1. Travis, The Man Who (1999)
Year-end best-of lists are as much about looking forward to the years ahead as back on the year that was. What from a given year will rank up there with classics past? What albums showed the way for future artists? But history has a way of forgetting the lauded albums that proved to be dead-ends or false starts. For instance, does Travis bandleader Francis Healy keep a dartboard with Chris Martin's picture on it hanging in his den? Until Coldplay breezed across the pop landscape, Travis was doing quite nicely as "the radio-friendly Radiohead," making atmospheric guitar-pop without that arty, angsty edge. The Man Who's monster UK hits "Driftwood," "Writing To Reach You," and "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?" were toe-tapping and dreamy, and though at the time they seemed a little thin, fans of this kind of "big music" didn't have many alternatives. Until a year later, when we were all "Yellow."
2. Jill Scott, Who Is Jill Scott?: Words And Sounds, Vol. 1 (2000)
At the time this album came out, "neo-soul" chanteuses were so thick on the ground that The Village Voice once ran an article called "Who's Not Jill Scott?" But it isn't just the rapid decline of Scott's genre that makes Words And Sounds, Vol. 1 seem quaintly dated now. While relaxed, romantic songs like "Do You Remember" and "A Long Walk" are as enchanting as ever, the spoken-word interludes and pro-sisterhood messages don't ring out as resoundingly anymore. After listening to them once and embracing what they stand for, you can't do much else with them.
3. Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (2000)
Shelby Lynne had already cut several country albums before reinventing herself as a slick Sheryl Crow-style (and Crow-championed) belter with the 2000 album I Am Shelby Lynne, controversially winning a Best New Artist Grammy for her efforts. The album is more about untapped potential than fully developed talent, and the 2001 follow-up Love, Shelby failed to take Lynne any further. (The embarrassments don't end with the god-awful cheesecake cover.) Happily, Lynne has subsequently since carved out a low-key career by coming full circle and releasing some satisfyingly rootsy country albums.
4. Fine Young Cannibals, The Raw & The Cooked (1989)
Like General Public before them, Fine Young Cannibals was a post-2-Tone supergroup, sporting two guys from The English Beat and a guy named Roland Gift from an unknown ska band called The Acrylic Victims. Turns out, Gift was one of the most striking soul singers the '80s produced—and while FYC's debut made no dent in the States, its 1989 follow-up, The Raw & The Cooked, produced two hits, "She Drives Me Crazy" and "Good Thing." It's hard to say why the album didn't have staying power—for cred, it even bears a Buzzcocks cover—other than the fact that Gift's bleating falsetto in the massively overplayed "She Drives Me Crazy" can only be heard about 10 times before brain cells start to die.
5. The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole (1997)
When even Entertainment Weekly was insisting that rock was dead and electronica was the only music that mattered, rock critics began a yearly scramble to find at least one electronica record they could unite behind, typically settling on the one that sounded the most like what they were already used to. In 1997, it was The Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole, a fine album with a guest appearance by Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher and a lead single—"Block Rockin' Beats"—that even the techno-illiterate could understand. Then The White Stripes and The Strokes made rock cool again, and Dig Your Own Hole gathered dust on the CD rack next to Fatboy Slim's You've Come A Long Way, Baby and Basement Jaxx's Remedy. Nothing wrong with any of them; their "sound of the future" had just passed.
6. Hole, Live Through This (1994)
We missed Kurt Cobain. We admired his widow's cockeyed feminism. We felt threatened by the radical femme-punk of the riot-grrrl movement and were looking for a more mainstream alternative. For all of these reasons—plus the fact that it was the mid-'90s and we were still giddy that grunge had finally felled hair-metal on rock radio—the rock-critic establishment profoundly overrated Courtney Love's musical talent, and the set of ugly, shrill, half-assed half-anthems that comprise Live Through This. We will probably make the same mistake again.
7. The Avalanches, Since I Left You (2000)
A crazy-quilt patchwork of samples assembled by an Australian collective with punk roots, Since I Left You amazed and amused listeners with its disregard of style and legal restrictions. The album holds up well, but it now sounds like a question drowned out by its many answers, from mash-up culture to The Go! Team to Girl Talk. A follow-up, after several personnel shifts, is said to be in the works, but it'll have to make a loud, joyous noise to stand out.
8. Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi (1989)
Pedigrees don't get any better than this: Daughter of Don Cherry and former member of The Slits and Rip Rig & Panic (with whom she appeared on The Young Ones as a chubby-cheeked teen), Neneh Cherry had all the makings of a critical darling. And with her solo debut in 1989, Raw Like Sushi, she was: There's no denying the towering sass and craft of the album's hit, "Buffalo Stance," a song that made Salt-N-Pepa sound like Laverne and Shirley. But the rest of the album wasn't as compelling, and after a few health- and industry-related setbacks, Cherry fell from favor. Ironically, "Buffalo Stance" was so ahead of its time that it doesn't even rate the '80s nostalgia treatment.
9. Me'Shell NdegéOcello, Peace Beyond Passion (1996)
The university-trained, deeply analytical NdegéOcello focused her intellect into conceptual-but-catchy pop and R&B on her 1993 debut Plantation Lullabies, but three years later, she took whatever commercial cachet she'd earned and spent it on this clunkily experimental exploration of race, gender, and religion, crammed with lecture-songs like "The Womb," "God Shiva," "Leviticus: Faggot," and "Deuteronomy: Niggerman." The album is undeniably bracing and even brilliant at times, but it's like one of those thick literary novels that sits half-read on a shelf next to well-thumbed Stephen King paperbacks.
10. Living Colour, Time's Up (1990)
Even Vivid, Living Colour's 1988 debut, hasn't worn all that well since its pioneering mix of free jazz, hip-hop, and heavy metal first blew the minds of people apparently unaware of the existence of Bad Brains and Fishbone. ("Cult Of Personality" aside, does anything on Vivid hold up?) But Living Colour really lost the plot with Time's Up, an hour of socially conscious hectoring and bombastic genre fusions that seemed relevant and vital at the time, but now looks about as timeless and world-changing as a Malcolm X baseball cap.
11. Urge Overkill, Saturation (1993)
Saturation proved to be one of those prophetic album titles: By 1993, every mid-sized band in the rock underground had been absorbed by a major, and the industry was starting to puke them all back up. Among the emetics was Urge Overkill—Saturation was its big-label debut, but its thin, slick, arena-ready grunge wasn't tuneful enough to capitalize on the success of a dark-horse hit (the cover of "Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon" from Pulp Fiction) and a tour with Nirvana. At the time, however, the band looked like hot shit—which probably left many critics scrambling to lavish accolades on them. In hindsight, when it comes to irony-studded cock-rock, this is a hell of a lot more satisfying than The Darkness.