Choosing the 5 best albums of the 90’s is a painstaking endeavor. The decade was rife with musical innovation, from the caterwaul of guitar rock to the infiltration of hardcore rap into the mainstream. The records listed herein are merely a sampling of one of pop’s great decades.
- Nas – “Illmatic.” On his debut, a relatively unknown twenty year old from Queens changed the way we hear hip-hop. Nas' expansive, hyper literate lyrics and unstoppable flow brought the genre into the modern age, while his complex, multifaceted tales of the trials and tribulations of American ghetto life are transporting. Listening to “Illmatic” is like being immersed in a Dickensian world of the violence and rampant drug use of 80’s, a world populated with stick-up kids, intellectual thugs, ghetto savants, corrupt cops, wide-eyed children, and tragic victims of the black American condition. “Illmatic” is one of the best albums of the 90’s.
- Smashing Pumpkins – “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” Like “Illmatic,” the Pumpkins’ magnum opus is a grand statement hewn of boundless ambition. Over the course of 28 songs, Corgan and co. churn out more than two hours of music the ranges from pop to metal to hardrock to psych to new wave and most everything in between. The prodigious interplay of Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is awe inspiring, but even more so is Corgan’s ability to pack the album with more brilliant songs than most band’s write over a career. “Mellon Collie” took grunge to the breaking point, and then through to the other side, where anything was possible. One of the best albums of the 90’s, it made Rolling Stone’s top 100 albums of all time list.
- Radiohead – “Ok Computer.” In 2005, Spin magazine called Radiohead’s “Ok Computer” the greatest album of the last twenty years. Released in 1997, the record laid the foundation for so many styles that have since emerged in the underground and the mainstream, from the contemplative musings of early Coldplay to the electro-inspired bombast of late Bloc Party and the more melancholic ruminations of Kanye West and Kid Cudi, it’s impossible to calculate its true impact. The record itself is a collection of incredible and heartfelt songs that are relatively simple in a number of ways, yet somehow still sound like the future of music over a decade after the record’s release.
- Dr. Dre – “The Chronic.” It’s easy to underestimate the importance of a man who’s been in hibernation for over ten years. But if it weren’t for Dre, we wouldn’t have NWA. If it weren’t for NWA, there would’ve been no Ice Cube as we knew him. No Tupac as the thug. No Snoop. No G-funk. No Em, no 50. “The Chronic” gave voice to millions of African Americans in a post-LA riots world that would never be the same. It was also the first blockbuster gangsta rap record, essentially paving the way for the commercial success of hardcore shit on both coasts, from Wu Tang to “All Eyez on Me.”
- Nirvana – “In Utero.” Nirvana’s second record, “Nevermind,” is the album that launched the underground guitar rock renaissance into the mainstream, but “In Utero”, one of the five best albums of the 90’s, proved that Cobain wasn’t just a hapless punk who hit the zeitgeist. The record combines the roaring guitars and pop hooks of “Nevermind” with the primal scream of John Lennon’s first record, caustic rawness of Steve Albini’s production, and an increased affinity for song writing.