The 1990s carry a pretty terrible reputation when it comes to music. While the 1980s gave us hair metal and synthesizers, it was the 1990s that gave birth to pop starlets and boy bands, taking music to a dark place that the world has never rightly recovered from. But as with most things, it wasn’t all bad; it was just, you know…mostly bad. With that in mind, we here at Goliath have put together a list of 10 stellar albums, all released in the 1990s, to prove that while the decade may have the distinction of launching the careers of folks like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, it was equally important to artists in the rock, folk and grunge genres.
10. Pinkerton (1996) – Weezer
Poorly received upon its initial release (due in part to its harsh departure from the successful sound the band had found on its debut, The Blue Album), Weezer’s Pinkerton (1996) has since been recognized as a seminal album of the 1990s. Eschewing a radio-friendly sound for a darker, more confessional tone that has since been identified as a maturation in both song writing and musical complexity, Pinkerton is now consistently cited as a prominent step forward for Weezer, a step that was important in creating the sound for which the band would ultimately become known. While they would eventually revert back to a more rock and roll sound on later albums, Pinkerton‘s popularity among fans endures partially because the album hits so close to home for so many listeners. Affective and brave, the album is a must-listen for anyone looking to delve into the sounds of the 1990s.
9. What’s the Story, Morning Glory? (1995) – Oasis
Featuring a litany of instantly recognizable hits (and one song in particular that everyone has heard way, way too many times), What’s the Story, Morning Glory? (1995) was the mainstream breakthrough Oasis had been waiting for after their critically-acclaimed first album, Definitely Maybe (1994). A stylistic and musical step forward, What’s the Story, Morning Glory? featured lush, almost orchestral arrangements and lyrics focusing around the tension between brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher. While the album received a lukewarm critical reception at the time, it’s since been identified as one of the crowning jewels of the Britpop era and an album that would go on to influence innumerable bands moving forward. With over $14 million copies sold worldwide, the album would cement Oasis as one of the most important bands of the decade, despite their positing against some of the more pop-centric overtones of the era.
8. Bossanova (1990) – The Pixies
Oh, the Pixies. Where would we would be without Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering? One of the most underappreciated bands in recent memory, the Pixies released three very good albums during their heyday; Surfer Rosa (1987), Doolittle (1989) and Bossanova (1990), the last of which qualifies for this list due to its release in the early 1990s. While the album didn’t quite reach the stellar heights of the two that came before it, it’s still a rock solid LP that featured the incredible loud/soft dynamic for which the Pixies ultimately became known. Quiet verses transition to raging choruses defined by Black Francis’ unholy scream, while the backing band chugs along in the best possible fashion. A little more rock and roll than their previous endeavours, Bossanova remains a worthwhile listen for anyone looking for music that inspired the grunge movement that would come shortly after the Pixies became underground heroes.
7. Siamese Dream (1993) – The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins remain a bit of an oddity in musical history; they rose to prominence at the end of the Nirvana-fronted grunge movement and despite some similarities, both musically and ideologically, to grunge music, the Pumpkins were always a bit more progressive or ambient than the punk-inspired rock of their compatriots. This difference, however slight, is what makes albums like Siamese Dream (1991), the second album from the band, so refreshing; while Billy Corgan and Co. were clearly inspired by their contemporaries, they also made a conscious effort to produce a unique sound that is instantly recognizable to this day. Employing consistent overdubbing of instruments, high production value (as opposed to the lo-fi, DIY sensibilities of grunge rockers) and deep layering of sounds, Siamese Dream succeeds in transporting the listener to another dimension, one that is distinctly Pumpkins-esque. The ability to do this is what separates the album from much of the other music, good or bad, produced at the same time.
6. Californication (1999) – The Red Hot Chili Peppers
There was no way of knowing what the return of uber-talented guitarist John Frusciante would do to the Red Hot Chili Peppers circa 1998. Fresh off a disappointing album in One Hot Minute (1998) which featured former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro on lead guitar in Frusciante’s absence, the Chili Peppers were in need of a catalyst and found one in the return of an old friend. Following Frusciante’s release from rehab for heroin and cocaine addiction, the band came together and released Californication (1999), a soulful endeavour which stretched far from the funk-rock-rap roots for which the band had become famous. While the album did retain some of the attitude of the earliest Chili Peppers work, the return of Frusciante’s soaring, warm guitar tones and the more introspective nature of Kiedis’ lyrics produced a more mature album that remains to this day the band’s bestselling work.
5. Rage Against the Machine (1992) – Rage Against the Machine
If you look at Rage Against the Machine as the sum of their parts, they don’t quite make sense. Drawing from a wide variety of influences including rap, metal, rock and funk, the band’s true success is in merging these disparate sounds to create something truly unique. This unbelievably creative project was originally revealed to the world on their 1992 self-titled debut, Rage Against the Machine, which to this day exists as one of the most innovative and well-produced first albums in the history of music. Fusing radically political ideologies with overwhelming musical ingenuity, Rage Against the Machine used the pop music backdrop of the 1990s as a harsh point of juxtaposition for their music. Angry, influential and, above all, passionate, the music contained on this album is a stern reminder that not all music released in the 1990s glittered with Billboard gold (and that’s a very, very good thing).
4. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) – Neutral Milk Hotel
While most of the 1990s saw rock and roll manifest as the primary form of social and musical rebellion, it’s important to note that folk music was still able to carve out a heartfelt niche within which one could crawl away from the bubblegum pop found too often on the radio. Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, originally released in 1998, is a perfect example of how to write and produce music that people will really, truly listen to. Jeff Mangum’s warbling, almost eerie vocals mesh so beautifully with the acoustic guitar and thoughtful, almost poetic, lyrics that one could forget this album was published just one year before …Baby One More Time (Britney Spears). It’s a truly affective endeavour and a recommended listen for fans of all eras, not just the 1990s.
3. The Colour and the Shape (1997) – Foo Fighters
Were it not for the stellar double release of In Your Honor (2005), The Colour and the Shape would undoubtedly be recognized as the Foo Fighters’ greatest album. Featuring track after track of booming, dynamic rock and roll awesome, The Colour and the Shape gives listeners a glimpse of the identity the Foo would look to craft for themselves moving forward. Moving away from the specter of Nirvana (which has unavoidably followed Dave Grohl for the duration of his musical tenure), the Foo began to develop a sound all their own, with The Colour and the Shape standing as the earliest iteration of that sound. It’s a master class in rock and roll that stands as one of the finest albums of its generation and marked the moment Dave Grohl became the man in not one, but TWO of the biggest bands in music history. Not too shabby for the former drummer of Scream.
2. Dookie (1994) – Green Day
Along with The Offspring and Rancid, Green Day are often cited as the band that helped bring punk back to the mainstream following its unseemly demise circa 1979 (with the Clash’s London Calling continuing to exist as the crescendo of that deafening social movement), and Dookie (1994) was the album that helped them do it. Equal parts suburban punk and radio rock, the band took an extinct ideology, gave it the Southern California glamour treatment, and released it upon the world to great success. Still the band’s bestselling album (despite the towering success of American Idiot), Dookie succeeds admirably in countering much of the musical issues that plagued both the late eighties and nineties, focusing on speed, passion and raw intensity rather than production quality or pop sensibility.
1. Nevermind (1991) – Nirvana
There’s a certain irony in writing a story on music and being left with very few words to describe said music. Perhaps that’s a good thing, as Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind seems to have transcended its status as a musical artifact anyways, instead remembered as a cultural force, a zeitgeist that changed the trajectory of popular music forever. People do realize there’s songs on there, right? Glorious, immediate and often vitriolic music that instantly washed away all the bubblegum sensibility of the 1980s (which would creep back some years later with the popularization of the aforementioned boy bands and pop starlets). Nevermind‘s presence at the top of this list was not only a foregone conclusion, it’s the very germinate from which lists like this spring; if we can’t make lists like this to talk about the overwhelming social and cultural importance of albums like Nevermind, what’s the point? The finest album of the 1990s, and one of the finest of all time, its existence alone validates the rest of the wretched tunes produced in this oft-unsightly era.