I was happily scrolling through social media when I stumbled on someone asserting that there was no good music in the 1990s. Instantly, I was outraged! “You cannot say that about the music of my youth,” I shouted. I may have shaken my fist at the screen.
Alas, the screen was not intimidated. Also, my wife looked at me oddly. So I wrote this list. The moral here is that you get off social media. And listen to 90s music!
The albums are ranked from 25th to 1st.
25. Maxinquaye: Tricky (1995)
Maxinquaye was a sensation on its release in 1995. Tricky’s mellowed-out hip hop, in which beats drift and trip off into psychedelic smears was a completely new pop wrinkle. And Martina Topley-Bird’s vocals were transcendently chill.
Thirty years later, after generations of imitators, classics like “Brand New You’re Retro” still sound like nothing else. It’s claustrophobic and boundaryless, and feels like you’re drifting through Tricky’s collapsing dreams.
24. Ethiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz 1969-1974: Mulatu Astatke (1998)
The Paris-based world music label Buda Musique began releasing compilations of popular Ethiopian in 1997. No Ethiopique volume has been as important as one of the first, dedicated to the fusion jazz of composer and vibes and conga player Mulatu Astatke. Trained in the west, Astatke put together a band whose cosmopolitan performances blend soul-jazz, Latin percussion, and Ethiopian melody into a smooth, perfect groove.
23. Y los Cubanos Postizos: Marc Ribot (1998)
This may be avant-garde punk jazz weirdo guitarist Marc Ribot’s most accessible album. Y Los Cubanos Postizos is a tribute to the classic Cuban son compositions of bandleader Arsenio Rodrigues. Ribot’s angular guitar lines snap and slice through the percussion, creating a kind of dissonant electric salsa.
“La Vida Es Un Súeno” channels the heavy-breathing slouch of Ribot’s sometime collaborator Tom Waits. The feedback-drenched barn-stormer “Postizo” is one of the great forgotten guitar-rock anthems of the decade.
22. All Work No Play: DJ Screw (1999)
Embedded in the cough-syrup-sipping Houston underground, Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw invented the chopped-and-screwed style. He slowed records down to a paralyzed drag and then rearranged them into sluggish chunks. Screw recorded more than 350 mix tapes, and while the style became widely influential, he never had a major record deal.
All Work No Play, released a year before his death, is the best example of his perfected, stunned style.
21 Kaleidoscope: Kelis (1999)
Kaleidoscope may be the Neptunes’ greatest moment. Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo provide hard-hitting electro-funk that burps and thumps somewhere between a video game and a disco dance floor. But the album is still really Kelis’ triumph.
She navigates effortlessly between warm R&B emoting, percussive Afrofuturist quasi-rap, and all-out punk rock screaming on the amazing “Caught Out There.” The mix of styles and attitudes proved too weird for the American market, but in retrospect, it’s a groundbreaking landmark of oddball pop, pointing to Monáes and Lizzos to come.
20. American Recordings: Johnny Cash (1994)
Producer Rick Rubin recorded Johnny Cash alone with his guitar for this late-career masterpiece. Cash’s rough voice is even more ravaged than in his prime, but the quaver only adds gravitas to a wonderful set of songs. I think my favorites are the two performances before an absolutely rapt live audience—especially the horny outlaw anthem “Tennessee Stud.”
19. Post: Björk (1995)
There are a bunch of awesome 90s Björk albums to choose from, but I pledge my love to Post, in which she mashed off-kilter indie rock into dance-pop. The big-band throb of “Army of Me” is the perfect anthem for a performer who seems to project herself into every possible nook. And yet somehow not quite as perfect as the whispering lullaby of “Headphones,” in which Björk echoes in the head of Björk and saves her own life.
18 Aquemini: Outkast (1998)
Andre 3000, Big Boi, and producers Organized Noise take virtually every flavor of Black music—sanctified harmonica solos, George Clinton space synth, burping dub beats, wah-wah guitar—and mix it into a boiling, fragrant gumbo. “You focus on the past you’re a** will be a has what” Dre quips on “Rosa Parks,” a track that celebrates resistance as partying or partying as resistance, grabbing hold of history to twist it into liberatory Afrofuturist bump-and-grind.
17. Le Tigre: Le Tigre (1998)
Riot grrrl legend Kathleen Hanna teamed up with experimental filmmaker Sadie Benning and writer Johanna Fateman to create this fist-pumping album of feminist electropop. While there’s certainly snark and critique aplenty, the album leans much more toward the celebratory.
“Hot Topic” is a series of shout-outs to inspirations and fellow travelers galore; “My My Metrocard” is a cheer for all the places the subway can take you. Insanely catchy pop-punk hooks demand you get up and dance in solidarity for a better, more joyful world.
16. Sol Negro: Virginia Rodrigues (1997)
Brazil’s Virginia Rodrigues has a strong claim to being the greatest singer in the history of the planet. She delivers every song with the authority of a hymn and the swinging rhythm of dance. Sol Negro, her first album, was produced by the legendary Caetano Veloso, and she is backed by a who’s who of Brazilian tropicalia and samba: Gilberto Gil, Djavan, and Milton Nascimento.
That voice, which moves effortlessly from warm contralto to floating soprano, is a thing of stunning purity and force; it’s like listening to the sky itself singing.
15. Taal: A.R. Rahman (1999)
A.R. Rahman is perhaps the most iconic Bollywood composer of the last 20 years. The soundtrack for Taal encapsulates his ability to bridge traditional melody and transcendently slick modernity. The movie plot centers on a poor village girl (played by the luminous Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) who makes it big in films.
The song “Taal Se Taal” is performed in both rural and Western styles, and both manage to be a slightly different perfect balance of sinuous soul and hyper-commercial earworm. Even ABBA would be hard-pressed to write such brilliantly shimmering heartfelt treacle.
14. Bloweyelashwish: Lovesliescrushing (1993)
Guitarist/producer Scott Cortez and vocalist Melissa Arpin-Duimstra obliterate the line between shoegaze and ambiance in an oceanic rush of guitar feedback loop and lo-fi layers and layers of crystalline aural decay.
Tracks and inaudible lyrics are arbitrary landmarks in a strobing landscape of unendurable noise or gentle background sleep aid, depending on how loud or soft you decide to turn the volume. Yet there are still music-box melodies and vague song structures buried far down there in the murk and echo, pop songs turning to dissonance turning to abstract fragments, like a distant radio station quietly disintegrating beneath the stars.
13. The Boatman’s Call: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (1997)
Nick Cave’s most darkly romantic album is very dark and romantic indeed. The clatter and roar of his noise-punk efforts are largely set aside for somber mid-tempo ballads which explore faithlessness (in God) and face (in love, sometimes.) The melodies slip into your dark dreams, as do the indelible lyrics. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God/But I know, darling, that you do/But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him/Not to intervene when it came to you.”
12 Richard D. James Album: Aphex Twin (1996)
Many fans prefer Richard D. James’ ambient albums. But I pledge my love to his self-titled effort, in which he fits his barrage of blips, bloops, glitches, and burps into sunny pop-like song structure. It sounds like Brian Wilson’s brain has been hacked by a computer, or maybe like a computer has been assimilated by Brain Wilson’s brain.
“Fingerbib” is the height of animatronic Rachmaninoff melodic bliss. But “Milkman” is the one track that plunges furthest down disturbing orifices, soothing and terrifyingly broken all at once.
11. Legion: Deicide (1992)
There isn’t much rabid, unhinged death metal quite as rabid and unhinged as the clotted bile perpetrated by Tampa’s Deicide. Listening to Legion, the most brutal of all their brutal albums, is like getting your head caught in an outboard motor. Glen Benton bellows cookie monster blasphemies.
Brother guitarists Eric and Brian Hoffman try to beat each other to death with their guitars. And Steve Asheim’s drum-head blasts towards Mach-2. The album is just shy of 30 minutes, but once you’re done, you’ll never want to listen to music, or sound, ever again. It is glorious.
10. Fly, Fly My Sadness: Angelite & Moscow Art Trio with Huun-Huur-Tu (1996)
Angelite is a traditional Bulgarian women’s chorus, whose instantly recognizable dissonant, modal style is a moire pattern of sound. Huun-Huur Tu is a Russian male group from Tuva on the Mongolian border; their throat singing produces deep bass notes and melodic overtones at the same time.
The two groups were brought together by Mikhail Alperin of the Moscow Art Trio for this awe-inspiring collaboration. Separately, it’s almost impossible to believe the human voice can do any of those things. Together it is like listening to music from some alien race, with fantastic vocal boxes never seen, or heard, on earth.
9. Exile in Guyville: Liz Phair (1993)
Like Joni Mitchell before her, Liz Phair turns her personal history of romance, sex, lust, desperation, disgust, and defiance into perfect universal pop parables. The songs aren’t exactly punk and aren’t exactly folk, but they channel the rough and ready style of both. Hoarse, talk-singing vocals make her confessions sound raw and unfiltered no matter how catchy the tunes—and the tunes are extremely catchy.
If you’re not careful you’ll find yourself belting out a chorus that you really shouldn’t be belting out in public.
8. Trompe Le Monde: Pixies (1991)
On Trompe Le Monde singer Black Francis took over most songwriting duties and opted for more polished production. Many fans weren’t enthusiastic. But the album is a juggernaut. Drummer David Lovering, bassist Kim Deal, and especially mad-genius surf guitarist Joey Santiago start at pilled-up jackrabbit speed and only get more hyper from there, while Black Francis roars and chews scenery like a rodent turning into the Hulk.
Manic koans about sad punks, sea monkeys, and the sex lives of U-Mass students whoosh by in a hail of feedback and hodgepodge song structures, pausing only to blast even more barmily through the Jesus and Mary Chain’s classic “Head On.”
7. The Writing’s on the Wall: Destiny’s Child (1999)
Destiny Child’s first album was solid, if standard, R&B. The sophomore effort is something different. The group layers intricate vocal harmonies over Kevin “Shekspere” Biggs’ inventive beats and piles on attitude.
It’s unrelentingly intricate girl-group pop about universal themes: making your man say your name on the phone to show he’s not cheating, telling an overenthusiastic guy to bug off, demanding that your man pull his financial weight, scoping out some guy you shouldn’t at the club.
The group’s original backing singers— Kelly Rowland, LaTavia Roberson, and LeToya Luckett—provide a seamless lip-gloss backdrop for these tales of high femme ferocity. This is lead singer Beyonce’s first masterpiece.
6. Lysol: Melvins (1992)
Before there was Nirvana, there was the Melvins. Washington’s thick-browed sludge pioneers slouched through various foul tarpits in the 80s, forging a path for many a hairy grunge Neanderthal to come. Lysol is their heaviest and therefore most characteristic statement. Dale Crover hits the drums like a great mammoth falling.
Bassist Joe Preston tortures forth bottom-feeding slithers of feedback. Buzz Osborne bellows glacially. “Theyyyy demannnddd a saccriffffice offffff youuuurrrr lifeeeeeee!” Kurt Cobain got all the glory, but it’s the Melvins who made the earth’s crust crumble.
5. Fear of a Black Planet: Public Enemy (1990)
Fear of a Black Planet uses the controversy Public Enemy had already generated as inspiration. The production team The Bomb Squad collages outraged media clips with layers of deep funk samples and Terminator X’s manic scratching.
Chuck D’s chesty political rhymes touch on appropriation, interracial relationships, and racism in Hollywood while Flavor Flav provides a helium-fueled comic counterpoint. The music is less abrasive than on earlier albums, with transitions and pumping samples mixed more adroitly into the hammers and squeaks.
That only makes the album fiercer.
4. Torture Garden: Naked City (1990)
Jazz sax avant-garde New Yorker John Zorn teams up with Japanese avant-punk screamer Yamatsuka Eye for 42 frenetic tracks packed into just 30 minutes. Each “song” is little more than a snippet or three of stylistic train wrecks. Country, metal, fusion, lounge music, and of course hardcore hurl themselves into yowling combat as the amazing band of Bill Frisell on guitar Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Fred Frith on bass run through the compositional equivalent of grenade fragments.
A visceral bloodbath of an album that will have you giggling all the way to the 18-second end track, “Gob of Spit,” which sounds exactly like you think it does.
3. Happy Hour: Shonen Knife (1998)
The punk ethos is that the best album is the one that you had the most fun making. And there is no album more fun than Shonen Knife’s kid-friendly Happy Hour. Naoko Yamano on guitar, Michie Nakatani on bass, and Atsuko Yamano on drums bash their way through upbeat tunes about cookies, hot chocolate, banana chips, and catching your bus (“Don’t be afraid of missing your bus/You will catch your bus!”)
Even Kafka-esque songs about waking up to discover that you have fish-eyes are delivered as if waking up to discover you have fish-eyes is the most awesome thing in the world. Because everything is awesome when you are living on Shonen Knife planet!
2. The Low End Theory: A Tribe Called Quest (1991)
Hip-hop was transforming so quickly in the early 90s that it was hard to keep track of who was at the forefront of what. In retrospect, though, it’s A Tribe Called Quest who won the future. Q-Tip’s production used stripped-down jazzy drum and bass samples over which he and Phife Dog flowed and jived with transcendently wigged-out cool.
Genius bassist Ron Carter shows up to provide live backing for “Verses from the Abstract,” but the whole album has an air of improvisatory élan. As one track memorably declares, “The tranquility will make ya unball your fist/For we put hip-hop on a brand-new twist.”
1. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got: Sinéad O’Connor (1990)
No performer has ever sounded as vulnerable or as defiant as Sinéad O’Connor does on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. Inspired by singer-songwriter confessional folk of the 70s, O’Connor’s keening vocals fight through ominous and then triumphant 80s New Wave gleaming production and overdriven beats.
Personal and political fuse into a churning, ecstatic shout on “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” while the somber “Black Boys on Mopeds” is an almost unendurable lament for the victims of fascism, colonialism, and the police. If you can listen to it without crying, you’re tougher than I am.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.