Few writers of the past fifty years have shaped the landscape of popular music as much as the non-fiction author Chuck Klosterman.
During his career, Klosterman has worked for outlets such as Spin, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and The ring (as well as ESPN). But he is perhaps most widely known for his essay books, such as his seminal work Sex, drugs and cocoa puffs. In 2002, Klosterman also received the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for music criticism.
Klosterman, who has written over a dozen books and is a New York Times Best-selling writer, publishes his latest tome tomorrow (February 8): The nineties. As such, what better way to celebrate this achievement than to ask the man, the myth, the legend for his favorite albums from this momentous musical decade.
So that’s exactly what we did. And without further ado, here are Chuck Klosterman’s favorite albums of the 90s.
20. EPIPHANY IN BROOKLYN (1992), Brenda Kahn: There’s probably some sentimentality attached to this selection. It is impossible for me to separate my current appreciation of the material from the experience of listening to it originally. I had an inscrutable friend who loved this record even more than I did, and she wrote me long handwritten letters quoting lyrical passages from her various songs, as well as interpretations of how those lyrics related to her life and our friendship. But then I suddenly lost track of this person and wondered why they stopped returning my calls. Turns out she had cancer and didn’t want anyone to know she was dying, and I didn’t find out until after she was already dead. Now I’m playing this record and I imagine she’s still alive.
19. SUMMER TEETH (1999), Wilco: My all-time favorite Wilco song is “I’m Always in Love”, which was the only track on that record that I thoroughly enjoyed. But now it’s Wilco’s release that I listen to the most, and the qualities that Jay Bennett added to the soundscape have become a lost reality that stands out. summer teeth of all the other versions of their catalog.
18. IT’S A SHAME FOR RAY (1992), The Lemons: It’s funny to remember how people in the 90s (myself included) underestimated Evan Dando as a songwriter just because he was handsome in such a straightforward way.
17. ELASTIC (1995), Elastica: Elastica has always been the easy example of a band that made an unassailable album and then brilliantly faded away until they made another album in 2000 that felt like lazy sarcasm. This debut was also a critical element in the era of mixtapes, as “All-Nighter” is only one minute and 32 seconds long, which was ideal if there was only a little space left on the A side.
16. BETTY (1994), Helmet: The loudest gig I’ve ever been to was Type O Negative, but the second loudest was Helmet and the third loudest was Helmet’s soundcheck before this show. Going through this list, I realize how odd it was that I hadn’t listened to a lot of heavy music in the 90s that wasn’t recorded in the 70s. Headphones were an exception. The other key exception was Alice in Chains, though that lyrical experience was quite different. Helmet seemed to constantly lecture me about not using common sense and having to be wary of the motives of my closest friends, while Alice in Chains was just trying to convince me to sit on an oversized chair and try heroin. I guess I can see the logic anyway.
15. FEAR OF A DARK PLANET (1990), Public Enemy: I played it fearlessly on a Sony Walkman while walking around the campus of the University of North Dakota, an exceptionally dark planet.
14. SPACE PIECE (1994), Spacehog: It was hard to find good glamor when Bill Clinton was president. It was basically mechanical animals, the atmosphere on “Celebrity Skin”, two or three songs out of gold velvet soundtrack I can’t remember, and that underrated album by two British brothers who ate a lot of Chinese food.
13. USE YOUR ILLUSION I & II (1991), Guns N’ Roses: It’s technically cheating (because it’s two albums), but I bought them on the same night and I think almost everyone considers it a double album that was split for totally selfish reasons. Before, I liked short songs, but now I prefer long ones, especially “Locomotive (Complicity)”, even if I still don’t know what I am complicit in.
12. SUPERUNKNOWN (1994), Sound Garden: Sasquatchian riffing, amazing studio production and (of course) highly professional vocals. The only songs I don’t like are the ones everyone remembers, although I suspect I’d love “Spoonman” if it wasn’t about a man playing with spoons.
11. IT DOES NOT MATTER (1991), Nirvana: Hard to think of this album as an “album”, the same way it’s hard to think of it Moby-Dick like a whaling book.
ten. BANDWAGONESQUE (1991), Teenage Fanclub: In 1991, Spin magazine named Bandwagonesque as album of the year, with It does not matter comes in at #2. It kind of became a permanent embarrassment for the magazine, and when I was working there in the early 2000s (when we were still putting Kurt Cobain’s corpse on the cover once a year), there was a vague unspoken feeling that this unfortunate decision wasn’t something we were even supposed to joke about. But you know what? I think they were right in 1991, assuming you just focused on the songs and pretended the company didn’t exist.
9. PINKERTON (1996), Weezer: A record that nobody likes, except those of us who like it too much.
8. AUTOMATIC FOR PEOPLE (1992), REM: This seems to me to be the best REM record by far, even though I say this as someone who never listened to REM in the 1980s. If it hadn’t been, I would (maybe) consider this album as an interesting acoustic experience. But through experience, I do have, he represents what I want the most from this group. They are craftsmen, and their trade is the fabrication of an ambivalent emotion.
seven. SMALL EARTHQUAKES (1992), Tori Amos: I could justify putting this at the top of the list. It definitely has the highest percentage of truly memorable moments (the microphone placement on “China”, the piano playing on “Happy Phantoms”, the awkward horror of “Me and a Gun”, etc.). I guess some of Tori’s ideas that once seemed eye-opening now seem obvious and collegial, but I was in college and I was obvious.
6. WITHOUT LOVE (1991), My Bloody Valentine: The rare example of someone imagining a record that had never existed before, then bringing that record into existence in a way that usurped their own imagination.
5. FIRST GROUP ON THE MOON (1996), the Cardigans: I listened to this album for 26 years, always waiting for one of these songs to sound worse than I remembered. It never happens. I almost don’t understand it.
4. CURVATURE (1995), Radiohead: I am one of those dogmatists Elbows people. If you know what that means, you know what that means. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry.
3. DEFINITELY MAYBE (1994), Oasis: Joe DiMaggio in 1941.
2. THE SOUND OF MUSIC BY PIZZICATO FIVE (1995), Pizzicato Five: Some may quibble with the inclusion of a compilation, but the sheer number of supernaturally perfect pop songs on this anthology will baffle me until I die. And when I say “perfect” I mean literally perfect“I don’t know how this hardware could be improved, even if the group had unlimited resources and access to technology that has yet to be invented.
1. EXILE TO GUYVILLE (1993), Liz Phair: There are many compelling ways to explain why this is my favorite 90s record, but the main reason is that somehow it seems obvious. I will certainly concede that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the defining sonic artifact of the era, and nothing will ever be more historically evocative than that song. But those Liz Phair tracks were the texture 90s – what it was like to be there and how it felt back then. Once, it was an excellent record with tongue-in-cheek ideas. Now it’s a psychosomatic time machine.
Photos courtesy of Penguin Random House