A look back at some of the decade’s most strikingly innovative releases
Despite birthing the unfortunate genre of post-grunge and giving the world more Oasis than anyone could humanly stomach, the ‘90s were also a breeding ground for innovative and incredibly influential sonic experiments. The following albums are just a few worth revisiting from this fruitful decade.
Stereolab – Dots and Loops (Elektra, 1997)
While much of Stereolab’s earlier output can be attributed to The Velvet Underground and the numerous influential krautrock bands of the ‘70s, Dots and Loops finds the UK-born band relying more heavily on lounge-y synths and easy listening templates. It’s a strikingly effective and natural progression for the band, perfectly recreating the twee mood found in ‘60s French pop and European film soundtracks of the era while avoiding mere emulation. Guitarist Tim Gane and singer Laetitia Sadier create an assured, pleasant and sunny backdrop brimming with orchestrations and fuzzy synths that would feel equally at home in a Federico Fellini film. Nearly 20 years later, Dots and Loops remains an undeniably appealing and comforting package.their way to becoming a staple of their respective genre.
Organized Konfusion – Stress: The Extinction Agenda (Hollywood BASIC, 1994)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more lyrically verbose and equally skilled rapper than Pharoahe Monch; noted for his incredible dexterity on the mic, Monch remains one of the most talented MCs in hip hop. Nowhere is this more evident than on Organized Konfusion’s sophomore classic, Stress: The Extinction Agenda, an absolute masterclass in boom bap production and clever, intricate wordplay. Backed by dark, jazzy beats, Monch and fellow rapper Prince Po navigate through labyrinthian bars, effortlessly passing the ball and showcasing an infectious chemistry. While Monch is responsible for most of the album’s showstoppers, Po nonetheless holds his own, matching the former’s intensity and even murdering a few verses of his own. Stress: The Extinction Agenda deserves a place among the greats of its genre.
Alain Bashung — Fantaisie militaire (Barclay, 1998)
Before he deconstructed the defining elements of French chanson on his frighteningly experimental 2002 release L’imprudence, France’s Alain Bashung experienced something of a late-career reinvention. With Fantaisie militaire, Bashung took his texts into the darkness, residing in the moody organs and chamber pop echoes of his foreboding world. Despite hopping through a multitude of disparate genres, from downtempo and electronic to ambitiously layered art rock and French pop, Bashung’s texts ensure a consistent atmosphere, his voice fraught with anguish. With impeccable, dynamic production and a slew of musical guests, including Portishead’s Adrian Utley on guitar, Fantaisie militaire serves as an incredible late-period revival for Bashung and a stellar introductory point for the uninitiated.
Death – Symbolic (Roadrunner, 1995)
Death metal often gets stereotyped as being a mess of gutturals and chugging, indecipherable riffs and wailing guitars. It’s ironic then that the band who essentially pioneered the genre is also one to completely ignore these tropes. On Symbolic, the band’s penultimate album, Death refuse to be placed in the same ballpark as their peers, further refining the technical death metal of their previous two records, Human and Individual Thought Patterns. What makes the late Chuck Schuldiner’s songwriting truly stand out is his penchant for crafting riffs as crushing and heavy as they are catchy and melodic; “Empty Words,” the album’s stunning third track perfectly illustrates what separates Death from their peers. Schuldiner is also backed by a powerhouse team of musicians, including the technical yet equally thunderous prowess of Gene Hoglan behind the drum kit. The band’s stellar and harmonic dynamic is simply astounding, crafting an album brimming with memorability and tasty, harmonic leads. Even 20 years after the fact, Symbolic is a welcome showcase for Schuldiner’s immense songwriting talent as well as hard-hitting proof that death metal can be about more than just blood and dismemberment.
Boredoms – Vision Creation Newsun (Birdman, 1999)
Defying categorization, Japan’s Boredoms is anything but boring. Though 1998’s Super æ and Super Roots 7 signaled a modest shift from the noisy, bewildering sonic experiments of yore to a dreamy krautrock wonderland, Vision Creation Newsun represents the band at their creative apex. A veritable psychedelic odyssey, Boredoms assembles a vibrant vortex of pummeling percussion that takes center stage over the scorching feedback loops and crazed yelps that occasionally pierce through. The album’s tracklist also perfectly encapsulates the madness within, its songs simply assigned shapes and symbols in place of names; “(Spiral)” is particularly intoxicating in its joyous bombast. While frenzied and overwhelming, the album exhibits a certain quaintness that’s almost childlike in its manic construction; there’s an ever-present air of positivity to this chaotic ordeal. As loud and cacophonous as it can be, Vision Creation Newsun is a dizzyingly uplifting primal voyage, from its explosive opener to its blissed, almost tropical finale. Listening to this virtuosic display of percussion, it’s hard to believe these guys once opened for Nirvana.