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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.

79

Guided by Voices, ‘Bee Thousand’

GBV's six previous albums (released in limited editions on minuscule indies) were brilliant, but Bee Thousand was a tour de force by a good old-fashioned American basement genius. A rotating group of thirtysomethings based in Dayton, Ohio, Guided by Voices mined familiar territory: classic English pop rockers like the Who, the Kinks and the Beatles, albeit filtered through latter-day Beatlemaniacs like Cheap Trick and Robyn Hitchcock, as well as low-fi avatars like Daniel Johnston and Pavement. Recorded on a four-track machine, Bee Thousand sounds like a favorite bootleg or a beloved old LP whose worn grooves now reveal only a blurry jumble. Amp hum, sniffling musicians and creaking chairs all inhabit the mix, but the homespun production only underlines the strength of the songs — low-fi or not, there's no denying an astonishing rush of guitar-pop glory like "Tractor Rape Chain."

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

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78

Oasis, ‘Definitely Maybe’

While stateside bands agonized over fame, Oasis announced, "Tonight, I'm a rock & roll star." Indeed, the title of this debut album — a blast of guitar muscle, sneering vocals, retro hooks and arrogant flash — is the only ambivalent thing about it. "You can have it all/But how much do you want it?" the brothers Gallagher ask in "Supersonic," and the answer is, a fuckin' lot. The hits came later, but this is where Oasis established a beachhead on these shores in the war to restore British rock to the throne.

Rolling Stone Original 1998 Review

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77

Neil Young and Crazy Horse, ‘Ragged Glory’

To kick-start the Nineties, Neil Young reunited with Crazy Horse, cranked the amps and, as a songwriter, took a look back to see if anything was still standing. There's some blood on the tracks ("Love to Burn," "Fuckin' Up"), but "Days That Used to Be" and "Mansion on the Hill" revisit the era of peace, love and granola with a sentimentality that Young rarely permits himself. The long guitar solos are this album's real story, however. They're ragged and glorious, indeed, and they turn this look back into a look ahead: The guitar barrage of grunge is right around the corner.

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76

The Rolling Stones, ‘Bridges to Babylon’

Maybe it was the biz markie sample on "Anybody Seen My Baby?" that suggested the Rolling Stones were up for invigoration on Bridges to Babylon. Not that their rockers ("Flip the Switch") or ballads of taunting regret ("Already Over Me") are missing. It's that everything sounds vivified — from the reggae swagger of Keith Richards' "You Don't Have to Mean It" to Mick Jagger's hedonist manifesto "Saint of Me." A bridge to the twenty-first century? For the Stones, Babylon will do just fine.

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75

Belle and Sebastian, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’

This instrument-switching Scottish outfit represented the ultimate triumph of twee, that British subgenre that applies rock-style hipness and amateurish fervor to unrock interests such as coffeehouse folk, French 1960s pop and the works of Burt Bacharach. Casually led by real-life choirboy and Smiths admirer Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian attached cello, trumpet and strings to a skiffle beat and melodies devised after hours of lonely listening to vintage Top Forty radio. Not since Nick Drake had so quiet a band spoken so loudly.

Rolling Stone's Original 1997 Review

Photos: Belle and Sebastian Stay Loose

74

Rage Against the Machine, ‘The Battle of Los Angeles’

Rage Against the Machine's first two records sound better than they used to, now that we know they were leading up to something. But they sure don't howl or move like The Battle of Los Angeles. Tom Morello is the most adventurous metal guitarist since Eddie Van Halen Hagar-ed out, and his boombastic sonics in "Born of a Broken Man," "Ashes in the Fall" and "War Within a Breath" rumble like crosstown turntable traffic. Zack de la Rocha has figured out how to project with his major-threat mouth, while bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk beef up their arena muscles. As a result, Battle captures Rage in all their stadium-shaking ferocity, blasting righteous propaganda to the cheap seats. Rage's macho bluster trips up their politics; even the kinda-sorta-feminist "Maria" is the sound of real men stuck on their own potency. But hopefully that's a temporary glitch — with Battle, Rage have already pushed their noise and their message further than the Clash ever dreamed possible.