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10 Best Jazz Albums of the 1990s: Critics’ Picks

The third of five decades' worth of top-10 lists voted on by our critics in celebration of JazzTimes' 50th anniversary

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Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 1990s: Critics' Picks

What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a music magazine than by making a top-50 list? Given how much time we’re spending at home right now, a list of albums seemed the most sensible, and fun, option. Under normal circumstances, we might not all have the chance to delve into so many recorded statements of such length; we may as well take advantage of the opportunity while we’ve got it.

A few basic ground rules were necessary, though. The most important:

1) Ten albums for each decade that JazzTimes has been around.

2) No more than one album per decade by any single “headline” artist. (Of course, many of these artists have a way of reappearing on other people’s albums, but we didn’t penalize them for that. Similarly, we didn’t consider cutting out any album just because players on it also show up on multiple others within the same decade.)

3) No ranking; that’s too much pressure, and besides it seemed offputtingly weird to call an album made in 2016 “better” or “worse” than one made in 1971. Chronology, based on release date, would be the only determinant for the final order.


With these rules in mind, we flipped through old JT reviews and critics’ polls, as well as consulting various other sources (for albums of the past 20 years, Nate Chinen’s book Playing Changes proved especially helpful in sparking ideas). Then we solicited nominations from a small group of key contributors to the magazine. Once all the votes were in, we tabulated them to produce the list you see here.

Like most such lists, it reflects the kind of compromise that necessarily goes along with consensus. It certainly doesn’t reflect my personal tastes. My own top 10 for the ’70s, to pick just one decade, would feature a different Miles Davis disc (either Jack Johnson or On the Corner), along with Air’s Air Lore and Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. Indeed, the lack of a single Ornette album is one of the greatest disappointments to be found here. It’s not because nobody voted for him; it’s because not enough people voted for the same record, which meant that none of them made it out of a given decade’s top 25. I resisted the strong temptation to play God in this case and let the results stand.

As we were compiling our list during the spring, more questions arose. For example, why let the critics have all the fun? Shouldn’t we get our readers involved too? And so we did, launching a series of five readers’ polls—one per decade—that ran for approximately a month each on Nearly 50,000 votes later, the results of all those polls are in too (ranked by number of votes cast per album), and it’s fascinating to compare your list with ours. Perhaps not surprisingly, the farther back we go, the closer we get to unity; for the ’70s, seven out of 10 picks are identical in both lists, and the other three titles in the readers’ list are all in our top 20. But as we enter the ’80s, opinions start to diverge, though there are still some common points of agreement going forward, the excellence of Wayne Shorter being the biggest.


You can (and almost certainly will) argue about what’s here and what’s not; that’s what articles like this are all about. But one thing’s for sure: You can’t go wrong listening to any of these 50 albums. And listening to all of them, or even a small sampling of each … well, there could be few better ways to commemorate JazzTimes’ golden anniversary. Apart from throwing the kind of big party we’re all hoping to have again, one of these years.

Here are our critics’ picks for the top 10 jazz albums of the 1990s. For the 1970s, go here; for the 1980s, go here; for the 2000s, go here; for the 2010s, go here. —Mac Randall

John Zorn: Naked City (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990)

John Zorn: <i>Naked City</i> (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1990)

This quintet gave saxophonist/composer Zorn the perfect outlet for his expansive musical mind, with moods changing shape faster than you can say “Carl Stalling.” Messrs. Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz, Joey Baron, and Fred Frith—plus vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, doing his best to channel the Tasmanian Devil—light up Zorn’s originals, which often change shape every couple measures; they also bring gravity to Morricone and Mancini and funk to Ornette’s “Lonely Woman.” Elsewhere, eight noisy punk-inspired “hardcore miniatures” (which almost total three minutes in length) precede a gentle rendition of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Chinatown.” That’s contrast. MIKE SHANLEY

Learn more about Naked City on Amazon.

Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 2010s: Critics' Picks  Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 2000s: Critics' Picks  Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 1980s: Critics' Piclks 10 Best Jazz Albums of the 1970s: Critics' Picks

Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 2010s: Readers' Choice  Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 2000s  The Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 1990s: Readers' Choice Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 1980s: Readers' Choice Top 10 Jazz Albums of the 1970s: Readers' Choice

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