Gold Medal: The Bends by Radiohead
This isn’t even Radiohead’s best album but it’s probably the best pure guitar rock album made in the 1990s. After the so-so Pablo Honey, the boys found the formula to making songs that could blow their competition out of the water. Every song on The Bends is fantastic, which is something I can probably only say for a dozen or so albums in existence. With their sophomore album, Radiohead mastered a sound that most bands never approach over an entire career. The only direction the Oxford quintet could go was out into more adventurous territory, and that they did.
Silver Medal: Elliott Smith by Elliott Smith
Smith’s second record is one of his darkest, which is saying a lot. Many of the songs are about drugs, even more are about death, but through it all, Elliott Smith keeps his head above water in these beautiful acoustic songs. The last (almost) purely acoustic album is hauntingly gorgeous, with songs like “Alphabet Town” and “Satellite” taking the listener’s breath away. I don’t know what it is about Elliott Smith but he can make me melt only a few seconds into a song. What a gift.
Bronze Medal: If You’re Feeling Sinister by Belle and Sebastian
All the albums on this list are follow-ups to the debut, which sort of makes the sophomore slump theory seem like bunk. Belle and Sebastian has had a remarkably consistent career but this will be the record that defines their career. The characters in the songs just come to life thanks to the perfectly crafted indie pop songs. The record is melancholy but hopeful, honest but redemptive. They sink into your heart and never leave as you can tell if you see this band perform and find yourself and the rest of the audience singing every word.