The 90 Best Albums of the 1990s

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40.MermaidAvenueBillyBraggWilco.jpg 40. Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue (1998)
The combination of Woody Guthrie’s calls for social justice, Billy Bragg’s snarling vocals and Wilco’s rootsy rock complement each on this tribute to the folk legend. The British singer/songwriter and the American band had access to thousands of sets of complete lyrics that the troubadour had written between 1939-1967, thanks to Guthrie’s daughter, Nora. And on Mermaid Avenue, they seamlessly infuse Woody’s words with modern music, a seemingly insurmountable feat that ended up earning them a Grammy nod and led to a follow-up album.—Hilary Saunders

39.SlantedAndEnchantedPavement.jpg 39. Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted (1992)
Pavement’s early vinyl scraps were spirited and mysterious and barely hinted at the songwriting skills Stephen Malkmus would later develop. Slanted & Enchanted normalized the ramshackle noise of Swell Maps and early Fall for the high schoolers of the early ‘90s, wedding the band’s intentional lo-fi grime to powerful songs like the sluggish anthem “Summer Babe,” the downcast love song “Zurich is Stained” and the heartbreaking “Here.”—Garrett Martin

38.AmericanRecordingsVJohnnyCash.jpg 38. Johnny Cash – American Recordings (1994)
April of 1994 saw the beginning of a prolific collaboration between producer Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash. American Recordings, recorded in Cash’s living room with the singular accompaniment of his guitar, delivered a minimalist-stripped down-babershop-quartet style. Track “Delia’s Gone” was put into rotation on MTV and appeared on Beavis and Butt-head, and Cash won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album of the Year. It was a deserved recognition for his finest album since the late ’60s.—Kristen Blanton

37GlowTheInnocenceMission.jpg 37. The Innocence Mission – Glow (1995)
Although Glow was a slight departure from its dreamier predecessors, there’s no mistaking Kerin Paris’ unique voice in the first strains of “Keeping Awake.” That uniqueness extends to her lyrics and her husband Don’s guitar. The songs are like a modern-day Diary of Samuel Pepys, snippets of everyday life in America. In the hands of producer Dennis Herring, domesticity never sounded so lovely.—Josh Jackson

36.DummyPortishead.jpg 36. Portishead – Dummy (1994)
It’s lucky that the dysfunctionally sad Beth Gibbons gets as much synergy out of her genius samplers Adrian Utley and Geoff Barrow as she does. Occasionally she’s genius herself: the way she spills the “Sour Times” chorus “nobody looooooooooooves meeee/ It’s true” is almost parodic before cheekily pulling back: “…not like you do.” And few depressives could’ve matched the sexiness of that clanging-haunting Lalo Schifrin sample. But Gibbons’ whispery contours were crucial hooks for mood-setting horror (“Numb”), orchestral Cowboy Junkies (“It’s a Fire”), and a scratched-up spaghetti Western (“Wandering Star”). And when the dust-caked soul ballad “Glory Box” called for a raunchy guitar solo, her band stepped up to the plate.—Dan Weiss

35.LonesomeCrowdedWestModestMouse.jpg 35. Modest Mouse – The Lonesome Crowded West (1997)
Modest Mouse’s 1997 full-length is the Great American Novel as indie-rock album, compacting all of Isaac Brock’s existential neuroses into a skewed travelogue that speeds recklessly toward the highway vanishing point. Less itinerant trainhoppers and more Donner Partygoers eating themselves from toe all the way up to tongue, the frontier denizens of these fretted epics embrace contradiction as a condition of everyday life, chief among them a cramped emptiness channeled via Brock’s bark and the guitars’ white-line fever. The Lonesome Crowded West is far too digressive to qualify as punk, but too animalistic to be art-rock. Instead, it spins donuts in the no man’s land in between genres, baking in the sun and getting “dizzier by the mile,” as Brock himself puts it.—Stephen M. Deusner

34.LowEndTheoryATribeCalledQuest.jpg 34. A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991)
A Tribe Called Quest  shed their semi-hippie image on their sophomore release and embraced the “conscious,” jazz-sampling sound that would mark the rest of the group’s career. The Low End Theory ranks up there with the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Q-Tip and Phife, still on good terms at the time, shared the microphone more naturally than Run DMC, and songs like “Jazz,” “Check the Rhime” and “Buggin’ Out” featured production built upon a back catalogue of jazz samples that probably made Madlib drool. And who can forget “Scenario,” which remains, to this day, the very best hip-hop posse track.—Jonah Flicker

33.PlayMoby.jpg 33. Moby – Play (1999)
Richard Melville Hall became electronica’s unlikely ambassador on Play, an achingly beautiful, eclectic showcase of lush synths and drum loops cradling a collection of relic blues loops from Warner Bros.’ basement. Even if it was a bipolar train wreck on paper, Moby’s obsessive production and underrated chops produced a surreal soundscape where wah-pedal funk hymns like “Bodyrock” coexist with the existential melancholy of instrumentals “Everloving” and “My Weakness.” With all 18 tracks licensed for film and TV, Play was the ubiquitous soundtrack of 1999. —Sean Edgar

32.FloodTheyMightBeGiants.jpg 32. They Might Be Giants – Flood (1990)
Heart, humor and accordion rarely coalesce this sweetly. But on their major label debut, the Johns find the perfect balance of clever, cute and catchy. The arcane, nerd-tastic sing-alongs (Istanbul!) and high adorkability factor are swell and all, but what makes Flood truly great is the sincerity behind it. A rare find in an irony-clad decade.—Jessica Gentile

31.WreckingBallEmmyouHarris.jpg 31. Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball (1995)
The combination of country-folk queen Emmylou Harris’ unmatched vocals, Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric soundscapes and songs by some of the best writers on earth—including Steve Earle, Julie Miller, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch—resulted in the best album of Harris’ career. And Lanois brought many of those songwriters by to add their own voices or instruments to the mix.—Josh Jackson

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