100 Best Albums of the ’90s – Rolling Stone
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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.


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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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

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nine Inch Nails

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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.

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Bob Dylan's 'Time Out of Mind'

Rolling Stone's 2001 Review

Photos: Bob Dylan's First-Ever China Concert


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

Video: Green Day's Stadium-Sized '21 Guns' Sing-Along

Photos: A Look Back at Green Day's Career


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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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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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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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

Video: Nas Shares His Passion For Hip-Hop Cassettes

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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 the Grateful Dead. The success of Sublime was a compliment to Nowell's memory and an even bigger compliment to his rhythm section.

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Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’

Pavement channeled the spirit of Buddy Holly through one of Lou Reed's blown amps, bringing miles of style to an indie-rock scene starved for a little romance. Stephen Malkmus had the songs to turn this homemade tape of art-punk guitar fuzz into a full-blown California fantasy of girls and boys dreaming big on the ridge where summer ends. Slanted and Enchanted is the sound of sweet suburban boys who loved the Velvet Underground without ever wondering what "The Black Angel's Death Song" meant, and once Malkmus murmured the words "sha la la" without a trace of irony, out-of-tune guitars would never be the same.

Rolling Stone's 2002 Review

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The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’

Chief pumpkin Billy Corgan took the idea of quality control to its obsessive conclusion by playing most of this album's guitar and bass parts himself — a rough deal for guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy. But Siamese Dream — co-produced with Butch Vig, fresh from Nirvana's Nevermind — is Corgan's idealized, super-hands-on version of the full band's soaring, angst-spiked psychedelia. (The Pumpkins' glorious onstage expansions of "Silverfuck" were proof enough that Corgan couldn't do it all on his own.) That the album remains one of alt-rock's most enduring documents is down to Corgan's acute commercial vision — the way he dolled up the confessional indulgence of "Today" and "Disarm" in heavy-Seventies pop lace — and the sheer power of the playing. No matter who did what.

Rolling Stone's Original 1993 Review

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Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’

Blessed with impressive pedigree (he was the son of the Sixties folk-pop icon Tim Buckley) and a voice of great range and deep character, Jeff Buckley was cursed with a perfectionist's streak. Buckley had scrapped one stab at a second album and was gearing up to start over when he drowned in a freak accident in Memphis in May 1997, leaving Grace as the only studio album completed to his satisfaction in his brief lifetime. But it is a rich legacy: the transportive blend of serpentine guitars and Buckley's melismatic singing in "Mojo Pin" and "Grace"; the garage-band swagger and velvet pathos of "Last Goodbye" and "So Real"; the way Buckley turns Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" into delicate, personal prayer. A wonderful record, aptly titled. An enormously gifted artist, gone too soon.

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Jeff Buckley

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Radiohead, ‘The Bends’

According to the script, Radiohead were supposed to disappear after their fluky 1993 smash "Creep," leaving only fond memories of Thom Yorke's Martin Short—after-electroshock yodel and that wukku-wukku guitar hook. But The Bends shocked everyone with its wide­screen psychedelic glory, raising Radiohead to a very Seventies kind of U.K. art-rock godhead. The depressive ballad "Fake Plastic Trees" turned up in Clueless, in which Alicia Silverstone memorably tags the band as "complaint rock"; in big-bang dystopian epics like "High and Dry," Yorke's choirboy whimper runs laps around Jonny Greenwood's machinehead guitar heroics. U2 would have sold crack to nuns to make this record.

Rolling Stone's 2003 Review

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Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’

In the immortal words of Mick Jagger, the change has come. Liz Phair took indie rock under her thumb with Exile in Guyville, firing off wisecracks, obscenities, pickup lines and confessions. She could crack you up and break your heart in the same song, sounding intimate without ever really giving her secrets away. Phair's dry Peppermint Patty mumble fit into a swirl of watery guitar frazzle and percussion as the melodies swam around in your head all summer long. "Fuck and Run" is Phair's greatest hit, but Exile is just one perfect song after another: the acoustic shiver of "Glory," the bangled-out glimmer of "Never Said," the wobbly jet-girl whoosh of "Stratford-on-Guy."

Rolling Stone's 2008 Review

Video: Liz Phair Remembers 'Exile in Guyville'

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Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

It took the Chili Peppers seven years, four albums and a few rough turns of the personnel merry-go-round to perfect the savory schizophrenia captured on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Los Angeles band's 1991 quadruple-platinum home run. Produced by Rick Rubin with the white-headbanger, hip-hop snap of James Brown on the Led Zeppelin II tip, Blood Sugar pingpongs between the precision swagger of "Give It Away" and "Suck My Kiss" and the luminous hurt of singer Anthony Kiedis' Top Ten junkie blues, "Under the Bridge." The alternating slap of extremes perfectly nails not only the giddy highs and drawn-out lows of life in a city built on illusions but also the Chili Peppers' fight to beat their own worst excesses. An album of honest drama — and you can mosh to it.

Rolling Stone's 2003 Review

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R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’

Named after a slogan used in an Athens, Georgia, soul-food restaurant, Automatic for the People is a feast of Southern Gothic pop, combining the gossamer intricacies of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the singalong wallop of the Beatles' Abbey Road. The weirdness is warm and playful — "Star Me Kitten," a delicious homage to 10cc's "I'm Not in Love"; "Man on the Moon," Michael Stipe's buoyant tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman — and torch songs such as the Stax-with-strings jewel "Everybody Hurts" glow with hard-won optimism. At the height of alt-rock, former undergrounders R.E.M. tried to show that melody could be heavy too — and, in the process, made one of the finest American pop albums of the decade.

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Jay-Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’

"The studio was like a psychiatrist's couch for me," Jay-Z told Rolling Stone, and his debut is full of a hustler's dreams and laments. It established Jay as the premier freestyle rapper of his generation and includes a filthy seventeen-year-old Foxy Brown on "Ain't No Nigga."

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Metallica, ‘Metallica’

The speed metalheads were barking, "Sellout!" the minute this baby dropped: Metallica had actually bothered to write songs, not just string ten minutes' worth of hot licks into an anti-capital-punishment suite. But in slowing the tempos down from dizzy to primal, in choosing meaty presence over mere velocity in the riffing, Metallica made a record of durable, mature violence — not to mention the biggest metal album of the decade. And don't let the orchestration and James Hetfield's thoughtful growl on "Nothing Else Matters" fool you: Metallica didn't turn into power-ballad suckers; they simply created a ballad with power.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

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Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

It's not that the performances on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road aren't first-rate — they are. It's just that when you start with songs this impressive, it's hard to go wrong. Lucinda Williams had done strong work before, but it all came together here. From the openhearted yearning of "Right in Time" to the surrealist country funk of "Joy," she runs a gamut of styles and themes, handling each with authority and ease. You don't arrive in your mid-forties without stories to tell — Williams' are riveting in every detail.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review


Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’

With his mind on his money and his money on his mind, Snoop rolled in from the West to pick America’s pockets, and his laid-back drawl was such a hilarious trick that he got away clean. Dr. Dre’s low-riding G-funk makes the perfect backdrop to Snoop’s rhymes, as slow and lazy as a dog-day afternoon. Doggystyle has a serious streak of gangsta remorse running through all the murder and misogyny, but it also offers cheerfully ridiculous cartoon theme songs like “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and “Doggy Dogg World.” “Gin and Juice” takes a timeless teen trip in the tradition of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “The Twist” and “Bust a Move” — it’s six in the morning, the freaks are still dancing, and the house party keeps jumping till Mama gets home.

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Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’

Ill communication puts a little polish on the mishmash of Check Your Head; the Beasties freewheel from hardcore punk thrash to jazzy cool-downs for an album with more action than John Woo and mad hits like Rod Carew. The Boys loosen up on their instruments, especially in the subzero cool of "Transitions." But it's the linear party starters that make the record: "Sure Shot" knocks a doofy flute sample out of the park, "Get It Together" takes a D-train detour with Q-Tip, and "Sabotage" serves up a slab of red-meat metal that not even Sabbath fans could resist.

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Photos: Beastie Boys Through the Years

Video: Beastie Boys' Star-Studded 'Make Some Noise'


Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’

At a time when most rock veterans were stagnating, Tom Petty and producer Rick Rubin made Wildflowers, the most organic, cohesive record of Petty's career. Compared with the pleasingly slick textures of Petty's work with Jeff Lynne on 1989's Full Moon Fever and 1991's Into the Great Wide Open, there is a timeless grace and folky subtlety to the material here, including the haunting title track, the soulful stoner rock of "You Don't Know How It Feels" and the orchestral delicacy of "Wake Up Time."

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Video: Making of 'Damn the Torpedoes'

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Outkast, ‘Aquemini’

Featuring joyous, bass-happy party funk dotted with tight horn lines, Outkast's third album captures Big Boi and Andre 3000 rollicking like the church choir in full effect. On tracks such as "Rosa Parks" and "Skew It on the Bar-B," they reveal themselves to be a stylistic midpoint between hip-hop's East and West Coasts, mixing the unassumingly cerebral hip-hop of A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul with that George Clinton—drenched funk favored out west. With their drawled-out voices, neighborhood slang and cascading sheets of words, they put permanently to bed all questions about serious MC'ing on the South Coast. Atlanta's reputation as hip-hop's most avant-garde area code — the Long Island of the Nineties — was cemented.

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

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Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’

Pavement's second full-length was less quirky and diffuse than their first and even yielded their career's only modest hit, "Cut Your Hair." Best of all, sweetly catchy songs such as "Gold Soundz" and "Range Life" showed that Pavement were more than just smirky indie rockers.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Photos: Pavement Stage Nineties Revival


Beck, ‘Odelay’

The Woody Guthrie of the Pizza Hut proves he can do it all on Odelay, as the Dust Brothers slip him a funky cold medina and set the stage for him to get real, real gone for a change. Beck shimmies in and out of his musical guises, whether he's strumming his folky guitar in "Ramshackle," rocking the Catskills hip-hop style in "Where It's At" or blaming it on the bossa nova in "Readymade." Odelay could have come off as a bloodless art project, but Beck gets lost in the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow until his playful energy makes everyone else sound tame. That is a good drum break, indeed.

Rolling Stone's Original 1996 Review

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The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’

You remember the first time you heard Biggie — he came on as the baddest chronic-smoking, Oreo-cookie-eating, pickle-juice-drinking stud on the block, and he was the man, girlfriend. Biggie spread love the Brooklyn way, doing more than anyone else to revitalize New York hip-hop after years of West Coast dominance, and Ready to Die maps out the sounds of Nineties cool. The vision is bleak, from "Suicidal Thoughts" to the love song that hinges on the line "I swear to God, I hope we fuckin' die together." But Biggie's voice is also full of high-spirited fun, bringing the pleasure principle back to hip-hop. In "Big Poppa," his idea of a romantic evening includes a T-bone steak, cheese, eggs and Welch's grape, and that's just while the Jacuzzi heats up.

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Nirvana, ‘In Utero’

The basic tracks were recorded in two weeks; nearly all of Kurt Cobain's vocals were whipped down on tape in seven hours. If In Utero is a record born of great crisis — mostly Cobain's personal war with overwhelming good fortune — it was made with concentrated purpose. Steve Albini's corrosion-is-bliss production does not flatter songs of tempered, layered drama such as "Pennyroyal Tea" (Cobain's definitive performance is on Unplugged). But Albini's harsh touch was perfect for the extremism Cobain had already written into the soaked-in-lye cannonballs "Serve the Servants," "Scentless Apprentice" and "Very Ape." In the sun-dappled, cello-garnished sadness of "All Apologies" and "Dumb," Cobain was also upfront about his oversize needs and diminished expectations for fulfillment. He ultimately proved incapable of pulling himself out of that funk; instead, he made fine, furious art from it.

Rolling Stone's Original 1993 Review

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Nirvana


Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

'When their debut came out, Pearl Jam were competing with Nirvana in a grunge popularity contest they were bound to lose. Yet Ten is a near-perfect record: Eddie Vedder's shaky, agonized growl and Mike McCready's wailing guitar solos on "Alive" and "Jeremy" push both songs to the brink and back again.

Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review

Photos: Pearl Jam in Posters

Photos: The Rise of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and More


Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’

After months locked in tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, Lauryn Hill emerged from the shadow of the Fugees to create a stunning musical document that is equal parts Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and, well, no one but Lauryn Hill. She sings and rhymes; she gives us ballads, party rockers and doo-wop; she sings of love for men, her son, Zion, her New Jersey childhood and (maybe) her ex-boyfriend, Wyclef Jean. She wraps it all in a raw, completely human sound in which you can hear fingers plucking guitars, needles meeting vinyl and drumsticks touching cymbals. When someone asks you, “What is hip-hop soul?” play them The Miseducation.

Video: Booker T & The Roots Cover Lauryn Hill’s ‘Everything Is Everything’

Video: Lauryn Hill Performs Intimate Gig to Kick Off Tour


U2, ‘Achtung Baby’

It was one of the most extreme personality transformations in pop music — ever. U2, the Irish bards of cathedral-chime guitar and pub-stool sermonizing, said goodbye to the Eighties and the suffocating tide of their own sincerity by setting up their recording gear in post-Wall Berlin and saying hello to the two i's: irony and industrial dance music. The music — slower than The Joshua Tree — is corrosive, razed-city funk laced with mad laughter and creeping paranoia. Yet the album's crackle and empty-hallway echo are really a kind of protective armor for the defiant heart in Bono's lyrics ("One," "Ultra Violet [Light My Way]") and the real lesson of Achtung Baby's post­modern giggles: To appreciate the joys of heaven, sometimes you have to take a little walk through hell.

Rolling Stone's Original 1992 Review

U2, Live From Outer Space: Launching the Biggest Tour of All Time

Photos: Three Decades of the World's Biggest Band, Onstage and Backstage


Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’

Progress is a bitch, but don't let the machines, or their masters, grind you down: That is the simple message encoded in the art-rock razzle-dazzle of OK Computer. Hailed as The Dark Side of the Moon for the Information Age, Computer is too brittle in its time-signature twists and hairpin guitar turns, too claustrophobic in mood, to qualify as space rock. Instead, Radiohead shatter the soul-sucking echo of isolation and enforced routine with the violent mood swings of "Paranoid Android" and Thom Yorke's arcing vocal anguish in the gaunt, yearning ballads "Let Down" and "Lucky." Somehow, OK Computer went platinum a year after its release — a welcome testament that smart still sells.

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

The Future According to Radiohead: Rolling Stone's 2008 Cover Story

Photos: Fifteen Years of Radiohead, From 'Pablo Honey' to 'In Rainbows'


Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’

Once upon a time, Dr. Dre was just one of the guys from N.W.A, Suge Knight was just a bodyguard and Snoop Dogg wasn't a star. Then The Chronic dropped, and the earth moved on Planet Hip-Hop. The sound is culled from George Clinton's funk, the images are loosely inspired by the ominous malfeasance of The Godfather, and it is all pulled together by a tall, skinny new kid from Long Beach, California, who delivers vivid ghetto stories and marijuana paeans in a light, singsongy drawl that seems the epitome of cool under fire. It was the most original MC style since Rakim, and it magnetized listeners from coast to coast the first time they heard him say, "Ain't nuttin' buh a gee thang, bayyy-bay."

• Rolling Stone's Original 1993 Review

• Photos: Nate Dogg's Best Guest Appearances

• Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'The Chronic' by Dr. Dre


Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’

The album that guaranteed the nineties would not suck. Every word and note Kurt Cobain wrote for Nevermind now rings with the heavy clang of compound retrospect: his sad, foolish death; the thousand grunge-alikes who aped Cobain's pain well enough but blew it with the music. In fact, Cobain's special genius — and that of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic — was in barbed humor and the amp-joy classicism of the Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. Nevermind pulled the decade's ultimate mosh-party record out of a generation's discontent — and showed that rock & roll, in its messy middle age, could still fuck things up, gloriously.

• Rolling Stone's Original 1991 Review

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

• Photos: The Rise of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam and More

Photos: Rolling Stone Readers Pick the Top 10 Albums of the Nineties

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