Sure, it was great that Nirvana launched a musical revolution in the '90s. It beat Hammer and the New Kids and whatever other crap was all over the airwaves before Kurt and company smelled teen spirit and decided to act on it. But not all of the good stuff shipped platinum. Or gold. Or actually sold at all. These are the best albums of the '90s that nobody bought. Later efforts by some of these artists (like Pavement and PJ Harvey) managed to crack the Billboard album chart (and are actually better records than those listed here). These are the albums that launched most of their creators' careers, or at least should have, and most likely will be hitting the cutout bins near you real soon (if they haven't already). So put down that Kid Rock CD you were gonna buy and . . . Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.
1. Sleater-Kinney, Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars, 1997): The punk rock here is much closer to indie aesthete than pop purveyors let on, but the crunch and tear of Corin Tucker's guitar and voice let you know she means every single note and word of it. They sing about '90s feminist grrrl things: falling in and out of love, rock music, lesbianism the usual stuff. But it's the trio's way in, around, and through the songs that separates them from their gal pals. When Tucker gets all shaky on Dig Me Out's best songs, she sounds like a human earthquake on the verge of uprooting the very core of indie rock itself. Tough stuff, and the essence of '90s punk rock, with all apologies to Kurt and Courtney.
2. Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador, 1997): Hoboken's cleverest art/punk/pop rockers bring the noise and deliver the goods on this bright and lengthy trip through the underground. Nearly every '90s indie-rock cliché is brought forth and sliced down with all the grace and wit of a band afforded such non-luxuries; droning instrumentals, spaced-out warp rock, grungy rave-ups, and cheeky irony all simmer over in this post-modern stew. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, lofty title notwithstanding, is amazingly sparse, given the spacious ground it covers (it's the decade-old trio's magnum opus). And with "Autumn Sweater," Yo La Tengo has a summer anthem that really doesn't want to be. All this and a Beach Boys cover, appropriated to indie conventions.
3. Tricky, Maxinquaye (Island, 1995): Trip-hop maestro Tricky often sounds like he's one bongload short of nodding off several times during his breathtaking debut disc, yet the scratchy samples and eerie duets between himself and scary chanteuse Martine always seem to pull you back in. It's electronic voodoo channeled through post-hip-hop awareness; very high priest Tricky serves as the twisted medium throughout the untried sojourn. Whether reworking Public Enemy or forging new electronica territory, Maxinquaye is a genre trendsetter (and one of the few electronic albums to actually match its hype). A milestone of studio cunning, ambition, and, yes, trickery, this is the digital age's There's a Riot Goin' On: frightening, smart, and very close to succumbing to its own methodical madness.
4. Pavement, Slanted & Enchanted (Matador, 1992): For their first album (after a series of mind-twisting, erratic but brilliant EPs), these art-damaged noisefuckers crank up the pretension and guitars for an aural feast overloaded with crabby sonics and head-scratching wordplay. It's fragmented, sloppy, and almost totally devoid of simple song structure. But it's also gloriously defiant in its lack of construction and the way it messes with everything you know about rock and roll even by indieville's standards. Stephen Malkmus is one of the most enigmatic frontmen of the '90s, a musical cipher in search of the perfect chord, and it's his distorted vision upon which Slanted & Enchanted is shaped. And "Summer Babe" is pretty damn close to a perfect pop song.
5. Belle and Sebastian, If You're Feeling Sinister (The Enclave, 1997): On its second album, this Scottish collective marries Nick Drake folk rock with the Smiths' equally folky pop jangles from a later decade at the altar of the sardonic. It all reflects leader Stuart Murdoch's original bedroom project as pop thesis. The characters Murdoch conjures are flesh and blood; there are classic, albeit playful, aspirations in this guy (which should be expected from a band that names itself after a French novel about a boy and his dog). Horns and strings adorn many of Belle and Sebastian's tales (about track-and-field stars, foxes in the snow, and dreamy horses), and Murdoch's wispy delivery lends them a fragility that's both haunting and surprisingly optimistic.
6. Air, Moon Safari (Source/Caroline, 1998): Funky fresh French duo practically bubbles over in its enthusiasm for spunky rhythms cribbed somewhere from the '60s and then recycled, via electronic gizmos and such, for modern-day club kids. It's simultaneously wispy and chunky, at times hefty, and, appropriately, airy. The concept may seem like a timely novelty there's potential gee/cheese whiz in the grooves but Air manages to inject Moon Safari with genuine heart and soul (the smarmy irony that its contemporaries employ is all but lost on these guys). Mixing in era-spanning percussion riffs, synth-heavy guidelines, and a fondness for instrumental music that sounds like it's been lifted from some artsy-fartsy foreign flick from the '60s, Air ends up with one totally groovy astro lounge.
7. PJ Harvey, Dry (Indigo, 1992): Astoundingly powerful and developed, PJ Harvey (here a band, before Polly Jean took over the moniker for herself) crushes through Dry like reformed punks whose record collections actually date further back than the Ramones. Harvey is a piercing and candid singer/songwriter; images worthy of Dylan and Patti Smith consistently appear throughout her work. This debut disc crawls through the musical mire of bluesy rock and folky lyricism, amping it all with post-punk fury. Harvey delivers it in a voice whose spirit is in its simplicity. This is heavy, heady stuff. And they're not above tossing in an occasional pop song ("Sheela-Na-Gig") just for the hell of it.
8. Rufus Wainwright, Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks, 1998): Sharp, shrewd, and gay, Wainwright (the scion of folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle) is a piano man in love with love. His debut album is post-pop Tin Pan Alley, a valentine massaged by tinkling ivories and swirling strings. If his notions seem a bit quaint in the post-post-whatever universe, Wainwright backs them up with a sensibility that winks at you all along. Toss in the songs' sweeping choruses, confessional tones, and determined earnestness, and you have the recipe for a timeless collection of singer/songwriter heart plays. And unlike his semi-famous parents, Wainwright keeps his self-consciousness to a minimum; think of it as a modern L.A. story: part melodrama, part tragic opera. Only the protagonist lives to see another day this time.
9. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge, 1998): Of all the Elephant 6 collective bands, the floating Neutral Milk Hotel makes the most accessible music. Its blend of '60s-era Brian Wilson/Smileisms and Beatlesque pop is stylish and fun. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is loaded with all the bells and whistles literally: floortom, bowed fuzz bass, short-wave radio, euphonium, singing saw, zanzithophone, and uilleann pipes are just some of the "instruments" used to power this conceptual piece about . . . well, I'm not really sure what it's about, but the songs at least seem tied together somehow. The best part is, unlike many of his peers, Hotel manager Jeff Mangum cares as much about the melody as the artful sounds he and his crew are making.
10. Moby, Everything Is Wrong (Elektra, 1995): Call him Moby . . . This techno landmark serves as a textbook of all things electronic: For his full-length debut, studio whiz Moby whips out a bag of tricks that includes futuristic space-rock, new agey spiritual lifts, old-fashioned wailing house, and even white-boy blues. It starts with a serene prayer and ends with an equally tranquil eulogy; in between is a set of songs that defies old genre stereotypes while creating new ones. Along the way, Moby a descendent of Moby Dick author Herman Melville bridges '70s prog rock, '80s club, and '90s techno. It's soulful, peaceful, and a music-spinning exercise (and exorcise) of studio steeliness the decade's electronic center of gravity as well as a whale of a listen.