'90s Discount

What I Got (Explicit)

Sublime

On Bended Knee

Boyz II Men

Sublime

Sublime
Sublime's eponymous major-label debut arrived a few months after the band's leader, Brad Nowell, died tragically of a heroin overdose. As a show of sympathy, the album tended to be slightly overrated in some critical quarters, who claimed that Nowell was an exceptionally gifted lyricist and musical hybridist, but Sublime doesn't quite support those claims. Even so, the trio does have a surprising grace in its unabashedly traditionalist fusion of Californian hardcore punk, light hip-hop, and reggae. Switching between bracing hardcore and slow, sexy reggae numbers, Sublime display supple, muscular versatility and, on occasion, a gift for ingratiatingly catchy hooks, as on the hit single "What I Got." What they don't have is the vision -- either lyrical or musical -- to maintain interest throughout the course of the entire album. Sublime sags when the band delves too deeply into their dub aspirations or when their lyrics slide into smirking humor. The low moments don't arrive that often -- by and large, the album is quite engaging -- but they happen frequently enough to make the record a demonstration of the band's blossoming ability, but not the fulfillment of their full potential. Of course, Nowell's death gives the record a certain pathos, but that doesn't make the album any stronger.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Vol.2 ... Hard Knock Life

Jay-Z

II

Boyz II Men
With their second album, II, Boyz II Men assured their place at the top of the charts, as well as history. "I'll Make Love to You," the album's first single, stayed on the top of the charts for over two months, only to be unseated by "On Bended Knee," the album's second single. Not surprisingly, II is a carefully constructed crowd pleaser, accentuating all of the finest moments from their hit debut. While there are some high-energy dance tracks, the album's main strength is its slower numbers, where the group's vocals soar.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

When I Come Around

Green Day

Dookie

Green Day
Green Day couldn't have had a blockbuster without Nirvana, but Dookie wound up being nearly as revolutionary as Nevermind, sending a wave of imitators up the charts and setting the tone for the mainstream rock of the mid-'90s. Like Nevermind, this was accidental success, the sound of a promising underground group suddenly hitting its stride just as they got their first professional, big-budget, big-label production. Really, that's where the similarities end, since if Nirvana were indebted to the weirdness of indie rock, Green Day were straight-ahead punk revivalists through and through. They were products of the underground pop scene kept alive by such protagonists as All, yet what they really loved was the original punk, particularly such British punkers as the Jam and Buzzcocks. On their first couple records, they showed promise, but with Dookie, they delivered a record that found Billie Joe Armstrong bursting into full flower as a songwriter, spitting out melodic ravers that could have comfortable sat alongside Singles Going Steady, but infused with an ironic self-loathing popularized by Nirvana, whose clean sound on Nevermind is also emulated here. Where Nirvana had weight, Green Day are deliberately adolescent here, treating nearly everything as joke and having as much fun as snotty punkers should. They demonstrate a bit of depth with "When I Come Around," but that just varies the pace slightly, since the key to this is their flippant, infectious attitude -- something they maintain throughout the record, making Dookie a stellar piece of modern punk that many tried to emulate but nobody bettered.

So Many Tears

2Pac

Me Against The World

2Pac
If there's any record that makes the case for 2Pac as not only rap's most powerful emotional wrecking ball but also a great lyricist in the most traditional sense, it's probably Me Against the World. Where he was still finding his voice on earlier efforts and he completely unhinged from craft in the name of urgency with the later ones, Me Against finds him balancing his usual rage with some of the most tightly constructed writing of his career. Whether he's indulging his increasingly frantic mortality obsession with "Death Around the Corner" or having a heart-to-heart with that special lady on "Dear Mama," every song has a purpose, every word has its place. The production is as thin as it ever was—all G-Funk wheeze cliches, Quiet Storm chords and canned slap bass—and yet none of it detracts from 2Pac's potency. It's hard to imagine any backdrop that could.

Andrew Nosnitsky, Google Play

You Remind Me

Mary J. Blige

What's The 411?

Mary J. Blige
Mary J. Blige's debut album, What's the 411?, was a revolution in disguise. Like her new jack predecessors, Blige combined R&B with hip-hop, but unlike Guy and Bobby Brown, her music was more seductive and sly. More importantly, she sounds grittier and more real than most new jack swingers or female R&B vocalists. Blige can slip between singing and rapping with ease, which is partially the reason why What's the 411? is so successful. It doesn't hurt that her collaborators, from Grand Puba to Sean "Puffy" Combs, help construct backing tracks that are both melodic, relentlessly funky, and sexy.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

About A Girl

Nirvana

MTV Unplugged In New York

Nirvana
Sadly, MTV Unplugged stands as Nirvana's last album. While it's an album of covers and old songs, it ranks as one of the band's most cohesive records. Instead of relying on the trio's overpowering sonic force, Unplugged concentrates on Kurt Cobain's subtly shaded songwriting and Nirvana's deceptively simple musical power. Every version of their previously recorded songs, with the possible exception of "On a Plain," dramatically improves the original, and the covers reveal more about Cobain than he intended. By the time Nirvana close with a wrenching, spine-chilling version of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," the emotional complexity of Nirvana's music is clear. It's also clear that they could have made even greater music.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

You Oughta Know

Alanis Morissette

Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morissette
It's remarkable that Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill struck a sympathetic chord with millions of listeners, because it's so doggedly, determinedly insular. This, after all, plays like an emotional purging, prompted by a bitter relationship -- and, according to all the lyrical hints, that's likely a record executive who took advantage of a young Alanis. She never disguises her outright rage and disgust, whether it's the vengeful wrath of "You Oughta Know" or asking him "you scan the credits for your name and wonder why it's not there." This is such insider information that it's hard to believe that millions of listeners not just bought it, but embraced it, turning Alanis Morisette into a mid-'90s phenomenon. Perhaps it was the individuality that made it appealing, since its specificity lent it genuineness -- and, even if this is clearly an attempt to embrace the "women in rock" movement in alterna-rock, Morissette's intentions are genuine. Often, it seems like Glen Ballard's pop inclinations fight against Alanis' exorcisms, as her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts. What's all the more remarkable is that Alanis isn't a particularly good singer, stretching the limits of pitch and credibility with her octave-skipping caterwauling. At its core, this is the work of an ambitious but sophomoric 19-year-old, once burned by love, but still willing to open her heart a second time. All of this adds up to a record that's surprisingly effective, an utterly fascinating exploration of a young woman's psyche. As slick as the music is, the lyrics are unvarnished and Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them. This doesn't make Jagged Little Pill great, but it does make it a fascinating record, a phenomenon that's intensely personal.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Do Me!

Bell Biv DeVoe

Poison

Bell Biv DeVoe
With so many faceless, sound-alike albums having come out of the "new jack swing" hybrid in the late '80s and early to mid-'90s, it's important to give credit to the form's more creative and imaginative figures. Along with Guy and Bobby Brown, Bell Biv DeVoe (a New Edition spin-off trio comprised of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, and Ronnie DeVoe) delivered some of new jack swing's most worthwhile material. A hard-edged, tough-minded blend of R&B/funk and hip-hop, Poison was (like Brown's Don't Be Cruel) a radical departure from the Jackson 5-influenced "bubblegum soul" New Edition was originally known for. Defined by their urgency, rawness, and vitality, "Poison," "B.B.D. (I Thought It Was Me)?," "Dope!," and "Do Me!" are considered new jack swing classics and are indeed among the best the style has to offer. Taking a break from the CD's overall aggression, BBD moves closer to New Edition's sound with the decent, though far from outstanding, ballads "When Will I See You Again?" and "I Do Need You." While other "new jacks" were content to simply emulate Guy, the distinctive BBD deserves applause for daring to stake out its own territory.

Alex Henderson, Rovi

Glory Box

Portishead

Dummy

Portishead
Portishead's album debut is a brilliant, surprisingly natural synthesis of claustrophobic spy soundtracks, dark breakbeats inspired by frontman Geoff Barrow's love of hip-hop, and a vocalist (Beth Gibbons) in the classic confessional singer/songwriter mold. Beginning with the otherworldly theremin and martial beats of "Mysterons," Dummy hits an early high with "Sour Times," a post-modern torch song driven by a Lalo Schifrin sample. The chilling atmospheres conjured by Adrian Utley's excellent guitar work and Barrow's turntables and keyboards prove the perfect foil for Gibbons, who balances sultriness and melancholia in equal measure. Occasionally reminiscent of a torchier version of Sade, Gibbons provides a clear focus for these songs, with Barrow and company behind her laying down one of the best full-length productions ever heard in the dance world. Where previous acts like Massive Attack had attracted dance heads in the main, Portishead crossed over to an American, alternative audience, connecting with the legion of angst-ridden indie fans as well. Better than any album before it, Dummy merged the pinpoint-precise productions of the dance world with pop hallmarks like great songwriting and excellent vocal performances.

John Bush, Rovi

Rage Against The Machine

Rage Against The Machine
Seething with revolutionary spirit, the self-titled debut of Rage Against the Machine record had social, cultural and musical rebellion at its very core. In the group's marriage of heavy metal guitars and hip-hop rebellion, tunes like "Killing in the Name," "Take the Power Back" and "Know Your Enemy" were a singular crystallization of underground movements that were waiting to burst through to a mainstream audience, and the band's uncompromising message was every bit as astonishing as their commercial success. Years after its release, guitarist Tom Morello's brilliant, jagged shredding and the eloquent fury of vocalist Zack de la Rocha are just as incendiary as ever.

Nate Cavalieri, Google Play

The Score

The Fugees
A breath of fresh air in the gangsta-dominated mid-'90s, the Fugees' breakthrough album, The Score, marked the beginning of a resurgence in alternative hip-hop. Its left-field, multi-platinum success proved there was a substantial untapped audience with an appreciation for rap music but little interest in thug life. The Score's eclecticism, social consciousness, and pop smarts drew millions of latent hip-hop listeners back into the fold, showing just how much the music had grown up. It not only catapulted the Fugees into stardom, but also launched the productive solo careers of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, the latter of whom already ranks as one of the top female MCs of all time based on her work here. Not just a collection of individual talents, the Fugees' three MCs all share a crackling chemistry and a wide-ranging taste in music. Their strong fondness for smooth soul and reggae is underscored by the two hit covers given slight hip-hop makeovers (Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry"). Even when they're not relying on easily recognizable tunes, their original material is powered by a raft of indelible hooks, especially the great "Fu-Gee-La"; there are also touches of blues and gospel, and the recognizable samples range from doo wop to Enya. Their protest tracks are often biting, yet tempered with pathos and humanity, whether they're attacking racial profiling among police ("The Beast"), the insecurity behind violent posturing ("Cowboys"), or the inability of many black people in the Western Hemisphere to trace their familial roots ("Family Business"). Yeah, the Chinese restaurant skit is a little dicey, but on the whole, The Score balances intelligence and accessibility with an easy assurance, and ranks as one of the most distinctive hip-hop albums of its era.

2001

Dr. Dre

Odelay

Beck
Following the surprise success of slacker-rap novelty "Loser" and Mellow Gold, Beck Hansen teamed up with producers the Dust Brothers (Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique) to create a certifiable classic. Odelay captured all the elements that would make Beck such an enduring, shape-shifting star: cut-and-paste hip-hop, searing white boy funk and deeply felt folk melancholy. But while the crate-digging, mash-up style was ahead of its time, it's Beck's assured songwriting, appealingly nonsense lyrics and aloof charisma that seal it. From the mad guitar riff of "Devils Haircut" to the clap-along of "Where It's At" to the weary, heartbreaking folk drift of "Jack-Ass," Odelay gleefully bent all the rules of the rapidly ossifying "alternative" genre. As eternally fresh as a radioactive Twinkie.

Eric Grandy, Google Play

It's Dark And Hell Is Hot

DMX
Just as rap music was reaching its toughest, darkest, grimmest period yet, following the assassinations of 2Pac and Biggie in the late '90s, along came DMX and his fellow Ruff Ryders, who embodied the essence of inner-city machismo to a tee, as showcased throughout the tellingly titled It's Dark and Hell Is Hot. Unlike so many other hardcore rappers who are more rhetorical than physical, DMX commands an aggressive aura without even speaking a word. He showcases his chiseled physique on the arresting album cover and trumpets his animalistic nature with frequent barking, growling, and snarling throughout the album. He also collaborates with muscular producers Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease, who specialize in slamming synth-driven beats rather than sample-driven ones. Further unlike so many other hardcore rappers from the time, DMX is meaningful as well as symbolic. He professes an ideology that stresses the inner world -- characterized by such qualities as survival, wisdom, strength, respect, and faith -- rather than the material one that infatuates most rappers of his time. It helpes that his album includes a few mammoth highlights ("Ruff Ryders' Anthem," "Get at Me Dog," "Let Me Fly," and "I Can Feel It") as well as a light, mid-album diversion ("How's It Goin' Down"). The long running length of It's Dark and Hell Is Hot does wear you down after a while, since nearly every song here sans "How's It Goin' Down" hits hard and maintains the album's deadly serious attitude. Even so, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot is a tremendous debut, laying out DMX's complex persona with candor, from his faith in God to his fixation with canine motifs, and doing so with dramatic flair.

Jason Birchmeier, Rovi

Siamese Dream

Smashing Pumpkins
While Gish had placed the Smashing Pumpkins on the "most promising artist" list for many, troubles were threatening to break the band apart. Singer/guitarist/leader Billy Corgan was battling a severe case of writer's block and was in a deep state of depression brought on by a relationship in turmoil; drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was addicted to hard drugs; and bassist D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha severed their romantic relationship. The sessions for their sophomore effort, Siamese Dream, were wrought with friction -- Corgan eventually played almost all the instruments himself (except for percussion). Some say strife and tension produces the best music, and it certainly helped make Siamese Dream one of the finest alt-rock albums of all time. Instead of following Nirvana's punk rock route, Siamese Dream went in the opposite direction -- guitar solos galore, layered walls of sound courtesy of the album's producers (Butch Vig and Corgan), extended compositions that bordered on prog rock, plus often reflective and heartfelt lyrics. The four tracks that were selected as singles became alternative radio standards -- the anthems "Cherub Rock," "Today," and "Rocket," plus the symphonic ballad "Disarm" -- but as a whole, Siamese Dream proved to be an incredibly consistent album. Such compositions as the red-hot rockers "Quiet" and "Geek U.S.A." were standouts, as were the epics "Hummer," "Soma," and "Silverfuck," plus the soothing sounds of "Mayonaise," "Spaceboy," and "Luna." After the difficult recording sessions, Corgan stated publicly that if Siamese Dream didn't achieve breakthrough success, he would end the band. He didn't have to worry for long -- the album debuted in the Billboard Top Ten and sold more than four million copies in three years. Siamese Dream stands alongside Nevermind and Superunknown as one of the decade's finest (and most influential) rock albums. [Siamese Dream was also released in a "clean" edition, containing no profanities or vulgarities.]

Greg Prato, Rovi

The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails
The Downward Spiral positioned Trent Reznor as industrial's own Phil Spector, painting detailed, layered soundscapes from a wide tonal palette. Not only did he fully integrated the crashing metal guitars of Broken, but several newfound elements -- expanded song structures, odd time signatures, shifting arrangements filled with novel sounds, tremendous textural variety -- can be traced to the influence of progressive rock. So can the painstaking attention devoted to pacing and contrast -- The Downward Spiral is full of striking sonic juxtapositions and sudden about-faces in tone, which make for a fascinating listen. More important than craft in turning Reznor into a full-fledged rock star, however, was his brooding persona. Grunge had the mainstream salivating over melodramatic angst, which had always been Reznor's stock in trade. The left-field hit "Closer" made him a postmodern shaman for the '90s, obsessed with exposing the dark side he saw behind even the most innocuous façades. In fact, his theatrics on The Downward Spiral -- all the preening self-absorption and serpentine sexuality -- seemed directly descended from Jim Morrison. Yet Reznor's nihilism often seemed like a reaction against some repressively extreme standard of purity, so the depravity he wallowed in didn't necessarily seem that depraved. That's part of the reason why, in spite of its many virtues, The Downward Spiral falls just short of being the masterpiece it wants to be. For one thing, fascination with texture occasionally dissolves the hooky songwriting that fueled Pretty Hate Machine. But more than that, Reznor's unflinching bleakness was beginning to seem like a carefully calibrated posture; his increasing musical sophistication points up the lyrical holding pattern. Having said that, the album ends on an affecting emotional peak -- "Hurt" mingles drama and introspection in a way Reznor had never quite managed before. It's evidence of depth behind the charisma that deservedly made him a star.

Steve Huey, Rovi

'90s Soul No.1's

Various Artists

Nevermind

Nirvana
Twenty years after the release of an album that irreversibly altered the landscape of popular music comes this enormous five-disc box set that features, alongside the original album, three CDs of previously unreleased recordings, rarities, B-sides, BBC radio appearances, alternative mixes, rare live recordings, and a DVD featuring an entire previously unreleased concert.

The Slim Shady LP

Eminem
Given his subsequent superstardom, culminating in no less than an Academy Award, it may be easy to overlook exactly how demonized Eminem was once his mainstream debut album, The Slim Shady LP, grabbed the attention of pop music upon its release in 1999. Then, it wasn't clear to every listener that Eminem was, as they say, an unreliable narrator, somebody who slung satire, lies, uncomfortable truths, and lacerating insights with vigor and venom, blurring the line between reality and parody, all seemingly without effort. The Slim Shady LP bristles with this tension, since it's never always clear when Marshall Mathers is joking and when he's dead serious. This was unsettling in 1999, when nobody knew his back-story, and years later, when his personal turmoil is public knowledge, it "still" can be unsettling, because his words and delivery are that powerful. Of course, nowhere is this more true than on "97 Bonnie and Clyde," a notorious track where he imagines killing his wife and then disposing of the body with his baby daughter in tow. There have been more violent songs in rap, but few more disturbing, and it's not because of what it describes, it's "how" he describes it -- how the perfectly modulated phrasing enhances the horror and black humor of his words. Eminem's supreme gifts are an expansive vocabulary and vivid imagination, which he unleashes with wicked humor and unsparing anger in equal measure. The production -- masterminded by Dr. Dre but also helmed in large doses by Marky and Jeff Bass, along with Marshall himself -- mirrors his rhymes, with their spare, intricately layered arrangements enhancing his narratives, which are always at the forefront. As well they should be -- there are few rappers as wildly gifted verbally as Eminem. At a time when many rappers were stuck in the stultifying swamp of gangsta clichés, Eminem broke through the hardcore murk by abandoning the genre's familiar themes and flaunting a style with more verbal muscle and imagination than any of his contemporaries. Years later, as the shock has faded, it's those lyrical skills and the subtle mastery of the music that still resonate, and they're what make The Slim Shady LP one of the great debuts in both hip-hop and modern pop music.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Vs.

Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam took to superstardom like deer in headlights. Unsure of how to maintain their rigorous standards of integrity in the face of massive commercial success, the band took refuge in willful obscurity -- the title of their second album, Vs., did not appear anywhere in the packaging, and they refused to release any singles or videos. (Ironically, many fans then paid steep prices for import CD singles, a situation the band eventually rectified.) The eccentricities underline Pearl Jam's almost paranoid aversion to charges of hypocrisy or egotism -- but it also made sense to use the spotlight for progress. You could see that reasoning in their ensuing battle with Ticketmaster, and you could hear it in the record itself. Vs. is often Eddie Vedder at his most strident, both lyrically and vocally. It's less oblique than Ten in its topicality, and sometimes downright dogmatic; having the world's ear renders Vedder unable to resist a few simplistic potshots at favorite white-liberal targets. Yet a little self-righteousness is an acceptable price to pay for the passionate immediacy that permeates Vs. It's a much rawer, looser record than Ten, feeling like a live performance; Vedder practically screams himself hoarse on a few songs. The band consciously strives for spontaneity, admirably pushing itself into new territory -- some numbers are decidedly punky, and there are also a couple of acoustic-driven ballads, which are well suited to Vedder's sonorous low register. Sometimes, that spontaneity comes at the expense of Ten's marvelous craft -- a few songs here are just plain underdeveloped, with supporting frameworks that don't feel very sturdy. But, of everything that does work, the rockers are often frightening in their intensity, and the more reflective songs are mesmerizing. Vs. may not reach the majestic heights of Ten, but at least half the record stands with Pearl Jam's best work. [Three bonus tracks are added to the 2011 expanded reissue of Vs.: a previously unreleased acoustic version of “Hold On,” the unreleased outtake “Cready Stomp,” and “Crazy Mary,” their staple from the Victoria Williams tribute album Sweet Relief.]

Steve Huey, Rovi

Follow The Leader

Korn

Weezer (Blue Album)

Weezer
Even if you lived through it, it's hard to fathom exactly why Weezer were disliked, even loathed, when they released their debut album in the spring of 1994. If you grew up in the years after the heyday of grunge, it may even seem absurd that the band were considered poseurs, hair metal refugees passing themselves off as alt-rock by adapting a few tricks from the Pixies and Nirvana songbooks and sold to MTV with stylish videos. Nevertheless, during alt-rock's heyday of 1994, Weezer was second only to Stone Temple Pilots as an object of scorn, bashed by the rock critics and hipsters alike. Time has a way of healing, even erasing, all wounds, and time has been nothing but kind to Weezer's eponymous debut album (which would later be dubbed The Blue Album, due to the blue background of the cover art). At the time of its release, the group's influences were discussed endlessly -- the dynamics of the Pixies, the polished production reminiscent of Nevermind, the willful outsider vibe borrowed from indie rock -- but few noted how the group, under the direction of singer/songwriter Rivers Cuomo, synthesized alt-rock with a strong '70s trash-rock predilection and an unwitting gift for power pop, resulting in something quite distinctive. Although the group wears its influences on its sleeve, Weezer pulls it together in a strikingly original fashion, thanks to Cuomo's urgent melodicism, a fondness for heavy, heavy guitars, a sly sense of humor, and damaged vulnerability, all driven home at a maximum volume. While contemporaries like Pavement were willfully, even gleefully obscure, and skewed toward a more selective audience, Weezer's insecurities were laid bare, and the band's pop culture obsessions tended to be universal, not exclusive. Plus, Cuomo wrote killer hooks and had a band that rocked hard -- albeit in an uptight, nerdy fashion -- winding up with direct, immediate music that connects on more than one level. It's both clever and vulnerable, but those sensibilities are hidden beneath the loud guitars and catchy hooks. That's why the band had hits with this album -- and not just hits, but era-defining singles like the deliberate dissonant crawl of "Undone - The Sweater Song," the postironic love song of "Buddy Holly," the surging "Say It Ain't So" -- but could still seem like a cult band to the dedicated fans; it sounded like the group was speaking to an in-crowd, not the mass audience it wound up with. If, as Howard Hawks said, a good movie consists of three great scenes and no bad ones, it could be extrapolated that a good record contains three great songs and no bad ones -- in that case, Weezer is a record with at least six or seven great songs and no bad ones. That makes for a great record, but more than that, it's a great record emblematic of its time, standing as one of the defining albums of the '90s. [The 2007 Circuit City exclusive edition came packaged with a free album cover iPod skin.]

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Ill Communication

Beastie Boys
Ill Communication follows the blueprint of Check Your Head, accentuating it at some points, deepening it in others, but never "expanding" it beyond the boundaries of that record. As such, it's the first Beastie Boys album not to delve into new territory, but it's not fair to say that it finds the band coasting, since much of the album finds the group turning in muscular, vigorous music that fills out the black-and-white sketches that comprised Check Your Head. Much of the credit has to go to the group's renewed confidence in -- or at least renewed emphasis on -- their rhyming; there are still instrumentals (arguably, there are too many instrumentals), but the Beasties do push their words to the forefront, even on dense rockers like the album's signature tune, "Sabotage." But even those rhymes illustrate that the group is in the process of a great settling, relying more on old-school-styled rhyme schemes and word battles than the narratives and surreal fantasies that marked the high points on their first two albums. With this record, the Beasties confirm that there is indeed a signature Beastie Boys aesthetic (it's too far-ranging and restless to be pegged as a signature sound), with the group sticking to a blend of old school rap, pop culture, lo-fi funk, soulful jazz instrumentals, Latin rhythms, and punk, often seamlessly integrated into a rolling, pan-cultural, multi-cultural groove. The best moments of Ill Communication rank with the best music the Beasties have ever made, as well as the best pop music of the '90s, but unfortunately, it's uneven and rather front-loaded. The first half overflows with brilliant, imaginative variations on their aesthetic: the assured groove of "Sure Shot," the warped rap of "B-Boys Makin' With the Freak Freak," the relentless dirty funk of "Root Down," the monumental "Sabotage," and the sly "Get It Together," highlighted by a cameo from Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. After that, the album seems to lose its sense of direction and momentum, even if individual moments are very good. Any record that can claim jams as funky and inventive as "Flute Loop" and "Do It," or instrumentals as breezy as "Ricky's Theme," is certainly better than its competition, but there are just enough moments that rank as obvious filler to slow its flow, and to keep it from standing proudly next to Check Your Head as a wholly successful record. Even if it is a little uneven, it still boasts more than its fair share of splendid, transcendent music, and it really only pales in comparison to the Beasties' trio of classic records. By any other measure, this is a near-masterpiece, and it is surely a highlight of '90s alternative pop/rock.

Big Ones

Aerosmith
Big Ones serves up the hits and nothing but the hits; Aerosmith's excellent debut for Geffen, Done with Mirrors, is conveniently overlooked. So what's left is some of the finest mainstream hard rock of the late '80s and early '90s -- the fruits of one of the most remarkable comebacks in rock & roll history. Unfortunately, there's precious little of the classic Aerosmith raunch; in fact, the two new tracks are the hardest, slinkiest tracks here. Otherwise, the up-tempo tracks bog down in over-production ("Love in an Elevator"), and the frequently embarrassingly overwrought power ballads ("Angel" and "Crazy") dominate too much of the album. So what's left? The band's best stab at social commentary ("Janie's Got a Gun"), a sublime slinky throwaway ("Deuces Are Wild"), deliciously sleazy blues-rockers ("Rag Doll," "[Dude] Looks Like a Lady"), and their best ballads ("What It Takes" and "Cryin'").

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

12 Play

R. Kelly

Core

Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots were positively vilified once their 1992 debut, Core, started scaling the charts in 1993, pegged as fifth-rate Pearl Jam copyists. It is true that the worst moments of Core play like a parody of the Seattle scene -- titles like "Dead and Bloated" and "Crackerman" tell you that much, playing like really bad Alice in Chains parodies, and the entire record tends to sink into gormless post-grunge sludge. Furthermore, even if it rocks pretty hard, it's usually without much character, sounding like cut-rate grunge. To be fair, it's more that they share the same influences as their peers than being overt copycats, but it's still a little disheartening all the same. If that's all that Core was, it'd be as forgettable as Seven Mary Three, but there are the hits that propelled it up the charts, songs that have remarkably stood the test of time to be highlights of their era. "Sex Type Thing" may have a clumsy anti-rape lyric that comes across as misogynist, but it survives on its terrifically lunk-headed riff, while "Wicked Garden" is a surprisingly effective piece of revivalist acid rock. Then, there's the slow acoustic crawl of "Creep" that works as well as anything on AIC's Sap and, finally, "Plush," a majestic album rock revival more melodic and stylish than anything grunge produced outside of Nirvana itself. These four songs aren't enough to salvage a fairly pedestrian debut, but they do find STP to be nimble rock craftsmen when inspiration hits.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Ultimate Toni Braxton

Toni Braxton
Most modern-day female pop singers start their careers doing their sexy, stylish dance-oriented material then settle into a career as an adult contemporary crooner. Toni Braxton didn't follow that route. She started the '90s singing elegant, refined quiet storm ballads and ended it singing sleek dance-pop tunes as she slinked around in skimpy outfits. She wasn't the only one of her peers to follow this trajectory -- Mariah Carey pretty much did the same thing, only to the extreme -- but it's a little odd to listen to Braxton evolve from the sophisticated urban contemporary crooner to oversexed R&B thrush, even if it's not a bad thing at all. One thing that elevated Braxton above her peers is that she was a controlled, powerful singer who rarely oversang, and she had a good selection of material, much of it written or co-written by Babyface. That's why her 18-track hits collection Ultimate Toni Braxton works well even through her shifts in style -- she is a confident enough performer to sell both the slow romantic ballads and material that swings harder. That's not to say that there aren't some slow spots here -- the previously unreleased cuts are no great shakes, and sometimes the abundance of slow numbers makes things sound too samey -- but she was one of the top urban soul singers of the '90s, and this is the album that illustrates why.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Use Your Illusion I

Guns N' Roses
The "difficult second album" is one of the perennial rock & roll clichés, but few second albums ever were as difficult as "Use Your Illusion". Not really conceived as a double album but impossible to separate as individual works, "Use Your Illusion" is a shining example of a suddenly successful band getting it all wrong and letting its ambitions run wild. Taking nearly three years to complete, the recording of the album was clearly difficult, and tensions between Slash, Izzy Stradlin, and Axl Rose are evident from the start. The two guitarists, particularly Stradlin, are trying to keep the group closer to its hard rock roots, but Rose has pretensions of being Queen and Elton John, which is particularly odd for a notoriously homophobic Midwestern boy. Conceivably, the two aspirations could have been divided between the two records, but instead they are just thrown into the blender -- it's just a coincidence that Use Your Illusion I is a harder-rocking record than II. Stradlin has a stronger presence on I, contributing three of the best songs -- "Dust n' Bones," "You Ain't the First," and "Double Talkin' Jive" -- which help keep the album in Stonesy Aerosmith territory. On the whole, the album is stronger than II, even though there's a fair amount of filler, including a dippy psychedelic collaboration with Alice Cooper and a song that takes its title from the Osmonds' biggest hit. But it also has two ambitious set pieces, "November Rain" and "Coma," which find Rose fulfilling his ambitions, as well as the ferocious, metallic "Perfect Crime" and the original version of the power ballad "Don't Cry." Still, it can be a chore to find the highlights on the record amid the overblown production and endless amounts of filler.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Use Your Illusion II

Guns N' Roses
Use Your Illusion II is more ambitious than I, but it's also more pretentious. II is heavy on epics, whether it's the charging funk metal of "Locomotive," the antiwar "Civil War," or the multi-part "Estranged,” which are balanced with corrective lighter moments. "14 Years" may have a lean, Stonesy rhythm, and Duff McKagan's Johnny Thunders homage, "So Fine," may be entertaining, but GNR goes off the rails with ridiculous "Get in the Ring," where Axl Rose threatens rock journalists by name because they gave him bad reviews; a misinterpretation of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door"; and the bizarre paranoid closer, "My World." Yet there are numerous strengths to Illusion II, particularly those epics that play like a cross of Elton John and Freddie Mercury.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Death Certificate

Ice Cube
If Ice Cube's debut was a shocking attack that proved the N.W.A legacy would be stronger divided, his sophomore effort was a new kind of superstar pulling off the miraculous, a follow-up that equals its classic predecessor and tops it in some people's books. With a million copies of Death Certificate preordered, Cube was no longer the rock critics' darling. A million people listening was dangerous, especially since he was now slithering his influence into the suburbs. If the black rage didn't get you, the misogyny of "I'm gonna do my thing, with your daughter" probably would. Here, one of rap's greatest storytellers is able to draw hatred in under a minute with the short and direct "Black Korea," an angry protest song concerning Korean grocers that got him dubbed "racist" and "Ice KKKube" by some. The track is an extreme representation of how a much sharper and cutting this album is when compared with his debut, and even though the intro announces the full-length is divided into a "Death Side" and "Life Side," both are equally bleak. With the CD format, the two sides are indistinguishable and run over the listener with fast tales of drug dealing, drive-by shootings, and women who go from "Ms. Thing to Ms. Gonorrhea." This would be numbing if it weren't for the rapper's amazing lyrics, ground-shaking delivery, and insight like when "A Bird in the Hand" deals with the irony of selling crap to buy diapers ("Gotta serve you food that might give you cancer/Cuz my son doesn't take no for answer"). A bit of sweet relief comes with the brightness of the great single "Steady Mobbin'" and with the nostalgia and slow tempo of "Doing Dumb Shit." "True to the Game" ("Ain't that a bitch/They hate to see a young nigga rich") is arguably the quintessential Cube track and if all this weren't enough already, the N.W.A diss "No Vaseline" hangs off the album like a crowd-pleasing, Brick-sampling encore. Although next year's Predator would be a bigger hit, Death Certificate brings to a close the man's trilogy of perfect albums that began with N.W.A's Compton and explodes into a supernova right here.

David Jeffries, Rovi

My Life

Mary J. Blige
Perhaps the single finest moment in Sean "Puffy" Combs' musical career has been the production on this, Mary J. Blige's second proper album. The production is not exactly original, and there is evidence here of him borrowing wholesale from other songs. The melodic sources this time around, though, are so expertly incorporated into the music that they never seem to be intrusions, instead playing like inspired dialogues with soulsters from the past, connecting past legacies with a new one. This certainly isn't your parents' (or grandparents') soul. But it is some of the finest modern soul of the '90s, backing away to a certain extent from the hip-hop/soul consolidation that Blige introduced on her debut album. The hip-hop part of the combination takes a few steps into the background, allowing Blige's tortured soul to carry the album completely, and it does so with heartwrenching authority. My Life is, from beginning to end, a brilliant, wistful individual plea of desire. Blige took a huge leap in artistry by penning almost everything herself (the major exception being Norman Whitfield's "I'm Going Down") in collaboration with co-producers Combs and multi-instrumentalist Chucky Thompson, and everything seems to leap directly from her gut. Blige's strain is sleekly modern and urban, and the grit in it comes from being streetwise and thoroughly realistic about the travails of life. My Life, nevertheless, emanates from some deep, dark place where both sadness and happiness cohabitate and turn into one single, beautiful sorrow.

Stanton Swihart, Rovi

Tragic Kingdom

No Doubt
Released in 1995, the multi-platinum Tragic Kingdom not only transformed Anaheim's No Doubt into a household name, it also helped make ska-punk from the sprawling Cali 'burbs the hottest commodity since sliced bread. Nearly every song here, from the hard-bopping "Just a Girl" to the Blondie-tinged "Happy Now?," is sickly-sweet ear candy. A powder keg combo of riot grrrl defiance and Mouseketeers' radiant innocence, Gwen Stefani exudes so much charisma and straight-up sex appeal that the singer would've been a pop star even had she joined a struggling polka band from Youngstown, Ohio.

Justin Farrar, Google Play

Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite

Maxwell
As refreshing today as it was upon its 1996 release, Maxwell's debut set off his career on a high note he's yet to surpass. Wispy vocals groove seamlessly over polished production, tracking a relationship from beginning to end. Bedroom favorites "Sumthin' Sumthin'," "Whenever Wherever Whatever," "...Til The Cops Come Knockin'" and the splendid midtempo "Ascension (Don't Ever Wonder)" set a sophisticated mood. Laying the groundwork for the neo soul movement, Urban Hang Suite's expansive, mellow sound nods to '70s soul, pop and smooth jazz while imprinting its own sexy stamp on the musical landscape.

Laura Checkoway, Google Play

Stars: The Best Of The Cranberries 1992-2002

The Cranberries
For the Cranberries, assembling a best-of covering the first decade of their career means compiling their singles in chronological order, which turns out to be a foolproof approach for a band that can be uneven over the course of a full-length album but has always managed to express itself well on the two-to-four catchiest cuts. ("Hollywood" and "You & Me" were not singles chosen for release as such by the band, but they were put out in individual territories.) From "Dreams" and the breakthrough hit "Linger" to the sometimes harder-rocking and more political efforts such as "Zombie" and "Free to Decide," and on to more melodic songs later on, the singles (presented here in some cases in single versions or new edits to fit everything in) make a case for the Cranberries as one of the major international rock bands of the '90s. Also included is one album cut, "Daffodil Lament" from No Need to Argue, said to have been an overwhelming fan choice as the one non-single inclusion, and two new songs, "New New York" and "Stars." "New New York," in which lead singer and songwriter Dolores O'Riordan takes on the September 11 terrorist attacks, is a bit heavy-handed, as O'Riordan confesses that the subject is beyond her ("There's nothing to say") before settling for the anthemic statement, "They won't tear us apart." Much better is "Stars," one of the band's more pop-sounding efforts. But the inclusion of the two songs is appropriate, as it shows the Cranberries continuing to pursue two tracks in their music, one a harder-edged, more political side, the other softer and more romantic.

Greatest Hits '93 - '03

311
From the chunkheaded rap-rock beta tests "Down" and "All Mixed Up" through the blue-eyed make-out reggae of "Amber" and on to latter-day stuff like the underrated Soundsystem single "Come Original," 311 spanned the nascence and ultimate codification of the alternative nation. "F*ck the naysayers 'cause they don't mean a thing!" -- if you went to college in the 1990s, 311 was on your radar. Greatest Hits '93-'03 remasters the highlights from those years, includes the Omaha group's graceful cover of the Cure's "Love Song," and pads the set with two new songs. As for the unreleased material, "First Straw" is a pleasant enough reggae-rock jam of the variety S.A., Nick Hexum, et al., have grown skilled -- if not necessarily better -- at writing, while "How Do You Feel" is a muscular rocker with the usual eager rap/triumphant chorus dynamic. Other highlights include a version of Grassroots opener "Homebrew" remixed for added punch and grit, and the diametrically opposed Evolver cuts "Creatures (For a While)" and "Beyond the Gray Sky." While "Do You Right" is the only representative from 1993's Music, it's nice to remember that it sounds like Fishbone playing Love. In short, Greatest Hits '93-'03 is the perfect time capsule for the casual 311 fan. It might even shake loose the name of that stoner kid from freshman year.

Johnny Loftus, Rovi

August And Everything After

Counting Crows
When the prevailing guitar jingle of "Mr. Jones" cascaded over radio in the early '90s, it was a sure sign that the Counting Crows were a musical force to be reckoned with. Their debut album, August and Everything After, burst at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads, all thanks to lead singer Adam Duritz. The lone guitar work of "Mr. Jones" coupled with the sweet, in-front pull of Duritz's voice kicked off the album in full force. The starkly beautiful and lonely sounding "Round Here" captured the band's honest yet subtle talent for singing ballads, while "Omaha" is lyrically reminiscent of a Springsteen tune. The fusion of hauntingly smooth vocals with such instruments as the Hammond B-3 organ and the accordion pumped new life into the music scene, and their brisk sound catapulted them into stardom. On "Rain King," the piano takes over as its aloof flair dances behind Duritz with elegant crispness. The slower-paced "Raining in Baltimore" paints a perfectly gray picture and illustrates the band's ease at conveying mood by eliminating the tempo. Most of the songs here engage in overly contagious hooks that won't go away, making for a solid bunch of tunes. Containing the perfect portions of instrumental and vocal conglomeration, the Counting Crows showed off their appealing sound to its full extent with their very first album. [The 2007 Circuit City exclusive edition came packaged with a free album cover iPod skin.]

Mike DeGagne, Rovi

Things Fall Apart

The Roots
One of the cornerstone albums of alternative rap's second wave, Things Fall Apart was the point where the Roots' tremendous potential finally coalesced into a structured album that maintained its focus from top to bottom. If the group sacrifices a little of the unpredictability of its jam sessions, the resulting consistency more than makes up for it, since the record flows from track to track so effortlessly. Taking its title from the Chinua Achebe novel credited with revitalizing African fiction, Things Fall Apart announces its ambition right upfront, and reinforces it in the opening sound collage. Dialogue sampled from Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues implies a comparison to abstract modern jazz that lost its audience, and there's another quote about hip-hop records being treated as disposable, that they aren't maximized as product or as art. That's the framework in which the album operates, and while there's a definite unity counteracting the second observation, the artistic ambition actually helped gain the Roots a whole new audience ("coffeehouse chicks and white dudes," as Common puts it in the liner notes). The backing tracks are jazzy and reflective, filled with subtly unpredictable instrumental lines, and the band also shows a strong affinity for the neo-soul movement, which they actually had a hand in kick-starting via their supporting work on Erykah Badu's Baduizm. Badu returns the favor by guesting on the album's breakthrough single, "You Got Me," an involved love story that also features a rap from Eve, co-writing from Jill Scott, and an unexpected drum'n'bass breakbeat in the outro. Other notables include Mos Def on the playful old-school rhymefest "Double Trouble," Slum Village superproducer Jay Dee on "Dynamite!," and Philly native DJ Jazzy Jeff on "The Next Movement." But the real stars are Black Thought and Malik B, who drop such consistently nimble rhymes throughout the record that picking highlights is extremely difficult. Along with works by Lauryn Hill, Common, and Black Star, Things Fall Apart is essential listening for anyone interested in the new breed of mainstream conscious rap. [Things Fall Apart, Rovi

Greatest Hits

Alice In Chains
Greatest Hits is not, alas, the antidote to the botched Nothing Safe: Best of the Box compilation, but rather a lower-priced, ten-track sampler of Alice in Chains' career. The songs are mostly excellent and well-chosen, but unfortunately, there are simply too few of them. Greatest Hits will serve the needs of casual fans who just want ten of Alice in Chains' best songs on one disc without shelling out too much money, but there are too many other good moments in the group's back catalog to make this a good buy for anyone else.

Steve Huey, Rovi

Another Level

Blackstreet
Powered by the massive hit single "No Diggity," Another Level is arguably the finest album created by Teddy Riley, the leader of Blackstreet. Riley has masterminded an album that blends street-level rhythms with urban soul and pop crossover potential, adding two new members -- Eric Williams and Mark Middleton -- to the lineup in order to position Blackstreet as an heir to the classic R&B vocal group tradition. The realignment works, since the group sounds fuller and more eclectic with the two added voices. But the key to the success of Another Level is Riley's songwriting, which is by and large catchy and inventive, whether he is writing ballads or party jams. Another Level sags a bit halfway through -- it's hard to sustain interest for a nearly 70-minute album -- but it has enough strong moments to make it an enjoyable listen.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Crash

Dave Matthews Band

Pinkerton

Weezer
From the pounding, primal assault of the opening track, "Tired of Sex," it's clear from the outset that Pinkerton is a different record than the sunny, heavy guitar pop of Weezer's eponymous debut. The first noticeable difference is the darker, messier sound -- the guitars rage and squeal, the beats are brutal and visceral, the vocals are mixed to the front, filled with overlapping, off-the-cuff backing vocals. In short, it sounds like the work of a live band, which makes it all the more ironic that Pinkerton, at its core, is a singer/songwriter record, representing Rivers Cuomo's bid for respectability. Since he hasn't changed Weezer's blend of power pop and heavy metal (only the closing song, "Butterfly," is performed acoustically), many critics and much of the band's casual fans didn't notice Cuomo's significant growth as a songwriter. Loosely structured as a concept album based on Madame Butterfly, each song works as an individual entity, driven by powerful, melodic hooks, a self-deprecating sense of humor ("Pink Triangle" is about a crush on a lesbian), and a touching vulnerability ("Across the Sea," "Why Bother?"). Weezer can still turn out catchy, offbeat singles -- "The Good Life" has a chorus that is more memorable than "Buddy Holly," "El Scorcho" twists Pavement's junk-culture references in on itself, "Falling for You" is the most propulsive thing they've yet recorded -- but the band's endearing geekiness isn't as cutesy as before, which means the album wasn't as successful on the charts. But it's the better album, full of crunching power pop with a surprisingly strong emotional undercurrent that becomes all the more resonant with each play.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Tical

Method Man
The first Wu-Tang Clan solo album to follow the seismic impact of Enter the Wu-Tang, Method Man's Tical similarly delivers an otherworldly wallop, one that instantly sets the madcap MC apart from his clansmen as the collective's shining star. Not only is Meth madcap, both in terms of mentality and delivery, he's also incredibly witty and wordy. Here he inspires hilarity as well as astonishment, and the way that he fires off his rhymes with such seemingly spontaneous ease compounds this sense of wonder. Just as Meth is quite clearly leagues above practically every other rapper in 1994 sans a small handful, if that, so is his producer, Wu-Tang abbot RZA, who produces the entirety of Tical: from the antiquated flutes and kung fu flick samples that open the album, to the pulse-accelerating beats of "Bring the Pain" and the fist-pumping ones of "All I Need" (the b-boy version rather than the radio-geared one featuring Mary J. Blige), to the rallying, warlike horns of "Release Yo' Delf." Despite a few outside contributions, most notably from Raekwon on the rowdy spar-fest "Meth vs. Chef," Tical is strictly a two-man show, Meth bringing da ruckus and RZA the swarming soundscapes, and that's precisely what further makes this album such a treasure amid the many Wu-Tang gems. Where most of Meth's clansmen delivered guest-laden albums that sounded more like group efforts than solo ones, Tical strictly spotlights the group's two stars and does so with refreshingly straightforward flair. There's none of the epic overreaching that mars so many rap albums of the era; rather, there's just over a dozen tracks here, and they're filled to the brim with rhymes and beats and little else -- no pop-crossover concessions nor any heady experimentation for the sake of experimentation, just good ol'-fashioned hip-hop, albeit with a dark, dark deranged twist.

Wide Open Spaces

Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks spent the first half of the '90s toiling away on the independent bluegrass circuit, releasing three albums on small labels, before sisters Martie Seidel and Emily Robison decided to revamp their sound in 1995, adding Natalie Maines as their lead singer and, in the process, moving the group away from bluegrass and toward a major label with Sony/Columbia's revived Monument Records imprint. All of this seems like the blueprint for a big pop crossover move and, to be sure, their 1998 major-label debut Wide Open Spaces was a monumental success, selling over ten million copies and turning the group into superstars, but the remarkable thing about the album is that it's most decidedly not a sell-out, or even a consciously country-pop record. To be sure, there are pop melodies here, but this isn't a country-pop album in the vein of Shania Twain, a record that's big on style and glitz, designed for a mass audience. Instead, Wide Open Spaces pulls from several different sources -- the Chicks' Americana roots, to be sure, but also bits of the alt country from kd lang and Lyle Lovett, '70s soft rock (any album that features versions of songs by J.D. Souther and Bonnie Raitt surely fits this bill), even the female neo-folkies emerging on the adult alternative rock stations at the end of the decade. In other words, it hit a sweet spot, appealing to many different audiences because it was eclectic without being elitist but they also had a true star in Natalie Maines, whose powerful, bluesy voice gave these songs a compelling center. Maines was versatile, too, negotiating the twists and turns of these songs without a hitch, easily moving from the vulnerability of "You Were Mine" to the snarl of "Give It Up or Let Me Go." The same goes for the Dixie Chicks and Wide Open Spaces as a whole: they are as convincing on the sprightly opener "I Can Love You Better" or the bright, optimistic title song as they are on the breezy "There's Your Trouble" as they are on the honky tonk shuffle of "Tonight the Heartache's on Me" and the rocking swagger of "Let 'Er Rip." It's a remarkably wide range and it's effortlessly eclectic, with the Dixie Chicks bringing it all together with their attitude and understated musicality -- as debuts go (and this does count as a debut), they rarely get better than this.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

40oz To Freedom

Sublime

Vol.3...Life And Times Of S. Carter

Jay-Z
After the crossover success of 1998's Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life (complete with highly publicized samples from Annie), Jay-Z returned to the streets on his fourth proper album overall, 1999's Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter. A set of hard-hitting tracks with some of the best rhymes of Jay-Z's career, the album is much more invigorating than its predecessor, and almost as consistently entertaining as his best album, In My Lifetime, Vol. 1. As good as his rapping has become, the production here plays a large part as well. Befitting his superstar status, Jay-Z boasts the cream of hip-hop producers: Timbaland (four tracks total), DJ Premier, Swizz Beatz, and Rockwilder. DJ Premier's "So Ghetto," Timbaland's "Snoopy Track" (with Juvenile), and DJ Clue's "Pop 4 Roc" are innovative tracks that push the rhymes along but never intrude too much on Jay-Z's own flow. If this album doesn't quite make it up to Jay-Z's best, though, it's the fault of a few overblown productions, like "Dope Man" and "Things That U Do" (with Mariah Carey).

John Bush, Rovi

Get A Grip

Aerosmith
Coming on the heels of the commercially and artistically successful Pump, the fitfully entertaining Get a Grip doesn't match its predecessor's musical diversity, but it's not for lack of trying. In fact, Aerosmith try too hard, making a stab at social commentary ("Livin' on the Edge") while keeping adolescent fans in their corner with their trademark raunch-rock ("Get a Grip" and "Eat the Rich"), as well as having radio-ready hit ballads ("Cryin'," "Amazing," and "Crazy"). It might be a studied performance, but since the album "sounds" good, many listeners will be willing to overlook those flaws and simply enjoy the ride.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Infest

Papa Roach
Papa Roach's debut album Infest quietly became a Top 20 hit in the first half of 2000, slipping underneath the radar of most pop critics and fans. It's easy to see why the pop elite passed them by, since the quartet just isn't hip, and since they are pushing an amalgam of every heavy sound that was popular in the late '90s. Basically, Infest is pitched somewhere between the classic grunge/industrial of the early '90s with hints of late-'90s behemoths like Korn and Limp Bizkit. There's singing, but it's balanced by rapping, and the heavy riffs are run through effects boxes that give it the controlled distortion common to alt-metal; it's loud, but you can hear each note being articulated. Lyrically, there's a lot of angst here, directed at everyone from parents and society to themselves. Strangely, each member thanks their families and God in the liner notes, but that's sort of beside the point, since this has the form and feeling of angst-ridden, post-grunge, rap-riddled alt-metal. Is it good? Well, if you're not into this stuff, this won't change your mind, but the band does work up some energy, sounds pretty muscular on most of the album, and has some good hooks, even if they tend to overplay their hand by throwing too many hooks into the riffs or screaming just a bit to much. Still, that's par for the course with alt-metal. So, it winds up that Papa Roach doesn't really distinguish itself from the pack in terms of sound, but they do stand out in terms of capability and consistency. Infest is a pretty solid alt-metal record, circa 2000, both for better and worse. It's a little generic, yes, but as far as the genre goes, it's not bad.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

Live Through This

Hole
Courtney Love completely revamped Hole before recording their second album, keeping only Eric Erlandson in the lineup. That is one of the reasons why Live Through This sounds so shockingly different from Pretty on the Inside, but the real reason is Love's desire to compete in the same commercial alternative rock arena as her husband, Kurt Cobain. In fact, many rumors have claimed that Cobain ghostwrote a substantial chunk of the album, and while that's unlikely, there's no denying that his patented stop-start dynamics, bare chords, and punk-pop melodies provide the blueprint for Live Through This. Love adds her signature rage and feminist rhetoric to the formula, but the lyrics that truly resonate are the ones that unintentionally predict Cobain's suicide. For all the raw pain of the lyrics, Live Through This rarely sounds raw because of the shiny production and the carefully considered dynamics. Despite this flaw, the album retains its power because it was one of the few records patterned on Nevermind that gets the formula right, with a set of gripping hooks and melodies that retain their power even if they follow the predictable grunge pattern.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi

The Best Of Busta Rhymes

Busta Rhymes
One of the most gifted and instantly recognizable rappers of the '90s, Busta Rhymes parlayed a madcap personality and seemingly inexhaustible energy into stardom during an era when hip-hop was dominated by gangstas and materialism. Busta's music sounded fairly distinctive -- herky-jerky funk laced with offbeat samples and eerie, apocalyptic production touches -- but the star of the show was his wildly off-kilter, dancehall-influenced flow, which was really like nothing else in rap. Still, despite many astounding individual moments, his albums were so sprawling that none really maintained their momentum from start to finish, making him an excellent candidate for a best-of. The 18 cuts collected on Rhino's chronologically arranged The Best of Busta Rhymes are chosen as well as one could hope, spanning all the singles and vitally necessary cuts from his four platinum solo albums (although diehards might find a personal favorite missing). There's also the hit non-LP reworking of "Turn It Up" (with new lyrics and a "Knight Rider" sample), plus two singles from the classic Leaders of the New School debut Future Without a Past. The leap in his technique from the LONS cuts to the brilliant "Woo-Hah!! Got You All in Check" is startling, but the collection's true revelation is the way it brings Busta's versatility into its sharpest focus yet. There's plenty of his trademark mania, of course, but there are also softer collaborations with female singers, dance-oriented club tracks, and creepy, more subdued mood pieces. Since this is only Busta's best, things never fly off in too many different directions, and fans who might miss the out-of-control feel of his albums may also find it easier to realize that whatever Busta tries, his rhymes remain as dizzyingly intricate and witty as ever. The Best of Busta Rhymes paints as definitive a portrait as possible of one of rap's most electrifying talents, but, more than that, it's simply an irresistible listen.

Steve Huey, Rovi