The 25 Best Albums of 1992

During the second week of 1992, Nirvana’s Nevermind reached #1 on the Billboard 200 chart, helping shape the rest of the decade beyond just music. Rock and roll had been declared dead several times before then, but many of the alternative acts that had been relegated to left-most stations on the dial where college DJs fumbled through their shows found themselves in a much bigger spotlight. MC Hammer, Kris Kross and Sir Mix-a-lot put hip-hop on the pop charts, while Dr. Dre and Arrested Development released very different kinds of breakout albums. The alt-country movement began picking up steam. And legends like Neil Young, Tom Waits and R.E.M. released some of their best albums of their careers. We’re having a hard time believing it’s been 30 years, but we’ve looked back at the music released in 1992 and voted on our favorite albums.

Here are the 20 best albums of 1992:

25. The Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall

jayhawks-hollywood.jpgBreakups and reunions aside, Mark Olson and Gary Louris were born to sing together. Their harmonies sound tight but laidback, well-rehearsed but perfectly intuitive, and on their career-maker Hollywood Town Hall, they sound like an old-time country act (think The Louvin Brothers) backed by a heartland rock band (think The Heartbreakers if they were Hoosiers). The band formed long before anyone coined the term “alt-country,” but the Jayhawks set the bar for that movement’s songwriting and harmonies, directly influencing the likes of Ryan Adams, Robbie Fulks, and Freakwater. About the best thing that can be said about Hollywood Town Hall, however, is that 30 years later it still doesn’t sound like part of any trend. The Jayhawks sound like a band following their own muse, which made them beloved cult artists but not rock stars. —Stephen M. Deusner

24. Arrested Development: 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of

ad-3-years.jpgAlong with De La Soul, Arrested Development’s rise in 1992 heralded an alternative to the reigning gangsta rap. Their debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life Of…, boosted by hit MTV videos for “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal” launched the group to two Grammys (Best Rap Album, Best New Artist) and millions in sales. The songs were an original fusion of hip-hop, blues, soul and funk with an easy Southern vibe. “Groovy” pretty much nails it. The band never reached the same heights again, but that debut stands tall, pointing to a future in which Southern rappers would rule the charts. —Nick Purdy

23. Mark Heard: Satellite Sky

mark-heard-sat.jpgIn his later work, Mark Heard became a master of language, of imagery and meaning. He could fashion effortless stanzas of beauty and precision. But Heard’s magic was much more than facility with words. It encompassed an unrelenting introspection, an uncompromising social criticism, and an unmasked vulnerability that did more than speak from deep wells of universal experience—it encapsulated that experience and gave it a fresh, vital and prescient voice. His work recalls the experience of a previous generation in its first encounter with the early lyrics of Dylan—that of someone who captured how everyone was feeling but couldn’t articulate. The release of a trilogy of records in the early ’90s on Fingerprint Records, a tiny label created specifically for Heard, heralded the arrival of an artist at his peak—a challenger for the title of poet laureate of American music—joining the pantheon that includes Dylan, Cohen, Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt. —Tim Regan-Porter

22. Cracker: Cracker

cracker-st.jpgCamper Van Beethoven was a college radio staple in the second half of the 1980s, introducing that decade’s version of indie kids to David Lowery’s sometimes snide, often absurd and surprisingly emotional lyrics. When the band broke up in 1990, Lowery reconnected with his old friend guitarist Johnny Hickman, and released the new band’s self-titled debut Cracker just as the weirdos began taking over the radio with the rise of “alt-rock.” I still remember hearing “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” on the just-launched 99X in Atlanta for the first time and immediately recognizing Lowery’s voice, dumbfounded and delighted that the Camper frontman had found mainstream success. The music on Cracker was punchier and more approachable than anything since Camper’s breakout single “Take the Skinhead Bowling,” but the lyrics were just as compelling, as Lowery asked “Can I take my gun up to heaven?” and proclaimed, “Don’t Fuck Me (With Peace and Love)” while Hickman’s guitar drove home every refrain with his country- and blues-tinged rock riffs. —Josh Jackson

21. Uncle Tupelo: March 16-20, 1992

ut-march.jpgWhen Uncle Tupelo went into the studio to record their third album, the No Depression movement was only just beginning to gel, as more and more musicians realized they could approach country music with a DIY punk attitude. Surprisingly, the trio ditched their electric guitars for this album of mostly acoustic numbers, but lost none of the urgency and grit. Comprised of originals and covers of traditional tunes that would have been doubly obscure in the pre-iTunes era, March 16-20, 1992 opens up new possibilities of American folk music in general and alt-country in particular, and all these years later, Uncle Tupelo’s explicitly leftist, pro-union, anti-corporate stance lends the album extra weight and relevance. —Stephen M. Deusner

20. Whitney Houston and Various Artists: The Bodyguard

bodyguard.jpgOh, Whitney! You timeless diva, you. Whitney Houston carried half of a soundtrack that won the 1992 Album of the Year Grammy award in her definitive peak. The movie’s lead track, “I Will Always Love You,” also won the Record of The Year Grammy and highlighted a slate of songs that also included “I Have Nothing,” “Queen of The Night,” “I’m Every Woman,” and “Queen of The Night.” Pretty ridiculous right? Not to be forgotten, is the fan-frickin-tastic collaboration between Kenny G and Aaron Neville, “Even If My Heart Would Break,” along with a Joe Cocker and another Lisa Stansfield track. Say what you will about the suspect film (Kevin Costner!) but this soundtrack was early ’90s gold and make no mistake about it, it’s all because of Whitney. —Adrian Spinelli

19. The Pharcyde: Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde

pharcyde-ii.jpg1992 was one of the key moments in hip-hop’s steady march toward being the defining artform of our modern era. Dr. Dre released his first solo album The Chronic, Sir Mix-A-Lot hit the top of the Billboard charts for five weeks with “Baby Got Back” and bona fide classics were dropped by Gang Starr, Beastie Boys, EPMD and Diamond D. Riding into the party, zonked out on psychtropics and warped funk records, was The Pharcyde, an L.A.-based group who snuck another gem into that year with their debut Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. It’s a record whose concerns are simple: getting a girl, getting high and talking oodles of smack to your buddies. But they are turned into something like art thanks to crackly, soulful production from J-Swift, Slimkid3 and L.A. Jay, and the arch, unusual way that the rappers (Slimkid, Bootie Brown, Fatlip and Imani) attack each tune. They shout. They squeal. They rap against the beat with the gumption of a jazz soloist. It’s a combination of thoughtfulness and who the fuck cares-ness that not even The Pharcyde could recreate on subsequent albums. —Robert Ham

18. Jonathan Richman: I, Jonathan

j-richman-i.jpgJonathan Richman’s most famous song is “Roadrunner,” his synthesis of everything he learned from hanging around Lou Reed as a teenager, but his best song is “That Summer Feeling,” a six-minute lament for the lost innocence of youth. Over a Reed-like acoustic guitar riff, Richman remembers a time when there were “things to do not because you gotta” and there was “love not because you oughta,” and he predicts, “That summer feeling is gonna haunt you.” And by the end of the song it does. On this same album are tributes to The McCoys’ “Hang On, Sloopy,” The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray,’ and Richman’s gay friends who took him dancing at a lesbian bar. —Geoffrey Himes

17. Beastie Boys: Check Your Head

beastie-boys-check.jpgBroke, disillusioned from the commercial failure of Paul’s Boutique, and reeling from the death of friend Dave Scilken, the Beastie Boys spent the early ’90s holed up in their Los Angeles studio, wondering what exactly they wanted to be. Inspiration arrived when they realized that, instead of sampling old funk records, they could dust off their instruments and play vintage grooves themselves. With Check Your Head, the Beasties shrugged off all expectations and created an endlessly thrilling album that simulated the freewheeling, anything-goes atmosphere of their private mixtapes, moving from thundering rap-rock (“Gratitude,” “So What’cha Want”) to hardcore throwback (“Time for Livin’”) to mutating stoner funk (“Something’s Got to Give”). While it may lack the sampledelic genius of Paul’s Boutique or the more recognizable singles of Ill Communication, Check Your Head is the album that best captures the group in self-discovery mode, whether it’s all three reintroducing themselves on the dorm-room classic “Pass the Mic” or MCA documenting his spiritual awakening on “Namasté.” It is, in other words, the album where three Beastie Boys became Beastie Men. —Zach Schonfeld

16. Alejandro Escovedo: Gravity

alejandro-gravity.jpgThe son of Mexican immigrants, Alejandro Escovedo grew up as a surfer and punk-rocker in California, but it wasn’t until he moved to Texas that he was able to put those two halves of his identity together, first with the overlooked roots-rock band The True Believers and then with a solo career that began with this stunning album. With his Mexican background reflected in the violins and lilting melodies of his parents’ homeland and his punk-bohemian side echoed in the spiky electric guitar riffs of the West Coast demimonde, the two sides were bridged by the singer’s spare but evocative lyrics, which distilled conversations on both sides of the border to their aphoristic essence. —Geoffrey Himes

15. Bikini Kill: Bikini Kill

bikini-kill.jpgIn punk, or even sorta-punk, there are no consensus albums by women in the established canon. Bikini Kill’s debut EP is the closest thing, though they’re more slotted in the “influence” canon—everyone acknowledges they were Important in the ‘90s or invented something or whatever, few (male) critics point to their musical utility as a strength or single out a classic album. Let’s rectify this. If I’m not talking about Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren and Kathi Wilcox’s widely-noted visceral and cultural accomplishments, their reportedly life-changing stage shows, Hanna’s scrawling misogynist go-to words on her own body, pulling girls to the front of the crowd, their fearlessness, their reach, their success in becoming a buzz name on par with male friends Nirvana and Fugazi, it’s because those are well-documented, epochal accomplishments for this seminal punk band. “Double Dare Ya” opens with shivering feedback that never quite subsides, posits a doomy Flipper riff and Hanna shouts an intro that’s now as classic as Mc5’s “Kick Out the Jams”: “We’re Bikini Kill and we want revolution—girl-style now!” She lists a bunch of reasonable challenges, all the more relevant today. Then there’s “Suck My Left One,” which set an impossible bar for any band, male, female, punk, whatever, to live up to. A raucous riff, hooky title shout and horrifying lyric where Hanna’s protagonist dares herself to try and get a thrill from the incestuous hell she’s trapped in. All she can muster by the end is an entirely unconvincing mantra of “fine, fine, fine, fine” when she knows it’s perfectly not. The song tries to own the rape experience in retrospect, presenting control of the narrative, tweaking the black humor in it when the reality was completely helpless. It’s the kind of impossible work of art that only rock and roll was made for. Rape is a fucking horror, unimaginable for this straight white male. Turning that into what this band did—the Clash, Ramones and Pistols could pool their resources and never come up with something so brave, personal and cutting. They went on to write catchier choruses, more skillful riffs, and possibly more multilevel satirical pieces. But compared as a single outburst, all other bands come up short. If they quit after their first EP, Bikini Kill would be just as legendary today for ripping the medium open and saying everything someone needed to start saying. Instead they improved on it in every way except as pure legend. Perfect. —Dan Weiss

14. Stereolab: Peng!

stereolab-peng.jpgIt now seems somewhat reductive/ridiculous to have so sincerely called anything “post-rock” (hell, “post-anything”). But back when London underground collective Stereolab first cohered around the tag-team songwriting/romantic partnership of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier—this term actually meant something, with the group’s Moog-driven synth attack squarely competing for attention with the shaggier grunge and shoegaze movements. The group’s oddball 1992 debut, Peng! established the core elements—an unrequited love of Krautrock, lounge, cheesy ’60s pop and “space age bachelor pad music,” combined with lyrics embracing Marxist politics and Situationist themes—that would go on to define its prolific output. It would also establish the band’s undeniable influence—countless groups, from Pavement to Blur to the entire Japanese Shibuya-kei pop community, owe a debt to Stereolab’s pioneering use of non-rock sonic elements. —Corey duBrowa

13. Vigilantes of Love: Killing Floor

vol-killing-floor.jpgMy arrival to Athens, Ga., in 1990 to get my learnin’ on was quickly followed by my introduction to Vigilantes of Love. Bill Mallonee’s desperately confessional lyrics were the cathartic soundtrack to the joy, heartache and confusion of those college years. And on Killing Floor, with help from producers Mark Heard and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the band created what remained for years my favorite album, period. Even the historical songs like “Andersonville” and “Eleanor” dealt with life’s big themes of struggle and redemption. But it’s the manic tracks like “Undertow” and “Strike While the Iron Is Hot,” where Mallonee sounds like mad, raging prophet, that fill a hole for certain moods that few other songs can. —Josh Jackson

12. Guided by Voices: Propeller

gbv-propeller.jpgAlmost nobody heard Propeller when it came out in 1992, but it was the first major step towards Guided by Voices’ eventual breakthrough in 1994. Which is a little weird, as it was the band’s fifth album, and was supposed to be their last. After years of absolute obscurity both home and abroad, Bob Pollard and friends were ready to give it up after one more album. You can hear a good bit of GBV’s early years on Propeller—the classic album-opening salvo of “Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox” and “Weedking” are fully fleshed-out songs that appear here in fairly proficient studio recordings—but more importantly you can hear the lo-fi legends they were about to become. Much of Propeller was recorded on a four-track, with the noise and tape hiss you’d expect, and most songs on side two are under two minutes long. Fifteen songs rush by in 36 minutes, with bite-sized pop classics (“Exit Flagger,” “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy,” “14 Cheerleader Coldfront”) sitting alongside song fragments (“Red Gas Circle,” the collage “Back to Saturn X Radio Report”) and noisy rambles (“Ergo Space Pig,” “Particular Damaged”). It’s not quite Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes, but it’s close. —Garrett Martin

11. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Henry’s Dream

nick-cave-henry.jpgNick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ middle-period output is filled with death and grief and sorrow and murder and rising corpses and ghost-ship chanteys and devil women and show tunes born in hell. It rules, of course. Besides showcasing a guy who’s fully comfortable with his hallucinogenic gift for literate terror, the silky-black woe-bringer’s seventh album Henry’s Dream marks his sneaky descent into a wittier, more accessible kind of cabaret-blues. The album is home to his straightforward, still-potent romantic notions displayed on “Loom Of The Land” and the lovely goth-first-dance song “Straight To You.” A couple of dated ’90s synthetics aside, the album is well-stocked with timeless, majestic and icy tales like “Jack the Ripper” and “John Finn’s Wife” just a couple testaments to Cave’s fast-evolving ability to shine both light and darkness. —Jeff Vrabel

10. Sugar: Copper Blue

sugar-copper-blue.jpgAfter two emotionally draining solo albums, Bob Mould wanted to relax in 1991 and make a big rock record. It was perfect timing, as Copper Blue hit stores and commercial radio playlists in the wake of the alternative rock explosion of 1992, becoming Mould’s most successful album. It might lack the fury of Husker Du, but Copper Blue is a rock juggernaut, with the powerful riffs, blistering fretwork and incisive lyrics Mould is known for. —Garrett Martin

9. Sonic Youth: Dirty

sonic-youth-dirty.jpgSonic Youth were a full-blown grunge act when they dropped Dirty in 1991. Hot on the heels of a tour with Nirvana, the band hit the studio with producer Butch Vig to record what would become one of their most iconic albums. The opening track “100%” plays like a relic of its era. Trebly feedback rides atop a lurching beat that never quite settles into a pocket. “I stick a knife in my head thinking ‘bout your eyes / But now that you’ve been shot dead, I got a new surprise,” Moore threateningly sings in a sardonic, cocky tone. The song peaked at number four on the Alternative Airplay chart, ending up a shockingly intense radio hit. Thanks to their scrappy roots, Sonic Youth were well-suited for the ’90s rock boom. “100%” perfectly captures their marketable edginess. —Ted Davis

8. The Cure: Wish

cure-wish.jpgThough most fans would tell you it’s the last great Cure album in a streak dating back to the band’s 1978 debut, Wish feels like a death and a rebirth in equal measure. Robert Smith’s proven knack for atmospheric songwriting, holding as much sweetness as it does venom, is paired with instrumental nods to a new wave of alt-rock ushered in by the early ’90s: big, melodic choruses and detuned guitars drenched in reverb carry each track to dizzying heights, pulling catharsis out of heartbreak at eye level with the skyscrapers. The violent lovesickness of lead single “High” (“Makes me bite my fingers through / To think I could’ve let you go”), dreamy epic poem “From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea” and resigned lullabies “A Letter to Elise” and “To Wish Impossible Things” feel tender even as they tower over the listener, stuck stories below. Defying the surrounding collapse, centerpiece “Doing the Unstuck” feels like a sugar rush of nihilistic optimism delivered with bated breath. “With the sound of your world / Going up in the fire / It’s a perfect day to throw back your head / And kiss it all goodbye,” Smith sings at the track’s conclusion, flashing a broad lipsticked smile in the face of the world’s end before tumbling into the bittersweet swell of “Friday I’m in Love”’s opening riff. Few other moments sum up the band so well. —Elise Soutar

7. Dr. Dre: The Chronic

dr-dre-chronic.jpgOne of the best albums of the ’90s; one of the best hip-hop albums of all time; one of the best debut albums ever made; when giving The Chronic its due, there’s no shortage of superlatives to choose from. The Rosetta Stone of G-funk was a commercial smash that launched Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s solo careers, established Death Row Records as a force to be reckoned with, and set the sonic template for the golden age of West Coast hip-hop. Dre burns any bridges left between him and N.W.A. with glee, his visionary production immortalizing iconic hits like “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” “Fuck wit Dre Day” and “Let Me Ride,” while Snoop alternates viciousness and charisma from bar to bar, in a star-making turn. The entire Death Row roster steps up, with Nate Dogg, Daz, RBX, Kurupt, The D.O.C., Lady of Rage and others making The Chronic a killer posse album, as well—just one more superlative to add to the stack. —Scott Russell

6. Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine

rage-st.jpgRage Against the Machine remains one of the only respectable rap-metal groups in existence. Not only did the band possess a lyrical and musical integrity that was frequently and unsuccessfully imitated for over a decade, but its members genuinely meant every word of their politically charged content, having been exposed firsthand to the corruption of the powers that be during their lives. The quartet’s self-titled debut demonstrates why they’re such a potent force: Tom Morello’s inventive technique pushed the limits of what a guitar could do, and Zack de la Rocha’s revolutionary leftist views produced some of the most scathing lyrics in any genre of music. With well-known staples like “Killing in the Name,” “Wake Up” and “Freedom,” as well as deeper cuts like “Know Your Enemy,” Rage proved that rap and metal could fuse into something simultaneously intelligent, creative and downright furious. —John Barrett

5. Tom Waits: Bone Machine

tom-waits-bone.jpgTom Waits roared into the ’90s with so much thunder that the devil fell off his brimstone throne and still hasn’t recovered. Armed with an ocean of apocalyptic imagery, ragged percussion and a voice that sounds like he just gargled with a flask of whiskey and rusty nails, Bone Machine is nothing but raw. The earth is still screaming. —Jessica Gentile

4. PJ Harvey: Dry

pj-dry.jpgIt’s rare to come across a debut album that sounds so fully fleshed out, but Harvey had been preparing for the chance to record her own material for years, and wasn’t about to waste it. At this point, “PJ Harvey” was still a band, consisting of its namesake, bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Rob Ellis. Believing they would never get another opportunity to make a record, they made what, even now, sounds like a core thesis statement that Harvey would only embellish with each subsequent release. Though that means the production remains fairly simple, with most of the instruments played by the core trio, it’s impressive what they accomplished with their limited resources. The theme of gender roles that Harvey would revisit again comes up early, evident in the sing-along playfulness of singles “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig” (“Heard it before, no more!”). Elsewhere, the immense atmosphere of the incredible “Plants and Rags” and “Water” showed Polly had the songwriting and arranging chops of someone who had been doing it professionally for decades. Sure, lots of people had picked up a guitar and made compelling music before, but never quite like this. Though it’s an easy statement to make when we have hindsight and a whole discography to back it up, let’s make it: Even if this had been the only thing PJ Harvey released, as they’d believed it would be, we’d still regard it as essential. —Elise Soutar

3. R.E.M.: Automatic for the People

rem-automatic.jpgTo many pop music obsessives, picking the finest R.E.M. album is like picking one’s favorite child. It’s no easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but 1992’s track-by-track melodic goldmine, Automatic for the People, is surely the most logical choice. The album title was oddly prophetic—where previous R.E.M. efforts wore their college-rock obscurity like badges of honor, Automatic seemed destined for something bigger—something destined to reach more ears, and to do so in a more direct fashion. With instant pop classics like “Everybody Hurts,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” and the Andy Kaufman-referencing “Man on the Moon,” this was [and still is] the R.E.M. album made for everybody. —Ryan Reed

2. Neil Young: Harvest Moon

neil-young-harvest-moon.jpgAfter spending the ’80s on a winding path through electronica, rockabilly, country, blues and garage rock, Neil Young finally found himself back on familiar ground in the early ’90s. Two decades on from Harvest, he revisited its title and personnel alike, reuniting with The Stray Gators, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor to record a spiritual sequel to what remains his most commercially successful solo album. Harvest Moon abandons its predecessor’s outlying flashes of orchestral bombast in favor of a more focused return—not retreat—to its warm folk-rock foundations. “Here I am with this old guitar, doing what I do,” Young sings on “From Hank to Hendrix,” offering what might as well be a mission statement for the record. Harvest Moon contains some of Young’s most heartfelt songwriting, especially on the title track—one of the best love songs in the Rock Hall of Famer’s considerable catalog. —Scott Russell

1. Pavement: Slanted & Enchanted

pavement-slanted.jpgPavement’s early vinyl scraps were spirited and mysterious and barely hinted at the songwriting skills Stephen Malkmus would later develop. Slanted & Enchanted normalized the ramshackle noise of Swell Maps and early Fall for the high schoolers of the early ’90s, wedding the band’s intentional lo-fi grime to powerful songs like the sluggish anthem “Summer Babe,” the downcast love song “Zurich is Stained” and the heartbreaking “Here.” —Garrett Martin