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The 50 best rock albums of the 90s

20. Smashing Pumpkins - Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (1995)

Set aside an afternoon for this pair of discretely titled but interlinked song cycles. 

It’s a languid sprawl at two hours, with more than 28 songs, and it shows Smashing Pumpkins in bold and adventurous form. Alongside the band’s trademark undulating rock, you’ll also find them trying their hands at practically every musical style under the sun, many unexpected, and all of them beautiful. 

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19. Pantera - Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)

As the 80s gave way to the new decade, so Pantera gave way to a new look, and a superb new sound. 

This is the record that qualified them as true metal heroes. Dimebag Darrell unleashes some of the most cutting riffs while Phil Anselmo’s trademark howl makes it a curious ear-bleeding joy to behold.

There’s little to say about Fucking Hostile not relayed by the song’s title, and even when they drop the tempo, on the likes of Hollow and This Love, there’s an almost insidious heaviness to the band’s overall sound. 

Vulgar Display Of Power is very much, from start to finish, an unrelentingly heavy album.

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18. Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (1994)

If 1994 was the year for being glum – and in many ways that’s exactly what it was – then there was none more glum than Mr Trent Reznor

With the fabulously, grotesquely depressed The Downward Spiral the Nine Inch Nails mainman cemented both his reputation for dourness and the fact that his work rate had all the pace of a tree sloth. 

The album’s most famous track, Hurt, was later immortalised by country legend Johnny Cash.

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17. Dream Theater - Images And Words (1992)

Dream Theater had to overcome a number of hurdles in order to create their second album, and their masterpiece. But with new vocalist James LaBrie safely in the fold, Dream Theater were out to prove a point. And they did. 

Images And Words combined the band’s ferocious musicianship with a canny knack for a song – albeit usually a very long, complicated one – the epic Pull Me Under being a case in point.

Images And Words did far more than just enable Dream Theater to let in a vital chink of daylight. In fact its start-to-finish excellence served to open up a skylight to the cosmos.

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16. Soundgarden - Superunknown (1994)

Odd as it may seem today, it wasn’t necessarily the norm for an album by a rock band – in Soundgarden’s case, an actual heavy metal band – to be anything other than brick-thick. 

The fact that this Seattle quartet could paint with many shades was something new indeed, and quickly celebrated. 

Their pallet might have had more colours than had been displayed on previous albums like the muscular Louder Than Love, and there were psychedelic echoes in some of the record’s grooves, but in songs like Let Me Drown and Like Suicide Soundgarden’s pile-driver approach endured. 

The success of Superunknown is richly deserved, an appreciation that can be measured in terms of both weight and size.

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15. Judas Priest - Painkiller (1990)

The last classic Judas Priest album, Painkiller saw the Brit metalheads nodding towards Slayer and Metallica, as they headed into a new era for metal, without losing any of their own defining values. 

Their first record of the 90s matched anything they’d done before. It’s dripping with mountainous moments, from A Touch Of Evil to Metal Meltdown. And that title track… holy fucking shit. Heavy, focused, cutting edge, this was an album for the times. 

The band lost their way during the latter part of the 1980s, but this time they hit a monumental groove.

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14. Rush - Test For Echo (1996)

Never afraid to try new ideas, the venerable Canadian trio waltzed into the mid-90s with an album that was surprisingly progressive compared to the more alternative style of 1993’s Counterparts.

...Echo embraced modern technology, and was far from a throwback. 

Songs like Carve Away The Stone and the title track succeed due to Rush's musical dexterity.

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13. Green Day - Dookie (1994)

By 1993, Green Day were already a successful band by anyone’s standards, with the compilation 1,039 / Smoothed Out Slappy Hours and the album Kerplunk having sold more than 30,000 copies each and gained the band a rapidly expanding live following.

But by the end of 1994, they were huge

Dookie – their first multi-platinum splash – can be summed up in just five words: ‘Do you have the time?’ Because it’s for Basket Case that their third album will mostly be remembered. 

It’s testament to Green Day’s chops that they’re still here in force nearly three decades on, but for some, Dookie is still their most beautiful noise. 

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12. Rage Against The Machine - Rage Against The Machine (1992)

’Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!’ So fumed Zack De La Rocha on this, Rage Against The Machine’s debut album. 

His indignant, effortlessly chantable lyrics married to Tom Morello’s scarily innovative guitar work was like nothing we’d ever heard before. Killing In The Name, Bombtrack and Bullet In The Head gave us a perfect excuse to rage (ha!).

25 years on, its flames still burn brightly, having lost none of its power, impact or provocative fervour. It was the sound of Public Enemy yoked to Black Flag, of Dr Martin Luther King and Malcolm X set to a soundtrack of cutting-edge metal.

Perfect stuff to piss off your parents with.

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11. Megadeth - Rust In Peace (1990)

The introduction of Megadeth’s finest line-up, with guitar virtuoso Marty Friedman and drummer Nick Menza joining the Daves, Mustaine (guitar/vocals) and Ellefson (bass). 

The result? A refining of the band’s sound, as they matured, with no drop in power. There are some blazing masterpieces on Rust…, with Holy Wars…The Punishment Due and Hangar 18 a double-act album opener that beats anything else the band ever recorded. 

Five MagicsLucretia and Rust In Peace… Polaris have class and punch – a potent combination that ensured Megadeth entered the 90s on a real high.

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