Whether you loved it or hated it – and we're guessing, since you clicked on this link, that it's the former – the 90s provided one of rock music's most wildly influential decades. From the dive clubs of Seattle to the, frankly, equally as divey clubs of Glasgow, innovative and experimental rock music was at its prime.
But with a genre which was busting at the seams with essential albums, how do you go about furnishing your collections with the stone-cold classics? That's where we come in. We've assembled the quintessential collection of 90s rock jams which should form the foundation of every rock fan's collection.
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Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (Epic, 1994)
The Manic Street Preachers’ third album, The Holy Bible, was the last to feature lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards. He was suffering from severe anorexia and depression during the record's creation, and would ultimately disappear months after it was released.
Much of what he was feeling and experiencing was put into the album’s lyrics, leading to a more ominous tone than the Manics' previous albums. For the fans, it’s pretty much either a love or hate album, but one thing can't be argued against: it's an impeccably well-crafted album.
The band moved away from their punk/hard-rock roots, and adopt more of a post-punk sound – although single Faster still displays that pure punk sound. To promote The Holy Bible, the Manics appeared on Top Of The Pops and played Faster while dressed in military clothing and balaclavas; the BBC reportedly received a record number of complaints – around 25,000. On its release, The Holy Bible was seen as a disappointment commercially, but praised by critics, and it has only grown in significance due to the events surrounding Richey Edwards.
On the album’s 20th anniversary, a special boxset was released that includes a remix of the whole album, which some fans consider to be superior to the original mix.
Nine Inch Nails - The Fragile (Nothing/Interscope, 1999)
In the buildup to the release of The Fragile, fans simply didn’t know what to expect – and the fact that Nine Inch Nails’ vocalist Trent Reznor went on record saying it "sounded ridiculous" didn’t help. The Fragile is often compared to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, given that it's a double album which explores isolation and depression among its prog-tinged trappings.
While there was a hint of the industrial sound from previous albums, Reznor developed the overall sound to include layers of ambient noise, pushing the album more towards the art rock movement, as opposed to the industrial alt-rock of Nine Inch Nails’ previous works. The opening track, Somewhat Damaged, made the wrong sort of headlines when it was reported to be one of 13 songs used by the CIA at Guantanamo Bay played to detainees as a means of torture.
The album on vinyl consists of three LPs; each comes in a black sleeve with the word ‘Nothing’ printed on it. It also has two additional tracks not available on the CD version, 10 Miles High and The New Flesh. A number of tracks were lengthened, while Ripe was shortened; in total, the vinyl version is almost two hours long.
Nirvana - In Utero (DGC, 1993)
"Teenage angst has paid off well, but now I’m tired and old.” The opening line of Nirvana’s third (and final) studio album immediately expresses its desire to leave the polished sound of its 1991 predecessor, Nevermind, behind. Following the astounding success of its breakthrough anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit, Kurt Cobain found himself overwhelmed with and despising of the band’s sudden stardom – a recurring theme of the album.
Fearful of alienating its core fanbase, the band intended to produce a much more abrasive record, closer resembling the sound of debut album Bleach. Sadly, this was the last record released by the band before Cobain’s suicide less than a year later, although compilation and live albums were issued posthumously.
Shortly after recording wrapped up, rumours started to surface that Nirvana’s record label, DGC, disliked the album and was apprehensive towards releasing it in its state. Heart-Shaped Box, Pennyroyal Tea and All Apologies were later remixed by REM producer Scott Litt, alongside minor tweaks being made to the original mix elsewhere on the record, creating friction between producer Steve Albini and the band.
Despite a limited promotional campaign and quiet dismay from DGC, In Utero accrued 180,000 sales in its first week, went on to be certified 5x platinum, and has now sold 15 million copies worldwide. Original pressings of In Utero were cut in clear vinyl and limited to 15,000 copies in the US, and select other versions of the album feature hidden track Gallons Of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip. The record has received a number of subsequent reissues across picture discs, unofficial coloured vinyls, double LP gatefolds, and as part of collector’s boxsets. Notably in 2003, DGC’s parent label, Geffen Records, released a vinyl reissue cut from different master tapes, widely accepted to be Albini’s original, unaltered mix. In celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary, a 3LP triple gatefold deluxe edition was released, featuring the entire album remastered over two discs at 45rpm and a 33 rpm disc of B-sides and rarities, all pressed on 180g heavyweight vinyl.
Oasis - Definitely Maybe (Creation, 1994)
If you look closely, Definitely Maybe’s iconic album cover is filled with all manner of fascinating insights into its performers. The shot of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly is a nod to one of Noel Gallagher’s favourite films; likewise, the photo of Burt Bacharach is a tribute to one of Noel’s musical heroes and is also thought to be a sly nod to Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. There are also photos of George Best and Rodney Marsh, two of the most prominent football players to perform for Manchester United and Manchester City, respectively. And then of course there are the copious amounts of wine and cigarettes on display, an obvious nod to one of the most popular tracks on the album, Cigarettes & Alcohol. It’s a glorious piece of photography that effortlessly sums up both Oasis and the 90s.
While Definitely Maybe shot to the top of the UK charts and became the fastest-selling UK debut of all time – it would eventually sell over 15 million copies – its conception was far from straightforward. Initial recordings with Dave Batchelor proved unsuccessful, while recordings at Cornwall’s Sawmills Studio, this time with Noel producing alongside Mark Coyle, also failed to produce the desired effect. Owen Morris was eventually called in to salvage the recordings, mastering the album at Johnny Marr’s personal studio. The end result remains Oasis’ most exciting-sounding record, full of swagger and attitude, as if the very essence of the Gallaghers themselves was somehow captured within the double LP’s grooves.
Definitely Maybe didn’t just herald the arrival of the Gallaghers; it also helped to cement the arrival of Britpop that had been arguably kickstarted by misfits Suede, but was aggressively pursued by the likes of Blur, Elastica and Supergrass. The members of Oasis became as popular as their album, with the two brothers predictably absorbing most of the limelight. The popularity and success of Definitely Maybe probably helps to explain why original pressings can continually fetch over £100 on the second-hand market. Luckily, those with fewer pennies in their pocket can enjoy the rerelease that costs a fraction of the price.
Pavement - Slanted And Enchanted (Matador Records, 1992)
Routinely hailed as one of the 90s' best rock albums, Pavement’s debut record Slanted And Enchanted isn’t an easy listen – but it is a compelling one. Comparisons to The Fall are often made, and with good reason, as the music is gritty, with trebly bass and drums that are hit rather than played. Pavement’s similarity to the pioneering Mancunian post-punks doesn’t stop there, either: both bands had a tendency to perform chaotic gigs that didn’t make sense to any but the most devoted fans; their mercurial frontman eventually split and reformed the band; and they never did what anyone expected or wanted them to do.
Slanted And Enchanted was raw, exciting and fairly primitive. Songs such as No Life Singed Her had plenty of energy; elsewhere on the album, highlights include Conduit For Sale!, an alternately quiet-loud-quiet affair with a nod to the slower end of American hardcore; Chelsey’s Little Wrists, a bathroom-quality wailathon with gibberish vocals and what sounded like a tapped jam jar keeping time; and the majestic Loretta’s Scars, a full-frequency guitar anthem that sounded as if it came close to making commercial sense.
The rest of the songs oozed perverse energy. It’s obvious why college-rock fans flocked to see Pavement play life, and also why the band never made it anywhere near the big time. It was just too unorthodox – although that didn’t mean the songs weren’t good. A split in 1999 was followed 11 years later by a successful (if brief) reunion, and it’s no surprise that the gigs were packed to the rafters.
Pearl Jam - Ten (Epic, 1991)
Although bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had achieved some success, it was Pearl Jam’s Ten that implanted grunge into the mainstream. Released around the same time as Nirvana’s Nevermind, grunge fans in 1991 were torn between the punk-infused harshness of Nirvana or the stadium-rock anthem sound that Pearl Jam mixed into Ten.
The Pearl Jam sound fused classic rock, funk-inspired and reverb-fuelled riffs and sweeping choruses that Vedder could accompany with memorable lyrics. There was also the darker, more brooding side of Pearl Jam – such as Jeremy, a song written about a high-school student who shot himself in front of his class.
During the recording of the album, the band was known as Mookie Blaylock, after the professional basketball player. They changed their name after signing to Epic Records, but kept the nod to Blaylock by naming the album after the player’s jersey number. Ten remains Pearl Jam’s most successful album, despite being slow to sell. It was thanks to the success of the singles Even Flow, Alive and especially Jeremy that pushed Ten to eventually stay in the Billboard charts for more than 260 weeks.
The 2009 rerelease is the most common version of the album on vinyl – you could search the web for an original pressing of Ten, but you'd be spending around the same amount of money as you would for a new copy. The rerelease can be distinguished by its white/cream cover with the band in black and white, and much like the sound of the album, it is closer to how the band originally wanted it to turn out.
Radiohead - OK Computer (Parlophone/Capitol, 1997)
Named after a line from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, OK Computer’s inspiration came from a number of different sources, including Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, and the dislocation Yorke felt from the non-stop touring the band was doing in America.
The end result is an album that is rife with dour, miserable lyrics and songs based around uncomfortable themes. Final single Airbag was inspired by a car crash that Yorke was involved with in 1987, while No Surprises discusses 'A job that slowly kills you' and 'Bruises that won’t heal.' The distinctive sound of OK Computer sent alarm bells ringing at Capitol, with sales projections reduced from two million units to half a million when they heard it. Ultimately, Capitol’s fears were unfounded, with OK Computer not only going on to sell over six million copies, but also drastically expanding the band’s international audience.
Released in the late 90s, original pressings of OK Computer can often reach high prices online, but it typically sells for around the £80 mark. Fortunately, there are numerous other alternatives for those with a little less cash. EMI released a reissue in 2008, while XL Recordings released its own pressing in 2016. Perhaps the most desirable version of the album, however, was released in 2017 in the form of OK Computer OKNOTOK 1997 – 2017. Spread across three LPs, it not only features remastered tracks, but also eight remastered B-sides, three previously unreleased tracks, a hardcover art book, and numerous other goodies. It’s arguably the definitive version of a pretty definitive album, and should be in any serious collector’s library.
Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine (Epic, 1992)
Funk-metal begat rap-metal, which begat nu-metal, and somewhere embedded in that process was Rage Against The Machine: a band who combined rapped vocals with the catchiest of guitar riffs and reaped immense rewards. The foursome’s confrontational attitude towards authority helped them gain a mostly teenage audience when its self-titled debut album appeared in 1992, while its alliance with a major record label – despite its socialist politics – led to criticism from older, more cynical rock fans.
While you may or may not enjoy frontman Zack de la Rocha’s splenetic rhymes, there’s no denying the sincerity behind his anti-corporate, anti-racist lyrics – and as for the band, there has rarely been a tighter, more musically competent guitar, bass and drums trio in the entire rock canon. Guitarist Tom Morello is a master of his instrument, coaxing such unorthodox sounds from it that the band felt it appropriate to place a sticker on the LP sleeve that stated ‘no samples, keyboards or synthesisers were used in the making of this record’.
And the songs? A blast from start to finish, without a weak one among them. Rage’s best-known song to this day is still Killing In The Name, which – with its infamous final shrieks of 'Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!' – is a stadium-igniting tune like no other. Bullet In The Head, with its anti-capitalist venom, and Wake Up, a vehement call to arms that soundtracked the 1999 sci-fi thriller The Matrix, are two other high points. The sum of these ten songs is far more than its parts, leaving us with an album that is simultaneously intelligent and aggressive.
Soundgarden - Superunknown (A&M, 1994)
The late Chris Cornell was a man of many talents, quite apart from his unearthly vocal range. Prominent among them was his ability to write songs that fused hard rock with a pop-influenced melodic sensibility and present them to the masses with total conviction. It certainly helped that grunge – the Seattle sound in which his band, Soundgarden, emerged – was based on a blend of singable choruses, metal riffs and a sense of nihilistic doom, all of which suited the band’s ethos perfectly.
Superunknown was Soundgarden’s fourth album, and the one that brought them to the wider, non-grunge-worshipping world. At least part of this was undoubtedly due to a single song, Black Hole Sun, a metallic bit of Beatles whimsy that was based on an impossibly catchy chord sequence in the chorus. Heavy-metal fans absolutely loved the song’s downtuned grind; grungers totally admired its depressive lyrics; and MTV and rock radio were all over the song like a rash. “It turned into our Dream On,” sighed guitarist Kim Thayil, referencing the huge, millstone-like power ballad from 1973 by Aerosmith.
The album turned out to be their swansong, at least in the group’s first period of activity; after its next album, 1996’s Down On The Upside, Soundgarden went on hiatus. A reunion in 2010 was progressing nicely until Cornell’s suicide in May 2017 at the age of only 52, tragically depriving his bandmates, fans and the rest of us of his phenomenal talent.
Primal Scream - Screamadelica (Creation, 1991)
It’s somewhat amazing to think that Screamadelica’s iconic album image very nearly didn’t happen. With the album due to launch in the September of 1991, the band was still without a cover just two months prior, and its band mates were desperate to use something that would match the statement their new music was making. In an interview with Daily Record, Alan McGee, who was Creation’s boss at the time, mentioned that he rejected Bobby Gillespie’s original request to feature the band alongside an attractive model, and suggested that they went with the sunburst that had featured on the album’s first single, Higher Than The Sun. The late Paul Cannell, who was Creation’s in-house artist, was asked to expand on the work that he did for Higher Than The Sun, altering the sun’s colours and creating a piece of psychedelic work that was every bit as flamboyant as the new album.
And Screamadelica really is a classic album worth celebrating. Created when acid house was just beginning to take off in the UK, Bobby Gillespie and the rest of the band were canny enough to know that they should embrace the rising club scene rather than ignore it. With that in mind, they enlisted the likes of Andrew Weatherall, The Orb, Hypnotone and The Rolling Stones’ producer, Jimmy Miller, to produce numerous tracks, creating a distinctive sound that not only helped the band move away from its original image, but proved that dance music and rock could coexist together.
While Screamadelica was recently rereleased in 2015, original pressings are still plentiful and available at very reasonable prices, meaning that you are able to catch a band at the height of its powers and drink in that glorious cover for very little outlay.
These entries were taken from our 100 Greatest Albums You Should Own On Vinyl special edition, which is available to buy now.