The 25 Best Albums of 1990

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The 25 Best Albums of 1990

Amidst the birth of the Millennial generation, the year 1990 ushered in an era of alt-rock ascendence and teen-pop domination; of hip-hop’s ongoing golden age and country’s movement further into the mainstream. Grunge, Britpop, nu metal and (shudder) third-wave ska were yet to truly explode onto the scene, but the dream of the ‘90s was already alive and well as the new wave and hair metal of the ‘80s faded into obscurity.

Our picks for 1990’s premier releases don’t begin to capture the incongruity of that eclectic decade, focusing mostly on rock and hip-hop, with more country-adjacent sounds peppered in to taste. Dream pop rears its pretty head repeatedly, with a classic of the subgenre claiming the top overall spot, while the debut of a one-time supergroup makes the top 20 and a one-album Britpop wonder sneaks into the top 10.

Here are the 25 best albums of 1990:

25. Pixies: BossanovaPixies-Bossanova.jpgA cover of the 1960s surf-rock classic “Cecilia Ann” kicks off the Pixies’ most eclectic disc, which teeters from the squalling aggression of “Rock Music” to the Talking Heads-inspired “Dig for Fire” and the haunting UFO tale “The Happening.” Despite the diminished presence of Kim Deal and a grotesquely reverb-heavy drum sound (oddly, this album is far more ’80s-sounding than the group’s actual ’80s albums), Bossanova can’t help but spotlight the band’s characteristically skewed songcraft, which hits a peak on the eerie, theremin-aided classic “Velouria.” If any other band released this, it’d be an early alt-rock classic. Instead, because of the band’s astonishing original run, its reputation is merely “third best Pixies album.” —Zach Schonfeld

24. Living Colour: Time’s UpLivingColour-TimesUp.jpgLiving Colour followed up the breakout success of 1988’s Vivid with a sprawling, ambitious, challenging hour of metal and hard rock that was, in contrast to the rock genre popularized by Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, genuinely progressive. From the hardcore stomp of the title track, to the alarm siren noise bomb of “New Jack Theme,” to the R&B slow-jam hit “Love Rears Its Ugly Head,” Time’s Up is a funk-metal-jazz-punk hybrid that sounded like nothing else in 1990. Between Vernon Reid’s virtuosic guitar and Corey Glover’s powerful vocals, Living Colour always had one of rock’s best and most overlooked guitarist/singer combos, and Time’s Up features the two (along with drummer Will Calhoun and soon-to-depart bassist Muzz Skillings) in their prime. True story: I bought this tape with a Turtle’s gift coin alongside that terrible Nelson album. (C’mon, I was a kid.) Uh, Time’s Up is way better than Nelson. —Garrett Martin

23. Rosanne Cash: InteriorsRCInteriors.jpgCash wrote and produced this album almost entirely by herself, and it is the pinnacle of her career. The title refers to the private doubts and agonies that often underlie our public facades, and this theme links the songs so tightly they form a suite or concept album. A troubled marriage may seem OK “On the Surface,” but friends and neighbors never glimpse the battles raging “On the Inside.” Cash’s forlorn, hushed voice, surrounded by a restrained guitar and drums, captures the ache of putting a brave face on a wounded soul. Out of that despair come the buoyant melody and undeterred optimism of songs such as “Real Woman” and “What We Really Want.” The album’s sound—a muted minimalism that hovers between intimacy and claustrophobia—is as striking as the record’s critique of modern marriage. —Geoffrey Himes

22. Depeche Mode: ViolatorDepecheMode-Violator.jpgDepeche Mode’s critical and commercial peak sounds as slick and mysterious today as it did in 1990. Buoyed by a handful of top-notch singles—”Personal Jesus,” “Policy of Truth,” the incomparable “Enjoy the Silence”—Violator was a worldwide smash that united the energy of dance music with the outsized ambitions of arena rock, and which briefly elevated Depeche Mode into the same superstar stratosphere as bands like U2 and INXS. —Garrett Martin

shehangsbrightly.jpg21. Mazzy Star: She Hangs BrightlyWhile Mazzy Star’s 1993 sophomore release, So Tonight That I Might See, is the album most people look to in the dream-pop canon, this favoritism is largely propped up by the existence of sublime single “Fade Into You,” while their debut album She Hangs Brightly is a stunning work in and of itself. What So Tonight That I Might See offers in the purest sense of dream-pop vibes, She Hangs Brightly runs circles around it in sheer folk psychedelia and mind-bending bohemia. From the album’s cover shot of architect Victor Horta’s art nouveau stairway at the Hotel Tassel in Brussels, singer Hope Sandoval and multi-instrumentalist David Roback operate in marbled nostalgia and lovelorn bliss. On “Give You My Lovin’” Roback’s slide guitar presents a gorgeous companion for Sandoval’s breathtaking delivery. Like a gentle gypsy, a tambourine rears itself throughout the album, memorably on “Ride It On,” a song that packs the defining gaze of the early ’90s. Largely recorded at San Francisco’s Hyde Street Studios, released on Rough Trade and later re-released by Capitol, She Hangs Brightly forever stands as a testament to the thrill of Sandoval’s heavenly coo, the genius of Roback’s instrumental explorations and of Mazzy Star’s audacity to dream. —Adrian Spinelli

20. Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most WantedIceCube-AMW.jpgAn unlikely pairing of one of the most notorious West Coast gangsta rappers with one of the most politically conscious East Coast hip-hop outfits, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted matched Ice Cube and his Lench Mob crew with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team. Worth the price of admission from a sonic standpoint alone, this beat-construction summit between longtime Ice Cube producer Sir Jinx and the Bomb Squad’s Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee and Chuck D still stands as the most uniquely soundscaped work of the former N.W.A. frontman/chief lyricist’s solo career. It also blueprints how even this many cooks can sustain focus and flow over an entire record. Refracted saxophone licks jut out at odd angles, much like the audio cubism you hear on Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (released the same year and written up elsewhere on this list), only with a distinctly G-Funk ambience that’s true to Cube’s West Coast roots. Predictably, Cube’s rhymes where his narrator contemplates kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach and forcing an abortion with a wire hanger drew fire at the time, and the album’s posturing as a statement on police violence rings hollow when the music drips with sexual contempt that dehumanizes at least as much as the racial oppression it decries. Still, not many rappers back then would’ve had the nerve to make room for female MC Yo-Yo to check their chauvinism and Flavor Flav to make fun of them on their own record. In several spots, Cube’s winking humor hints at the self-awareness that helped him grow into a cuddly media mogul who once even appeared alongside Elmo on Sesame Street. He continues to cause furor as the cloud of anti-Semitism hovers over both him and Public Enemy, but in an era where we teeter between cancel culture and groveling apologism, the often irresistible AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted exposes the need for a middle ground. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

breeders-pod.jpg19. The Breeders: PodWhen the first album by The Breeders was released in 1990, it was considered something of a lark. A little side project for Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly who were otherwise employed by Pixies and Throwing Muses, respectively. No one was suspecting that it would creatively outdo the work that their day-job bands had recently released (Bossanova and Hunkpapa) due to its sharp edges and minimalist attack, brought to life by Steve Albini’s punchy production sound and able assistance by two other musicians with regular gigs: bassist Josephine Wiggs from The Perfect Disaster and Britt Walford of Slint. And little did anyone know that this little supergroup that could would become Deal’s full-time endeavor, scoring a surprise Top 50 Billboard single and losing everyone but Wiggs along the way. A supergroup turned into a regular ol’ group, and we’re all the better for it. —Robert Ham

18. The Replacements: All Shook Downreplacements-all-shook-down.jpgThis is really a Paul Westerberg solo album, for the other Replacements appear only sporadically behind him. Self-doubt had crept into Westerberg’s songwriting, creating music bleaker and more minimalist than The Replacements’ rampaging mid-’80s work but richer as well. Westerberg is finally confronting the flip side of freewheeling excess and the resulting encounter is as bracing as it is convincing. This was the final album ever made under The Replacements’ name, and it yielded their biggest Billboard hit: “Merry Go Round,” #1 on the Modern Rock chart. —Geoffrey Himes

17. The Black Crowes: Shake Your Money MakerBlackCrowes-SYMM.jpgThe Black Crowes’ Shake Your Money Maker was a huge hit upon its release, despite critics shaming the very obvious homages in sound and style to popular blues-rock bands such as The Rolling Stones. Coming off hot from the more experimental rock that dominated the charts in the ’80s, The Black Crowes served as a return to the genre’s blues roots, with brothers Chris and Rich Robinson providing such an electric chemistry that was primed for radio airplay and an eventual retrospective appreciation for an oft-forgotten ’90s gem. It also helped that Money Maker enlisted the iconic keyboard chops of Chuck Leavell from the Allman Brothers. It’s a shameless ode to Southern rock that found its place in the midst of the shifting musical landscape and deserved its success, even if it was seen as a copycat. After all, isn’t that what rock music is at its core? —Jade Gomez

16. Digital Underground: Sex PacketsDigitalUnderground-SPs.jpgAt a time when the East Coast was dominating the surging hip-hop scene in the late ’80s, and N.W.A. gangsta rap was the West Coast’s rap talisman, Digital Underground emerged out of Oakland with an off-kilter style that helped define West Coast rap. With Sex Packets, the Greg “Shock G” Jacobs-led group offered something funkier, freakier and just flat out wilder that broke through hip-hop’s often-stoic facade. Sex Packets held a rare funk explosion on every track, from Shock G’s alter ego on “The Humpty Dance” to the debut single “dowhatyoulike” that just begged for a dance squad (which they delivered). But the group’s precision and prowess around the elements can best be heard on “Freaks of the Industry,” where Digital Underground would eventually go from the samplers to the sampled, across a range of musical realms. —Adrian Spinelli

15. Sinead O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t GotSineadOconnor-IDNWWIHG.jpgThough this album is at risk of being overshadowed by its mega single ”Nothing Compares 2 U,” a cover of the 1985 Prince-penned song, Sinead O’Connor’s second LP is an exceptional feat of painstaking intimacy. O’Connor’s emotional capacity on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is nearly unparalleled as she recounts haunting tales of grief, love, fame, fear and religion. Her intensity might be intimidating if it weren’t for her tuneful, comforting instrumentals, which help soften the harshness of her strong personality and palpable anguish. Folding in dramatic orchestral pop, alternative rock and folk, O’Connor’s songs are immensely spiritual and almost mythical, with breathtaking grace and harrowing agony rooted at their core. —Lizzie Manno

14. Eric B. & Rakim: Let The Rhythm Hit ‘EmEricBRakim-LTRHE.jpgThe 1980s might have been the commercial peak for this Long Island hip-hop duo, but Eric B. & Rakim’s third album Let the Rhythm Hit ‘Em was further proof of their mastery. Rakim’s signature internal rhymes and pioneering unfazed delivery still loomed large, as did the duo’s classic funk samples. Rakim’s rhythms are subtle yet striking, underscoring the rawness of their beats, and he made sure people knew just how confident he was in that ability (“My rhyme is the rhythm of thoughts that kill a man / Ideas for the ear to fear, might split him / He’ll never forget ‘em, he’ll rest in peace with ‘em / At least when he left, he’ll know what hit him”). This album might not have had clear standout singles like “Eric B. is President” or the title tracks from Paid in Full and Follow the Leader, but they nail the fundamentals here without even breaking a sweat. —Lizzie Manno

13. Alice In Chains: FaceliftAliceInChains-Facelift.jpgIt’s hard to believe that Alice in Chains’ 1990 debut Facelift wasn’t an instant success, but the grunge powerhouse’s heavy-metal roots eventually became a useful playbook for future music of the genre. Capturing the bleakness of Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Facelift is one of the more realized debut albums of the grunge era, contrary to the band’s worries of being unable to find their sound. Layne Staley’s vocal chops going from such smooth belts to a more brooding baritone register makes for such an extraordinary and ambitious display of talent for a debut record. It’s a haunting, distorted, ear-shattering exploration of pain that bridged the gap between heavy metal and grunge fans, and cemented Alice in Chains as one of the most important bands in history. —Jade Gomez

12. Uncle Tupelo: No DepressionUncleTupelo--NoDepression.jpgCompared to the experimentation we would later expect from Uncle Tupelo co-founder Jeff Tweedy as the leader of Wilco, Uncle Tupelo’s debut effort No Depression brims with an almost childlike naiveté. Listening to Tweedy, bandleader/main songwriter Jay Farrar and drummer Mike Heidorn tear through their countrified take on punk, the exuberance in the performances is so striking, it’s as if you’re listening to the sound of your own youth whooshing by in a flash. Mixing punk with country was hardly new when Uncle Tupelo caused a sensation with their signature hybrid of the two forms—cowpunk acts like The Blasters, Rank and File, Rubber Rodeo and The Meat Puppets had blazed that trail a decade earlier—but production courtesy of then-upstart alternative-rock producers Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade helped position Uncle Tupelo within the zeitgeist. Truth be told, Uncle Tupelo sometimes skirted the edge of condescension with their exaggerated hillbilly affectations. That said, there’s no denying the realness in this album’s undercurrent of Midwest small-town hopelessness. Decades later, it’s easy to see why No Depression inspired both the movement and the magazine that bear its name. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

ridenowher.jpg11. Ride: NowhereRide is another pioneer of the dream pop and shoegaze genres, and their debut, Nowhere, is oft-cited as one of the best albums of all time. Emerging from England in the early ’90s, the band are able to reflect the influence of bands like Stone Roses, Sonic Youth and The Cure through their harsh, discordant sound. As a result, Nowhere is a collection of reverberated songs that stand effortlessly posed between digestible pop songs and sonic, intense noise-rock. —Samantha Lopez

10. The La’s: The La’sthelas-thelas.jpgPeople often say, “Lightning never strikes the same place twice.” In regards to musical discographies, that’s clearly not the case, but that was certainly true of The La’s, who faded into obscurity after one cult-classic album. The Liverpool band’s self-titled debut turned 30 in October, and it’s hard to imagine Britpop or the London arrival scene in The Parent Trap without it. The La’s was just as important to the Britpop movement as records like The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society or My Generation. Their songs were rooted in the British Invasion’s tuneful pop, as well as that era’s burgeoning psychedelia and even its skiffle origins. “There She Goes” was the obvious pop hit that still shows up in movies and commercials (even though there’s a lyric about heroin), but other songs are haunting like a sad Irish pub tune (“Freedom Song”), utterly hypnotizing (“Looking Glass”) and almost punk-esque (“I Can’t Sleep”). —Lizzie Manno

9. They Might Be Giants: FloodTMBG-Flood.jpgHeart, 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

8. A Tribe Called Quest: People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of RhythmATCQ-PeoplesInstinctive.jpgWhen I was in high school, my friend Logan would pick me up most mornings in his blue Toyota Paseo and take us to school. We never needed coffee back then because we had the flyest collection of Golden Age-era hip-hop CDs, and People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths of Rhythm was our first love. How “Ham ‘N’ Eggs” drew us in, how we rapped every word to the album’s starter “Push It Along,” how we laughed thinking about whoever “Bonita Applebum” was, how we went around speaking the wack-ass French we learned on “Luck of Lucien” and how we were further enlightened to the world of sampling on the “Can I Kick It?” beat with Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk On The Wild Side” as its backbone. We’d debate for the rest of our lives about which MC had a nicer flow, Q-Tip or Phife Dawg, and on Tribe’s debut album, it was the toughest decision. This is the record that introduced the Jamaica, Queens natives to the world and if you were with the Tribe from the jump off, the memories live forever. —Adrian Spinelli

7. Fugazi: RepeaterFugazi-Repeater.jpgFugazi’s first album (second if you count 13 Songs, which is tempting, though not exactly accurate) set the standard for both the bracing, hard-edged sounds and the anticapitalist attitude of independent rock in the ‘90s. It’s impossible to disentangle Repeater’s music from its DIY politics—this is the one with “Merchandise”; this is the one that sold enough copies to attract interests from major labels, all of whom Fugazi steadfastly rebuffed. But set all that context aside for a moment, and Repeater is also just an overwhelmingly powerful rock album, with jagged grooves, relentless energy, and compelling chemistry between Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto’s distinct vocal approaches. It’s not the best Fugazi album (that came three years later), but it is the most definitive Fugazi album. —Zach Schonfeld

6. The Sundays: Reading, Writing and ArithmeticTheSundays-RWA.jpgWhile 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

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Ragged GloryNYCH-RaggedGlory.jpgYoung has always made his best music with the ragged but heartfelt rhythm section known as Crazy Horse. This album is a return to their first triumph, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: long garage-rock jams with lots of grungy guitar in a bruising, ruthless search for traditional values—a “Country Home” and “Love and Only Love.” Included are a cover of Don & Dewey’s 1959 R&B single “Farmer John,” later a top hit for the Premiers in 1964, and a Crazy Horse original that poses the ancient Zen koan, “Why do I keep fuckin’ up?” —Geoffrey Himes

4. Jane’s Addiction: Ritual de lo Habitualritual-de-lo-habitual.jpgThough 1991 has been etched in stone as the year where the popular-music paradigm tilted on its axis, the truth is that Jane’s Addiction helped usher in the alternative revolution three years earlier with their 1988 studio debut Nothing’s Shocking, which combined hard rock, art rock and traditional rock into an utterly unique new sound. On Nothing’s Shocking, Jane’s Addiction aspired to be both eerie and sublime. But when the L.A. quartet followed up with Ritual de lo Habitual, it achieved a grandeur and scale that few acts ever touch, much less on their second album. There’s a sordid tale involving death by overdose at the heart of the music, but while heroin is central to the band’s story, it doesn’t define the character of these songs the way it did with, say, The Velvet Underground. The epic one-two punch of “Three Days” and “Then She Did…” contain enough musical and emotional peaks and valleys that even the band’s breakup a year later couldn’t quell the sense of completion that Ritual de lo Habitual leaves in its wake. It doesn’t hurt that the album remains synonymous with the inaugural Lollapalooza tour that will forever be tied to its legacy. —Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Sonicyouthgoo.jpg3. Sonic Youth: Goo
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

PublicEnemy-FearOfABlackPlanet.jpg2. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black PlanetSimply 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

heavenorlasvegas.jpg1. Cocteau Twins: Heaven or Las VegasDream pop’s most influential band created its masterpiece amidst pregnancies, marriages, deaths, addictions and relationship failures, but you might not know it from listening. Cocteau Twins all but introduced the concept of glossolalia to pop music, and you’d be hard-pressed to clearly make out more than a few passing phrases—“I only want to love you,” “burn this whole madhouse down,” “my baby’s cries”—while listening to Heaven or Las Vegas. And that’s not the craziest part: When the Scottish trio released this landmark album in 1990, many critics said that frontperson Elizabeth Fraser had never sounded clearer. Fair enough given the LP’s five predecessors, but the joy of Heaven or Las Vegas is that you don’t need to know what Fraser is saying (even if the few discernible lyrics are immensely personal) to fall into a stupor. Her technicolor trills are as sweeping as a warm summer breeze, Robin Guthrie’s guitars and drum programming sparkle and echo as entrancingly as a hypnotist’s pendulum, and Simon Raymonde’s bass and piano are as immersive as a five-star spa’s hot tub. “Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires” is the climactic closer and “Pitch the Baby” is the vaguely trance-like early highlight, but the title track is the album’s literal and figurative centerpiece (and perhaps dream pop’s all-time pinnacle). Atop guitars that gleam like diamonds, pianos that drip like water and a hefty whisper of a drum shuffle, Frasier’s voice resounds so beautifully, it’s literally stunning. At one point she sings (fully audibly!), “It must be why I’m thinking of Las Vegas,” but 1990’s best album is entirely heaven. —Max Freedman

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