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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.

18

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.

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: R.E.M.'s 'Automatic for the People'

R.E.M. Roar Back With 'Collapse Into Now'

Video: Watch R.E.M.'s YouTube-inspired 'Every Day Is Yours to Win'

17

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."

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Jay-Z's 'Reasonable Doubt'

Photos: Jay-Z, Coldplay, Kanye West, John Mayer and More Perform in Las Vegas

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Jay-Z

16

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.

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Metallica' by Metallica

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

Photos: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax Rock Big 4 Festival

15

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.

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Lucinda Williams' 'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road'

Rolling Stone's Original 1998 Review

14

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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13

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'

12

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'

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Tom Petty

11

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

OutKast's Andre 3000 Returns With Beatles Cover

10

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.

Pavement Stage Brilliant Nineties Revival by Rob Sheffield

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Photos: Pavement Stage Nineties Revival

9

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

Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: Beck's 'Odelay'

8

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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7

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

6

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

5

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

4

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

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

3

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

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

2

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

1

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

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