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The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1990s

The Ten Best Debut Albums of the 1990s

These are the best debut records of the 1990s.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man claiming the collapse of the Soviet Union had ushered in the end of humanity’s evolution. Western, liberal capitalism had won, asserting itself as the final form of civilization. Fukuyama turned out to be wrong, hilariously so, and all you had to do was listen to the rupturing music scenes of the ‘90s to know us humans weren’t done with our own inner-conflict. Rap ascended to the throne of cultural domination, birthing legends along the way, grunge delivered the last true rock stars and electronic throttled the charts while mutating itself into absurd new forms. And few decades had so many young guns propelling the sound into uncharted territory. — Nathan Stevens

A Tribe Called Quest: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990)

The first thing that sticks out about A Tribe Called Quest’s debut is how far it strays from the established sonic templates of late-‘80s hip-hop. The warm, jazz-inflected sound created by rapper/producer Q-Tip and DJ/multi-instrumentalist Ali Shaheed Muhammad was distinct from both Rick Rubin’s arena-rap bombast and the Bomb Squad’s wall of noise. Even De La Soul, Tribe’s closest antecedents, made beats that were denser and less groove-oriented than the likes of “Push It Along” and “Can I Kick It?” Along similar lines, the mellow, slightly high-pitched vocal timbre of both Q-Tip and Phife Dawg couldn’t have been further from the booming, stentorian tones of contemporary MCs like Chuck D or Big Daddy Kane.

As different as Tribe sounded, however, it had nothing on how different they were: neither political firebrands nor party-starters, and certainly not gangbangers, they blazed a new trail for artful, Afrocentric hip-hop in the new decade and beyond. For evidence of the group’s boundary-pushing, one need look no further than their single “Bonita Applebum”: a rap love (and lust) song that is nearer to the authentic eroticism of a Prince ballad than the strained macho-sensitivity of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” Little wonder that People’s Instinctive Travels became the first album to receive the coveted “five-mic” rating from The Source.

Today, Tribe’s debut album tends to be held in slightly lower esteem than their 1991 follow-up The Low End Theory, which saw the group coming into their own with a deeper jazz influence and increased involvement from Phife Dawg. But even if it were the last album they’d released, People’s Instinctive Travels would still cast a long shadow: without it, everything from classic-era Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to Noname’s Room 25 would be a lot harder to imagine. – Zachary Hoskins

Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

This album of contradictions comes from the tradition of rave and dance music, yet the mood that Richard D. James generates on his debut as Aphex Twin is more subdued and isolated, an exploration of the mind as opposed to the dancefloor. This is theoretically where the “ambient” of the title should kick in, but the more firm beats and dance rhythms work to command the listener’s attention. SAW 85-92 is an active listening experience, one meant to be heard at full alertness rather than in a dream state. While it does enter into more ethereal territory at times, it never really lulls one the way ambient music does, even if this would end up being the most “ambient” that James would get over his career. That synthesis of atmosphere and rhythm–something that many producers have failed to create since–is part of why the album is remarkable, but there is still more to it than that. If one is to believe James, he started working on the music that would become this album when he was 12 years old.

Whether or not that’s true or just part of the mystique of Aphex Twin is beside the point. James really taps into something formative on this record. From the enveloping sounds of rebirth on “Xtal” to the uncertainty and paranoia that permeate “Tha” and “Schottkey’s 7th Path” and through the high-floating ecstasy of “Pulsewidth,” he seems intent on capturing the whole of human psychological existence over the course of one record, and he may have just done it. While James would arguably create work that was more complex as his career developed, his debut remains the most human electronic album ever made. — Kevin Korber

Pavement: Slanted and Enchanted (1992)

No, they weren’t just a Fall cover band. Did Mark E. Smith and crew ever pack so much melody into their songs, and did they have a drummer as wild as Gary Young? After a handful of noisy, lo-fi experimental singles and EPs, the poster children for ‘90s alt-rock ironic insincerity launched their first of several essential albums with a track tailor-made to distill the myths that would dog their career. Front man Stephen Malkmus came on like a prep school kid waxing obscure lyrics: “And she’s eating her fingers/ Like they’re just another meal.” But by the time he gets to “I’ve got a lot of things I want to sell / But not here babe/ You took it all!” you realize “Summer Babe” had it all: caterwauling guitars that wound indie-rock melody and an apparent irony that disguised something like genuine emotion (never forget the tear Malkmus would shed in the music video for “Cut Your Hair,” from a second album that turned down the noise for more subtle song craft). “Two States” is the only thing here that might be mistaken for The Fall, and its simple rhythm and vocal chant is an outlier on a far more unpredictable album. There’s a reason Pavement lost the die-hard punk crowd after their debut; that mental and physical fatigue that some took for insincerity was in fact destined to shift from sheer noise into some of the most gorgeous guitar rock of the era. Here, a punk anger still holds court—except when it doesn’t, as on the barely-amplified twang of “Zurich is Stained.” Sure, those song titles can still read kind of arch and annoying on paper, but the lyrics reveal a vulnerability that nobody paid attention to at the time: “I can’t sing it strong enough/ ‘Cause that kind of strength I just don’t have.” He can, and he had that strength. – Pat Padua

PJ Harvey- Dry

Few artists boast a more impressive career than PJ Harvey. Iconic visuals? Check. Infamous alter ego? Check. The skills? She plays guitar, autoharp, tenor and alto saxophone and a plethora of electronic instruments. Yet in 1992 these were still ahead of her. The unshakeable Harvey arrived to the game with a desire to put out at least one album, which she poured her heart and soul into thinking it would be her last. She aptly named it Dry.

Give me your troubles/ I’ll keep them with mine” she says to her beloved “honey thighs,” subverting a woman’s agency and a man’s sexuality in the opening track. Before “Bleeding Love” seeped onto the radio in the 2000s, Harvey sung about her “fruit flower” on “Happy and Bleeding”. References to South Pacific and Carrie in “Sheela-Na-Gig” showcase Harvey’s wide array of inspirations, setting the stage for the variety of roles she would embody in the future.

Remarkably, Dry never attempts accessibility, instead preferring to do things Harvey’s way, which is often complex, dark, and abrasive. Even the tempos demand deep inspection from the rapid 3/4 signature of “Joe” to “Water”’s 5/4 beat, one that Harvey follows with a hesitant but sufficient pace. Religious undertones litter the album to tell a variety of stories and experiences. Ever an aggressor, she takes the role of Delilah opposite Samson on “Hair”. With (“O Stella”), Harvey takes aim at blind faith as a form of salvation or sign of benevolence. These critiques and tales come alongside real doubts of her own faith, a previous source of strength that comes up, well, dry. The “big man” who stayed with her 40 days abandons her in a time of need on “Fountain” – from then on, Harvey draws upon her own character for power. “I’m walking/ Walking on water” is as much a shock as it is an observation, a moment where Harvey discovers her own grit. It’s at that moment when she and you both realize Dry is just the beginning. — Mick Jacobs

Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (1993)

Some may quibble that this is Phair’s debut given that much of it appeared on the Girlysound tapes that circulated before she got signed to Matador. But that misses the point of just how much of a kick in the ass Exile in Guyville was when it came out. Framed both in title and (allegedly) in concept as a response to the Rolling Stones classic Exile on Main St., Phair’s goal here is far more encompassing than taking one classic rock band to task. Here, she’s destroying the myth of the rock star, the debauched Bacchanalian figurehead we’ve been told to worship all our lives. To Phair, that figurehead isn’t a hero, but a noxious villain that she’s very much eager to tear down right before our eyes.

The way Phair chooses to respond to indulgent rock star fantasies is to place a fragile, shattered reality to the forefront. The characters on Guyville are broken people. They’re left unfulfilled by sexual desire (“Fuck and Run”); they find themselves abandoning their true identity to maintain an unhappy relationship (“6’1””). Crucially, though, they’re also people, driven by desires and capable of making good and bad decisions. That these songs were written by Phair from a woman’s perspective is not an incidental detail: the album was crafted to turn women from the side players and sex objects they were too often reduced to in rock ‘n’ roll and make them take center stage. Nothing like this had been done before, especially in the milquetoast boys club of American indie rock at the time. While Phair’s career would end up being more of a mixed bag for some, that can’t (and shouldn’t) detract from how astonishing of a record Exile in Guyville continues to be. She may never be able to equal it, but who really could? —Kevin Korber

Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)

Arguably the most form-altering debut LP since Are You Experienced, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) upended rap conventions and laid out the blueprint for underground hip-hop. Compared to the dense noisescapes of ‘80s artists or the increasing sophistication of ‘90s breakthroughs, the Wu-Tang’s debut sounded as raw and scuffed. Hip-hop was becoming increasingly cinematic, but RZA’s production eschewed widescreen scale for the pan-and-scan boxing and static tracking lines of the bootleg kung-fu movies that form such a crucial element of the album’s sonic palette. RZA’s scratchy, lo-fi samples lent an atmosphere of hard-edged grit that other rappers aggressively pursued through posturing boasts and gangster tropes. Lyrically, the group’s internal competition for album time was reflected in the battle-rap intensity of each performer, so that each verse brims with urgency and dense wordplay, establishing each character in the Wu-Tang mythos out of the gate.

The seeds of the coming Wu diaspora are all here. You can hear the sophistication under the album’s fuzz that would lead to the more panoramic sounds of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, as well as the contemplative streaks that would be refined on Liquid Swords. The tracks are unimpeachable, free-associative posse cuts that run the gamut from the industrial punch of “Bring da Ruckus” to the haunted “Can It Be All So Simple” to “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing Ta F’ Wit,” perhaps the most brittle and minimalistic boast track ever recorded. The group can even be heartbreaking, as on the personal “Tearz” and the anti-gangsta defeatism of “C.R.E.A.M.,” in which living hard pays the bills but brings no joy. Most impressively, the album has lost none of its grimy, independent feel despite all of its traits having long since permeated and reshaped the mainstream. – Jake Cole

Nas – Illmatic (1994)

Nas never reached the heights of Illmatic again. But there’s an argument that no other rapper has either.

The oral history of Illmatic goes like this: New Yorkers in the know around ‘92 hear Nas and instantly think “holy shit he sounds like Kool G/Rakim/Chuck D.” In truth, he resembled none of them. He took the detail-heavy rhymes of Kool G, the wicked smooth internal wordplay of Rakim and the absolute, righteous conviction of Chuck, but he efficiently extracted the best from each trait and synthesized them.

New York was already Hip-hop’s Mecca, but these were the revelatory psalms that now lace its mythology. Illmatic has an impossible, biting sense of place. Is it possible not to see flickering overhead lights and hear the woosh of railway cars within seconds of “NY State of Mind” busting out? Nah, Nas redefined the sound of New York. He wasn’t just snatching it from CBGB punks, but from Sinatra and Gershwin. There would be no sanitization, no polish. Even the catchiest hook on the album went “life’s a bitch and then you die!” And the production crew sweated, keeping up with Nas’ blistering bars. Large Professor, Pete Rock and DJ Premier headlined, with each of them bringing a thudding logic to their beats that still are liable to decimate car speakers 25 years on.

Illmatic doesn’t just haunt Nas in this century, but the entirety of rap. From Stankonia to Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, every G.O.A.T. contender is instantly compared to the king. Though it was utterly singular, Illmatic was less lightning in a bottle, more the Pyramids springing up fully formed. The work of thousands had coalesced into a singular avatar and he returned their energy, creating the foundational document of hip-hop for decades to come. Oh, also, he was only 20. The world was his. – Nathan Stevens

Tricky – Maxinquaye (1995)

Dirgelike, slow as industrial molasses and packed with the sonic detritus of a physically and morally decaying world, Adrian Nicholas Matthews Thaws’s solo debut helped launch a subgenre with an album so bleak it even depressed his singer/alter-ego Martina Topley-Bird (erroneously credited as Martine) . Yet for all its seemingly alienating parts, Maxinquaye is a thing of beauty, dense but crystal clear, its layers of sound and meaning existing in a production space open enough for each human and mechanical voice to be heard as it lets out its erotic death cry. The album’s sexual and social frustration is all the more poignant—and maybe a little unsettling—when you remember it’s named for his mother, who died when Thaws was four—whether she killed herself or succumbed to complications from epilepsy, he never knew.

Maxinquaye opens at a crawl with the self-deprecating lover of “Overcome”: “You sure you want to be with me?/ I’ve nothing to give.” But its melancholy tempo gives way to the fury of “Black Steel” and, inevitably, to the reggae-ish “You Don’t,” which marches along as Icelandic guest singer Ragga promises, “I fight evil with evil.” But Tricky childes her, expecting more: “You don’t even try.” It’s sultry, swaying rhythm tells a heartbreaking story of despair by means of undeniable pop hooks. That’s how he overcomes. If the album’s hybrid of electronica, rap and collage helped gave birth to trip-hop (he insists it didn’t), it also led to Mazy, his daughter with Topley-Bird. The next generation is the promise and hope that emerges from such darkness. In 1995, Tricky told Melody Maker that, “I want her to be a yuppie with nothing to worry about except what she’s going to wear on weekends.” After a debut that at once seemed like an agonizing product of primal scream therapy and an unlikely pop smash, he founds something to be optimistic about even in a world gone mad. — Pat Padua

Daft Punk – Homework (1997)

With a few high-profile musicians recently bemoaning the words of critics, it thrills a music writer to look back upon an act which owes their title to none other than negative criticism about their work. Indeed, Daft Punk always felt like an act that enjoyed the reactions of the public, be they positive or negative. “We’re making serious music, but we’re not taking ourselves seriously,” Thomas Bangalter remarked in an interview about their debut record, Homework. The goofy sci-fi sound on the offbeat of “Burnin’” practically gives it away – Bangalter and Guy Manuel de Homen Christo had fun crafting their debut.

They also knew house and disco, genres pushed to the fringes of pop culture, were fun as well. True to its name, Homework studiously examines the ways in which dance music can exist on its own. In 1997, rock and roll held much more popular and critical sway, an influence that led to the dismissal of disco, pop, and anything deemed too synthetic. Daft Punk, trolls long before internet forums discovered the term, took elements of the established order, namely funk rock, and fashioned them into rebellious electronic music. The acid synths of “Rollin’ and Scratchin’” chafe against your ears while a cooler set on “Da Funk” grooves like the guitar riff of “Smoke on the Water”. By doing so, Daft Punk opened the public’s mind to the possibilities of electronic music, which still took another decade to emerge as a popular, respected genre.

Today, you see a bit of Daft Punk influence in everything. They revolutionized Coachella more than once. As the titanic EDM of Swedish House Mafia swelled into raves and stadiums alike, the echoes of “Alive” ring in the background. The Disclosure fever of ’13-14 felt like a direct line down from “Revolution 909”. Their face-wear, from basic masks to modernized Tron helmets, appears in the visages of Deadmau5, SBTRKT, and Marshmello. All of this is impressive, and somehow feels less important than “Around the World”. 20 years later, it still manages to peer into the future. – Mick Jacobs

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

If Lauryn Hill’s work in the Fugees asserted that she could write, rap and sing with the best, her debut album showed that her artistry ran layers deeper than anyone could’ve imagined. The one line on the disbanded trio’s “Zealots” where Hill criticizes publications for urging her to forge her own path is almost laughable now, as her first and only solo studio release is an undisputed landmark album. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’s widely varying musical palette, taking in soul, hip-hop, jazz and more, is not in service of a free-wheeling trample through different styles. Each detour into a new form or sound is driven by a narrative need, like the spiritual explosion of gospel harmonies and fingerpicked guitars on “To Zion” that feels as revelatory as the song’s devotional message. When Hill is delivering scathing boasts through rap verses (“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop (That Thing)”), the music dives into the low and heavy for an approach that meets her snarling aggression.

This musical holism, where a historical reckoning of black art is strung together into a unified tapestry, is mirrored in Hill’s lyrics. Her musical philosophies (“Superstar”), romantic troubles (“Ex-Factor”) and political musings (“Every Ghetto, Every City”) are all given equal weight. resulting in an album that looks at the totality of Hill’s life and draws lines that connect what seem like unrelated issues. White-knuckled rage is liable to melt into sorrow or anything in between, but it’s Hill’s conviction that sells the seeming lack of a core message. She’s entirely committed to selling each of these feelings, even the inherent contradictions within this type of emotional complexity.

While there were many factors that contributed to Hill’s quasi-retirement after the release of The Miseducation, there’s something fitting about the artist’s lack of a true studio follow-up. MTV Unplugged No. 2.0 is fine, but there’s no easy way to add on to an album as complete and definitive as Hill’s debut. Released in 1998, the album’s musical and ideological fingerprint is unmissable in 21st century hip-hop, pop and R&B. Countless artists have name-dropped, sampled or otherwise interpolated this music, and the continued relevance of the album should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been healed or simply heard by Lauryn Hill’s music. – Connor Lockie

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