The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen (1993) (Elektra)

Having commanded serious attention with 1992’s Congregation, Greg Dulli’s Afghan Whigs made the step up to the major label world for their fourth record Gentlemen, which firmly established them as cult heroes. Given to dressing in suits rather than the plaid of their peers, the Cincinnati band had always stood out, and they did so even more with their candid exploration of the male psyche and the darker, adult sexual desires that dwell within as opposed to post-adolescent angst. Produced in cinematic detail by Dulli himself with the band’s guitarist John Curley, his witty and self-effacing lyrics were dry as dust (“ladies, let me tell you about myself / I got a dick for a brain”) on the sinewy R&B-inflected rock of the title track and ‘Debonair’, while the stark, piano-driven ‘What Jail Is Like’ became a college radio hit. The critics adored Gentlemen and the Whigs’ fanbase swelled to its biggest size, providing a platform for the rest of their career. (LISTEN)

  1. Mansun – Six (1998) (Parlophone)

Arguably the most breathtakingly ambitious album to be released on a major label in the ‘90s outside of The Holy Bible, Mansun’s sophomore effort Six may have overreached but did so in supremely interesting and praiseworthy fashion. A 70-minute suite of labyrinthine arrangements and prog-rock constructions, many of its tracks dealt with existential philosophy (‘Shotgun’), depression (‘Negative’, ‘Special/Blown It’, the terrifyingly bleak spoken-word interlude featuring Tom Baker ‘Witness To A Murder’) and social isolation (‘Television’, ‘Anti-Everything’), it also served as an oblique commentary on atomised Western society as the millennium approached. Its lead single ‘Legacy’ was a sprawling prog effort with the refrain “nobody cares when you’re gone” and managed to hit the Top Ten, for God’s sake! The densely packed references and obsessive, restless intelligence was even mirrored in the album’s striking artwork. A deeply unnerving experience that rewards repeating listening, Six was the sound of a band using its platform to challenge its audience. (LISTEN)

  1. Yo La Tengo – Electr-O-Pura (1995) (Matador)

Now settled into an optimal arrangement in their own line-up and with producer Roger Moutenot, Yo La Tengo continued to better their previous works with 1995’s Electr-O-Pura, named after a discontinued soda brand and one of the richest indie records to emerge from America in the Nineties. Ranging from giddy, eccentric pop to pensive folk and just plain weird, their seventh album found YLT in enthusiastic form and sounding for the first time like they wanted to go out and actually find an audience. Ira Kaplan’s guitar work was simple but determined, Georgia Hubley’s drumming steady but subtly inventive, and James McNew was more confident than ever on bass. The chirpy ‘Tom Courtenay’ is a piece of flawless guitar-pop; ‘The Evil That Men Do’ is a perfection of their own brand of noisy, dissonant jams; the manic ‘False Ending’ and head-spinning blasts of horns on ‘Attack On Love’ made for an album that was disparate yet coherent at the same time. (LISTEN)

  1. Tricky – Maxinquaye (1995) (4th & B’way)

It’s a sad indictment on the blandness of the mainstream rock scene in the ‘90s that Adrian Thaws, a.k.a. former Massive Attack associate Tricky, didn’t become a much bigger star than he actually did. He fell out of fashion so quickly that it’s easy to forget just how exciting and inventive his debut album Maxinquaye was, and how fervently received too. Taking his parent collective’s patented trip-hop sound and ramping up the menace and claustrophobia, including twisted samples and moody dub inflections, making something totally unique, even making British rap a viable prospect for a short time. Working with creative foil Martina Topley-Bird and a certain Alison Goldfrapp, tracks like ‘Overcome’ and ‘Pumpkin’ flitted between beauty and violence, while the slate-grey, clanking beats of ‘Strugglin’’ and ‘Aftermath’ were almost suffocating in their bleakness. Some moments, like a cover of Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel’, tangentially bordered on rock, leaving an entry point for rock fans to Maxinquaye. Sadly, the rest of Tricky’s career arc has represented a big ‘what if’ question, but he is at least responsible for one of the decade’s most intriguing and beautiful debuts. (LISTEN)

  1. Elliott Smith – XO (1998) (DreamWorks)

Following the unexpected and extremely unlikely exposure he enjoyed as a result of ‘Miss Misery’ being nominated for the Oscars after its inclusion on the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting, Smith took the jump from indie to major effortlessly in his stride in musical terms. Seeing the bigger budget and better equipment as an opportunity to expand his sound to hitherto unachievable places, his natural ear for melody and harmony are explored thoroughly in his masterful fourth album XO, full of beautiful pop structures like ‘Independence Day’ that are reminiscent of Big Star and latter-day Beatles. But while Smith may have made his new celebrity profile work for him on record, in his personal life it affected him badly, and a downward spiral of destructive behaviour ensued. (LISTEN)

  1. Depeche Mode – Violator (1990) (Mute)

For critics and fans alike, Depeche Mode’s seventh album Violator represents the group’s creative zenith as well as the height of their commercial popularity. Completing a slow but steady journey from disposable pop merchants to gothic, synth-pop overlords, this was the album that briefly turned them into the biggest band in the world. Clearing out the booming atmospherics of its predecessor Music For The Masses, the record that had gained them a foothold in America, Martin Gore delivered a sophisticated yet soulful collection touching on techno (‘World In My Eyes’) and desiccated balladry (‘Waiting For The Night’). Containing the majestic, brooding singles ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’, Violator is the sound of a great group at the top of its game, and still sounds cutting-edge more than 25 years later. (LISTEN)

  1. Super Furry Animals – Guerrilla (1999) (Creation)

By the end of the decade, eccentric pop geniuses Super Furry Animals were evolving at a frightening rate. Armed with a sampler and the confidence to produce an album by themselves, Guerrilla arguably showcases the Furries at their most cutting-edge and technologically bold. An adventure playground of an album, in which no two tracks are alike but all are in keeping which each other on a thematic level of freewheeling, indulgent experimentation, it’s home to the cool tropical feel of ‘Northern Lites’, the joyous surf-rock of ‘Do Or Die’, the languid drum’n’bass of ‘The Door To This House Remains Open’ and the lonely electronica of ‘Some Things Come From Nothing’. However, the messiest blowout on the album is the incredible ‘Wherever I Lay My Phone (That’s My Phone)’, which sampled and looped interference sounds and Nokia sound effects. Guerrilla would be the Furries’ final album for Creation, and what a spectacular sign-off for the first phase of their career. (LISTEN)

  1. D’Angelo – Brown Sugar (1995) (EMI)

Exploring the glorious past of R&B and soul of Marvin Gaye, Barry White, Smokey Robinson and early Prince and reconfiguring it for the present, D’Angelo’s debut album Brown Sugar is the encapsulation of the non-existent word ‘retro-lutionary’. Looking to the past in order to forge the path forwards, D’Angelo put the rapidly evolving hip-hop and R&B scene of the mid-‘90s back in touch with its pre-rap roots at a crucial time. A fully-formed star and easily marketable to American fans, his smooth falsetto dovetailed perfectly with the slick production and intelligently replicated aesthetics of ‘70s soul jams. A double-platinum success that spawned four huge hit singles, D’Angelo has only released two albums since but remains one of the figureheads of the ‘90s. (LISTEN)

  1. Saint Etienne – Foxbase Alpha (1991) (Heavenly)

Fuelled by swingin’ Sixties London but firmly stamped with the Nineties, Saint Etienne’s debut album Foxbase Alpha is arguably the quintessential early Britpop record, despite not featuring a single guitar. Growing up in London’s suburbs in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley had always been in thrall to pop history, and on their debut album with singer Sarah Cracknell, the epitome of detached cool, they got to live out their musical fantasy. Opening with a breezy reconstruction of Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, turned into a minor-chord 4/4 floor-stomper, they brought a sense of nostalgic sophistication to clubland on the likes of ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ and the string-laden girl-pop of ‘Spring’. Listing London Underground stations alongside global cities in ‘Girl VII’ was a clever encapsulation of the embracing internationalism and melting-pot aesthetics of optimistic Cool Britannia. Saint Etienne were responsible for many classy singles and quality albums in the ‘90s, but as a stylistic mission statement for a career, Foxbase Alpha can’t be beat. (LISTEN)

  1. The Lemonheads – It’s A Shame About Ray (1992) (Atlantic)

One of the most gloriously imperfect and shambolic rock bands in history, for once it all came together for The Lemonheads for their breakthrough fifth album It’s A Shame About Ray. Riding the same wave to mainstream success as many other alternative rock acts in the wake of Nevermind the year before, it was a glorious encapsulation of their mixture of Evan Dando’s classic ‘boy/girl’ songwriting and loud, fuzzy punk guitars (dubbed ‘bubblegrunge’). Each track is a perfectly formed piece of fizzing jangle-pop. Interest was reignited with a slacker-rock re-imagining of ‘Mrs. Robinson’ that was bolted to the end of re-issues as a bonus track, heavy MTV and radio rotation followed and a cult classic was born. Subsequent Lemonheads albums were entertaining fuck-ups and never quite re-captured the consistency of It’s A Shame About Ray, but this is Dando’s undisputed masterpiece. (LISTEN)

  1. Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go (1996) (Epic)

One of the greatest comeback albums of all time, very few had given the Manics any hope when chief songwriter and cult figure Richey Edwards disappeared on the eve of an American tour in early 1995. That they returned at all was testament to their power of resolve – to do so with such tremendous commercial success and artistic brilliance was almost miraculous. Everything Must Go is a testament to the human spirit’s endurance: wounded, grieving, but still breathing and determined to carry on living. The ringing, treble-heavy production and the arena rock strings with which producer Mike Hedges embellished the mix denote not triumphalism but defiance, resulting in a mix of songs that were by turns stirring and passionate then melancholic and reflective, with Edwards’ unfinished lyrics comprising nearly half the record. Led by the class-war sturm-und-drang of ‘A Design For Life’ and spawning three more UK Top Ten singles by the end of 1996, it made the Manics into household names in the unlikeliest of circumstances. (LISTEN)

  1. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – I See A Darkness (1999) (Palace / Domino)

1999 was the perfect time for Will Oldham to release his bleak country masterpiece I See A Darkness. Full of stories of fear, failure, frailty and forgiveness, it made perfect sense in the context of ancient doomsday prophecies and the more pressing worries of the millennium bug. Strangely, for an album in which former child actor Oldham plays characters with a sense of uncanny detachment throughout, I See A Darkness is incredibly stark and intimate, full of classic storytelling skill and folkloric song structures like ‘Another Day Full Of Dread’ that hint at a deeper, blacker truth to humanity. The arrangements are soft and sparse, giving the perfect foil to Oldham’s tremulous voice, and Johnny Cash’s spooky cover of the title track later gave greater weight to all the critical praise the record received. (LISTEN)

  1. Underworld – dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994) (Junior Boy’s Own)

One of the most epochal moments in British dance music, Underworld delivered possibly the first coherent full-length album statement of the genre, lending it critical credibility just as fellow artists like Orbital and The Prodigy were beginning to appeal to musical tribes outside of club culture devotees the same year. The first of the ‘Underworld Mk.II’s holy trinity of albums to feature then-22 year old DJ Darren Emerson in their ranks, the primary achievement of dubnobasswithmyheadman was that it sounded truly multi-generic, exploring texture as well as rhythm. The chillout ambience of ‘Tongue’ and the grimy ‘River Of Bass’ sit perfectly on a record that also contains massive club moments like ‘Cowgirl’, or dreamy epics like ‘Mmm Skyscraper I Love You’. Karl Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness Essex lunacy gave the whole package a key aspect of rock performance artistry, as Underworld raised the bar for dance acts everywhere. (LISTEN)

  1. Fugazi – Repeater (1990) (Dischord)

Having disbanded the legendary Minor Threat six years before, the legendary figure of Ian MacKaye distanced himself from the scene he helped to birth with his second significant band, Fugazi. Sensing an unwelcome shift toward a militant jock mentality in the post-hardcore scene, he assembled an alt-rock dream-team in former Rites Of Spring guitarist Guy Picciotto, bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty, and their first album proper, Repeater, still stands as a key achievement in the American underground. Kicking against all clichés, ditching Minor Threat’s sometimes puritanical streak and inventing a new rulebook with a rhythmically complex and shifting formula, it saw MacKaye point the way forward once again. His and Picciotto’s twin vocal attack paired with Lally and Canty’s prominent rhythm section and made for an irresistible combination of sinewy, gnarled punk and defiant, individualistic lyrics. (LISTEN)

  1. Built To Spill – Perfect From Now On (1997) (Warner Bros.)

Few major labels would have the disposition or patience to reward a commercially unproven indie band with a record consisting of lengthy, winding song structures whose shortest track was a radio-unfriendly five minutes, but that was the kind of thing that happened at the height of the CD era post-Nevermind. Widely regarded as Doug Martsch’s magnum opus, Perfect From Now On managed the difficult balance of being Built To Spill’s most sonically ambitious and accessible record to date as well as its most emotionally satisfying for hardened fans. Few have ever pulled anything like this off, believe us. Going in two-footed with a post-everything ethos, Perfect From Now On blends psychedelic trances, post-punk sparseness and Martsch’s idiosyncratic and affecting singing style into an illogical but coherent whole. (LISTEN)

  1. Björk – Debut (1993) (One Little Indian)

Following the disintegration of The Sugarcubes, the group’s distinctive vocalist Björk Gudmundsdottir moved to London with a batch of songs already written, and set about getting inspiration from some of the most cutting-edge producers in the business. Co-writer Nellee Hooper and 808 State’s Graham Massey, as well as the likes of Goldie and Talvin Singh, all had a hand, but at the centre of it all was an incredible and unique voice, swooping from ecstatic howls and anguished yelps to infant-like sighs, and one which beguiled the world. The sensual ‘Venus As A Boy’, the surging ‘Violently Happy’, the skyscraping theatrics of ‘Play Dead’ and many more besides were the product of a rare talent. In forging this cross-genre masterpiece of house, trip-hop and otherworldly lyrics, Björk created a template for a new kind of singer-songwriter, one that wasn’t reliant on acoustic-guitar-and-angst ‘authenticity’. As a vision of the future, Debut has also aged remarkably well, with modern artists like Grimes, M.I.A., Lady Gaga, Robyn and Tune-Yards continuing to take inspiration from it. (LISTEN)

  1. Daft Punk – Homework (1997) (Virgin / Soma)

Daft Punk acted as a bridge between established dance music styles, sounding completely familiar and yet startlingly new at the same time. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo made club music into a rock experience that could cater for everybody. Their robot helmets are now iconic, but back then they simply wore masks, in keeping with the founding origins of techno’s underground origins – it was about the music, not the performer. Constructing a barrage of choppy beats, clever breaks, rumbling bass and vocoders built into big, dumb and deliriously fun house hits, aided by the MTV success of ingenious videos for ‘Around The World’ and ‘Da Funk’, their debut album Homework shifted European house music away from its Eurodisco fixations in the mid-nineties to where it was seen as a credible genre, now with a truly international reach. (LISTEN)

  1. OutKast – Aquemini (1998) (LaFace)

OutKast are rightly revered today, following their hit-generating albums Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, but their excellent output from the previous decade is a little underappreciated by the public at large. A musically eclectic kick up the backside to virtually all other hip-hop artists at the end of the ‘90s, Big Boi and Andre 3000 just seemed to get better and better with time. Aquemini, their third album brimmed over with unexpected decorations and flourishes of genius that only OutKast could possibly juxtapose with each other – the acoustic guitars, harmonicas and DJ-scratching on the exceptional single ‘Rosa Parks’ being just one. With an earthy, down-home feel courtesy of producers Organized Noize, Aquemini defies rap clichés as if it were positively allergic to them, confirming its status as one of the strangest and most important hip-hop albums of the decade. (LISTEN)

  1. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love (1995) (Island)

Disbanding the PJ Harvey Trio and ditching the detailed, unflinching rage of her first two albums Dry and Rid Of Me, Polly Jean Harvey’s third album saw her deal in sweeping emotions, grand gestures and broad brushstrokes over an expanded range of songcraft and dynamism based on American blues. Naturally, Harvey gives a gripping, dramatic performance throughout, amid the punishing Zeppelin-esque ‘Long Snake Moan’ to the sinister, claustrophobic infanticide tale ‘Down By The Water’, but her new backing band, including long-term collaborators John Parish and Mick Harvey for the first time, is a perfect creative foil. Bringing Harvey to the attention of a wider audience, eventually selling a million copies and snagging a Mercury Music Prize nomination, To Bring You My Love represents a crucial evolutionary point in her consistently dazzling career. (LISTEN)

  1. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (1991) (Creation)

With their obsession with American rock history, the Fannies were so gloriously out of step with virtually everything in Britain in 1991 that it was a huge surprise that they should accidentally stumble upon the Britpop formula two years early. With all three ‘lead singers’ in top form, their almost impossibly perfect third album Bandwagonesque was a dozen tracks of retro, sunshine-dappled power-pop genius that was unashamedly indebted to The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Big Star. Although it was packed with classic indie singles of the ‘90s (‘The Concept’, ‘What You Do To Me’ and ‘Star Sign’) as well as gorgeous tear-jerkers (‘Guiding Star’ and ‘December’), some wrote off Teenage Fanclub as unimaginative, but it was here that British rock started to look to the past for inspiration. Their approach certainly had its fans – Bandwagonesque even beat the legendary Nevermind to the NME’s Album of the Year, and won praise and patronage from a certain K. Cobain! (LISTEN)

  1. Blur – Parklife (1994) (Food)

Although Modern Life Is Rubbish was a slow-burning critical hit, Blur were in desperate financial straits when they entered the studio to record their third album. Damon Albarn took the sounds of classic British guitar pop, from The Kinks to XTC, and used his sharpened satire to articulate the 1990s zeitgeist. From its rambunctious terrace-chant title track and the joyous new-wave of ‘Girls & Boys’ to the bleary-eyed ‘Badhead’ and the stunning melancholia of ‘This Is A Low’, Parklife took the message of its predecessor and doubled down. Remaining in the UK charts for 90 weeks having debuted at number 1 and scooping an unprecedented four prizes at the following year’s BRIT Awards, Parklife took Blur from forgotten outsiders to the prime movers of a British youthquake and ubiquitous tabloid stars in a few short months. (LISTEN)

  1. Sleater-Kinney – Dig Me Out (1997) (Kill Rock Stars)

Sleater-Kinney’s first album for the established indie imprint Kill Rock Stars was the first of two masterpieces in their career, and the most substantial evolution they had made yet. Musically, the permanent addition of Janet Weiss on drums made their trademark sound complete, bringing heart and soul as well as bludgeoning percussive force. But Dig Me Out recognised the key utilitarian aspect of punk: that it should teach empathy as well as mere grandstanding against authority. With tracks like ‘Little Babies’, critiquing stereotypes of motherhood, and ‘Dig Me Out’ that took on rock music itself, Sleater-Kinney were able to communicate across the gender divide, at least more subtly than most groups from the increasingly defunct riot-grrl scene had been capable of doing. Together, Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Weiss are a three-headed hydra on Dig Me Out, each bringing something different but of equal value to a whole that adds up to more than the sum of its parts. (LISTEN)

  1. Pulp – His ‘N’ Hers (1994) (Island)

Having toiled in the hinterlands of British indie for well over a decade, Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp made their move off the sidelines with their breakthrough fourth album His ‘N’ Hers. Often unfairly overlooked in the shadow of its exceptional, Britpop-defining successor Different Class, it’s actually very nearly as brilliant, containing a handful of the band’s finest moments but also which, more importantly, finally established their musical and lyrical obsessions. Combining the immediacy of pop with the intelligent inclusion of art-rock influences dating back to glam and post-punk, Cocker was capable of being low-brow yet intellectual, his songs cheap yet sophisticated. The tense boredom of ‘Acrylic Afternoons’, the explosion of fuzzy guitars on ‘Lipgloss’, the sexual psychodrama of ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’… these were brilliant set-pieces from a burgeoning lyricist who was still approaching the top of his game. (LISTEN)

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm (1990) (Jive / RCA)

One of the most distinctive rap debuts in history, People’s Instinctive Travels… established ATCQ as hip-hop’s most lovable philosophers on the back of its intricate production and the positive messages of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s lyrics. A blend of Afrocentric raps and inventive sampling from all kinds of curious places – the use of Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ for the beatific ‘Can I Kick It?’ to name just one example – it set itself apart from the macho posturing of a lot of rap to make something more profound and meditative. Every individual moment has something different to it – the incredible detail in the jazz-inflected beauty ‘I Left My Wallet In El Segundo’ and the low-slung party-starter ‘Bonita Applebum’ are some of the finest hip-hop cuts of the decade, but there was even better still to come from ATCQ. (LISTEN)

  1. Pet Shop Boys – Behaviour. (1990) (Parlophone)

After years of being sneered at by music critics for being a lightweight pop band, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe threw those jibes back in their faces with their fourth album Behaviour. Roping in Angelo Badalamenti and movie soundtrack composer Harold Faltermeyer, they initially wrongfooted even their most loyal fans with the new album’s almost complete lack of dancefloor-orientated numbers, opting for cinematic, often orchestrated productions that emphasised mood and atmosphere over melody. But the gamble paid off, as the results were uniformly dazzling. Contrast ‘Being Boring’, the closest ever musical expression of a sigh, with the booming beats and rock guitar licks of ‘How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously?’ and the pomp and circumstance of symphonic closer ‘Jealousy’ – this was the work of pop geniuses. A symphonic masterpiece that put Pet Shop Boys among Britain’s finest ever pop acts. (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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