10 Essential 90s Albums
A Friendly Disclaimer
I don’t pretend to be a composer, musician, or expert on music. I appreciate music as the soundtrack of my life, enhancing every experience and memory I have. The 1990’s were an incredibly exciting time for music, and I had the pleasure of experiencing it through the lens of my teenage angst, emotion, and (naturally) cynicism.
If I were to the build the soundtrack of my life for this decade, I would start with the following ten albums. Your soundtrack probably differs, and I’d love to hear what you’d include in the comments section below.
Might as well get the most obvious choice out of the way. Nirvana “brought back” messy, loud, and guitar-riffing rock, and this album served as the inauguration of the 90’s grunge movement. Smells Like Teen Spirit might as well be the official anthem of 90's rock, and Kurt Cobain’s short time at the top of the musical pyramid of greatness has become the stuff of legend. To his listeners, Cobain’s brilliance is simple: his emotion and frustration sounds/feels real, earnest, and sincere. If you spent any of your formative years in the nineties, you know these songs and the words (or some garbled, misunderstood version of the words) to these songs. Nevermind changed the landscape of the music scene for much of the decade, and its effects are still felt every time Dave Grohl rears his shaggy head in some capacity or another.
- Key Tracks: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are… er... actually, pretty much every song on the album
Smells Like Teen Spirit
By 1996, if you hadn’t heard the song Loser, you lived under a rock or someone broke your radio. It was the kind of song that when your parents heard it, they’d just shake their heads and leave the room... i.e. teenager gold! Then in ‘96 Odelay came out, and Where It’s At proved this Beck guy knew something about absurd but strangely catchy lyrics and melodies which had a way of roosting in your brainpan and never letting go. Devil’s Haircut starts off the album with a sweet little riff, and when Beck’s lyrics (Somethin's wrong cause my mind is fading,/ And everywhere I look there's a dead end waiting,/ Temperature's dropping at the rotten oasis/ Stealing kisses from the leprous faces/ Heads are hanging from the garbageman trees/ Mouthwash, jukebox, gasoline) kick in, you know you’re in for something wonderfully weird. In my experience, by the time The New Pollution played a few tracks later, I had become a Beck fan for life.
- Key Tracks: Devil’s Haircut, Where It’s At, The New Pollution
Where It's At
Green Day-- Dookie
“Do you have the time to listen to me whine about everything and nothing all at once?” Green Day’s Dookie (a perfect title to market to boys ages 13-21) has proven to be the kind of album that holds up lyrically and musically as well as it did upon its release over twenty years ago. In ninth grade Spanish class, the dude next to me (“Taco” was his Spanish class name, of course) proclaimed Dookie to be the best album to have ever been made. While I would not go that far, I have no problem calling it one of the most memorable and influential albums of the 1990s. When Basketcase, Longview, or She still comes on an alt-rock radio station, these songs sound right at home with-- if not a little better than-- many of their modern descendants.
- Key Tracks: Longview, Basket Case, She, When I Come Around
Weezer-- Blue Album
I know every word of Weezer’s Blue Album by heart. It’s the kind of album designed for you to kick back, drink a beverage, and just chill. Weezer fans would probably point to Pinkerton as Weezer’s true masterpiece, but the open-hearted sincerity of Pinkerton feels so personal that its lack of subtlety was a turn off for some. The mainstream success of the Blue Album was due to its accessibility. Pinkerton is simply not as accessible and safe as the Blue Album. Each song on the Blue Album has a kind of classic melodic pop-iness but with just enough guitar to keep it from being lame. It’s hard to listen to Undone or Buddy Holly and NOT sing along, and Buddy Holly had a pretty sweet Happy Days mash-up music video.
- Key Tracks: Buddy Holly, Undone-- The Sweater Song, Say It Ain’t So, Only In Dreams
Weezer in Concert
Fugees-- The Score
The Score is simply one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. At turns, lyrically-brilliant, beautifully-sung, artfully mixed but never over-produced, it’s one of the smoothest sounding albums ever. Sadly, it was only the second and final studio album from the trio. Two of the tracks, Ready or Not and Killing Me Softly, remain two hip-hop songs that anyone can legitimately enjoy, regardless of background-- that means you could play them without your parents complaining. If you want to relax, play The Score and allow it to work its magic. It served as one of my late-night 90's go-tos.
Key Tracks: Ready or Not, Fu-Gee-La, Killing Me Softly
Vs.-- Pearl Jam
If Nirvana were The Beatles in the ‘90s then Pearl Jam were The Rolling Stones. Pearl Jam wasn’t first, wasn’t quite as “cool”, and was perhaps a bit more workmanlike than inspired, but Pearl Jam certainly rocked. Eddie Vedder and Co. had their share of hits, and 1993’s Vs. is Pearl Jam’s most rocktastic album. I write this knowing that many a Pearl Jam fan would probably knock me beside the head and tell me that Ten was the bigger, harder rocking album. I think Vs. is the superior album because it shows more dimensions of the band. Agree to disagree. Anyway, Animal and Dissident rock hard; Rearviewmirror strikes a nice balance between melody and jam-itude; and Daughter and Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town offer a slower, softer side. In short, Vs. is a wonderfully balanced album, particularly for a grunge rock band.
- Key Tracks: Animal, Daughter, Dissident, Rearviewmirror, Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town
Daughter/With My Own Two Hands-- Live
Ben Folds Five-- Whatever and Ever Amen
This album is one chosen more due to personal preference than to its influence during the 90s. Brick was a legitimate hit, and Song for the Dumped and Battle of Who Could Care Less made their rounds on alt radio. However, most people would not place this album on a list like this one, but Folds’ nerdy, angsty, soulful lyrics and catchy melodies captured my attention and imagination more than just about any album of the decade. This was the album I played until everyone else around me was sick of hearing it, and then I played it again for good measure. I can still manage to be excited about any and every new Ben Folds album after discovering him in 1997.
- Key Tracks: Brick, Song for the Dumped, Battle of Who Could Care Less
Alanis Morrissette-- Jagged Little Pill
Alanis Morrissette ruled the airwaves from 1995-1996, proving with You Oughta Know that the girls could rock just as hard as the boys (and curse even!). Plus, an awesome rumor started that Morrissette had written the song to “that guy on Full House”, Dave Coulier. If you’ve ever taken a middle school or high school class and had a lesson about irony, you’ve probably heard Ironic and all the non-examples of irony it contains. Morrissette has said that was what made the song ironic which doesn’t quite hold up due to the few actual examples of irony in the song. Not that Morrissette should care-- like, at all-- since that song was her biggest single off the album. Ironic? No, no, not at all. Coincidental.
- Key Tracks: You Oughta Know, Hand in My Pocket, Ironic, Head Over Feet
Dave Matthews Band-- Under the Table and Dreaming
No other band sounds quite like DMB although some have tried. I love the opening lines of the album: “Hey my friend/ It seems your eyes are troubled/ Care to share your time with me/ Would you say you're feeling low and so/ A good idea would be to get it off your mind.” It’s the perfect invitation to let DMB sweep you from reality with its unique jam band sound. Like many others on this list (and maybe this tells you something about me), it is an excellent album to play in the background as you chill by yourself or with friends. While the next album, Crash might have garnered the band more critical acclaim, Under the Table and Dreaming features a raw energy, a controlled precision that could become potentially messy-- you know, like super cool jazz, that gives DMB its charm and makes it such a great live band. Also, Under the Table and Dreaming went 6x Platinum-- if anyone cares.
- Key Tracks: The Best of What’s Around, Satellite, What Would You Say, Ants Marching
Red Hot Chili Peppers-- Californication
For me, Californication serves as a swansong (coming out in 1999) for the nineties as well as a transitional album for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to upper echelon of great rock bands. Many point to Californication as RHCP’s best album, probably for good reason. It was both a huge critical and popular success, selling plenty of copies (5x Platinum) and earning places on both Rolling Stones’ Greatest 500 Albums of All Time and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Top 200 Albums of All-Time as well as a Grammy for Best Rock Song for Scar Tissue. Honestly, there’s not a bad song on the album, and it flows from track to track organically, never jarring the listener out of this unique, euphoric experience.
- Key Tracks: Scar Tissue, Otherside, Californication