The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Sparklehorse – Good Morning Spider (1998) (Capitol)

The tale of Sparklehorse’s late creative genius Mark Linkous is a terribly sad one, tinged with tragedy and battles against addiction. The group’s second album Good Morning Spider, made after Linkous had had a self-inflicted near-death experience and a painful hospital convalescence involving him learning to walk and play the guitar again, is central to the Sparklehorse story. Covering both hi-fi and lo-fi production qualities veering from scuzzy guitar rock to heartbreaking balladry, the album seems to exist in a space between waking and sleeping, darkness and light. Sonically inconsistent and fractured by nature, it rewards repeated listening, with many of the tracks like ‘Painbirds’ having a fundamental innocence despite their menacing atmosphere that renders them unclassifiable and distinctively ‘Sparklehorse-esque’. (LISTEN)

  1. Erykah Badu – Baduizm (1997) (Kedar / Universal)

A striking debut even by the standards of 1997, as sonically diverse a year as any in pop history, Erykah Badu’s ‘neo-soul’ vision for modern R&B that she laid out in her first album Baduizm is one of the most fondly regarded and enduring records of the genre. With exceptional vocals that at times channelled the anguish and beauty of the great Billie Holiday in her phrasing and cadence, Badu’s free association mixtures of jazz, hip-hop and soul ranging from Stevie Wonder to Dionne Warwick made for a musical compound with massive appeal. Picking up a Grammy and notching up sales of over 3 million in the U.S., it became hugely influential for subsequent soul artists as well as providing a shot of coverage for the genre in the guitar-dominated nineties. (LISTEN)

  1. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991) (Epic)

One of the biggest catalysts in popularising alternative rock in the mainstream outside of Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s debut Ten was a slow-burning success like few other albums. Taking over a year to reach its Billboard peak of no.2 from its August 1991 release, it was still one of the ten highest-selling albums by the end of 1993! But their success, while lumped in with the other noise-makers of the Pacific North-West, was actually rooted in more classic influences than its reputation as a grunge masterpiece might suggest. Indebted to past masters like Neil Young and The Doors, singer Eddie Vedder’s voice could have come from any era. Packed with punishing power chords and precise, earthy soloing from Mike McCready, it helped revolutionise the guitar scene for the subsequent decade. (LISTEN)

  1. American Football – American Football (1999) (Polyvinyl)

Selling virtually nothing at the time, American Football’s self-titled debut gradually became the most influential album in the emo genre throughout the band’s 18-year absence from the game, making it very likely the most ‘cult’ album on this entire list. Mike Kinsella, Steve Holmes and Steve Lamos were all into diverse musical influences from jazz to post-hardcore to goth, and their decision to remove any trace of rock from the genre and make it more about indie and math-rock was a bold one out of step with the rest of emo. They broke up soon after their album’s release, uncelebrated, but its reputation grew steadily by word of mouth in the internet messageboard era, with generations of new fans appreciating the songs’ complex, challenging structures and sincere lyrics. A masterpiece. (LISTEN)

  1. Suede – Suede (1993) (Nude)

Eventually released after more than a year of enormous, virtually unparalleled hype from a British music press desperate for something to counter Nirvana-mania, Suede’s first album achieved the highest ever first-week sales for a British band’s debut. Buoyed by three excellent singles – ‘The Drowners’, ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘Animal Nitrate’ – the songwriting powerhouse of Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler produced a tough but glamorous record that harked back to the kitchen-sink drama of The Smiths and escapist fantasias of early ‘70s Bowie. Some tracks, like ‘Moving’ and ‘Animal Lover’ were overproduced, but Suede’s brilliance derives from its sheer game-changing power: this, ladies and gentlemen, is the record that created Britpop. (LISTEN)

  1. PJ Harvey – Dry (1992) (Too Pure)

Polly Jean Harvey’s debut album made her an instant superstar on the sparsely populated British indie circuit in 1992, a refreshing ersatz reflection of (and antidote to) the male-dominated grunge that was emanating from America. A lacerating, literate portrait of the darker side of the female psyche, as violent as it is beautiful, Dry didn’t really fit any of the pre-existing rock ideals of the early ‘90s, melding addictive hooks with brute power and playing an ambiguous and intriguing character within its 11 tracks. Confronting and subverting female cultural symbols and signifiers as she flits between aggression and submission, Dry immediately established PJ’s mythology and reputation. Amazingly, she would follow it with something even better. (LISTEN)

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Let Love In (1994) (Mute)

In their three-decade career, there are no better examples of Nick Cave and his backing band melding together musically with such perfect intuition than Let Love In. Cave’s typical fire-and-brimstone storytelling is scaled back in favour of detailed portraits of the human condition, scene-setting, and character studies as he meditates on love and hate, good and evil, while The Bad Seeds do some of their most ornate, intricate work ever. Amazingly, the album isn’t overshadowed by the instantly recognisable cult favourite ‘Red Right Hand’, as Let Love In is just such a wonderful collection of undeniably astonishing songs, in their own right, one after another: from the anguished ‘Do You Love Me?’ to the meditative calm of ‘Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore’ or the romantic resignation of ‘Nobody’s Baby Now’. (LISTEN)

  1. Notorious B.I.G. – Ready To Die (1994) (Bad Boy)

The only album released during Biggie’s lifetime – his 1997 epitaph Life After Death, with grim irony, came out a fortnight after he was slain in a drive-by shooting – is one of the most elucidating and fundamentally human works in hip-hop, just at the point when the genre was descending into the gangsta-rap gutter of self-parody. Biggie’s intelligible yet tongue-twisting flow as he recounted tales of his hustling past, his experiences with threats and street-corner violence, and his visions for his future reign supreme in an album of hard, deep beats and detailed production work, particularly prime cuts like ‘Juicy’ and ‘Big Poppa’. Menacing but humorous, Ready To Die helped to revitalise the East Coast scene at a point when West Coast hip-hop was reigning supreme. (LISTEN)

  1. Sleater-Kinney – Call The Doctor (1996) (Chainsaw)

Regarded by fans as Sleater-Kinney’s first ‘proper’ album, by virtue of its half-hour length and because Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein had quit Heavens To Betsy and Excuse 17 respectively to focus full-time on the band, Call The Doctor certainly represents their great leap forwards. It heralded a significant widening and deepening of their sonic palette, with much more evidence of their distinctive, complex musical style. While still full of punk urgency, Call The Doctor was at once aggressive and poignant, with a willingness to subvert and a refusal to be satisfied motivating every note. At the same time, Tucker and Brownstein’s lyrics tackled a wider range of subjects, alternately vulnerable and stoic. A huge underground success that was constantly in demand, Sleater-Kinney’s reputation went nationwide. (LISTEN)

  1. Orbital – Orbital II (1993) (Internal / FFRR)

After having an unexpected hit with the now-legendary dance anthem ‘Chime’, Paul and Phil Hartnoll stylishly executed their mission to push back the boundaries of their middling 1991 debut. A masterpiece of lushly produced, atmospheric techno that could appeal to a wider congregation than just dedicated ravers, Orbital II consists of eight tracks of lengthy, kinetic and absorbing dance music that could stimulate the head and heart as well as the feet. Each track was a little universe to lose yourself in – check out the woozy, hypnagogic likes of ‘Lush’ and ‘Halcyon’, or the ecological urgency of ‘The Earth Is Burning’ – yet they all added up to a coherent whole that was more than the sum of its parts. Techno masterpieces are few and far between, but Orbital absolutely owned the Nineties, and this was the first of four excellent records in the decade. (LISTEN)

  1. The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997) (Hut)

Urban Hymns, The Verve’s third studio album and the last truly great work to be associated with the Britpop era, very nearly didn’t happen at all. Following the stormy sessions that produced 1995’s astonishing A Northern Soul, Richard Ashcroft and co. went their separate ways, their mercurial guitarist Nick McCabe vowing never to work with the singer again. Ashcroft quickly backpedalled and persuaded a full band reunion with the addition of a second guitarist, Simon Tong. The resulting album was a stupendous commercial success, shifting 3.2 million copies in Britain alone, led by the transcendental sweeping majesty of ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. An album of exquisitely wistful ballads like ‘Sonnet’ or the amazing chart-topper ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ and woozy, space-rock explorations like ‘Catching The Butterfly’, Urban Hymns brimmed over with an autumnal melancholy that struck deep into many a listener’s soul. (LISTEN)

  1. Fugees – The Score (1996) (Ruffhouse / Columbia)

Although their 1994 debut Blunted On Reality had failed to catch fire, Ruffhouse’s CEO had such faith in Fugees that he doubled down on his investment, handing them a significant advance and granting them total artistic control. That faith paid off handsomely as The Score became a multi-platinum success around the world, a humanistic and conscientious counterpoint to the gangbanging of gangsta rap. Throughout, the trio of Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel have stunning showcases of their own individual talents: Hill’s cover/homage of ‘Killing Me Softly’; Jean’s take on ‘No Woman No Cry’ being the best. However, the chemistry between all three on the cool atmospherics of ‘Ready Or Not’ or ‘Fu-Gee-La’ are the prime cuts. A sophisticated melding of R&B and mellow hip-hop, The Score netted two Grammys and sold six million copies in the States – but there’s yet to be a follow-up, 21 years on. (LISTEN)

  1. David Lynch & Angelo Badalamenti – Soundtrack From ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990) (Warner Bros.)

Renowned composer Angelo Badalamenti’s score for the cult series ‘Twin Peaks’ was a major aspect of the success of David Lynch’s bizarre television soap that was recently revived after 26 years. Constructed with electric piano, synthetic strings and lonesome, twanging guitar, Soundtrack From ‘Twin Peaks’ dwells on the edges of consciousness, often resembling a fevered dream as the show’s metaphor-heavy plot moved slowly past. At times bucolic and beautiful, but with a haunting current of sinister tension just underneath the surface – it’s main love theme sounds like a funeral march – it represents the perfect harmony of sound and image, and has helped to inform many electronic music artists in their work since. (LISTEN)

  1. GZA – Liquid Swords (1995) (Geffen / MCA)

The success of the Wu-Tang Clan in revolutionising hip-hop in the early ‘90s spawned a glut of brilliant and interesting solo albums from its ten members. However, the very best of these is generally held to be GZA’s Liquid Swords, certainly one of the most substantial journeys in hip-hop history in terms of pure lyricism. Punctuated by dialogue from the kung-fu movie Shogun Assassin and featuring stellar guest appearances by the rest of his Wu-Tang colleagues, the verbose and razor-sharp GZA nevertheless reigns supreme throughout on a record of hammering beats, whip-cracking snares and complex, orchestra-enhanced production, Liquid Swords is as great an introduction to the Wu-Tang aesthetic as their own debut – more on which later… (LISTEN)

  1. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill (1995) (Maverick / Reprise)

One of the quintessential albums of the 1990s, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was a milestone in the American alternative rock revolution as well as a huge boon to the visibility of other female singer-songwriters in an otherwise male-dominated decade. Winning five Grammys and shifting more than 33 million copies around the world, its success was down to its author’s unflinching and steely determination to articulate feelings that most of her listeners would barely admit to having (or ‘therapy rock’, as it was flippantly branded). Containing a large handful of arresting singles, most notably the career-making ‘Ironic’ and the sexually-charged vengefulness of ‘You Oughta Know’, Jagged Little Pill was a cultural phenomenon. (LISTEN)

  1. Nirvana – In Utero (1993) (DGC)

Despite the weight of crushing expectation upon it as being the follow-up to Nevermind, probably the single most revolutionary moment in ‘90s rock, the difficult and often abrasive In Utero has an admirable reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Best understood as a violent reaction to the massive commercial success of its predecessor by a man almost physically flinching from the spotlight, Kurt Cobain brought in Steve Albini to make a more ‘punk’ record – to which Geffen panicked and drafted in R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to polish some of its rough edges at the last minute. But In Utero is compelling – emotionally raw and sonically brutally in equal part, expressing its emotions using subtlety as well as volume. ‘Serve The Servants’ saw Cobain mentally confront his absent father; ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ and ‘All Apologies’ tackled domesticity and family life; ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ alluded to his heroin addiction. As an epitaph for Nirvana and Cobain, In Utero is unbelievably powerful. (LISTEN)

  1. Stereolab – Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1996) (Duophonic)

A British band of Europhiles dedicated to revering and reviving the music of the great bands and sounds of the continent, ranging from the krautrock of Can and Neu! to the French chanteuses, Stereolab hit critical mass with their fourth effort Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which stands as one of the most densely layered and endlessly fascinating albums of the decade. Couching easy-listening and quirky pop melodies in oblique art-rock, neo-psychedelia and avant-garde techniques, it lacked some of the amateurish charm of their earliest work but nailed down their reputation as one of the most forward-thinking bands of the time. Even when Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier settle into a hypnotic, one-note trance, like on ‘Metronomic Underground’, there’s loads going on beneath the surface, and it never falls into the trap of coming across as haughty or cold. (LISTEN)

  1. Oasis – (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995) (Creation)

On their record-breaking debut Definitely Maybe, Noel Gallagher dreamt about becoming a rock’n’roll star – with Oasis’ second album, those dreams became true. While they may not have started Britpop, the Gallagher brothers most certainly personified it (and eventually killed it), and Morning Glory was the apex of the cultural phenomenon. Seeking to recast the whole range of their influences, from ‘60s psychedelia and beat-pop to ‘70s glam and punk, in a comfortingly familiar mould, this time the focus was on big choruses and ballad-like structures, and it was an innately populist formula but never cynical. Anthems like ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ are immortality personified, encapsulating their time and place like few others. (LISTEN)

  1. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill (1998) (Ruffhouse / Columbia)

As a member of Fugees, Lauryn Hill had found stardom after the success of The Score in 1996 (see #89 on this list), but nothing could prepare neither her nor the waiting world for the massive success of her first, and so far only, solo album. Selling eight million copies and winning five Grammys, a then-record for a female artist, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill helped to fully assimilate hip-hop culture into the mainstream, by keeping its core tenets and street-level credibility intact but combining them with R&B and easy listening to bring it to a much wider audience. With glittering pop moments like ‘Doo Wop (That Thing)’ and bouncy, old-school moments like ‘Every Ghetto, Every City’, its underlying message that true wisdom comes not from classrooms but living everyday life is an immortal one. (LISTEN)

  1. Underworld – Beaucoup Fish (1999) (Junior Boy’s Own / V2)

An album that this writer once heard described as “dance music’s Dark Side Of The Moon”, Underworld’s magnificent Beaucoup Fish was the last of three masterpieces the band released in the Nineties with Darren Emerson among their ranks. Shamanistic vocalist Karl Hyde is in full-on ‘profound gibberish’ mode on the rave maelstrom of ‘Moaner’; the hypnotic house singles ‘Shudder/King Of Snake’ and ‘Push Upstairs’ see Emerson and Rick Smith in top gear; while the blissed-out minimalism of ‘Jumbo’ and the atmospheric opener ‘Cups’ are simply transcendent. The live album Everything, Everything, recorded on Underworld’s lengthy tour in support of Beaucoup Fish, captures a fine band at the very peak of its powers. Emerson departed soon afterwards, and while Underworld continue to release quality material, they’ve still not come anywhere close to the brilliance of their ‘90s output. (LISTEN)

  1. Wilco – Being There (1996) (Reprise)

Following a modest but promising debut in 1995’s A.M., Wilco’s sophomore effort Being There represented the group’s great leap forward, the first building block in their current reputation as being the most recent addition to the American rock songbook. Sprawling over two discs and nearly 80 minutes, its transcendental successes like ‘Misunderstood’ and ‘Someone Else’s Song’ see Jeff Tweedy taking his ideas down surprising pathways off the beaten track. Being There is a classic instance of an artist looking backwards to go forwards, retracing where he’s been to discover where he’s going, reimagining well-worn musical clichés from psychedelia to country with such conviction that it never seems like pale imitation. (LISTEN)

  1. The Chemical Brothers – Dig Your Own Hole (1997) (Virgin / Freestyle Dust)

Having become one of the hippest dance acts in Britain with their 1995 debut Exit Planet Dust, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons went harder and deeper with its core principles for their follow-up Dig Your Own Hole, which turned them into household names at the height of Cool Britannia, powered by the carnage of Noel Gallagher’s collaboration on chart-topping single ‘Setting Sun’. Able to appeal to beer-drinking rock fans as well as pilled-up ravers, it was one of British dance music’s finest artistic statements of the decade. Hip-hop breakbeats met hard-edged techno on ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, which would become the Chems’ calling card, while the Beth Orton-featuring ‘Where Do I Begin?’ was the sound of a gentle Sunday morning comedown. However, all roads ultimately led to celestial closer ‘The Private Psychedelic Reel’, a kaleidoscopic galaxy of different sounds that showed they could do pure, deep house music as well as flashy celeb hook-ups. (LISTEN)

  1. Weezer – Weezer (a.k.a. ‘The Blue Album’) (1994) (DGC)

In the context of the affected despair of grunge, Weezer’s geeky, humorous and thoroughly charming debut helped push American alternative rock in a different direction. In thrall to the trashy, disposable thrills of Kiss and Cheap Trick, given a chrome-like sheen by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and aided by a clutch of stylish MTV-friendly videos directed by Spike Jonze, ‘The Blue Album’ was a joyous rampage of guitar-based power pop, raging with pop culture references and teenage hormones and immediately relatable to all the shy indie boys and girls out there. Lead singer Rivers Cuomo, enigmatic and not entirely comfortable in his own skin, was like a more emotionally direct version of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus. The post-ironic love song ‘Buddy Holly’, the heartbreaking climax of closer ‘Only In Dreams’, and the clever yet vulnerable ‘Undone (The Sweater Song)’ were the show-stoppers, but even the lesser moments are punchy and hook-laden. (LISTEN)

  1. Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club (1997) (World Circuit / Nonesuch)

Buena Vista Social Club is one of the most remarkable musical stories of any age. Named after a famous club in Havana that closed in the late 1940s, it had originally been planned as a collaboration between Cuban and Malian musicians overseen by American guitarist and roots music enthusiast Ry Cooder. When the Malians couldn’t travel for visa reasons, it evolved into a project to bring Cuban musicians and elderly local legends like Compay Segundo, Orestes ‘Macho’ Lopez and Ibrahim Ferrer together for an album of Cuban son music, a pre-revolutionary genre that had almost died out completely. Selling over 12 million copies around the world, people were hooked by the album’s accidental narrative of old-school musicians coming out of retirement, one last time, to revive a form of music that was on the brink of extinction, and was documented in a Wim Wenders film of the same name in 1999. (LISTEN)

  1. Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches (1990) (Factory)

Happy Mondays transformed from awkward outsiders to the biggest indie band in Britain in under two years thanks to their epochal album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches. With rave music’s rising star Paul Oakenfold behind the desk, the jagged, sloppy funk of 1988’s excellent Bummed was softened and smoothed out into something more expansive and overtly dancefloor-friendly, which accentuated the Mondays’ latent talent for rhythm. The bendy guitar riffs and jackhammering beats of ‘God’s Cop’ is the best illustration of this stylistic marriage, but it also yielded era-defining ‘Madchester’ hits in ‘Kinky Afro’ and ‘Step On’, both perfect combos of up-to-date dance and the lysergic ‘60s. Shaun Ryder’s absurdist working-class poetry had never been more entertaining, with undercurrents of generational rebellion in ‘Loose Fit’, and the addition of backing vocalist Rowetta showed a new soulful side. (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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