The 90 Best Albums of the 1990s

Music Lists 1990s
The 90 Best Albums of the 1990s

Musically, the 1990s were full of gangsta rap, mall punk, teen pop and the ascendancy of country radio. But it also saw an invasion of Britpop, the popularization of grunge, and “alternative rock” becoming mainstream. Throughout the decade, though, great strides were being made outside the spotlight with the alt-country movement, shoegaze, electronic music and college rock. We asked Paste editors, writers, as well as Twitter followers and Facebook fans what albums from the ’90s still matter to them. Here are the 90 Best Albums of the 1990s.

90.maxinquaye.jpg90. Tricky – maxinquaye (1995)
A puppet master and his puppet’s verboten relationship has never been more salacious. Martina Topley-Bird, then a teenager, read lines like “I’ll fuck you in the ass / Just for a laugh” as the lecher-voiced Tricky, a refugee of Massive Attack at the time, fed them into her ear, likely followed by a neck nibble. The resulting sex-as-death masterwork perfected the texture-torture album decades before Burial and the Weeknd could get their grubby hands on a sampler. Tricky plied Topley-Bird with weed from his advance cash while she humanized his bored perversity. And the unpretentious array of sampling décor, from creepy Smashing Pumpkins snatch to a Cypress Hill quote (in the relationship song!) to live rock band to the inventory warehouse clang of “Ponderosa” absolves the whole corrupt thing. —Dan Weiss

90-3.jpeg89. The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (1990)
While Seattle may have been a noisy place in the early ’90s, there were plenty of pockets of mellow for lovers of independent music, and few as were as memorable as Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin’s band from Bristol, England. The Sundays created enough buzz from their first club shows to become quickly involved in a bidding war among labels, with Rough Trade earning the honors for their debut, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. —Josh Jackson

90.jpeg88. Old 97’s – Fight Songs (1999)
While Old 97’s didn’t create the alt-country moniker, they certainly helped popularized the genre. Rhett Miller’s songwriting and vocals fill Fight Songs with such a loneliness and desperation, you can almost hear his heart breaking under the slide guitars. The album is indeed packed with “fight songs,” whether that means fighting for love on “Lonely Holiday,” fighting with rival Ryan Adams on “Crash On The Barrelhead” or fighting to get their cat back on “Murder (Or A Heart Attack),” Old 97’s created a roots record as fun as it is brilliant.—Ross Bonaime

90.Bona Drag.jpg87. Morrissey – Bona Drag (1990)
Bona Drag was to Morrissey’s solo career much like what Louder Than Bombs was to his former band, The Smiths—a singles and b-sides collection that featured some of his best work. The album included a few songs from his solo debut, Viva Hate (“Suedehead,” “Everyday is Like Sunday”) and set the stage for future, continued idolatry and enigmatic behavior. More than two decades later, Morrissey is still going relatively strong, but songs from this early collection elicit the most rabid fan reactions at his concerts.—Jonah Flicker

90.Keep It Like A Secret.jpg86. Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret (1999)
Built to Spill essentially has two fanbases, the indie-pop kids who loved 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong With Love and the fans of rock god virtuosity who consider 1997’s sprawling Perfect From Now On to be truly perfect. 1999’s Keep It Like A Secret is the band’s best album because it falls perfectly in-between those two extremes. It’s full of amazingly catchy rock songs with fantastic guitar work and Doug Martsch’s nostalgic lyrics and elegiac, Neil Young-ian voice.—Garrett Martin

90.Loose.jpg85. Victoria Williams – Loose (1994)
Victoria Williams’ biggest moment in the sun came through 1993’s Sweet Relief album, where her songs were covered by Lou Reed, Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks to help raise money for health costs after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One of those songs, “Crazy Mary,” would appear the next year on Loose, her third and best full-length. On it, she also sings a duet with her future husband, The Jayhawks’ Mark Olson, “When We Sing Together.” There’s a tenderness and fragility to these tracks that fits perfectly with her idiosyncratic lyrics, filled with an emotional depth, whether she’s singing about her dog, her grandfather, her crazy childhood neighbor or her soon-to-be husband—or just letting you know You R Loved.—Josh Jackson

90-8.jpeg84. Fugees – The Score (1996)
Before Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras launched their own solo careers with varying success, the trio did some of their finest work with The Score, an album that focuses on each member’s strengths. Hill’s soul-filled voice with Jean’s Haitian-tinted raps and the sparingly used Pras made an R&B/hip-hop/soul combination that motivated artists like The Roots, Talib Kweli, Common and Mos Def. The Score is three of the most influential hip-hop artists of the ‘90s playing around in an exciting time for the genre.—Ross Bonaime

90.3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of.jpg83. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of (1992)
Along with De La Soul, Arrested Development’s rise in 1992 heralded an alternative to the reigning gangsta rap. Their debut album, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days In the Life Of…, boosted by hit MTV videos for “Tennessee” and “Mr. Wendal” launched the group to two Grammys (Best Rap Album, Best New Artist) and millions in sales. The songs were an original fusion of hip-hop, blues, soul and funk with an easy Southern vibe. “Groovy” pretty much nails it. The band never reached the same heights again, but that debut stands tall, pointing to a future in which Southern rappers would rule the charts. —Nick Purdy

90-9.jpeg82. Foo Fighters – The Colour and the Shape (1997)
On The Colour and the Shape’s first single “Monkey Wrench”, Dave Grohl screams, “I was always caged but now I’m free.” Up until then, Foo Fighters were the band that featured “that drummer from Nirvana” and were the group to throw Mentos at. But here, Grohl and his Foos broke free from Grohl’s past and created something distinct, combining hard guitar and drums with Grohl’s songwriting chops and surprising softness in tracks like “Walking After You” and “Everlong”—traits that would make Foo Fighters one of the most successful rock acts of the last two decades.—Ross Bonaime

90.Archers Of Loaf.jpg81. Archers of Loaf – Vee Vee (1995)
Archers of Loaf’s twisted, tortured, string-bending, distorted indie rock reached its apex on the band’s sophomore album. Icky Mettle was pure pop genius, but Vee Vee felt more urgent, more rocking, more hardcore, more anthemic. The album also separated the band even further from the ’90s college rock pack, as Eric Bachmann’s scorched-throat vocals and Eric Johnson’s churning guitar lines raged against the emo-chine.—Jonah Flicker

90-7.jpeg80. Fatboy Slim – You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby (1998)
Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, along with Moby and the Chemical Brothers, dominated the electronic boom of the late ‘90s by throwing their songs into every commercial, TV show and teen rom-com. Even without owning the album, you’ve probably heard every track from You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby in some way or another. With tracks like his biggest hit “Praise You,” Cook turned repetition into dance-hall hits and gave electronic music just a bit more depth.—Ross Bonaime

90-10.jpeg79. Guster – Lost and Gone Forever (1999)
Charting the evolution between Lost and Gone Forever and Guster’s previous release, 1997’s Goldfly, is like comparing a snapshot and a finely detailed painting: They were still the same hook-happy pop band with a hand percussionist for a drummer, but with producer Steve Lillywhite at the helm, they used the studio as an instrument, coloring their new songs with layers upon layers of sonic texture. Sadly, their efforts weren’t rewarded on the charts, where singles like “Barrel of a Gun” and “Fa Fa” failed to gain much traction, but the album pointed the way toward broader horizons for the band—and it contains a number of tracks that remain highlights of their catalog, including “What You Wish For,” “Either Way,” “Center of Attention” and “Happier.”—Jeff Giles

90.It’s Hard to Find a Friend.jpg78. Pedro the Lion – It’s Hard to Find a Friend (1998)
Following the band’s debut EP, It’s Hard to Find a Friend introduced a wider audience to David Bazan, the low-register, frank-talking frontman that nowadays is better known by just his last name. And with good reason—he recorded pretty much everything besides bass on the album. Tracks like “When They Really Get to Know You They Will Run” and “Secret of the Easy Yoke” showcase an exceptional lyricist unafraid to tackle big topics. —Tyler Kane

90-4.jpeg77. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Rage Against the Machine remains one of the only respectable rap-metal groups in existence. Not only did the band possess a lyrical and musical integrity that was frequently and unsuccessfully imitated for over a decade, but its members genuinely meant every word of their politically charged content, having been exposed firsthand to the corruption of the powers that be during their lives. The quartet’s self-titled debut demonstrates why they’re such a potent force: Tom Morello’s inventive technique pushed the limits of what a guitar could do, and Zack de la Rocha’s revolutionary leftist views produced some of the most scathing lyrics in any genre of music. With well-known staples like “Killing in the Name,” “Wake Up” and “Freedom,” as well as deeper cuts like “Know Your Enemy,” Rage proved that rap and metal could fuse into something simultaneously intelligent, creative and downright furious.—John Barrett

90.Richard D.jpeg76. Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996)
It’s taken electronic music surprisingly, terribly long to catch up to Richard D. James Album; shouldn’t its code sound even slightly easier to crack 16 years later? In 1996, these beats were unfathomable even from a pioneer who stayed up all hours as a teen building his own synthesizers according to popular legend. In 2012, the only thing unfathomable is that a synthesized artist would cover so much ground on the same record, with EDM Balkanized several times over to the point where James’ progeny Skrillex is considered tastelessly rock ‘n’ roll just for hyperactively mixing and matching. Proudly, songfully versed in glitchy hip-hop (“Cornish Acid”) as well as labelmates Autechre (“Peek 824545201”), chamber music (“Goon Gumpas”), electropop (“Fingerbib”), Mr. Bungle satire (“Milkman”) and most spectacularly, drill-n-bass (on electronic music’s loveliest-ever construction, “4”), Aphex Twin’s “childhood” album invented new worlds and bridged existing ones without a dead second for 15 tracks in 43 minutes.—Dan Weiss

90.Homework.jpg75. Daft Punk – Homework (1997)
It’s seems hard to believe anyone could’ve predicted the rise of Daft Punk in the late ’90s, but Homework caught fire with massive singles like “Da Funk” and “Around The World.” The French duo of Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo became international electronic darlings by fusing together house, techno, funk and other genres. It’s this unique blend that allowed the elusive hit-making duo to cross over to a larger audience.—Max Blau

90.Different Class.jpg74. Pulp – Different Class (1995)
If you’ve ever spent a significant chunk of time in the UK (or, hell, if you’ve ever seen an episode of Downton Abbey), you’re probably aware of what a divisive issue class is on the other side of the pond. With Different Class, Jarvis Cocker and his friends stuck it to the aristocracy with witty lyrics and undeniable pop hooks, and they managed to do it at the height of Cool Britannia, while the world was watching. Five albums into their career, Pulp exhibit a maturity here that their Britpop contemporaries Blur and Oasis lacked at the time, and Different Class cements their position as the genre’s elder statesmen.—Bonnie Stiernberg

90.Copper Blue.jpg73. Sugar – Copper Blue (1992)
After two emotionally draining solo albums, Bob Mould wanted to relax in 1991 and make a big rock album. It was perfect timing, as Copper Blue hit stores and commercial radio playlists in the wake of the alternative rock explosion of 1992, becoming Mould’s most successful album. It might lack the fury of Husker Du, but Copper Blue is a rock juggernaut, with the powerful riffs, blistering fretwork and incisive lyrics Mould is known for.—Garrett Martin

90-1.jpeg72. Matthew Ryan – May Day (1997)
Matthew Ryan’s story embodies the impatience of major record labels in the 1990s. After two great, but commercially unsuccessful albums towards the end of the decade, he was unceremoniously dropped. Ironically that country-leaning rock debut, May Day remains a masterpiece of twentysomething angst, self-doubt and disappointment. It’s the vivid imagery in songs like “Guilty,” “Irrelevant” and “Chrome” that fans of Bruce Springsteen and Josh Ritter need to go back and rediscover.—Josh Jackson

90.Martinis and Bikinis.jpg71. Sam Phillips – Martinis and Bikinis (1994)
Just before shedding the name Leslie Phillips and the Contemporary Christian Music career attached to it, Sam Phillips began her run of seven records with producer and future husband T-Bone Burnett. Her distinctive voice, biting lyrics and art-pop sensibility were the perfect materials for the masterful producer, especially on her third “Sam” album, Martinis and Bikinis. With a stellar band and guest appearances by Peter Buck, Van Dyke Parks, Marc Ribot and Benmont Tench, it’s a pop album for a weirder and more wonderful planet.—Josh Jackson

90.Goo.jpg70. Sonic Youth – Goo (1990)
Sonic Youth’s Goo came at just the right time—the ’90s had arrived and “alternative rock” and grunge were hitting it big. Goo is arguably the band’s most accessible, straightforward album (Dirty offers some stiff competition), but every song still features the wonky tuning and feedback elegies the band was built upon. Goo also marked the beginning of a long relationship with Geffen Records, bringing truly experimental rock to the mainstream.—Jonah Flicker

90.Flaming Red.jpg69. Patty Griffin – Flaming Red (1998)
Patty Griffin’s debut, Living With Ghosts, announced the arrival of a new talent on the folk scene, but Flaming Red let us all know that she could also rock. With a little help from friends Emmylou Harris and Buddy and Julie Miller, the album was a departure from her quiet debut, but the songwriting chops were still there are songs like “Tony,” about a gay high-schooler who took his life.—Josh Jackson

90.Illmatic.jpg68. Nas – Illmatic (1994)
Before the coasts battled in the names of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., Nas’ Illmatic helped raise the bar for East Coast hip hop. Nas’ lyrical mastery begins with his first verse on “N.Y. State of Mind” and ceases to relent. He’s intricate and articulate throughout the record, delivering some of hip hop’s classic lines. It’s his kind of lyricism, along with Q-Tip and Pete Rock’s understated production, that begged for hip hop to be considered as poetry.—Max Blau

90.El Corazon.jpg67. Steve Earle – El Corazon (1997)
From the opening song, which finds Steve doing his best Dylan impersonation in calling for the spirits of Woody Guthrie and Jesus to return and scour the land free of crooked politicians, to the last song, “Fort Worth Blues,” which finds Steve spinning a heartbreaking tale of wanderlust and an unnameable malaise, El Corazon shot like a bullet to my heart. Earle slides effortlessly between folk, Neil Young-like guitar anthems, country weepers, bluegrass workouts and bone-crunching rock ‘n’ roll. And throughout he writes brilliantly, offering up story songs with remarkable economy, using not a single wasted word.—Andy Whitman

90.Fear of a Black Planet.jpg66. Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet (1990)
Simply no group in history, rap or otherwise, has struggled over the concept of right and wrong so passionately as Public Enemy, and Fear of Black Planet was the public zenith of that moral confusion. You could even trace it down to a single cut: the insistent throb of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” cleverly mixed a little louder than the rest of the record for that full smoke-alarm effect, is where Chuck D chose to unpack his feelings about being in the middle of his childhood friend Professor Griff turning out to be anti-Semitic, and the media “crucifying” his group: “Still, they got me like Jesus.” Nor do I bet he’s still the same man terrified of gays on “Meet the G that Killed Me” or interracial dating on “Pollywanacracka.” This is a record where you root for both right and wrong because you knew Chuck’s good-hearted outrage (same song’s “God bless your soul and keep livin’”) would steer him towards the humane answer. His ignorant conclusions in the meantime were paralleled by the jarring, chaotically stitched-together (and often very fast, for rap) music, effectively surrendering wrong into right.—Dan Weiss

90-6.jpeg65. Massive Attack – Mezzanine (1998)
The reigning kings of Trip Hop took a sharp turn from their bouncy dance-hall anthems into a claustrophobic cat walk of reverb-drenched fever dreams on their third dizzying album, Mezzanine. Filled with ominous samples and intoxicating beats, this erotic audio collage features sultry vocals from Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser, Horace Andy and Sara Jay straddled between Robert “3D” Del Naja’s hypnotic whispers and Grant “Daddy G” Marshall’s baritone rumble. Whether it arouses or disturbs you, Mezzanine is a chill-out milestone that will make your temperature rise. —Sean Edgar

90-5.jpeg64. Björk – Post (1995)
Icelandic innovator Björk proudly boasts one of alternative music’s richest discographies. But no Björk album is as weird (or weirdly wonderful) as 1995’s Post, a dizzying whirlwind of sonic textures and stylistic shifts that demonstrates every facet of her ever-expanding bag of tricks. MTV diehards grew fond of the sunny big band ditty “It’s Oh So Quiet” (and its quirky, Spike Jonze-directed clip), but Post is impossible to encapsulate with a single track. Blending show tunes, trip-hop psychedelics, and rainbow-hued pop, Björk clearly aimed to demonstrate the meaninglessness of genre boundaries. She succeeded.—Ryan Reed

90.Hollywood Town Hall.jpg63. The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall (1992)
Breakups and reunions aside, Mark Olson and Gary Louris were born to sing together. Their harmonies sound tight but laidback, well-rehearsed but perfectly intuitive, and on their career-maker Hollywood Town Hall, they sound like an old-time country act (think The Louvin Brothers) backed by a heartland rock band (think The Heartbreakers if they were Hoosiers). The band formed long before anyone coined the term “alt-country,” but the Jayhawks set the bar for that movement’s songwriting and harmonies, directly influencing the likes of Ryan Adams, Robbie Fulks, and Freakwater. About the best thing that can be said about Hollywood Town Hall, however, is that 20 years later it still doesn’t sound like part of any trend. The Jayhawks sound like a band following their own muse, which made them beloved cult artists but not rock stars.—Stephen M. Deusner

90-2.jpeg62. the notorious b.i.g. – ready to die (1994)
Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace has had such a monumental impact on both hip hop and pop music at large, it’s easy to forget that the portly flow virtuoso only released two legitimate studio albums (1997’s aptly titled Life after Death, was released after Wallace’s tragic drive-by murder). His debut smash, Ready to Die, easily ranks among the greatest rap albums ever recorded, and it’s not because of the music’s charming-if-dated funk-sampled beats. No, it’s because of Wallace’s husky, unbeatable voice (which ebbs and flows in dizzying waves of unrelenting rhythm) and his forward-thinking rhymes—painting evocative landscapes of a gritty ghetto warrior with a heart of gold.—Ryan Reed

90.Girlfriend.jpg61. Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1991)
By the time Sweet released his post-divorce, power-pop masterpiece, he’d already collaborated with Michael Stipe back in Athens with Community Trolls and released a trio of solo records. But it was the sugary hook after sugary hook on Girlfriend that gained him wider acclaim. Songs like “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Evangeline” and the title track have the kind of melodies that that should come wrapped in aluminum foil and sold next to the Reese’s Cups.—Josh Jackson

60.Tidal.jpg60. Fiona Apple – Tidal (1996)
Despite the girl-next-door veneer and reflecting-pool irises, Fiona Apple made it clear she wasn’t another delicate Top 40 piano princess on her debut album. At the seasoned age of 19, Apple shows more soul in her first 10 songs then most singer/songwriters can squeeze out of an entire discography. Pivoting from diabolical jazz to heart-shattering ballads, Tidal netted six singles and a Grammy for its insidious confessional, “Criminal,” trumpeting Apple’s subliminal genius to a fan base that would include future producer Jon Brion and director Paul Thomas Anderson.—Sean Edgar

59.Revival.GillianWelch.jpg59. Gillian Welch – Revival (1996)
Gillian Welch and her musical partner may be from Los Angeles and Rhode Island, respectively, but they arrived on the alt-country scene in 1996 as if they’d just melted out of Depression-era Appalachian Mountain ice. The tales of moonshiners and brothel girls matched the old-timey twang of Welch didn’t seem forced in the least.—Josh Jackson

sunny day real estate.jpeg58. Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary (1994)
In the face of the grunge boom that was blowing up in Sunny Day Real Estate’s hometown, Seattle, the barely of-age members of the band proved they were two steps ahead of the competition with the brooding, cathartic Diary. Dually fronted by a refreshing, high-register crooner Jeremy Enigk and an intense howler in Dan Hoerner, the group combined hardcore ethics and intensity with a gentler approach to songwriting. The short-lived group wowed everyone in Seattle from Sub Pop Records’ co-founder Jonathan Poneman and Dave Grohl (who would ask SDRE’s rhythm section to join his new band, Foo Fighters) to a young, impressionable Ben Gibbard.—Tyler Kane

57.ParklikeBlur.jpg57. Blur – Parklife (1994)
It’s fitting that Blur appears on this list shortly after winning the award for Outstanding Contribution to Music at the BRIT awards. Parklife undoubtedly weighed heavily in the bestowal, with its infectious and eccentric brand of Britpop that broke the band into the mainstream. Upon its debut, Parklife hit the top spot on the British charts and stayed on the charts for over 100 weeks, thanks in large part to tracks like “Girls & Boys” and “To the End.”
Nathan Spicer

56.3EPsTheBetaBand.jpg56. The Beta Band – The Three EPs (1998)
“I will now sell five copies of The Three EPs by The Beta Band.” Any self-respecting music snob can recall the scene in High Fidelity when our hero Rob Gordon—just a year after its 1999 American release—pressed play and made an entire record store full of people bob their heads to “Dry The Rain.” But it doesn’t matter if you have John Cusack to thank for this one or if you were hip enough to pick it up on your own accord—it’s essential listening. The fact that it’s the group’s first three EPs compiled into one LP adds a lovely sense of variety to the record. There are elements of electronica, folk, Britpop, funk and trip hop all jam-packed into the 12 tracks, and perhaps there’s no better way to sum it up than to quote our favorite record-store flick: “It’s The Beta Band.” “It’s good.” “I know.”—Bonnie Stiernberg

55.EnterTheWuTang.jpg55. Wu-Tang Clan – Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) (1993)
When you think about Wu-Tang Clan, it’s amazing to see how much they’ve permeated hip-hop culture over the past two decades. Between the group and all its collective solo effort from RZA, GZA, Method Man, Raekwon and the rest of the group, the NYC rappers have spread their influence all over. It all started with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—a raw, brilliant debut that set the tone for all hardcore rap albums to follow.—Max Blau

54.TraceSonVolt.jpeg54. Son Volt – Trace (1995)
Long before there was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it looked like Jay Farrar was the genius behind Uncle Tupelo, as Trace was a near-perfect collection of laid-back alt-country ballads like the brilliant windows-rolled-down “Windfall” and guitar-charged college rockers like lead single “Drown.” The album continued everything that was great about Uncle Tupelo. Like Lennon and McCartney, the argument is almost beside the point. We should just be glad a single band could contain two extremely talented songwriters.—Josh Jackson

53.DookieGreenDay.jpg53. Green Day – Dookie (1994)
The term “mall punk” carries a negative connotation these days, but there was a moment in time when—thanks to Green Day’s magnum opus—the genre was wholly awesome. Fans were vocal in their opposition to the band making their major-label debut, but rather than try to win back the underground, Billie Joe Armstrong and company made a record that appealed to anyone who’s ever been an adolescent. With five hit singles (“Longview,” “She,” “Welcome to Paradise,” “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case”) and 15 million copies sold, it’s obvious that the record’s themes of teenage boredom, apathy, paranoia and budding sexuality resonated with more than a few folks—in fact, you’d be hard-pressed today to find anyone between the ages of 20 and 30 who hasn’t committed at least a few of its tracks to memory. Selling out never sounded so good.—Bonnie Stiernberg

52.XOElliottSmith.jpg52. Elliott Smith – XO (1998)
The things you never want to experience—crippling heartbreak, aching despair, existential dread—are turned into songs that you constantly want to listen to. Gorgeous, lush orchestrations, along with Smith’s oh-so-sad words soundtrack the stuff panic attacks are made of. Everybody doesn’t care. Everybody doesn’t understand. But XO sure does. —Jessica Gentile

51.SpiltMilkJellyfish.jpg51. Jellyfish – Spilt Milk (1993)
These days, anyone with a decent Pro Tools rig and a strong grasp of songcraft can make a multi-track masterpiece that sounds like a million bucks, but back in the old days, you still had to cut records like Spilt Milk the hard way—and that’s exactly what Jellyfish did, bleeding their creative lifeblood out over a dozen songs and roughly eleventy million overdubs. Sounding like the union of Queen and the Beach Boys you never knew you needed to hear—and boasting the songs to back up those comparisons, Spilt Milk was an early ’90s Velvet Underground & Nico for the power-pop set, an album that lit up the headphones of a small cadre of gomper-jawed fans while the rest of the world yawned in indifference. Though the band imploded the following year, this album is still discussed in reverent tones by the faithful few who’ll never give up hope of a reunion. It’s hard to pick just one key track; it can’t hurt to start with the leadoff single, “The Ghost at Number One,” but you should probably just take a deep breath, turn the volume up, and let the whole record run from start to finish.—Jeff Giles

50.TheWhiteStripes.jpg50. The White Stripes – The White Stripes (1999)
Here’s an idea: Create a blues-rock album after almost a decade of grunge and punk dominance, cover legends like Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues”—oh, this will also be your debut album. Jack and Meg White — they were married, not siblings, in case you never figured it out— did just that, and undoubtedly succeeded at creating something that was new, yet still rooted in the history of music. The formula was simple: guitar, vocals, drums and sometimes a piano. And with those elements, they paid homage to the legend Robert Johnson with “Stop Breaking Down” (previously covered by The Rolling Stones) and to Dylan with “One More Cup of Coffee.” With original tracks like “I Fought Piranhas” and “The Big Three Killed My Baby,” which points a finger at Detroit’s auto industry, the Whites proved they could create, and not just mimic, blues music. We all know now The White Stripes was just the beginning for this odd couple, and looking back now, their success and influence on music is obvious.—Clint Alwahab

49.CrappinYouNegativeGrifters.jpg49. Grifters – Crappin’ You Negative (1994)
Two true stories from the 1990s: First, during a semester abroad, I found a copy of the Grifters’ third album, Crappin’ You Negative, in a small record store in Edinburgh, with a handwritten Post-It declaring them the “greatest band in the world.” Second, I once got a speeding ticket while listening to the superlatively aggressive “Black Fuel Incinerator.” I should have made the band pay. While the lo-fi trend of the early ’90s offered groups like Guided by Voices and Pavement a new way to play classic rock, this Memphis group became the greatest band in the world by plumbing local sources for inspiration, not just the Stax-solid beats but also a beleaguered mood that conveys the blues even if it doesn’t actually sound anything close to the blues. One of the great unsung albums of the decade, Crappin’ You Negative turned decades of Bluff City history into blurry, dirty, ugly, glorious and eloquent rock ’n’ roll.—Stephen M. Deusner

48.TimeOutOfMindBobDylan.jpg48. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind (1997)
This wasn’t Dylan’s first comeback (that would be Blood on the Tracks), but it’s the first one that really stuck. It’s also not the first time he worked with Daniel Lanois (that would be Oh Mercy in ’89), but it’s the first time they got it right. A brief interruption of his abiding interest in seriously weird old Americana, Time Out of Mind remains singular in Dylan’s catalog, if only because it’s less a solo album than a collaboration among equals. Bobheads still scoff, but Lanois’ production provides a perfectly spectral backdrop for Bob’s spirited ruminations on romance and mortality.—Stephen M. Deusner

47.March1992UncleTupelo.jpg47. Uncle Tupelo – March 16-20, 1992
When Uncle Tupelo went into the studio to record their third album, the No Depression movement was only just beginning to gel, as more and more musicians realized they could approach country music with a DIY punk attitude. Surprisingly, the trio ditched their electric guitars for this album of mostly acoustic numbers, but lost none of the urgency and grit. Comprised of originals and covers of traditional tunes that would have been doubly obscure in the pre-iTunes era, March 16-20, 1992 opens up new possibilities of American folk music in general and alt-country in particular, and 20 years later, Uncle Tupelo’s explicitly leftist, pro-union, anti-corporate stance lends the album extra weight and relevance in the Occupy era.—Stephen M. Deusner

46.PinkertonWeezer.jpg46. Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
Before he devolved into a walking caricature of himself—collaborating with Lil’ Wayne, wandering around in a head-scratching fog of silliness—Weezer mastermind Rivers Cuomo was just that: a mastermind. Weezer put out not one but two rock masterworks in the ’90s. Pinkerton is the gnarlier, acne-coated stepbrother to Weezer‘s wide-eyed, naïve middle child. Musically and lyrically, Pinkerton is as raw as the band ever got—self-produced, dripping with distortion and rhythmic fury, fueled by Cuomo’s darkest diary entries (his obsessive love for a Japanese teen pen-pal, his frustration with mindless groupie sex). But what’s often overlooked about Pinkerton is that the songs themselves are as strong as the subtext—rockers like “Tired of Sex” and “Pink Triangle” made it seem, briefly, as if “geek-rock” was the only genre that mattered.—Ryan Reed

45.ThingsFallApartTheRoots.jpg45. The Roots – Things Fall Apart (1999)
Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson founded The Roots in 1987, helping redefine what hip hop would become. From their early jazz-based beginnings to their first-ever concept album, The Roots’ influence is nothing short of legendary. With Things Fall Apart, The Roots stood halfway between the jazz-influenced grooves prevalent throughout their ’90s work and their more accessible albums of the past decade. The result is the best of both worlds musically as The Roots began building a legacy.—Max Blau

44.WhateverAndEverAmenBenFoldsFive.jpg44. Ben Folds Five – Whatever and Ever Amen (1997)
While singer, songwriter and pianist Ben Folds has gone on to sell countless albums as a solo artist, his sophomore album with the self-named, if numerically incorrect trio Ben Folds Five really put nerd-rock on the charts. Whatever and Ever Amen melds sarcasm and angst with piano pop, resulting in rollicking jabs like “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” and “Song For The Dumped,” as well as ballads including “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” “Missing the War” and the stunner, “Brick.” Its vacillation between confident and self-deprecating perfectly embodies the ’90s alt-rock mentality.—Hilary Saunders

43.There'sNothingWrongWithLoveBuiltToSpill.png43. Built to Spill – There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (1994)
With There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch put Boise, Idaho, on the musical map with sprawling guitars, nasally vocals and heartfelt lyrics. Before the group fleshed out their sound with the guitar bits, BTS won over listeners with these straightforward, poignant songs. It’s an intimate glimpse inside one of indie rock’s great songwriters before he found himself.—Max Blau

42.AqueminiOutkast.jpg42. Outkast – Aquemini (1998)
Arguably the finest hip-hop act to emerge from Atlanta, Outkast were an adventuresome, wildly eclectic duo long before they achieved international success with “B.O.B.,” “Hey Ya!” and “The Way You Move.” Delivered at the tail end of hip-hop’s golden age in the mid-’90s, Aquemini showcases André “3000” Benjamin and Antoine “Big Boi” Patton at their artistic zenith. With individual approaches to their craft that were starkly dichotomous yet dovetailed perfectly, the duo crammed Aquemini to the brim with subject matter that rivals even the most literate hip-hop, encompassing identity, authenticity, inequality, addiction and the dark side of human nature. With now-classics like “Rosa Parks” and “Spottieottiedopaliscious” and an impressive roster of guests like George Clinton and Raekwon, the album’s music matches its lyrical ambition — it’s versatile and restless, exhibiting a modern, futuristic texture that’s still true to the roots of soul, funk and, most importantly, their native Dirty South. Aquemini may not have catapulted to mainstream success upon release, but it remains an unquestionable cult masterpiece that was years ahead of its time.—John Barrett

41.ExileInGuyvilleLizPhair.jpg41. Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville (1993)
Much has been said about Phair’s ball-busting brashness (and rightly so). But in addition to Exile’s potty-mouth sass is also a smidge of vulnerability. That Phair could be both capable of so much varying desire—she wants to your friend; she wants to be your lover; she wants to be your blowjob queen; she wants love letters and sodas (and all that stupid old shit)—makes her the embodiment of the complex wants our hearts and bodies crave. But even through all the tumult she remains confident. She might like you, but she likes herself more. And because of that Guyville remains a destination of three-dimensional realness devoid in most confessional music, regardless of the gender of the writer.—Jessica Gentile

40.MermaidAvenueBillyBraggWilco.jpg40. 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.jpg39. 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.jpg38. 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.jpg37. 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.jpg36. 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.jpg35. 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.jpg34. 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.jpg33. 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.jpg32. 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.jpg31. 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

30.SatelliteSky.jpeg30. Mark Heard – Satellite Sky (1992)
In his later work, Mark Heard became a master of language, of imagery and meaning. He could fashion effortless stanzas of beauty and precision. But Heard’s magic was much more than facility with words. It encompassed an unrelenting introspection, an uncompromising social criticism, and an unmasked vulnerability that did more than speak from deep wells of universal experience—it encapsulated that experience and gave it a fresh, vital and prescient voice. His work recalls the experience of a previous generation in its first encounter with the early lyrics of Dylan—that of someone who captured how everyone was feeling but couldn’t articulate. The release of a trilogy of records in the early ’90s on Fingerprint Records, a tiny label created specifically for Heard, heralded the arrival of an artist at his peak—a challenger for the title of poet laureate of American music—joining the pantheon that includes Dylan, Cohen, Guthrie and Townes Van Zandt.—Tim Regan-Porter

29.CarWheels.jpeg29. Lucinda Williams – Car Wheels… (1998)
Up until this album Williams was primarily known for her songwriting, earning a Grammy for Best Country Song with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s crossover hit “Passionate Kisses.” But Car Wheels established Williams as a critically powerful recording artist. In spite of its tumultuous and lengthy history of re-recordings and collaborative changes, every song stands strong. From her steamy, breathy refrain of “Oh, baby” on the opening track “Right In Time” to her emotional tribute to the late Blaze Foley on “Drunken Angel,” the stories in the songs, along with a laconic, southern drawl of rock guitars, serves as the perfect soundtrack to a backroads drive through the South.—Tim Basham

28.BeeThousand.jpeg28. Guided By Voices – Bee Thousand (1994)
GBV fanatics will argue over which album is best until humanity dies out, but 1994’s Bee Thousand is clearly the critical choice, and the record that broke the band to a wider audience. Bob Pollard’s four-track epic kicks out a sequence of would-be hits that rival the best work of his idols, mashing the pop hooks of The Beatles, the titanic riffs of The Who and the arty, noisy brevity of Wire into an insistent lo-fi masterpiece. It’s a crash course on rock history from one of the best songwriters the world will ever see.—Garrett Martin

27.KillingFloor.jpeg27. Vigilantes of Love – Killing Floor (1992)
My arrival to Athens, Ga., to get my learnin’ on was quickly followed by my introduction to Vigilantes of Love. Bill Mallonee’s desperately confessional lyrics were the cathartic soundtrack to the joy, heartache and confusion of those college years. And on Killing Floor, with help from producers Mark Heard and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the band created what remained for years my favorite album, period. Even the historical songs like “Andersonville” and “Eleanor” dealt with life’s big themes of struggle and redemption. But it’s the manic tracks like “Undertow” and “Strike While the Iron Is Hot,” where Mallonee sounds like mad, raging prophet, that fill a hole for certain moods that few other songs do.—Josh Jackson

26.BoneMachine.jpeg26. Tom Waits – Bone Machine (1992)
Tom Waits roared into the ‘90s with so much thunder that the devil fell off his brimstone throne and still hasn’t recovered. Armed with an ocean of apocalyptic imagery, ragged percussion and a voice that sounds like he just gargled with a flask of whiskey and rusty nails, Bone Machine is nothing but raw. The earth is still screaming.—Jessica Gentile

25.BeingThere.jpeg25. Wilco – Being There (1996)
After Uncle Tupelo’s split in 1994, fans turned their attention to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s new groups. And after the success of Son Volt’s debut Trace the following year (along with the lukewarm critical response to Wilco’s AM), it seemed like Farrar had emerged from the break-up the clear victor to those keeping score at home. Enter Being There. Wilco’s 1996 double-LP was everything a sophomore effort should be; it saw the band experimenting beyond their alt-country roots with stellar tracks like “Misunderstood” and “Hotel Arizona” while simultaneously staying true to their aesthetic. In short, it was the beginnings of the Wilco we know and love today.—Bonnie Stiernberg

24.Anodyne.jpeg24. Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne (1993)
The last entry in the band’s catalog before Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar parted ways saw the band at its most fully realized. The two traded off singing and songwriting duties, giving us such great Son Volt precursors like “Slate” and the title track and Wilco-precursors “Acuff-Rose” and “The Long Cut.” The DNA for so much great music can be found in one glorious album.—Josh Jackson

23.SiameseDream.bmp23. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream (1993)
If Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album, Gish, was the band’s aural mission statement, 1993’s Siamese Dream was mission accomplished. Again hitting the studio with ‘90s knob-twisting mastermind Butch Vig, Siamese Dream was the hard-hitting, mature brother that Gish wouldn’t have dared to be. The record’s fuzzed, guitar-heavy sound came from Corgan tracking as many as 40 guitars on a given song. But it wasn’t just slick production and smothering guitars that helped the record sell millions and bring Billy Corgan and company to the masses. The wildly personal lyrics on songs like “Disarm,” “Spaceboy” and “Soma” struck legions of fans that were just discovering this new alternative to radio rock.—Tyler Kane

22.ICanHeartheHeartBeating.jpeg22. Yo La Tengo – I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)
The multifaceted sound of Yo La Tengo has never felt more cohesive or powerful than on I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. With noisy pop hits, droning dirges, sweet love songs, tender lullabies, extended freeform freak-outs and a feedback-drenched cover of “Little Honda,” this album effortlessly checks off every one of the band’s stylistic boxes, culminating in the best album from one of the most diverse and consistent bands of the last few decades.—Garrett Martin

21.WhatstheStory.png21. Oasis – (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
It’s impossible to talk about the music of the ‘90s without mentioning Britpop’s crowning achievement, Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. The band’s second album is huge in every sense of the word—commercially and sonically. Its arena-ready melodies and Beatles-inspired choruses demand to be shouted into a crowd, whether it’s a group of friends stumbling from pub to pub or thousands of cheering fans. Singles like “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” “Some Might Say,” “Champagne Supernova” and the omnipresent “Wonderwall” powered the album to the top of the charts in the UK, where it sat pretty for a whopping 10 weeks. Underneath all the Brothers Gallagher’s bravado, however, there’s a surprising earnestness to the record that hasn’t been matched by any of their subsequent efforts.—Bonnie Stiernberg

20.DjShadowEnd.jpeg20. DJ Shadow – …Endtroducing… (1996)
Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica last year was an analogue; the album so obsessed with pursuing beauty whatever the final shape that it inevitably strays from its genre and never finds its way back. As you can see from Josh Davis’ recent efforts, Endtroducing… took damn near every idea he had in him, a once-in-a-lifetime symphony that he was nevertheless able to follow up with the very lucky, but more grounded The Private Press, in which you can identify strict boundary lines between rap, rock, new wave. Endtroducing… is less simple: “Changeling” is melted jazz sherbet, “Midnight in a Perfect World” interrupts its twilight twinkle for industrial bluster and “The Number Song” is a tribute to James Brown by taking us to about 500 different bridges. But even as Shadow salutes Steinski, the Guinness-certified first entirely sampled album is so much more than the perfect collage. The perfect headphone record of any genre maybe, not merely those that it straddles.—Dan Weiss

19.Summerteeth.jpeg19. Wilco – Summerteeth (1999)
While not quite the behemoth that 1996’s lauded double-disc, Being There, was, Wilco’s third studio album still had a whopping 17 songs (including bonus tracks). Summerteeth remains the sunniest of the band’s records, even as their sonic exploration began. Individual songs like “She’s a Jar” and the Henry Miller-inspired “Via Chicago” revealed elements of depression and social frustrations. Nonetheless, Summerteeth shines though its dark lyrics, as the melodies of “A Shot in the Arm,” “I’m Always In Love” and “ELT” revive listeners and strike the perfect balance of contradictions for a band in transition. —Hilary Saunders

18.Ten.jpeg18. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
If grunge veterans Pearl Jam—the only grunge act that continued to thrive into the new millennium—are often misunderstood and maligned today, that sentiment was even more true in the early ’90s during the grunge explosion. Though the quintet’s debut album Ten was released a few months before fellow Seattle band Nirvana’s Nevermind, it didn’t become popular until after that album’s landmark success, and thus was unfairly written off by critics and listeners alike as a ripoff of the entire movement. Pearl Jam have since shown they are far from corporate cash-ins, evident in their boycott of Ticketmaster and relatively diverse body of work, but Ten is where the band’s journey began. Melding muscular riffs and arrangements, stellar musicianship, and Eddie Vedder’s inspired lyrical and vocal passion, Ten contains most of Pearl Jam’s most beloved classics, including “Jeremy,” “Alive,” “Even Flow” and “Black.” As far as debut albums go, Pearl Jam came roaring out of the gates and have arguably yet to top it despite releasing albums of consistent quality to this day. In the process, they proved grunge was its own distinctive animal, combining the brooding aggression of punk and post-punk with the soaring, anthemic hooks of vintage ‘70s rock.—John Barrett

17.AugustandEverything.jpeg17. Counting Crows – August and Everything After (1993)
Counting Crows’ blending of pop and Americana seemed to come out of nowhere, led by frontman Adam Duritz’s emotive vocals coupled with lyrics about love, displacement and disillusionment. Produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, August and Everything After contained enough intellectual craftsmanship to receive critical acclaim and enough general pop chops for the mass public to excitedly swallow hits like “Round Here” and “Mr. Jones.” With such a broad audience, it’s not too surprising the album sold over 7 million copies.—Nathan Spicer

16.MiseducationLauryn.jpeg16. Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)
Solo albums can be a tricky business, especially after parting ways with one of hip hop’s finest acts. That’s exactly what Lauryn Hill did in 1998 when she followed up her stint with The Fugees to release The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The album, which sold over 400,000 copies in its first week, made Hill an international superstar. She became the first ever hip-hop artist to make Time‘s cover, who suggested she’d shepherded rap into the mainstream much the way Nirvana did with alternative rock. Her first, and for now only, LP backs that claim in every way, shape and form—capturing a generational artist at her creative pinnacle.—Max Blau

15.EitherOr.jpeg15. Elliott Smith – Either/Or (1997)
Smith’s music consisted of wispy, weary vocals alongside a solitary acoustic guitar, an all-too-apt representation of his desolate and twisted emotional states. Although he had a fragile opinion of himself, one listen to Either/Or reveals him to be an exceptional talent. The album expanded his sound, intertwining his acoustic foundations with electric guitars, bass, keyboards and drums—all played by Smith. Three songs were included in the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting.—Nathan Spicer

14.IfYou'reFeelingSinister.jpeg14. Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
After a limited run debut and a handful of singles, Belle & Sebastian emerged as a fully-formed artistic entity with 1997’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. Between Stuart Murdoch’s literary story-songs and the band’s sedate and ornate folk-rock instrumentation, Sinister‘s appeal quickly expanded past twee indie-pop kids and ensnared anybody interested in mature, intelligently crafted pop. Sinister is still the high water mark for what’s been a brilliant career.—Garrett Martin

13.69LoveSongs.jpeg13. The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs (1998)
For the full effect, pretend it’s 1998. Think what you could possibly know of Stephin Merritt, who isn’t exactly Beck or even Pavement, a liked-but-not-guaranteed-critical-sale—much less commercial—who’d scraped college radio with his wry, brittle paeans to the moon and trains, sung in a Frankenstein basso over cheap, repetitive Casio equipment. Not even the hangers-on who knew they were onto something could’ve predicted the, yes, 69-track magnum opus that would follow. And certainly against all laws of nature, no one predicted that damn near all 69 would be a great song, wise meditation or perfect send-up. It helps that they can’t possibly all be about love—certainly Claudia Gonson’s in some kind of union in the closing “Zebra” for instance (“Zelda looks lonely/ I want a zebra!”) but the greatest bond of human emotions it ain’t. And of course that’s the point; love isn’t always love just like love songs can’t all be love songs, and right, most of us will gladly take the next best thing. With its impossibly instantaneous trove of classics—”Reno Dakota,” “Yeah! Oh Yeah!” “Love Is Like a Bottle of Gin,” “Sweet-Lovin’ Man,” “Papa Was a Rodeo,” “The Night You Can’t Remember,” “All My Little Words” “Acoustic Guitar,” “Crazy for You (But Not that Crazy)” and the Peter Gabriel-certified “The Book of Love” to name a mere fucking 10—I’m still trying to figure out what 69 Love Songs is the next best thing to.—Dan Weiss

12.CrookedRain.jpeg12. Pavement – Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
With Crooked Rain a couple of collegiate slackers who excelled in making ramshackle indie rock enjoyed a tenuous dalliance with the mainstream. “It’s like they’re not even trying,” remarked Beavis and Butt-head, as they mocked the hilarious music video for “Cut Your Hair.” And they’re right. Here’s a batch of songs that are as effortlessly cryptic as they are accessible as they are noisy as they are catchy. While remaining defiantly unstylish, Pavement created a style all their own. —Jessica Gentile

11.Bends.jpeg11. Radiohead – The Bends (1995)
The cover art of The Bends captures lead singer Thom Yorke as a pixelated medical dummy covered in sterile electrodes. It’s a fitting metaphor for a band on the cusp of escaping the corporeal restraints of traditional music to explore an uncharted sonic wilderness that would make them modern audio deities. But for a fleeting 12 songs, the Oxfordshire quintet not only paid homage to the psychedelic alt rock they once idealized, but nearly perfected it. The title track’s serrated guitars and soaring vocals christened the new theme song for teenage alienation while “Fake Plastic Trees” is still an emotional tour de force guaranteed to make anyone with a soul cry in less than five minutes. There’s a subset of devotees who say that Radiohead hasn’t released an album as good as this seminal masterpiece. Listen to Yorke’s angelic falsetto eulogize “fake plastic love” and it’s hard to disagree.—Sean Edgar

9.SoftBulletin.jpeg10. 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.jpeg9. 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.jpeg8. 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.jpeg7. 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.jpeg6. 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.jpeg5. 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.png4. 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.jpeg3. 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.jpeg2. 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.jpeg1. 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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