed in the same music scene and both jumped on the “grunge” sound that took over the world in 1992. What a lot of us know, however, is that the Seattle “grunge” scene was just a continuation of the “Minneapolis Rock” scene that had started in the mid-80’s with The Replacements and Husker Du. Anyhow, I’ll never know why people had to take sides in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam debate– but I was on the Pearl Jam side of the fence from the get go. Why? Because I liked all of their songs better. As the years pass many music hipsters will take the stance of, “it’s not even a debate– it’s Nirvana”– Will Leitch just wrote in his latest book, “I think by now even Eddie Vedder would take Nirvana in that old debate”…. nope. Time doesn’t change how the music sounds to me– I’ll still take Pearl Jam any day of the week. I like Nirvana too, but Ten just did more for me than Nevermind. I still remember the first time I ever heard “Ten” — it’s the fall of 1992– I was at an apartment party in Uptown– it was one of those parties where I didn’t know many people there– just a couple of buddies that I went with and a couple of the girls who lived there that we had just met out on the town a few weeks earlier. So without a ton of people to talk to, I couldn’t stop straining my ears to listen to the music. The guy seemed to be screaming at me, which I’d heard a million times before– but what was different was: I liked the sound of this guy screaming at me. I LOVED IT. I bought the cd the next week and put it into heavy rotation right away. I won’t bore you (too late?) with the Pearl Jam story– we’ve all heard it a million times by now (but did you know “Ten” was named for Mookie Blaylock’s uniform number– Mookie Blaylock being the original name of the band). It’s not really up for debate: Pearl Jam was the most popular American Rock Band of the 1990’s. “Ten” sold over 15 million copies (after taking almost a year to sell any at all) and the band has sold over 60 million records to date. They’re Hall of Famers and continue to have huge success two decades in. I remember an interview I read with Trent Reznor back in the whole early 90’s “compare everyone to Nirvana” era– the writer mentioned to Reznor all the similarities between he and Kurt Cobain and his answer was a very good one and it would have fit for Eddie V too– Reznor said of their same age and sound and lyrical type: “yeah, but he’s addicted to heroin and I’m not”. 5 out of 5 from AllMusic and Rolling Stone… a B- from EW (wtf? nice try EW!)
Key songs: Once, Evenflow, Why Go, Black, Jeremy, Oceans, Release
2. The Refreshments– “Fizzy Fuzzy Big and Buzzy”
Released: February 27, 1996
If I’d done this list on January 1, 2000 this album probably would have been around 10th or so on this list– a decade of perspective moves it way up. Again, fun being the single biggest factor that separates this album– the amount of fun I’ve had listening to it both on stereo and live. In early 1995, a buddy of mine who was from Arizona gave me a cd called “Wheelie” because he knew I loved music and figured I’d love this band– he told me they were the hottest thing going down in Tempe. I gave it a few spins and I liked it a lot– it didn’t leap out at me, but I liked it a lot. It was about a year later that most of the same songs, polished up, came out as “Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy”-which I snapped up right away and instantly fell in love with. I didn’t get to see them live until the summer of 1997 at Ceder Fest and they absolutely KILLED. I was completely sold and have now seen the Freshies/Peacemakers probably 40 or so times (living in Scottsdale for almost 3 years certainly helped crank up that total) with the highlights being 4 times down in Mexico when they put on 3.5 hour shows outside, right next to the beach on the Sea of Cortez. Even more than their Tempe brethren, the Gin Blossoms, the Refreshments embodied the “Southwest Sound”– lyrics straight from the desert and tales from the dusty border towns and Mexico. I’ve never heard a band that sounded more like the place they were from– you can almost hear a rattlesnake hissing and plenty of tequila being swallowed during their songs. It’s the true mark of a great album when your favorite song from an album has changed 6 or 7 different times. There is truly not a bad song on the album and listening to it just puts you in a good mood and makes you want to throw a party. Big time success has seemed to elude Roger Clyne and company, which is ridiculous and all the proof you need to show you how screwed up the music industry is. “Banditos” got the band their only song on national radio, and doing the theme song for “King of the Hill” put some well deserved dollars in their pockets. AllMusic gave this album 4 out of 5 stars– a star short. Here’s to life!
Key songs: Blue Collar Suicide, European Swallow, Down Together, Mekong, Girly, Banditos, Mexico, Interstate, Suckerpunch, Nada
1. Soul Asylum– “Grave Dancer’s Union”
Released: October 6, 1992
No, this was not a fair fight. I spent three years going to grade school with Dave Pirner and playing football and floor hockey and playground hoops etc with him. Their breakthrough to the big time was ridiculously fun to watch, hard-earned and entirely deserved. When they were at the top of their game, there wasn’t a better live band on the planet. Dave never talked a lot, but he knew how to dominate a stage. DOMINATE. He had being a rock star down. He’d strut to the mic with a rock n’ roll swagger and take one last puff on his cig, before theatrically ditching it and then wailing into his guitar. And I was sold every time he did it. The Wedenesday night before Thanksgiving shows were must see’s for years and I was thrilled, jazzed, wowwed every single time. One of the most memorable first songs I’ve ever seen was from one of those shows, me and my group were playing the “what will they play first?” game and of course Dave was one giant step ahead of us and he came out and raised his arms far above his head, all 80’s glam rock style and the place shook as the keyboard broke into the first notes of “Jump” by Van Halen– the band played a verse and a chorus and then Dave grinned into the mic and said, “ok, just kidding”. Full disclosure: the first incarnation of the band, “Loud Fast Rules” played at a dance my senior year and I thought they were horrible. It was hard core punk music and I was used to listening to Tom Petty and Bruce– I didn’t know what to make of them. Six albums in and the Mpls boys (while already having made a couple of fantastic albums) hit it huge with GDU. “Runaway Train” hit the radio and MTV and won a Grammy and the band played at Clinton’s inaugeration and Dave was dating a movie star. Pirner received raves from all in the know for his lyrics and although he certainly wasn’t a classic “good singer” there was something just perfect about his voice anyway. The album spent 76 weeks on the Billboard album charts and sold over 3 million copies and pretty much set up the boys for life. They made all of us from the St. Thomas Apostle playground proud– and although anyone who loves music would completely shout me down for this (and this is coming from a monsterous Replacements fan)– I’d take Soul Asylum in a song for song showdown, and live it was simply no contest (which of course is silly, let’s just leave it at– they’re both all-time great bands). I don’t know that an album and it’s success will ever make me happier than this one. “Standing in the sun with a popscicle, everything is possible, with a lot of luck and a pretty face and some time to waste” might have been my favorite line of the 90’s– when are your possibilities more endless than with a popscicle in the sun???? And with luck and a pretty face… well, you’ve got it all. Album of the decade.
Key songs: Somebody to Shove, Black Gold, Runaway Train, Keep It Up, Homesick, Get On Out, April Fool, Without A Trace, Growing Into You, The Sun Maid