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Best 90s Albums: 20 Essential Records That Defined The Decade
List & Guides

Best 90s Albums: 20 Essential Records That Defined The Decade

Summing up one of music’s most fondly-remembered eras, the best 90s albums define a puzzling decade that rewrote the rulebook for music.

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The Internet. Blur versus Oasis. Friends. Grunge. When music was still on MTV. The 90s was a turbulent and exciting decade for pop culture. But trying to piece the puzzle together through the best 90s albums is a frustrating task – and one that usually sees the same culprits demanding attention: Radiohead, Lauryn Hill, U2… Narrowing it down to just 20 albums is even harder, but we believe these records sum up one of popular music’s most fondly-remembered eras.

Here, then, are 20 of the best 90s albums.

20: Alanis Morissette: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ (1995)

Jagged Little Pill marked Alanis’ jump from small-time Canadian starlet to international phenomenon. Huge singles, such as the bitter yet empowering You Oughta Know and Ironic (which, ironically, doesn’t involve true examples of the concept) drew plenty of attention to a singer who at the time was just taking her first steps into stardom. Featuring work from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and an abundance of post-grunge production, Alanis’ magnum opus is perhaps the most “90s” album on this list of the best albums of that decade, but that’s not to say it’s merely entry-level; her a cappella performance of Your House is one of the most forthright portrayals of adultery and its impact on confident young women.

Must hear: Ironic

19: Blur: ‘Parklife’ (1994)

Blur’s biggest album isn’t necessarily their strongest, but one thing’s for certain, this is the closest they ever came to rivalling the magnitude of Oasis, creating a record that spoke to millions of British daydreamers. Along with Suede’s Dog Man Star and Pulp’s His ’N’ Hers, Parklife became an essential cog in the Cool Britannia machine, most obviously through monumental songs like Girls & Boys, To The End and the title track. If there’s one thing that summons 90s Britain, it’s the image of Phil Daniels performing his lines for the latter from within his car, driving through the neo-psychedelic streets of an (untypically) sunny England.

Must hear: Girls & Boys

18: The Notorious B.I.G.: ‘Ready To Die’ (1994)

Believe it or not, Ready To Die is the only record released by Biggie during his lifetime. The scourge of gang warfare cut the promising young rapper’s life short, resulting in his eerily aptly titled sophomore album, Life After Death, coming out without its creator around to celebrate it. Nevertheless, the Brooklynite’s debut remains one of the best 90s albums. It is full of prime cuts – and potential – from the rags-to-riches odyssey that is Juicy to the seductive R&B groove of Big Poppa, made possible thanks to the excellent sample of The Isley Brothers’ Between The Sheets (which also saw later action on Gwen Stefani’s Luxurious).

Must hear: Juicy

17: Madonna: ‘Ray Of Light’ (1998)

Like other pop giants (David Bowie, Prince), Madonna goes through phases that pin down her sound and style in different times, be it her provocativeness during the Like A Virgin era or her sexual liberation through alter ego Mistress Dita, around the Erotica album. With Ray Of Light, Madge took a U-turn to focus on spirituality and the positives of various religious practices, from Jewish mysticism to Ashtanga yoga. The album embodies these themes beautifully: the title track, crystal clear and optimistic, pushes the notion of a free spirit, and Sky Fits Heaven fuses electrifying techno with carefully arranged keys to soar with intent.

Must hear: Ray Of Light

16: Daft Punk: ‘Homework’ (1997)

Before the digital era, foreign artists faced an extra challenge. The novelty of non-English performers (and, particularly, European artists) is a double-edged sword – one that can bring fame and fortune, but sometimes at the cost of a largely ignored discography. Thankfully, Daft Punk’s debut album, Homework, is a widely appreciated record and stands as the genesis of the legendary duo’s journey leading up to their finest hour: the jaw-dropping 2006 Coachella performance which saw EDM’s popularity in the US skyrocket. Where countless other artists tried and failed to bring their own experiences to the daunting world of electronica, Daft Punk shaped their own sound entirely, forcing a wave of ravers into the new millennium thanks to their infectious and intoxicating debut.

Must hear: Around The World

15: Wu-Tang Clan: ‘Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’ (1993)

Wu-Tang Clan’s genre-defining debut isn’t only one of the best 90s albums, it’s one of the best albums of any era, in any genre. Painting a brutal picture of life in New York – evident through the uncompromising wordplay and spine-shattering beats on Bring Da Ruckus and Clan In Da Front – the age-old proverb of “too many cooks spoil the broth” does not apply to these streetwise heroes. No, the fatalism of the East Coast did little to hinder the ten-strong group’s artistic vision, as Enter The Wu-Tang is littered with genius, from tranquil tones on C.R.E.A.M. and irresistible rhythms on Protect Ya Neck, to their signature touch: a martial-arts movie fetish, Shaolin Shadowboxin’ Wu-Tang style.

Must hear: Protect Ya Neck

14: Roni Size / Reprazent: ‘New Forms’ (1997)

Electronic group Roni Size / Reprazent are one of Bristol’s finest musical exports, often held in the same regard as their contemporaries Massive Attack and Portishead – also responsible for some of the best 90s albums. The multicultural roots of the city are well-developed in the group’s debut album, touching on dub and Caribbean elements that infiltrated the Bristol scene in the 60s and 70s. Be it the hot-footed groove on Brown Paper Bag or the sun-soaked bass on Heroes, New Forms sits both as a starry-eyed sunset to acid house’s heyday and as a forward-looking opus, optimistic in its desire for the future amalgamations of drum’n’bass, garage and grime.

Must hear: Brown Paper Bag

13: PJ Harvey: ‘Rid Of Me’ (1993)

Painfully honest, unashamed of stigmas and determined in its contorted compositions, Rid Of Me shows off the vulnerable and unabashed side of the seven-time Grammy nominee PJ Harvey. Harvey’s growls of “Lick my legs, I’m on fire”, on the title track, are painted straight from heart to canvas, as are the almost desperate calls of “Rest your head on me/I’ll smooth it nicely” on Rub ’Til It Bleeds. Celebrated for its loud-quiet-loud production, courtesy of Steve Albini, Rid Of Me is an unyielding album adopted by both the feministically inclined and grungers looking for the best use of distortion since Mudhoney.

Must hear: Rid Of Me

12: Rage Against The Machine: ‘Evil Empire’ (1996)

The infamous cover image of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức committing self-immolation on Rage Against The Machine’s debut is one of the 90s’ signature snapshots, but it’s the group’s second release that embodies the band’s fighting spirit and earns its place among the best albums of the 90s. Evil Empire exemplifies Rage Against The Machine at their most dangerous; where the first album provided unbridled angst, the follow-up saw the band centred, clever and suitably pissed off. Peeking behind Mel Ramos’s Crimebuster on the sleeve are eleven tracks of hitherto unseen bounds of rap-rock – be it frontman Zach de la Rocha’s ferocity on Tire Me, his unnerving restraint on Revolver, or Tom Morello’s spine-shattering riffs across Tim Commerford’s gut-busting basslines. That’s not an insult to drummer Brad Wilk: he’s responsible for Rage’s zero-to-100 tendencies in a flash.

Must hear: Revolver

11: Mazzy Star: ‘So Tonight That I Might See’ (1993)

Mazzy Star’s finest moment is Fade Into You, the opener to their 1993 album. A time-stopping track, it finds the ever-elusive Hope Sandoval drawling perfectly over a simple guitar melody, seemingly against the grain of the loud-quiet-loud notions of the time. The best example of their ability to freeze everything in an instant is their performance of the song live at Shoreline Amphitheatre, just a year after release, with a lackadaisical Sandoval appearing a million miles away in the huge venue, yet simultaneously commanding the full attention of thousands. While it’s tough to get past the strength of the opener, there are rewards to be had further on So Tonight That I Might See, namely the shoegaze-esque Bells Ring and the bluesy Wasted, which precedes Into Dust’s gorgeously ethereal and space-like vein.

Must hear: Fade Into You

10: DJ Shadow: ‘Endtroducing…..’ (1996)

In short, Endtroducing… stands among the best 90s albums for the way it made sampling a form of high art. Comprising entirely of hip-hop tracks, instrumentals and voice extracts, DJ Shadow’s debut is meticulously constructed and celebrates the freedoms of plunderphonics. And plunder he did: the American producer wears his heart on his sleeve, not once shying away from the ambitious or the obscene, the latter perhaps best heard on Napalm Brain/Scatter Brain, which features a monologue from 1986 cult “weird Western” film The Aurora Encounter. And yet, there are moments on Endtroducing… that are less bizarre and more outright dexterous, like the uncertain plunges of Changeling or the breathtaking transmissions leading up to Midnight In A Perfect World, the record’s atmospheric apex that proves someone’s love for their record collection is strong enough to conjure total sagacity.

Must hear: Midnight In A Perfect World

9: Portishead: ‘Dummy’ (1994)

Dummy won the 1995 Mercury Prize, despite heavy competition from PJ Harvey, fellow-trip-hop artist Tricky and Oasis’ generation-defining Definitely Maybe. The accolade was much deserved; the Bristol group’s first album is one of the finest trip-hop has to offer, with frontwoman Beth Gibbons dealing with subverted gender roles and emotional fragility over some of the decade’s most off-putting and leftfield instrumentals. Dummy gets a lot of attention for its closer, Glory Box, which is usually seen on “greatest closing tracks of all time” lists. Like Mazzy Star with Fade Into You, Portishead best showcased their magnum opus live, this time on Later… With Jools Holland, in 1994, where a certain Michael Hutchence of INXS keenly watches an ice-cold Gibbons command a man to give her a reason to love him.

Must hear: Glory Box

8: Oasis: ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’ (1995)

The Blur versus Oasis argument was essentially created to sell papers. It worked. The Britpop craze saw many fierce fanatics picking up NME and Melody Maker, desperate for the next interview from the Gallagher brothers or Damon Albarn’s arty pop-rock heroes. But there are two weapons in Oasis’ arsenal that can see the opposition sent home early: the two 1996 Knebworth gigs, held in front of a combined 250,000 people, and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, the album that defined a generation of the hopeless-turned-optimistic thanks to council-estate blokes simply being themselves. Oasis’ second album has it all: Don’t Look Back In Anger, Champagne Supernova, Wonderwall and Some Might Say all show off Noel Gallagher’s exceptional songwriting talents; the rest of the album takes shape around the singles to encapsulate 90s Britain in a nutshell: audacious, happy-go-lucky and so totally mad fer it.

Must hear: Don’t Look Back In Anger

7: Nirvana: ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

Leaving Nevermind out of a best 90s albums list is like omitting Star Wars from the sci-fi canon. Just thinking of the era tends to conjure the infamous album cover of a four-month old Spencer Elden underwater, as well as the unmistakable sound of Smells Like Teen Spirit rallying a legion of dispirited youths. Grunge had its fair share of gargantuan releases – namely Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam’s Ten and Alice In Chains’ Dirt – but Nevermind was the record that made it into every teen’s bedroom, boldly expanding on the Teen Age Riot that Sonic Youth laid bare three years prior. As well as a perfect tracklist including In Bloom, Come As You Are and Lithium, Nevermind features one of three moments in time that wholly represent grunge: the sinister instrumental that first appears at the 45-second mark on the secret final track, Endless, Nameless.

Must hear: Smells Like Teen Spirit

6: Slint: ‘Spiderland’ (1991)

Spiderland: the post-rock obelisk enveloped in mystery. Did the vocalist really check himself into a psychiatric ward after the album’s release? Or was it a car accident blown out of proportion? We will likely never know, but one thing’s for certain: Slint’s final album is unlike anything else, darting across amateurish structures and exploring unclaimed indie-rock territory in the process. Spiderland appears to linger on the frayed ends of sanity for uncomfortably long periods, like the outbursts of the nightmarish carnival depicted on Breadcrumb Trail. It’s one of the best 90s album, alright, but Spiderland exists entirely outside time, genre and categorisation. Be it the agonisingly eerie build-ups on Don, Aman, the perfect balance of inclusion and omission of silence on For Dinner…, or the menacing plods of Good Morning, Captain, Slint know no bounds, and it becomes impossible for even the most cynical to consider this a mere accident.

Must hear: Good Morning, Captain

5: R.E.M.: ‘Automatic For The People’ (1992)

After some of R.E.M.’s most unwavering tracks appeared on Out Of Time (Country Feedback, Losing My Religion, Low), the Athens, Georgia, giants set out to release a proper rock’n’roll record, full of pent-up aggression and distortion. Instead, R.E.M. released Automatic For The People, nearly 50 minutes of battling with intention versus outcome that paradoxically comes to form one of their strongest efforts, earning its place among the best 90s albums. Where restrained opener Drive would typically encourage an album full of The One I Loves and Driver 8s, Automatic For The People brims with the saccharine, and the truth and ultimately satisfies Michael Stipe’s heart rather than his head. The conflict rages only once in each half: The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Ignoreland hold their own in an ocean of Stipe’s repression, only further complemented by the jaw-dropping accompaniments on Nightswimming, Find The River and, of course, Everybody Hurts.

Must hear: Nightswimming

4: Cocteau Twins: ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ (1990)

Some say that Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is that of an angel’s. Well, Heaven Or Las Vegas is the first time she performs primarily in English (all previous releases contained some sort of gibberish/Latin/“angel speak” to fit with Cocteau Twins’ pacifying resonances”. Perhaps this angel’s visions of Las Vegas reminded her of the pearly gates; the serene plains painted on Cherry-Coloured Funk and the title track seem to wash over the intoxicating lights of a city that never sleeps – one that’s permanently stuck in dreamland. But there’s a deeper presence still underneath the optimism of Pitch The Baby and Iceblink Luck – notably themes of death, due to bassist Simon Raymonde’s father passing on – which can ultimately be heard through the music more than the words. Those closing tracks, Road, River And Rail and Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires, orchestrate a darker feeling far more bluntly than any amount of angelic singing could on Fraser’s part.

Must hear: Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires

3: Nas: ‘Illmatic’ (1994)

Nas begins his career in the most unbelievable way. Once the groove-ridden intro (The Genesis) is over, the rapper proclaims, “I don’t know how to start this shit…” and then immediately drops one of the explosive verses in the history of hip-hop: N.Y. State Of Mind is a barbaric portal into the world Nas (and countless young Americans) experienced in New York, the rapper reeling off tales of shootings, gang violence, crack-dealing and altercations with police like they’re as common as a morning coffee. But Nas’ daily routine is kept afloat by nostalgia, like on Memory Lane (Sittin’ In Sa Park), as well as his adoration for the classics; he’s a fan of Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi and aspires to be Tony Montana in Scarface, making him a little less like the mindless maniac Joe Pesci portrays in Goodfellas and more like Al Pacino’s self-aware character in Carlito’s Way. Through its handling of eye-opening themes and Nas’ endlessly creative wordplay, Illmatic remains one of the best 90s albums, coming across as a most authentic release, with bars so good it’s difficult not to rewind to make sure you heard it right.

Must hear: N.Y. State Of Mind

2: Massive Attack: ‘Mezzanine’ (1998)

Mezzanine is probably the only record on this list of best 90s albums that shouldn’t be listened to on vinyl. It’s a seer at the dawn of the digital age – and should be treated as such. There’s a reason Dissolved Girl can be faintly heard at the beginning of The Matrix, and there’s a reason the original CD is neon orange, hidden away in a monochrome cage. Mezzanine is a force to be reckoned with, each individual track clawing from the inside until it sinks hooks, looking for what the listener resonates with most. The nostalgic among us will cling to Teardrop and its end-of-an-era sensations; the surreptitiously-inclined will opt for the harrowing cover of Man Next Door. Arguably the greatest album trip-hop has to offer, Mezzanine has something for everyone, even if they don’t know it yet.

Must hear: Teardrop

1: My Bloody Valentine: ‘Loveless’ (1991)

Alan McGee once said, “People were talking about [Loveless] as if it was Beethoven’s 7th or 8th symphony. No; it’s some guy that can’t finish a record that took three years.” A legend in his own right, McGee helped bring to light some of the UK’s most cherished artists through his label Creation – Oasis, Primal Scream, The Jesus And Mary Chain among them – but in this case he couldn’t be more wrong. Topping our list of the best 90s albums, Loveless is the album The Cure’s Robert Smith wishes he made. It’s a record that reinvented alternative music – and rock music in general – a pillar standing at the beginning of an era that seemingly had no rules. MBV Mastermind Kevin Shields’ highly unorthodox techniques (like shoving a harmonica through an amp and distorting the hell out of it) led to complete wonders: the infectious rhythms on closer Soon, the teary-eyed glimmers of hope on I Only Said, the auditory bombardment on Only Shallow and the spiritual weight of Sometimes (often considered the best shoegaze song of all time, but that’s another list altogether). Loveless is an album shrouded in secrecy, teenage angst and a balance of unavoidable pretentiousness – everything that made shoegaze, and the 90s, so dearly beloved.

Must hear: Sometimes

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