The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Slint – Spiderland (1991) (Touch And Go)

In the stakes of the most disproportionately influential albums ever recorded, the second and final album by the short-lived Slint has a reputation that completely towers over its minuscule sales figures. Spiderland completely changed the rules of the game for American alternative rock in the 1990s, affecting an admittedly smaller but no less significant cultural earthquake to Nevermind as the guitar scene played out over the next 10-15 years. But where Nirvana’s unit-shifter was an overnight revolution, Spiderland was an underground, word-of-mouth hit aided by the internet several years later. Slint split so suddenly after its release that the almost total lack of available information gave it a sense of mystery. All listeners had was the music, a rare interview or two, and a few rumours – not least the one about all four members of the group being admitted to psychiatric hospitals during recording, something underscored by that bare and inexplicably haunting artwork. How on earth could such young souls come up with something as weighty, haunted and sinister as Spiderland, fans speculated – and, perhaps more importantly, what did unleashing it into the world do to them?

Spiderland practically invented the genre we now know as post-rock, deconstructing and reimagining rock music along cerebral, geometric lines and without the saviour complex or the machismo commonly associated with guitars and rock stardom. There’s an urgent, almost traumatic feeling of anxiety blanking the record’s six tracks that creates its airless, suffocating atmosphere. The blood-chilling, witching hour ambience is quite unlike anything before or since, with drummer Britt Walford’s unnerving, predatory rhythms of the songs juxtaposed with spine-tingling guitar plucking, and highly unusual sequences of notes. The quiet/loud dynamic is used strategically to create space, where the absence of music is just as scary as its presence – calm, yet volatile and primed to explode at any moment into volcanic, nerve-shredding frequencies. Brian McMahan’s lack of confidence as a singer paradoxically also reinforces this, as he alternates between murmuring, so quietly that it often feels as if he’s spilling his innermost fears to you alone, and cathartic, lung-busting screaming, heightens the deeply intimate sense of drama, particularly on the bookend tracks ‘Breadcrumb Trail’ and ‘Good Morning, Captain’. Spiderland was a unique and unprecedented achievement at the time, and is as mysterious and impenetrable today as it was then. (LISTEN)

  1. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) (Loud / RCA)

The binary East vs West Coast model of thinking about hip-hop in the Nineties ignores not only overlooks the burgeoning Southern rap scene personified by OutKast, but it also doesn’t build in outliers like Wu-Tang Clan, who are a kind of extended cinematic universe of rap as well as being a band because of the myriad galaxy of compelling solo albums their members spawned – check out Raekwon and GZA in this list (#185 and #87 respectively) for only the very best of them. Appropriate, then, that the very best hip-hop album of the 1990s should come from this unique and supremely odd New York collective. Standing separately from Public Enemy’s siren-like blasts and Dre and Snoop’s G-funk/gangster rap axis, Enter The Wu-Tang had an enduring, street-level nuts-and-bolts purity as the foundations for their explicit, free-associative lyrics. As such, it had a tremendous influence in the resurgence of the East Coast scene, though they themselves would probably not have conceived of that when they were making it.

Produced entirely by Wu-Tang’s de facto leader RZA, the album utilises gritty, concrete-hard beats and achieves a ghostly atmosphere through snatched soul samples and martial-arts movie clips. Clipped, single-note chunks of piano and bass characterised prime cuts like ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ and ‘Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’’ refracted the traditional male braggadocio of existing hip-hop through an entirely different lens, away from the guns, drugs and bitches into something a lot more existential and philosophical while still feeling like an escape hatch from reality. Every single member of the ten-strong Clan has their starring moment, even the production personnel. Despite its raw and uncompromising underground sound and a consequent lack of radio airplay, Enter The Wu-Tang was a significant slow-burning success on the Billboard charts. As well as making them stars, the album itself has served as a template for hardcore hip-hop ever since. (LISTEN)

  1. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991) (DGC)

So much has been written elsewhere, including on this site, about Nevermind and its seismic and possibly unrepeatable impact on the music industry that it’s foolish to try to condense it into two paragraphs. But we’ll try anyway! In short, led by its era-defining lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nevermind dragged alternative rock as a whole into the commercial mainstream, one of the last epochal shifts in popular culture. Unquestionably, it is the most influential and significant record of the Nineties. But while it popularised ‘grunge’ in the short term, Kurt Cobain’s songs actually bore little resemblance to the slew of plaid-clad Gen-X bands emerging from Seattle in their wake. Cobain’s distinctive throat-shredding singing was nevertheless sturdy and melodious; the music, despite being ferociously loud, powerful and ideologically indebted to ‘80s college rock groups, was also innately pop-orientated in a manner harking back to The Beatles; while fuzzy and distorted, Nevermind was given a hard-edged, FM-friendly sheen by Butch Vig.

Tracks like ‘In Bloom’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘On A Plain’ were irresistibly catchy and not at all similar to the sludgy production that pock-marked so many of the bands that followed them, although the mania of ‘Territorial Pissings’ and ‘Breed’ are obvious markers for grunge. Part of Nirvana’s lasting appeal seemed to do what Pitchfork described as “dream-sums” of bands past to make a new and accessible compound for subsequent generations. Buzzcocks meeting Sonic Youth, R.E.M. plus Melvins, or Pixies multiplied by Zeppelin… in this way, Nevermind is a rite of passage for each successive slew of teenagers and a great gateway album to dozens of forgotten influences that Nirvana’s success brought to light. However, Nevermind was not purely about brute force, and Kurt Cobain’s legendary status was sealed because he could also write songs of genuine depth and grace, in particular the sublime acoustic cuts ‘Polly’ and ‘Something In The Way’ that concluded each side. His deceptively simple, hard-hitting couplets are teasing and deeply unsettling throughout. We could go on forever but for space, but Nevermind’s classic status is entirely obvious, and the occasional naysayers who argue otherwise are simply wrong. (LISTEN)

  1. R.E.M. – Automatic For The People (1992) (Warner Bros.)

Having become one of the biggest bands in the world with Out Of Time the previous year (see #36), R.E.M. subverted their folk-rock/mandolin formula and wrong-footed their audience with their next album. From the moody, monochrome Anton Corbijn artwork to the sombre, twilit acoustic guitars of stately opener ‘Drive’, Automatic For The People is a much slower-paced but weightier and more meaningful affair than anything that had come before – and from such a fundamentally humane and conscientious band as R.E.M., that was really saying something. However, despite the bleak change of tone, it was a stunning success, topping charts around the world in addition to the reviewers claiming it as their best ever. Why was this?

Well, quite aside from the fabulous music and variety thereof, the record succeeds because it conflates the personal with the political. It’s full of worry and anxiety about the future (the band had all turned 30, and were dispirited about twelve consecutive years of Republican presidency) but finds comfort and solace in brotherhood (‘Everybody Hurts’), nostalgia (‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’) and skinny dipping (‘Nightswimming’). Stipe’s lyrics were as obtuse as ever on tracks like ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’, but a lyric like ‘Everybody Hurts’ is universally popular and still moving, despite denizens of crappy charity covers, because of its profound directness. The final three tracks constitute arguably the finest closing trio of any album in history: the endless horizons of Andy Kaufman tribute ‘Man On The Moon’, the sombre yet uplifting ‘Nightswimming’ and the reflective ‘Find The River’ that leave the listener moved to stunned silence. Automatic For The People will comfort you in your hour of need, a reliable friend to absorb or reflect your fears and anxieties, an immortal message of hope. That is why it is R.E.M.’s greatest. (LISTEN)

  1. Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991) (Wild Bunch / Virgin)

It simply doesn’t bear thinking about how much poorer British pop music in general would be today if Blue Lines had never existed. Massive Attack’s debut album did so much to broaden the horizons of the then-fledgling British urban music scene that many subsequent classic albums cannot be explained without it. With the core trio of 3D, Mushroom and Daddy G supported by a guest-cast of fellow Wild Bunch members like Tricky and vocalists like Horace Andy and Shara Nelson, the collective appropriated the sampling and production culture of American hip-hop and turned it to service their own ends, filtering it through the aesthetics of the British underground scene, mixing those features with elements of dub, soul and reggae. Additionally, live instruments were introduced into the recording process to ensure that the songs retained a human touch. The result was a widescreen yet introspective and intimate modern take on the history of black music, yet avoiding all cliché.

In the context of an era where so much dance music was ephemeral and held fleeting value as novelty, Blue Lines resonated and lingered in the popular consciousness to the extent that it’s never really been out of fashion since. Drastically slowing the bpm to what Simon Reynolds described as “spliff tempos” gave it a timeless, meditational atmosphere reminiscent of the soul and R&B golden age of the 1970s, yet allowed it to sound fresh and original more than twenty years later. The haunting ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, for some the greatest single of the ‘90s, and the exceptional opener ‘Safe From Harm’, an admission of vulnerability blown up to universal proportions, both send shivers down the spine even now. Tricky’s meditative, introverted rapping on ‘Five Man Army’ and Horace Andy’s graceful vocals on the smouldering ‘One Love’ are just the greatest showcases of individual skill on an album that simply has no weak spot. The overarching vision of Blue Lines has made it one of the most enduring albums of the last three decades. (LISTEN)

  1. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994) (Columbia)

Coming of age with the most perfectly formed debut of the decade, Jeff Buckley’s sole completed studio album Grace proved that, despite the early Nineties rock scene being dominated by the sludgy noise grunge and plaid shirts post-Nevermind, angst could also be defined by and expressed through sensitivity and bright, angelic melodies. Grace was ten tracks of intense vulnerability, about the depths of love and loss and how helpless mankind can be in times of trouble. But although the songs are sad and written by a deeply unsure narrator (“I love you / but I’m afraid to love you” just one example from ‘So Real’), they’re executed with a magnificent sense of confidence, because at the centre of it all was Buckley’s extraordinary, almost recklessly expressive voice, soaring and swooping over his chiming guitar figures. From ‘Mojo Pin’, a transfigurative meeting of impressionist classic musical with the booming rock of Zeppelin, to the unresolved ‘Dream Brother’, these were compositions to move even the stoniest of hearts.

On top of these quite stunning originals, Buckley also proved himself to be a skilled and highly original interpreter of other people’s work. His covers of the 1950s musical number ‘Lilac Wine’, Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’ and, most (in)famously, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ are transcendental and utterly definitive, and you’re left questioning who actually wrote them first. While recording its successor, Buckley tragically drowned in the Mississippi at the age of 30 in 1997. His legacy may be small in size, but it’s incredibly impactful, and the clutch of extraordinary live albums that date from this time are brilliant companion pieces to Grace, an enigmatic masterpiece to which modern rock songwriting is forever indebted. (LISTEN)

  1. Spiritualized – Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space (1997) (Dedicated)

Comparing the drug-taking experience to religious epiphany, Jason Pierce’s typical songwriting conceit has basically remained unchanged over his 30-year career dating back to his Spacemen 3 days, summarised by the credo “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”. But the third Spiritualized album is way, way beyond that. Too intelligent and empathetic to be called merely hedonistic despite its copious drug references, too disciplined to be called psychedelic despite its lengthy, winding musical passages and complex musical architecture, the scope of Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is simply enormous, covering traditional blues-based rock’n’roll, noise rock, drone rock, gospel and orchestral instrumentation. Elegiac euphoria (‘Stay With Me’, ‘Broken Heart’, ‘Cool Waves’) hits the listener in waves, interweaved with bursts of punk force (‘Electricity’, ‘Come Together’) and white noise (‘No God Only Religion’), ending with the mesmerising 17-minute voodoo-blues trance of ‘Cop Shoot Cop…’.

But although Ladies And Gentlemen… is inextricably linked with Pierce’s personal heartbreak, his girlfriend and Spiritualized’s keyboard player marrying The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft in secret during the album’s recording, the record’s themes are universal and cosmic in scale. Pierce’s mission to explore the outer limits of rock’n’roll and actually break on through to the other side – to take its transcendental elements to their logical extreme and use it as a vehicle to probe the heavens, trying to understand the nature of existence – has never been articulated as well before or since. Even the brilliantly innovative packaging, with the disc contained in a pharmaceutical blister-pack like a course of medicine, and with the liner notes taking the form of dosage instructions (Q. “What is Spiritualized used for?” A. “Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul.”) was a physical manifestation of the music within. A symbiotic marriage of beauty and heartbreak, Ladies And Gentlemen… is one of the CD era’s finest achievements, a 70-minute exploration of what rock’n’roll can sound like and the subjects it can address. (LISTEN)

  1. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991) (Creation)

It seemed to take forever for Primal Scream to deliver Screamadelica once the anticipation was stoked with the indie-meets-house smash hit ‘Loaded’ in early 1990, but 18 months of painstaking work paid off with the cross-genre masterpiece of the Nineties. Sure, the Roses and the Mondays had re-purposed the hedonism of ecstasy for their own ends, but Bobby Gillespie’s gang and a host of cutting-edge producers took the principles to hitherto unimaginable places. This dance-rock hybridisation was groundbreaking enough, but there was a second meeting of diametrically-opposed minds going on in the album, between Gillespie’s reverent, fanboy rock stardom and producer Andrew Weatherall’s love of celebratory club music, and these energies constantly playing off one other lends Screamadelica its long-lasting appeal.

The sensory overload of dub, rock and gospel of the 10-minute centrepiece ‘Come Together’ is the essence of Screamadelica, but the hedonistic house pianos and diva backing vocals of ‘Don’t Fight It, Feel It’ and the aforementioned ‘Loaded’ were also triumphant creations. But even when Weatherall isn’t there, the original, ‘record collection rock’ iteration of the Scream remained with the rousing, surging gospel of opener ‘Movin’ On Up’ and the aching ‘Damaged’, both the production work of Stones collaborator Jimmy Miller. The shimmering ‘Inner Flight’ and closer ‘Shine Like Stars’ were the work of Hugo Nicolson, who seemed to forge yet another version of the band – not dance, but certainly not rock either. The druggy ‘Higher Than The Sun’ features The Orb’s throbbing, spacious production and Bobby Gillespie’s pure-stoned vocal leading the listener through shapeshifting vistas of dubtronic grooves, washes of hazy synths and cavernous drum breaks.

Selling half a million copies and winning the inaugural Mercury Music Prize the following year, Screamdelica immediately rendered the arbitrary divisions between genres obsolete, with shy floppy-haired indie kids meeting hardened, hedonistic club fans on the dancefloor and making any kind of tribalism powerfully uncool. It’s certainly a druggy record, but you don’t need drugs to enjoy it. It’s also one of the very few dance records that isn’t tied to its era, its timelessness cemented by how it doubled back on rock history, rearranging the past so it pointed to the future, arguably the most far-reaching and fearless piece of musical exploration in pop’s vast canon. (LISTEN)

  1. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991) (Creation)

There aren’t very many records that are always described with religious terminology by its devotees, but My Bloody Valentine’s astonishing Loveless is certainly one of them. Its stunning and unique sonic beauty is the primary reason, but also because that it arguably marks the last time that guitar music sounded truly revolutionary and forward-thinking. That goes for the year of 1991 as well, with groundbreaking guitar records by Slint and Nirvana also in this Top Ten. But there was also the context of its existence that added to Loveless’ mythology. By all accounts, financing its progress and indulging Kevin Shields’ meticulous perfectionism, taking 32 months of work from February 1989 to October 1991 in 19 different studios, brought Creation Records dangerously close to bankruptcy. Oasis, and therefore Britpop, might never have happened…

But the microscopic attention to detail that could have seen Shields lose his mind entirely, like Brian Wilson as he attempted to satisfactorily commit to tape the sounds he heard in his head in 1966, at long last yielded a suite of songs of breathtaking majesty which left all who heard it wondering just how he had done it. Harnessing sonic innovation to the engines of melody, harmony and rhythm, creating an entire musical universe that the listener can completely lose themselves in, Shields completely re-marked the pitch for guitar music in the Nineties. The shoegaze cliché of ‘sonic cathedral’ was basically invented for Loveless: layer upon gorgeous layer of disorientating, reverberating guitar expand to fill every available space, and through the shimmering, throbbing music appears Bilinda Butcher’s impossibly ethereal and almost completely unintelligible wordless vocals. In hazy, warm epics like ‘Only Shallow’ and ‘To Here Knows When’, sensuality and sexuality are intimated rather than expressly stated, and this heightens the thrill as you want to turn the volume up and up until it consumes and sublimates everything else around it. Astonishing closer ‘Soon’ features the most defined beat, mixing a warm flute loop with flaming jets of loud guitar.

MBV’s 1988 debut, Isn’t Anything, had left critics wowed and earned the band a feverish fanbase, but Loveless made it seem like a mere blueprint, a technical spec for a building that then took another three years to complete. It sounded like absolutely nothing else on this earth, and no other guitar act since has been able to match it. As an overall compound of noise, feeling, objective beauty and musical innovation, Loveless has been in a league of its own for over a quarter of a century. (LISTEN)

  1. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997) (Parlophone)

A masterpiece of anxiety and pre-Y2K dread and tension, Thom Yorke’s lyrical content on Radiohead’s third album OK Computer now seems like premonitions of life how it came to be lived in the West in the 21st century: a near-future of vacuous consumerism, social atomisation and democracy manipulated by hidden special interests and aided by technological dependency and mass entertainment, which has become more uncannily and eerily accurate as time passes. Yorke’s ability to detect these creeping trends in contemporary society, let alone express them in such a humanistic and sympathetic tone without ever coming across as earnest or hectoring, spoke to a ferocious and sensitive intellect behind the compositional skill.

But musically, along with other records like Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space and Urban Hymns, OK Computer also re-energised British guitar music with fresh, innovative purpose as the tired, conservative paradigm of Britpop sputtered out in 1997. The multi-segmented fever dream of lead single ‘Paranoid Android’ was simply so much more ambitious than anything else out there, and its parent album was full of similarly breathtaking musical edifices. The creeping dread of ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’, the lullaby to a world gone wrong in ‘No Surprises’, the blood-chilling spoken-word interlude ‘Fitter Happier’… every single track was worthy of dissection and analysis in its own right and was a crucial part of an incredible whole, without falling into the traps of the ‘concept album’. OK Computer is a conceptual album, but isn’t about any one theme, simply describing what it is to actually be in a late-capitalist Western society.

READ MORE: A track-by-track guide to OK Computer

There have been endless words published online and in print about OK Computer, particularly upon its 20th anniversary in 2017, to the point that many (sometimes understandably) wish that everybody would stop going on about Radiohead. But there’s an objective reason why people do, and why OK Computer is almost always at the top of these kinds of lists – because people react strongly to great art. Whether you reject it or embrace it, albums like OK Computer provoke a response one way or the other. As the world continues in its current direction of cynical demagoguery and terrifying insecurity in 2017, it is hard to see a point at which this album will not be relevant.

But, further than that, the way that the last two decades have played out, with the rise of file-sharing then streaming and playlisting, altering the very manner in which most of us consume popular music, OK Computer has often seemed like it might have been the last of its kind – the grand, album-length art-pop statement that demands to be listened to from beginning to end, a concept dating back to the ‘60s and Sgt. Pepper’s – at the last time in which the lexicon of rock music still truly dominated mainstream music criticism. But while it was the end of an era in some respects, the feeling of post-modern finality that OK Computer represented opened up new firsts for guitar music and popular music in general, with the classics of the ‘00s and beyond taking on a different form. (LISTEN)

Do you agree with our list? Tell us what your favourite album of the 1990s is below!

2 Discussions on
“The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s”
  • Fantastic list! In my eyes, the ’90s was the best decade for music, period. Some other great albums that weren’t on this list:

    Alice In Chains- Dirt
    Sunny Day Real Estate- Diary
    Jimmy Eat World- Clarity
    The Get Up Kids- Something To Write Home About
    Saves The Day- Through Being Cool
    Green Day- Insomniac (I actually prefer this to Dookie)
    Shai Hulud- Hearts Once Nourished With Hope And Compassion
    Earth Crisis- Destroy The Machines
    Blink-182- Enema Of The State
    Lifetime- Jersey’s Best Dancers
    Soundgarden- Superunknown, Badmotorfinger
    Hum- You’d Prefer An Astronaut
    Screaming Trees- Sweet Oblivion
    Love Battery- Dayglo
    All- Breaking Things
    The Dwellers- Whatever Makes You Happy (I swear I’m one of only 10 people who’s heard of this power pop gem)
    Mother Love Bone- Mother Love Bone
    Anal Cunt- It Just Gets Worse
    Talulah Gosh- Was It Just A Dream? (Okay, this one is technically from 2013, but it’s essentially just a deluxe edition of 1996’s Backwash)
    Nirvana- MTV Unplugged In New York

    The fact that you can create a list of 200 great albums and I can list off several more fantastic albums, and the fact that so many different people can have wildly differing opinions on the best ’90s albums proves how great the decade was.

    I love how you had a lot of choices that I haven’t seen on other lists, and I appreciate you ranking Pinkerton so highly, as that is probably my favorite album ever.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.