Ten ‘90s albums you should revisit during lockdown
By Sacha Robinson 4 March 2021
During the pandemic, it’s fair to say that many people have turned to forms of entertainment for comfort—be it film, literature, music or any number of different mediums. In a world, even before Covid, riddled with uncertainty, it’s surely only natural that human beings seek respite in the familiar, and I’d hazard a guess that for a notable portion of people in Britain lately this terrain has been the music of the 1990s. It makes perfect sense in a way: the ‘90s was probably the final decade before technology started to consume our every moment, a decade rife with a renewed sense of cultural optimism, at least until Radiohead warned us all of the dangers ahead, the party poopers. I’m not claiming to have heard every single ‘90s album ever made—some people may view this list as too mainstream, others probably won’t have a clue who the majority of these artists are. Regardless, whether you want to relive past glories, broaden your musical knowledge, or shout at your phone over a list omitting your favourite record (a popular pastime for many), here are my ten most essential ‘90s albums.
10. Daft Punk - Homework (1997)
Homework is arguably the most important electronic album of the ‘90s in the way it managed to maintain the purity of the house music of the previous decade whilst being global enough to have enormous crossover appeal, anticipating, for better or worse, the rise of EDM. Despite the group’s boasts about how little effort they put into making the record, it’s a thoughtfully conceived artistic statement—Homework is the sound of Daft Punk successfully having their cake and eating it too. Whilst Revolution 909 thrilled the movement’s hippest DJs with its archetypal house rhythms, Around the World was hooksmart to the extent that it helped spawn an entire generation of would-be ubiquitous ‘super DJs’, ironic given the lengths members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo went to to conceal their respective identities. A spectrum-scanning electronic clinic.
9. Madonna - Ray of Light (1998)
Due to the latter stage of Madonna’s career becoming a kind of perpetual faux-pas, it’s easy to forget how genuinely compelling some of her artistic decisions were from 1983-2005, exemplified by this 1998 record, her most cohesive and ideologically satisfying work. On Ray of Light Madonna took the ground-breaking yet wilfully obscure IDM of the late ‘90s, and in true Madonna fashion, repackaged it into something accessible to a mass audience. ROL also consolidated perhaps Madonna’s greatest talent, that of cultural curator, for she had the musical wherewithal to expertly synthesise producer William Orbit’s natural aptitude for mad-professor experimentation with her own underrated penchant for pop hook-writing. Thus by the biggest artist in the world acknowledging that electronic was to become music’s premier commercial medium, Ray of Light became a signal post in the genre’s development.
8. Aphex Twin - Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)
Upon coining the term ‘ambient music’, Brian Eno may or may not have described it as music to listen to whilst doing other things. Indeed, in its purest form, its quiet, minimal arrangements and still, unchanging structures don’t demand a great deal from the listener. Aphex Twin’s seminal debut stayed true to these stylistic elements to a degree whilst merging them with richly enveloping textures and subtly propulsive beats, blurring the lines between ambient and the house music that dominated club culture at the time of its conception. Compared with Aphex’s later work, characterised by pieces that are mind-bendingly chaotic, the fluid rhythms, warm synths, and just-about-audible basslines here glide with the smooth grace of a ballerina, the tranquillity of its mood making SAW 85-92 perfect background music to work, chill, or even sleep to.
7. Dr. Dre - The Chronic (1992)
Though hip-hop’s rich history can be traced back to the late ‘70s, for some people it’s probably difficult to imagine the genre, particularly the West Coast contingent, without Dr. Dre watching over it like some kind of omniscient musical grandmaster. Partly because of who he has produced (Eminem, 50 Cent, Tupac etc.) but also because of the vision of hip-hop culture—hedonistic, profane, macabre—he helped document, firstly with N.W.A. and then with The Chronic. However, it’s really the methodology behind The Chronic that ensures its place in rap history, predicated on the then-unique premise of hiring musicians to fatten up the sound with live instrumentation rather than just having the producer sample excerpts of music. This formed a sonic bed over which Dre could write the iconic high-pitched synth lines, and Snoop Dogg the hyper-chill raps, synonymous with what is now known as G-funk.
6. The Prodigy - Music for the Jilted Generation (1994)
The Prodigy’s 1992 debut, The Prodigy Experience, confirmed Liam Howlett as the greatest pure musician of the acid house/rave era, a man with the vision and compositional know-how to make the first consistently great album in a singles-dominated sub-genre. On Music for the Jilted Generation, Howlett’s level of auterism develops to an even greater extent: the production is crisper, the structures more unpredictable, the vocal hooks more anthemic. Whilst hardly a concept album, the light-dark duality, the mixture of dancefloor-igniting bangers (Voodoo People) and brooding sonic epics (Break and Enter), is a pronounced musical throughline. I’m sure many a ‘90s clubber could wax lyrical over the merits of a No Good or a Their Law, as could I. But Full Throttle remains an underrated gem, an aural rollercoaster ride of spacey synths and thrilling rhythmical twists and turns.
5. Oasis - What’s the Story (Morning Glory)? (1995)
Deep down every popular musician wants to be liked. This is why many a popular musician that starts their career bemoaning the vacuity of commercialism is padding out their fourth Greatest Hits album before you know it. This is also why no popular musician has to my knowledge decided to release a gamelan album. Popular music (the key is in the name) at the very start of its existence was music designed to sell. Noel Gallagher had an acute awareness of this as he was writing what was to become the most successful British album of its generation. He was a songwriter so devoid of pretence that, God forbid, he was to give the British public in 1995 exactly what they wanted: tunes. Big tunes. Tunes that would within the space of two years propel his band to the stratospheric heights of Knebworth. Tunes as inextricably linked to the British ‘90s as Gazza’s tears or the birth of New Labour. Tunes that, even though Definitely Maybe is probably a better record, make it almost factually inaccurate to leave WTSMG? off of any ‘Best albums of the ‘90s’ list. And hence, here we are.
4. Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream (1993)
Though Billy Corgan’s songwriting talent seems to be dwindling by the minute, he can still lay claim to making one of the most flawless albums of the 1990s. Where Corgan’s later work is characterised by a transparent lack of emotional investment, the desperation that courses through Siamese Dream is palpable—desperation to be heard, to get away from his hometown of Chicago, to prove to everyone just what a musical savant he was. The stories surrounding the making of Siamese Dream are legendary, of inter-band frustration at Corgan’s control-freak tendencies, of a ludicrous number of guitar ad-libs, of Corgan driving himself to the brink of insanity in his insatiable quest for aural perfection. It’s no surprise then that swashbuckling ambition drips from its every facet: whether it be the densely layered shoegaze of Rocket, the stadium-sized balladry of Disarm, or the guitar-hero grandiosity of Soma.
3. Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)
Oh, how predictable! The iconic cover art, the earth-shattering impact, THAT drumming. All of this and more makes Nirvana’s second album impossible to ignore when constructing lists like these unless you’re a contrarian. Propelled of course by Kurt Cobain writing at least four of the greatest, most instantly recognisable, and, unfortunately, most played-to-death rock songs of his generation: Smells Like Teen Spirit, In Bloom, Come as You Are, Lithium etc. Sure the hits have become clichés but when listened to in its entirety Nevermind still pulsates with a cataclysmic sense of musical year zero, of the underground indie rock scene of the ‘80s culminating in this 25 million-selling monster. Producer Butch Vig deserves a considerable amount of recognition, maintaining the songs’ raw, power chord-heavy assault whilst refining them with the big-budget cleanliness they deserve.
2. Björk - Post (1995)
One of the beautiful things about the ‘90s was that much of its most idiosyncratic music actually charted (providing it was broadly within a pop framework). From 1993-97, Björk was one of the beneficiaries of this phenomenon, releasing some of the most richly artistic music of the decade and being rewarded commercially for doing so. Not necessarily with smashes, but with hits nonetheless. And boy did she deserve them. Given she was living there at the time, Post indicates that Björk, like many others, was caught in the heady cultural whirlwind of mid ‘90s London; it’s her giddiest, most breathless record, the Björk record most inseparable from the circumstances in which it was made. It’s also one of her most musically ambitious. Industrial (Enjoy) coexists with big band (It’s Oh So Quiet), trip-hop (Possibly Maybe) with art-pop (Hyperballad) in a smorgasbord of styles that’s rarely less than dazzling.
1. Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)
For all the praise OK Computer has received both contemporaneously and over time, Radiohead’s third album could have been a monumental failure. One can see why music industry bigwigs deemed it commercial suicide prior to its release: ‘earnest five-piece indie band from Oxford making an artsy-fartsy, self-consciously prescient record about impending technological dystopia and the soul-sucking nature of modern corporations’ does sound unbearable on paper, the type of record whose lyricist goes out of their way to drop every highbrow reference they can think of and that has time signatures imperceptible to everyone but free jazz scholars. However, with OK Computer, Radiohead channelled their misery into the most spectacularly conceived and beautifully performed record of the era, encompassing so many favourable aspects of the popular music of the 1990s whilst being its own singular entity. From the ornate, three-songs-in-one Paranoid Android, to the aching, xylophone-adorned No Surprises, it’s an absolute tour-de-force, and consequently my greatest album of the ‘90s.