I need to be upfront and honest about something. At one point in the process of constructing this list, I wept. Fitzy can attest to this. I literally felt so bad when I had to cut albums that I loved. There were A LOT of great albums in the 1990s. I feel like people like Bono, Flea, Beck, and Tom Petty will never forgive me for cutting albums of theirs that are widely considered to be classic and masterpieces.
That’s part of life. You always have to be looking for something better. Looking to trade up, like a sorority girl dating an engineering major. “Wait for something better”, Brandon Flowers wrote in 2008.
Well lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait. I came into this cruel world in 1996 with all this music just waiting for my ears. Kurt Cobain was already dead, Michael Stipe was already bisexual, and Rob Thomas already swept the Grammys. So years down the line (mostly in 2010), these wonderful sounds all found their way into my ears and corrupted my innocent brain into thinking I could make a decent living out of this.
Part of this is looking back at times when the world was a better place: when I was young and had no clue what was going on. When mom and dad possessed the key. When I looked just like McCawley Culkin. When Slick Willy redefined the phrase “oval office”. When Beavis & Butthead pointed out what everyone else was too afraid to point out:
“Hey that’s the dude from Nirvarna!”
Without further ado: John’s favorite albums of the ’90s.
#10: The Stone Roses – Second Coming (1994)
In the years after it’s release it became the litter box for pessimists looking to drop a steamer on the nest great thing. It may have taken a prolonged five years for The Stone Roses to finally release their sophomore effort, but there’s no reason why this album isn’t as good as their debut.
Favorite Tracks: “Breaking Into Heaven”, “Ten Storey Love Song”, “Tightrope”.
#9: Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
The gateway to the 21st century built up modern life and then let it crumble to the earth. As opposed to their past focus on personal emotions and introspection, Radiohead’s third album features abstract lyrics regarding basically everything about to happen in the next ten years: “riot police at political rallies, anguished lives in tidy suburbs, yuppies freaking out”. The best way for me to describe this album is this: it feels like the entire album is an overheard conversation. Like you’re being watched. Finally, someone made the soundtrack to 1984.
Favorite Tracks: “Paranoid Android”, “Karma Police”, “Lucky”.
#8: Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
Some might say this is too low. Well if it were a “best of” list it would be #1. But it’s not, so #8 is perfect for it, amongst the sea of Britpop, punk and pop rock to come. This album set the tone for the ’90s. If I were 16 years old and heard this, I’d think, “Damn, this is going to a fun decade.” Either that or the nation would become obsessed with naked babies. Art.
Favorite Tracks: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Breed”, “Drain You”.
#7: Weezer – Weezer (The Blue Album) (1994)
The album that immediately appealed to nerds nationwide, guitar nerds who sat in their garage, owned dungeon-master guides, and just wanted to get laid. Power chords galore here folks, but nothing amateur about it. Concepts like Rivers Cuomo’s brother getting screwed by an insurance company formed anthems like “My Name Is Jonas”, a capella polyphonies stormed the beaches on “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” and “Surf Wax America”, and this nerd who popularized thick, black glasses proved he could do something besides slam on power chords like he was in Slayer: “Only In Dreams”, possibly Rivers’ magnum opus, is the impeccably composed build up and explosion every album should end with.
Favorite Tracks: “No One Else”, “Surf Wax America”, “Only In Dreams”.
#6. Matchbox 20 – Yourself Or Someone Like You (1996)
Anyone with a voice that angelic and songwriting this Dylan-like is bound to breakthrough, and in 1996 that happened with “Push”. Making fools of the loud-mouth critics that called them one-hit wonders, Thomas & co. continued to churn out hit singles from their debut well into 1998, culminating in six hit singles off of only their debut album. It tells humorous stories of what it’s like to be a super hero and a rain maker, heartbreaking, 100% true tales about cancer and suicide, and contains one of my favorite lyrics ever, which can be applied to anyone who thinks they’re “the shit”:
“And you’re so set in life man, a pisser they’re waiting
Too damn bad you get so far so fast”
Favorite Tracks: “Real World”, “Long Day”, “Kody”.
#5. Foo Fighters – The Colour And The Shape (1997)
Only a year later, the drummer from “Nirvarna” already scored himself a masterpiece. It’s got everything to fit my ideal album: an intro track (“Doll”) as opposed to an opening track, but followed by a fast one of those (Monkey Wrench), a mega hit (or two; “My Hero”/”Everlong”), many segues, catchy hooks (“Up In Arms”, “See You”), electrifying guitar riffs (“Hey, Johnny Park!”, “Wind Up”) and a bombastic closer (“New Way Home”). Wasting Light came close, but Dave will never top this one.
Favorite Tracks: “Up In Arms”, “Everlong”, “New Way Home”.
#4. Green Day – Dookie (1994)
Just when west coast skaters thought they had something to call their own, Green Day exploded and broke through to the mainstream. Much to the dismay of the west coast hipsters, it suddenly became cool to be a burnout, smoke weed all day, and masturbate a lot. This album sparked the punk rock revival that was about to take the world by storm for the next 10+ years.
Favorite Tracks: “Burnout”, “Having A Blast”, “Pulling Teeth”.
#3. blink-182 – Enema Of The State (1999)
Speaking of west coast skaters, punk rock, burnouts, and the newly christened “sexual frustration”, the Mark, Tom, and Travis show became the #1 attraction toward the end of the ’90s. Literally hitting every single adolescent struggle on the mark, such as wanting a girlfriend, being lonely, going away to college, being really lonely, rebelling against mom and dad, going to frat parties, and being immature, this was the first album with Travis Barker behind the kit. So the drumming wasn’t just fast, it was actually good. That shouldn’t triumph over the fact that Mark and Tom not only constructed 12 songs that apply to everyone at some point in their lives, but also finally learned how to play their instruments.
Favorite Tracks: “Going Away To College”, “Wendy Clear”, “Mutt”.
#2. Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
This album should be titled Sexual Frustration: The Musical. One way or another, literally every song on here loops back to that theme. And it’s hard to believe too, because this entire album was written after Rivers became famous. He wrote it while he was getting rejected left and right by girls at Harvard who didn’t even know who he was. He was the nerd who crutched around campus. Every track chronicles these sexual misfortunes. “Tired Of Sex”, which begins with the most abrasive riff maybe ever, makes the groupie circuit sound so unappealing, but as we work towards “Across The Sea”, we see that a little girl who wrote Rivers a letter from Japan is enough to get him desiring “The Good Life” again. And then we have “El Scorcho”, which my hispanohablantes readers will know literally translates to “the scorcho”.
All that aside, this album is just amply breathtaking. There’s no way I can describe it to give it justice. Because critics at the time certainly did not give it justice. But a few years later, it would become a cornerstone of genre known as “emo”. That’s right, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Panic! At The Disco, and All-American Reject fans: if it wasn’t for this album, those four bands would not exist.
Favorite Tracks: “Tired Of Sex”, “Across The Sea”, “Falling For You”.
#1. Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994)
While everyone else was desperately trying to achieve the fame of their icons, Oasis hit the scene in 1994 and very bluntly stated, “Tonight, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star”. That is how everyone should live their life, or else you’re just going through the motions. Loud guitars and lyrics that for no reason at all are extraordinarily captivating characterize Definitely Maybe, the album which I will defend to the death as this band’s best. As the album that is quite literally the harbinger of bands like the Strokes, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, and Franz Ferdinand, it will always be one of the most influential, and it taught people like Julian Casablancas, Chris Martin, Alex Turner, Brandon Flowers, and Alex Kapranos to be themselves, and don’t be no one else. Because as everyone knows, you can have it all. But how much do you want it?
Favorite Tracks: “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star”, “Columbia”, “Supersonic”.
Essential B-sides: “Sad Song”, “D’Yer Wanna Be A Spaceman”, “Fade Away”, “Half The World Away”.
Instead of doing an “honorable mentions” section, I’m just going to list the original list I cut down to 10. It was a lot, and most of these took some years of my life with them when they were cast away.
Oasis – (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, Be Here Now, The Masterplan
R.E.M. – Out Of Time, Automatic For The People
Counting Crows – August And Everything After
Beck – Mellow Gold, Odelay, Midnite Vultures
Nirvana – In Utero, MTV Unplugged
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik
Blur – Parklife, The Great Escape, Modern Life Is Rubbish
Modest Mouse – This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, The Lonesome Crowded West
U2 – Achtung Baby
Tom Petty – Wildflowers
Sublime – Sublime, 40 Oz. To Freedom
Pulp – Different Class
The Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
Beastie Boys – Ill Communication
The Rolling Stones – Bridges To Babylon
And yes as most things on this website go, this started with a passive aggressive feud between myself and my direct inferior.
Any ’90s post must have this video embedded.