Greetings, Glancers. Jeepers, it has been an incredibly long time since I posted one of these – in fact, my Best Albums of 2000-2010 was one of the first non-movie review posts I ever stuck on this site. I think. Have a gander at that post if you’re looking for some fairly recent ear treats, but today we’re going retro. Which seems like a bizarre thing to say. Yes, the 90s are well and truly considered retro now and I think I only truly started to appreciate this when I watch all those Teens React To 90s Music, or Do Teens Know 90s music Youtube videos. I mean, I don’t feel that I look all that different or much older than the teens in those videos, but most of them weren’t even born in the 90s. Damn, in 1999 I was ringing in the new year by getting drunk in my hometown and waking up in some weird street in Belfast the following millennium. I think. Again, it’s apparently so long ago now that myth and memory are colliding and I can’t keep track of what’s what.
Anyway, what I do remember of the 90s is the music. I was actually a DJ in the 90s. And by DJ I mean I helped my dad when we was doing the music for school discos, putting on CDs and hitting play. It’s a weird thing to say – I’ve no idea why or how my dad was doing this given that he doesn’t really like music and only listens to Irish muck. The 90s were strange, you see. There were the last two great musical movements of any significance in grunge and Britpop. Sure a lot has happened since then, but not to the cultural extent of those two, and certainly not from a sheer quality standpoint. I was a grunge and metal and hard rock kid, as I’m sure you’ve heard me say before. I was too young to traditionally ‘get it’, but I had a lot of older friends, and older siblings of friends – people who were teens in ’94 while I was 10/11. Having said that, I was still getting exposed to a lot of pop, a lot of whatever was on the radio and in the charts – I mostly remember the early 90s for being the start of manufactured boy/girl bands and the increase in popularity of rave/dance music, both of which I despised.
As grunge faded, Britpop emerged. I wasn’t a huge fan of any of the main Britpop bands, but a lot of the British bands I did love were lumped into that category, or into indie because they happened to come out around the same time and were essentially alternative to whatever was popular either in pop or rock. All of this nattering means that my favourite albums of the 90s will feature a variety of genres but won’t include many of the albums which regularly top critical lists. In preparing for my list, I went looking through a bunch of those lists and knew that the same culprits would appear over and over – Dummy, OK Computer, Nevermind, Definitely Maybe, Automatic For The People, Loveless, Odelay. Some of those I like, some of those I don’t. Maybe some will even appear in my list. What I’m getting at is that this is my list – read it, comment, make your own,try not to complain that the usual suspects may not be there. These albums each have a special place in my life, tied up with specific memories. Outside of that, I do believe each is a firmly great album and would highly recommend to any true music fan. As before, I’m only choosing one album per artist – otherwise there would be 2-3 by certain bands; there’s going to be a lot of ‘I could have chosen this but instead I went for this’.
The ordering isn’t too important, it never is, but I suspect by number 1 will always be my number 1. If you’re interested in 90s music, or if you are new to it all, you could do a lot worse by starting out with these bad boys.
Jackson entered his third decade of making music on top of the world. If you were alive in the early nineties then you knew all about the Dangerous Tour. You heard every single one of the singles from the album almost every single day. You sat up waiting to watch the world premiere of his new video. Does that happen anymore? Maybe it does, I’ve no idea, but certainly not to this extent. Families crowded around the TV waiting for Black Or White to come on like people wait for the Superbowl. For my list, it was a toss up between including this or HIStory. Both are albums I love, but both are flawed – neither are as good as Bad or Thriller, but then what is? Both albums have their share of fillers, but it’s the sheer strength of the singles and the hidden treats which ensure they have a spot on any Best Album Of The 90s discussion. Dangerous edges it with the better singles and for pure personal nostalgia value.
Black Or White, Heal The World, Give It To Me, Remember The Time are all flawless pop hits. The you also have Who Is It, Will You Be There, and In The Closet. All underrated pop classics. The rest of the album is a mixture of New Jack noise and genre twisting ballads of varying quality – if trimmed a little or if certain songs were switched out for something else this would surely be held in as high esteem as his earlier offerings but I love it regardless.
I almost didn’t include this, mostly because I always think it came out in 2000. This felt like the dawning of a new are of music, not because the band had come out of their malaise with massive renewed commercial success, but because it felt like a moment in time – both immediate and new and futuristic. The band found their peak at mixing funk, rock, and pop with Californication, and the hits kept coming – the title track, Road Trippin, Otherside, Scar Tissue were all huge hits and when they weren’t being played on radio stations they were being covered by school bands, in bedrooms, and by buskers. Other songs such as Easily and Parallel Universe ensured the hits were not confined to singles while Purple Stain retained their trademark humour and original sound.
This is an album about transcending – sound, music, and mind, and it felt at the time like a new movement was coming. It didn’t, but it was exciting all the same. The album dropped just in time for summertime, at a time when exams, parties, illegal entry into pubs and clubs and getting on top were high on the agenda of me and everyone I knew, and this felt like a unified blast of sunlight in our dreary surroundings and a statement about hope and potential and love which brought us all together – it was such a hit that the sensation carried through to the following summer. The band would unfortunately copy this template for their next releases with diminishing returns.
13. Ray Of Light
One year before Californication, another 80s icon proved she still had it. In fact, she proved she was more relevant than ever, reinventing herself in the best way possible and unleashing her best work. Madonna’s Ray Of Light was a winter release and one which grew as the year progressed and it was another album which felt like everyone could enjoy it. I almost managed to have friends, or at least not enemies, in every school group – sports people, smart people, nerds, stoners, whatever, and pretty much everyone appreciated this one. Like essentially every album on my list it has a bunch of smash singles or hits and an equal number of strong album tracks – Frozen, The Power Of Goodbye, Skin, Drowned World, Sky Fits Heaven, are among Madonna’s finest songs. Ironically like some other entries here this can be seen as their last great work, but great is the operative word here.
12. Unreleased Susanna Hoffs Album
Ah ha! You didn’t see this one coming, did ya? Hoffs released her debut in 1991, but as a whole it’s naff. She released a better follow up in 1996, but still it had problems with consistency. In between these though, she recorded a second album with some of the songs appearing on the 1996 release, albeit in slightly different forms. While the debut was a miscalculated, dated mess, the unreleased one showcases Hoffs’ talents – her songwriting, vocals, guitar playing, and mostly her ear for melody. It moves from mellow to doom laden to shimmering pop to energetic rock, but it is held together by an overall sense of, if not death, then fading away. I’ve felt this for such a long time that I actually have an outline for a story based or inspired by the album – the names of each song essentially write the story for you. If this had become a concept album I wouldn’t have been surprised – Catch The Wind, Without You, Go, Sleep, Ghost, Turning Over – the second half of the album in particular evoking that sense of departure and loss. Every song is terrific and it’s a shame that so many will never get to hear it. Even the reworked songs for what became her 1996 album will go unheard by most – do yourself a favour and find both albums now for the sheer majesty of songs like Darling One, Sunshine, and Right By You.
11. Grace – Jeff Buckley
Well, you probably saw this coming. I came to the Jeff Buckley party later than most. Plenty of friends had and played me Grace and his live offerings in the late 90s but it wasn’t until probably 2003 roughly that I bought it myself. There was no looking back. Every positive thing you’ve heard about the album is true, from Jeff’s lyrics and voice to the cauldron of genres he blasts through, often in a single song. There is melancholy, there is anger, there are heavenly odes, but mostly there is grace.
10. The Black Album – Metallica
Spoiler alert – there won’t be a lot of metal on this list. Many people in the know will agree that the 90s wasn’t the best decade for metal, at least from a commercial standpoint. Most of the big bands from the previous decade fell on hard times. A lot of idiots will blame grunge for this but the fact is that Grunge simply raised the bar for heavy music – forcing it to become more intelligent, raw, and visceral. Gone were the stadium pleasing anthems and performances, gone was the cheese. Gone was the need for a Rock God and a twiddly solo. However, a lot of new acts were coming out of the woodwork, particularly in Europe and the best of the rest learned to adapt quickly. Pantera, Megadeth, Emperor, Sepultura and others brought out their best work in the early to middle of the decade, and every one of them was in some way influenced by the changing musical landscape. Metallica’s Black Album is the pinnacle of these, throwing them into the limelight like no other metal band had been before.
The Black Album saw the band streamlining themselves after their opus And Justice For All. The complexity was replaced with hard-edged hits yet none of the ferocity was lost. The production was noticeably better, and the songs noticeably more radio-friendly. If the band lost fans with their previous album due to accusations of selling out, they lost a lot more with this one. Their reply was to sell over thirty million copies of this, not bad as middle fingers go. With singles such as the eternal Enter Sandman, the plaintive Nothing Else Matters, and hidden delights like My Friend Of Misery it’s the perfect album for introducing people to metal. The riffs are still there, the anger, the melody, but it’s a much smarter album with the lyrics tortured and poetic instead of a series of attempts to rhyme ‘death’, ‘war’, and ‘blood’.
9. Jagged Little Pill – Alanis Morissette
I’ve harped on about this album in other posts plenty of times, but it all holds true; it’s as fine a slice of the 90s musical landscape as any – hits like Ironic and One Hand In My Pocket as timeless as another US rock song as far back as Born In The USA or Jailhouse Rock. More than anything this album reminds me of early Secondary School days – not school itself of course, but the friends and the fun times we had. It was one of the first albums which felt ‘ours’ as a collective whole – this was my generation and the songs spoke to our experiences and feelings, even if (again) I was a few years younger than those it was truly for. There was a bit of grunge, a bit of the riot gurl, a bit of optimism, and a shot of realism. Where other artists sought to emulate Alanis, or Nirvana, or whoever, Jagged Little Pill was a pinnacle which few have equaled since in terms of sheer quality and cultural impact.
8. Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos
Long before Jagged Little Pill, Tori Amos came out swinging with a collection of songs which seemed a world away from the distortion and rage spewing out of Seattle. Little Earthquakes is equally as earth-shattering, but coming from a place of pianos, high-heels, and OMG vaginas. It’s a near perfect album (it does feature Happy Phantom which is just silly and Mother which is too long) with songs like Crucify, Winter, and Precious Things as deserving of the praise and airplay it didn’t receive as a thousand songs from the era which did. The aforementioned, bracketed songs? Switch those out for Sugar and her Smells Like Teen Spirit – then you have a perfect album. Tori would never be as consistent and restrained again.
7. Dirt – Alice In Chains
We finally land on some authentic grunge, with the appropriately named Dirt. Alice In Chains were always closer to the metal side of things, while Nirvana were decidedly punk (Pearl Jam were blues or traditional US rock and Soundgarden did whatever they pleased in case you were wondering). Dirt is both soulful and ugly, a stripping back of the American, human psyche, and set to a swirling storm of shrieks, distortion, and riffs. Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley are one of the most underrated songwriting duets of all time and on Dirt both are at their peak, not to mention Mike Starr and Sean Kinney. We have some of the finest examples of grunge hits in Would?, Angry Chair, and Down In A Hole, along with the introspective Rain When I Die, epic Rooster, and the opening bombast of Them Bones and Dam That River. Staley’s voice wavers between anguish and ecstasy, the riffs offer sludge, speed, and the lyrics are dark and cynical looks at drug use, the impact of war on families and the individual, religion, life and death, and much more – dirt has never been so appealing and easy to wallow in.
6. UYI 1 and II – G’n’R
If an unreleased album was a cheat inclusion, then I’ll go the extra mile and include two albums in one. Come on – they’re basically one long album and ask most people to name a song from one and they won’t remember which album is which. Not super fans like me of course. There’s the eternal argument that had the band trimmed away the rough stuff from each album then they could have had a single album with the best from both. While that’s true, you’d also end up cutting some greats. And seriously, while both albums are massive and have a few middling songs, the only thing that should be cut is My World. I think a single album would have ended up too bloated – you’d need November Rain, Estranged, Coma, Civil War – all songs over six minutes long, and then you’d need (one version of) Don’t Cry, You Could Be Mine, Back Off Bitch, Get In The Ring and you’re at around 50 minutes long already, and that’s before you add in Knockin On Heaven’s Door and Live And Let Die. There is already a US only release single album, but it adds in some odd choices which most fans would consider the filler. There’s no point arguing about it – these are two albums which act as two parts of the same whole.
These albums have probably been played by me more than 95% of anything else I’ve owned or heard – I had them at release, or near enough, and I listen to elements of them every week. I remember sitting up to watch the UYI tours on TV, trying to play every song when I got my first guitar, and ever since, and hiding My World on any mixtapes I made for friends. There are few albums I know as inside out as these ones, as anyone who has seen me requesting, then air-guitaring and singing along to Breakdown in The Venue can attest to (pro-tip – The Venue was Northern Ireland’s premier (only) rock and metal club for years and where I spent most Saturday nights from 17 onwards).
5. Hey Stoopid – Alice Cooper
We’re at that point where the ordering doesn’t really matter anymore. Hey Stoopid I got around the same time as UYI and it subsequently became one of, if not my most favourite Alice Cooper albums. Most of the cheese of the 80s has been abandoned, meaning all that is left is pure unfiltered Alice Cooper goodness, albeit with a new, more metal edge. While Alice appeared on G’n’R’s album, Slash appears on this one along with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Vinnie Moore; it’s a guitar fan’s dream. Ozzy, Nikki Sixx, and Elvira among others also pop up. Ignoring the guest stars we have one of Alice’s biggest hits in Feed My Frankenstein but the genius is in songs like Burning Our Bed, Dangerous Tonight, Die For You, and one of the greatest songs ever in Wind Up Toy. Ballads, blistering rock, Cooper’s madness, ideas, and brilliant lyrics all flow together meaning that even the slight dud Dirty Dreams doesn’t harm the whole. This one needs to be heard by many more people, including the metal and rock fans who should already be familiar with it but likely are not.
4. How To Measure A Planet?
It could have been Mandylion, but I feel this is still their best. Another album you’re not likely to see on any other critic’s list, yet one which is more deserving of a place than most, How To Measure A Planet? was The Gathering’s first shift away from metal into parts unknown. If there is any album on my list which needs more exposure, it is this one. It’s an epic double album covering space and time and features should-be-classics in Travel, Marooned, Frail, Rescue Me, Great Ocean Road. If you like rock, dance, shoe-gaze, trip-hop, prog, pop, guitars, soundscapes, angelic vocals, ethereal melodies, then you will undoubtedly love this album.
3. In Utero
It was this or Nevermind. In fact, it was this or Incesticide. Nevermind gets all the credit and acclaim, while Incesticide most reminds me of that time, but In Utero is the best Nirvana album. The best way to follow up the album which defined a generation is to break it all down again in the most brutal, anti-commercial way you can. If Nevermind was an unexpected hit, then this is even moreso – songs with titles and content like Rape Me, Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter, Tourette’s, Heart Shaped Box, Very Ape are not the stuff of radio. And yet they are. They should be. We should listen to music not because it’s popular, or easily packaged, or nice, or sounds like everything else. We should listen to it for our own reasons, to be moved, to be destroyed, to be challenged, to be inspired. In Utero will inspire, move, challenge, and destroy you, Cobain’s lyrics childlike, incisive, insightful, angst-ridden, world-weary, obsessed with the body, corruption, failure, success, and every note he hits powerfully delivered with maximum feeling. Grohl and Novoselic as always are in perfect tune reminding us that the band were the finest cohesive unit since Led Zeppelin, even as Kurt increasingly abandoned structure and played with form. The best grunge album ever isn’t even grunge, but an unholy descent into hell.
2. The Bends
It’s this or OK Computer. I’d happily argue that Pablo Honey deserves a spot on any 90s list too – that album is highly underrated purely by the fact that the other two came next. But Pablo Honey is to The Bends as Help is to Revolver. While I appreciate what OK Computer was and is and does, The Bends has always been my personal favourite. It tugs at the emotions more, it has more variety, it isn’t so calculated, and it’s obviously the more emotional of the two. You don’t even need me to list the hits do you? Fine – Street Spirit, Just, My Iron Lung, High And Dry, Fake Plastic Trees. Any album which contains a song as good as any of those songs is alright by me, but to have them all and also feature the title track, Nice Dream, Bullet Proof, and my own favourite Black Star means you have an album for the ages and one deserving of being mentioned as one of the best ever. The strange this about it is, I don’t have any specific memories associating the album to the time and to me. It feels like it’s always been there. In fact, it wasn’t until much later that I found people who appreciated the band but by that point Kid A and Amnesiac were being released. If you think Radiohead are overrated, you’re doing it wrong. Doing what? Existing.
Before we get to Number One, lets look at some who could have made it on:
Talk On Corners – The Corrs
Ten- Pearl Jam
Superunknown – Soundgarden
Fear Of A Black Planet – Public Enemy
Suede – Suede
Dummy – Portishead
Rust In Peace – Megadeth
Imaginations From The Other Side – Blind Guardian
Showbiz – Muse
Still Life – Opeth
Oceanborn – Nightwish
Drum rolls please – my number one pick for the Best Album of the 90s is:
- The Holy Bible – Manic Street Preachers
My number 1 spot was always going to be my number 1 spot. Sure you can pick Everything Must Go as a better album, certainly a more palatable option and maybe one more symbolic of the decade, but The Holy Bible is THE ONE. I made some Beatles comparisons above, but what the hell do you compare this to? Sure there were dark albums before and there have been since – the 90s were full of them, but none of them come close to this. This is pain not commercialized, romanticized, or glorified. It’s like unnecessary eye surgery. It’s darker than any metal album, and unquestionably more authentic in its horror. While the 90s were known for certain artists paving new ways with sampling The Holy Bible offered the following soundbite samples:
‘I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit, and then force it too look in the mirror’
‘I knew that someday I was gonna die. And I knew before I died Two things would happen to me – That number one I would regret my entire life. And number two I would want to live my life over again’
‘I wonder who you think you are. You damn well think you’re God or something. God give life, God taketh it away, not you. I think you are the devil itself’ (Mother of one of the victims of Peter Sutcliffe).
‘I eat too much to die and not enough to stay alive. I’m sitting in the middle waiting’ (quote from a documentary about a girl’s struggle with anorexia. She died a few months later).
‘I hate purity. Hate goodness. I don’t want virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone corrupt’.
‘The court has come. The court of the Nations. And into the courtroom will come the martyrs of Majdanek and Oswiecim. From the ditch of Kerch the dead will rise. They will arise from the graves, they will arise from flames bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe. And the children, they too will come, stern and merciless. The butchers had no pity on them; now the victims will judge the butchers. Today the tear of the child is the judge. The grief of the mother is the prosecutor’ (transcript from the Nuremberg Trials).
Lets not forget the artwork and the liner note quotations. There has rarely, if ever, been a more assured statement of art in music – the band honing their past experiments with design and quotes to a sharpened bullet tip. That’s all well and good, but in the end it is the band themselves who stand out, draped in military garb and spouting rage and vitriol and anyone and everything – this is the Holy Bible for the twentieth century – a catalogue of atrocities counted off with some of the most gut churning vocals, ferocious guitar, ungodly noise, and potent lyrics you’ll ever experience. The Holocaust, self-hate, Imperialism, anorexia (Richey, the band’s lost guitarist and lyricist was 6 stone at the time of recording), murder on an individual and massive scale, religion, banks, politicians, exploitation – the band uncover every ugly truth of the modern man and let us know precisely who’s responsible.
It is possible to separate the songs from the intent and the peripherals. Listening to songs such as Faster, PCP, This Is Yesterday and others – each a perfect song in its own right, whether it be an end of the century/world punk anthem or a mournful ballad to an idealized and lost youth. It is possible, but not easy. You can come as a virgin to the songs, but you’ll inevitably ask what the lyrics are, or what the song is about. You’ll ask why there is such a creepy, soul-darkening drone and wonder what they hell they are so angry about. You’ll get sucked in, sucked down. The opening bass riff to Archives Of Pain will haunt you for ever more. The death shrieks at the end of Mausoleum will set you on edge as if you are being stalked, while the entirety of The Intense Humming Of Evil may very well disturb you to the point of no return. And yet you’ll want to play it again, because the songs are so good, the melodies so incisive and brutal. You’ll find youself screaming along to songs with titles like Of Walking Abortion and yelling out the names of serial killers and dictators in Revol. It’s still a rock album – solos, riffs, headbanging, yells are all checked in, but it’s rock on another level – the sound of the world setting itself alight and both celebrating and screaming in agony with equal measure.
There you have it – my favourite albums of the 1990s. Rather than waiting around to hear what my favourie albums of the 2090s will be, why not share your own thoughts and albums in the comments below. I’ll get around to the 80s and 70s eventually, don’t worry.