Before we begin listing things, a few notes about the list you are about to read.
1. If we’ve already covered the album here on QtP, you won’t find them on this list. That doesn’t mean the albums aren’t awesome, or possibly more awesome than some of these records, it just means we don’t like to repeat ourselves too much. So if you’re wondering about the QtP view on Tom Waits’ Bone Machine, Ride’s Going Blank Again, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, Come’s 11:11, Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and other 1992 gems, check QtP’s of not-so-distant past.
2. I also may or may not have omitted albums that will be the focus of future articles. You might wonder if this doesn’t render the list incomplete and perhaps even arbitrary. The answer is probably and, also, welcome to the realities of list making.
3. Let’s give this away, right now: you won’t find Slanted and Enchanted here. For one, enough has been said about it. And while, sure it is a vital, important rock record from the decade, it is also Pavement’s fifth best album. So lovers of that album seek comfort in the fact that it is on thousands of other lists and expand into new/old ’90s territory with the picks below.
4. I’ll say this about S&E, it’s indicative of one clear thing about 1992: there were a ton of great debuts. The number in the list below is pretty staggering (and unintentional). Some great bands were just getting started this year, and it’s still pretty exciting to look back at it.
Let’s get started:
20. Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over – RCA
Buffalo Tom was one of those bands that had a learning curve. They were exciting on their first two records — their eponymous debut and the mostly great Birdbrain — but Let Me Come Over was their coming out party and, in some ways, their career high-water mark. Bolstered by moody but bracing power-pop tunes like “Taillights Fade” and “Mineral,” Bill Janovitz and company added complexity and layering to their sound without sacrificing the hooks. And though they were perhaps known from here on our for being a bit dour, there’s still plenty of rocking to be done here — see “Darl” or “Porchlight” for evidence. Let Me Come Over sounds very much a product of its time — the early-’90s alternative pop scene — that it should sound dated, but it doesn’t. Instead, seeing so many power-pop pretenders follow them, hearing the genuine article on this record, playing at this level, sounds just as fresh as ever.
19. Stereolab – Peng! – Warner Bros.
Peng!, Stereolab’s debut album, is generally considered a sort of blue print for the great albums that were to follow. To some extent, this is true. But to dismiss the album as mere preamble is to miss out on something that is excellent in its own right. It’s got all the surprising shifts in sound you’d expect form Laetitia Sadier and company, and they prove themselves both adept experimenters, on the airy groan of “Mellotron” or spacey closer “Surrealchemist.” They also, though, knock out some seriously excellent pop tunes, from the near-title track “Peng 33,” with its sweet backing vocals, to the interstellar surf-rock of “The Seeming and the Meaning.” The album doesn’t have a dull moment on it, and even if better music was to come from Stereolab, that just shows how great they became, not some imagined element Peng! may lack.
18. The Goats – Tricks of the Shade – Ruff House
The Goats are, to this day, not talked about nearly enough. Sure, they’re right up that Native Tongues, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul alley, but what they’re doing was uniquely eccentric, experimental, and excellent. Their debut, Tricks of the Shade, is 25 tracks and 71 minutes of some of the best hip-hope the decade had to offer. There’s some straight up killer rap cuts, like standouts “Typical American” and “Hip-Hopola”, as well as plenty of musical tangents to keep things interesting. They may not have been as immediately potent as, say, Tribe, but they had the same sort of social conscience with a more cut loose approach to songcraft and sound. The Goats managed to sound serious without ever taking themselves too seriously, and if the tangential feel of Tricks of the Shade makes it, in moments, uneven, it makes the album as a whole charming in its strangeness, and powerful in its inventiveness.
17. Lush – Spooky – 4AD
Lush was, and is, hampered by comparisons to My Bloody Valentine, and on its release their debut album hung in the shadow of Loveless‘s gauzy heft. As time has passed, though, that MBV comparison seems less and less fair. To hear the slashing, warm guitars on “Nothing Natural” or the melted shuffle of “Tiny Smiles” or even the shimmering pop-punk of “Superblast!” is to hear a band that bears little resemblance to those shoegaze titans. Once you cut that connection, the impressive sound of Spooky takes over and you see an album that is both catchy and ethereal — both textures courtesy of front-woman duo Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson. It’s certainly deep in the dream-pop genre, but there’s also one foot on solid ground throughout Spooky so that, even when the band gets to the drifting melancholy of closer “Monochrome,” they never lose track of all these sweet, surprisingly muscled layers.
16. Eric B. & Rakim – Don’t Sweat the Technique – MCA
After starting their career with two stone-cold classics, Paid in Full and Follow the Leader, Eric B. & Rakim came down to Earth some on the solid but not outstanding 1990 album, Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em. It’s hard when your beats are as tight as Eric B.’s, and your flow as smooth and effortless as Rakim to not sometimes sound like your coasting. Don’t Sweat the Technique never got the classic status of those first two records, but it is a fascinating and excellent record that recaptures the duo’s fire. Despite the smooth love rap that opens the record on “What’s On Your Mind,” Rakim’s fire comes here in often bleak visions of violence and death. “Teach the Children” talks about poverty-driven crime and other songs like “Casualties of War” and “What’s Going On” keep that pessimistic mood going. Rakim sounds fed up with the George Bush era here, but that doesn’t stop him from slaying emcees on the title track. It’s a bleak record, but one that feels more focused than its predecessor. These guys had already made their mark, but it speaks to their power that, when Eric B. & Rakim were very good, they still sounded head and shoulders above the rest.
15. Bad Religion – Generator – Epitaph
Generator was an album with a tough hill to climb. It came on the wave of 1988’s Suffer, 1989’s No Control, and 1990’s Against the Grain — in other words, one of the strongest runs of albums punk rock had seen in quite some time. Turns out Bad Religion was up to the task of not only topping themselves, but evolving just enough to keep things interesting. Generator keeps the blistering pace and fiery politics of those past records — the album opens with a dark inversion of “My Favorite Thing” on the title track — but the band also branches out into new sounds on the heavy, slower paced rock of “Two Babies in the Dark,” the melody driven “The Answer” or the smooth, catchy chorus of “Atomic Garden.” In other words, Bad Religion delved deeper into their pop sensibilities without sacrificing their snarl on Generator, and as a result continue an impressive early-’90s run that would only continue on the next record, Recipe for Hate.
14. Luna – Lunapark – Elektra
The split of Galaxie 500 left us with two bands — Luna and Damon and Naomi — neither of which deviated too far from the dream-pop sound Galaxie 500 perfected. Dean Wareham’s work with Luna, though, was no mere retread. Instead it girded all that gauze, and his how gruff whisper, with a more rock and roll foundation. Justin Harwood’s bass gave Wareham’s fuzzy guitars some body, while drummer Stanley Demeski made these songs thump. Check out the subtle power of “Smile” or the tight rhythm of “Slash Your Tires” and you’ll see that Luna was not a continuation of the band that came before, but an evolution. They’d make other great records, Penthouse in particular, but Lunapark still impresses as the band’s powerful introduction and, as time passes, it becomes clear that some of their first sounds were also their best.
13. Seam – Headsparks – Homestead
Sooyoung Park’s first band, Bitch Magnet, was getting to be a big deal. But then they broke up. So it goes. Rather than pine over what was lost, Park pushed forward with the gentler but more striking sounds of Seam, and their first album Headsparks is 30 minutes of spaced-out rock bliss. It’s an album that shifts dramatically from Bitch Magnet’s metal-tinged crunch into something closer to post-rock. But still, they could deliver jangly power-pop a-la R.E.M. — see the opening of “Sky City” or dig through the fuzz on “Atari” — but they also just knocked out their own brand of distorted, catchy rock tunes. For such a short record, Headsparks feels awfully expansive. Tracks like “Decatur” and “Feathers” and “Granny 9x” unfold slowly, patiently, and make room for the understated charm of Park’s vocals. Aside from being a plainly kick-ass rock record, Headsparks is also a historical curiosity — a record recorded just before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up, and a record that features Superchunk frontman and Merge Records head Mac McCaughan on drums. It’s an album that captures a moment in time, to be sure, but more than that the songs are, one after the other, just awfully damned good.
12. Juliana Hatfield – Hey Babe – Mammoth
1992 was a great year for Hatfield. For one she was in the Lemonheads and thus helped record the classis It’s a Shame About Ray. Maybe more impressively, though, she put out her debut solo record, Hey Babe, and knocked it out of the park. Hatfield would build her career on “Spin the Bottle” (off the Reality Bites soundtrack) and later hits like “Universal Heartbeat,” but Hey Babe is a sweet and volatile pop record full of gems. There’s sweetly cooing tunes like “Ugly” and lean rockers like “Everybody Loves Me But You” and “I See You” and all kinds of textures in between. She proves a pro at the tight hook and earworm melody, though that doesn’t keep her from stretching out in interesting ways on, say, the moody “The Lights.” Hey Babe is heartbroken and hurt without ever sounding weak, the kind of album that embraces its fears and confronts them head on. Hatfield was an it-girl of sorts in ’90s music (remember her as the homeless-girl-cum-angel on the Christmas episode of My So-Called Life?), though outside of a few modest hits, she never quite got the recognition as a solo artist she deserved. Even today, Hey Babe makes the argument that too many people missed the boat on one of our most versatile and immediately striking singer-songwriters.
11. Polvo – Cor-Crane Secret – Merge
Polvo is one of the greats of the math-rock genre or, if we can give them a bit more credit, one of the great rock bands of the past two decades. This, their debut, sees them arrive fully formed and ready to knock us over with sheer, angular power. They can hit with sheer distorted might on “Can I Ride” or “Kalgon,” but they can also get more intricate and subtle with the echoing layers of “Vibracobra” or the spacey mood piece turned freak-out “Ox Scapula.” Top to bottom this album is varied and surprising but never falls off. Polvo never made a better record than this one, they just made other records that were just as great in different ways. Lots of great stuff was going on in Chapel Hill in 1992 — see Seam above — but Polvo had the most distinct rock sound going at the time. 20 years on, and rock bands are still playing catch up, and Cor-Crane Secret shows just how ahead of the curve the band was and continues to be.
Stay tuned for the top 10 next week. Do you have any predictions in the comments? Any other albums you’d include? Let us know!