Five absolutely perfect albums from the 1990s

These albums stood out in an otherwise mixed decade.

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STEVE EARLE: EL CORAZON (1997)

In 1988, Steve Earle created one of the greatest country rock albums of all-time – Copperhead Road. The success of that record took a young man who already had serious alcohol and drug issues and very nearly killed him. Amazingly, he continued to put out outstanding albums. When he was finally able to get clean, he put out an album that is almost the equal of Copperhead Road. El Corazon may not have the extraordinary peaks of the 1988 release, but across its 12 songs, it consistently offers perfect songcraft.

The album is bookended by two almost-too-poignant-for words tributes to two of Earle’s musical inspirations. The opener, a sad, beautiful political homage to Woody Guthrie entitled “Christmas in Washington” mentions the great man by name. The final song, “Ft. Worth Bules,” never explicitly names Townes Van Zandt but his imprint is all over it.

In between, there are a couple of bluegrass gems (one with the Del McCoury Band), several heartfelt love songs, and several top-shelf rockers. The harmonica-fueled stomp of “You Know the Rest,’ and the fuzzy blues of “Here I Am” are instant classics. And the titanic, harrowing “Taneytown” is a worthy successor to the anthemic “Copperhead Road.”

When you hear Earle perform in or around the Washington DC area, he typically prefaces “Taneytown” with an apology – saying he just looked at a map and thought the name sounded good. He didn’t realize that he was mispronouncing it, and didn’t bother to learn whether the small Maryland town had the history of racial unrest depicted in the lyrics. Speaking as a lifelong Marylander, all is forgiven.

So you’ve got Indie Rock, Punk Rock, and Country Rock, along with some straight Hip Hop and straight Country. Good tunes. Good decade.

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