It’s the decade that saw the rise of the boy band, the beginning of Britney Spears and the unstoppable tide of girl power, but sift amid the detritus left behind by the decade’s most famous pop juggernauts, and you’ll find genuinely some of the best records ever produced.
While many pine for the golden days of the Beatles and the swinging sixties, the prog rock heyday of the seventies, or the new romantic movement of the eighties, it was the nineties where the journey of musical evolution reached its zenith.
So, take a trip back in time to see why the nineties really was the best decade for music. (For the purposes of some kind of fairness, there’s only one album from each artist included.)
9. Metallica — Metallica (1992)
More commonly referred to as The Black Album, Metallica’s eponymous record thrust the LA metalheads firmly into the mainstream, having spent the best part of ten years and four albums pioneering the thrash metal genre along with the likes of Megadeth and Anthrax.
With hits like ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Nothing Else Matters’ proving that Hetfield and co. could produce music without smashing the living shite out of their instruments at a tremendous tempo, the album rushed to the top of the UK Album Chart and peaked at number 7 on the US Billboard 200.
25 years later, it’s still regarded as their finest piece of work to date, as they proved when they headlined Glastonbury in 2014 and tore the place down to the booming bellows of tens of thousands of revellers singing, “Enter night, exit light!”
8. Nirvana — Nevermind (1991)
When grunge exploded onto the music scene in the early nineties, it was largely down to Nirvana’s seminal record Nevermind. Sure, The Pixies had set the tone at the end of the eighties, but it was Kurt Cobain, with his oversized jumper, tatty jeans and raw and unapologetic vocals that thrust alternative rock into the spotlight.
Initially expected to be a commercial failure by the band’s label, the album took off — eventually topping the Billboard 200 — thanks in no small part to the phenomenal success of the lead single ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Ably succeeded by ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Lithium’, Nevermind solidified itself as one of the greatest albums of the decade.
In ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an anthem was born, and Cobain was elevated to the pantheon of rock greats — a position that became all the more poignant following his tragic suicide in 1994.
7. Rage Against the Machine — Rage Against the Machine (1991)
The album that inspired an entire generation to voice its defiance with the oft-uttered line “F*ck you, I won’t do what you tell me!”, rap metal outfit Rage Against the Machine found international fame with their debut album — a fame that was rekindled 20 years later when the lead single ‘Killing in the Name’ became the Christmas number one in the UK following a protracted Facebook campaign against Simon Cowell’s X Factor.
Long before Linkin Park were incorporating elements of rap into their music, Rage were bridging genres and breaking boundaries with their defiant brand of politically-charged rap metal, that was unabashedly devoid of pretension or perceived grandeur.
Instead, their fledgling musical career burgeoned off the back of a truly stupendous album that pretty much set the template for how to bend the rules of convention when it came to music.
6. James — Laid (1993)
While plenty of critics will the cite coma-inducing work of Radiohead as the pinnacle of British music in the nineties, it was the efforts of Manchester band James that really flew the flag for Britain at the beginning of the decade.
Most recognisable for their quintessential anthem ‘Sit Down’, the six-piece found near critical and musical perfection with 1993’s Laid. Recorded with Brian Eno, the album revels in beauty and melancholy in equal measure, producing the tender hits ‘All Out to Get You’, ‘Say Something’ and perhaps the most poignant of all, ‘Sometimes’.
Yet, despite the sentimental nature of much of the record, it was the risque title track ‘Laid’ that became the album’s most famous export. So much so that it appeared in the American Pie films and made the band a staple on US college radio.
5. Iron Maiden — Fear of the Dark (1991)
Though undoubtedly Iron Maiden enjoyed their heyday in the 1980s with a string of practically flawless metal masterpieces, the British rock legends did manage one album in the nineties that nearly replicated the success of their golden era.
It came in the form of 1991’s Fear of the Dark, which happened to feature the last appearance of vocalist Bruce Dickinson until 2000’s Brave New World, and which was fronted by the epic 7-minute masterpiece that bore the same name as the album.
In fact, the album could simply contain the track ‘Fear of the Dark’ alone and it would stake a strong claim for album of the decade, so momentous and utterly enthralling a musical tale as it is. But, supported by the likes of ‘Judas Be My Guide’ and ‘Chains of Misery’, Fear of the Dark served as Iron Maiden’s last great record before their renaissance in the new millennium.
4. Pulp — Different Class (1995)
In an era when Blur and Oasis were battling it out for chart supremacy, it was Pulp, fronted by the maverick Jarvis Cocker, who stole a march on everyone when they released this seminal masterpiece that would help define the Britpop wave that swept the UK in mid-nineties.
Helped by the chart successes of ‘Disco 2000’ and ‘Common People’ (the latter of which is a staple at practically every SU indie night up and down the country), the album rocketed to number one and scooped the 1996 Mercury Music prize. In Britain alone, it’s gone 4x platinum as of 2016.
A wondrous cross-section of synth-pop, Different Class serves as a grandly theatrical record full of bitingly clever witticisms and catchy pop melodies.
3. Blur — Parklife (1995)
When it comes to the age-old choice of Blur or Oasis, there was only ever going to be one winner. For all their swagger, the Mancunian rockers could never quite match the simple brilliance that became a hallmark of their greatest rivals.
Blur perhaps reached the summit of their endeavours in 1995 when they released Parklife, an album that defined Britain at the time. Often irreverent and effervescent in its commentary of contemporary culture, the album spawned hits like ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘End of a Century’ and ‘Parklife’, as well as the criminally-underrated ‘Tracy Jacks’.
Not only did it sell 5 million copies worldwide and top the UK album charts, it cemented itself as an integral part of pop culture in the nineties and created a legacy that has lasted until this day.
2. R.E.M — Out of Time (1991)
While it’s been argued that R.E.M’s following album, Automatic for the People, represents their greatest achievement across a long and successful career, it was their earlier record, Out of Time, which propelled them from their modest surroundings into international stardom.
Fronted by the iconic single, ‘Losing My Religion’, Out of Time is an eclectic plethora of songs that cover the length and breadth of human emotion; from the almost painfully joyous ‘Shiny Happy People’ through the wistful ‘Near Wild Heaven’ to the lugubrious ‘Country Feedback’.
It may have set them on the road to Automatic for the People, but Out of Time in its own right is a fundamentally superb album, and one that goes down not only as one of the greatest albums of the nineties but of any decade.
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers — Californication (1999)
For a band that were seemingly at the end of the line following years of torment and turmoil, with their lead singer plagued by serious drug addiction and their greatest guitarist languishing in his burnt-out LA home battling his own narcotics-induced demons, it’s astonishing the Red Hot Chili Peppers managed to make any sort of comeback, let alone record quite possibly the greatest album ever made.
With their classic lineup restored once more, a reinvigorated Chilis created a far more ephipanic album completely swollen with magnificent songwriting. From the lyrical masterpiece ‘Scar Tissue’ with its mellow guitar tones, to the masterfully sombre ‘Otherside’; through the rambunctious ‘Around the World’ and the bone-rattling ‘Easily’; to the eponymous title track with its evocative examination of the intricacies of life in their famous home state.
Fittingly bringing the nineties to a close, Californication bridged the decades and signalled a vibrant new era in the career of the Chili Peppers. It simply is the greatest album to have graced the nineties.