No Top 10 list can ever be definitive or the best as they’re entirely subjective. One’s taste in music is much like evaluating art – there’re different styles and pieces that appeal to individuals, individually. Many of the best selling albums often don’t have staying power and are forgotten (many thankfully) a mere decade after taking the world by storm. Rare ones go on to be embraced, be heard and gradually gain more fans over time.
The following list, like my Ten Eighties and Ten Seventies posts, doesn’t feature any soundtracks or greatest hits compilations. These are original works that stand-up best as an entire piece (album, cassette, CD, audio file – you name it), often evoke memories and I still enjoy listening to them multiple times per year. I’ll likely regret some choices down the road, as I now do with a couple picks from the Ten Eighties list, but they come to the forefront currently and I’ll write while inspired.
In alphabetical order, here are 10 works from the 1990s that were big with me then, still keep me listening, engaged and enthused. There’s definitely a serious sweet spot going on in 91-92, with half the list coming from those two years. A playlist of tracks from these albums is blasting in the background, setting inspiration for the list ahead.
Achtung Baby (1991)
Few bands can reinvent their sound, do it well, continue to succeed and reinvent yet again. U2 pulled off the nearly impossible with this album, launching an entirely new sound not only for them, but setting the tone of where rock was to head in the coming years. It took a while to fully gel as a fan, but once it did there was no going back.
The Color and the Shape (1997)
Monkey Wrench blasted from the TV as I tried to figure out how and when Nirvana’s drummer became a singer/guitar player? The sound was fresh, hard and vocals often Bon Scott-esque. But there was much more – the entire album was rich and oozing flavor. And there began a deep-seeded love with Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters.
Dead Elvis (1997)
Tough to pin-down and define their sound, Death in Vegas’ debut album brought together a series of complex tracks that somehow worked together. From ska and reggae beats to dreamy chillout with some flashes of rock, this one dazzled and played incessantly as a backing track to daily life for some time.
Deep base rattled my car doors as sounds I wasn’t sure how to process pumped on and on. The Propellorheads treaded electronic territory in a unique way, with each track sounding different but equally intriguing. This one inspired many electronic artists to come.
I remember the exact moment I first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit, along with how puzzling and strangely enjoyable it was. This collection kicked-off the entire grunge movement and turned the world’s definition of rock on its head, while inspiring decades of artists since. Aggressive, full of angst – truly a classic.
Perhaps one of the first fully mainstream electronic albums, Moby grabbed everyone’s attention with this one and was the soundtrack to everything for the next couple of years. Dreamy melodies blended with soulful vocals in a truly magical way. While he failed to commercially follow-up this massive success, it’s still one for the ages.
Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Big, huge, massive, angry, powerful, full of angst – these guys kicked ass and rocked it massively hard with their debut. Merging hard rock with rap as no one had before (or since for that matter) RATM solidified their place in the annals of rock history with this album. Legions of fans worldwide continue to pump their fists in the air when this one drops.
The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992)
The Black Crowes’ sophomore effort didn’t have the commercial success of their debut, but this is perhaps their seminal work. Not since early Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin has a band merged rock and blues so beautifully. Blending a range of tracks from completely rocking to slow and moving, they’ll likely never top this nearly perfect album.
Catchy and timely made this entry known to almost everyone who turned on the radio, but given time it aged well beyond the main hit single, What I Got. Setting the tone for what fun, thoughtful nineties music should be, Sublime shone brightly before fading out, as the lead singer’s death prior to album release guaranteed no smash follow-up.
Suspected to be a flash in the pan and possibly grabbing on to the grunge trend at the time, Pearl Jam’s debut is perhaps the best work of its genre. Gripping lyrics delivered by a unique howling voice and backed by a supremely tight band, this one delivers on all fronts. Despite a long list of high quality follow-ups right up to today, it’s hard to top the perfection set on their first foray.