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Best 90s Musicians: 20 Artists Who Ruled The Decade
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List & Guides

Best 90s Musicians: 20 Artists Who Ruled The Decade

From grunge agitators to Britpop barnstormers, the best 90s musicians helped define the era by adding colour to the close of the millennium.

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Whether you were into angst-ridden rockers, edgy hip-hop bangers or quirky pop distractions, the 90s gave rise to a whole new breed of superstar. In the afterglow of the alt-rock boom, guitar music received a new lease of life; meanwhile, a new school of rap icons expanded the commercial appeal of hip-hop, dance music flowered and female songwriters also found their voice. To understand what made the era so special, here is our list of the best 90s musicians – 20 great artists who did their part to make it a decade worth remembering.

Listen to the best of the 90s here, and check out our best 90s musicians, below.

20: The Corrs

Irish band The Corrs were one of the most surprising success stories of the 90s, winning listeners over with their knack for pop melodies and wistful Celtic influences. With tin whistle and violins at the ready, their debut single, Runaway, not only reached No.2 upon its re-release in the UK in 1999, but it also became a modest hit in the US. The band’s second album, 1997’s Talk On Corners, saw The Corrs hit their stride with a joyous fusion of Irish folk and pop-rock which has so far sold a remarkable 2.9 million copies worldwide. Led by siblings Andrea, Caroline, Jim and Sharon, The Corrs are easily one of the most successful bands to hail from Ireland, so they deserve to be considered among the best 90s musicians, too.

Must hear: Runaway

19: Seal

British soul sensation Seal landed on the shores of a new decade with his self-titled debut album in 1991, after dive-bombing the pop scene with his timely Top 5 hit Crazy, a song he said was inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the massacre in Tiananmen Square. His guest spot on Adamski’s UK chart-topping Killer had already helped that track became a bona fide house anthem, and Seal took his success overseas in 1994 with the gargantuan-selling Kiss From A Rose, which went to No.1 in the US following its inclusion in the Batman Forever soundtrack. If that doesn’t earn him superhero status, nothing will.

Must hear: Kiss From A Rose

18: Alanis Morissette

Itching for generation-defining angst and in need of a prescription? You can’t go wrong with Alanis Morissette’s 1996 album, Jagged Little Pill. Selling in excess of 33 million copies worldwide, the Canadian singer’s radio-friendly take on post-grunge pop was truly inescapable, instantly making her one of the best 90s female singers[Link to piece when live] in the process. Despite her enormous success, Alanis was always aiming for rock credibility – she even enlisted Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and the band’s one-time guitarist Dave Navarro (of Jane’s Addiction fame) to play on You Oughta Know. Her UK No.1 single Ironic was a fiercely catchy cure-all for cynics who felt rock was no longer commercially viable, easily earning the singer her place among the best 90s musicians.

Must hear: Ironic

17: Wu-Tang Clan

Nobody embodies the raw spirit of underground hip-hop better than Wu-Tang Clan. The Staten Island hardcore-rap group pioneered a cinematic production style with their 1994 debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), while deploying viscerally powerful, no-hold-barred rhymes borne out of the streets. The Wu’s roll-call of MCs is nothing short of astonishing – Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Masta Killa, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA, Raekwon – all of whom would quickly attain iconic status by the decade’s end. Inspired by kung-fu movies, the collective kicked the door down for countless hip-hop artists who could only dream of emulating their poetic mastery of the mic.

Must hear: C.R.E.A.M.

16: Tori Amos

Attracting a fiercely loyal fanbase, Tori Amos established herself as one of the best 90s musicians thanks to her knack for crafting leftfield piano-based rock that carried her cryptic lyricism. Often compared to Kate Bush, Amos spent much of the 90s establishing herself as an accomplished singer-songwriter in her own right, even scoring a 1996 club classic courtesy of a dance remix from Boston-based DJ Armand Van Helden (Professional Widow (It’s Got To Be Big)). For many, however, her signature song remains Cornflake Girl, a clever pop cut that peaked at UK No.4 in 1994 while sneaking themes of female betrayal into the mainstream. Few artists that deserve critical reappraisal as much as Tori.

Must hear: Cornflake Girl

15: The Prodigy

Injecting punk attitude into the dance scene, The Prodigy went from rave rebels to electro-rock royalty. The rabble-rousing trio of Liam Howlett, Maxim and the late Keith Flint were unafraid of breaking the rules, starting with their debut album, 1991’s Experience. Early hits came with Charly – a toytown techno track that sampled a government information film – and the reggae-rave mash-up Out Of Space, and the trio broke new ground with 1994’s Music For The Jilted Generation and 1997’s The Fat Of The Land, a pioneering smorgasbord of big-beat bangers that helped make dance music the new rock’n’roll. Their UK No.1 singles, Firestarter and Breathe, have dated remarkably well, proving just how much influence The Prodigy had on subsequent purveyors of electronica.

Must hear: Firestarter

14: The Notorious B.I.G.

One of the most distinctive voices in 90s hip-hop, gangsta-rap firebrand The Notorious B.I.G. truly changed the game. Hustling his way from Brooklyn into a recording studio with producer Puff Daddy, the best Notorious B.I.G. songs songs showcased the MC’s talent as a bravura raconteur and incisive street poet, with a floor-shaking voice built for breaking boomboxes. His debut album, 1994’s Ready To Die, spawned the hip-hop classics Juicy and Big Poppa, proving the vitality of rap music and placing Biggie shoulder-to-shoulder with the best 90s musicians. Killed in a drive-by shooting in 1997, he went on to achieve a posthumous US No.1 with Mo Money Mo Problems while his second album, Ready To Die, suggested he was only beginning to reach his true potential. A tragic loss.

Must hear: Juicy

13: Pearl Jam

As one of Nirvana’s biggest rivals, Pearl Jam were one of the best-selling bands of the 90s’ alt-rock scene. Fronted by gravel-toned singer Eddie Vedder, their 1991 debut album, Ten, brought a touch of classic rock to the sonic palette of grunge, as heard on seminal hits such as the anthemic singalong Alive and the swaggering groove of Even Flow. Having sold more than 13 million copies in the US, it remains – along with Nirvana’s Nevermind – a modern rock classic. However, Pearl Jam weren’t finished there – they collaborated with Neil Young, reasserted their punk rock roots with 1994’s Vitalogy, and went on to diversify their sound with world-music influences as the decade progressed. Ever-evolving yet always formidable, Pearl Jam are the quintessential 90s band.

Must hear: Alive

12: Smashing Pumpkins

Also jostling for space among the best 90s musicians, the Billy Corgan-led Smashing Pumpkins became one of grunge’s leading lights, selling up to 30 million albums worldwide. Their breakthrough came in 1993 with their second album, Siamese Dream, a dreamy alt-rock masterpiece created while Corgan suffered a bout of writer’s block – not that you’d know it; the supremely melodic Today still stands the test of time as a pensive portrayal of disaffected youth. The group followed it in 1995 with an ambitious double-album, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, a concept record that explored the dichotomy of joy and sorrow. From messianic braggadocio (Bullet With Butterfly Wings) to nostalgia-laced art-rock (1979), Smashing Pumpkins rode the alt-rock tidal wave and emerged from it triumphantly.

Must hear: Today

11: Weezer

Increasingly popular with zoomers, Weezer’s current reappraisal has placed them among the best 90s musicians – and for good reason. Straddling the line between power-pop and alt-rock, the Los Angeles-based outfit stood out due to their geeky sensibilities and tongue-in-cheek, proto-emo songwriting. The lackadaisical Undone – The Sweater Song, the delightfully hooky Buddy Holly and the wonky tempo of Say It Ain’t So swept grunge anguish aside, helping to make their self-titled 1994 debut album (aka “The Blue Album”) an untouchable classic. While its follow-up, Pinkerton, failed to connect with critics at the time, many now consider it to be a cult classic often cited by emo bands drawn to frontman Rivers Cuomo’s oddball expressions of emotional tumult.

Must hear: Say It Ain’t So

10: PJ Harvey

British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey is far and away one of the most influential rock goddesses of the 90s. Extremely poetic and drawn to the darker aspects of the female experience, her 1992 debut album, Dry, was a rowdy, cathartic blues-rock scream which mocked sexist attitudes with the grungy Sheela-Na-Gig (“Look at these, my child-bearing hips”). It’s follow-up, Rid Of Me, was a deliriously twisted howl of punk-inspired rage which endeared itself to grunge fans thanks to the input of Nirvana producer Steve Albini. Growing more eclectic with each release, Harvey’s songwriting broadened on the 1995 album To Bring Your Love as she drew inspiration from long-lost folk songs (Down By The River) and Biblical sources (Send His Love To Me). A true inspiration.

Must hear: Sheela-Na-Gig

9: Green Day

Arguably the finest of all the pop-punk bands, Green Day exploded onto the alt-rock scene with 1994’s Dookie, a classic album that was youthful, energetic and era-defining, and which placed them among the best 90s musicians. The idea of punk going mainstream may not sit easily with some, but Green Day’s mix of lyrical juvenilia and Buzzcocks-esque vigour was undeniably popular. Hitting No.7 in the UK with Basket Case, the band got the sk8er bois kick-flipping, and their follow-up albums – 1995’s Insomniac and 1997’s Nimrod – saw them introduce a scrappy, 60s-inspired melodicism to their sound. Green Day’s acoustic break-up ballad, Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life), was even featured on the season finale to the US sitcom Seinfeld in 1999. It doesn’t get more 90s than that.

Must hear: Basket Case

8: Rage Against The Machine

It would be a crime not to include rap-metal pioneers Rage Against The Machine in a list of the best 90s musicians. With riffs as funky as Freddie Stone’s and as floor-shaking as Jimmy Page’s, guitarist Tom Morello fused the sonic power of metal with Zack De La Rocha’s polemical, hip-hop-inspired lyrics. Attracting controversy as well as headbangers, the group’s first two albums, Rage Against The Machine and Evil Empire, reignited in music a social awareness and political philosophy as brazenly as The Clash once did. Decrying everything from police brutality (Killing In The Name) to US imperialism (Bulls On Parade), the band also earned a reputation as a dynamite live act, helping lay the seeds for nu metal in the latter part of the decade.

Must hear: Killing In The Name

6: Björk

Arguably the most unique musician – male of female – of the 90s, Icelandic queen Björk’s jazzy vocals and unorthodox musical stylings defied comparison and always left critics guessing what she would do next. Her breakthrough album, Debut, flaunted her free-spirited originality with UK Top 40 hits such as the bouncy Human Behaviour, the ambient-flavoured Venus As A Boy and the dance-pop vivacity of Big Time Sensuality. She ventured further into electronica-infused art-pop on her next two albums – 1995’s Post and 1997’s Homogenic – dabbling in everything from swing jazz (It’s Oh So Quiet) to trip-hop (Bachelorette) and quasi-mystical synth-pop (Hyperballad). The fact that Björk was able to sustain a run of chart-topping albums speaks to the infectious nature of her her fearless commitment to experimentalism, reminding us how game-changing true musical innovation can be.

Must hear: Human Behaviour

5: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Bringing funk-rock to the masses, Red Hot Chili Peppers were a breath of fresh air in 1991 when they first appeared on MTV, performing their herky-jerky rocker Give It Away. The insanely tight combination of singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist John Frusciante, bassist Flea and drummer Chad Smith yielded a timeless classic with Under The Bridge, which reached No.2 in the US. After leaving the band for a number of years following the success of their debut album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, guitarist John Frusciante rejoined the Chilis for 1999’s Californication, his inimitable melodic riffs helping to re-establish the band’s commercial fortunes with singles such as Scar Tissue and Otherside. Selling 15 million copies worldwide to date, the success of that album ensured Red Hot Chili Peppers confidently finished the decade as one of the best 90s musicians.

Must hear: Give It Away

4: Radiohead

The musical journey that singer Thom Yorke, guitarists Jonny Greenwood and Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Philip Selway took throughout the 90s was fascinating to behold. Radiohead’s breakout UK No.7 single, Creep, was quickly considered to be a grunge-influenced albatross, prompting the band to surpass it with 1995’s The Bends and their prescient masterpiece, 1997’s OK Computer. With cryptic lyrics musing on anti-consumerism and dismay at technological superficiality (Fake Plastic Trees, Paranoid Android) while riding blasts of Greenwood’s spidery guitar riffs (Just, Electioneering), Radiohead summed up the sombre mood of the decade better than any other group. They would go on to surprise fans even more in the 2000s.

Must hear: Paranoid Android

3: R.E.M.

R.E.M. spent the majority of the 80s on the college-rock circuit en route to becoming revered as indie darlings. After signing to a major label, however, the band wasted no time in establishing themselves as one of the best 90s musicians with their 1991 album, Out Of Time, a lush and bittersweet amble through the mind of Michael Stipe. The record’s lead single, Losing My Religion, went to No.1 in the US thanks to guitarist Peter Buck’s melancholic mandolin, and was largely responsible for Out Of Time selling 18 million copies worldwide. But it was R.E.M.’s 1992 follow-up, Automatic For The People, that secured their transformation from cult heroes to mainstream rock gods. From the Andy Kaufman tribute Man On The Moon to the heart-aching beauty of Everybody Hurts, the album held up an existential mirror to society and cemented R.E.M.’s status as one of the greatest bands of the decade.

Must hear: Losing My Religion

2: Nirvana

The band that took grunge into the mainstream, Nirvana were a true force of nature who coaxed underground rock musicians out of the shadows and spearheaded a changing of the guard. Imbued with frontman Kurt Cobain’s dark lyricism, Kurt Novoselic’s gut-busting bass-playing and Dave Grohl’s powerhouse drumming, historic singles such as Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are and In Bloom set the tone for the decade, while the classic albums Nevermind (1991) and In Utero (1993) reflected the conscience of Generation X like no other band. Cobain’s suicide cut their time tragically short, but Nirvana continue to be regarded not only among the best 90s musicians, but among the most iconic alt-rock acts of all time.

Must hear: Smells Like Teen Spirit

1: Oasis

With the passing of time, it’s become clear that the awe-inspiring success of Britpop legends Oasis defined the 90s more than any other band. There’s no denying their albums Definitely Maybe and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? were watershed moments in British rock that gave Beatles melodies a raucous Sex Pistols-style makeover (Live Forever, Some Might Say) as well as handing footie fans something other than hijacked pop songs to chant (Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back In Anger). Though Noel Gallagher’s elemental songwriting and his exemplary guitar solos fuelled the band’s success, it was Liam Gallagher’s distinctive nasal whine, no-nonsense stage presence and cocksure swagger that put the group way ahead of the pack. When Liam embarked on his solo career in 2017, the outpouring of adoration he met at his arena tours proved just how influential Oasis have been on subsequent generations of working-class kids inspiring millions with their anthemic songs of hope and optimism. Easily topping our list of the best 90s musicians, Oasis lived up to the musical legacy of bands like The Jam and The Smiths, and achieved unprecedented levels of commercial success, making them the last great British rock band in the process.

Must hear: Some Might Say

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