I have bestowed upon myself a task that at first seemed pleasurable but quickly became an incredibly difficult undertaking. The 1990s saw music diversify more than it ever had before; in the land of the ’90s, you could fill your ears with Britpop, grunge, hip-hop, trip-hop, shoegaze, and a galaxy of other sounds born over the course of the previous 30 years of music.
In the 1980s, the UK was largely dominated by synth-pop bands of the new romantic era championed by the likes of Duran Duran, The Human League and Depeche Mode. On the periphery were some bands who were seemingly warming up for the 1990s. The Smiths, for example, led the way towards the Britpop takeover of the mid-1990s returning to guitar-based music in a new twist on rock genres popularised in the ’60s. Meanwhile, New Order had blended their post-punk roots from the Joy Division days with synthesisers and dance beats released on Tony Wilson’s Manchester-based Factory label. This funded the eventual opening of Tony’s Hacienda nightclub, the birthplace of the ’90s rave scene.
The ’90s sealed off a millennium, and a century that had seen the two most catastrophic wars in recorded history, mind-boggling technological advances and some great tunes. A century divided in my mind, into two parts. My mental timeline shows the 20th century as black and white prior to the 1960s then suddenly a burst of colour for the rest of the century.
Of course, this is likely due to the fact that colour TV and photography was a development of the latter half of the century. However, a huge factor in this for me was the explosion of pop music spawning from the roots of rock and roll. The ‘peace and love’ movement throughout the 1960s brought on a cultural revolution; at the heart of this revolution was music. Over the last 40 years of the 20th century, music changed faster than it ever had before.
My job today is to pick an album from each year of the ’90s that, in my opinion, is the greatest. Much to my upset, the artists weren’t sympathetic in spreading out their masterpieces across the decade and hence, some of the years took me a long time to arrive at my choice, feeling somewhat ludicrously sorry for those I missed out on.
So, embark with me on this journey through the 1990s and see if you agree with absolutely anything I have to say.
The best albums of the 1990s, year by year:
1990: Depeche Mode – Violator
Spawned from the shift to electronic pop music in 1980 were Essex group Depeche Mode. Their name was taken from a French fashion magazine, roughly translating as “fast fashion”, quite fitting for the fast pace with which music changed throughout the ’80s synth-pop era. On Violator, Depeche Mode had reached maturity, their most balanced album to date with a signature sound while conveying a wide range of emotions across tracks that can be at times haunting and introspective, and at others vibrant and energetic.
The two biggest hit singles from the record, ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy the Silence’, preceded the release and charted in the top ten in the UK and the USA. When the album was released in 1990, the singles ‘World in My Eyes’ and ‘The Policy of Truth’ were introduced. While these songs anchored the album in the charts with their gregarious beats, the other slower tracks on the album deserve praise as well. These well-produced, slower compositions often touch on darker subject matter reflecting lead singer Dave Gahan’s struggle with drug addiction at the time.
The album draws influence from a wide range of work from the previous twenty years of music; most obviously, the bassline in ‘Clean’, for example, was taken from ‘One of These Days’ by Pink Floyd. Depeche Mode had often spoken of their love for the psychedelic rock giants and admitted to stealing this section for ‘Clean’ which I feel pays a great tribute and respect to Pink Floyd without being too similar.
Violator just about nicks the trophy for 1990 in my eyes because of its importance as a body of work seemingly sealing off the ’80s and paving the way into a new decade of music. The album has inspired countless musicians over the years since its release with many popular dance tracks showing very similar compositions.
Worthy Contenders: Cocteau Twins – Heaven or Las Vegas, Sonic Youth – Goo, Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.
1991: My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
The selection for 1991 was by far the most difficult to make. Looking back, one sees that there were a lot of landmark albums released in this year — just look at those contenders below. Nirvana, Primal Scream and a Tribe Called Quest all delivered career-defining LPs, but none match up to My Bloody Valentine.
Much like hard-earned cash feeling all the better for the work put in, the music of My Bloody Valentine is not the most accessible on first listen, at least not for me. However, I gave it a chance, or perhaps a few chances, and haven’t looked back. Often the music we allow to grow on us stays with us the longest.
When recording Loveless, lead guitarist and vocalist, Kevin Shields, decided to take the experimentalism shown in their first album Isn’t Anything, a step further. The album has a signature sound that gives it a unique identity; this is achieved by the multiple guitar effects used. Multiple pedals and complex production methods resulted in the highly distorted, dreamy sound that has an almost constant presence throughout the album. The vocals are at times sped up and at others slowed down, distorted and muffled to flow with the instrumentals perfectly. The change in the pace of the different songs evokes very different emotions throughout the album. For instance, ‘Sometimes’ is one of the slower songs on the album that gives a feeling of transcendent melancholy, while tracks like ‘Soon’ and ‘When You Sleep’ are higher tempo tracks with a more upbeat “rock-out” tone.
Now, please allow me to express my condolences for the die-hard Nirvana fans out there. While I admire their seminal album Nevermind, which includes two of the greatest rock classics of all time in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come As You Are’, Loveless nipped them to it, simply because I believe it was more daring. Both of these albums have inspired countless artists over the years but I believe the more progressive nature of Loveless was a catalyst for diversifying genres, encouraging other artists to push the boundaries of music; from this angle.
Worthy Contenders: Nirvana – Nevermind, Primal Scream – Screamadelica, Massive Attack – Blue Lines, R.E.M – Out of Time, Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory.
1992: R.E.M – Automatic For the People
With Automatic For the People, R.E.M released their most impactful and earnest album to date. Production for the album began shortly after the release of their 1991 album Out of Time, and despite initial intentions to make a similarly upbeat rock album, proceedings took a turn when the band moved toward the far darker and more cerebral subject matter. While still sticking to a mostly guitar-based sound – with thanks to Led Zeppelin bassist, John Paul Jones – the album contains some slower songs with very well produced involvement of other instruments including some beautiful piano and mellotron melodies in ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find the River’.
The album has a perfect flow between up-tempo songs like ‘Man on The Moon’ or ‘Ignoreland’ and slower, more plaintive ones like ‘Everybody Hurts’ or ‘Sweetness Follows’. From its release in October 1992 Automatic For the People was an international success with rave reviews, reaching number one in the UK album charts and number two in the US, buoyed by its abundant ballad singles. Throughout the album, there are very poignant but unrevealing lyrics addressing existentialism, something Stipe is a truly gifted orator on.
Again, 1992 was a year that brought us some jaw-dropping music. It was a tough call between this album and Aphex Twin’s debut album. Aphex Twin has been one of the most creative and experimental figures in electronic music over the last 30 years and definitely deserves a mention. If I was rating solely on experimentalism, originality and influence, Aphex Twin would be the subject title. However, R.E.M have taken pole position here because the album is a piece of true art with profound themes running throughout, resulting in some of the best work by one of the finest American bands of the 20th century.
Worthy Contenders: Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92, Dr. Dre – The Chronic, Neil Young – Harvest Moon, Sonic Youth – Dirty.
1993: Björk – Debut
Icelandic musician Björk Guðmundsdóttir, simply (and thankfully) known as Björk, was born in Reykjavik in 1965. She was a destined star performing from the age of 11 and formed her first successful band in 1987, the Sugarcubes. After the Sugarcubes dissolved (pun intended) in 1991, she decided to continue her career as a solo artist and hit the studios of London with Massive Attack producer Nellee Hooper to record material that was to become one of the most inventive and successful albums of the decade.
The album was the mark of her maturation as an artist after the patchy success of her previous work in various bands during her late teen years. The vibrancy of the album is bolstered by her unique vocals which gave a breath of fresh air to western pop music at the time. At times crooning, others yelping, Björk’s Icelandic accent always accompanies the music perfectly to convey the message of the song. Debut has a healthy balanced diet of influences spanning a wide range of genres; from techno sounds in ‘Big Time Sensuality’ to Indian influenced instrumentals in ‘Venus as a Boy’.
The lyrics of the songs tackle subjects from a number of creative angles. ‘Human Behaviour’, inspired by British Naturalist and television presenter David Attenborough, observes the behaviour of mankind through the viewpoint of animals. In ‘Venus as a Boy’ the lyrics describe a man who Björk knew who saw life from a “beauty point of view” and recognised beauty in the mundane and every day. Björk saw feminine sensitivity here that makes the subject of the lyrics ‘Venus’, raising, for me, thoughts about gender stereotyping. One of the most thought-provoking artists of the decade, Debut was a cinch.
Worthy Contenders: Suede – Suede, Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish, Slowdive – Souvlaki, Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See.
1994: Portishead – Dummy
While trip-hop had been kicked off by Bristol neighbours Massive Attack with their 1991 album Blue Lines, Portishead took the genre in a different direction. Beth Gibbons’ entrancing, brooding and often melancholic vocals give the album its emotional direction. The instrumentals throughout the album are underpinned by jazz-inspired percussion and heavily distorted and reverberated guitar sections which are used to perfection in ‘Glory Box’, the most popular single from the album. ‘Sour Times’ still raises the hairs on the back of my neck — how, what sounds like a metal pole being dragged across a rough concrete, can sound so perfect I will never know.
Portishead were determined to record the album with a vintage feel to it and analogue was preferred over digital recording techniques. Instead, the scratchy samples used throughout the album were generated by selecting some pre-existing and some self-recorded vinyl and then manipulating the sound physically by jumping on the records and scraping them across the floor. Despite the damage, they made a beautifully classy album with the vintage feel they set out to achieve.
1994 was equally brimming with world-class LPs. Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe would likely top the year for many people or perhaps Blur’s Parklife if you were on the other side of the ‘Britpop war’. However, I have to hand 1994 to Portishead for a truly dazzling album that glows with originality and marries jazz, hip-hop and the blues in the most beautiful way possible. This has to go down as one of the greatest debut albums of all time.
Worthy Contenders: Oasis – Definitely Maybe, Jeff Buckley – Grace, Blur – Parklife, Nas – Illmatic, Pink Floyd – The Division Bell.
1995: Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
The late ’80s rise to Britpop saw bands dropping keyboards and synthesisers, and picking up their drumsticks and guitars in a return to more traditional band formations. While Oasis didn’t invent this new age of British music, they were the most prominent force within it during the ’90s. This new sound started with indie rock bands of the ’80s and was stamped into a preparatory Mancunian sound by The Stone Roses in 1989. Noel Gallagher once said of The Stone Roses: “Without that band, there would not have been an Oasis”.
Oasis stepped into The Stone Roses’ shoes and quickly outgrew them with their popular debut album, Definitely Maybe in 1994. The Gallagher-led band took the world by storm despite a disappointing USA tour in 1994 where the band famously played some of their worst live performances due to a batch of cocaine they obtained across the pond instead turning out to be crystal meth. The notorious Gallagher brothers erupted into arguments on stage ending in Noel running off to San Francisco — a theme that prevailed to Oasis’ final days in 2009.
Oasis released their second album, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, in 1995. It is seen by many as their best album and is the most successful album to have come out of the Britpop era bolstered by ballads that are still overplayed to this day such as ‘Wonderwall’ and ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. Oasis were a band that specialised in a formula of accessible pop-rock songs which they mastered in this album, boosting them to superstardom, topping charts with passionate fans singing along at sold-out arena concerts. What Oasis lacked avant-garde and experimentalism, they made up for in brilliant songwriting thanks to Noel’s lyrics, and energetic delivery through Liam’s iconic vocals and frontman charisma. Love or loathe, one can’t deny the brothers had some talent.
Worthy Contenders: Radiohead – The Bends, Pulp – A Different Class, Björk – Post, Supergrass – I Should Coco, Blur – The Great Escape, Aphex Twin – I Care Because You Do.
1996: Fun Lovin’ Criminals – Come Find Yourself
My first introduction to this album was a friend showing me ‘Scooby Snacks’, the somewhat hilarious lead single from the record. I was immediately hooked, was it hip hop? Was it rock? Whatever it was, I loved it. I heard the song in my teen years not long after my youth of watching Scooby Doo had waned. My friend told me that Scooby Snacks were some sort of reference to drugs and that Shaggy and Scooby were clearly stoned hippies going round fighting hallucinatory monsters in their campervan – it is safe to say this was eye-opening and perhaps a contributor to the end of my childhood (that, and finding out a fat man in a red suit didn’t really squeeze down our non-existent chimney every December). The sampling from Quentin Tarantino movies such as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs sealed it for me — I needed to listen to more from Fun Lovin’ Criminals.
I bought the album Come Find Yourself and gave it a listen through; my first impression was that this was a band who set out to defy genre pigeonholing. At first, I thought it would be a hip-hop album; it turned out to be that and much more. I was especially delighted and surprised in equal measure to hear a cover of ‘We Have All the Time in the World’ by Louis Armstrong. The album continued to impress with the blues, jazz and even folk-inspired sections with the use of slide guitar, harmonicas and brass instruments.
Worthy Contenders: R.E.M – New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Tupac Shakur – All Eyez on Me, Fugees – The Score.
1997: Radiohead – OK Computer
For many years I was a huge fan of Radiohead’s second album, The Bends, worry not, I still am. However, when my university friend told me categorically that Ok Computer and Kid A were better I just couldn’t understand. I had grown up with The Bends playing on the radio with accessible hits like ‘Just’, ‘High and Dry’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and so on. I realised I hadn’t really given Ok Computer a thorough listen and therefore couldn’t pass judgement. I, therefore, got the album up on my iPod and listened through in one sitting, understanding immediately (and progressively with every new listen) how people regard the album as one of the finest creative works of not only the ’90s but of the 20th century. I was enraptured by the conceptual and lyrical talents of Thom Yorke and the compositional talents of Jonny Greenwood and Co.
The album was recorded in the mansion of actress Jane Seymour and focuses on the paranoia and insecurity of the modern world with lyrics influenced by social decay and the musings of social scientist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky. Accompanied throughout with a dystopian progressive rock sound, the music frames the anxiety and melancholy of the lyrics perfectly. There were four singles on Ok Computer: ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’, ‘Lucky’, and ‘No Surprises’. These hits boosted the album to the top of the UK charts and it reached higher on the US charts than any of their previous albums had. However, it would be a few years before the album was given its worthy praise with critics declaring it a masterpiece, and ‘Paranoid Android’ described modern ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ due to its complex arrangements and different phases. The third track on the album, ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ is a nod to one of the greatest songwriters of all time; while it sounds nothing like Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, I have always loved this reference due to my adoration for Dylan and his music.
There weren’t as many top contenders for this selection, certainly none that came close to toppling Radiohead. Urban Hymns by The Verve is about as close as it gets.
Worthy Contenders: The Verve – Urban Hymns, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – The Boatman’s Call, Blur – Blur, Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Elliott Smith – Either/Or.
1998: Massive Attack – Mezzanine
Bristol trip-hop giants Massive Attack hit their creative and commercial pinnacle with Mezzanine in 1998. The band had turned a corner from the more chilled out jazz and hip-hop influences of the previous two albums, Blue Lines and Protection. This new direction was toward something darker and more intense. While Massive Attack’s first two albums were also fantastic additions to the musical tapestry of the 90s, it was Mezzanine that most captivated audiences with singles: ‘Teardrop’, ‘Angel’, ‘Risington’ and ‘Inertia Creeps’. The album is a real treat for the ears and is a must-have for any vinyl enthusiasts out there. The artful production and epic soundscapes often give a cinematic feel. This was recognised by director John Moore who used ‘Angel’ in his 2004 remake of ‘Flight of the Phoenix’ to fantastic effect.
The brilliance and intrigue of this album doesn’t end there, I also have an interesting fact about it that I can throw in. Mezzanine was 20 years old in 2018, and to celebrate the anniversary, the record was encoded into synthetic DNA — the first time this has ever been done. So this album exists in digital, analogue and now also in the form of genetic information. The coding was compacted into 920,000 DNA strands then poured into 5,000 small glass beads and a number of aerosol cans — the ultimate collector’s item.
Mezzanine came at a price for the band however, as huge creative efforts often do, the stressful and meticulous production of the album triggered some tension between the band members. The album proved both deleterious and profitable to the band, while it received widespread critical acclaim, it marked the end of the original line-up of the band with the departure of Andrew Vowles (AKA ‘Mushroom’) due to creative differences. Mezzanine for me marked the pinnacle of success for Massive Attack which hasn’t been equalled since.
Electronic music was blessed with some fantastic albums in 1998. It was difficult for me to choose between Mezzanine and Moon Safari by the French band Air. Having lived in Bristol for a few years as a student, perhaps I felt a level of allegiance to Massive Attack.
Worthy Contenders: Air – Moon Safari, Belle and Sebastian – The Boy With The Arab Strap, Fatboy Slim – You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.
1999: Moby – Play
Moby is mostly known for Play, which enjoyed global critical acclaim. However, his career actually stretched back to about a decade before when he left his string of teenage efforts with punk and metal bands throughout the ’80s and began producing electronic dance music in the early 1990s. Most notably, the 1991 dance hit ‘Go’ first launched him into recognition and into a successful spell as a DJ and producer in New York City. However, Moby’s career had begun to slump by the mid-1990s and after the release of punk-inspired album Animal Rights, which was not well received by his fanbase, Moby was close to leaving his career as a musician. Encouraged by his musical peers and friends, he decided to give his career another chance and began production on some new electronic tracks that would become his masterpiece, Play.
As with many of the albums in this list, there is an eclecticism in Play that I always appreciate. The album flows through a range of emotions; melancholy runs through much of the album giving it an edge that electronic albums can often lack, and is present in some of the album’s strongest tracks such as ‘Natural Blues’, ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?’ and ‘Porcelain’, but Moby also explores some lighter themes with more upbeat tracks like ‘Honey’ or the hip hop inspired ‘Bodyrock’. ‘Porcelain’ was the most popular song on the album — a beautiful and cinematic production with instrumental and vocal samples all performed by Moby himself. The track, recognised for its beauty by director Danny Boyle, was used to fantastic effect in his 2000 film ‘The Beach’.
This album is, for me, head and shoulders above the others released in 1999; while there were some great albums from this final year of the millennium, none were quite so captivating or evoked such an array of emotions for so many across the world. For Moby to have put his career slump behind him to then come back with such an impactful album shows that dedication to one’s passion can pay off and sets a great example to anyone who may ever doubt themselves in what they enjoy doing.
Worthy Contenders: Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Californication, Blur – 13, The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin.