The 90s were like a box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get – especially when it came to the music. The decade had it all, everything from the creation of grunge and cool rise of hip-hop to a plethora of catchy one-hit wonders, and of course, the world domination of boy bands.
But how do you fit an entire decade of eclectic songs about Barbie girls, smelling like teen spirit, chasing waterfalls, getting knocked down and getting up again and mmmbop-ing into a best of list? You can’t, but this is how you try. These are the 10 best CD albums of the 90s.
Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever
Technically released in 1989 with most of its singles hitting the ears of the masses in 1990, Full Moon Fever marked the first dive into solo waters for the Heartbreak rocker. It was a masterful mix of rock, melody and songwriting as noted by its five singles, two of which climbed all the way to the top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart – “I Won’t Back Down,” and the song that forever solidified Petty’s legacy, “Free Fallin’.”
Depeche Mode – Violator
After a barrage of hits in the 80s, Depeche Mode finally showed the masses that an entire album of synth-pop could breakthrough in a genre best known for ridiculous hair and one-hit wonder fodder.
Nirvana – Nevermind
Not often does a band come around and totally disrupt the entire music scene. As the 90s grew tired of seeing grown men poshly rock out on stage to power ballads in skin tight leotards, over-the-top hair and guy-liner, Nirvana came around and did the exact opposite. The songs were raw, and the band’s look matched the rough realism. Kurt Cobain was the poster child ‘that never wanted to be’ for a new movement in rock music that trail blazed a genre-defining path with the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Anyone who can roll their r’s and make one of the catchiest choruses (“Give it Away”) ever has earned their right to be mentioned here. That and “Under the Bridge” is pure gold.
Dr. Dre – The Chronic
Back in 1992, Dr. Dre probably thought he was just dropping a dope album. Little did he know how influential The Chronic would be not only for the future of rap, but for the future of hip-hop culture in America. Coming fresh off his politically targeted rap group, NWA, The Chronic seated Dr. Dre in the best hip-hop producer throne, and introduced the world to the rizzle dizzle, Snoop Dogg, with the fresh single “Nuthin’ but a G’ Thang.”
Michael Jackson – Dangerous
It’s no Thriller, but Dangerous didn’t disappoint King of Pop fans thanks to the culturally charged anthem “Black or White” and the music video masterpiece “Remember the Time.” You know, the one where Eddie Murphey passes off playing an Egyptian Pharaoh …
Pearl Jam – Vs.
Grunge was still rocking strong by 1993, and co-Seattle founders of the genre, Pearl Jam (Vs.) along with Nirvana (In Utero), were taking full advantage of the incessant angst of the young generation. Vs.’s two biggest singles “Daughter” and “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” toned down the band’s previous grunge-like growl, offering listeners a softer acoustic sound. But to say this was a soft album would be like calling Bjork’s fashion sense normal.
Counting Crows – August and Everything After
“Mr. Jones.” That is all you need to know.
Green Day – Dookie
Using the grunge movement as a leaping board, music fans were ready for something a little more upbeat but still just as angst ridden. Enter Dookie. An infectious blend of fast, melodic choruses and growling guitar hooks, Green Day’s continued mass success (now 20+ years later) all stems back to the release of Dookie, and its explosive (pop) punk rock singles “Longview,” “Basket Case,” and “When I come around.”
The entire hip-hop/rap genre. Nas’ Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die helped solidify 1994 as possibly the best year in rap. Ever.
Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill
In a genre and year brimming with testosterone, Morissette was able to crash the sausage party with her own blend of jaded pop/rock. Jagged Little Pill pumped out six aggressive but relatable hit singles on its way to No.1 while dominating rock radio waves for two years. Makes you think that her relationship with Uncle Joey was anything but a sitcom laugh track.
Three-way tie. Because … way too hard to pick just one. Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Oasis (What’s the Story) Morning Glory and Radiohead The Bends.
Beck – Odelay
Beck was born to be a singer/songwriter. Just when you think his bag of tricks has run out, he reaches down deep and pulls out a way to totally reinvent himself. Odelay, Beck’s second studio album picked up right where his surprise debut, Mellow Gold, left off. Armed with a bigger budget, Odelay takes the listener through a genre-blurring musical marathon – a little rock, a bit of pop, some folk and everything in between.
Dave Matthew’s Band – Crash
Crash was one of those albums on constant repeat across college campus radios everywhere. Remember how beautiful “Crash into Me” was before you found out it was about a peeping Tom?
Puff Daddy & The Family – No Way Out
If one thing is for certain, it’s that Puff Daddy/Puffy/P Diddy/Sean Combs (whatever you want to call him) owned 1997. Whether it was his own album/single or he produced for someone else, his fingerprints are all over this year topping the charts for 24 non-consecutive weeks (nearly half a year!). No Way Out helped Diddy build and solidify his rap empire, Bad Boy Records, thanks to hits like “Been Around The World,” “It’s All About the Benjamins,” “I’ll Be Missing You,” “Victory,” and “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” – not to mention “Mo Money Mo Problems.”
Radiohead – OK Computer
Often considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Enough said.
Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
Technically, 1998 belongs to Celine Dion and the Titanic soundtrack, but this isn’t a soundtrack list, so we avoid that can of worms by moving on to the next most dominant chart topper, Ms. Lauryn Hill. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill introduced her departure from The Fugees and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (and later took home a Grammy for Album of the Year) thanks to emotionally charged singles like, “Doo Wop (That Thing),” “Ex-Factor,” and “Everything is Everything.”
Boy bands. All of them. The mass craze of the 90’s boy bands was in full swing in the late 90s as teenage girls everywhere melted at the very sight of Justin Timberlake’s ramen noodle hair and Nick Carter’s perfect bowl cut.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Californication
With Dave Navarro out and John Frusciante back, the Red Hot Chili Peppers came out swinging into the new millennium. They matured their sound and successfully wrangled their jam sessions into more structured songs, making Californication a huge hit and their best studio album to date. Notable singles include, “Around the World,” “Scar Tissue,” “Californication” and “Otherside.”
Eminem & Moby, which is a hilarious coincidence because they had a feud that reached an all-time high at the MTV Music Video Awards. Both Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP and Moby’s Play helped pioneer the rap and EDM genres, respectively, moving into Y2K.