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100 Best Albums of the ’90s

From Moby to Nirvana, the records that defined a decade

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Rolling Stone picks the 100 greatest albums of the 1990s.

The Nineties as a musical era started late and ended early — kicked in by the scritchy-scratch power chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ushered out by the doomy piano intro of “. . . Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Anti-pop defeated by pop — full circle, all apologies. You’ve heard the story.

But the real Nineties were richer, funnier and weirder than that, with fake grunge bands writing better songs than some of the real ones, Eighties holdovers U2 and R.E.M. reaching creative peaks with Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People, Metallica and the Black Crowes co-existing on MTV, Phish tending to the Deadhead nation after Jerry’s passing — and Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer ceding their pop thrones in a few short years to Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem. — Brian Hiatt

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Rolling Stone‘s book The ’90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked. Copyright © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

33

Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’

Here's where Eminem introduced himself as a crazy white geek, the "class-clown freshman/Dressed like Les Nessman." Hip-hop had never heard anything like Em's brain-damaged rhymes on this Dr. Dre—produced album, which earned Em respect, fortune, fame and a lawsuit from his mom.

Rolling Stone's Original 1999 Review

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32

Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’

Trent Reznor has the shock-antic instincts of an old Hollywood B-movie producer. He made publicity hay out of the fact that part of this album was recorded in the L.A. mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson's gang; he also inspired arenas of teenagers to sing along to the unforgettable chorus of "Closer": "I want to fuck you like an animal." Yet this is finely wrought gore, a swan dive into Reznor's deep vat of discontent, in which he vents as effectively in tense, muted moments ("I Do Not Want This") as he does in the full-bore, machine-generated terror of the title track. In a genre — industrial rock — wracked with cliché, Reznor demonstrates the many shades of gray that make up abject despair.

Rolling Stone's 1997 Review

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31

Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’

Having shed one persona after another for more than three decades, Bob Dylan finally found one he could embrace: brokedown, death-haunted bluesman. "I'm sick of love," he groans on Time's opening track, and, man, he sounds it. That sets the tone for the ten songs that follow, a night journey that's all roads and no destination, all outskirts and no town. The sad-eyed man of "Highlands," a swirling sixteen-minute epic, is still moving, however, as the album ends, desperate to elude the reaper, nearly out of his mind with weariness, nearly out of time.

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Rolling Stone's 2001 Review

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30

Green Day, ‘Dookie’

Millions of us made time to listen to Billie Joe Armstrong whine as he and his band of Bay Area punk snots won America's heart with fast guitars, bouncy drums and the fakest English accents ever recorded. Their hits fit together like a stack of Pringles: "Basket Case" takes off with a case of the creeps and a melody that plays tricks on you, while "Longview" and "When I Come Around" vent the usual teen spirit with groovy hooks that the Bay City Rollers would have appreciated. Green Day took the booming Cali-punk revival to middle America: Cuter than Muppets, funnier than Weird Al, Green Day showed no signs of growing up here — which made their later transformation into politically charged arena-rockers that much more remarkable.

Rolling Stone's 1998 Review

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29

Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

The nine-MC Wu-Tang Clan — including the ruckus-bringer Ol' Dirty Bastard, sword-sharp GZA and Kennedy­charismatic Method Man — burst out of the slums of Staten Island by capturing the sound of chaos on tape: tracks by RZA that were so rugged they recall pre-sampler, basement-collated hip-hop. Rhymes about drug dealing, project living, beef and martial arts. Furious flows that roar through speakers like controlled screaming. The Wu create an air of wildness that promised violence to anyone who challenged them and to some who didn't. A generation of fans memorized every word.

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28

Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’ On ‘Ray of Light,’

Madonna finally gets back into the groove, rocking the dance beats that made her a star in the first place, for her most shamelessly disco album since You Can Dance. Madonna's rhythm resurrection sounds like some kind of spiritual transformation, and since it accompanied her discovery of yoga and motherhood, it probably was. Producer William Orbit plugs in the techno gadgets, but it's Madonna's passion that makes the loudest bang, on powerhouse tracks like "Drowned World/Substitute for Love" and "Little Star." And in the title smash, Madonna throws herself a tantrum on the global dance floor as if she'd never been away.

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

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27

Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’

"Anger is a gift," vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaims in a venomous whisper in "Freedom," and Rage Against the Machine spread the wealth around, with an electrifying vengeance, all over the rest of their debut album. Gunning de la Rocha's incantatory rapping with rib-rattling slam, Rage Against the Machine get hot and nasty about authority with acute lyric detail and stunning force. Rage Against the Machine's mix of radical politics and headbanging kicks was a startling anomaly amid the self-absorbed ennui of the Year Grunge Broke. But the album's commercial success was a crucial reaffirmation of rock's potency as a weapon of protest. With Rage Against the Machine, subversion — in the great, defiant tradition of the Clash and the MC5 — was alive, and thrilling, in the mainstream.

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26

Nas, ‘Illmatic’

Straight from hip-hop's legendary Queensbridge, New York, projects to the studio, with an oven-roasted voice, butter flow, man-child eyes and a pure love of the music, streetwise intellectual Nas raised the bar on Nineties MC'ing. Nas had an eye on the street, the prison and the dreams of every ghettoman, whether he was sampling the classic film Wild Style, giving his jazz-trumpeter father a guest slot or offering rhymes like these: "Back in '83 I was an MC sparkin'/But I was too scared to grab the mikes in the parks and/Kick my little raps cuz I thought niggas wouldn't understand/And now in every jam I'm the fuckin man." True that.

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

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25

Sublime, ‘Sublime’

One of the decade's strangest hits, Sublime came out shortly after the death of singer-guitarist Bradley Nowell but kept spinning off one hit after another, with a loose, friendly California-pop sound inflected by ska, dub, punk and folk. These Long Beach riddim kings get sloppy but keep the tempo chugging, especially in the head-spinning acoustic skank of "What I Got," which somehow fuses the English Beat with t