In the music world, there was perhaps no bigger stylistic shift between decades from the 80s to the 90s. The days of hair metal and arena rock were long gone, leaving a space for artists to take liberties in creating something new, raw and untapped.
The genre of alternative is as wide as they come, but over the course of this article, we’ll be discussing the best alternative albums of the 90s that made a massive impact on the music industry (and albums that are worth tracking down and adding to your collection).
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So let’s kick off this list with Nirvana.
This album is so synonymous with the 90’s, that you probably don’t need a list to tell you that it is a necessity, but its importance can not be understated. Coming out of the 80’s, rock and roll music was in a transitional stage to say the least.
Contrary to popular belief, Nirvana was not the nexus of grunge music, but certainly the ones to bring it to the forefront with their 1991 smash hit of a second album and launch a movement that would influence the face of the decade and an infinite number of bands to follow.
Almost anyone in the world could hear the opening notes of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and tell you right away that it was Nirvana, and probably even mutter some of the words for you, but aside from the singles, including “Come as You Are”, “Lithium”, and “In Bloom”, Nevermind is a masterpiece from start to finish thanks to the production of Butch Vig and is as era-defining of an album that you’re likely to find. With over 30 million copies sold worldwide, there’s no reason that one of them shouldn’t be sitting on your shelf.
Although grunge has some obvious overlap into the punk rock genre, which is intrinsically alternative in its very nature, it wasn’t its only occupying force in the 90s.
The most popular band within the sub-genre to come out of the decade was by far and away Green Day and their third album, Dookie, was their biggest success. In fact, because the 1994 smash hit was their first released under a major label, early, die hard fans regarded the band as sellouts and casting them out from a scene they largely helped to form.
Nonetheless, this propelled them to keep moving forward, forging their own path and with huge hit singles like “Longview”, “When I Come Around” and “Basket Case”, the path was one that led to infamy and prolonged success. Dookie is an energetic, angsty and catchy masterpiece that just hits the spot.
Within the scope of the 1990s, there are few albums that could be considered as alternative as Radiohead’s third. By 1997, the grunge era that took the early 90’s by storm had begun to dissipate, leaving a stylistic void filled by boy bands and Brit pop, making this album’s release all the more unexpected and influential.
Jam-packed with layers of sound, desolate lyrics and a wide range of influences, predominantly electronic, which, for many, was their first exposure to music of the sort, Ok Computer is a sci-fi peek into the future that proved more prophecy than prediction. The album focuses on themes of social isolation, the evil of politics and the insanity of consumerism.
Their record label, EMI, had low sales predictions, expecting this strange album to be un-commercial and unmarketable, but not even the band itself could predict the impact it would have on their career, and the ears of the world. Ok Computer topped the British charts, debuted at 21 on the Billboard Top 200, won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, was nominated for Album of the Year and has been preserved in the Library of Congress.
In 2017, the album celebrated its 20-year anniversary with a beautiful, 3-disc reissue, OKNOTOK, with extra b sides and bonus tracks with a limited amount on bright blue vinyl, which is the optimal listening experience for this musical masterpiece.
Weezer were always the nerdy kids, raised on classic rock and pushed too far, they exploded onto the LA music scene in 1994 with their self-titled debut known as The Blue Album.
Front man Rivers Cuomo was writing music that would serve as an anthem for his generation in his early days, and with catchy tunes with awesome music videos during the MTV era, songs like “Undone – The Sweater Song”, “Buddy Holly”, “Say It Ain’t So” caught on like wild fire and led to the album becoming certified quadruple platinum in the US.
Rocking guitar, pounding drums, lyrics that get stuck in your head and are easy to belt along to, this album is a snapshot of the times and an indelible classic that has earned a spot in almost any great collection. The ultimate geek-rock record received a spiffy reissue and remaster in 2018 from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab on limited blue marbled vinyl that has it looking and sounding its best and the version you should keep an eye out for.
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
The Smashing Pumpkins burst onto the music scene in 1991 with surprising success surrounding their debut, Gish. Nirvana’s Nevermind came out later that year and for whatever reason, the two bands became rivals in a sense. To say that expectations were lofty for their next release would be an understatement.
Front man Billy Corgan felt an immense amount of pressure to make the next album that would take the world by storm and with internal issues surrounding the band like drug abuse and romantic fallouts between members, the chips were clearly stacked against them. Corgan sought psychiatric help, causing him to revisit traumas of his past and draw deeply personal inspiration.
As a result, 1993 saw the release of an album unlike the world had ever seen, Siamese Dream. Corgan and the Pumpkins had managed to combine aspects of genres like shoegaze, dream pop, prog rock and heavy metal into an amalgam that is expansive, powerful and thought-provoking. Singles like “Cherub Rock”, “Today”, “Disarm”, and “Rocket” propelled the album and band to superstardom and critical acclaim.
Though the original pressing is oddly rare and expensive, a reissue was completed in 2011 with an alternate cover that is easier to come by and one you should definitely consider picking up.
By 1992, REM had already released seven albums and built quite the following. The 90’s were a whole new ballpark for them, with new types of music finding success, while they sat back and watched the decade roll in as elder statesmen.
Originally, they planned to follow suit and create a hard rocking album, but instead took a stylistic shift at the behest of guitarist Peter Buck, to tackle more personal ideas of getting older, watching the world change and the pain and loss that comes with the territory.
Automatic for the People features beautiful string arrangements from Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, the album masterfully maneuvers through these themes, self-aware and poignant, the product of a band that new exactly what they were doing and how to do it. Singles like “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”, “Everybody Hurts”, “Man on the Moon” and “Nightswimming” were instant radio hits that got stuck in heads for days at a time and are still popular to this day.
This expansive album saw a 25-year reissue in 2017 with added tracks and is the ideal way to digest this beautifully emotional rollercoaster ride.
The hole in music that Nirvana left behind was felt harder in the pacific northwest than anywhere else. Modest Mouse, hailing from Washington state answered the call in a major way with their second album in 1997 with dark, brooding lyrics, guttural vocals and thrashing guitars as well as introspective acoustics.
This album is also considered a major breakthrough for independent artists and the indie sub-genre. It isn’t pretty, but it is a complete effort that propelled Modest Mouse to further acclaim with later albums. The Lonesome Crowded West personifies a vision of the west in the 90s that serves as a time capsule of sorts to this day and one that you’ll want to revisit over and over.
Built to Spill – Perfect from Now On
Built to Spill brought some new things to the table with their major label debut, Perfect From Now On. The album features extended, jammy songs, deeply philosophical themes and a healthy amount of cello to create a landscape for the listener to travel through on their journey to perfection. However, the creation of this album was anything but perfect.
Front man Doug Martsch originally sought to record the entire album except drums on his own, but wasn’t happy with the results, then he brought in a band and re-recorded the album, only to have the tapes destroyed by heat, but the third time was a charm.
The end product is a masterpiece that is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential indie rock albums of all time and fueled a career that continues to this day. This album will make you want to lay on your back and stare at the ceiling while pondering your own existence in all the right ways.
Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted
Pavement’s debut album is another influential indie masterpiece that made its original debut in 1991 before undergoing several changes as a result of a shifting lineup until its release in 1992. Slanted and Enchanted is a busy, noisy jumble of songs that somehow work perfectly with each other to create a unique vibe that is distinctly 90s.
While it can be a tossup between this and their second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Slanted and Enchanted is heralded as a genre-defining piece of music that is easy to attach yourself to and translate meaning to your own experiences. Songs like “Summer Babe”, “In the Mouth a Desert”, and “Loretta’s Scars” are instant classics and remnants of an age that once was. This one is readily available and begging for a spin at any given time, but especially a summer afternoon.
The Chili Peppers are a band that will be associated with the 90s for all of eternity. They capped the decade with two huge albums, Blood Sugar Sex Magic in ‘91 and Californication in ‘99, with the lesser appreciated One Hot Minute sandwiched between in ‘95.
Their genre-bending combination of funk, hip hop and rock took the airwaves by storm and there is none funkier than Blood Sugar. Guitarist John Frusciante was at the height of his heroin addiction and band members feared for his life, but he produced some of the funkiest guitar riffs for this album that when paired with one of the greatest bass players of all time, Flea, equate to one of the greatest string sections of all time.
Vocals have and always will be the weak point in this band’s armor, but Kiedis puts forth a valiant effort that just fits. There’s also an amazing documentary called Funky Monks documenting the making of this album that is highly recommended. This album is one that you can put on any time of day and rock out to.
Sonic Youth had already released 5 albums and become a commercial success by 1990, but they picked up the pace a little with their 6th. Goo weaves more hard rocking guitar in between the waves of sound that fans had come to love and that combination, along with the female empowerment and gritty themes with Kim Gordon picking up more of the songwriting slack, made this a highly influential endeavor.
There is even a collaboration with Public Enemy’s Chuck D included as a sign of the times. This album isn’t as much of a Teenage Daydream as it is the plot to an action movie with a female protagonist. It’s fun, easy to sink your teeth into and a great record to have around.
My Blood Valentine – Loveless
This album is one of the most influential of the decade that may single handedly led to the creation of the emo and shoegaze genres. Instead of the whiny vocals and self-pitying lyrics that came to be associated with emo, this album is a soundscape of melodic guitars and droning yet resonant, never-ending verses.
This was the result of 2 years of experimentation, 19 studios and countless engineers. However, fans all agree that the effort was well worth it, creating one of the most important albums of the decade.
Loveless recently saw an anniversary reissue that sounds better than ever and would make a welcome addition to your shelf.
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