The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) (Warner Bros.)

By the turn of the ‘90s, Red Hot Chili Peppers had evolved from an interesting mess to a (reasonably) professional, slick outfit dealing in a mixture of hard rock and funk. The only thing they were missing was a hit, and happily this was something their fifth album had in spades. Hooking up with rock guru Rick Rubin for Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it housed John Frusciante’s heartbreaking guitar line on heroin paean ‘Under The Bridge’ and the rambunctious rap-rock of ‘Give It Away’ which were both enormous radio successes. Underpinned by Chad Smith’s relentless drumming and Flea’s springy bass-playing, BSSM took the Chilis to global fame in a heartbeat. (LISTEN)

  1. TLC – CrazySexyCool (1994) (LaFace / Arista)

Though TLC’s story is ultimately tragic, blighted by financial exploitation, bankruptcy and ultimately death, their second album CrazySexyCool made them fleetingly the most successful act in the world. Marking a maturation from the teenage rebellion of their debut, it was a sophisticated blend of hip-hop beats, funk, deep grooves, propulsive rhythms and radio-friendly production that culminated in the enormous hit ‘Waterfalls’. Spending over two years on the Billboard 200 and selling 11 million copies domestically – making TLC the first and (so far) only girl group to be awarded diamond status by the RIAA – CrazySexyCool is one of the most ubiquitous cultural items from the American 1990s. (LISTEN)

  1. Garbage – Garbage (1995) (Mushroom)

Having more in common with the alternative rock boom in America than the retro leanings of Britpop, Garbage’s self-titled debut was a brilliantly convincing musical synthesis. Combining classic rock and punk moves ranging from The Beach Boys to The Jesus & Mary Chain with flourishes of electronica reminiscent of the gothic majesty of Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode, Garbage was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, spawning five hit singles. Shirley Manson’s compelling rock frontwoman performances, ranging from vengeful to vulnerable in a heartbeat, sealed the deal. (LISTEN)

  1. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works Volume II (1994) (Warp)

Following up one of the greatest cult records of the ‘90s with his first release on the legendary Warp imprint, Richard D. James confounded his audience in a way that would characterise the rest of his prestigious career. A challenging two-and-a-half-hour listen of almost entirely percussion-free ambience across 24 tracks that are represented by pictures rather than actual titles, SAWII is frequently both moving and deeply unsettling in a way that you can’t quite put a finger upon. James claimed to have been inspired by lucid dreaming, and described the album’s sound as like “standing inside a power station on acid”. Just don’t fall asleep listening to it – crazy nightmares await. (LISTEN)

  1. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994) (Nothing / Interscope)

One of those essential musical artefacts that has a place in any reasonably deep record collection, NIN’s brooding Gen-X magnum opus The Downward Spiral catapulted its creator Trent Reznor to huge stardom. Reznor’s lyrics alternated between alienated introspection and angry transgression, emphasised by his vocal delivery that ranged from whispering to screaming. Recorded in the L.A. mansion where one of the Manson family murders took place, The Downward Spiral had a cold, mechanical ambience similar to Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ period, and remains appealing to subsequent generations of outsiders. Multi-platinum-selling rock has rarely sounded this heavy or disturbed. (LISTEN)

  1. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991) (Island)

While most discussions of U2’s career highlights revolve around 1987’s The Joshua Tree, the band’s early ‘90s output is occasionally overlooked. Stung by justified criticism of the tediously earnest grandstanding of Rattle And Hum, Bono and co. made the decision to move away from the blues towards alternative rock and synthesisers – Berlin rather than Muscle Shoals, basically – to make something altogether more impressionistic and abstract. Selling 18 million copies around the world and spawning five huge hits, most notably the humanist anthem ‘One’, Achtung Baby was the second and final great album in U2’s career. (LISTEN)

  1. Autechre – Tri Repetae (1995) (Warp)

Stalwarts of the British electronic music scene to this day and arguably the archetypal Warp Records act, Rochdale duo Rob Brown and Sean Booth made their career masterpiece in 1995 with its Tri Repetae. With its rhythmic patterns being more minimal and repetitive, and the general arrangments being more intricate and spacious, it marked the point at which Autechre started moving from simple house and techno to the more experimental section of their career. (LISTEN)

  1. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West (1997) (Up)

Making full use of the CD format and crafting 74 minutes of home-spun wisdom and analysis of the world, The Lonesome Crowded West was the first Modest Mouse album to signal to the world that Isaac Brock might be an extremely gifted musician and lyricist. Featuring brooding acoustics (‘Bankrupt On Selling’), angular proto-emo (‘Jesus Christ Was An Only Child’) and raging thrashers (‘Cowboy Dan’), it became a slow-burning cult favourite in indie circles in America and paved the way for the excellent The Moon & Antarctica at the turn of the millennium. (LISTEN)

  1. Shack – H.M.S. Fable (1999) (London)

As the gifted genius behind Liverpool’s The Pale Fountains and latterly Shack, Mick Head’s career has been blighted by misfortune, tragedy and addiction, but he is one of the most underappreciated songwriters of any era. Dwelling in the commercial hinterlands for almost all of his career, Shack’s second LP H.M.S. Fable was the closest that Head ever got to success, flirting with the outside of the Top 40. Packed full of examples of his knack for glorious sunshine-indie like ‘Lend’s Some Dough’, to everyman balladeering like ‘Comedy’ and ‘Streets Of Kenny’, it’s one of the true lost gems of the 1990s. (LISTEN)

  1. The Orb – The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld (1991) (Big Life)

Alex Paterson’s The Orb project marked the point at which dance music really became epic. A double-disc set presenting a continuous, progressive composition of ten tracks over four sections, …Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld and its signature song ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ did an awful lot to change the concept of what dance music could sound like, particularly in terms of mainstream perceptions. Piling dozens of field recordings, spoken-word samples and ‘found sounds’ on top of each other in a playful but humorous and subversive way, The Orb crafted truly intelligent dance music. (LISTEN)

  1. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes (1992) (Atlantic / East West)

One of the most compelling and quixotic but unfairly overlooked performers in America over the last 25 years, Tori Amos set the bar extremely high for herself first time out in her solo career with Little Earthquakes. Mixing the intelligence and sensuality of Kate Bush with an unknowable impenetrability that keeps the listener second-guessing and revisiting the album, it feels like you’ve been through some kind of therapy: cleansed, but also perturbed. Amos’ subsequent career can be read as an interesting yet unsuccessful attempt to climb the peaks of her debut, but her fans can always point to this masterpiece. (LISTEN)

  1. Air – Moon Safari (1998) (Virgin)

With their unmistakably Gallic sense of ironic detachment and louche cool, French duo Air registered one of the most ubiquitous records of the 1990s with Moon Safari, a ‘coffee table album’ par excellence. Seriously, this record was absolutely everywhere for years, but it was far more than just insipid background music. Like a cross between Serge Gainsbourg and Burt Bacharach, full of mood and texture yet universally accessible, slinky hits like ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ would become radio staples and the soundtrack of nights out and evenings in everywhere. (LISTEN)

  1. Beastie Boys – Ill Communication (1994) (Capitol / Grand Royal)

One of the party records of the decade, but a very different and more mature kind of party-starter than their infamous 1986 debut Licensed To Ill, the Beasties’ fourth album took them away from their sample-heavy early days to a place where they were more reliant on loops and live instrumentation, ranging from the punky hedonism of ‘Sabotage’ to the limber grooves of ‘Root Down’ and ‘Sure Shot’. It’s also a snapshot of the three members’ cultural obsessions, ranging from spiritual (MCA’s Buddhism, on ‘Bodhisattva Vow’) to musical and recreational. A hipster’s dream, before hipster became a dirty word. (LISTEN)

  1. UNKLE – Psyence Fiction (1998) (Mo’Wax)

A transatlantic union of DJ Shadow and James Lavelle, plus a glut of impressive guest vocalists like Mike D, Richard Ashcroft, Ian Brown and Thom Yorke, the first UNKLE album Psyence Fiction is an underrated gem that makes a fine companion piece to Shadow’s own masterful …Endtroducing. Sprawling from sparse hip-hop (‘The Knock’) to shimmering, atmospheric big beat (‘Unreal’) to madcap punk (‘Celestial Annihilation’). Full of incredible sampling and intricate arrangements, it all culminates in Yorke’s amazing star turn in ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’. Shadow departed soon afterwards and left UNKLE as a solo vehicle for Lavelle, but Psyence Fiction is essential ownership for fans of all any electronic or rap music. (LISTEN)

  1. Cornershop – When I Was Born For The 7th Time (1997) (Wiiija)

Mixing lo-fi guitar-pop charm with electronica and raga-rock charm, Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres got it right third time round with their pan-cultural collective Cornershop. Consistently able to find common musical ground and mediate all their influences at once, When I Was Born For The 7th Time consisted of hypnotic grooves, insightful lyrics and slyly subversive takes on the world around them. Norman Cook remixed ‘Brimful Of Asha’ and turned it into a global mega-hit, which gave the group great exposure but often served to obscure the artistic triumph of the album itself. (LISTEN)

  1. Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996) (Warp)

At just under 33 minutes of manic, aggressive combinations of disparate electronic influences, the Richard D. James Album seems to take a stripped-down, almost punk-influenced approach to its author’s previous works of sprawling genius. Much faster and more scattershot than any other jungle artists at the time, Aphex Twin’s digital age was well and truly under way with this truly bewildering record that never lets the listener settle into a pattern. However, James’ innate sense of melody that he had been working hard to suppress cannot help but shine through in places – the brooding ‘Yellow Calx’ being the very finest. (LISTEN)

  1. Tom Waits – Bone Machine (1992) (Island)

Tom Waits entered the third phase of his career by combining the wise vagabond persona of his early years with the raw, unusual instrumentation and arrangement of his ‘80s triptych of masterpieces to make Bone Machine – a title referring to Waits’ concept of stripped-down ‘bone music’. It was a record of dirty, sinister blues grooves and clanking rhythms that dealt with death and ecology – the opening ‘Earth Died Screaming’ setting the tone perfectly. Scooping the Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album the following year, Bone Machine incontrovertibly sealed Waits’ legend status in America. (LISTEN)

  1. Green Day – Dookie (1994) (Reprise)

Green Day have always been sneered at by punk purists, but in the first phase of their career it can’t be denied that they re-purposed an old genre for a new audience with the ‘prank-punk’ masterpiece Dookie. With a simple template of catchy tunes, massive power chords and bratty attitude, all played so fast that one can’t help but jump up and down, tracks like ‘Welcome To Paradise’ and ‘Basket Case’ became a beacon for bored kids looking for any kind of rebellion. The multi-platinum success of this record served as something of an albatross before they spectacularly re-invented themselves a decade later with the politically conscious American Idiot, but Dookie was the sound of apathy as a call-to-arms. (LISTEN)

  1. The Dismemberment Plan – Emergency & I (1999) (DeSoto)

Though it was the decade of the indie / alternative rock revolution in the mainstream, arguably one of the most purely inventive takes on the genre in the ‘90s came almost at the very end. In some kind of grey area between jangly indie-rock, post-hardcore, emo and loop-based recording techniques usually associated with hip-hop, Emergency & I dealt with the chaos of modern life and how it related to the individual coming to terms with it. Travis Morrison’s vocal performances are anthemic without being breast-beating. The Dismemberment Plan only did one more album before breaking up for the first time, but this remains a cult favourite like few others from the 1990s. (LISTEN)

  1. Yo La Tengo – Painful (1993) (Matador)

After the best part of a decade of dealing in epic noise jams, sixth album Painful marked the beginning of Yo La Tengo’s golden age in the 1990s with a shift towards atmospherics and ambience being built into their existing sound. It also marked their first record with Roger Moutenot, who would become their long-time collaborator, and their first with big-hitting indie Matador with its comparatively wide distribution. But most importantly, everyone was more confident and the trio’s chemistry clicked properly: James McNew’s bass was fully integrated, Ira Kaplan’s stand-off-ish vocal delivery was now a cool, assured drawl, and Georgia Hubley’s playing was more adventurous. Painful was YLT’s coming-of-age, and marked the start of a run of consistently great records that stretched into the 21st century. (LISTEN)

  1. The Charlatans – Tellin’ Stories (1997) (Beggars Banquet)

The nearly three-decade career of Manchester’s The Charlatans has been a story of tragedy, endurance, reinvention and survival. One of the very few bands to survive the rapid decline of ‘baggy’ and thrive during the Britpop era, their fifth album Tellin’ Stories represented their critical and popular peak, fusing dancefloor rhythms with folky tales as gritty as they were heartfelt. The charming, Dylan-esque ‘North Country Boy’ and the loop-based groove of ‘One To Another’ were the highlights. Sadly the final album to feature keyboardist Rob Collins, who died in a car accident halfway through recording, Tellin’ Stories is a characterful classic. (LISTEN)

  1. Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See (1993) (Capitol)

Becoming a minor commercial success off the back of surprise alt-rock radio hit ‘Fade Into You’, Mazzy Star perfected their craft on their second LP. With production entirely overseen by the band’s David Roback, So Tonight That I Might See was a mysterious meeting point for country, folk, psych, and classic rock, all topped off with Hope Sandoval’s sleepy, smoky drawl. Their approach works just as gorgeously with full-band productions as they do with stripped-down moments like the organ-led ‘Mary Of Silence’ or the simple, aching blues of ‘Wasted’. (LISTEN)

  1. Brainiac – Hissing Prigs In Static Couture (1996) (Touch & Go)

The legacy of Dayton, Ohio’s Brainiac has far outweighed that of the tiny physical sales they achieved during their short career, influencing some of the biggest groups of the subsequent two decades. Much of that is down to Hissing Prigs In Static Couture, a masterful guide to balancing indie melody with avant-garde experimentation. Sadly, this would be the group’s last album, as their talented lead singer and creative genius Tim Taylor was killed in a car accident the following year as production on its follow-up started. But groups from Muse to The Mars Volta have cited Brainiac, and specifically Hissing Prigs…, as a key inspiration. (LISTEN)

  1. Super Furry Animals – Fuzzy Logic (1996) (Creation)

Outside of giants like Radiohead, it’s hard to think of another guitar band in the last 25 years as strikingly original as Welsh techno-turned-rock loons Super Furry Animals. Not the sort of band that usually hits the mainstream, they hit success aided and abetted by the excellent Creation imprint, newly flush with cash post-Oasis, who indulged the band by buying them an actual tank with which to promote a single. A vibrant mix of trashy ‘70s rock and British psychedelia that referenced UFOs, hamsters and drug dealers, ranging from the bucolic melancholy of ‘Gathering Moss’ to the surf-rock fun of ‘Bad Behaviour’, the creativity of their debut Fuzzy Logic stood in stark contrast to the increasingly unimaginative Britpop that was dominating the scene in 1996. (LISTEN)

  1. 2Pac – Me Against The World (1995) (Interscope / Atlantic)

His 1998 Greatest Hits compilation is the stuff of dreams, but Tupac Shakur arguably never made a defining artistic statement in the form of an album during his tragically brief career. His third album Me Against The World, released in 1995 at the very peak of his popularity during his lifetime and which spent an entire month at the top of the Billboard charts, is probably the closest. A soulful and matured effort, particularly on tracks like ‘Dear Mama’, compared to the raw aggression and paranoia of earlier releases, it holds together seamlessly despite its patchwork of producers. Full of bleak portrayals of life yet remaining ultimately hopeful, it’s the best window in Tupac’s psyche in studio album form. (LISTEN)

  1. Scott Walker – Tilt (1995) (Fontana)

An incredible 11 years in the making, Tilt was resolutely not the kind of thing one would expect a former ‘60s pin-up popstar to be making in his early fifties. An unrelentingly avant-garde song cycle, unutterably bleak and funereal throughout, songs like ‘Farmer In The City’ are the soundtrack to a nightmare you wake up from in a cold sweat but can’t remember what it was about. With what can only be described as a kind of raucous minimalism favoured over any semblance of conventional harmonic structure, Tilt can be extremely hard going, compounded by Walker’s haunted lyrics full of arcane allusions that are impenetrable at the best of times. However, like Nico’s The Marble Index or Lou Reed’s Berlin, it is one of those remorselessly barren records that people grow to love in years to come. (LISTEN)

  1. The Auteurs – New Wave (1993) (Hut)

Along with classics like Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish or Suede’s eponymous debut, The Auteurs debut New Wave helped to shape the template of what became known as Britpop. With bright, well-defined songs and incredibly sharp, insightful and funny lyrics written by its creative force Luke Haines, influenced by his love of cinema and theatre as much as any XTC or Kinks references, the record became a totem of studious slacker-dom. Powered by the indie chart success of its lead single ‘Show Girl’, it is the original vision for the retro sound of Britpop before it got hijacked by lager, lads and Loaded. (LISTEN)

  1. Pavement – Brighten The Corners (1997) (Matador)

With three brilliant albums of angular and inventive indie behind them by 1997, Pavement decided to play things with a relatively straight bat for their fourth effort Brighten The Corners. With something approaching a cohesive sound, and certainly more focussed on Stephen Malkmus’s highly distinctive songcraft, the record seems perhaps overly accessible on the surface, maybe even innocuous, but its complex, wise-assed charms reveal themselves to the listener over time. Including the stone-cold classic ‘Shady Lane’ and the epic, sweeping graces of ‘Type Slowly’ and ‘Fin’, Brighten The Corners is the ideal starting point for any newcomer to Malkmus and Pavement. (LISTEN)

  1. The Prodigy – Music For The Jilted Generation (1994) (XL)

At some point during the massive touring schedule behind 1992’s Experience, The Prodigy’s creative engine Liam Howlett grew disenchanted with the dictats of disposable happy-clappy rave and acid house, and re-discovered his long-standing love for hip-hop. This change of emphasis comes through on their sophomore effort Music For The Jilted Generation, a notably darker and weightier affair than anything they’d made before. Mixing the body-slamming beats of classic hip-hop with the electronica of rave and shaking it up with punk guitars (Nirvana were sampled for the classic single ‘Voodoo People’) was a winning formula that The Prodigy have essentially stuck with ever since. With an unspoken undercurrent of political insurrection against the Conservative government’s anti-rave legislation, it was one of British dance music’s first important full-length artistic statements. (LISTEN)

  1. OutKast – ATLiens (1996) (LaFace)

A portmanteau referencing extra-terrestrials and the abbreviation of their home state of Atlanta, the title of OutKast’s second record ATLiens showed the kind of mischievous mood the duo were in, as well as a suggestion that they felt isolated from mainstream American culture. Determined to forge a weird and wonderful third way between the feuding East and West Coast scenes with their distinctive brand of Southern hip-hop, Andre 3000 and Big Boi decided to produce by themselves, introducing elements of dub, psychedelic rock and gospel into the mix. A striking musical leap forwards, ATLiens would provide the foundations from which OutKast then built their stellar reputation. (LISTEN)

  1. Built To Spill – There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994) (Up)

Quintessential cult band Built To Spill unexpectedly found exposure when the video for ‘In The Morning’ found its way onto animated TV favourite ‘Beavis and Butt-head’, the closest that the group has ever really come to mainstream success. This is a shame because, underneath the sometimes self-consciously wacky guitar wanderings and nasal vocals that inevitably pigeonhole BTS as ‘indie’, There’s Nothing Wrong With Love can’t disguise a lot of great pop instincts. Doug Martsch essentially perfected his knack for bouncy, adorable indie-pop and fragile, vulnerable melodies buttressed by epic orchestral effects. Even better still was to come on BTS’s next album Perfect From Now On. (LISTEN)

  1. Bob Dylan – Time Out Of Mind (1997) (Columbia)

After more than 20 years of studio output that ranged from interesting but flawed to spectacularly ill-judged, Time Out Of Mind was universally hailed as Bob Dylan’s comeback album. Recorded with hardened session musicians well-versed in blues traditions and produced by long-time U2 collaborator Daniel Lanois, it had a certain cinematic and elegiac sweep that made it immediately timeless and re-captured that legendary Dylan mystique that had been missing since 1975’s Blood On The Tracks. With his voice now a rasping drawl, ‘Not Dark Yet’ was a meditative reflection on his maturing years and the gentle rockabilly epic ‘Cold Irons Bound’ won him a Grammy. Proof that you can never write him off, Time Out Of Mind remains one of Dylan’s finest. (LISTEN)

  1. Red House Painters – Red House Painters (a.k.a. ‘Rollercoaster’) (1993) (4AD)

He’s now known as the creative ingénue behind Sun Kil Moon, but Mark Kozelek’s finest moment as a songwriter came with his former group Red House Painters. Known as Rollercoaster to distinguish it from the other self-titled album they released in 1993 (or ‘Bridge’), an overspill vessel for unused ideas from the first, RHP’s second album is an emotionally bracing tour-de-force from one of the most distinctive writers of modern times. The heartbreakingly delicate piano figure in ‘Things Mean A Lot’; the 13-minute meditation on mortality that is ‘Mother’; the hopeless unrequited love of ‘Katy Song’ that never veers into self-indulgent sentiment… all 14 tracks seem like details of a larger portrait. (LISTEN)

  1. Saint Etienne – So Tough (1993) (Heavenly)

Nobody can make unashamed Eurodisco vibes and retro Carnaby Street cool work quite as well as Saint Etienne. Their second album So Tough continued the sharp sampling and casual atmosphere of their 1991 debut Foxbase Alpha. Using ‘linking dialogue’ between tracks in the same way as The Who Sell Out, the whole package was gloriously in thrall to ‘60s British beat, so typical of musically literate fanatics like Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. There were infectious, chilled pop moments like the character study ‘You’re In A Bad Way’ and opener ‘Mario’s Café’ (an actual restaurant in Kentish Town, btw), but balancing them out were the widescreen poise and sentimentality of singles ‘Avenue’ and ‘Hobart Paving’, aided beautifully by Sarah Cracknell’s airy, floating vocals. Pop music rarely gets better than this. (LISTEN)

  1. Basement Jaxx – Remedy (1999) (XL)

Taking a more holistic and welcome-all-comers approach to sampling and cultural influences than the British big-beat scene, Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton delivered the last great dance album of the 1990s with their debut Remedy. They were not only capable of the energising, immediate rush of dancefloor ecstasy – check the joyous ‘Red Alert’, the carnival-esque ‘Bingo Bango’ or the ragga lunacy of ‘Jump ‘N’ Shout’ – but also the long-lasting emotional resonance that eluded most of their contemporaries. More suitable for a rambunctious party in the backroom of a dank Camden pub than the clinical, impersonal experiences of a superclub, Basement Jaxx paved the way for the future of British dance at the end of the millennium. (LISTEN)

  1. Morrissey – Vauxhall & I (1994) (Parlophone)

Having been savaged by the press (see #161 on this list…) and hugely affected by the sudden deaths of people close to him in 1992 and 1993, Steven Patrick Morrissey came out swinging with his fourth album, the ebullient yet tender Vauxhall & I. Producer Steve Lillywhite gave proceedings a melancholy tinge as Moz provided some of his most personal and biting lyrics yet. Fuelled by the Top Ten success of ‘The More You Ignore Me, The Closer I Get’, Vauxhall & I became Moz’s best-seller in America as well as Britain, and is frequently regarded as his greatest solo work. Sadly, it would be his only decent album for a while as his career took a commercial and creative nosedive in the mid-nineties. (LISTEN)

  1. The La’s – The La’s (1990) (Polydor / Go! Discs)

The long rise, fleeting brilliance and mysterious demise of Liverpool’s The La’s is one of British pop music’s greatest frustrations. The brainchild of mercurial singer and songwriter Lee Mavers – himself one of the most enigmatic characters in British rock history outside of Syd Barrett – their one and only album The La’s is an utterly beguiling collection of classic ‘60s Beatles-esque pop, which seems to exist completely outside of time and fashion. Everybody is familiar with the heavenly, Byrds-esque power-pop of ‘There She Goes’, but its parent album is stuffed with similar laconic gems. The dictionary definition of a cult classic, The La’s is essential ownership for any self-respecting Britpop fan. (LISTEN)

  1. Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand (1994) (Scat)

It’s incredible to think it now, dozens of albums and hundreds of songs later, but Bee Thousand was originally intended to be Guided By Voices’ final album. Lead singer Robert Pollard was feeling ground down by their lack of attention and money, but their seventh album put them at forefront of the ‘lo-fi’ indie scene in the States. Drawing inspiration from British-invasion-era rock and the economic constraints of punk, his cut-up-and-reassembled lyrical non-sequiturs made Bee Thousand their most characterful and colourful record yet, led by the brilliant single ‘I Am A Scientist’. GBV signed with the prestigious indie Matador for their next release, the even-greater Alien Lanes – more of which later! (LISTEN)

  1. Orbital – Snivilisation (1994) (FFRR)

Marrying dance music with an element of rock’s performance artistry and an undercurrent of social and political commentary, Snivilisation brought the Hartnoll brothers to a bigger audience and earned them widespread credibility for the first time. The massive 16-minute highlight ‘Are We Here?’, featuring breathy, ethereal vocals from a certain Alison Goldfrapp, is a dark portrait of culture being closed down by authority, but there are plenty of delights to indulge in. The bleak but beautiful ‘Kein Trink Wasser’ has an urgency, warning of a scorched earth as water runs out; ‘Sad But True’ is a glitch-techno marvel; and ‘Quality Seconds’ is an explosion of dissonant hardcore amid the album’s melodic splendour. Dance music doesn’t get more thoughtful than Orbital. (LISTEN)

  1. The Lemonheads – Come On Feel The Lemonheads (1993) (Atlantic)

The Lemonheads, led by the troubled genius Evan Dando, could have been one of the biggest bands of the nineties. They’d set themselves up for glory with 1992’s concise, sleek and loveable It’s A Shame About Ray, but blew it with its follow-up Come On Feel The Lemonheads, one of the greatest flawed masterpieces of the decade. A fractured sprawl taking in aimless instrumentals and heartbreaking acoustic ballads at two extremes of the scale, but contained within are some of Dando’s finest power-pop moments ever – the hook-filled ‘The Great Big No’ and ‘Big Gay Heart’ being cases in point. It failed, but only just, and their fans loved them for trying. (LISTEN)

  1. Belle & Sebastian – Tigermilk (1996) (Electric Honey)

Becoming a significant local and underground success at the height of Britpop’s commercial pomp, Belle & Sebastian’s ruggedly lo-fi debut Tigermilk, recorded as part of Stuart Murdoch’s university course, was music for shy, bookish teenagers to share with other shy, bookish teenagers, to soundtrack their lives by valorising and celebrating what wider society took to be their flaws and shortcomings. The sunny disposition of the band’s sweet, string-laden acoustic chamber-pop shot through with Murdoch’s confessional but humorous, self-effacing lyrics, immediately placed them in a proud lineage of shy, introverted British (and particularly Scottish) indie, from Edwyn Collins’ Orange Juice and Postcard Records to the lazily-described ‘twee’ C86 sound. (LISTEN)

  1. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993) (Virgin)

With the indie success of 1991 debut Gish under their belts and the cultural sea-change of Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ second album was expected to make them ‘the next Nirvana’. The pressure was immense, and not helped by Billy Corgan’s writer’s block, Jimmy Chamberlin’s heroin addiction and the breakdown of James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky’s relationship. In this context, that Siamese Dream was as impressive as it turned out to be was almost miraculous. Somehow weightier and more expansive than its predecessor, with higher production values that made it both murkier and brighter at the same time, Corgan’s lyrics were much more vulnerable than before – see ‘Disarm’. Tales of his perfectionism and megalomania in the studio abound, but with Siamese Dream, grunge finally had an overarching artistic vision. (LISTEN)

  1. Leonard Cohen – The Future (1992) (Columbia)

A commercially successful follow-up to the artistic triumph of 1988’s I’m Your Man, Leonard Cohen’s ninth album is perhaps his darkest record of all, yet curiously one of his most illuminating. His voice now a seductive, spiritual murmur, The Future painted a troubling image of humanity just as the Cold War had ended and Western democracy reigned supreme. Remarkably, it’s as prescient 25 years later, with the title track still chilling the blood, but it also works as a portrait of a man on an inward quest for contentment, still coming up with more questions than answers at nearly 60 years of age. Going multi-platinum around the world, it’s an enjoyable manifesto for everything Cohen’s highly original brand of songwriting stands for. (LISTEN)

  1. Pulp – This Is Hardcore (1998) (Island)

If Different Class was the sound of the Britpop party, This Is Hardcore was the sound of the paranoid hangover the morning after, the good times gone sour. Right from the haunting, oppressive opening bars of ‘The Fear’, where Jarvis Cocker sings in the voice of a man desperately looking for the exit door from his celebrity (“this is the sound of someone losing the plot / making out that they’re okay when they’re not”), Pulp chronicled the comedown of Britpop itself and the nation’s first creeping fears that it had been duped by the Blair government, as well as the personal dangers of getting everything you’ve ever wanted. On ‘Party Hard’, Cocker regards his tabloid antics of the previous two years with detached self-disgust, while his performance on the majestic title track is simply breathtaking. While it reached no.1, This Is Hardcore tanked in comparison to its predecessor, but it makes for a fascinating back-to-back listen with Different Class. (LISTEN)

  1. Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue (1998) (Elektra)

An album of unheard lyrics written by the American folk music legend Woody Guthrie that was set to music by English singer Billy Bragg (‘the Bard of Barking’) and U.S. alt-country rockers Wilco, Mermaid Avenue was the fruit of a six-year project after Bragg was approached by Guthrie’s daughter Nora after he played a Central Park gig in 1992 marking the icon’s 80th birthday. Giving the lyrics a bed of contemporary music, what seemed like a tremendous risk paid off handsomely as the album was received rapturously. Between them, Bragg and Wilco captured a raw, earthy sound reminiscent of early bluegrass and folk rock that made it instantly timeless, particularly the ballad ‘Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key’ and the joyful twanging of ‘Walt Whitman’s Niece’. (LISTEN)

  1. Sigur Rós – Agaetis Byrjun (1999) (Fat Cat / Smekkleysa)

When Sigur Rós’s second album was released in the summer of 1999, it wasn’t expected to sell many copies. So few, in fact, that the band themselves assembled the packaging of the initial run themselves, rendering many of the CDs unusable due to glue stains. Remarkable, then, that Agaetis Byrjun went onto become one of the biggest selling albums in Icelandic history with over 500,000 copies sold globally, and the start of a remarkable success story that continues two decades later. Rather than industry hype, it was purely down to the beauty of the spellbinding, otherworldly music that lay within. That ethereality was reinforced by the band singing wordlessly in their own made-up language, Hopelandic, and which evoked natural beauty and spoke to something deep within the human spirit. (LISTEN)

  1. Supergrass – In It For The Money (1997) (Parlophone)

After the sugary punk-pop thrills of their debut I Should Coco, Supergrass delivered a follow-up that was more mature and musically substantial, which confirmed that their songwriting prowess was for real and not a one-time fluke. In It For The Money was mainly written in the studio, and the results were a lot more complex and varied as the group delved into classic influences like The Small Faces, The Kinks and even some 1967-Beatles psychedelia. Lead single ‘Richard III’ shoots along at the same manic pace of their debut but is rather darker in tone; the sublime ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ and the melancholic ‘60s feel of ‘Late In The Day’ or ‘It’s Not Me’ are other charming delights. What difficult second album? (LISTEN)

  1. Fatboy Slim – You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby (1998) (Skint / Astralwerks)

Spawning four UK Top Ten singles and shifting over 1.5 million copies, Norman Cook’s second album as Fatboy Slim made him into a household name after more than a decade in the industry. Becoming one of the tentpole albums of the British ‘big-beat’ scene, a sound that could appeal to rock and pop fans as well as danceheads – arena-filling tracks like ‘Right Here, Right Now’ or the funkalicious ‘Gangster Trippin’’ were testament to the album’s massive attraction to both boozers and ravers. Cook’s expert choice of sampling was both humorous and poignant at the same time, the sound of a man taking an almost child-like delight in the endless possibilities offered by cheap technology and his record collection. (LISTEN)

  1. Sonic Youth – Goo (1990) (DGC)

After releasing some of the most groundbreaking alternative rock records of the ‘80s, at the start of the next decade Sonic Youth found themselves on a major label for the first time. But far from alienating their die-hard fanbase, the group moved seamlessly from one era to the next with one of their best (and arguably their most famous) record ever. Perhaps that’s because their long-term producer Nick Sansano provided consistency with the past, with Ron Saint Germain brought in to provide a more radio-friendly heft at the end, but Goo somehow managed to be both accessible and challenging, structurally simple yet texturally abrasive and experimental. It also saw Kim Gordon playing a greater creative role in the group’s songwriting. To cap it all, Raymond Pettibon’s iconic nihilist comic-chic artwork sealed the deal. (LISTEN)

  1. Massive Attack – Mezzanine (1998) (Circa / Virgin)

Having found success and critical praise with their first two records, Massive Attack’s third effort marked a radical musical departure from the jazzy, laid-back sounds of Blue Lines and Protection. With Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja taking the lion’s share of creative control, rhythm and texture were explored in detail at the expense of melody as the ambience of Mezzanine took the listener to some pretty dark places. The brooding abstractions of ‘Angel’, offset by Horace Andy’s glassy vocals set the tone for a record whose atmosphere was often so oppressive you could cut it with a knife – see the amazing ‘Inertia Creeps’. The ethereal vocals of Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser are chilling on ‘Group Four’ but soothing and warm on the excellent single ‘Teardrop’. As singular and revelatory a collection as their debut, Mezzanine signalled a permanent shift in Massive Attack’s musical output. (LISTEN)

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.

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