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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.


Nirvana, ‘MTV Unplugged in New York’

Surrounded by lilies, the flowers of death, Kurt Cobain sat on a soundstage almost five months before his suicide and made his last self-portrait. The morbid set list, ending with Cobain's quietly desperate "All Apologies" and the Gothic folk tale "Where Did You Sleep Last Night," fascinates, but the music's life force contradicts it. Although it eschews one major facet of Nirvana's genius — the band's way with noise — Unplugged reveals the brilliance beneath that roar: the melodic gifts, troubling insight and deep intelligence of an artist whose loss still hurts.

Kurt Cobain's Downward Spiral: Rolling Stone's 1994 Feature

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Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Nirvana's 'MTV Unplugged in New York'


Billy Bragg and Wilco, ‘Mermaid Avenue’

It could have turned into a reverential school project — earnest folk rockers dutifully writing music for lyrics left behind by the sainted Woody Guthrie. But Mermaid Avenue is a loose, rollicking set that brings the best out of everyone involved. On "California Stars," Wilco deftly capture Guthrie's sweet, poetic side, while Bragg and Natalie Merchant duet affectionately on "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key." This album celebrates Guthrie by putting listeners in touch with a flesh-and-blood man, not a museum piece.

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

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Air, ‘Moon Safari’

Air's Nicolas Godin and Jean Benoit Dunckel were a couple of cerebral keyboard geeks from Versailles, France, where they obviously don't get out of the studio much. Their space-pop debut, Moon Safari, was a truly obsessive hommage to easy listening, a sublime Eurocheese omelet. They built their music out of classic Sixties French schlock: bongos, castanets, vintage electric piano, dream-weaver synths and shag-carpet organ straight from the soundtracks of movies like Un Homme et Une Femme. The music is full of hidden jokes, as when "Remember" replicates the distorted drum intro from the Beach Boys hit "Do It Again"; Air's Brian Wilson allusion isn't some Smile-era obscurity — it's a beach-party blowout. Loads of American bands tried to emulate the fab tackiness of 1960s French pop. But Moon Safari proves that the French really do it better themselves.

• Photos: 1990s Polaroid Portraits


The Flaming Lips, ‘The Soft Bulletin’

The Flaming Lips camped out in their own studio for two years making The Soft Bulletin and came up with their wildest, wittiest art-rock statement yet: long-windedly engrossing songs built out of stray details, like the reverberating piano power chord that becomes the foundation of "What Is the Light" before segueing seamlessly into a space-cadet instrumental in "The Observer." Tracks like "The Gash" combine disparate strains of hippie techno and indie rock into a strange and beautiful whole, somewhere between Abbey Road and 90210.

Rolling Stone's Original 1999 Review

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Video: Flaming Lips Rehearse The Soft Bulletin Track 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate'


The Pixies, ‘Bossanova’

Bossanova was the Pixies' most straight-ahead rock album. But by their warped standards, it was still safely off the mainstream. Joey Santiago's body-slamming guitars, Kim Deal's measured, penetrating bass and David Lovering's elemental drums sounded denser and tougher than on their first two albums, but some things hadn't changed. Black Francis' surreal lyrics were still open to conjecture; even he has stated he doesn't entirely understand them. "Is She Weird" might be about a prostitute; "The Happening" might be about aliens landing in Las Vegas; "Down to the Well" is probably about sex. But content is almost incidental to these songs; what stands out is the beat that throbs like a hangover, the fever-dream atmospherics and the pelvis-grinding abandon.

Rolling Stone's Original 1990 Review


Aaliyah, ‘One in a Million’

Like Michael Jackson a generation before, Aaliyah came out of the Midwest, a child singing of adult matters. But where young MJ sang of love, Aaliyah was a black Lolita, a teenage temptress with a seductive power in her smooth voice. Unlike Brandy, Aaliyah sang of sex that was hot like fire and of being a choosy lover. The seventeen-year-old could sell a sexy song like a pro, but these songs could have sold themselves — with writing by Missy Elliott and production by a then-unheard-of Timbaland, One in a Million unleashed the futuristic Virginia Beach funk that would soon take over the radio.

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Tom Petty, ‘Into the Great Wide Open’

'Into the great wide open' started out as potentially another Tom Petty solo record, but it eventually became a full-scale collaboration with his longtime backup band, the Heartbreakers. This shift in Petty's conception of the album enabled him to combine the unduplicable power of a long-standing band of rock & roll confederates with the new directions he has pursued with Jeff Lynne, the new album's co-producer and Petty's fellow Traveling Wilbury. In its best moments, the result sounds like a cross between Full Moon Fever and Damn the Torpedoes and features the most focused and resonant lyrics Petty has ever written.

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review

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R. Kelly, ‘R. Kelly’

A man who could stir both Saturday-night dreams and Sunday-morning sanctity into his music, R. Kelly sang, wrote and produced an album that made him essential to contemporary black music. Gliding over a slick sound that gleams like the hood of a new Benz, Kelly opens his mouth and lets you hear the church in his phrasings, the street in his grit and the classic loverman in his allure. Who else could sing alongside both Ronnie Isley and Biggie Smalls? Who else could say, "You remind me of my Jeep…. I wanna ride it," and have you unsure whether it was sexist or funny or both — and make it sound so fly that you never stopped grooving.

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

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De La Soul, ‘De La Soul Is Dead’

On their second album, De La Soul turned away from the "daisy-age" friendliness of their 1989 debut in favor of sleeker, head-snapping jams and skits that viciously sent up gangsta rap. The album's hypnotic sprawl centered around producer Prince Paul's sampleriffic beats (see the disco-rap classic "A Roller Skate Jam Named 'Saturdays'"); the guys also took on some brave subject matter (on the disturbing incest tale "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa") while preserving their dextrous, clever rhyme styles. The result was a dark classic that was both stranger and deeper than most people noticed back in 1991.

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review


Yo La Tengo, ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’

If this was the age of irony, nobody told Yo La Tengo — they just kept making one floridly romantic guitar record after another, doing for marriage what the Velvet Underground did for heroin. On this album, it's all good in their little corner of the world: Guitarist Ira Kaplan sails away on perfect guitar drones like "We're an American Band," drummer Georgia Hubley croons the feedback lullaby "Shadows," and bassist James McNew warbles the acoustic lament "Stockholm Syndrome." Yo La Tengo also find time for a couple of space-disco novelties, a noisy Beach Boys cover and a few silly love songs, adding up to the kickiest album of their stellar career.

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

Video: Interview With Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan


Pulp, ‘Different Class’

A Brit-pop strumpet with a heart of glass, Pulp's Jarvis Cocker minced through Different Class as a star in the classic Bowie mold. He dressed his flimsy body in an ungodly array of thrift-store frippery, he shook what Mama gave him to the band's fruity chamber rock, and he unzipped his breathy croak of a voice to sniff, "I've kissed your mother twice/And now I'm working on your dad." Different Class swipes melodic dazzle from the likes of Stereolab and Serge Gainsbourg to make hangovers sound romantic in "Bar Italia" while pining over suburban heartbreak in "Underwear," "Disco 2000" and the anthem "Common People." Jarvis Cocker: international man of mystery.

Photos: 1990s Polaroid Portraits

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Marilyn Manson, ‘Antichrist Superstar’

Suddenly armed with a strange mix of cartoon outrage and actual tunes — not to mention first-class Trent Reznor production — five Florida shock rockers go nationwide in their jockstraps. The record uses atmosphere from goth, disco from Ministry and Nine Inch Nails and ideas from that distinguished old sonic philosopher David Bowie. But what really makes it rise beyond the recherché is Manson himself, an Ohio-raised youngster who manages to graft charm, of all things, onto his bullshit.

Rolling Stone's Original 1996 Review

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Fiona Apple, ‘Tidal’

In the aftermath of Alanis, the airwaves were crawling with troubled ingénues singing tragic ballads about their haunted eyes, but somehow Fiona Apple stood out as a bad, bad girl. Apple's husky voice and jazzy melodies give an unexpected weight to her confessions on Tidal, as the nineteen-year-old New York art waif broods over adolescent malaise in off-kilter, insinuating piano ballads like "Never Is a Promise." She also comes up with a knockdown theme song in the anomalously hard-rocking "Criminal," the anthem of a young woman who's been careless with a delicate man and even more careless with her delicate self.

Photos: 1990s Polaroid Portraits

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The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’

"I fear that I am ordinary, just like everyone," wails master Billy Corgan on "Muzzle," from this double-disc epic. Fear can be a great motivator, and Corgan used it to build his Taj Mahal, a sonically dazzling monument to gloom and glamour. Accused of not being punk enough, Corgan showed on Mellon Collie what punk might be if Steven Spielberg got hold of it. The angry songs distend rage and alienation via beautifully ugly guitar-drum attacks, while the wistful ballads flip hate around and turn it into exquisite, unquenchable longing. Take that, hipsters: Ordinary angst can be grand.

Rolling Stone's Original 1995 Review

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Bjork, ‘Post’

Yeah, Björk's music is 'post' — post-rock, post-apocalyptic, flashily futuristic in tone. But it's also "pre," tapping emotions untamed by rational thought. The electronic soundscapes she creates on Post, with the help of English dance-floor stars like Nellee Hooper, Tricky and Howie B., give her lots of room to roam. And she goes everywhere, from the junk-filled cliff top of the whimsical "Hyper-Ballad" to the psychic deep forest of "Isobel," in songs that link the rhythms of early drum-and-bass to the vocal lines of Icelandic folk singing, with a dash of musical comedy thrown in for a lark. Inventing her own genre, Björk presents what she calls "an army of me" — the many battling voices inside one woman's hyperactive brain.

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Photos: Rock & Roll Moms


The Breeders, ‘Last Splash’

The Pixies' Kim Deal eclipsed her old band — if only for one album — with loud, crazy songs about summer, sex and songs — plus her twin sister Kelley on guitar. The album's sole hit, "Cannonball," remains one of the most ridiculous pop songs to ever crash the pop charts.

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