The Greatest Albums of the '90s
Published on 06 August 2021
Sometimes when we write these articles, we have to rack our brains to think of what artists to include. However, when it came to mind to write about the best albums of the '90s we had the exact opposite issue. As much as the '70s are hailed as the ultimate decade for music, no one can deny that the musical output of the '90s was staggeringly good. As soon as we started trying to narrow it down, another moment of musical genius sprang to mind. So without further ado, let's dive in shall we? Fuzz pedals at the ready people, we're about to take a wild ride...
Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
Yeah we know, it might be cooler to prefer In Utero but there's no getting round the distorted pop perfection of Nirvana's Nevermind. With the addition of new drummer Dave Grohl (you might have heard of him by now...), the band's second studio album followed Bleach, a heavier piece of work that didn't see anything like the same commercial success. As a result, Nevermind was something of a make or break for the Seattle trio. Produced by Butch Vig, it presented a more polished, refined and radio friendly sound. However, it was not without its heavy moments.
While the unforgettable intro to Smells Like teen Spirit may be what sticks in your head, tracks such as Territorial Pissings sounded like they lit a match in the studio and left it to devour itself. What better place to start this list than an album that changed music forever?
Primal Scream - Screamadelica (1991)
Taking things over the pond to the UK, Scottish indie rockers Primal Scream were carving a very different style in '91. With bands like the Stone Roses building a unique sound south of the border just a few years before, Primal began pushing it to its psychedelic limits, fusing acid house and rock to create something totally unique. For this album, the band teamed up with Andrew Weatherall to create a new era of indie, drawing from the thriving British club scene and putting together a collection of tracks that still sound fresh and different today.
If you had to point to one album that defined the sound of the '90s in the UK, this just might be it.
Pearl Jam - Ten (1991)
Back to the grunge scene we travel as we visit a band responsible for some of the decade's finest riffs, the mighty Pearl Jam. Their debut was a powerful, huge sounding masterpiece with exceptional guitar work throughout. This was also the world's introduction to one of the finest vocalists in the history of rock, Eddie Vedder. The musical ability of the band set them apart from so many of their contemporaries who had a more DIY punk ethos.
Despite their roaring guitars and unapologetic all American rock roots, Pearl Jam are as grunge as they come, with Ten flying the flag for the early '90s Seattle sound that conquered the world and inspired a whole new generation of guitarists.
Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine (1992)
It's amazing how much variation there is in rock music. The three bands we've mentioned so far have totally different sounds, even despite two of them often being classed as the same genre! Well, this one is no different. The incredible fusion of politically charged hip hop, funk and metal shouldn't work on paper but there's no denying the sheer power and, well, rage of Rage Against the Machine's debut album. There really aren't many bands who can boast the impact these guys had.
While frontman Zack De La Rocha spits venom throughout, Tom Morello bewilderingly manages to transform his guitar into an otherworldly set of turntables. From a guitarists' point of view alone, the control he has over his instrument's feedback is mind boggling. With a killer rhythm section and one of the most ferocious vocalists and lyricists on the planet and you have a seriously deadly concoction.
Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)
Onto another album where the band's sound is as impressive as their songwriting. Siamese Dream has to be the most grungey sounding record that isn't regarded as grunge. Laced with thick, creamy Big Muff tones, it is a unique and incredible journey that takes you from quiet and haunting to speaker bustingly loud and angry! Their debut Gish may not get the recognition it rightfully deserves, but the Pumpkins took their music to a whole new level with their second release. Siamese Dream totally changed the way bands at the time looked at their pedalboards and as a result has become one of the most iconic guitar albums of all time, let alone the '90s.
Stone Roses - Second Coming (1994)
Okay, the first one was THE Stone Roses album... BUT despite not living up to many fans' high expectations at the time, in hindsight Second Coming is stupendously good. Let's not forget, there were 6 years between both releases and most bands would have filled that void with a fair few albums, developing their sound during each. Due to problems with labels, among other issues, the Roses didn't get that opportunity and you have to admire how bold and drastic their change of direction was.
John Squire's guitar work is perhaps the most impressive part of the album, channeling Hendrix as he breaks out a seemingly endless collection of riffs and licks that you'd associate more with a '70s rock band than a Manchester indie outfit. Pair this with tremendous lyrics, pounding breakbeats and infectious basslines and you have a true masterpiece. Deal with it.
Pink Floyd - The Division Bell (1994)
Would this be a guitarguitar blog without a little taste of Floyd in the mix? Based around themes of communication, Division Bell was the band's 14th studio album and the final to include co-founding keyboardist Richard Wright. By this point, Waters had taken off and all of the legal drama plaguing his departure had just about been cleared up, so for us, it represents a Floyd that was free to create again. The recording sessions were mega, with an almost unfathomable number of tracks being put together before they were whittled down for the release.
Despite mixed reviews on its release, we'd consider this a classic from the band's catalogue and undeniable proof that even in the midst of the '90s, they were still a force to be reckoned with.
Nas - Illmatic (1994)
Yes, we know, this isn't a guitar album but don't throw your phone out the window just yet. Nas' debut is among the most important hip hop releases of the '90s, combining exquisite lyricism with a razor sharp flow and stories that bring you straight into the gritty heart of the Queensbridge projects. However, the production is equally game changing. Rather than a single producer, Nas opted to pick beats from a number of different artists - a decision that went on to become standard practice in the genre.
From the conversational intro, plunging into the hard hitting NY State of Mind and the soulful touches of tracks like One Love, this is absolute perfection. For us Illmatic falls in line with the punk mindset that a young person and their friends can take on the record industry with minimal funding and provided they have the skills, change the game. Nas was 20 years old when this was released... What were you doing at 20?
Jeff Buckley - Grace (1994)
It's safe to say that Buckley is pretty far from the mean streets of QB but nevertheless, he's next on our list! Grace is the result of a short but influential career, bringing stunning vocal performances alongside beautifully tasteful guitar parts. The composition is nearly as impressive as the writing itself but what really impresses us about Grace is just how different it is. In the midst of grunge and hard rock, Buckley put together something that was vulnerable, fragile and utterly brilliant. While perhaps not one of the albums that immediately comes to mind amongst the rock sound that dominated the decade, Grace was every bit as important.
Steve Earle - Train A Comin' (1995)
Following Steve Earle's career is like chasing a runaway train. As a well known face around the Nashville country scene, Earle moved to the city at age 19, working a job while playing in bars at night. By the time his debut Guitar Town came out he was already 31 and had plenty of stories to share from his time in the midst of America's country capital. However, Train A Comin' followed his much needed break from music after a lengthy string of substance abuse problems.
His return more than lived up to fans expectations, drawing collaborations with artists such as Emmylou Harris and Peter Rowan amongst others. Triumphant and sorrowful after coming to terms with his addiction issues, this is a stunning collection of music that pays homage to Earle's humble roots while pushing his music in a new direction that would go on to build the rest of his career.
Madonna - Ray of Light (1998)
We may be rockers but in the '90s pop music was absolutely rampant and who better than the Queen of pop herself to highlight this? Madonna has always stood out amongst standardised pop acts as something totally different. Her flair for controversy and unquestionable musical ability makes her unique and Ray of Light is easily among her finest pieces of work. Bringing dance influences into her polished pop sound, the album has a trip-hoppy electronica vibe that is absolutely infectious.
Ray of Light is diverse, interesting and a challenge to the norms of the Top 10. Essentially, it's everything that's great about Madonna! Revisit this one when you're feeling adventurous, you won't regret it.
RHCP - Californication (1999)
Stripped back, melancholy and soulful, the Chilli's Californication feels like the album to end the decade on. Haunted by lost bandmates and drug addiction, the group were seemingly on their knees before they wrote what many consider to be their finest work. The funky monks have always been known for their furious upbeat and uptempo funk sound but in Californacation they reinvented themselves as something more than hard partying, hard playing troublemakers. That said, it wasn't without its moments of funk blasting mayhem - it wouldn't be right otherwise, now would it?
The full band, particularly Kiedis and Frusciante, worked together to bring out a sound within themselves that most didn't know was there. The guitar work here is stunning, simple and incredibly tasteful, bringing the group away from frenzied jams to well thought out composition. This could well be their defining moment.
The creativity present in the '90s was amazing when you stop and think about it. Each of the albums we've mentioned are iconic and synonymous with the decade but do any of them really sound that similar? Music was evolving and changing and each artist we've mentioned contributed to its path in their own unique way. We grew up listening to these bands, learning their music and memorising every little detail of these records. It's worth noting that this was the last era before the internet took over and altered the creative process completely. But then, who knows what we've got to look forward to? The next great album is just around the corner...