The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Leftfield – Leftism (1995) (Hard Hands / Columbia)

It was feverishly anticipated and took the best part of two years to arrive, but Leftism was merely the formal coronation of Neil Barnes and Paul Daley as the kings of British house music, something that critics and hardened dance fans had known for some time. Containing new tracks and re-worked versions of the cult singles that had made Leftfield so highly rated ever since they had collaborated with the legendary John Lydon on the inflammatory ‘Open Up’ back in 1993, Leftism was an intense melting pot of globally-sourced sounds to stir the heart (‘Melt’ and ‘Inspection (Check One)’) as well as ribcage-shaking beats and bass to leave to you weak at the knees (the incredible drops on ‘Release The Pressure’ and ‘Original’). It may have been a dance album in format, but the genre-crossing spirit and scope of imagination displayed on Leftism proved that house music could translate to a full-length listening experience. (LISTEN)

  1. Public Enemy – Fear Of A Black Planet (1990) (Def Jam / Columbia)

1988’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back had made Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and Terminator X into cult heroes, delivering seething political screeds and consciousness lectures while the rest of the world treated hip-hop as a party-jam novelty, but mainstream popularity – in short, a hit – still eluded them. That all changed when director Spike Lee commissioned Public Enemy to record a track for his classic movie Do The Right Thing, and they delivered ‘Fight The Power’, an authority-defying signature song par excellence that inspired what would become their third album. Fear Of A Black Planet was a wild, swirling, densely layered album, touching upon black pop musical traditions at a frenetic pace with barely a pause for breath, with hard funk, soulful grooves, cool Motown horns, dub reggae, breakbeat… all swooping and dive-bombing around in the mix. Helping the public at large to see rap as a valid art form rather than a single-based novelty, world domination was theirs. (LISTEN)

  1. Björk – Post (1995) (One Little Indian)

With the title and cover art suggesting a homesickness for her native Iceland, as well as an internationalist embrace, Björk’s second album was a very different kind of masterpiece. Post transposed the pop magic of Debut (see #60) onto the kind of high-yield experimentation with which we now associate her. It’s an almost-complete move from the brilliance of her first album to 1998’s flawless, gleaming Homogenic, like seeing a 95%-completed skyscraper that still has the scaffolding around it, and the fact that you can still see the seams and the method of its construction makes it all the more fascinating. Recruiting some of the finest producers in dance, from Tricky to 808 State’s Graham Massey, Björk delivered a record of startling contrasts in mood and texture that nevertheless made sense as an avant-pop whole. Including the marvellously kitsch brass-fuelled ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’, a sore thumb in a sequence of cutting-edge electronica and dance, Post was totally spectacular. (LISTEN)

  1. Suede – Dog Man Star (1994) (Nude)

Possibly the greatest flawed masterpiece in pop history, Suede’s second album was an unlikely triumph in the context of 1994. With Blur and Oasis-based Britpop in full flow, and with their mercurial guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler fired most of the way through recording in acrimonious circumstances, their very survival was at stake, but Suede played on and went all in. From the hypnotic absurdist imagery of opener ‘Introducing The Band’ to the lavish orchestration of ‘Still Life’, Dog Man Star was often cosmically overblown in its sprawling portrayal of a grimy, paranoid dystopia, but was a riveting spectacle throughout. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. A bold artistic gamble that shows Butler’s creative partnership and rivalry with singer Brett Anderson hotting up to the point where sparks fly, it underperformed at the time but quickly became a fan favourite, and is generally held to be Suede’s finest work. (LISTEN)

  1. Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (1990) (4AD)

Proving that new parenthood doesn’t necessarily cause total burnout, the arrival of Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie’s baby daughter proved to be the inspiration for Cocteau Twins’ career best, and what Ivo Watts-Russell described as 4AD’s finest ever album. Heaven Or Las Vegas is the warmest and most inviting of all of the Cocteaus’ back catalogue, indicated by the bold blues and reds of the artwork where previous works had been monochrome or sepia-tinted. A previously cryptic and mysterious band seemed to share a little of themselves for the first time, as Simon Raymonde’s rhythms and drum programming shared equal billing alongside some of Guthrie’s most distinctive guitar soundscapes on the likes of ‘Iceblink Luck’ and, for the first time, actual intelligible lyrics from Fraser! A perfect entry point to the Cocteau Twins, balancing pop accessibility with impressionism. (LISTEN)

  1. Liz Phair – Exile In Guyville (1993) (Matador)

Her name might not be widely known now, but indie singer-songwriter Liz Phair scored a significant cultural and critical hit with her debut album. Channelling the fears of young adulthood and of relationship breakdown and dissatisfaction into 18 taut, lo-fi productions set to quiet electric guitar and keyboards, Exile In Guyville seemed to be a lightning rod for a movement, spawning a wave of female imitators in American indie. The emotional forthrightness of the self-loathing ‘Fuck And Run’ and breakup anthem ‘6’1”’ were just the very best of a consistently clear-eyed and unflinching analysis. Phair herself was never able to match it, remaining modest about her accomplishment in later years, saying “I just wanted people who thought I was not worth talking to, to listen to me.” But that in itself said it all – Exile In Guyville was a timely feminine counter-point to the overwhelmingly male complaint-rock that increasingly characterised the American guitar scene as the Nineties advanced. (LISTEN)

  1. The Prodigy – The Fat Of The Land (1997) (XL)

A perfect marriage of rock performance theatrics with the full-on energy of rave, The Fat Of The Land broke The Prodigy on both sides of the Atlantic in a seriously big way. Kickstarted by the provocative sound and imagery of massive single ‘Firestarter’ and its video, their third album melds guitars, sampling, hip-hop and electronica to make something dark yet seductive and hedonistic, and a generation lapped it up as it became the fastest-selling British album in history by the end of the ‘90s. Controversy was stamped all over the album – the dubious lyrics of ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ were brilliantly subverted by its incredible (and banned) video, and the album itself took its title from a Hermann Goering quotation – but the criticisms of shock tactics were short-lived once everybody realised The Fat Of The Land was a true classic. (LISTEN)

  1. Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995) (Virgin)

Ditching Siamese Dream producer Butch Vig and professing his intention to make “The Wall for Generation X”, Billy Corgan’s third Smashing Pumpkins album was a great illustration of the curious way in which many of the biggest American guitar acts of the mid-‘90s were turning inwards, away from the commercial spotlight to make bold, different statements to what had gone before. But where the likes of Pearl Jam and R.E.M. were met with scepticism by the public, Mellon Collie… massively increased the Pumpkins’ profile and became one of the defining American rock albums of the decade. Sprawling across 28 tracks, two full CDs and over two hours, it boasted some of their most violent and compelling metal explorations to date, but they rubbed shoulders with acoustic confessionals, synth-based requiems, twilit laments and beautiful, string-swept chamber pop. A stunning and virtually unparalleled achievement in terms of ambition. (LISTEN)

  1. Guided By Voices – Alien Lanes (1995) (Matador)

With their unpretentious brand of hook-laden indie rock, compressed into minute-long song sketches, Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices are in many ways the American equivalent of Mark E Smith and The Fall – prolific cult heroes who play by their own rules with a dedicated fanbase. The creative apex following nearly a decade of hard touring, rapid writing and recording and gradually improving returns, their eighth album Alien Lanes saw them wisely stick to their lo-fi guns despite a generous advance from Matador that could have seen them go for the mainstream jugular. Squeezing 28 tracks into precisely 41 minutes, these little gems sound like doodles drawn in a flash of inspirational genius amid boredom, it is flawlessly catchy guitar pop stripped down to its bare essentials, channelling the glorious melodies of ‘60s British Invasion and ‘80s post-punk but ignoring the bullshit of convention. (LISTEN)

  1. Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996) (Jeepster)

Following the enormous word-of-mouth success surrounding their limited edition debut Tigermilk (see #110), If You’re Feeling Sinister was Belle & Sebastian’s first proper attempt at a widespread release as a permanent band. On the surface, nothing about it seems exceptional, consisting of ten lo-fi songs regarding romantic and sexual frustration, bookish nerdiness, crises of confidence, existentialism… all the things to interest your average shy teenager, basically. But they are delivered so universally compellingly, in Murdoch’s high-pitched croon, and by such a tight unit of musicians playing in a variety of tempos and textures that you cannot help but be drawn in. Drawing inspiration from ‘60s folk to the janglier, C86 end of British indie in the 1980s, from Nick Drake and the Jeremy soundtrack to The Smiths and Felt, If You’re Feeling Sinister was a suite of outsider songs dedicated to the uncertainties and anxieties of youth. (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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