What kind of world is it in which a bratty Seattle-area band can sign with a major label, go into the studio, and instead of playing the usual recycled Led Zeppelin riffs common to many Northwest rockers, pound out a hook-filled mix of alternative rock and metal? And stuff each song with lyrics about ’20s-generation malaise and deranged loners? And wrap it in a gorgeous (if somewhat twisted) album cover depicting a completely adorable baby underwater, grasping at a dollar bill on a fish hook? And actually get the whole quirky, infectious shebang into the Billboard top five, selling over a million albums in a little over a month? A pretty good world, actually.
— David Browne
2. Guns N’ Roses
Use Your Illusion I and II
The music, first of all, has real breadth. But the main thing is that Axl Rose is struggling to cure himself. The two albums are a fascinating document of someone who is really screwed up and is looking for a way to escape his persona as a rebel and be healed.
— Simon Reynolds
3. Public Enemy
Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Black
A very ambitious album that tries to do what nobody else in pop music is trying to do: figure out how to rebuild the black community and convince young people to follow through with a real political agenda. And for the first time, Public Enemy have created music that works on the feet as well as it does on the mind.
— James Bernard
5. P.M. Dawn
Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience (
This record is almost a miracle. It does everything right: the singing, the arrangements, the wordplay, and the shrewd sampling. The group takes a step forward by bringing not just funk but blues and gospel into the hip-hop mix — and somehow winding up artier than the artiest rap group so far, De La Soul.
— Dave Marsh
From these headbangers, you expect another slab of bulldozer rhythms and stern-faced rhetoric, and you get them. What you don’t expect are a surprising maturity in the lyrics and a clean, sculptured production that makes their previous records sound like worn-out cassettes.
6. Sam Phillips
A singer-songwriter who veers on the edge of falling apart-but who knows enough to keep it in check, thanks to smart, taut arrangements that will echo in your head for months to come.
7. Neil Young & Crazy Horse
This live album captures the delicate quality of Young’s guitar, which you might not notice until you’ve recovered from his waves of feedback: It’s a sonorous sound like a cello at the bottom of the ocean. Young’s version of ”Blowin’ in the Wind” is perfect for an unsettling time: questioning, inquisitive, and uncertain.
— Stephanie Zacharek
8. Marty Brown
High and Dry
Brown’s stunning honky-tonk debut scared the hell out of Nashville and mystified radio programmers — how could they sell a genuinely mournful old country sound, devoid of pretense and guile? With deep Hank Williams roots, Brown is pure hillbilly poetry, his crying-heart vocals a sure connection to the soul.
— Alanna Nash
It’s heavy metal as rock & roll — mutable, limitless, using all of the available rock lexicon. It’s also the only metal album that people who respond to the rhythm of bass and drums can dance to.
— Arion Berger
Symphonies 1-9, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Who would have thought that one of the toughest, tautest, and-not to stint on the praise here — most powerfully songful records of the year would be the 10 billionth recording of Beethoven’s by-now-numbingly-familiar symphonies?
— Greg Sandow