Matt’s Picks: The ’90s

You’ve all seen these lists before, so here’s mine. I’ll be going backwards in time from here, making lists for the ’80s, ’70s and ’60s in the coming months. With that said, let’s get into the ’90s!

  1. Alice In Chains- Dirt (1992)

Where Facelift had been more of a hybrid of G’N’R-style bluesy hard rock, grimy heavy metal and AIC’s early bent of 80s glam metal, Dirt was Alice’s definitive record and a pure, complete expression of the heavy, yarling grunge only they could authentically pull off. Sadly, much of the lyrical inspiration for the record stemmed from Layne Staley’s newfound addiction to heroin, a deadly love affair that would physically decimate him over time and ultimately kill him 10 years later. On the flipside of the tragic circumstances that marked Dirt and the band’s career as a whole, the guitar-drenched gloom and dread highlighted on tracks like “Would?”, “Down In A Hole”, “Rain When I Die” and “Them Bones” have proven far more of a help in hard times for many-a-fan and provided the impetus to rise from the gutter rather than sink lower into despair.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Facelift (1990)

2. Guns N’ Roses- Use Your Illusion II (1991)

Out of the two Illusion albums, II always had the greater amount of musical character. Serving perfectly as the dynamic counter to the hard-rocking aggression of Illusion I, II ensured that the massive double release wouldn’t be two discs of the same thing without reprieve; each would come to have its own personality. “Yesterdays” along with the lengthy “Estranged” fully explore Guns’ (or at least Axl’s) bluesy introspective dimensions from the down-to-earth to the extravagant, a sonic precedent that clearly informs the war rebuke “Civil War” and the Dylan cover “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” in like fashion. Of course, the album’s soft side is balanced off by a hard edge: Furious numbers of the likes of “Get In The Ring” and “Shotgun Blues” are chock full of attitude and pointed clearly at a host of enemies from the rock press to Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe. There’s a bit of something (F-U’s or otherwise) for everyone.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Use Your Illusion I (1991)

3. Nirvana- Nevermind (1991)

Knowing full well Rolling Stone writers and garden-variety Gen-Xers alike would be in hysterics if this record weren’t included, here it is, in all its ironic, scathing, flannel-clad glory. Besides being the album that (a) kickstarted grunge and alternative rock’s commercial dominance and (b) made Kurt Cobain the most miserable man on Earth, Nevermind gave the MTV generation a unique identity beyond simply being the stepchild cohort in the shadow of their ex-hippie predecessors; for its thematic charge and cultural merit it might as well have been called OK Boomer. There’s no need to talk about specific songs, we know them all quite well by now- to say the least, Nirvana’s raw, punk-fuelled stylings, trademark stop-start dynamic along with Cobain’s watery guitar tone and gutturally nihilistic vocals made Nevermind a massive departure from the bombastic excess of the ‘80s and a landmark release that may never be matched in magnitude.

Runner-Up Recommendation: In Utero (1993)

4. Skid Row- Slave To The Grind (1991)

Despite, or perhaps because of their having coming in on the last wave of hair bands in the late ‘80s, the Skids were smart enough to crank it up dramatically from their poppier debut with grunge looming on the horizon while many of their contemporaries stuck to their glammy guns. While their markedly heavier approach on Slave didn’t save them from the sea change the Seattle sound wrought upon the industry, it did produce a number of late hair-era classics (“Monkey Business”, “Quicksand Jesus”) and showcased some of the most impressive vocal work of Sebastian Bach’s career (“The Threat”, “Livin’ On A Chain Gang”). 

Runner-Up Recommendation: Subhuman Race (1995)

5. Pantera- The Great Southern Trendkill (1996)

Trendkill is often, and rightly described as the underrated gem in Pantera’s discography. Tensions were high between Phil Anselmo and the Abbott brothers by ’96- so much so that Anselmo recorded his vocals for the album in a totally separate studio. Whatever the toxicity of the air around the band was at that time, it, (along with Anselmo’s growing substance abuse, for better or worse) helped in making Trendkill the searingly aggressive, cathartic work that it is. Cuts like “War Nerve”, “The Underground In America” and the title track are exemplary of the record’s lashing, merciless tone, with the neck-snapping “Suicide Note, Pt. 2” topping them all bar none. There are more versatile moments though; particularly with the country-laced “Suicide Note, Pt. 1” and the winding “Floods”, the latter track of which containing what many consider to be the greatest solo Dimebag Darrell ever ripped.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)

6. Stone Temple Pilots- Core (1992)

Oft-derided at first as down-the-coast Pearl Jam and AIC ripoffs, STP’s debut nevertheless birthed a string of alt-rock classics and showed early signs of distinction even when comparisons to their peers in the PNW drowned out any other comment about them. Core was merely the chameleonic Scott Weiland’s first form; his vocal style and appearance would shape-shift many more times in the future and his band gradually evolved and branched out in experimentation right along with him, as Tiny Music among other albums would prove. There’s an eclectic variety on Core that makes it all the more endearing for a first release: at one end there’s the bleak, Nirvana-esque “Creep” and on the other the crawling, heavy “Dead & Bloated”, in between there’s various shades of grey: the tangentially industrial “Sex Type Thing”, the Doors-go-grunge mesh “Wicked Garden” and the swirling, watery vortex of “Sin.”

Runner-Up Recommendation: Purple (1994)

7. Mr. Big- Lean Into It (1991)

Don’t let that one ballad fool you. Mr. Big was a ripping band, even if commercially they were only truly big across the Pacific. With the combination of Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan’s otherworldly guitar and bass work, Eric Martin’s raspy soulful wail and Pat Torpey’s slick and nuanced drumming, what could go wrong? Besides the big hit with “To Be With You”, Lean Into It saw one of rock’s most skillful supergroups utilize everything in their wheelhouse from down-and-dirty grooves (“Voodoo Kiss”) and wonderfully melodic harmonies (“Green Tinted Sixties Mind”) to power tool-infused solos (“Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy”).

Runner-Up Recommendation: Bump Ahead (1993) 

8. Jerry Cantrell- Boggy Depot (1998)

What do you do when your singer holes himself up at home and condemns himself to a slow death by opiates? Certainly not throw in the towel, as Jerry Cantrell proved by venturing back to his roots and conjuring up a rock-solid solo debut in the process. Right from the start with “Dickeye” through to the sax-and-piano uneasiness of “Cold Piece”, Cantrell succeeds in being entirely his own artist on Boggy Depot while not straying a substantial distance away from Alice In Chains’ sound. “Devil By His Side”, “Keep The Light On” and “Between” tow the band line exemplified on Dirt, Jar Of Flies and the Tripod album, while “Cut You In”, “My Song” and “Settling Down” see Cantrell coming into his own and venturing beyond grunge’s typical stylistic limits. Through and through, it’s one of the better solo debuts out there.

Runner-Up Recommendation: Since there’s no other solo Jerry Cantrell release in the ‘90s, go check out Alice In Chains (otherwise known as the Tripod album for its cover).

9. Soundgarden- Badmotorfinger (1991)

Despite listeners’ general interpretation of what constitutes as grunge, none of the major bands that popularized it were overly alike; each had their own style to offer. Where Layne yarled, Kurt screamed and Vedder rode the track in a free-flowing baritone, Chris Cornell belted like none of the others could. With such a powerful voice to lead the way, the band as a whole had to pack an equally swift punch. Soundgarden showed themselves more than capable of demonstrating this strength on Badmotorfinger, constructing an identifiably gritty sound powered by Cornell’s vocals (“Jesus Christ Pose”, “Slaves & Bulldozers”) and distinguished from the rest by numerous time signature shifts (“Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”) and galaxy-sized rockers (“Face Pollution”, “Somewhere”).

Runner-Up Recommendation: Superunknown (1994)

10. Damn Yankees- Damn Yankees (1990)

A great gathering of the Midwest’s finest (with the exception of one Californian), Damn Yankees proved to be a launchpad for a previously unknown drummer and a vehicle for three rock titans from the ‘70s and ‘80s to keep their names in the public consciousness where the ‘90s may have otherwise swept them aside. Running mainly off the strength of ballads (“High Enough”, “Come Again”) and rockers of the likes of “Coming Of Age”, Damn Yankees brought together the soaring vocal talents of Tommy Shaw (Styx) and Jack Blades (Night Ranger) with the trademark frenzied guitar of Ted Nugent and the driving beatwork of future Skynyrd skin-slammer Michael Cartellone to create a sound dialled in with the time and laced with an All-American flare. 

Runner-Up Recommendation: Don’t Tread (1992)