The 90 Best Albums of the 1990s

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9.SoftBulletin.jpeg 10. The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)
The loss of a member can hobble even the most creative and ambitious band, but Ronald Jones’ 1996 departure only freed the Flaming Lips to explore weirder, wilder sounds. Their first offering, the four-disc Zaireeka, only hinted at the great leap forward they would make with their 1999 opus The Soft Bulletin, one of the best and biggest-hearted albums of the decade. The synths sounded like an alien symphony and Steve Drozd’s drums pound as passionately as ever, but Wayne Coyne is the real stargazer here. He pens unabashed mash notes to his bandmates, sympathizes with fatigued superheroes, chases lightning bugs around a shameless hook, and dreams up a beautiful metaphysic that keeps the album sounding as fresh and wide-eyed as Pet Sounds or Song Cycle.—Stephen M. Deusner

8.BlueAlbum.jpeg 9. Weezer – Blue Album (1994)
Every time the post-millennial Weezer releases a colloquially titled “color” album (2001’s Green Album, 2008’s Red Album, 2015’s Chartreuse Album), Rivers Cuomo and friends subconsciously admit that they peaked in 1994. Through a macro lens, Weezer’s debut is a lovable slice of alternative rock, and “Buddy Holly” and “Undone (The Sweater Song)” are amphitheatre-caliber pop songs. The microscopic details give The Blue Album its inner strength: Matt Sharp’s weary backing falsetto, acoustic guitars hiding behind the Marshall stacks, swells of feedback forewarning the choruses of “Say It Ain’t So” like ripples in a cup of water from an approaching Tyrannosaurus. Weezer’s Blue Album is endearing in its naivete and powerful in its execution, and it’s the reason that roughly half of today’s best indie rock bands picked up guitars in the first place.—Ryan Wasoba

8.Loveless.jpeg 8. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
It’s hard to think of an album in the ’90s whose genesis created as much frustration, effort, money and, ultimately, critical acclaim as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The album, which was recorded in 19 studios and briefly employed gobs of recording engineers over two years, took all of this effort for a reason: Nothing else sounded remotely like it when it was released. Kevin Shields’ shapeless, impossibly distorted guitar parts perfectly complemented vocalist Bilinda Butcher’s whispered melodies that played up the idea of using a voice as an instrument. Loveless’ most iconic tracks, the shrieking guitar-driven “Only Shallow” and the mellowed, droning ballad “Sometimes,” show that the band wasn’t just made up of sonic visionaries—there were true songwriters behind the noise.—Tyler Kane

7.AutomaticforthePeople.jpeg 7. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992)
To many pop music obsessives, picking the finest R.E.M. album is like picking one’s favorite child. It’s no easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but 1992’s track-by-track melodic goldmine, Automatic for the People, is surely the most logical choice. The album title was oddly prophetic—where previous R.E.M. efforts wore their college-rock obscurity like badges of honor, Automatic seemed destined for something bigger—something destined to reach more ears, and to do so in a more direct fashion. With instant pop classics like “Everybody Hurts,” “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” and the Andy Kaufman-referencing “Man on the Moon,” this was [and still is] the R.E.M. album made for everybody.—Ryan Reed

6.Odelay.jpeg 6. Beck – Odelay (1996)
There are few albums that define the ’90s as well as Odelay. The nonsensical lyrics on tracks like “Devils Haircut” and “The New Pollution” (which in 2008 Beck revealed to be “scratch vocals” that stuck) and his laissez-faire delivery, supplemented by the hip-hop psychedelia of the Dust Brothers’ production work, all added up to the perfect soundtrack for angsty Gen-Xers of all breeds. It doesn’t matter which Reality Bites character you fancied yourself to be; Beck had an answer all your desperate pleas of “Who am I?” and “What does it all mean?” and it basically boiled down to “Who cares? Let’s have a rave.” Hey, sometimes all you really need are two turntables and a microphone.—Bonnie Stiernberg

5.AchtungBaby.jpeg 5. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)
Musical reinventions are rarely as bold and expansive as Achtung Baby, U2’s 1991 grand-slam. Working with the holy triumvirate production crew of Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite and Brian Eno, Dublin’s finest followed-up the gritty retro patchwork of Rattle and Hum with a layered sonic melting pot that sprawled gloriously into electronica (“Zoo Station,” “The Fly”) , psychedelc pop (“Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Mysterious Ways”), and grand, lighter-waving balladry (“One”). What’s so staggering is that they managed to pull off each and every stylistic about-face—and that the album as a whole feels not disconnected from all its disparate parts but resoundingly epic. Bono once described “The Fly” as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” Indeed, Achtung Baby feels self-consciously (and perhaps overly) ambitious, as if the world’s biggest band desperately wanted to avoid repeating themselves. But that desperation, that ambition—it’s what makes Achtung Baby such a mesmerizing experience.—Ryan Reed

4.Grace.png 4. Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
Jeff Buckley  may have only recorded one studio album in his tragically brief life (his posthumous sophomore effort, My Sweetheart the Drunk, wasn’t quite finished by the time of death from drowning), but 1994’s classic-rock masterpiece Grace managed to cement the angel-voiced rock god’s legend status all on its own. With its startlingly powerful production from Andy Wallace, Grace is a revelation of studio recording—but it’s all about that voice: a mind-blowing, hair-raising canon-blast of beauty and muscle, an otherworldly flame that flickered out far too soon.—Ryan Reed

3.Nevermind.jpeg 3. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
In 1991, few had any idea what Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl had in store with Nevermind. Nirvana’s second album not only represented a watershed moment for ’90s rock, making “alternative” larger than a niche genre, but made that style the primary musical choice for many teenagers and adults worldwide. Nevermind‘s importance and influence on rock over the past two decades cannot be overstated. Nirvana’s seminal album marked alternative rock’s breakthrough to mainstream music audiences, as the Seattle grunge trio managed to connect to an entire generation of music fans. In case that isn’t evident, just take a glance at what 20 other musicians; have said about the record’s importance in their lives.
Max Blau

2.AeroplaneOverTheSea.jpeg 2. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Neutral Milk Hotel  made a timeless record by taking a snapshot of a reality that never existed. Lyrically, Jeff Mangum imagines ghosts and circus freaks and Jesus Christ dancing around burning Nazi propaganda, and the damaged sonic treatment furthers the vision; those horns on “Holland, 1945” sound like an imaginary Dr. Seuss-drawn instrument realized. But the most mythical character to develop from In The Aeroplane Over The Sea is Mangum himself, who avoided the limelight for a half decade following the album’s release. Today, Mangum has risen, and his fans are so obsessive that the man can go out for coffee and the blogosphere blows up with sighting reports. Silly, yes, but when “King Of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3” erupts from an acid-fueled Sunday morning revival into an otherworldly fuzz-punk song (at the 1:35 mark, to be obsessive), who isn’t ready to strap on the Nike Windrunners and follow Jeff Mangum to the gates of Heaven?—Ryan Wasoba

1.OKComputer.jpeg 1. Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
Placing one of the most critically beloved albums by one of the most critically beloved bands of all time atop this list might seem like a bit of a no-brainer, but in the case of OK Computer, the obvious choice is also the right one. No other album from the decade left such a lasting legacy, marking a clear transition from hook-oriented Britpop to more experimental, prog-friendly rock. Sonically, it’s atmospheric and uninhibited, allowing room for themes like paranoia and self-doubt to find their way into the lyrics without beating listeners over the head with the concept. It’s a record you can revisit as many times as you need to, an old friend to call up whenever you’re feeling a little inadequate. It more than holds up to repeat listens; it’s such a complex, unique album that it demands them. OK Computer effortlessly tapped into the introspective, tortured energy of Generation X, and in doing so, it became a landmark record, proving there was a place on the charts for non-traditional song structures and emotionally vulnerable lyrics. In short, it was a weird record for weird times.—Bonnie Stiernberg

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