Last week, we started off a list of the twenty best albums of 1992. We hit the bottom ten on that list, which included a surprising number of debuts, and now we’re back to finish this thing off. Here are the 10 best from 1992 and, no, there’s still no Slanted & Enchanted.
Here we go:
10. Sebadoh – Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock – Sub Pop
Sebadoh’s Sub Pop debut wasn’t their coming out party. They’d already made the excellent III, an album that found Lou Barlow and his band staking their own ground, proving themselves more than just an offshoot of a band (Dinosaur Jr.) Barlow had left behind. But Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock is an interesting hinge in the band’s career and an excellent collection in its own right. It compiles tunes from a couple of earlier import releases — Sebadoh vs. Helmet and Rockin’ the Forest — but it sounds remarkably cohesive, perhaps because Sebadoh wasn’t all that into cohesion in the early-’90s. Barlow’s stuff may carry the day here — a rework of Weed Forestin‘s “Brand New Love” and “Vampire” are particularly excellent — the best thing about Smash Your Head is how his dour pop plays off Eric Gaffney’s hardcore freak-outs (“Crisis”) and Jason Loewenstein’s punk-rock grinders (“Junk Bonds”). Oh, yeah, and there’s that bizarre take on Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” This album is a mess in the best possible way, and while it set listeners up for the classic Bubble & Scrape, it was still, in its own right, another bracing listen from one of the more unpredictable bands of the decade.
9. Pete Rock & CL Smooth – Mecca and the Soul Brother – Rhino
Pete Rock & CL Smooth only made two full-length records, but listening to the 77 minutes of greatness that is Mecca and the Soul Brother, it’s hard to believe they’d need to make another note. This is as complete and consistent a record as hip-hop had to offer in the ’90s. The duo was, first and foremost, perfectly named. Pete Rock provided beats steeped in soul and jazz, but they always thumped, while Smooth was right up there with Rakim in the effortless flow category. He could go deep storyteller on “Ghetto of the Mind” or speed it up with fire on “Act Like You Know” or “Anger in the Nation.” For such a long record, it’s amazing that it never falls off, and is relatively free of filler. Mecca and the Soul Brother is thoughtful and often dark, but never falls into self-serious preaching or despair. It’s a resistent, resilient sound, and in a year of great hip-hop records, this one had no problem standing out.
8. Green Day – Kerplunk! – Lookout
Dookie may have been the breakthough, the album that influenced big, sold bigger, and led eventually to the arena rockers we know as Green Day today. But let’s be clear: none of it would not have happened without Kerplunk!. The far-superior predecessor to Dookie, Kerplunk! is a shot in the arm for pop-punkers everywhere. Billie Joe Armstrong was still refining his songwriting approach, but while he still snarls here from time to time — there’s something different in his anger on this version of “Welcome to Paradise” — it’s his more heartworn side that carries the day here. From the worn-out frustration of “Christie Road” to the young-love wanting of “2000 Light Years Away,” Armstrong conveys heartbreak without whining (too much), and behind him Tre Cool’s propulsive drums and Mike Dirnt’s rolling basslines make Kerplunk! rise above the other three-chord punk records of its ilk. There’s no hint in this album that these guys would one day shout to the stadium rafters, and that’s a good thing. They were always best when they yelled at the basement-show walls instead.
7. PJ Harvey – Dry – Island
Before PJ Harvey knocked us all out with Rid of Me, she wasn’t exactly fine tuning her work. Dry, her debut album, is a fiery and self-possessed set of excellent, lean rockers. She can still wail like a banshee over thumping rock beats on “O Stella” or the more industrial chug of “Dress,” but she’s not fighting against towering guitars like she would on Rid of Me. Instead, her emotive and wildly impressive voice tames the guitars here. The guitars have their own muscle, but mostly they play a brittle second-fiddle to PJ Harvey’s volatile charm. There’s also an impressive breadth to this, from twanging, blues-rocker “Victory” to the acoustic number “Plants and Rags,” the album never settles in. But it’s also not trying to find itself. The restlessness of Dry has a perspective, and Harvey shows from the very first note that she is in control here, which is what makes Dry such a bracing, unforgettable rock album.
6. The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall – American
The Jayhawks have long been lumped in with alt-country movement, and sure you can see why. But Hollywood Town Hall was (and is) a far braver release than most give it credit for. It’s got a country vibe, for sure, but it’s also just undeniably sweet pop music, built on pristine harmonies and stick-in-your-head melodies. Oh, and it’s got heart to spare. The album starts with back-to-back classics: “Waiting for the Sun” and “Crowded in the Wings.” The former had a faint roots-rock edge, while the latter is all bittersweet ache. And Hollywood Town Hall never lets up from there. We get dusty twang on “Two Angels” or jangling power-pop on “Settled Down Like Rain” or tear-in-your-bear balladry on “Nevada, California.” Every song is executed perfectly, driven by songwriting duo Mark Olsen and Gary Louris. What’s most remarkable about the record is that it seems to exist on its own musical planet. There was nothing like it in 1992, certainly not on the major-label circuit. But even if there were others trying to wear the Jayhawks’ dusty boots, it wouldn’t have matters. Hollywood Town Hall is one of those classic records, where you can list all the elements, all the great songs, and still not put your finger on what makes it great. It’s got that kind of murky alchemy, which is to say the best kind.
5. The Jesus Lizard – Liar – Touch & Go
So, it’s not right to call Liar smoother than its predecessor, Goat, becuase the terms “smooth” and “The Jesus Lizard” are pretty much mutually exclusive. What Liar does, though, is sharpen the band’s eccentric howl. Right out of the gate, on “Boilermaker”, the guitars sound a touch less sludgy, a bit more sharp. David Yow’s howl, in all its arch greatness, is just a touch higher in the mix, just a bit clearer. All this makes following Goat, a classic record by all accounts, just a bit easier and sets Liar on its own striking sonic plane. The fiery, sinister churn of “The Art of Self Defense” speeds things up, while “Puss” slows things down and injects just a hint of classic-rock shuffle into the mix. “Rope” sets a blistering, hardcore pace, while “Zachariah” — the album’s biggest outlier and greatest success — plays in twanging guitars and bleak negative space. The Jesus Lizard proved, in a run of albums from 1991’s Goat to 1994’s Down, that they were not going to be pigeon-holed. Liar is both the most expansive record in the lot, one that’s unafraid to clean up the production and shout what it wants to shout — and (Goat aside) the most consistent. Rock records don’t get much more exciting than this one.
4. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream – Mute
Henry’s Dream is an important record in the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds discography. It marks a transition away from record like Tender Prey, who stretched out the Birthday Party’s sound into angular but gloomier (if still excellent) territory. Henry’s Dream, though, with it’s thematic cohesion and forays into the gravitas and drama that would define later albums, is an excellent moment of evolution for the band. Cave sounds particularly on fire here, frothing at the mouth through the obsessive speed of “I Had a Dream, Joe” or shouting with a deep, disconcerting authority on “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry.” There’s also the dark chorus and size of closer “Jack the Ripper,” but Henry’s Dream may be most notable for the more beautiful juxtapositions it offers to these frantic moments. The swaying, shimmering “Straight to You” or the stripped-down acoustic roll of “When I First Came to Town” show another side of Cave, one far removed from all the lust and rabid want and violence. Here, Cave yearns to be included, to find that unconditional love, to get help from the folks in a new town. Henry’s Dream expanded the sonic palate of the Bad Seeds, but it also expanded Cave’s songwriting into new, more sympathetic territories. He’d go deeper and more personal on later records, but Henry’s Dream is a brilliant balancing act: it gives us the blood we want, but it also shows the heart that pumps it.
3. Sonic Youth – Dirty – DGC
If you hear Dirty in passing, you might mistake it for being of a piece with the grunge movement swirling around it. If you dig into it though — and there’s so much to dig into it’s unreal — it actually has little to do with what’s going on in the music world and more to do with Sonic Youth’s constant evolution. By 1992, Sonic Youth was on a roll — they’d put out Sister, Daydream Nation, and Goo all in a row, and Dirty plays a bit like a synthesis of those records. It’s got the expansive cohesion of Daydream Nation, the angular buzz of Sister, and like Goo contained an unbelievable amount stone-cold, knock-out rock songs. Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo swirl around each other as strongly as they do anywhere else in the band’s catalog here, though early on it’s Kim Gordon who runs the show with songs like “Swimsuit Edition” (is there a more fuck-yeah moment on the album than when she shouts “don’t touch my breast!”?) and “Drunken Butterfly.” Dirty clarifies some elements of the band’s approach — lyrics, melodies, etc. — while muddying up the sounds that create that approach. In that way, it both meshes sounds of the past into a stronger whole, and pushes them forward. This isn’t the most influential Sonic Youth album, or the most talked about, or the one likely to top the most lists, but it is their most purely entertaining record, which — coming from this band — says a lot.
2. Unrest – Imperial f.f.r.r. – TeenBeat
How is Unrest not the most talked about band from the ’90s? Can anyone explain this? After an unpredicable run of exciting singles, the band put out their debut, Imperial f.f.r.r., and all the surprise and experimentation of their early sound remained intact but with a much tighter eye for song strutures and pop sensibility. You’d be forgiven for thinking that two totally different bands played the jangling, sweet “Suki” and the trip-hop leaning “Champion Nines.” There are other albums on this list (and elsewhere) lauded for their unpredictability, but none are way out there as this album is, and none nail so many different sounds perfectly. These guys were a catchy, fiery rock band when they wanted to be — see “Cherry Cream On” — but they could also branch out into the rockabilly roll of “Sugarshack” or the dream-pop of “June.” No one song seems to relate to the other, and yet there’s a strange but strong line running through the entire record. It’s not easy to be this weird, to satisfy this many disparate muses, and still deliver a great record. But Unrest does just that on Imperial f.f.r.r., slanting sounds and enchanting us one eccentric song at a time.
1. Beastie Boys – Check Your Head – Grand Royal/Capitol
If it’s not surprising to see this at the top of the list, that’s because Check Your Head is every bit as good now as it was 20 years ago. There was lots of great hip-hop in 1992. Dr. Dre gave us The Chronic (we’ll get to this in the future on QtP, hence its absence here) which would help pave the way for the ganster rap movement, but Check Your Head was a far more curious entry into the rap music pantheon. After Licence to Ill, the Boys toned down their party antics and upped the samples and funky grooves on Paul’s Boutique. As a follow-up to that record, Check Your Head — with its live instrumentation and breadth of genre experiments — sounds like a complete change in direction. There are still straight-up rap hits here — “Pass the Mic,” “So Whatcha Want,” “Professor Booty” — but there’s also the sludgy rock of “Gratitude” (which both predates and outshines “Sabotage”) or the eccentric punk fury of “Time for Livin'”. Songs like “The Maestro” brilliantly mesh the worlds of rap and rock on this record, though it never sounds like rap-rock. Instead, this is rap music built with live elements from the ground up, and it marked another breakthrough for the Beastie Boys.
Every album sounds different for these guys, but Check Your Head may be the most expansive display of their influences in their entire discography. It’s strange but it thumps, it tries all kinds of different sounds, but it nails them all. In the end, Check Your Head is remarkable because it proved the Beastie Boys were just great rappers and innovative musicians, they were a great band. In light of MCA’s passing, there’s something heartbreaking about hearing Adrock scream “and now I’d like to pass the mic to Yauch,” but going back to Check Your Head will find you less mourning the loss of MCA and more celebrating his and his bandmates’ influence, which is very much still alive and, back in 1992, represented the best music had to offer.
So there you have it. The best albums of 1992, according to Quarantining the Past anyway. What are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!