The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992) (Apollo)

Compared to the frenetic, mind-bending digital compositions for which he’s now known, Richard D. James’ first artistic statement can initially seem rather tame. Simple, ambient soundscapes and twinkly mini-melodies built on gentle, stumbling beats are the order of the day. Recorded with second-hand, repurposed equipment and using the established dictates of house and techno as a template only, James took the genre in a shockingly original direction. The opening ‘Xtal’ is aural perfection; ‘Ageispolis’ and ‘We Are The Music Makers’ toy with hip-hop rhythms; and ‘Ptolemy’ is weirdly anxious and fidgety yet blissful. A landmark in electronica and ambient music, as well as a key evolutionary marker in the development of IDM, SAW85-92 is rudimentary but remains as ethereal and haunting as it was more than a quarter of a century ago, and just as informative and influential to contemporary artists. (LISTEN)

  1. Super Furry Animals – Radiator (1997) (Creation)

Arriving just 15 months after their debut, SFA managed to both double down on the musical and cultural mayhem of Fuzzy Logic and expand their sound on Radiator, building in elements of the madcap techno that had been their original mission statement back in 1993. Virtually everybody else that attempts a record like this emerges with a messy brain-dump, but the Furries delivered their career-best. Cramming experimental sounds and techniques into accessible pop structures and timeframes courtesy of Gruff Rhys’ strongest songs to date, the methods worked perfectly on retro-futurist gems like ‘The International Language Of Screaming’, ‘Hermann ’s Pauline’ and ‘The Placid Casual’. Melodies and counter-melodies intertwine, brightened with dense, detailed production quality and pieced together with an expert eye – but most importantly of all, Radiator was fantastic fun as the Furries perfected the art of the adventure playground album. (LISTEN)

  1. Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) (Matador)

The golden age of Yo La Tengo continued apace in 1997 with I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, their first album to enter the Billboard charts. Ranging in construction from long, open-ended cosmic jams to short, vulnerable ballads and dissonant thumbnail sketches, everything on ICHTHBAO was dedicated to pushing back the boundaries of their sound, opening up the indie-rock of their other masterpiece Electro-O-Pura (see #73) to countless new influences. There’s the bossanova of ‘Center Of Gravity’, the electronic grooves of ‘Autumn Sweater’, the krautrock jam of ‘Spec Bebop’, the jazz sprawl of ‘Moby Octopad’, the trip-hop-influenced ‘Damage’, and the psychedelic folk feel of ‘We’re An American Band’… there are few other records that are so simply about the joys of experimentation than Yo La Tengo’s eighth effort, the sound of a band in thrall of all the possibilities out there. (LISTEN)

  1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F# A# Infinity (1997) (Constellation / Kranky)

Virtually completely ignored on its first limited-edition vinyl pressing yet gaining massive critical adoration with its extended CD re-issue, Canadian post-rock nine-piece GY!BE produced one of the most singular and moving works of the decade with their debut album proper. Like an audio representation of what the end of days might sound like, this post-apocalyptic mood-piece compiled field recordings and unsettling spoken-word samples (from the lonely rumble of a distant train to the shouting of a street preacher) with sublime, majestic instrumental passages constructed from alien guitar sounds, and violin and cellos. Unmistakably yet undefinably political, although there wasn’t a single lyric anywhere, F# A# Infinity seemed to depict a barren wasteland ravaged by market forces and internecine warfare between failed superpowers. The collapse of humanity has never sounded so beautiful. (LISTEN)

  1. R.E.M. – Out Of Time (1991) (Warner Bros.)

The album that took them from cult heroes to international superstars, the colossal overground success of R.E.M.’s Out Of Time is even more remarkable when you consider they didn’t even tour to support it. It was also a bit of an artistic gamble, too: laying off the electric guitars and leaning more towards experimentation with other instruments, most notably Peter Buck’s mandolin on crossover smash ‘Losing My Religion’, the album is flush with bright, generous songs like ‘Near Wild Heaven’ or ‘Country Feedback’ that for the first time touch on the personal rather than just the political, and with lush, orchestrated production to make one of the biggest rock albums of the decade. Topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and spending over three and a half years on the British charts, scooping three Grammys and selling more than 18 million copies around the world, Out Of Time massively multiplied R.E.M.’s following while keeping the band’s existing fans happy. (LISTEN)

  1. The Verve – A Northern Soul (1995) (Hut / Vernon Yard)

‘Cathartic’ is an overused word in music criticism these days, but if that adjective can be used for any album, it’s The Verve’s highly-charged, slate-grey second album. Moving away from the gentle psychedelia of their debut A Storm In Heaven to a torrential take on alternative rock, A Northern Soul was a gigantic evolution. Nick McCabe’s inspired guitar work, a mass of effects pedals, led the band’s swirling, heady musical brew produced by the charismatic Owen Morris, while Richard Ashcroft was transformed into a kind of Celine Dion figure for young northern-British men, articulating the aimless rage and ennui of teenage hormones and bored youth in dead-end satellite towns. But for every noisy existential howl like ‘This Is Music’ there was a ruminative quiet moment like ‘Life’s An Ocean’. The rambling, string-swept epic of ‘History’, inspired by William Blake’s poem ‘London’, pointed the way towards Urban Hymns. A cult favourite compared to the smash hit of its successor, A Northern Soul more than deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. (LISTEN)

  1. Sugar – Copper Blue (1992) (Creation / Rykodisc)

For all of his undoubted creative and critical achievements with ‘80s alternative-rock icons Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould arguably did his very finest and certainly most popular work outside the band with which he is synonymous. Copper Blue, his first album with Sugar, gave him total artistic control and while he maintained the Hüskers’ volume and his trademark roaring vocals and bitter lyrics, the tempo was slowed down and melody was pushed to the fore in a brightly-defined wall of noise, and the results were uniformly stunning. Epic in terms of both noise and its cinematic vistas, the likes of the vertiginous ‘Hoover Dam’, the Pixies homage ‘A Good Idea’, the surging, bitter-sweet power pop of ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ made Copper Blue the first genuinely commercially successful record in Mould’s long and distinguished career. (LISTEN)

  1. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991) (Jive / RCA)

Fusing hip-hop with jazz in a way that has rarely been heard before or since, rap innovators A Tribe Called Quest astonishingly managed to improve on the magnificence of their debut the previous year (see #52). A cool and uncluttered atmosphere of minimalist beats and hooks over laid-back jazz samples, it’s a perfect backdrop for Q-Tip and Phife Dawg’s unique flows, emphasising social and racial problems over the guns’n’bitches paradigm that was becoming prevalent in other hip-hop. The upright bass of legendary jazz figure Ron Carter on ‘Verses From The Abstract’ and the self-mythologising of ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)’ were just the prime cuts on a timeless collection. The musical ground ATCQ covered on The Low End Theory is stunning, and its structure and genre-straddling outlook set a benchmark which is referred to even today, with artists like Kanye and Kendrick taking inspiration. (LISTEN)

  1. The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (1999) (Merge)

Proving the old adage about inspiration and perspiration in creative process, the origin of Stephin Merritt’s career-defining masterwork 69 Love Songs was stunningly simple in concept but immensely difficult to pull off in practice. Consisting of thumbnail song sketches that are ironically detached yet feel so disarmingly familiar, it was a concept album about love songs, rather than love itself. Sprawling across three discs and nearly three hours but covering virtually every conceivable genre and performed on every conceivable instrument, from country balladry (‘Papa Was A Rodeo’) to power pop (‘Crazy For You (But Not That Crazy)’) and galaxies in between. Analysing, skewering and subverting the clichés of love songs and pop songwriting in general, 69 Love Songs is an exhausting but exhilarating listening marathon, consistently upending the listener’s expectations in the way that all the greatest art is supposed to. Furthermore, there literally is something for everyone within! (LISTEN)

  1. Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994) (Creation)

Charging through the door that Suede and Blur had kicked down, Oasis came to define Britpop in the minds of the public at large. The keys to their debut album Definitely Maybe’s colossal success then and its enduringly fresh sound today were producer Owen Morris’ ability to capture the group’s live energy on record, and the complete lack of pretension in the songs, obviously derived from classic rock sources though they were. Noel Gallagher’s genius was to take something utterly familiar and make it life-affirming and soul-enriching. His younger brother Liam’s vocals are almost a natural wonder of the world, pitched between Lennon and Lydon on the likes of ‘Slide Away’ and ‘Up In The Sky’. But it isn’t just the classic Britpop singles that make Definitely Maybe great, and neither is it the incalculable influence it’s had on so many British bands since, not even the sales figures and the chart positions. It’s the nature of that success: five working class men from Manchester shaking up a complacent and fundamentally middle class music industry, inspiring, connecting with and giving hope to so many regular people. (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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