Any record collection that doesn’t feature at least some sampling of the genre-bending, industry-defining music of the 1990s is woefully incomplete.
The last decade of the 20th Century was chock-full of momentous events in history, from the end of the Cold War to the impeachment of a president. Yet, no matter who you ask, when you talk about “the nineties,” the first thing people think of is the music. Many will note that in the 1990s, hip-hop underwent a lot of changes and really grew into its own as an art form. However, the some of the best albums of the 1990s featured loud, guitar-driven rock. Dubbed “Alternative,” the rock and roll of the 1990s blended classic rock sensibilities with the raw energy of heavy metal. Below you will find our list of must-have rock albums that qualify as some of the best albums of the 1990s.
Why Should I Get These Best Albums of the 1990s on Vinyl?
In the 1990s, something strange happened. The compact disc was the hot new way to distribute and listen to music. The selling point for them was that because it stored the music digitally, the scratch of records or the soft hiss from cassette tapes would be a thing of the past. However, by the end of the decade many artists were adding such sounds back in to their music. Even though people loved the clean and clear sound of their CDs, the music lost some of its character. Today, with digital music the norm, a resurgence of interest in vinyl records has people creating great music collections. If you want to be one of them, you will definitely need the best albums of the 1990s.
Why Was the 1990s So Important Musically?
You could fill an entire book with the answer to that question. However, when it comes to rock an entire new sub-genre was born in response to hair metal and the commercial success of these acts. Much like punk rock rejected the pop trends of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the alternative rock scene bubbled under the surface in the late 1980s, boiling over into the 1990s and defining the era. Unlike the big metal acts, they weren’t just singing about partying and scoring. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and even artists like Paula Cole and others focused instead on deeper issues. Some sang about social problems, while others merely focused on more personal themes. The prevailing idea in grunge and other alt-rock was trying to battle feelings of alienation, helplessness, and apathy by embracing freedom and being true to yourself.
The Best Albums of the 1990s:
Rock in the 1980s took some strange turns. You had pop-rock, heavy metal, and what’s known as “hair metal.” All of these bands were successful, touring across the country and filling arenas. However, on the underground music scene the below bands were cutting their teeth. Check out the list below, and keep on rockin’ in the free world.
1. AC/DC – Live
The band AC/DC seemed like a leftover from the 1970s, with their crunchy riffs and school boy schtick. Then the band recorded performances on the tour for their 1990 album Razor’s Edge to release as a live record. Featuring hits from the 1970s and 1980s along with current tracks, this recording is a kind of definitive AC/DC experience in the 1990s. Along with being simply a great record, this album is also a nice time capsule of this stage in the band’s development, highlighting it as one of the best albums of the 1990s.
2. Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill
In Alanis Morissette a Canadian singer and songwriter whose previous claim to fame was an appearance on a Nickelodean TV show. It was only when she moved to Los Angeles and released this album that she became a bonafide alt-rock goddess. (And later actual “God,” too!) Morrisette originally hoped the album would simply finance a second, but it went on to become a monster hit. Morrisette’s unique vocal style became a key part of the 1990s sound, emulated by many others but never fully imitated. Not only was this album influential for music, the song “Head over Feet” coined the popular term “friends with benefits.” However, her true legacy is inspiring a generation of female artists to follow in her footsteps, and thus this is one of the best albums of the 1990s.
3. Beck – Odelay
With his first album Mellow Gold, Beck established himself as a kind of alternative wunderkind. Yet, the artist faced backlash for his live performances which were often nothing like his studio work, even changing the arrangement and lyics to the hit “Loser.” However, Odelay’s release silenced those critics, showing that Beck truly was a musical trailblazer for the era. The songs “Devil’s Haircut,” “Where It’s At,” and “The New Pollution?” were all huge radio hits and proved to the world that Beck was a musical genius. Even those who don’t necessarily enjoy Beck’s eclectic ouvre, enjoy Odelay for the classic it is.
4. Better Than Ezra – Deluxe
It could be argued that Better Than Ezra has a sound that, in the musical landscape of the 1990s, was not very unique. True or not, the fact remains that their debut record is a fantastic musical effort that defines a whole swath of the era’s music. What makes this so impressive is that this album was an independent release, with no major studio or distributor behind it, until the band got a deal with Elektra records a year or so later. Everything about this record makes you nostalgic for the 1990s, even if you were born after the year 2000. For this reason, it's one of the best albums of the 1990s.
5. Bob Dylan – Time Out of Mind
Dylan is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, but by the mid-1990s most people thought he was done. His past few records were panned for fad-chasing and their overt born-again Christian themes, despite Dylan denying there were any. This is Dylan’s 30th record, and his first double studio album. The songs were both evocative of the Dylan of old, rich concepts with deep meanings. But rather than a young revolutionary or an older child of God, Dylan came across as a wise troubadour. This role is one he’s held ever since, going on to be honored by presidents and the Nobel committee. That all started with this classic album that ranks highly on the list of the best albums of the 1990s..
6. Blues Traveler – Four
The first album to break through to mainstream success for this jam band was their fourth album, hence the title. Thanks to the jaunty singles, “Run-Around” and “The Hook,” Four made the band one of the biggest acts in early alternative rock. The same year this album came out they performed on the season premiere of SNL, appeared at Woodstock ’94, and opened for The Rolling Stones. But it all began with this record of fun, high-energy songs.
7. Bruce Springsteen – Ghost of Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E-Street Band in 1995 in support of the release of a Greatest Hits album. However, rather than viewing it as a last hurrah, Springsteen felt inspired. Interestingly, this was not an E Street Band project, but rather his second acoustic album. The title is a reference both to Tom Joad from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and the Woody Guthrie song “The Ballad of Tom Joad.” The album itself is a somber reflection of life in America (and Mexico) in the last decade of the 20th century. The title song from the album is a Springsteen classic, being covered by a number of musicians including Rage Against the Machine.
8. Collective Soul – Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid
Like every good band, Collective Soul Began with a group of musicians in a basement recording a demo. Looking to get work as songwriters, the band soon found themselves with a deal from Atlantic Records on the strength of their first single, “Shine.” The demo, only slightly polished, was quickly released and went on to be a huge hit for the band. Less than a year later, they were performing at Woodstock 1994.
9. Collective Soul – Collective Soul
This record was the first proper studio release from the band and arguably their best-known work. The record spawned five charting hits, even though the band itself was in turmoil. Caught up in legal battles, the band was unable to tour and support the record. They never really recovered, but their sound is definitive for the era. While the band is still performing and recording, this album was their crowning achievement.
10. Dave Matthews Band – Under the Table and Dreaming
When this album hit shelves, “jam band” wasn’t really yet a genre of music. There was the Grateful Dead and their seeming successors, Phish. However, it was DMB with its mix of rock and country sounds that kicked open those doors for good. The songs on the album are short, punchy, and just make you feel good. However, they were designed to be seen live in a crowd. (Two of the songs literally have “la, la, la” sing-along breaks.) At their live shows, these songs would be expanded with complex solos, interpolations of other songs, and featured guests. It all starts with this album, but it didn’t end with it.
11. Fiona Apple – Tidal
This debut record introduced Fiona Apple to the world, but also serves as the example of another kind of signature 1990s sound. Light, but soulful, Apple’s classical musical training is evident. However, like every good artist, she pushes boundaries. The songs explore issues of sexuality, voyeurism, violence, trauma, and despair. Yet, this album is not arduous to listen to. The music is gorgeous, and Apple’s vocals are perfect for it, making it one of the best albums of the 1990s.
12. Goo Goo Dolls – A Boy Named Goo
This breakthrough album was the fifth released by the band, and one that came after major upheavals in the roster. In fact, this record of catchy alt-rock jams did not sell that well at the time. The group’s follow-up record was its big hit, but this was the album that defined their sound. It also played a role in defining the sound of 1990s music in general. The song “Name” is the breakout single, and the song that made them stars, further cementing its place on the list of the best albums of the 1990s.
13. Green Day – Dookie
This record is definitively a part of the canon of 1990s alternative rock music, but Green Day has always had punk sensibilities. This album, recorded in just three weeks, captured the hearts of teenagers in eyeliner and just about everyone else. The band grew to infamy when, just months after releasing the record, they started a huge mud fight at Woodstock ’94. Which, if you think about it, is pretty punk. This is the record that started it all, and listening to it again is like meeting an old friend…who then kicks over your table and breaks your TV. Even still, we believe it has earned its spot on the list of the best albums of the 1990s.
14. Guns n’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II
While technically two separate albums, Use Your Illusion represents the entirety of Guns N’ Roses musical output, save for a cover album, in the 1990s. But this is the album that made them the biggest rock band on the planet. Despite being packaged as two separate albums, they are meant to be listened to together. It’s a magnum opus from a band that could have been the biggest rock group of all time, but spectacularly fell apart. Even still, it's one of the best albums of the 1990s.
15. Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell
In 1994, record industry executives thought the idea of a comeback by the operatic rocker was a big joke. When this album, a sequel to Meat Loaf’s biggest record in the 1970s, hit it was a surprise success. On the strength of the epic “I Will Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” this album helped show that old-school rock was still relevant in the age of Grunge.
16. Mutineer – Warren Zevon
Warren Zevon never reached the heights of his contemporaries like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thorton. This was the worst-selling album of his career, but one of the best. Self-produced, the album featured fun, witty songs like Zevon is known for and more melancholy musical studies like the title track. The title track is frequently covered by Bob Dylan on his Never-Ending Tour.
17. Nirvana – Nevermind
Nirvana wasn’t the first Seattle-area band to bring grunge to the mainstream. Yet, when this album hit shelves, it significantly advanced the genre. Bandleader Kurt Cobain wanted to combine the raw, aggressive sound from their first album with more pop-friendly music. He wanted to evoke comparisons to Black Flag and Black Sabbath but also The Knack and Bay City Rollers. The lead single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was a surprise hit, skyrocketing the band to immense popularity. The sound, specifically Cobain’s guitar work, helped define the sound of all the alt-rock that would follow this record.
18. Page and Plant – No Quarter
The two former giants of Led Zeppelin reunited to record an acoustic album and perform on the MTV Unplugged series. The resulting album featured original songs and acoustic reworkings of Led Zeppelin classics, giving them an appropriately contemporary feel. While not a full reunion, this is about as good as we’re ever going to get.
19. Paula Cole – This Fire
After being discovered on tour with Peter Gabriel, Paula Cole wrote, produced, and recorded the album in about two weeks. Still this 1990s classic featured two massive hits. The first, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is a tragic romantic ballad exploring desire and disillusionment with the reality of life. The second single, “I Don’t Want to Wait,” expresses almost the polar opposite idea. In fact, the yearning ballad became the theme song to the classic teen drama Dawson’s Creek, making it iconic and one of the best albums of the 1990s.
20. Pearl Jam – Ten
Seattle-based Pearl Jam is likely the reason most of America first became aware of the “grunge” sound, at least on a large scale. Released in 1991, it wasn’t until a year later (after Nevermind and other albums were released) that “Even Flow” became a mega-hit. Music hipsters accused them of jumping on the “grunge” bandwagon, but really this album is one of the pioneering efforts in the genre. The most prominent critic of the band was Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, who called them “sellouts.” However, they have been the most prolific and longest-lasting band of the era, still releasing music and performing shows. This was the record that started it all.
21. Soundgarden – Superunknown
The first album from the other Seattle band to take over the grunge scene was great, but not as defining in sound as Ten and Nevermind. No, it wasn’t until their sophomore album that Soundgarden truly carved out their place in 1990s music history. Up-tempo, loud cuts like “Spoonman” paired with more ethereal, dreamlike sound of “Black Hole Sun” established Soundgarden as more than just another Seattle Grunge Band. Capturing their heavy metal, hard rock, and psychedelic rock influences, this album was an instant classic. Musically risky, this album paid off both in literal sales and in establishing Soundgarden as giants of the grunge era. Soundgarden will forever earn a place on any ranking of the best albums of the 1990s.
22. Sublime – 40 Oz of Freedom
This independently-released album introduced the world to this trio’s unique blend of surfer rock and roots reggae. Thanks to the buzz around their live shows and radio play on local LA stations, the band soon reached national acclaim. From the raucous “Date Rape” to the island-inspired “D.J.’s,” this record was like no other ska punk out at the time.
23. Sublime – Sublime
As is too often the story, this record was both a landmark album for the band and the lasting legacy of an artist gone too soon. Lead singer Bradley Nowell succumbed to heroin addiction just before release. The album spawned five huge singles, including “Santeria,” “What I Got,” and “Wrong Way.” Even though this was the band’s only major release, it’s continued to remain popular even with new fans.
24. The Breeders – Last Splash
A rare supergroup that is more well-known than the original bands, featuring Kim Deal of the Pixies and Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses. Deal wanted to write more songs, and this album is the result. The single, “Cannonball” is an iconic piece of 1990s culture. They also toured with Nirvana, as Kurt Cobain said they were influential to the band’s sound. The Breeders are still performing and recording today, and this album is timeless as one of the best albums of the 1990s.
25. Third Eye Blind – Third Eye Blind
At the time of its release, this album was just one of a type. It seemed like more pop-rock singing about girls and being sad. However, when folks realized that their lively single “Semi-Charmed Kind of Life” was actually about the struggle of addiction, people looked at them more closely. Even the flakiest pop group in the 1990s had dreams of profundity, but Third Eye Blind actually pulls it off. As time went by, this album became even more of a classic. Like some of the great pop hits of the 1960s or the 1980s, they are both quintessentially of their time while the songs have a kind of timeless appeal. And they were never better than they were on this first record.
26. Tom Petty – Wildflowers
With the Heartbreakers, Tom Petty owned the radio airwaves in the 1980s. However, after a stint with the Traveling Wilburys, Petty focused on his solo career. Wildflowers was his second and most solid effort. Of course, the members of the Heartbreakers are all over the album. He had a big string of hits from it, such as “You Wreck Me” and “It’s Good to Be King.” The lead single, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” was censored for radio because a “joint” was mentioned. This is an essential record for any fan of Petty’s or music looking to add the best albums of the 1990s to their collection.
27. Tom Waits – Bone Machine
Like Leonard Cohen or Lou Reed, Tom Waits was one of those singers and songwriters that most people didn’t know about. Those who did know about him, loved him. His songs are rich and lyrical, while his musical and singing style are raw and rough. Waits is at his best on Bone Machine, and this album went on to help define what “Alternative” music was going to be. This album features one of Waits’ biggest hits, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up.” His version received airplay on the radio and music video channels, but it’s since been covered by the likes of The Ramones and Priscilla Ahn. Waits is a legend, and this album is clear evidence as to why.
28. U2 Achtung Baby
In 1991, Bono and his friends only had two albums out and were displeased with its reception. For this next record, U2 added influences from alternative and electronic dance music to their rock-pop sound. Recorded in Germany and Dublin, the band drew inspiration from the reunification of Germany and end of the Cold War. These songs, big and powerful, are the ones that made U2 into the rockstar gods they are today.
29. Weezer – The Blue Album
This record, either self-titled or called the “Blue Album” because of its cover, was always a hit. Yet, it’s impact on music in the 1990s wasn’t fully seen without the benefit of hindsight. While close to the “grunge” sound, Weezer’s musical style is lighter than other acts at that time. With the help of their iconic videos directed by Spike Jonze, Weezer carved a place for themselves in the crowded scene. While it features their three biggest hits, the full album is a masterwork thanks in large part to Ric Ocasek’s production. Thereby, it has rightly earned a spot on the list of the best albums of the 1990s.
30. Wilco – Being There
Jeff Tweedy and John Stirrat formed Wilco after their previous bands broke up. Over the next few years the membership of the band turned over again and again. Eventually, Wilco produced a double-album for their sophomore effort called “Being There.” Tweedy and Stirrat were so passionate that this double-album be released for a single album price, that they gave up their royalties on the record. Departing from their alt-country roots, Wilco delivered a surreal and personal record. Without this record, it’s likely the band wouldn’t be around anymore.
These 30 records don’t represent all the best albums of the 1990s but do comprise a significant cross-section of what made it such an amazing decade for rock.
At the time of these albums release, Compact Discs were the (relatively) hot, new audio technology on the market. Because of this, many people overlooked the offerings on vinyl, seen as an antiquated technology. Thankfully, we’ve learned from the error of our ways and vinyl is back and bigger than ever. Even though we can listen to almost any song we want to at a second’s notice, there is something special about a record. The dull, bassy scratch of the needle as it’s set on the record somehow makes the anticipation of those first notes just better. Whether your vinyl collection isn’t that sizable, or you’ve not even started it yet, there is still time. Get yourself these records, and get prepared to rock the house.
What do you think about this list of the best albums of the 1990s? Are there any records you would have added? Any records you would have removed? Tell us your thoughts, reactions, and offer your own suggestions in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media to get your friends in on the discussion.
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