The 1990s has come of age. Like all decades, it went through that period of mild embarrassment immediately afterwards – the kind you feel now for the haircut you wore in 2006 – but now it is very much back in fashion.
Not that the music was ever really in question. In fact, this is the most difficult list we've yet had to cut. Snipping our recommendations to below three figures was a headache, and taking it to less than half of that has inevitably led to some glaring omissions.
Some would say this was the decade the album said its final goodbyes as a format, before downloads, streaming and the shuffle feature took over, so you'll have to forgive us for ignoring a number of veritable classics.
But there is just so much to take in. The 90s saw hip-hop reach its teenage years, dance music explode, and guitarists experimenting frenetically in order to fight back. This list attempts to cover most of that, if not be an exhaustive compendium; but who needs to be told to listen to (What's the Story) Morning Glory? or Different Class, anyway?
Most of all, though, it will be a walk down memory lane that really stretches the legs of your hi-fi system, awash with electronics and polyrhythm, delicacy and outright mayhem. But we're sure you'll let us know if we've got it all wrong.
Heaven Or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins (1990)
Shoegaze ended up a genre with so many imitators that it was chastised by vast sections of the music press, and often used as an insult stickered to pretty much anything similar enough that it didn’t like. But a relative resurgence in recent years has given us all reason, if any were needed, to revisit the shimmering guitars and gliding vocal lines of Cocteau Twins’ Heaven Or Las Vegas. The often indiscernible lyrics might mean we end up singing along with all the wrong words, but there is so much here to dig through that it usually pays to listen in silence.
View Heaven Or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins on vinyl
Obey The Time by The Durutti Column (1990)
Influenced by the emergence of acid house, Vini Reilly wrote and recorded this Durutti Column album almost by himself. Introducing his guitar to the electronic music scene, Reilly accomplished a miraculous crossover feat that eschews genre without disgracing any of those styles from which he pinches tropes. A more ambient affair than what you might associate with early 90s club-ready dance music, Obey The Time nonetheless captures a lot of the era's buoyant soul.
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Violator by Depeche Mode (1990)
In Violator, their seventh studio album, Depeche Mode crafted the perfect synth-pop album, and the world evidently agreed. It is a collection of nine songs, any of which could have been released as a single (almost half were), that remains strikingly fluid despite the apparent rigidity of their definite rhythms. There remains wide-open space in the mix, which never threatens to be clogged despite the vast collection of auxiliary lines there to be discovered.
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The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld by The Orb (1991)
As its name suggests, The Orb's Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld is less an album and more a psychedelic sonic journey built on ambient electronics, eclectic samples and found sounds. The result is undoubtedly a record built to be listened to in its entirety – made impossible in the US at the time of its release thanks to a criminally truncated version designed to fit on a single disc – with a spacious sound system and an even more open mind.
View The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld by The Orb on vinyl
Frequencies by LFO (1991)
How otherworldly Frequencies sounds now only goes to emphasise how alien it must have appeared upon its release 30 years ago. A masterpiece of the UK's acid house explosion, LFO's debut album has the industrial eeriness of Kraftwerk's seminal records mixed with the energy of hip-hop and house that followed – an equation the result of which was simply one of the greatest electronic albums ever recorded.
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Goat by The Jesus Lizard (1991)
Although the band eventually signed with Capitol Records in the mid-90s, The Jesus Lizard's following always remained more cult than commercial at a time when alternative rock was edging ever closer to the latter. Listening to the Texan noise outfit's willfully abrasive second album Goat suggests the group were perhaps never destined for the mainstream, but to remain significant long after many of their contemporaries had been found out.
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Loveless by My Bloody Valentine (1991)
Arguably the poster album for shoegaze, Loveless is a masterpiece combining elephantine riffs with dream-pop haze, awash with reverb and overdriven guitars – and complemented by an equally iconic sleeve of cherry-drop psychedelia. While Vini Reilly had changed opinion on where the guitar was welcome with The Durutti Column, Kevin Shields here altered ideas of how it could be used as an instrument.
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Nevermind by Nirvana (1991)
Another much-maligned genre of the period, grunge has still yet really to recover its reputation from the hordes of cheap imitators who flooded the airwaves in Nirvana's wake. Despite this, Nevermind still sounds as bitingly hostile as it did 30 years ago – a testament to the genius of Kurt Cobain and the band's undeniable place at guitar music's top table.
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Screamadelica by Primal Scream (1991)
Recipient of the first Mercury Prize – where it beat competition from Erasure, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Simply Red and U2 – Screamadelica is the sound of another musical crossover: an indie band accepting and embracing house music and the consciousness-expanding drugs associated with it. The styles cohabit harmoniously, thanks in no small part to the unmistakable production of Andrew Weatherall, producing an infectiously uplifting set punctuated by timeless singles such as Movin' On Up and Loaded.
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Spiderland by Slint (1991)
The optimism of Screamadelica could barely be in starker contrast to the atmosphere of isolation and unease cooked up by Slint on their second and final album. Spiderland is in large part responsible for a number of post rock's most recognisable tropes, with its tightly controlled dynamic shifts and vocals alternating between spoken word, singing and shouts widely aped but never more keenly felt.
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Automatic For The People by R.E.M. (1992)
Alongside the preceding Out Of Time (1991), Automatic For The People is one of the two R.E.M records with, arguably, the most mainstream pop sensibilities. It unsurprisingly led to the band becoming one of the biggest in the world. Where others can falter in combining hits with poignancy, however, Berry, Stipe, Buck and Mills here created a timelessly beautiful and pensive record.
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Love Deluxe by Sade (1992)
Sade Adu’s velvet vocal is no better showcased than on the nine tracks that make up Love Deluxe. The Nigerian-British singer is often sonically at odds with the accompanying instrumentation, distorted guitars and hard-hit trip-hop percussion, which at times pierce the album’s soulful grooves, but the juxtaposition only ever serves to further highlight her gorgeous tonality. An album made as if solely to please your system’s midrange.
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Rage Against The Machine by Rage Against The Machine (1992)
Rage Against The Machine's brutal debut will forever sit among the rock and metal albums at your local record store, but in many ways it is more a hip-hop record with guitars. Its political conscience is one shared with acts such as Public Enemy and N.W.A, while Tom Morello's guitar is made to squeal like a scratched record within riffs that could easily be used by such artists with alternative instrumentation. Either way, Zack de la Rocha's spat lines are painfully poignant even three decades on.
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Selected Ambient Works 85-92 by Aphex Twin (1992)
It's difficult to comprehend, but Richard James has claimed blissful ignorance to any of the classical or electronic artists by whom he appeared to have been influenced while creating Selected Ambient Works. Regardless, there is a definite otherness to the record that, despite its apparent forebears, keeps it from being at all derivative in a way that tempts us to believe those comments are true.
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Debut by Björk (1993)
If the concept weren't such a paradox, Björk's debut solo record could well be used as a 'how to' companion on creating experimental pop music. Debut is a collage of ideas that refuses to let the listener rest for more than a moment, and where it dips into other genres it does so with passion and love for the music as opposed to just a cutting from a magazine. Most of all, though, it is a personal record that addresses its audience directly and makes us feel a part.
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Dimension Intrusion by F.U.S.E. (1993)
Richie Hawtin's debut album, credited under the moniker F.U.S.E. and released as part of the Warp Records Artificial Intelligence series, is the sound of a young producer still experimenting with sound – and as such remains some of his most soulful and personable work to date. A mix of minimalist techno and dark sci-fi soundtrack-inspired atmospherics, Hawtin's youth is easy to hear throughout Dimension Intrusion's 14 tracks, and the record is all the more engaging because of it.
Incunabula by Autechre (1993)
Despite its existence necessitating the ludicrous assumption that anything less ambient or pensive is consumable only by drug-addled numbskulls, it is at least understandable why the term 'intelligent dance music' has been used to pigeonhole artists such as Aphex Twin, The Orb and Autechre. Incunabula beckons the listener closer to the speaker cone for inspection of its electronic textures, and still rewards them with multiple subtle melodies that then slink away through the air like smoke.
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Janet by Janet Jackson (1993)
In response to critics who claimed her becoming the world's highest-paid artist was due solely to her family name and the talent of various producers, Janet Jackson wrote every lyric, co-wrote each arrangement and co-produced every track on her fifth studio album. It was an emphatic answer; Janet is an R&B-infused gem, unabashed in its sexuality, and easily one of the decade's finest pop records.
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Last Splash by The Breeders (1993)
Recorded shortly after Pixies split, The Breeders' second album Last Splash was less a record to soften the blow than one that proved Kim Deal's contribution to that band was greater than she had ever really been given credit. Alongside twin sister Kelley, Deal delivers an immediate and angular 15-track set that somewhat belies the mainstream success the album found thanks to lead single Cannonball. Instrumental S.O.S. also contributed to another of the 90s' greatest records, being sampled for the hook of Firestarter by The Prodigy.
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Rid Of Me by PJ Harvey (1993)
This follow up to critically acclaimed debut Dry finds Polly Jean Harvey’s twisting songwriting meld beautifully with the abrasive production of Steve Albini, forging an abrasive 14-song set that jags between loud and quiet without a moment’s notice. Its contrast with the album before it provided early insight into Harvey’s marvellously varied output, which has rightly positioned her as a British music icon.
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Dummy by Portishead (1994)
Involving, menacing looped beats contrasted with Beth Gibbons’s gorgeously mournful vocal, and some of the finest theremin work outside of the theme tune to Midsomer Murders, Portishead’s debut was hugely influential in the 90s ascent of trip-hop and yet it doesn’t feel to have aged a day. That’s in part due to the fact that Dummy was already intended to sound somewhat ‘vintage’ at its time of arrival; but that would mean little were it not for the inventiveness of its hooks and guitar playing in particular.
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Illmatic by Nas (1994)
More than a record that reinvigorated East Coast rap at a time when the genre's cutting edge appeared to be elsewhere, Illmatic is more straightforwardly one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever written. The complexity and maturity of Nas's lyricism on this debut makes it seem inconceivable that he struggled to get a recording contract, and it rightly sees him feature on any list of the best rappers of all time.
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Old Codes, New Chaos by Fila Brazillia (1994)
Despite its significant contributions to the arts, Hull is not necessarily the city conjured most immediately when confronted with the Balearic warmth of Fila Brazillia's Old Codes, New Chaos. Though its smoothest house beats lend themselves more readily to the White Island than the Humber, the duo's debut album is a diverse exploration of rhythm, ambient keys and sampling that goes beyond mere beachside accompaniment.
Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
Released five months after Nas's Illmatic, The Notorious B.I.G's largely autobiographical debut was equally crucial to East Coast rap's fightback and one of its definitive records. Its title is of course tragically portentous – Biggie was murdered a fortnight before the release of his second album, Life After Death, in 1997 – and nods to some of the album's heavier, more personal moments. Tracks such as Suicidal Thoughts stand out in an industry that on the whole still finds mental health difficult to discuss.
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Turbulent Indigo by Joni Mitchell (1994)
Few artists can reach their 15th album while still displaying such illuminating artistry, but then few artists have a mind to parallel that of Joni Mitchell. As ever, not a word is wasted as Mitchell discusses topics spanning domestic violence, the destruction of our environment and centuries of women consigned to Magdalene laundries in Ireland. The songcraft is some of her most achingly beautiful, reaching its apex with The Sire Of Sorrow (Job's Sad Song), the album's triumphant conclusion.
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Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... by Raekwon (1995)
The most accomplished work of any Wu-Tang Clan member outside of those released by the collective as a whole (Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is only missing from our list because we chose this instead), Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... features most of the group but with Raekwon as the undisputed star. It is wordy and off-kilter, and its film-like concept with Ghostface Killah as guest star isn't designed for mainstream accessibility, but it is a masterpiece because of rather than despite all that.
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Timeless by Goldie (1995)
Like almost everything else on the album, Goldie got its title perfectly right. It feels apart from the jungle and drum 'n' bass scenes it came to define because it feels totally apart from anything else at all. It soars high and crashes brutally and purposefully, it is both winged and industrial, and about the finest rhythmic test a pair of speakers will ever have to pass.
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All Eyez On Me by 2Pac (1996)
The last to be released during his lifetime, 2Pac's fourth album is a furious and frenzied two hours that is the product of a man feeling targeted. Broke, out of prison on bail paid by his new label boss Suge Knight and having survived an assassination attempt shortly before his conviction, Shakur is in an uncompromising mood nailing verses written in minutes at first take, wasting no time for what he wants to say next. A record this long can only ever be either sprawling or dull, and All Eyez On Me is never troubled by the latter.
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Baduizm by Erykah Badu (1997)
Erykah Badu's debut album is at once very 90s, entrenched in that jazzy RnB and hip-hop inspired style, but with a voice that sounds as if it could have come from decades in the past. That's not to say Badu's voice is an imitation – she has had scores of imitators since – but her tone is mature, timeless and knowing, even at the age of just 25.
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OK Computer by Radiohead (1997)
Though it was released just past the halfway point, OK Computer in many ways hits fast forward to the end of 90s. It is an alienated record, and a record for the alienated, at odds with a world rapidly losing its innocence as it hurtles toward a new millennium where technology will overtake all else – including the Radiohead discography – and for which we are all ill-prepared.
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Supa Dupa Fly by Missy Elliott (1997)
Her debut record did not mark the beginning of Missy Elliott's songwriting career –she and Timbaland had contributed to Aaliyah's One in a Million album, among others – but Supa Dupa Fly introduced her as a singular solo artist. Timbaland's futuristic funky production is the ideal bedfellow to Missy's strutting style that drips charisma and parades itself proud over the hour-long set.
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Young Team by Mogwai (1997)
Dealing in the same kind of dynamic shifts as Slint's Spiderland, though with perhaps more grandiosity and drama, and a great many fewer words, Mogwai's Young Team introduced the Scottish quintet as fresh-faced kings of post-rock. Though the record is mostly instrumental, Aidan Moffat's turn on R U Still In 2 It provides an album highlight and plants a blue and white flag deep in its sodden earth.
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Mezzanine by Massive Attack (1998)
While Blue Lines is arguably an even better album – which goes to say something when you consider how incredible Mezzanine is – this, Massive Attack's third album, features one of the sternest tests your bass driver will face in opening track Angel. It's a darker, less jazzy atmosphere than on the group's previous records, and one that relies on keen dynamic expression to deliver its full terror.
ViewMezzanine by Massive Attack on vinyl
Music Has The Right To Children by Boards of Canada (1998)
"What I still like about it is all about everything it doesn't do, in the context of the world of music it came into," Michael Sandison says about Music Has The Right To Children. While electronic music was broadly in a race to reach the future, and a new millennium that would see it permeate almost everything, Boards of Canada were rooting through old tapes, layering found sounds on top of warbling synths to create a record that is as familial and menacing as its cover art.
View Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada on vinyl
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill (1998)
Another album by a solo artist whose band could also easily have made our list – this time Fugees' The Score misses out – The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is the product of turmoil, impending motherhood and a gargantuan talent. "It was my idea to record it so the human element stayed in," said Hill of this eclectic record that takes in elements of soul, RnB, gospel, hip-hop and reggae. "I didn't want it to be too technically perfect."
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Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós (1999)
The 90s was the decade that gave us Titanic, Jurassic Park and Dances With Wolves, but still there was no music recorded more cinematic than Sigur Rós's breakthrough second album. Its dark fairytale-like quality is heightened by the use of gibberish language Vonlenska on Olsen olsen and the title track, which the band would use exclusively on follow-up album ( ), but with the sincerity necessary to avoid it becoming saccharine or gimmicky.
Operation: Doomsday by MF DOOM (1999)
At the end of last year, Daniel Dumile's wife revealed the tragic news the monumental British-American rapper had passed a couple of months earlier. Operation: Doomsday marked the beginning of a second career for MF DOOM, a triumphant return to hip-hop eight years after his last album with KMD, and a kind of origin story for one of the greatest and most mythic rappers of all time.
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Slipknot by Slipknot (1999)
Slipknot's debut album is simply relentless. At a time when hard rock music was populated almost exclusively with bands fronted by that creepy older guy who shared booze with teens at the skatepark, the Iowa nine-piece came along with a baseball bat to cave in his head and scare the kids away. Entrenched in hardcore and punk as much as it is metal, Slipknot is terrifyingly loud even on mute and cannot be surpassed for its aggressive energy.
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Teenage Snuff Film by Rowland S. Howard (1999)
There is a difference between being a bleakly romantic songwriter, coddled by substances and haunted by mistakes, and simply playing the part of one. Every decade has plenty of the latter, putting on the hat when it suits, but they're easily found out when stacked up against the genius of Rowland S. Howard. The Australian guitarist is candid and unpretentious on Teenage Snuff Film, dramatic but never artificial.
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The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips (1999)
Being so prolific has made The Flaming Lips' discography difficult to navigate for those who are only now being introduced to it, but The Soft Bulletin is a sonic photograph of the band at their best. This is an expansive and eclectic pallet of musical and lyrical brilliance, with so much life allowed to survive within the production that it grabs hold of your hand and almost pulls you in.
View The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips on vinyl