Let’s continue with years 1993 to 1997.
(Editor’s note: Don’t forget to check out PART ONE, which looks at 1988-1992)
1993: U2 – Zooropa
If Achtung Baby came out of left field, then Zooropa sounds like it came from another planet. U2 recorded this album in the middle of their ZooTV tour. That frantic energy is coalesced here into shimmering, bubbling slices of Europop. The title track is filled with static signals, soft piano and a tapeloop guitar sound. On “Lemon,” the band fuses Prince with the Talking Heads, and it works gorgeously. On “Numb,” Edge mumbles about information overload alongside corroded guitar chords. On closing track “The Wanderer,” Johnny Cash sings over an atomic landscape. Before media saturation and the chaos of the Internet were daily topics of discussion, U2 saw the future, good and bad, and made an album to sound like it. To date, this is the bravest item they’ve released under their name.
1994: Blur – Parklife
Every movement in music has a seminal album that leads the way. Britpop has Parklife. But Blur’s greatest statement goes beyond its role has the face of a genre. It’s one of those magical moments where everything lines up just right. All the songs on this record are unique, joyful and magical. You can feel the youthful exuberance in the bounce of “Girls & Boys,” “London Loves” and the title track. Then there’s the more experimental, but just as delightful fare of “Clover Over Dover,” “To The End” and “Far Out.” Damon Albarn’s gift for creating characters is fully on display, from “Tracy Jacks” to “Jubilee” to the manager in “Trouble In The Message Centre.” Parklife is endlessly listenable, relatable and enjoyable. It may have been the face of a movement, but its impact goes far beyond that.
1995: Björk – Post
The album where Björk comes into her own, Post also strikes a perfect balance between pop tunes and her more avant-garde interests. At the time, no one was making tracks like the industrial groove of “Army of Me” or the woozy percussion of “Enjoy.” “Isobel” is a Bond song from a parallel universe, throwing an earthy drumbeat alongside sweeping, cinematic strings. “Hyperballad” finds beauty and passion in its alien radio waves and feathery beats. Only Björk can take such a futuristic album, throw in a reimagined jazz standard like “It’s Oh So Quiet” and have it fit in seamlessly. With Post, she declared herself as a singular, unique voice in music. No matter where her instincts have taken her over the years, that has remained true.
1996: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Murder Ballads
Of course, this album’s called Murder Ballads. There’s no one better than Nick Cave at drawing melody out of mayhem, and that’s doubly true for what I think is his best work. This album lives up to its title. Every song details grisly crimes of passion. Each tale of death is weaved in its own style, the circumstances ranging from tragic (“The Kindness of Strangers”) to near-comic (“Stagger Lee”). “The Curse of Millhaven” and “O’Malley’s Bar” live up to the chaos we’ve come to expect out of the Bad Seeds. But this album also stands out for its special guests. Kylie Minogue brings a lovely touch to “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” whereas PJ Harvey matches Cave line for line on “Henry Lee.” The songwriting is top-notch, with a sinister undertone lining each track. You couldn’t ask for more from an album of murder ballads.
1997: Radiohead – OK Computer
What else can be said about this album? Radiohead’s themes of alienation, consumerism, malaise and anxiety fit in better today than they did 20 years ago. Musically, it’s an echelon of rock that has yet to be matched, incorporating electronics, 70s prog tones, cinematic touches and near-metal shred fests into a perfect whole. Every song here is an onion with layers upon layers to peel back. Just when you think you grow tired of a track like “Airbag” or “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” you hone in on the touches of bass or ghostly pianos, respectively, and they become new again. “Paranoid Android” is a wonderful freakout, “Let Down” will bring you to tears and “Karma Police” will forever be a classic singalong. With OK Computer, Radiohead hit their prime, a spot they still inhabit all these years later.