Geffen Records

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s
The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Moby, Play

Today, Moby’s Play sounds out of fashion, but it’s difficult to imagine a time when it ever was in fashion. This is the Little Idiot’s Song of the South, a technofied homage to blues and gospel and black oral tradition that would be offensive if it weren’t so sincere and eerily convincing. At least that’s what you most remember about it. Because Play’s appropriation of black musical styles is so audacious, it’s easy to forget that Moby, who first won me with his gloriously fagged-out Everything Is Wrong, honors practically the entirety of rock tradition. This ethereal, hour-long trip is rich in gorgeous harmonies and textures, where simple yearnings (“Give me summer”) and memories (“See myself in the pouring rain”) resonate with gloomy sadness. Moby confesses on the nature of the mind, body, and spirit as if he were swimming in some sort of otherworldly fugue state. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Björk, Debut

While the U.K. press ate it up, American critics, perhaps still beating off to the U.S.’s exalted alt-rock movement, were divided on Björk’s Debut. Though the album contains a healthy mix of trip-hop and jazz-pop, dance music dominates, a marked departure for the former Sugarcube. While the ballads don’t measure up to those on Post or Homogenic, dance singles like “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality” (found here in its original, more mainstream house-y incarnation) truly defined the “Björk sound.” The album is Björk’s most accessible to date, which is ironic considering one song includes over half a minute of the singer repeating “b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-b-baby” and another that was recorded in a bathroom stall. By titling the album Debut, Björk was acknowledging that it was simply a rehearsal for her forthcoming masterpieces, but even if she never recorded again, Debut was enough to cement her legacy as one of pop’s most forward-thinking performers. Cinquemani

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Madonna, Erotica

No Madonna album was ever met with a louder backlash or was more rampantly misrepresented than this dark masterpiece, so you know it was doing something right. Released on the tail-end of AIDS hysteria, Erotica is far from the opus to guiltless sexual fulfillment it—and its even more ridiculed accompanying tome Sex—was made out to be. Though there’s no doubt it espouses taking joy in physical pleasure (“Let me remind you in case you don’t already know/Dining out can happen down below”), no album seems more empathetically haunted by the act’s countless side effects (i.e. “Bad Girl,” “Thief of Hearts,” a purposefully monotonous house cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”). Underneath Madonna’s bondage getup and Shep Pettibone’s oversized drum tracks beats a truly pained heart. Henderson

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream

It turns out that Billy Corgan being an OCD-ridden control freak was a good thing, as it allowed the world to savor perhaps one of the most lush, artiest rock records of all time. Long rumored to be singlehandedly recorded by Corgan himself, Siamese Dream married the slow, thick crunch of the Pumpkins’s early Sub Pop sound with a visceral, self-conscious melodrama. “Freak out and give in,” Corgan whispers in the album’s opening moments, “doesn’t matter what you believe in.” From the hammering string quartet that drives “Disarm” to the misleadingly sweet breakdowns of “Geek U.S.A.” and “Silverfuck,” Siamese Dream is a masterful blend of poetry and hate, and a velvet-fisted rock opus that elevated teenage angst into an art form. Liedel

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


The Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole

I shared Keith Murray’s curiosity when he asked, “Who is this doin’ this synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’?” beneath a blitzkrieg of propulsive hi-hats and snares, warped Pacman sound effects, and distorted sirens on “Elektrobank.” I was duly told that I was listening to the Chemical Brothers, and as “Elektrobank” sinuously flowed into the syncopated funk of “Piku,” I knew I was being treated to something special. Dig Your Own Hole spearheaded something of a revolution in electronic music, and set a benchmark that has unfortunately never been bettered. Here, the kitchen sink is hurled at the listener full force, but every component is wholly necessary to accentuate these massive soundscapes. Jones

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


PJ Harvey, Rid of Me

PJ Harvey showed us her long snake moan on Dry, and with Rid of Me she rubbed it red and raw. That lunatic groan, her instrument of choice, is a force of supernatural nature that expresses a wide range of yearnings, and like the album’s crude production, it freakishly manages to be sly, seductive, and absolutely terrifying all at once. Yes, you don’t need to look at her face—or know that there’s a “Snake” on the tracklist—to understand that she fancies herself a medusa. Fertile with rage and desire, deserts are her stomping ground, but also the place where she exiles herself from guyville, knowing what she could do to its populace. There’s nothing poignant here exactly, but you still feel sorry for the girl all the same. This most unusual siren, so existentially obsessed with seduction and annihilation, both loves and hates her powers. To murder or to commit suicide, that is her question. Gonzalez

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

As recently as 2007, Kanye West rapped: “Lauryn Hill say her heart was in Zion/I wish her heart was still in rhymin’/’Cause who the kids gon’ listen to?” Kanye’s song is called “Champion,” and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill made Hill exactly that to a whole generation of hip-hop fans and performers. She could rap with any male MC in the game and hold her own with any R&B diva, but what made her a genuine icon was the way that she imbued every one of her songs with fierce intelligence and emotional nuance. The classroom seminar skits that structure the album aren’t just shtick: They convey Hill’s awareness that she had nearly transcended the role of entertainer, that when she laid it all on the line in unflinching songs like “To Zion” and “Lost Ones,” she was closer to being, to borrow a phrase from Erykah Badu, a “master teacher.” Cole

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


The Notorious B.I.G., Ready to Die

The reason why 2Pac’s name has shriveled while Biggie’s continues to grow more mythical boils down to a host of factors, but it’s not a stretch to place the reason on this stellar debut. Life After Death may be the only rap album to have gone diamond (MC Hammer doesn’t count), but its monolithic length and scattershot quality signal a significant drop-off. The real treasure is this, an album so grandly attuned to the bleak voice of this inimitable rapper, as much fixated on the end of his life as the living of it, so much that his tragic demise seemed less of a shock than the fulfillment of a prophecy. Cataldo

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville

At the time of its release, rock critics couldn’t look past their instant hard-ons stoked by Phair’s liberal use of four-letter words and her blunt statements of sexual desire to engage her debut record on its own terms. Now, nearly 20 years out, a whole new generation of indie kids have rushed to discredit Phair because of what had been written about the supposed novelty of Exile in Guyville. While Phair’s legacy may have been cheapened by some of her latter-day recordings, to reduce her debut to the “Even when I was 12” line from “Fuck and Run” or the entirety of “Flower” is grossly shortsighted, and it’s hard to imagine another rock album whose reception has been so consistently tainted by active misogyny. Keefe

The 100 Best Albums of the 1990s


Radiohead, The Bends

The Bends signalled the end of the mucky post-grunge Radiohead of Pablo Honey, and embraced the quirky sense of experimentation that has defined them ever since. Tracks like “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” “Bullet Proof…I Wish I Was,” and “Fake Plastic Trees” suggest that the album was a stepping stone to the groundbreaking OK Computer, and many have dismissed it merely as a prequel to a much more refined sound, but The Bends is a fantastic record in its own right: “Just” is a storming rock jaunt, “Black Star” and “Planet Telex” are impassioned apocalyptic epics, while “High and Dry” is a beguiling alternative anthem despite Thom Yorke’s protests that it sounds like a Rod Stewart song. Jones