Many say that the 1990s was the best time to be a music fan. And we tend to agree – there has never been a decade that saw such diverse musical styles and genres competing for the top of the charts. The 1990s witnessed the end of previous styles and the rise of new musical concepts and movements.
It saw the death of hair metal, the rise of grunge and alternative rock to the mainstream, the dawn of West Coast rap and hip-hop, and the advent of indie rock for the slacker generation. The 1990s also saw the birth of Britpop and shoegaze on the other side of the Atlantic, the stratospheric rise of the pop divas, and the growing popularity of teen pop towards the end of the decade.
However, this article could list only ten albums. Like many other “best” lists, this list is purely subjective. But at least, these albums will give one a fair idea of how they defined the music of the 1990s.
1) Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
You cannot end any list of the “best” 1990s albums without mentioning Nirvana’s Nevermind. After all, it is considered by most music critics and fans as the pivotal grunge record that ushered in the era of alternative rock.
Nevermind sold over 30 million copies, unseated Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the top of the Billboard 200, and effectively ended the reign of “hair metal.” All of a sudden, the scruffy Seattle threesome – composing of lead vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Kris Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl – became unlikely celebrities. The album went on to produce rock gems such as “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” and of course, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (promoted by its now-iconic music video) that catapulted Nirvana to stardom. Nevermind guaranteed that the 1990s would not suck musically, and it didn’t.
2) Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
OK Computer marked the transition of Radiohead’s musical and lyrical style. From their guitar-heavy, hook-laden, lyrically introspective style of their previous albums, they moved to more experimental and prog-friendly rock riddled with lyrically abstract content. It laid the foundation for Radiohead’s more experimental work in later albums.
With themes of rampant consumerism, emotional isolation, social alienation, and political malaise, it was unlikely that OK Computer would succeed commercially. However, it shot to the top of the UK album charts and No. 21 of the U.S. Billboard 200, Radiohead’s highest American album chart placing to date.
3) My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
My Bloody Valentine’s second studio album is both legendary and infamous. It was recorded in 19 studios and assisted by 45 or so recording engineers at a whopping (rumored) cost of £250,000.
While certain complications surrounded the recording and release of Loveless, there is no doubt about the result of this album: nothing else remotely sounded like it when it was first released. Kevin Shields’ formless and distorted guitars were perfectly complemented by Bilinda Butcher’s hushed vocals that utilized the idea of voice as part of the instrument. While Loveless was a financial disaster at the time of its release and brought its label, Creation, to the brink of bankruptcy, it garnered positive critical reviews. And more importantly, the record inspired people to form their own bands (a role also shared by Nirvana’s Nevermind). Since then, Loveless has been frequently cited as one of the greatest albums of all time.
4) U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)
U2’s seventh studio album incorporates diverse influences ranging from alternative rock to industrial music into their sound. The single “Mysterious Ways” zoomed to the Billboard Top 10 singles chart, and the Zoo T.V. World tour supporting Achtung Baby further cemented the album’s success.
Achtung Baby’s psychedelic sound made it a favorite, from rock music stations to dance clubs. While Joshua Tree (1987) is still considered U2’s best album, Achtung Baby is undoubtedly their most creative.
5) Dr. Dre – The Chronic (1992)
Dr. Dre’s debut album The Chronic was released towards the end of 1992 and marked the point where hip-hop and, what was considered as then “gangsta rap,” finally went mainstream. The Chronic’s single, “Nothin’ But a G Thang,” shot to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. While critics blasted at the album’s sexist and violent content, the controversy even helped the album to sell more copies.
6) Eminem – The Slim Shady LP (1999)
Through his second album The Slim Shady LP, Eminem broke ground as the first white rapper to be wholeheartedly embraced by the hip-hop community. While it helped that producer Dr. Dre helmed the album, Eminem’s sharp lyrics and rather comical gangsta rap delivery drew him a large audience. The success of the album also turned Eminem into a bona fide, albeit controversial, Hollywood celebrity.
7) Beck – Odelay (1996)
Odelay, Beck’s fifth studio album, became his most commercially successful album to date, having sold 2.3 million copies and reached 2x platinum status. By 1996, Beck was already recognized as one of the most critically acclaimed alternative rock songwriters. However, the gender-bending Odelay’s success further boosted his name. It remains one of the most definitive alternative rock albums of all time.
8) TLC — CrazySexyCool (1996)
When TLC emerged from the budding Atlanta R&B and hip-hop scene in the early 1990s, naysayers thought of them as a “one-shot” bubblegum hip-hop girl group. But the threesome caught them by surprise with their second album CrazySexyCool, which became one of the best-selling albums of the decade, having sold over 14 million copies to date. The commercial success of CrazySexyCool made TLC the best-selling American girl group of all time in any genre.
The album’s first single, “Creep” became a theme for unfaithfulness, while “Waterfalls” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and became the group’s signature song.
9) Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Going solo can be quite tricky in the music business, especially after parting ways with a successful group that you once belonged to. Lauryn Hill emerged from the shadows of her former group, The Fugees, to create a stunning album that documents her personal life and turmoil with her former band. Upon its release in 1998, critics praised the album for Hill’s presentation of life and love through a woman’s eyes, along with her artistic range. Since its release, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill has been ranked in several best-album lists.
10) Madonna – Ray of Light (1998)
When many people were convinced that Madonna had become a “has-been,” she surprised everyone by reinventing herself and steering her music into a new direction. Ray of Light was, indeed, an adventurous outing – an outing that was well worth the risk. The album also helped define mainstream electronic dance music. It received acclaim for its musical style, lyrics, and Madonna’s vocals as well. Ray of Light has sold 16 million copies to date, and many fans and critics consider it as one of her best albums and one of the greatest pop albums of all time.