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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.

53

Tom Waits, ‘Bone Machine’

Throughout the album lonesome travelers and restless strangers battle their lives with drink, religion and the active search for somewhere better than here. "A little trouble makes it worth the going/And a little rain never hurt no one/The world is round/And so I'll go around/You must risk something that matters," Waits sings on "A Little Rain," with David Phillips' pedal steel sweeping through the background. No one needs convincing. It's a song older than Waits himself — older than Hank Williams, older than Robert Johnson — that Waits is chasing, the simple mystery of where life goes: "I don't wanna float a broom/Fall in love and get married and then boom/How the hell did it get here so soon?/I don't wanna grow up." Albums this rich with spiritual longing prove the validity of that effort, no matter the odds.

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Rolling Stone's Original 1992 Review

52

Pearl Jam, ‘Vitalogy’

The rugged, world-weary tones of Vitalogy were a head check for Pearl Jam, as Nice Guy Eddie Vedder and his stadium-grunge all-stars grappled with their strange new role as the world's biggest rock band. With their profile unexpectedly high — who can forget Sharon Stone proclaiming, "Forget Pavarotti, I wanna see Pearl Jam!" in Sliver? — Pearl Jam turned their confusion into the unapologetically anthemic guitar noise of "Not for You." Vedder caught his breath with the show-stealing ballads "Better Man" and "Nothingman," brooding over the fate of cowardly men letting good women slip away and struggling not to turn into one of those cowardly men himself.

Rolling Stone's Original 1994 Review

Video: First Glimpse of Pearl Jam's Documentary 'Pearl Jam Twenty'

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51

Massive Attack, ‘Protection’

The Nineties were the all-time high-water mark of silly genre names, and trip-hop may be the silliest of all. But Massive Attack really did invent a whole new style, manipulating hip-hop's boom and reggae's throb into their own slow-motion funk noir, inspiring Bristol, England, neighbors such as Tricky and Portishead to explore cinematic dance grooves heavy on the atmospherics. Their influence has spread to all corners of pop and rock, not to mention upscale shoe stores and cafes everywhere. Daddy G, Mushroom and 3-D made their most majestic statement on Protection, with colossal beats and first-rate vocal guests. Tricky makes a great cameo, but Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl steals the show in the eight-minute title track, a stand-by-your-woman soul ballad that takes off into outer space and gets home in time to do the dishes.

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