20: Bjork- Hyperballad (1995)
Bjork is a rare example of an artist who has never had the want, nor the need, to compromise her own personal and idiocentric visions. Her musical story, a history that winds through her first recordings as an 11-year-old and the art rock of The Sugarcubes, leading into 20-plus years of worldwide success as a solo act, is a dazzling trip into the mind of one of music’s most forward-thinking innovators.
Much like its vivid artwork, a wind-swept visage of Bjork engulfed by a colorful collage of oversized postcards, Post is rich and sophisticated – a vibrant re-imagining of ‘90s British underground counterculture. Ranging from pounding electronica and dusty trip-hop breakbeats to vast arrays of orchestral yearning and big band excitement, its diversity is held together by Bjork’s enthralling songwriting and beautifully uncontrollable vocals. It spawned a number of hits, particularly in the UK where three of its singles hit the top ten: “Army of Me,” “It’s Oh So Quiet” and “Hyperballad.”
Dancing away with tiny synths ticking about, as an over saturated drum machine echoes around deep bass hits, “Hyperballad” is an orchestral, synth-heavy ballad powered by a clubby four on the floor kick. “We live on a mountain/ Right at the top…Every morning I walk towards the edge/ And throw little things off,” Bjork hesitantly professes before pondering, “I imagine what my body would sound like/ Slamming against those rocks.” Like many of Bjork’s visually arresting music videos, Michel Gondry directed the surreal digital wonderland of “Hyperballad”’s promo. A holographic Bjork eerily floats over the real thing, Gondry’s camera hypnotically circling her unmoving and unaware human body, before venturing off into a panorama of distorted cityscapes and radio towers.
Bjork described the writing and recording of Post as a “mission.” “I just decided,” she would state in a 1995 interview, “I’m going to be really selfish, I’m going to get all the instruments I want, all the noises and lyrics I like, and make all the music I can, because everybody’s got to express their vision.” “Hyperballad” is uniquely Bjork’s, informed by the cosmopolitan atmosphere of London and filtered through her kaleidoscopic mash of radical pop and intelligent electronica, with a flair for the avant garde. – Edward Dunbar
19: The Breeders- Cannonball (1993)
Pop songs usually work on a singular hook. But there are rare songs completely composed of hooks; the sort of tracks where individual snippets could be turned into hits on their own right. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Billie Jean” and, for the 1990s, “Cannonball” had more hooks than all the fishing shops in the contiguous United States.
There’s an album full of pop nuggets stuffed into this three-and-a-half-minute track, from the rhythm section upward. Though Kim Deal played guitar on “Cannonball,” her weighty bass influence is still present. The bass line isn’t the chopped-up punk of “Debaser,” but it is sugar soaked staccato. That, pared with red-light green-light drum work, gives the whole song a delightfully woozy feeling. That’s helped both by the laffy-taffy loose guitar line and Deal’s singing. She shifts from sweet cooing to radio static screaming. Thanks to some production tricks, Kim and Kelley, her identical twin sister (to make matters more surreal), constantly confound with their singing. They swim in and out of each other’s lines, and seem to pop up in random places when played through headphones. And that’s all before the sweet/sour chorus dynamic. You can practically hear the Yeah Yeah Yeahs being created as the Deals scream.
The lyrics are baffling. Deal winks as she sings “I know you’re a real cuckoo” and promises to be a “bong in this reggae song.” Whether it was subliminal shots at former bandmate Frank Black, or an ode to OG sex freak Marquis de Sade, there’s an absurd playfulness to “Cannonball.” It seems like a lark, but it’s far too finely crafted for that. It’s pretty much impossible to get out of your head after the first six seconds or so. It’s also sexy but not seductive. That would imply stubley. There’s no room for that in this hookfest. Instead, “Cannonball” kisses you on the mouth and cartwheels off. It’s as thrilling as it is confusing. – Nathan Stevens
18: The Flaming Lips- Waitin’ for Superman (1999)
The Flaming Lips’ great songwriting trick is to set simple, human emotions against a cosmic backdrop that can seem cartoonish. It’s easy to forget how good the band behind all those gummi-skull stunts really can be, and to reach the peak of their power you have to go all the way back to The Soft Bulletin, the conflicted Picard to Yoshimi’s crowd-pleasing Kirk. This is a pop album that pines as openly for transcendence as any since Pet Sounds, and its emotional crux is “Waitin’ for a Superman,” which takes on no less a task than to heal wounds at the end of the world.
It helps how seriously the song takes its silly story. Some unexplained disaster with the sun calls for Superman, but, for once, the man of steel can’t rise to the challenge. Coyne’s voice, lamblike and endlessly benevolent as ever, still believes in him: “He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything,” he says of the people of Earth whom Supes protects and serves. “It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.” He seems to wipe a tear from the eye at the prospect of such heroism, and with such high stakes—is there any greater cause than saving the world or any disappointment greater than failing to do so?—the song’s emotional power skyrockets to an almost unbearable poignancy.
The Soft Bulletin is one of the most sonically inventive records of the ‘90s, setting in stone many of the signifiers of latter-day psychedelia, but “Waitin’ for a Superman” is almost maudlin in its construction. It comes off like an end-credit ballad, its piano chords dropping with the weight of a grand human drama. It communicates not hope but resignment—tempered with relief that, until the end, someone’s sticking out for us. Anyone who’s ever tried their hardest but been beaten down by the challenge can take solace in this song, one of the saddest yet most inspirational ever made by a rock band. – Daniel Bromfield
17: Dr Dre- Nuthin’ But a G Thang (1992)
“Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” was the first breakthrough single for both Dr. Dre as a solo artist and Snoop Dogg in general, but its appeal lies squarely in the track’s OG sensibility. The beauty of G-funk is that it can serve as the soundtrack for the most raucous party but the sonic palette is easygoing and the vocalists deliver their lines with a hearty dose of California cool.
With the help of Snoop and The D.O.C., “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” is a masterpiece of finesse and bravado. After years spent in the incendiary pressure cooker of N.W.A., it’s clear that the newly solo Dr. Dre simply wants to relax and bask in his accomplishments. Still, “‘G’ Thang” features some of Dre’s most easily digestible rapping. As time went on, he faced more and more scrutiny for working with other writers to craft his rhymes and as a result felt the need to prove himself as an MC, but here his flow is loose and varied, with occasional moments of giddy-up that accentuate his sauntering cadence.
On the boards, Dre blends samples from Leon Haywood, Public Enemy and Kid Dynamite to create a tapestry of synths that squeal and simmer. Dre’s production grew more adversarial and aggressive in his later work with 2Pac and on his own 2001, but the instrumentals on The Chronic remain indelibly smooth.
Lyrically, “‘G’ Thang” is all rapper swag, with some lines that reek of late ‘80s rap cheese (“Getting’ funky on the mic like an old batch of collard greens”) and others that were incredibly of the moment (“Well, I’m peepin’ and I’m creepin’ and I’m creepin’/ But I damn near got caught, ‘cause my beeper kept beepin’”.
Even with Dre’s massive, multi-platform success, there’s an effortlessness to his early work that he never quite replicated, and “‘G’ Thang” is perhaps the crowning example of that. – Grant Rindner
16: Notorious B.I.G.- Juicy (1994)
To some, gangsta rap has a (pardon the pun) notorious reputation for being all about empty materialism, sexism and violence. While there are elements of all of those things in the genre (especially among many of its least-talented practitioners), to box away the whole genre like that would be shortsighted, as many of the best gangsta rappers presented themselves as multi-faceted human beings capable of lows and highs in equal measure. Take “Juicy,” the single best song on the Notorious B.I.G.’s near-flawless Ready to Die, as an example of what could be accomplished in gangsta rap. The song ostensibly features few, if any, of the hallmarks most associated with the genre, but it does get to what lies underneath all of Biggie’s swagger and bravado. This is a celebration of coming from nothing and getting everything; this is Biggie realizing he’s made it.
“Juicy” pops up towards the end of Ready to Die, after the listener has been emphatically introduced to Biggie’s life in 90’s Bed-Stuy. Biggie begins by dedicating the track to a world that told him he and others like him wouldn’t amount to everything before recounting his ascension to stardom. He raps about his idol worship of pioneers like Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D before rising to their level and beyond. However, while Biggie isn’t the humblest man, “Juicy” is not empty bragging. Throughout, Biggie remembers where he came from and how far he had to travel to get to where he is, which makes the fact that he owns both a Super Nintendo and a Sega Genesis that much sweeter (and dated). “Juicy” is much more than an empty glorification of wealth; it’s a triumphant celebration of spirit, hard work and perseverance. In an all-too-short career full of great tracks, “Juicy” remains Biggie’s finest hour. – Kevin Korber