Top 10 Recordings of the 1990s

By Kevin O'Hare

From raw rock 'n' roll and pure pop, to punk, heavy metal and even disco, every decade has had its share of distinctive sounds.

So too did the 1990s.

In terms of influence, the decade was dominated by the raging roar that came out of Seattle, and the hip-hop rhythms that arose from the streets of urban centers on both coasts. Bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam shook up the rock scene like nothing since the punk revolution of the '70s, while artists such as Lauryn Hill, Puff Daddy, Wu-Tang Clan and Dr. Dre spearheaded rap and hip-hop's extraordinary breakthrough into the commercial mainstream.

Here's a subjective look at some of the finest albums from the 1990s, ranked in order, and focusing on both artistic achievement as well as musical influence:

1. Nevermind


  • DGC (1991)

His eventual suicide only magnified the anguish and pain pouring out of Kurt Cobain during every thrashing, gut-wrenching second of this album. When the troubled guitarist's lacerated vocals took the top off “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Cobain and Nirvana sent a shock wave through the music industry that's still being felt nearly a decade later. This changed everything, like few other bands had in the history of rock.

2. Achtung Baby


  • Island (1991)

This was the industrial strength incarnation of Ireland's most treasured musical exports. Searing, multi-tracked guitars, distorted vocals and de-emphasized choruses marked a radical departure here for U2, one that worked perfectly throughout Achtung Baby. “Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,”“One,” and the visions of Gethsemane heard on “Until the End of the World,” are but three of the reasons why this album has proved so enduring.

3. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill

  • Ruffhouse/Columbia (1998)

She was only 23 at the time of this recording, but Lauryn Hill's gift for bringing rap, hip-hop, and sweet soul together helped her synthesize old school and new school under one roof. The compelling tale of lust and immorality, “Doo Wop,” that served as the album's lead single was just the starting point for Hill's real-world stories of faith, reflection and inspiration.

4. OK Computer


  • Capitol (1997)

This firmly established this British quintet as a new generation's answer to Pink Floyd. Dense, deep and sometimes difficult to wade through, it was nevertheless a serious listener's delight, thanks to standouts like the long, eerie lead single “Paranoid Android” and the wondrous tale of interstellar travelers, “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”

5. The Downward Spiral

Nine Inch Nails

  • Nothing/TVT/Interscope (1994)

Masterfully executed but deeply disturbing, the industrial epic The Downward Spiral frames Trent Reznor's dark voice and apocalyptic vision with layers of keyboards, crushing guitars, and rhythmic fury. Recorded primarily in the Beverly Hills home where actress Sharon Tate was murdered, the set magnifies Reznor's world of lost faith and anger, emphasizing themes of control, compulsion, and obsession. Unsettling as that is, it nevertheless provides for one incredible listen.

Kevin O'Hare

6. Out of Time


  • Warner Brothers (1991)

With its string sections, mandolins and acoustic guitars, Out of Time marked a dramatic departure for R.E.M., a musical journey that resulted in a refined masterpiece. It also featured one of the finest songs of the rock era, the mystical “Losing My Religion.” The album succeeds not only because of its non-conformist textures, but also because of the group's typically insightful songwriting.

7. Vs.

Pearl Jam

  • Epic (1993)

Harder rocking than Pearl Jam's 1991 debut, Vs. and its cuts like “Go,” “Blood,” and “Rearview Mirror,” flew in the face of skeptics, firmly entrenching the band as one of the most essential acts of the 1990s. Other highlights here include the acoustic-based “Daughter,” the anti-gun “Glorified G” and “W.M.A. (White Male American)”, which rails against police brutality.

8. Fear of a Black Planet

Public Enemy

  • Def Jam (1990)

Chuck D. and company's racial politics caused a firestorm at the time, but they also helped put a very serious focus on rap with cuts like “911 is a Joke” and “Welcome to the Terrordome.” Produced by The Bomb Squad, this wild cacophony of rage and sonic frenzy turned into one of the most influential albums of the era.

9. The Battle of Los Angeles

Rage Against The Machine

  • Epic (1999)

It may be too early to predict, but this pulverizing mix of hard rock and rap, loaded with political conviction, could be setting the stage for the sound of the new Millennium. The set kicks in immediately with the devastating “Testify,” a scorching blast at the news media's attempts to soft-sell war and other atrocities as mainstream entertainment. Straying far from the typical lightweight mutterings of the moment, singer Zack de la Rocha and his mates turn in a series of heavily politicized tales focusing on everything from downtrodden Mexican peasants and unemployed factory workers to corrupt landlords, deviant clergy members, and jailed Black Panthers.

10. Ragged Glory

Ragged Glory

  • Reprise (1990)

He's recorded numerous outstanding albums during his amazing career, but this perfectly titled blast of garage rock turned a new generation on to “The Godfather of Grunge.” It's definitely not for the faint of heart, but songs such as “Days That Used to Be” and “Mansion on the Hill” churn and burn with a desperate urgency.