The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call (1997) (Mute)

Consisting of twelve beautifully crafted songs of heartache and doubt, The Boatman’s Call is held to be one of the greatest break-up albums of all time, inspired by the disintegration of Cave’s first marriage and then the abrupt ending of a brief but passionate romance with PJ Harvey. For all the imagery and mythology of his typical work, The Boatman’s Call is ironically a success because of the stark absence of such adornments, instead opting for to present his anger, despair, anxiety and self-loathing in an up-front and honest manner, with absolutely minimal clutter and as non-intrusively arranged as possible. The Bad Seeds, rather than raging demonically, provide a stately undertow to Cave’s diary-like lyrics of introspection and yearning. However, The Boatman’s Call isn’t a miserable experience at all, but life-affirming, because Cave isn’t manipulating the listener in any way or playing the subject material for laughs, an impression reflected in the plain, monochrome artwork. In this way, it’s the purest distillation of his amazing talent as a songwriter in his entire catalogue. (LISTEN)

  1. PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me (1993) (Island)

The first of three undisputed masterpiece of Polly Jean Harvey’s incredible catalogue to date, her major label debut is one of the Nineties’ most purely abrasive sonic achievements. With her British vowels and love of dirty, rusty blues riffs played in a hardened punk style, Rid Of Me’s various sexualised barbs came as a refreshing antidote to the American male-led grunge deluge that was swamping the music scene. The taut, explosive dynamics of Harvey’s backing band on predecessor Dry (see #95) were given extra impetus by the production of Steve Albini, with the bass and drums given an astonishing low-end kick, while Harvey’s guitar is compressed and almost animalised. The scattershot racket of ‘50ft. Queenie’, the male-baiting ‘Man-Size’ and bone-rattling ‘Rub It ‘Til It Bleeds’ are only the most breathtaking moments in an album of performance artistry, into which Harvey puts every single piece of her heart and soul. Smouldering and smoking with fire and brimstone, Rid Of Me sears itself onto your consciousness. (LISTEN)

  1. Radiohead – The Bends (1995) (Parlophone)

Struggling to shake off the albatross of perception caused by the massive success of their signature hit ‘Creep’, Radiohead took the brave step of effectively killing their golden goose by recording a breathtaking acoustic cover version on 1994’s My Iron Lung EP and vowing to never play their most famous song again in public. Fortunately for them, their next album would be an enormous leap forwards. The Bends was a case of the creation and resolution of tensions, not only in lead singer Thom Yorke’s lyrical themes of social dislocation and youthful alienation but also in the contrasts between warmth and anxiety, of rock and post-rock, of the personal and the political. For every moment of cathartic angst expressed through noisy, discordant guitars (‘Planet Telex’, ‘Just’, ‘My Iron Lung’, ‘Sulk’) there’s a tender and beautiful acoustic piece that sends shivers up your spine (‘Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was’, ‘(Nice Dream)’, ‘High And Dry’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’). A massive critical and commercial success, spending more than three years in the British charts and yielding five Top 20 hits, The Bends is Radiohead’s straightforward ‘rock’ masterwork, also providing them with an escape hatch from their own success, allowing them to reinvent themselves. Of course, it would not be the only time they would do this. (LISTEN)

  1. Elliott Smith – Either/Or (1997) (Kill Rock Stars)

Finally departing his band Heatmiser to concentrate on his solo work, Elliott Smith recorded what many of his fans consider to be his very finest album, Either/Or. As with his first two albums, it was recorded entirely by himself with his familiar lo-fi homemade techniques, but Smith plays more instruments, meaning the songs aren’t simply ‘one man’s confessionals and his guitar’ but resemble full-band structures at times, and take on increased subtlety and depth as a result. His obvious love of The Beatles and Big Star is also much more evident. Alternating between tremulous fear and dark romance one moment (‘2:45 AM’, the drinking ode ‘Between The Bars’) and fragile optimism the next (‘Say Yes’, ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’), Either/Or has a massive emotional payload, a harrowingly intimate and indispensable collection containing several of Smith’s best songs in a concise 37 minute package. It would also be his final album as a cult icon, as director Gus Van Sant’s use of several of Either/Or’s songs in Good Will Hunting gave him massive exposure. (LISTEN)

  1. Weezer – Pinkerton (1996) (DGC)

Two decades after its release and its initial failure, Weezer’s second album Pinkerton has now sold well over a million copies and is regarded as one of the finest alternative rock albums of the ‘90s, and is one of the touchstones of the genre that came to be known as ‘emo’ in the decade after its release. It’s certainly one of the most emotionally devastating and vulnerable albums to ever be released on a major label, not to mention artistically risky. The reason for the initial backlash against Pinkerton appears to have been mainly due to the change in Rivers Cuomo’s tone of delivery. Sure, the nerd-rock of the multi-platinum success of ‘The Blue Album’ was still there, but the geekiness was not meant to be cute this time round. Cuomo’s lyrics were an unflinching, confessional analysis of the author’s own incompetence and misgivings, lending the album a kind of unnerving quality that you nevertheless can’t tear yourself away from, like reading a stolen diary. Angsty yet self-aware and blackly humorous throughout, especially on meltdowns like ‘Tired Of Sex’, Pinkerton is Cuomo’s finest hour. (LISTEN)

  1. Pavement – Slanted And Enchanted (1992) (Matador)

While Nirvana may have broken down the door for alternative rock in 1991 with the cultural phenomenon that was Nevermind, it is hard to imagine the subsequent evolution of American indie as the 1990s progressed without the impact that Pavement had. Without them, it is hard to imagine the ‘lo-fi’ movement, or the widespread turn to post-modernism and irony within the underground scene in America happening, in the same way. That legacy almost entirely rests with their debut album Slanted And Enchanted. Recorded in the space of just seven days in a garage for only $800, it’s amazing how refreshingly free of convention it is, in terms of both structure and sound. Its lo-fi, raggedy flaws and imperfections make it, weirdly, uniquely perfect. Combining a joyous love for noise and experimentation with unorthodox but distinctively pop instincts, with different influences and ideas, like the mellow indie of ‘Here’ to the flamethrower of ‘Summer Babe’, sitting in unresolved contrast to each other, Slanted And Enchanted is fundamental to the DNA of guitar music as it has evolved since the Nineties. (LISTEN)

  1. Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) (Food)

The genus of Blur’s gloriously unlikely revival from yesterday’s men to prime Britpop movers lies in their traumatic tour of America in the wake of Nevermind. Conceived of as a musical and pop-cultural backlash against American grunge and the mindless consumerism they saw encroaching back home, Damon Albarn plotted and executed a complete overhaul of Blur’s paradigm. Ideology, image and music were all very British-focussed (The Kinks, The Jam, XTC) but without slipping into flag-waving, and it was completely different to anything else around at the time. The jaw-dropping lead single ‘For Tomorrow’ could have been penned by Ray Davies himself, whereas the daft, charming knees-up of ‘Sunday Sunday’, the brass-tinged ‘Star Shaped’ and the atmospheric ‘Blue Jeans’ showed Albarn to be a skilled interpreter of outside influences. Modern Life Is Rubbish performed modestly at first, but word gradually began to spread about Blur’s relaunch. Touring almost constantly throughout 1993, they were able to headline the second stage at that year’s Reading Festival. Against all odds and prevailing fashions, Blur had acquired that rarest of assets: momentum. Parklife, and all their subsequent successes, as well as the Britpop scene itself, simply cannot be explained without Modern Life Is Rubbish. (LISTEN)

  1. Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998) (V2)

After spending most of the decade dabbling in druggy, proggy psychedelia to diminishing returns, Jonathan Donohue’s Mercury Rev decided to record an album just for themselves, regardless of commercial or label pressures, expecting to split up afterwards. What they crafted was heartbreakingly beautiful, and made an enormous splash both at home and internationally. With producer Dave Fridmann (simultaneously bringing The Flaming Lips’ genius The Soft Bulletin to life) adding classical music instruments – strings, horns, and woodwinds – to the mix rather than layers upon layers of distorted guitars, and then mastering the album to 35mm magnetic film in a highly unusual move, it gave the already ethereal music of Deserter’s Songs an extra, dreamlike layer and a cinematic quality. Take the sheer, wide-eyed ecstasy of simply being alive in ‘Tonite It Shows’ or radio hit ‘Goddess On A Hiway’; the cosmic melancholy and dream logic of ‘Holes’ and ‘Endlessly’; or the frenetic psychedelic blowout of ‘Delta Sun Bottleneck Stomp’… in the absolute stakes of beauty, Deserter’s Songs was one of the achievements of the decade. (LISTEN)

  1. Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992) (Death Row / Interscope / Priority)

Dre’s considerable reputation today is built on the foundations of The Chronic, an album that defined and shaped West Coast hip-hop and gangsta rap like no other, and which also established the rap impresario as a star in his own right, even after already having revolutionised hip-hop once with N.W.A. He did this by bringing on board an arsenal of young MCs, including a then-unknown Snoop Dogg, and inventing a whole new genre of G-funk, manufactured by minimising the samples, emphasising simpler, fatter beats and rhythms reminiscent of ‘70s soul and funk. With amazing party cuts like ‘Let Me Ride’ and ‘Nuthin’ But A G-Thang’, Dre brought gangsta rap to the pop charts, and had a huge hand in the popularity of between-track ‘skits’ as rivals sought to replicate its cinematic flow. While its production and stylistic aesthetics firmly make it a product of its era, with hip-hop having moved on since, The Chronic is arguably the single most purely influential record of the decade outside of Nevermind. (LISTEN)

  1. Neutral Milk Hotel – In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998) (Merge / Blue Rose)

In the internet age, many classic albums have their status conferred upon them instantly, but few of them, if any, earn that status over two decades. A huge qualitative and quantitative leap forwards from On Avery Island, an undeniably fine debut, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea saw NMH’s leader Jeff Mangum create a kaleidoscopic psych-folk masterpiece from his passionate vocal style and bizarre songwriting. Rumoured (but never confirmed) to be based upon the life of Anne Frank, what keeps the listener coming back is that the songs are far too cryptic and abstract to be digested in one go, yet there’s more than enough recognisable terrain in structure and influence, taken from a century’s worth of American music, to hook you in immediately. From the ‘King Of Carrot Flowers’ suite to the sprawling ‘Oh Comely’, the fast-flowing imagery could pass for the work of Dylan at his mid-‘60s peak. Mangum has not recorded a full-length album in the 19 years since, giving In The Aeroplane… an added layer of mystique as subsequent generations of fans have discovered and mined the album for their own inspiration and tried to figure out what it means – but that lack of resolution or explanation makes it all the more thrilling. Jason Ankeny’s summation for Allmusic captures it perfectly: “undoubtedly a major statement, but just what it’s saying is anyone’s guess.” (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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