The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

The Top 200 Albums of the 1990s

  1. Portishead – Dummy (1994) (Go! Beat)

Initially rooted in the same Bristol-based scene that spawned Massive Attack and Tricky, Portishead took a slightly different route to their ideological allies. Their haunting debut album Dummy is the very essence of ‘trip-hop’, a label that everybody dealing in low-bpm, atmospheric electronica despised in the ‘90s. The disjointed breakbeats that characterised the genre were skilfully overlaid here by all manner of foreign elements, such as smoky jazz, live strings, tape loops, movie soundtrack samples and the revived art of record-scratching, by producers Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley to create a series of dark, flickering and deeply alluring soundscapes. However, the dessicated, hollowed-out vocals of Beth Gibbons that stalked these tracks, hanging over them like a spectre, were the flourish that made Dummy spectacular, from the spine-tingling torch song ‘Sour Times’ to the sombre ‘Roads’ and the moody, cinematic ‘Wandering Star’. A sonic mixture that appealed to every music fan with taste, Portishead broke new ground with Dummy, embracing musicianship and technology to forge a different kind of virtuosity in pop music. (LISTEN)

  1. DJ Shadow – Endtroducing… (1996) (Mo’Wax)

Endtroducing… is the album that birthed a legend, but which has acted as an albatross for its creator ever since. Consisting mainly of moody, slow-paced and cinematic tracks, punctuated by shorter, faster hip-hop based jams that characterised Josh Davis’s very earliest work, Endtroducing… is its own little universe, being the first ever album to be constructed entirely from samples. It is a musical netherworld, of horror movie pianos, slowed-down funky breaks and snatches of soul vocals, where genre boundaries are blurred to the point of irrelevance, and where texture and ambience reigns supreme. As opposed to other crate-digging enthusiasts who tended to simply build in one, two or more loops and vocal samples in order to create party-starting anthems, Davis saw hip-hop as an innovation in and of itself, without the trappings of politics, fashion and nostalgia that were often associated with first-wave hip-hop and the gangster rap of the early ‘90s. As such, the listener is invited to feel complex emotions on ‘What Does Your Soul Look Like’ and ‘Midnight In A Perfect World’. Such a groundbreaking album, in purely ‘state-of-the-art’ terms, would make this list even if it wasn’t that great artistically, but Endtroducing… is a true and unique masterpiece for the ages. (LISTEN)

  1. Nas – Illmatic (1994) (Columbia)

Just 20 years old when Illmatic was released, Nasir Jones truly seemed like an old head on young shoulders. A discerning yet detailed first-person account of gang rivalries and the economic and spirit-grinding poverty of growing up in a project in Queens, the pictures painted on ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’ and ‘Life’s A Bitch’ made Nas at once seem globally-minded yet provincial, able to address the grandest of themes yet cover the minutiae of daily life – crucially, as far away from the West Coast gangsta rap scene as possible. Nas himself said in 2012: “It wasn’t about being a rap star; it was about anything other than. I want you to know who I am: what the streets taste like, feel like, smell like.” But his battle-hardened rapping, while it would be great enough on its own to make Illmatic a classic, is only half the story. Ranging from the earth-shaking beats dropped by DJ Premier on ‘Represent’, to the soulful jazz inflections from ATCQ’s Q-Tip on ‘One Love’, raise the album to the level of an inner-city masterpiece – though it is defined by realism, Illmatic transcends its surroundings. (LISTEN)

  1. Beck – Odelay (1996) (DGC)

Possibly the most stylistically diverse million-selling record of the ‘90s, Beck Hansen triumphantly proved that he wasn’t a one-hit-wonder with his genre-mixing musical cluster bomb Odelay. Luring The Dust Brothers out of retirement, the genius producers behind Beastie Boys’ sample-heavy masterpiece Paul’s Boutique seven years earlier, the album fused guitar-based rock, country and smatterings of hardcore punk to soul, funk, psychedelia and hip-hop, but it didn’t drown out Beck’s unique, anti-folk style and his talent for arrangement that had won him so many fans with MTV smash ‘Loser’ a couple of years earlier. Despite the head-rushing onslaught of styles, everything makes such complete and utter sense, even to a new listener, that you’re left wondering why others don’t try the same. The answer is, of course, that nobody except him could. With an album containing the irresistibly funky shuffle of ‘The New Pollution’, the old-skool rap trapping of ‘Where It’s At’, the mournful country lament of ‘Lord Only Knows’ and the robotic riff of ‘Devil’s Haircut’, Beck rationalised all manner of seeming cultural detritus to make a quintessentially Nineties alt-pop classic. (LISTEN)

  1. Boards Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children (1998) (Warp / Matador)

Every now and again, a record comes along that totally changes the way you think about and listen to music and becomes a short-hand for a new sub-genre it busts open, and Boards Of Canada’s first proper full-length, Music Has The Right To Children is certainly one of those. Sure, everyone from Tangerine Dream and Brian Eno to Aphex Twin had forged the path of ambient music going back 25 years, but Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin opened it up to stunning new vistas and a further, deeper range of possibilities. It’s a deceptive record of pastoral folktronica, built from layers of analogue melodies, subtle scratching, and a parade of downtempo bpms and distorted vocal samples and found sounds. Upon further listening, there are seemingly endless treasures to be discovered in what is one of the most captivating records of the decade, maybe of all time. With tracks of fleeting beauty like ‘ROYGBIV’ to desolate passages like ‘An Eagle In Your Mind’, it elicits a complex range of sentiments, from happiness and warmth to anxiety and loneliness, just like how childhood memories are reconstructed and seen through the distorting prisms of nostalgia. Music Has The Right To Children changed the perception of electronic music altogether – not only could it be intellectually stimulating, but it was also capable of real emotional depth. (LISTEN)

  1. Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible (1994) (Columbia)

Though their initial sound borrowed from classic American ‘80s rock, the Manics’ third album departed from previous form drastically to incorporate rougher, sharper-edged post-punk and industrial sounds inspired by Nine Inch Nails, PiL, Wire and Siouxsie & The Banshees. As well as a brilliant reinvention, it is virtually perfect in every objective criterion by which you could measure an album’s quality: musically, lyrically, structurally and conceptually. Subjectively, if you want your music to convey deeper meaning, The Holy Bible’s political and social themes are some of the most thought-provoking of the twentieth century, more at home in a book or a film rather than something as seemingly lowbrow as a rock album. Dealing with mankind’s capacity for cruelty, the darkest corners of our collective existence, taking in everything from anorexia (‘4st. 7lbs’), mass murderers (‘Archives Of Pain’, ‘Of Walking Abortion’), prostitution (‘Yes’), political correctness (‘PCP’), the female body (‘She Is Suffering’), faded youth (‘This Is Yesterday’), dictators (‘Revol’) and even the Holocaust (‘Mausoleum’, ‘The Intense Humming Of Evil’), the experience as a whole borders on voyeurism, and is unrelentingly, almost exhaustingly bleak. In retrospect, The Holy Bible has gained additional deeper meaning as Richey Edwards’ epitaph, as the talented lyricist disappeared six months after its release on the eve of an American tour in February 1995. (LISTEN)

  1. Pulp – Different Class (1995) (Island)

The ‘Blur vs Oasis’ popularity war that raged at the height of Britpop turned out to be total bullshit, because the real kings of the British guitar music revival in the mid-Nineties were Pulp and Jarvis Cocker. Different Class, building even further on the previous year’s excellent His ‘N’ Hers (see #53) and aided by the band’s last-minute elevation to Glastonbury headliners in the summer of 1995, deservedly thrust them into the public’s consciousness. But Pulp’s journey from perennial outsiders to chart-smashing tabloid stars was the kind of normally illogical thing that could happen during Britpop. Led by the subversive social satire of ‘Common People’, Cocker’s analytical lyrical eye and theatrical performances were front and centre of a stirring collection of alternative national anthems and state-of-the-nation addresses. From immortal indie disco staples in ‘Disco 2000’, rousing outsider anthems like ‘Mis-Shapes’ and touching romantic moments like ‘Something Changed’, to seedy psychodramas like ‘Live Bed Show’ and ‘I Spy’ and the sexual-fantasy-made-real of ‘Underwear’ and ‘Pencil Skirt’, Different Class encompassed a rich tapestry of characters and situations to make the very finest Britpop album of the lot, and one that has aged remarkably well. (LISTEN)

  1. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) (Matador)

Arguably the quintessential American indie release of the 1990s and certainly one of the most influential, Pavement’s second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a source text for so many subsequent indie groups that it almost defies belief. A classier, more clinical and professional-sounding affair than its beloved lo-fi predecessor Slanted And Enchanted (see #25), it retained the restless creativity that spoke to bored, suburban teens looking for something strange and unique to contrast with the sprawling uniformity of their surroundings. Stephen Malkmus was on the lyrical form of his life, a gifted abstract expressionist capable of striking straight at the listener’s emotions amid the strange images and metaphors. However, this time around Malkmus’ bandmates, particularly guitarist Scott Kannberg and their more stable drummer Steve West, gave his idiosyncratic style a richer melodic platform despite the shoestring budget. The gorgeous countrified indie ballad ‘Range Life’; the stoner-rock/grunge segue between ‘Newark Wilder’ and ‘Unfair’; the jingle-jangle of ‘Gold Soundz’; the loping Fall-esque shamble of ‘Hit The Plane Down’… in terms of pure songcraft and its left-field melodies and hooks, CR, CR is simply an embarrassment of riches, so far ahead of their rivals that it was almost unfair. The minor MTV success of ‘Cut Your Hair’, perhaps Pavement’s signature song and one of the finest indie singles of the decade, brought them to their biggest audience yet. (LISTEN)

  1. Björk – Homogenic (1998) (One Little Indian)

Marking the first of many collaborations with former LFO production wiz Mark Bell, one of the most significant partnerships in Björk’s career, Homogenic is a work of flawless sonic beauty as well as being cavernously, almost bottomlessly deep in its emotional sweep. Adding an extra dimension of personality to 1995’s excellent Post (see #48), her third record dispelled the ‘pixie’ image that she had been stuck with dating back to her time in The Sugarcubes and showed her to be an artist of serious gravitas. A crystalline fusion of chilly strings and stuttering, glitchy beats and state-of-the-art production with Björk’s predisposition for idiosyncratic songs and vocals, Homogenic flits between dark, uncompromising and moody tracks like ‘Hunter’ and ‘All Neon Like’ and sad, heartbreakingly stark future-ballads in the likes of ‘Bachelorette’ and ‘All Is Full Of Love’. It yielded five incredible singles, but in truth every one of its 10 tracks was worthy of stand-alone treatment, and all made sense as part of an astonishingly diverse whole, with the characteristic poise of its creator in the middle of it all. Even by Björk’s consistently incredibly high standards, Homogenic is a very clear all-time career best, and sounds utterly fearless and completely futuristic even two decades later. (LISTEN)

  1. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999) (Warner Bros.)

It might have taken a decade-and-a-half and nine albums of increasing dividends and gradual evolutions, but the close of the 20th century finally saw Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips confirmed as one of the greatest alternative rock acts in America with The Soft Bulletin, possibly the most profoundly humane album ever recorded. Right from the soaring, disorientating reverb-drenching of opener ‘Race For The Prize’, the entire album is the most amazing synthesis of simple profundity and musical majesty, a full-blown aural and cerebral assault exploring the post-modern condition at the cusp of the new millennium and projecting a message of hope for humanity. ‘The Gash’ is a call to arms to maintain sanity; ‘Waitin’ For A Superman’ is the very definition of quiet optimism; ‘A Spoonful Weighs A Ton’ an invitation to change one’s perspective and see things differently. Incredibly, almost all of the record maintains a fresh, feel-good vibe despite the subject matter that concerns death, bleeding, philosophy and the nature of existence. The weight and clarity of Coyne’s vision, combined with Dave Fridmann’s lysergic production, made The Soft Bulletin the last great album of the 1990s. (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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