The 90s Didnt Suck
Good news: the '90s didn't suck as bad as the '70s or '80s—even though they clearly weren't as cool as the '40s or '60s.
Apologies are in order to Johnny Adams, Billy Bragg, Gatemouth Brown, Tommy Castro, W.C. Clark, George Clinton, Olu Dara, Deke Dickerson, Chris Gaffney, Danny Gatton, Gov't Mule, Merle Haggard, Roy Hargrove, Ben Harper, Hot Club of Cowtown, Etta James, B.B. King, Daniel Lanois, Didier Lockwood, Joe Lovano, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, John Prine, the Texas Tornadoes, Don Walser, War, Cassandra Wilson, Link Wray and the many, many other people who should be on this list but aren't.
And remember: this is my list of favorite '90s albums, not yours. You will not necessarily agree with the selections. Please send pissy letters taking me to task for failing to share your regrettable and embarrassing taste in music to the editor at email@example.com.
Terry Adams, Terrible (New World Recordings, 1995)A rock & roller releases the jazz album of the decade? You betcha. NRBQ keyboard wild man Adams (known for riding his clavinet around onstage like a pony) joins his band mates and members of Sun Ra's Arkestra to create music that is consistently playful yet sophisticated, breezy yet memorable, and infused with the spirit of improvisational joy. This is jazz with a rock & roll heart, and it works. Dave Alvin, Blackjack David (Hightone, 1998) Alvin came into his own in the '90s, escaping the shadow of the Blasters to become one of America's pre-eminent songwriters. Melding elements of blues, folk, country and Cajun traditions like a roots-music alchemist, the Downey-born-and-raised Alvin transcended the revivalist tag and created a style of his own. Of the many fine albums Alvin released this decade, Blackjack David is the most purely listenable. Luther Allison, Live in Chicago (Alligator, 1999)A posthumous double-live release that burns like the shoreline at San Onofre, demonstrating why Allison was the most important electric bluesman of the decade. His death leaves a gaping hole that won't be easily filled—although Allison's son, Bernard, is trying like hell, and doing a damn good job of it, too. Allman Brothers Band, Shades of Two Worlds (Epic, 1991)Written off by the end of the '70s as drug-crispy hippies who had outlived their usefulness, the Allmans shocked the world with the most improbable and compelling comeback of the '90s. Revitalized by the guitar heroics of Warren Haynes, the Allmans' Shades album is the equal of anything they released in their prime. Black 47, Home of the Brave (EMI, 1994)Cross the Clash, the Pogues, the Chieftains, the Beastie Boys and Bruce Springsteen, and somehow you arrive at Black 47, a group of Hell's Kitchen-based Irish political activists led by playwright Danny Kirwan and featuring former members of Dexy's Midnight Runners. Home of the Brave is their best effort, though Green Suede Shoes comes awfully close. Junior Brown, Guit With It (Curb, 1993)Flashing Hendrix-meets-Grady Martin chops on his self-created guit-steel; possessed of a voice as deep, dark and resonant as an abandoned coal mine; and armed with such clever songs as "My Wife Thinks You're Dead," "Highway Patrol" and "Doin' What Comes Easy to a Fool," Junior was country's most exciting new performer of the '90s. Cyrus Chestnut, Blessed Quietness (Atlantic, 1996)It's heartening that a project as simple and humble as this—just a man riffing gorgeously on old hymns at the piano—was released by a major label in the '90s. The music is uplifting, nourishing, good for the soul; all those silly-but-accurate clichs. Chestnut made more progressive albums (such as the wonderful Earth Stories), but never was his playing more elegant and lovely. Dr. John, Goin' Back to New Orleans (Warner Bros., 1992)Recorded with a cast of Crescent City heavies, including the Neville Brothers, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Red Tyler and the swan song of Danny Barker, this album reeks of misty voodoo soul and down-home good times. Here is Dr. John at his best and most enthusiastic. Wayne Hancock, Thunderstorms and Neon Signs (Ark 21, 1995)Hancock is like the reincarnation of Hank Williams, not only for the eerie resemblance of the voices but also for his ability to evoke both vivid imagery and pointed emotion in his songs. Corey Harris, Fish Ain't Bitin' (Alligator, 1997)Young Mr. Harris almost single-handedly kept the spirit of country blues alive in the '90s, playing with hot licks and heartfelt passion that recalled giants such as Son House and Charley Patton. His respect for tradition wasn't compromised by his propensity for experimentation, proving that you can have your greens and eat 'em too, by ghawd. Ahmad Jamal, Nature (Atlantic, 1998)Economical, tasteful, enchanting playing from one of the living legends of bop piano; a master still very much at the top of his game. Al Kooper, Soul of a Man (Music Masters, 1995)This double live album recorded on his 50th birthday serves as sort of a career retrospective for the underrated Kooper. Good vibes and great music abound as Kooper reunites with old cronies from the Blues Project and Blood Sweat & Tears and rips it up with his current band, the Rekooperators. Also highly recommended: Kooper's hysterical autobiography, Backstage Passes and Backstabbing Bastards: Memoirs of a Rock 'n' Roll Summer; it names names! Los Lobos, The Neighborhood (Slash/ Warner, 1990)The last gasp of Los Lobos, Roots Rockers, before Mssrs. Froom and Blake stole the band away to Artsy Fartsyville. The Neighborhood is a superb and neglected album, every bit the equal of How Will the Wolf Survive?; "Emily" just might be the prettiest song Dave Hidalgo ever wrote, which is saying quite a bit indeed. Lyle Lovett, Live in Texas (Curb/MCA, 1999)Really a "Greatest Hits" album recorded live; it just so happens that the versions here kick ass on the original studio cuts. Lovett's Large Band swings like a monkey on meth, Mr. Hairdo sings his skinny white ass off, and all of Texas and the rest of the outside world rejoices. Meat Puppets, Forbidden Places (London, 1991)Is this the last great rock & roll band? Edward Lear meets the Three Stooges meets the Ramones meets the Grateful Dead meets some guy from outer space with 10 fingers on each hand. Curt Kirkwood's guitar playing is so weird and wonderful it's scary. The opening "Sam" is an acid manifesto on a par with "I Am the Walrus," but it rocks and throbs so much harder. Van Morrison, Hymns to the Silence (Polydor, 1991)Vast, expansive, poetic and Celtic-soulful, there's not a disposable second over the course of Hymns' two discs. Whether grunting stream-of-consciousness reminiscences over dreamy soundscapes, belting out hot R&B rave-ups, or crooning jazzy ballads with Georgie Fame at the organ, Morrison is at his most passionate and devoted on this album. Randy Newman, Bad Love (Dreamworks, 1999)Sadistic, satiric, satyric . . . mean ol' Rand pulls off his best album since 1974's Good Old Boys—and leaves behind the cheesy synthesizers that subverted much of his recent work. Functioning both as classic American pop la Irving Berlin and the blackest brand of comedy, Bad Love is among the 1990s' most purely entertaining albums. Arturo Sandoval, Arturo Sandoval & the Latin Train (GRP, 1995)The Cubano trumpet titan takes off into the stratosphere on a reworking of Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and a particularly blazing cover of Felix Chappotin's "La Guarapachanga." Sandoval's upper-register solos are so exciting you may well be moved to dance nekkid in the moonlight. Southern Culture on the Skids, Dirt Track Date (DGC, 1995)Celebrating every conceivable nuance of white-trash existence, SCOTS' Creedence-like groove reeks of exhaust smoke, pickled eggs, Lucky Lager, stained wifebeaters and GPC cigarette butts. Hot tunes, big fun! Dale Watson, People I've Known, Places I've Been (self-release, 1999)Twangmaster Watson released a number of great country albums on a number of different labels in the '90s; too bad his best one is a sold-from-the-stage self-release. Intelligent, literate character studies and red-hot Austin, Texas, country backing make this something akin to Merle Haggard doing Bukowski.
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