Desert Island Discs: 1990s Rock and Pop Edition

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Though the 1990s are generally associated with the shooting-star grunge movement, our desert island is apparently going to have precious few albums from the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains.

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Instead, voters in the latest Desert Island Disc polling — which focused on rock and popular sounds from the ’90s — were more apt to bring along Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (which received three nods, including two for first place) and U2’s Achtung Baby (which had two votes, and topped one list).

Radiohead, Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill each received a pair of mentions, as well, as Something Else! Reviews continues its on-going search for just the right sounds to while away the days on Gilligan’s Isle …


1. PETER GABRIEL – US (1992): How better to describe the fragile state of human relations than to cloak the breakdown of his own marriage in an album built around music inspired by the world outside of western radio? Tender, exotic, and often as sad as it is beautiful.
2. JAMES – LAID (1993): – Moody, dark, almost brutally emotional, Laid may also be the decade’s single best album… that is only known for one ridiculously over-happy song.
3. KING CRIMSON – VROOOM (1994): – Fripp compares this 30-minute EP as a “calling card, rather than a love letter” to the then-upcoming full album, THRAK, but this is wilder and more fun. A “hot date,” perhaps, to borrow his term for concerts, that you can revisit any time you want.
4. RADIOHEAD – THE BENDS (1994): – It’s not edgy like OK Computer but it signaled another change in direction for music – away from grunge and toward introspective, thoughtful diatribes, and it spent years as a favorite in my CD player (and still frequently finds itself spinning digits as mp3s today).
5. TEARS FOR FEARS – RAOUL AND THE KINGS OF SPAIN (1995): A concept album of sorts, the second album without Curt Smith finds Roland Orzabal contemplating just how we get to be who we are, and how much blame for ourselves we should have to take responsibility for.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Longtime King Crimson member Adrian Belew on the future of the band: Robert Fripp ‘may never want to do it again’]


1. BECK – ODELAY (1996): Just when I had written off Beck as a “flash in the pan,” he drops this audio collage that simply boggles the mind. He also nods to old school hip hop (“Where It’s At”) and 60s pop (“The New Pollution”) with ease.
2. R.E.M. – OUT OF TIME (1991): Sure, “Losing My Religion” and “Shiny Happy People” were way overexposed. But other tracks still encompass R.E.M.’s folk-rock sound, like the lovely “Half A World Away.”
3. JANET JACKSON – THE VELVET ROPE (1997): Janet may have spawned more hit singles, but Jackson’s followup revealed a darker, more intimate side of the pop diva. While she further explores her sexuality, she also addresses her struggles with depression in songs like “You” and domestic abuse in “What About.”
4. MASSIVE ATTACK – BLUE LINES (1991): Like few other albums, this one broke down barriers and even created its own genre–“trip-hop.” A group ahead of their time, they created the now-classic “Unfinished Sympathy” and faithfully covered “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” as a nod to their R&B roots.
5. U2 – ACHTUNG BABY (1991): After the mixed reviews for Rattle and Hum, U2 was almost written off. But they came roaring back by infusing electronic sounds with their brand of rock, resulting in nothing less than a complete reinvention.

[BEYOND THE BEATLES’ HITS: Think you know the Fab Four? Kit O’Toole’s ‘Deep Beatles’ series takes you into some undiscovered corners of the group’s ageless musical legacy.]


1. TOM PETTY – WILDFLOWERS (1994): There’s fun to be had here (“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” “Honey Bee”); there’s some edgier fare (“You Wreck Me”) and some quieter folky moments (“Time To Move On,” “Don’t Fade on Me”), too. There’s even a deeply introspective, episodic centerpiece song (“Good to Be King”). Simply a tour de force, career-defining album.
2. ROGER WATERS – AMUSED TO DEATH (1992): Like the great Pink Floyd albums that Waters helmed two decades before it, this album is defined by his collaborative bond with an equally artful guitarist … this time, Jeff Beck. Together, they fashion not only the most coherent reiteration of Waters’ mindset since the 1970s, but perhaps the best Floyd-related project since then, too.
3. JOHNNY CASH – AMERICAN RECORDINGS (1994): By turns brooding and funny (“The Man Who Wouldn’t Cry”), sobering (“Beast in Me”), and down-right scary (“Delia”), Cash plumbs the depth of our country’s hopes and fears. He didn’t shy away from those tough questions, even at the end, and in so doing crafted a thrilling late-career comeback.
4. TALK TALK – LAUGHING STOCK (1991): The taproot for much of Radiohead’s experimental new-century art-rock sound is found here, on the vastly underrated death knell recording from Talk Talk — a modern-rock Delorean that hurtles the listener forward into a genre as yet unformed.
2. BOB DYLAN – TIME OUT OF MIND (1997): This album, truth be told, was probably a little over-celebrated. Still, I come back to it more than any of Dylan’s post-1970s works — if for no other reason than the shattering “Not Dark Yet.” It remains this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: As sad as Kurt Cobain’s suicide no doubt was, who knows if Dave Grohl would have wound up starting the clearly superior Foo Fighters otherwise?]


1. MICHAEL JACKSON – DANGEROUS (1991): “Will you be there,” “Gone too soon,” and “Keep the faith” — the lyrics speak about loss, death, and longing, but somehow after listening to it you can’t help but to feel that everything’s going to be alright. It’s amazing how powerful music can be in that respect. Maybe that’s the magic of great artists: they express the suffering of the world, but removed from its pain.
2. JONI MITCHELL – NIGHT RIDE HOME (1991): The depth and richness of feeling and emotion is pervasive through every song on this album. And, take special notice to “Slouching toward Bethlehem,” which puts Yates’ 1919 poem “The Second Coming” about an impending apocalypse, to music.
3. NIRVANA – NEVERMIND (1991): Say what you will about “grunge” music, but Kurt Cobain’s death was horrible and tragic — for his family, friends, fans and I imagine especially for his daughter. It’s not a fitting way for any life to end.
4. RADIOHEAD – OK COMPUTER (1997): The first time I listened to “Exit Music (for a film)” and heard the drop of the fuzzy bass pedal, I was surprised, terrified, and amazed, all at once!
5. PEARL JAM – TEN (1991): Pearl Jam personally protected “Black” from becoming a single, stating that the song was too personal and “fragile” to be released as a single, and that doing so would tarnish the feeling within it. Fragile and delicate are the perfect words to describe this song. With the carefully placed spaces in between the lyrics, you can almost feel as if the song can literally break at any moment.

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1. SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992): It was so hard to choose between this and Goo, but I love Dirty because it’s … dirtier.
2. LAURYN HILL – THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (1998): A sexy and smart collision of hip-hop and R&B. With this, Ms. Hill became an instant superstar.
3. PROPELLERHEADS – DECKSANDDRUMSANDROCKANDROLL (1998): Slammin’ beats and Shirley Bassey? I’m sorry, but that’s one unbeatable combination right there.
4. 10,000 MANIACS – OUR TIME IN EDEN (1992): Natalie Merchant goes out in a blaze of glory.
5. DINOSAUR JR. – WHERE YOU BEEN (1993): J Mascis might not be the best vocalist in the world, but his guitar has been known to blow the balls off a charging rhino at sixty paces. Wait … that might be somebody else.

[SPARKS FLY EVERY MONDAY: Check out our weekly feature ‘Sparks Fly on E Street,’ where Mark Saleski breaks down Bruce Springsteen’s legendary career – song after memorable song.]


1. ROGER McGUINN – BACK FROM RIO (1991): A phenomenal comeback from a phenomenal man! Expectations were running awfully high when word got out the founder of the Byrds would be releasing this album, as it had been a decade since any of his own music appeared on disc. Pierced from head to toe with Roger’s trademark jingly jangly 12 string guitar glory, nasal-pitched croon and a stack and a half of melodious songs to match, “Back From Rio” proved to be an astonishing return to form.
2. THE SPONGETONES – OH YEAH! (1991): Flipping the calendar back to 1965, the Spongetones raise the spirit of the fabled year with twinkles in their eyes and springs in their steps. Manifestations of the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and the Kinks are presented in abundance, but “Oh Yeah!” smartly avoids slavish imitation in the shape of strong original material and cracking chops.
3. THE E-TYPES – CHASE THE MOON (1997): Spurred by a renewed interest in their music, the E-Types, who cut a handful of utterly fantastic singles between the years 1965 and 1967, reunited and wound up creating a stone cold masterpiece. Draped in a dapper coat of glossy harmonies, detailed arrangements and enthused performances at each and every turn, “Chase The Moon” is the album the Beatles, the Hollies and the Zombies would have made had they staged a star-studded collaboration.
4. VELVET CRUSH – HEAVY CHANGES (1998): Power pop, power pop and more power pop! Busting at the britches with corridors of chugging guitars, waves of whipping rhythms and swarms of sweeping choruses, “Heavy Changes” contains tunes so obnoxiously catchy that you’ll be humming them in your sleep.
5. BLUE EYED MARY – BLUE EYED MARY (1999): Jim Viglas and Kevin Soares are actually the fellows behind Blue Eyed Mary, whose lone album slaps together the best of the Beatles, the Beau Brummels and the Byrds into one romping repertoire of retro-rock righteousness.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Beverly Paterson talks with the Byrds’ Gene Clark about the folk-rock pioneering band’s lasting impact, and his own genre-melding creative process.]


1. PANTERA – FAR BEYOND DRIVEN (1994): Most fans will go with Vulgar Display of Power, but the follow-up remains my favorite from the band. The screaming main riff of “Becoming” alone is enough to put this record on top of my list, and you’ve still got “I’m Broken,” “Five Minutes Alone,” and their cover of Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan” that showed off guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott’s chops. You’re always gonna have the “more metal than you” guys that scream sell-out because the album debuted at No. 1, but it deserved to debut at No. 1.
2. SKID ROW – SLAVE TO THE GRIND (1991): My love for this album is no secret. I consider it not only one of the greatest hard rock records of the 1990s, but of any decade. You’ve got a thrashing title track, some down and dirty tunes like “Mudkicker,” punkish rockers like “Riot Act” and even great ballads. The guitar lick from “In a Darkened Room,” while fairly simple, is still amazing.
3. ALICE IN CHAINS – DIRT (1992): Kurt who? Nirvana gets all the hype, but Alice in Chains blew them away, especially on this record. In my mind, it’s not only the greatest record of the grunge movement, but I could make an argument for it as the best rock record of the 1990s.
4. MEGADETH – RUST IN PEACE (1990): Megadeth’s master work. Marty Friedman brought another dimension of shred to the band, along with multi-colored locks that almost caused Dave Mustaine to pass him over. It’s a good thing he was able to look past the dye job or we might have missed out on one of the defining records of thrash.
5. JUDAS PRIEST – PAINKILLER (1990): I promised I would make up for leaving Priest of my 1980s list, and I have. It’s not just a make-up call, though, this is one of, if not my favorite record from the band — certainly on par with British Steel and Screaming for Vengeance.

[b>ONE TRACK MIND: Steve Lukather goes in depth on key moments from his lengthy tenure in Toto, including “Hold the Line,” “Hydra,” “Pamela” and others.]


1. STEVE LUKATHER – LUKE (1997): Lukather’s most raw and one of his most personal albums. It was recorded shortly after his divorce and those feelings are all laid bare. This album happened to enter my life when I was having a rough time with a break-up myself so the songs struck a nerve with me. I connected with this album on an emotional level more than I’d ever really connected with an album before (or since).
2. DREAM THEATER – IMAGES AND WORDS (1992): The first album with James LaBrie on vocals. The band was firing on all cylinders — between the exceptional musicianship of Petrucci, Portnoy, Moore, and Myung, the powerful vocals of LaBrie, and Kevin Moore’s exceptional songwriting (the other guys wrote some great stuff too, but Moore’s songs were lyrically the best stuff Dream Theater ever recorded).
3. TOTO – KINGDOM OF DESIRE (1992): Jeff Porcaro’s final album before his untimely passing and easily Toto’s most raw and heaviest album. There’s a fire and an energy to this album that sets it apart from the rest of their albums.
4. HUNTERS AND COLLECTORS – CUT (1993): This is easily the Hunnas most accessible album. There are hints of INXS and U2 in the songs. And the horns, love the horns especially on “Love That I Long For.” Sadly most Americans don’t know about these guys.
5. COLLECTIVE SOUL – COLLECTIVE SOUL (1996): There’s not a bad song on this album. It was a vast improvement over their 1993 debut and I still find myself going back to listen to it today. My wife and I don’t share many musical tastes but Collective Soul is a band we both thoroughly enjoy and this remains one of our 2 favorite albums by them — the other being 1999’s Dosage.

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1. U2 – ACHTUNG BABY (1991): U2’s seventh studio album marks the band’s transition away from the optimistic anthemic arena rock and post-punk of the 80s and into the darker, more ominous arena rock and post-punk of the 90s. Edge is at his most cutting – like with the cruel razors of “Zoo Station” and the treacherous riff of “The Fly” – and Bono is a scornful but contemplative icon of rock and/or roll.
2. JANET JACKSON – janet. (1993): Janet Jackson was never the best singer out of the pop stars of the ’90s, but she was/is one of its sexiest and most personal icons. This record, her fifth, was her chance to break away from the Jackson name and whack a big “fuck you” on those who presumed she was riding the coattails of her brother.
3. PEARL JAM – VITALITY (1994): Pearl Jam’s best is also the band’s most diverse recording. Their third studio album marked the day the Seattle band broke with the grunge and made with the strange. There are great pop songs (“Better Man”) and punitive odes to vinyl (“Spin the Black Circle”). And it scared the shit out my youth pastor at my church, so there’s that.
4. DR. DRE – THE CHRONIC (1992): The birth of G-funk brings the Good Doctor from the world’s most dangerous rap group into his own, but he manages to use the opportunity to introduce one Snoop Doggy Dogg – a rapper with languid, potsmoke intonation and an impressive sense for all that’s gangsta. Dre borrows extensively from funk and R&B to create some of the best beats in rap.
5. LAURYN HILL – THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL (1998): The guests include Carlos Santana, Mary J. Blige and D’Angelo. The songs are drawn from neo-soul, R&B, soul, rap, roots, reggae, and pop influences. The lyrics were written in an attic during Hill’s first pregnancy. And her family, like it or not, comes before anything else. This record is the ultimate ode to life, love and Zion.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A terrific new 20th anniversary reissue of ‘Kiko’ reminds us of that moment when the power and mystery of Los Lobos music found its fullest flowering.]


1. DOUG SAHM – SDQ ’98 (1998): A country-rocker who can party all night long, the founder of The Sir Douglas Quintet way back in the 60s made his best album shortly before he died. We can debate whether it’s rock or country but it really doesn’t matter. This CD is outstanding.
2. BLACK 47 – FIRE OF FREEDOM (1993): The rebellious New York City Celtic Rockers wear their Irish roots on their sleeves and their major label debut is full of classic songs known to all who follow the genre. Leader Larry Kirwan combines traditional Irish folk instruments within the framework of a rock band and somehow it all works.
3. LOS LOBOS – KIKO (1992): One of the most overlooked bands of the last thirty years, these guys should be stars. Unfortunately, mainstream radio decided long ago that this little band from East L. A. just wasn’t suited for their demographics because they were too ethnic. Nevertheless, they became one of the outstanding bands of the whole Americana movement.
4. LUCINDA WILLIAMS – CAR WHEELS ON A GRAVEL ROAD (1998): A country- rocker whose toughness tries to hide her constant broken heart, Lucinda Williams’ songs could rock, roll, and touch listeners where it hurts all at the same time. “Metal Firecracker” is one of the great breakup songs ever written.
5. DADA – PUZZLE (1992): Dada is a trio with a pop sensibility that has often been compared to The Police. They were bolstered by two great guitar tunes and a really hot axman by the name of Michael Gurley. They made some noise with this debut containing two great songs, “Dizz Knee Land,” and “Dorina.” ’70s rock, two decades later.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Most of what would become the Leonard Cohen legacy is explored anew on 2009’s career-spanning ‘Live in London,’ most notably his studied passion, this almost professorial verve.]


1. TOM PETTY – WILDFLOWERS (1994): The hits on this one make it essential (“You Wreck Me,” “It’s Good To Be King,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels”), but its more-sobering moments (“Wake Up Time,” “Crawling Back To You”) make it a modern masterpiece.
2. LEONARD COHEN – THE FUTURE (1992): Prophetic, apocalyptic, and doused with black humor, this is what happens when a master of his craft takes a long, hard look at the world outside his window. Don’t believe me? Stick it up the hole in your culture.
3. ELTON JOHN – SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST (1998): He’d been on a career high since scoring The Lion King, but the Rocket Man hadn’t delivered an album like this, with songs like these—“I Want Love,” “Wasteland,” “This Train Don’t Stop There Anymore”—in a long, long time.
4. THE ROLLING STONES – VOODOO LOUNGE (1994): The Stones have seemingly, for a while at least, released new records as excuses to tour. This one — released over 30 years after the band’s first one — is the exception. Chock-full of raunchy, writhing rock and roll songs stripped down all naked and shameless, it’s their strongest effort since ‘78’s Some Girls.
5. SHERYL CROW – THE GLOBE SESSIONS (1998): At turns brooding (“The Difficult Kind,” “Am I Getting Through”) and rambunctious (“There Goes The Neighborhood,” a definitive cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”), this is the record that solidified Crow as the most durable female artist of the decade.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Get stirring new insights into the Robert Cray Band from original member Curtis Salgado, who also played a key role in the creation of the Blues Brothers.]


1. ROBERT CRAY – MIDNIGHT STROLL (1991): With the Memphis Horns, a batch of songs as strong as there is on Strong Persuader, and Cray’s crazy good axe playing, if this didn’t suit the blues purists, that’s their loss.
2. JELLYFISH – SPLIT MILK (1993): As vivid, cinematic and clever presentation of power pop as has ever been created since the style’s ’60s and ’70s heyday.
3. TOM PETTY – WILDFLOWERS (1994): With producer Rick Rubin’s help, Petty sounds simpler, direct and hungry.
4. DIONNE FERRIS – WILD SEED – WILD FLOWER (1995): Immediate, hip and even experimental for its time, Wild Seed – Wild Flower is the best ’90s album Prince never made.
5. BEN FOLDS FIVE – THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF REINHOLD MESSNER (1999): “Army” still rocks and amuses me at the same time, while “Jane” (not the Jefferson Starship song) is a flawless soul ballad.

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