5 Essential Albums of the 1990s
By Nicholas Downey 8 March 2021
We have a lot to be thankful to the ‘90s for. The freeing of Mandela. Google. The completely unfounded assertion that one day football will ‘come home’. But above all, the decade gave us some absolutely incredible music. We’re all familiar with the likes of Nirvana and Oasis who dominated the decade, but here we look into some of the other records that are among the most essential listening from this time period.
Massive Attack - Blue Lines (1991)
Arriving early in the decade was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, a record that brought in a huge change in British music. Pioneering the sound that came to be known as trip-hop, the group were able to merge hip hop with dance, soul and reggae to create an innovative record that was both club-ready and laid-back at different points - see the crushing Unfinished Sympathy and the title track respectively as examples of this. And, in the age of lo-fi hip hop and chilled beats, this is an album that sounds as fresh today as it did when it came out in 1991. A seminal moment for UK hip hop if ever there was one.
Pulp - Different Class (1995)
The Blur/Oasis debate will rage on forever, but nobody did Britpop quite like Pulp. Led by eccentric frontman Jarvis Cocker, the Sheffield band presented their unique take on the genre that dominated mid-90s Britain with disco-infected rockers that humorously approached two central themes - sex and being poor. In the case of the album’s centrepiece, the soaring Common People, these two elements are combined to form one of the greatest crowd-pleasers in the history of British music, a thumping six-minute ode to the everyday person. This album may be very much rooted in the nineties, but its sparingly witty take on British society is not about to get old any time soon.
Belle and Sebastian - If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian are a difficult group to pin down. Within the space of forty-one minutes, and at points within the span of a few lines, songwriter Stuart Murdoch covers everything from stalkers and teenage suicide to envying the sporty kids at school and girls who dream about horses. All the while, the songs contain the most wonderful hooks and melodies to put a smile on anyone’s face, as well as an instrumental palette that throws up surprises at every twist and turn without a single note sounding out of place. Within this paradox of complicated simplicity lies the brilliance of Belle and Sebastian, who with this album present a set of ten songs that don’t have a single dull moment between them.
Madonna - Ray of Light (1998)
Madonna’s legacy may have taken a bit of a hit in recent years, but there were times when she was one of the biggest musical powerhouses in the world. This record marks her mid-career renaissance, collaborating with the brilliant William Orbit to create a record that seamlessly fuses electronica, techno and dance music with a sharp pop-styling. A mature record lyrically, dealing extensively with themes of religion and mysticism, Ray of Light’s real selling point is its warm, layered soundscape, evident throughout but best heard in the opening Drowned World and the magnificent lead single Frozen. A record that invites the listener to step into the murky world it provides, and quite simply one of the best pop albums of the ‘90s.
OutKast - Aquemini (1998)
The ‘90s were the decade in which rap music really blew up, and no-one took the genre further than OutKast with 1998’s Aquemini. Introducing a broad range of live instruments to their recording, a rarity in hip hop at the time, the duo created a diverse and ambitious album that, even at its lengthy seventy-five minute run-time, leaves the listener wishing it would go on longer. Boasting an array of mesmerising singles like Rosa Parks and Da Art of Storytellin’ (Pt. 1), the album presents sixteen catchy and melodic songs that consistently demonstrate the unbeatable flow and lyricism of both Andre 3000 and Big Boi. The features, ranging from Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon to funk legend George Clinton to a young CeeLo Green, only add to the album’s consistently surprising and diverse sound. OutKast would go on to score bigger-selling records in their remarkable career, but Aquemini demonstrates the duo at their quirky, creative best with an album that set a new high-point for its genre.