It Was 20 Years Ago Today: The Best Rock Albums of 1992

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It Was 20 Years Ago Today: The Best Rock Albums of 1992

1992 was a year of transition and change. Johnny Carson stepped down from The Tonight Show, GenX commedy writer Conan O’Brien took over for David Letterman, MTV introduced The Real World and CDs overtook cassette sales for the first time.  Presidents Bush and Yeltsin declared a formal end to the Cold War and of course the United States wound down the year with the election of William Jefferson Clinton to the White House.

As the politics in the nation’s capital were changing, so was music. The music industry was flourishing thanks to the exploding grunge scene, a select crop of established bands from the 80s finding a fresh voice, the proliferation of independent labels and the complete ascension of rap and hip-hop into the mainstream. It was also the year that Generation X musicians came into their own and began asserting their distinct worldview in their own heartfelt yet wryly ironic musical voice.

Viewed with the benefit of two decades of hindsight and insight, it was a landmark year in rock history, with an astounding number of groundbreaking, influential, genre-defining and just plain kick-ass records. The music released in 1992 was not only the apotheosis of the punk, metal, rap and alternative trends that birthed it, but it also laid the musical foundation for the decade(s) to come.

To commemorate the 20th year of this musical watershed moment, the Weeping Elvis editors have teamed up with record execs, musicians and entertainment industry professionals who were living and breathing 90s music culture to calculate and present our Top Rock Albums of 1992.  Hindsight may be 20/20, but we found that picking only 20 albums from 20 years ago proved too limiting. Accordingly, we expanded the list by five to come up with the 25 albums that defined and formed the soundtrack not only for the year 1992, but for the 20 years thereafter.

 

 

25. Helmet — Meantime
Meantime was an anomaly for 1992.  Incredibly heavy (yet not traditional) metal, the album inserted itself straight into the collective cerebral cortex via bludgeoning riffs like those in their breakout single “Unsung” and rocked, really, really hard, with a very short haircut, all the way to “Better.”  And you can hear it live–they’re touring now through November!

 

24. Sloan — Smeared
The Canadian quartet dropped their first full-length album upon the unsuspecting masses in late 1992, blending catchy power pop melodies with noisy guitars, poignantly personal lyrics and a hint of shoegaze chic.  Its songs were sometimes infused with a wink and nod, making it clear that they weren’t afraid to incorporate their wry sense of humor even as they tackled deep subjects. (To wit: they wrote an impossibly catchy song about cancer.) The hybrid pop/noise found on Smeared heavily influenced scores of 90s indie rock bands, and in launching their own label, Murderecords, they became something of a trendsetter.

 

23. Neil Young — Harvest Moon
The mercurial, restless career of Neil Young is one of cycles and patterns. During his most fertile creative periods, he’d often follow up a loud, distortion-heavy Crazy Horse record with an acoustic, slightly twangy disc (or, in some cases, something truly experimental out of left field). Harvest Moon represents the capstone to his last great creative spurt, one that also included Freedom, Ragged Glory and the live tour de force, Weld. Let’s be honest: It’s not the album that its predecessor and namesake, Harvest, was, as it too often lapses into Baby Boomer brunch music. But most of the songs here have just enough edge to keep things interesting, and a few — “From Hank to Hendrix,” “Unknown Legend” — rank among his best of the last 20 years.

 

22. Spiritualized — Lazer Guided Melodies
The first full-length release from the post-Spaceman 3, Jason Pierce-led Spiritualized, Lazer Guided Melodies is an altogether beautiful  drone-ful psychedelic listening experience that stands up very well today.  Put on your headphones, audiophile, and sample “ I Want You” and “Shine a Light.”

 

21. Screaming Trees — Sweet Oblivion
Before Mark Lanegan got all consistently sullen on us, he was the voice of the seminal Seattle hard rock band (don’t dare call them grunge) The Screaming Trees.  While they permeated the indie scene in the late 80s, their biggest commercial success came with the release of 1992’s “Sweet Oblivion,” which features Lanegan’s signature raspy baritone and the wicked chops of those larger-than life Connor brothers on guitar and bass. Don’t miss the beautiful despair of “No One Knows” and “Butterfly.”

 

20. Del Amitri — Change Everything
The only band in our top 25 from Scotland, Del Amitri’s “Change Everything” reached No. 2 on the U.K. albums chart and its biggest single “Always the Last to Know” charted in the top 40 in the U.S.   They made a bigger splash in 1995 with “Roll to Me” in the U.S but in our eyes, Justin Currie never wrote better songs than Change Everything’s “Just Like a Man” and “When You Were Young.” Feel the nostalgia, even if you’re a youngster still.

 

19. James — Seven
With the release of their fourth album Seven, England’s James further honed their anthemic songwriting, composing songs with inviting melodies and rich, layered production. “Born of Frustration,”  the opener of the 11-track album, is the perfect showcase for Tim Booth’s stunning vocals. Strangely enough this song would find a new life years later in a commercial for Westin Hotels.

 

 

18. Social Distortion — Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell
Mike Ness and company dove deeper into their country and rockabilly roots on their fourth studio release (a follow-up to the surprise hit of their self-titled third album) netting a gold record and solidifying their status as So-Cal punk legends on gems like “99 to Life,” “Making Believe” and “Born to Lose.” If Johnny Cash and John Doe of X had a snarling, prison-bound bastard child that played a Les Paul, it would sound exactly like Social Distortion. And that child would break loose for a hell-raising tour that would leave town just-ahead-of-the-cops with venues trashed, daughters pregnant and wide-eyed smiles all around. It would be a heck of a journey, one sure to leave a lacuna in the hearts of the affected at its inevitable conclusion.

 

17. Luna — Lunapark
Dean Warham quit Galaxie 500 in 1991 and lost no time assembling the band that would be Luna.  Lunapark was their first of many stellar releases…none of them seemingly commercial enough to penetrate more than the outskirts of the American mainstream music scene.  Your loss, America. This album does a great job introducing their signature dream-pop sound, featuring Wareham’s intricate laconic guitar solos and languid vocals. Primer tunes include “Anesthesia” and “Smile.”

 

16. Morphine — Good
Minimal, original, muscular — all describe the debut album from Boston trio Morphine. The band came into being following the break-up of frontman Mark Sandman’s band Treat Her Right. Sparse and efficient, Morphine were comprised of  Sandman on bass (one string for this album mind you) and vocals, Dana Colley on sax and Jerome Dupree behind the drums. This powerful blues-based debut is best enjoyed in a smokey back bar with a cheap cocktail — preferably in the company of questionable clientele.

 

15. Buffalo Tom — Let Me Come Over
To paraphrase 60s Boston garage rockers The Standels, there was clearly something in the “dirty water” of Boston that Gen X musicians called home in the early 90s–the city’s Fort Apache studios and bustling indie rock club scene birthed an inordinately rich group of musicians, including Dinosaur Jr., Julianna Hatfield and the Blake Babies, and The Lemonheads (not to mention The Pixies) that rivaled Seattle for the best music scene of the nascent decade. Often overlooked in this mix was Buffalo Tom, which achieved power pop glory on Let Me Come Over. Rockers like “Taillights Fade” and “Velvet Roof” served like roadmaps for an ironically detached yet emotionally vulnerable generation grappling with lowered expectations while searching for its purpose and voice.

 

14. Catherine Wheel — Ferment
Although Catherine Wheel shared traits with English contemporaries like Lush, Ride and Chapterhouse, it seems unfair to categorize them as just another “shoegaze” band. Their debut album, Ferment, exhibited a dark elegance and layered sophistication on tracks like “Black Metallic,” and  “I Want To Touch You” Rob Dickinson’s dreamy and slurred vocals are offset against powerful guitars to create a heady sort of symbolism that only Brits dare attempt. The result was early 90s daydreaming at its best.

 

 

13. PJ Harvey — Dry
Mysterious, sexy,  and influential are all words that come to mind in describing English musician Polly Jean Harvey and her groundbreaking debut Dry. Tracks like “Dress” and the single “Sheela Na Gig” (the Irish word for figurative carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva), propelled the raw, 11-song album, which sounds as throat grabbing today as it did 20 years ago.

 

 

12. Tom Waits — Bone Machine
On this Grammy-winning record, Tom Waits traded in forlorn piano ballads and traditional song structure for frenetically syncopated glimpses of the apocalypse pounded out on found instruments. Alternating between falsetto crooning and guttural moans that sound like they’re coming from a walkie-talkie broadcast on a fading AM station, he charts a nocturnal course through a deserted carnival of greed, loathing and loss on blues howlers and growlers like “The Earth Died Screaming” and “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” His trademark railroad drifter sensibilities still shine on through on plaintive gems like “Whistle Down the Wind” and “Who Are You,” with down-and-out characters sketches worthy of a William Kennedy novel or a Jim Jarmusch film.

 

11. Lucinda Williams — Sweet, Old World
Equal parts twang, blues and swamp-abilly, this fourth LP from Lake Charles, Louisiana-born singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams serves as a veritable Rosetta Stone of the alt-country/Americana genre that was about to blossom. From sultry slow burns like “Something About What Happens When We Talk” and “Hot Blood” to lamentations on suicide (“Pineola” and the title track) to rollicking juke joint romps like “Lines Around Your Eyes,” Williams deftly two-steps the line that separates yet binds country music and rock-n-roll.

She spent enough time in the East Village to master hard living and urban alienation (“Sidewalks of the City” and “Six Blocks Away”), but to also gain perspective on her Southern heritage.

 

10. Sonic Youth — Dirty
For Dirty, their second release on DGC records, New York noise innovators Sonic Youth enlisted the aid of Butch Vig to produce and Andy Wallace to mix, both known for  their work with Nirvana. The enhanced production values didn’t mute their signature guitar fuzz chaos, but did see them employ more conventional song structures at times. “100 Percent,” their homage to slain Rollins band roadie Joe Cole,  garnered substantial radio play and exposed the band to a new audience as the grunge era was taking off in full flight.

 

9. Alice In Chains — Dirt
Alice in Chains was a 1992 metal/grunge juggernaut with the release of their second full length, “Dirt.”   The album went on to sell more than 4 million copies, based on the strength of songs like  “Rooster” and “Them Bones.” Half the tracks showcased lead vocalist’s Layne Staley’s conflicts around addiction, while musically “Dirt” expanded upon their dark and heavy sound, anchored by Jerry Cantrell’s huge and brooding guitar.  Staley eventually succumbed to his demons and died from an overdose, as did bassist Mike Starr.

 

8. The Jayhawks — Hollywood Town Hall
On Hollywood Town Hall, The Jayhawks staked their claim as Minnesota’s heirs to Gram Parsons by weaving a sonic quilt of Fender twang, jangly folk melodies and down-home narration. Equally conversant in the catalogs of fellow Minnesotans Bob Dylan and The Replacements (not to mention Beggars Banquet-era Stones), the band served up lush yet lonesome gems like “Waiting for the Sun,” “Settled Down Like Rain” and the haunting “Two Angels.” Aided by soaring harmonies that would be the envy of The Byrds and R.E.M., the songs on this album were instantly warm, welcoming and eerily familiar from the very first listen.

 

7. Tori Amos — Little Earthquakes
As  chunky guitars and distortion pedals were having their day in 1992, thoughtful, piano driven songs weren’t in large supply…and that was partly what made Little Earthquakes stand out. The authenticity of Tori Amos’s lyrics combined with her soaring voice and commanding piano delivery created jaw dropping songs that punched just as hard as a distorted power chord.

She didn’t just write great songs, she wrote important and unforgettable songs about poignant and often shrouded issues like rape. In doing so, Tori gave victims a voice while building awareness within society. She accomplished something with this album that few ever will; she made a difference.

 

6. Pavement — Slanted and Enchanted
Gen X ‘s fabled slacker ethos was translated musically by the boys in Pavement on this indie rock classic that is considered by many to be their best work. It captured the directionless ennui inherent in an era of confusing societal and technological change, throwing in a dash of Dadaist lyrical absurdity that sometimes seemed to exist for the sake of existence, rather than to convey any particular meaning.  And that, possibly, was the symbolist point. Their low-fi soundscapes bounced around the stockrooms of dead-end employers everywhere, giving a commiserate voice to those searching for inspiration amongst the drudgery of daily life.

Pavement didn’t just throw down quirky but relatable indie pop songs, though, and their eclectic audio aesthetic shouldn’t be confused with a lack of creativity or lackadaisical execution. The album plays like you’re hearing it on a faraway AM radio, intelligently deconstructing a moment of flux and creating an indie meme unto itself in the process.

 

5. Beastie Boys — Check Your Head
Stylistically, Check Your Head is one of the Beastie Boys most experimental albums, artfully blending  rap, funk, psychedelia and straight out jams like “So Whatcha Want” and “Pass the Mic.” Recorded in California and released on their own label, Grand Royal, their third album further cemented their reputation as innovators all the while selling more than 2 million copies.

 

 

4. Rage Against the Machine — Rage Against the Machine
Who knew a guy who worked as a scheduling secretary for Sen. Alan Cranston (D-CA) would end up being one of the most innovative and aggressive guitarists of the 90s and beyond for that matter? Yep, Tom Morello dropped conventional politics and picked up the anti-establishment mantel of The Clash along with Zack de la Rocha, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk to create their brilliant self-titled release. Their debut seamlessly merges rap, metal and punk into a one-of-a kind call to action. “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”

 

3. Sugar — Copper Blue
Bob Mould was the driving force behind Husker Du, arguably the most important punk band of the 80s. Thereafter, he had a few moments of brilliance with his solo output after their break-up. But it was not until he wrote the early 90s batch of catchy melodic pop songs that would become the elixir of Copper Blue that he got back his mojo. Mould’s songs, punctuated by jagged guitars and laced with heartfelt lyrics, were propelled by the fierce rhythm section of David Barbe and Malcolm Travis.

Critically acclaimed and commercially successful, this album tells Mould’s story of break-ups, sex and relationships and sounds as intense today as it did when it first came out.

 

2. R.E.M. — Automatic For The People
It’s easy to see whey many R.E.M. fans regard Automatic For The People as their best work. The band was at a creative high point. Buck, Berry and Mills mixed lush string arrangements with folk-tinged instrumentation to create some of their most powerful arrangements ever. Michael Stipe delivered a spot-on vocal performance, capturing the emotion of his deeply personnel and relatable lyrics on loss, mortality, life and hope.

The 12-song journey concludes with “Find The River” and Stipe singing: “Leave the Road and memorize. This life that pass before my eyes. Nothing is going my way.” Bittersweet songwriting at its finest.

 

1.  The Lemonheads — It’s a Shame About Ray
This album served as the ambivalent yet vaguely optimistic coming of age soundtrack for a “rudderless” Generation X defined more by what it didn’t want than what it did. In the pantheon of power pop perfection, It’s a Shame About Ray ranks up there with the catchiest work of Cheap Trick, Big Star and The Knack. Juliana Hatfield guests on bass and sings like a jaded angel, the perfect complement to Evan Dando’s tender barritone. The LP takes off like a punk rocket on “Rockin’ Stoll,” then settles into a bouncy, druggy, hook-laden groove on the infectious “Confetti” and head-bobbing nuggets like the title track, “Allison’s Starting to Happen” and the two impeccable covers (“Frank Mills” from the musical Hair and “Mrs. Robinson”) that close the album.

It’s a Shame About Ray is a hook-heavy roller coaster ride that thrills you the entire way until it screeches to a halt, leaving you giddy, wobbly-legged and begging for another ride. Twenty years on, it’s still the “puzzle piece/behind the couch/that makes the sky complete.”

 

Methodology: Weeping Elvis’ editors and music industry guest contributors each submitted a list of 20 rock albums released in 1992, compilations were not considered. Longevity and influence were key factors. Albums, from each respective list, were assigned point values 1-20 based upon their position, tallied and…voila!

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