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50 Best Albums of the Nineties

From Eminem to Nirvana, we list the records that defined a decade.

The complete top 100 list features in ‘Rolling Stone’s Music of the Nineties’ special edition. Available to pre-order now via our webstore, and at usual stockists from August 25th.

The Nineties as a musical era started late and ended early — kicked in by the scritchy-scratch power chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ushered out by the doomy piano intro of “…Hit Me Baby One More Time.” Anti-pop defeated by pop — full circle, all apologies. You’ve heard the story.

But the real Nineties were richer, funnier and weirder than that, with fake grunge bands writing better songs than some of the real ones, Eighties holdovers U2 and R.E.M. reaching creative peaks with Achtung Baby and Automatic for the People, Metallica and Pavement co-existing on MTV, Phish tending to the Deadhead nation after Jerry’s passing — and Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer ceding their pop thrones in a few short years to Dr. Dre, Snoop and Eminem. — Brian Hiatt

This is an excerpt from the introduction to Rolling Stone‘s book The ’90s: The Inside Stories From the Decade that Rocked. Copyright © 2010 by Collins Design, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

50. 2Pac, ‘All Eyez on Me’

2Pac, 'All Eyez on Me'

All eyes were on him before he even said it. After a slew of arrests on both coasts elevated him to icon, and a near-death experience followed by months in jail made him a prison martyr, Tupac Shakur leapt out of the clink and into the most badass label in the industry: Death Row. The most combustible MC of all time then proceeded to burn a hole through America with a twenty-seven-track double album filled with bluster, bravado, Cali funk and Tupac’s towering ego. His MC skills aren’t abundant, but he spits his rhymes with an arrogance rare even on Planet Hip-Hop and sits back as he magnetizes you like only the sexiest of outlaws can.

49. Sleater-Kinney, ‘Call the Doctor’

Sleater-Kinney, 'Call the Doctor'

“It’s fine ’cause it’s all mine,” sings Corin Tucker in “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” and nobody can argue as this righteous college girl lays claim to rock’s raw heart. Sleater-Kinney made good on the promise of the early-Nineties riot-grrrl movement, linking punk anarchy and radical-feminist insurrection. On Call the Doctor, Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and then-drummer Lora McFarlane careen around in songs like “Hubcap” and “I’m Not Waiting,” moving at warp speed from pretty to terrifying, from earnest observation to nearly incoherent rage. These weren’t the first bandmates to focus female fury and desire to the beat of a kick drum, but they could make music as fully arresting as their ideas. And no other rocker has Tucker’s voice — a bloody wail that goes soft at the center, a voice that feels like flesh pressing against you.

48. Weezer, ‘Pinkerton’

Weezer, 'Pinkerton'

Rivers Cuomo poured all his self-loathing and loneliness into ten autobiographical songs on Weezer‘s second album, detailing his awkward love life with agonizing specificity, beginning with “Tired of Sex,” where the rock & roll groupie grind has never sounded less appealing. Some real-life girls mentioned on Pinkerton are ones Cuomo had crushes on but didn’t date: a lesbian, a girl in one of his classes who rebuffed his invitation to a Green Day concert and an eighteen-year-old in Japan who wrote him a fun letter and with whom he became obsessed, wondering if she thought about him when she masturbated. With all those true confessions, it’s no wonder that Cuomo is somewhat embarrassed by Pinkerton now — and that the record became a cornerstone of the next decade’s emo movement.

47. Portishead, ‘Dummy’

Portishead, 'Dummy'

Portishead don’t make dance music, exactly — the torchy gloom beat of Dummy is music for staring into your Rob Roy at 4:00 a.m. and wondering why she needed your wallet to go to the ladies’ room. Geoff Barrow mixes a swellegant trip-hop pastiche of astro-lounge beats, plush soul keyboards and spy-movie guitars, with Beth Gibbons belting the bluesy cocktail ballads of a jaded Bond girl. The seductively sleek torpor of “Sour Times” and “Glory Box” has inspired countless imitators, but Portishead got it perfect the first time with Dummy, a bizarre love triangle between a man, a woman and a sampler.

46. Jay-Z, ‘Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life’

Jay-Z, 'Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life'

Jay-Z took the pay cut from big-time hustler to MC in stride, spitting his smooth-criminal genius in a string of dense poetics about dealing the stuff, escaping the feds and dripping in diamonds all the way to the bank. It makes no difference whether he samples Annie or Talking Heads — Jigga makes every track his own with massive boasts, state-of-the-art flows, vivid underworld portraits drawn in a handful of words — “On the run-by/Gun-high/One eye closed/Left holes/Through some guy clothes….” With one album, he released more classics than most MCs release in a career. The case for best MC in the post-B.I.G. era was closed.

45. Alanis Morissette, ‘Jagged Little Pill’

Alanis Morissette, 'Jagged Little Pill'

Proof that the gods of rock are unfair bastards: A former TV moppet from the not-so-dirty North hooks up with Wilson Phillips’ producer and makes an opportunistic angst-rock platter that not only sells 13 million copies — it doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s damn near flawless, from the hello-it’s-me phone rage of “You Oughta Know” to the sisterly “You Learn.” And right, Sherlock, “Ironic” isn’t ironic — it’s just Alanis speaking her piece about the perils of being a girl in a fickle-as-fuck world, singing like an acoustic guitar. Jagged Little Pill is like a Nineties version of Carole King’s Tapestry: a woman using her plain soft-rock voice to sift through the emotional wreckage of her youth, with enough heart and songcraft to make countless listeners feel the earth move.

44. Fugees, ‘The Score’

Fugees, 'The Score'

A hip-hop mod squad from the streets of Dirty Jersey, the Fugees combined streetwise flash with righteous boho cool on their second album to become the biggest rap franchise this side of the Wu-Tang Clan. Lauryn Hill’s scorched soul vocals — half Nina Simone, half Al Capone — flavor the Caribbean style of Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel. The Fugees prove themselves a damn fine wedding band with their covers of “Killing Me Softly” and “No Woman, No Cry,” but they hit even harder in gems like “Family Business,” trading vocals over a loop of Godfather-style acoustic guitar. The Score crosses boundaries of gender and geography, reinventing hip-hop as music for an international refugee camp of brothers and sisters with the inner-city blues. Lauryn and Wyclef took different roads on their solo joints, but The Score laid down the blueprint for the Fugees’ vision of the world as a ghetto.

43. TLC, ‘CrazySexyCool’

TLC, 'CrazySexyCool'

Left Eye, Chilli and T-Boz looked like a one-shot when they first emerged from the nascent Atlanta scene with 1992’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” But CrazySexyCool was a real shocker, packed bumper to bumper with great songs, sassy vocals and voluptuous beats for burning down the house. “Creep” celebrates the kicks of illicit lust on the down low, “Waterfalls” digs deep into Memphis soul and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” does Prince better than the Artist has all decade. The showstopper: “Red Light Special,” an impossibly steamy make-out ballad that undresses and caresses everyone with ears to hear it. CrazySexyCool established TLC as pop pros who could do it all, combining the body slam of hip-hop and the giddy uplift of a jump-rope rhyme without breaking a nail.

42. PJ Harvey, ‘Rid of Me’

PJ Harvey, 'Rid of Me'

As Butt-Head so eloquently put it, “This chick is weird.” Polly Jean Harvey strode out of the English countryside to make the air-guitar record of the decade, exorcising her demons in fierce, funny songs that sometimes even had melodies. On Rid of Me, she summons the thunder of classic Seventies rock with help from producer Steve Albini. Harvey wails about that not-so-moist feeling in “Dry,” proclaims herself “king of the world” in “50-Ft. Queenie” and raises hell in “Man-Size,” putting her leather boots on to go stomp the whole planet into submission.

41. Guns n’ Roses, ‘Use Your Illusion I and II’

Guns n' Roses, 'Use Your Illusion I and II'

It had been five years since Appetite for Destruction, so when Use Your Illusion I and II — separate albums released simultaneously — dropped, they exploded. Slash and Izzy Stradlin let fly a brutal twin-guitar assault, taking all “the trash … dumped into the brain” and firing it back with machine-gun fury. A soaring version of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is their can’t-we-all-just-get-along plea. Guns n’ Roses couldn’t — even with themselves. But these albums stand on their own incendiary terms, souvenirs of a season in hell.

40. Neil Young, ‘Harvest Moon’

The title echoes Harvest, Young‘s countryish album of two decades earlier, and the music recalls its gentle flavor. Harvest was a mellow bestseller, an uncharacteristic middle-of-the-road pit stop in a decade of deeply personal and sometimes highly eccentric releases, and Harvest Moon also sounds as if it was made for lazy hammock-swinging afternoons. But beneath its placid surface are the craggy scars of middle age, when holding onto and cherishing love (see the title track) is a lot more difficult than finding it.

39. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’

My Bloody Valentine, 'Loveless'

Technically, this album isn’t instrumental — Bilinda Butcher’s dreamy croon wafts throughout, gently defining post-punk girlishness. Guitarist and resident genius Kevin Shields also sings sometimes. But the instrumental quality of the vocals — the fact that they matter as tone, not language — helps define Loveless’ new paradigm. No more would experimental bands require pompous poets ranting about lambs on Broadway. Sonic textures, from electrical-storm dissonance to feather-soft harmonics, could carry meaning and hit the gut. Imparting this truth and setting the stage for post-rock, electronica, Garbage and Beck, My Bloody Valentine vanished into the ether they’d generated. If they never return, Loveless was enough.

38. Soundgarden, ‘Superunknown’

Soundgarden, 'Superunknown'

Soundgarden‘s step up to rock & roll immortality came late in their day, after spells with both Sub Pop and SST Records, and after the band first grabbed the platinum ring with 1991’s Badmotorfinger. But this brutish beauty gave Soundgarden a lock on the “Led Zeppelin for the Nineties” crown. A heavy-metal band with punk-rock nobility and no time for lemon-squeezin’ corn, guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd and drummer Matt Cameron hammer Chris Cornell’s vocal anguish in “Fell on Black Days,” “Black Hole Sun” and “Like Suicide” into brilliantly warped power-thump sculpture.

37. Johnny Cash, ‘American Recordings’

Johnny Cash, 'American Recordings'

It’s rare when forty years into a career, an artist unleashes an indisputable masterpiece. Johnny Cash pulled it off, though. American Recordings was the brainchild of Cash and producer Rick Rubin, who had the genius to recognize that Cash’s incomparable voice alone with an acoustic guitar and a clutch of great songs was a can’t-miss proposition. Cash’s own tunes (“Drive On”) align perfectly with apt selections by the likes of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and (no joke) Glenn Danzig. American Recordings is stark, stirring and, at times, even funny. Best of all it restored a master to much-deserved pre-eminence.

36. A Tribe Called Quest, ‘The Low End Theory’

A Tribe Called Quest, 'The Low End Theory'

The nice guys finished first. Queens-born and -bred A Tribe Called Quest brought you egoless hip-hop that let you dance to their smooth, jazzy sounds, chock with horns and upright bass and chill alongside their laid-back attitude. Producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad polished the mix, and MC Phife played a great second fiddle in rhymes about SkyPagers, the record industry and girls (“Tanya, Tameeka/Sharon, Karen/Tina, Stacy/Julie, Tracy”), but, really, it was Q-Tip’s show. His distinct nasal voice light and delicious, his liquid flow as warm and comforting as an electric blanket, his natural charisma shining through the speakers, Q-Tip makes The Low End Theory feel like an easy conversation with an old friend.

35. Wilco, ‘Being There’

Wilco, 'Being There'

The nineteen tracks on Being There are spread across two CDs — a sound aesthetic decision. Each disc functions as a self-contained entity digestible in a single forty-minute sitting. Together, both halves aspire to the nervy sprawl of double-album predecessors such as London Calling and Exile on Main Street, records that forged unified personal statements out of a bewildering variety of styles. Being There is a product of ambitious versatility, particularly in the string-band textures conjured by multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston and the pliant rhythms of bassist John Stirratt and drummer Ken Coomer. Wilco explore the clavinet-fuelled funk of the Band on “Kingpin” and crank up the Sun Sessions-style reverb on “Someday Soon.” The band also bounces like the Beatles in a dance hall on “Why Would You Wanna Live” and evokes an air of desert mystery in “Hotel Arizona.”

34. Oasis, ‘(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?’

Oasis, '(What's the Story) Morning Glory?'

With their second album, the fighting Gallagher brothers embraced the Stones and Beatles comparisons, then went ahead and established themselves as a rock & roll force in their own right with tunes such as “Roll With It” and the glorious “Wonderwall.”

33. Eminem, ‘The Slim Shady LP’

Eminem, 'The Slim Shady LP'

Here’s where Eminem introduced himself as a crazy white geek, the “class-clown freshman/Dressed like Les Nessman.” Hip-hop had never heard anything like Em’s brain-damaged rhymes on this Dr. Dre—produced album, which earned Em respect, fortune, fame and a lawsuit from his mom.

32. Nine Inch Nails, ‘The Downward Spiral’

Nine Inch Nails, 'The Downward Spiral'

Trent Reznor has the shock-antic instincts of an old Hollywood B-movie producer. He made publicity hay out of the fact that part of this album was recorded in the L.A. mansion where Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s gang; he also inspired arenas of teenagers to sing along to the unforgettable chorus of “Closer”: “I want to fuck you like an animal.” Yet this is finely wrought gore, a swan dive into Reznor’s deep vat of discontent, in which he vents as effectively in tense, muted moments (“I Do Not Want This”) as he does in the full-bore, machine-generated terror of the title track. In a genre — industrial rock — wracked with cliché, Reznor demonstrates the many shades of gray that make up abject despair.

31. Bob Dylan, ‘Time Out of Mind’

Bob Dylan, 'Time Out of Mind'

Having shed one persona after another for more than three decades, Bob Dylan finally found one he could embrace: brokedown, death-haunted bluesman. “I’m sick of love,” he groans on Time‘s opening track, and, man, he sounds it. That sets the tone for the ten songs that follow, a night journey that’s all roads and no destination, all outskirts and no town. The sad-eyed man of “Highlands,” a swirling sixteen-minute epic, is still moving, however, as the album ends, desperate to elude the reaper, nearly out of his mind with weariness, nearly out of time.

30. Green Day, ‘Dookie’

Green Day, 'Dookie'

Millions of us made time to listen to Billie Joe Armstrong whine as he and his band of Bay Area punk snots won America’s heart with fast guitars, bouncy drums and the fakest English accents ever recorded. Their hits fit together like a stack of Pringles: “Basket Case” takes off with a case of the creeps and a melody that plays tricks on you, while “Longview” and “When I Come Around” vent the usual teen spirit with groovy hooks that the Bay City Rollers would have appreciated. Green Day took the booming Cali-punk revival to middle America: Cuter than Muppets, funnier than Weird Al, Green Day showed no signs of growing up here — which made their later transformation into politically charged arena-rockers that much more remarkable.

29. Wu-Tang Clan, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’

Wu-Tang Clan, 'Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)'

The nine-MC Wu-Tang Clan — including the ruckus-bringer Ol’ Dirty Bastard, sword-sharp GZA and Kennedy­charismatic Method Man — burst out of the slums of Staten Island by capturing the sound of chaos on tape: tracks by RZA that were so rugged they recall pre-sampler, basement-collated hip-hop. Rhymes about drug dealing, project living, beef and martial arts. Furious flows that roar through speakers like controlled screaming. The Wu create an air of wildness that promised violence to anyone who challenged them and to some who didn’t. A generation of fans memorized every word.

28. Madonna, ‘Ray of Light’ On ‘Ray of Light,’

Madonna, 'Ray of Light' On 'Ray of Light,'

Madonna finally gets back into the groove, rocking the dance beats that made her a star in the first place, for her most shamelessly disco album since You Can Dance. Madonna’s rhythm resurrection sounds like some kind of spiritual transformation, and since it accompanied her discovery of yoga and motherhood, it probably was. Producer William Orbit plugs in the techno gadgets, but it’s Madonna’s passion that makes the loudest bang, on powerhouse tracks like “Drowned World/Substitute for Love” and “Little Star.” And in the title smash, Madonna throws herself a tantrum on the global dance floor as if she’d never been away.

27. Rage Against the Machine, ‘Rage Against the Machine’

Rage Against the Machine, 'Rage Against the Machine'

“Anger is a gift,” vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaims in a venomous whisper in “Freedom,” and Rage Against the Machine spread the wealth around, with an electrifying vengeance, all over the rest of their debut album. Gunning de la Rocha’s incantatory rapping with rib-rattling slam, Rage Against the Machine get hot and nasty about authority with acute lyric detail and stunning force. Rage Against the Machine‘s mix of radical politics and headbanging kicks was a startling anomaly amid the self-absorbed ennui of the Year Grunge Broke. But the album’s commercial success was a crucial reaffirmation of rock’s potency as a weapon of protest. With Rage Against the Machine, subversion — in the great, defiant tradition of the Clash and the MC5 — was alive, and thrilling, in the mainstream.

26. Nas, ‘Illmatic’

Nas, 'Illmatic'

Straight from hip-hop’s legendary Queensbridge, New York, projects to the studio, with an oven-roasted voice, butter flow, man-child eyes and a pure love of the music, streetwise intellectual Nas raised the bar on Nineties MC’ing. Nas had an eye on the street, the prison and the dreams of every ghettoman, whether he was sampling the classic film Wild Style, giving his jazz-trumpeter father a guest slot or offering rhymes like these: “Back in ’83 I was an MC sparkin’/But I was too scared to grab the mikes in the parks and/Kick my little raps cuz I thought niggas wouldn’t understand/And now in every jam I’m the fuckin man.” True that.

25. Sublime, ‘Sublime’

Sublime, 'Sublime'

One of the decade’s strangest hits, Sublime came out shortly after the death of singer-guitarist Bradley Nowell but kept spinning off one hit after another, with a loose, friendly California-pop sound inflected by ska, dub, punk and folk. These Long Beach riddim kings get sloppy but keep the tempo chugging, especially in the head-spinning acoustic skank of “What I Got,” which somehow fuses the English Beat with the Grateful Dead. The success of Sublime was a compliment to Nowell’s memory and an even bigger compliment to his rhythm section.

24. Pavement, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’

Pavement, 'Slanted and Enchanted'

Pavement channeled the spirit of Buddy Holly through one of Lou Reed’s blown amps, bringing miles of style to an indie-rock scene starved for a little romance. Stephen Malkmus had the songs to turn this homemade tape of art-punk guitar fuzz into a full-blown California fantasy of girls and boys dreaming big on the ridge where summer ends. Slanted and Enchanted is the sound of sweet suburban boys who loved the Velvet Underground without ever wondering what “The Black Angel’s Death Song” meant, and once Malkmus murmured the words “sha la la” without a trace of irony, out-of-tune guitars would never be the same.

23. The Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Siamese Dream’

The Smashing Pumpkins, 'Siamese Dream'

Chief pumpkin Billy Corgan took the idea of quality control to its obsessive conclusion by playing most of this album’s guitar and bass parts himself — a rough deal for guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy. But Siamese Dream — co-produced with Butch Vig, fresh from Nirvana’s Nevermind — is Corgan’s idealized, super-hands-on version of the full band’s soaring, angst-spiked psychedelia. (The Pumpkins‘ glorious onstage expansions of “Silverfuck” were proof enough that Corgan couldn’t do it all on his own.) That the album remains one of alt-rock’s most enduring documents is down to Corgan’s acute commercial vision — the way he dolled up the confessional indulgence of “Today” and “Disarm” in heavy-Seventies pop lace — and the sheer power of the playing. No matter who did what.

22. Jeff Buckley, ‘Grace’

Jeff Buckley, 'Grace'

Blessed with impressive pedigree (he was the son of the Sixties folk-pop icon Tim Buckley) and a voice of great range and deep character, Jeff Buckley was cursed with a perfectionist’s streak. Buckley had scrapped one stab at a second album and was gearing up to start over when he drowned in a freak accident in Memphis in May 1997, leaving Grace as the only studio album completed to his satisfaction in his brief lifetime. But it is a rich legacy: the transportive blend of serpentine guitars and Buckley’s melismatic singing in “Mojo Pin” and “Grace”; the garage-band swagger and velvet pathos of “Last Goodbye” and “So Real”; the way Buckley turns Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” into delicate, personal prayer. A wonderful record, aptly titled. An enormously gifted artist, gone too soon.

21. Radiohead, ‘The Bends’

Radiohead, 'The Bends'

According to the script, Radiohead were supposed to disappear after their fluky 1993 smash “Creep,” leaving only fond memories of Thom Yorke’s Martin Short—after-electroshock yodel and that wukku-wukku guitar hook. But The Bends shocked everyone with its wide­screen psychedelic glory, raising Radiohead to a very Seventies kind of U.K. art-rock godhead. The depressive ballad “Fake Plastic Trees” turned up in Clueless, in which Alicia Silverstone memorably tags the band as “complaint rock”; in big-bang dystopian epics like “High and Dry,” Yorke’s choirboy whimper runs laps around Jonny Greenwood’s machinehead guitar heroics. U2 would have sold crack to nuns to make this record.

20. Liz Phair, ‘Exile in Guyville’

Liz Phair, 'Exile in Guyville'

In the immortal words of Mick Jagger, the change has come. Liz Phair took indie rock under her thumb with Exile in Guyville, firing off wisecracks, obscenities, pickup lines and confessions. She could crack you up and break your heart in the same song, sounding intimate without ever really giving her secrets away. Phair’s dry Peppermint Patty mumble fit into a swirl of watery guitar frazzle and percussion as the melodies swam around in your head all summer long. “Fuck and Run” is Phair’s greatest hit, but Exile is just one perfect song after another: the acoustic shiver of “Glory,” the bangled-out glimmer of “Never Said,” the wobbly jet-girl whoosh of “Stratford-on-Guy.”

19. Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

Red Hot Chili Peppers, 'Blood Sugar Sex Magik'

It took the Chili Peppers seven years, four albums and a few rough turns of the personnel merry-go-round to perfect the savory schizophrenia captured on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Los Angeles band’s 1991 quadruple-platinum home run. Produced by Rick Rubin with the white-headbanger, hip-hop snap of James Brown on the Led Zeppelin II tip, Blood Sugar pingpongs between the precision swagger of “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss” and the luminous hurt of singer Anthony Kiedis’ Top Ten junkie blues, “Under the Bridge.” The alternating slap of extremes perfectly nails not only the giddy highs and drawn-out lows of life in a city built on illusions but also the Chili Peppers’ fight to beat their own worst excesses. An album of honest drama — and you can mosh to it.

18. R.E.M., ‘Automatic for the People’

R.E.M., 'Automatic for the People'

Named after a slogan used in an Athens, Georgia, soul-food restaurant, Automatic for the People is a feast of Southern Gothic pop, combining the gossamer intricacies of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the singalong wallop of the Beatles’ Abbey Road. The weirdness is warm and playful — “Star Me Kitten,” a delicious homage to 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love”; “Man on the Moon,” Michael Stipe’s buoyant tribute to the late comedian Andy Kaufman — and torch songs such as the Stax-with-strings jewel “Everybody Hurts” glow with hard-won optimism. At the height of alt-rock, former undergrounders R.E.M. tried to show that melody could be heavy too — and, in the process, made one of the finest American pop albums of the decade.

17. Jay-Z, ‘Reasonable Doubt’

Jay-Z, 'Reasonable Doubt'

“The studio was like a psychiatrist’s couch for me,” Jay-Z told Rolling Stone, and his debut is full of a hustler’s dreams and laments. It established Jay as the premier freestyle rapper of his generation and includes a filthy seventeen-year-old Foxy Brown on “Ain’t No Nigga.”

16. Metallica, ‘Metallica’

Metallica, 'Metallica'

The speed metalheads were barking, “Sellout!” the minute this baby dropped: Metallica had actually bothered to write songs, not just string ten minutes’ worth of hot licks into an anti-capital-punishment suite. But in slowing the tempos down from dizzy to primal, in choosing meaty presence over mere velocity in the riffing, Metallica made a record of durable, mature violence — not to mention the biggest metal album of the decade. And don’t let the orchestration and James Hetfield’s thoughtful growl on “Nothing Else Matters” fool you: Metallica didn’t turn into power-ballad suckers; they simply created a ballad with power.

15. Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’

Lucinda Williams, 'Car Wheels on a Gravel Road'

It’s not that the performances on Car Wheels on a Gravel Road aren’t first-rate — they are. It’s just that when you start with songs this impressive, it’s hard to go wrong. Lucinda Williams had done strong work before, but it all came together here. From the openhearted yearning of “Right in Time” to the surrealist country funk of “Joy,” she runs a gamut of styles and themes, handling each with authority and ease. You don’t arrive in your mid-forties without stories to tell — Williams’ are riveting in every detail.

14. Snoop Doggy Dogg, ‘Doggystyle’

Snoop Doggy Dogg, 'Doggystyle'

With his mind on his money and his money on his mind, Snoop rolled in from the West to pick America’s pockets, and his laid-back drawl was such a hilarious trick that he got away clean. Dr. Dre’s low-riding G-funk makes the perfect backdrop to Snoop’s rhymes, as slow and lazy as a dog-day afternoon. Doggystyle has a serious streak of gangsta remorse running through all the murder and misogyny, but it also offers cheerfully ridiculous cartoon theme songs like “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” and “Doggy Dogg World.” “Gin and Juice” takes a timeless teen trip in the tradition of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “The Twist” and “Bust a Move” — it’s six in the morning, the freaks are still dancing, and the house party keeps jumping till Mama gets home.

13. Beastie Boys, ‘Ill Communication’

Beastie Boys, 'Ill Communication'

Ill communication puts a little polish on the mishmash of Check Your Head; the Beasties freewheel from hardcore punk thrash to jazzy cool-downs for an album with more action than John Woo and mad hits like Rod Carew. The Boys loosen up on their instruments, especially in the subzero cool of “Transitions.” But it’s the linear party starters that make the record: “Sure Shot” knocks a doofy flute sample out of the park, “Get It Together” takes a D-train detour with Q-Tip, and “Sabotage” serves up a slab of red-meat metal that not even Sabbath fans could resist.

12. Tom Petty, ‘Wildflowers’

Tom Petty, 'Wildflowers'

At a time when most rock veterans were stagnating, Tom Petty and producer Rick Rubin made Wildflowers, the most organic, cohesive record of Petty’s career. Compared with the pleasingly slick textures of Petty’s work with Jeff Lynne on 1989’s Full Moon Fever and 1991’s Into the Great Wide Open, there is a timeless grace and folky subtlety to the material here, including the haunting title track, the soulful stoner rock of “You Don’t Know How It Feels” and the orchestral delicacy of “Wake Up Time.”

11. Outkast, ‘Aquemini’

Outkast, 'Aquemini'

Featuring joyous, bass-happy party funk dotted with tight horn lines, Outkast‘s third album captures Big Boi and Andre 3000 rollicking like the church choir in full effect. On tracks such as “Rosa Parks” and “Skew It on the Bar-B,” they reveal themselves to be a stylistic midpoint between hip-hop’s East and West Coasts, mixing the unassumingly cerebral hip-hop of A Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul with that George Clinton—drenched funk favoured out west. With their drawled-out voices, neighbourhood slang and cascading sheets of words, they put permanently to bed all questions about serious MC’ing on the South Coast. Atlanta’s reputation as hip-hop’s most avant-garde area code — the Long Island of the Nineties — was cemented.

10. Pavement, ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’

Pavement, 'Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain'

Pavement‘s second full-length was less quirky and diffuse than their first and even yielded their career’s only modest hit, “Cut Your Hair.” Best of all, sweetly catchy songs such as “Gold Soundz” and “Range Life” showed that Pavement were more than just smirky indie rockers.

9. Beck, ‘Odelay’

Beck, 'Odelay'

The Woody Guthrie of the Pizza Hut proves he can do it all on Odelay, as the Dust Brothers slip him a funky cold medina and set the stage for him to get real, real gone for a change. Beck shimmies in and out of his musical guises, whether he’s strumming his folky guitar in “Ramshackle,” rocking the Catskills hip-hop style in “Where It’s At” or blaming it on the bossa nova in “Readymade.” Odelay could have come off as a bloodless art project, but Beck gets lost in the jigsaw jazz and the get-fresh flow until his playful energy makes everyone else sound tame. That is a good drum break, indeed.

8. The Notorious B.I.G., ‘Ready to Die’

The Notorious B.I.G., 'Ready to Die'

You remember the first time you heard Biggie — he came on as the baddest chronic-smoking, Oreo-cookie-eating, pickle-juice-drinking stud on the block, and he was the man, girlfriend. Biggie spread love the Brooklyn way, doing more than anyone else to revitalize New York hip-hop after years of West Coast dominance, and Ready to Die maps out the sounds of Nineties cool. The vision is bleak, from “Suicidal Thoughts” to the love song that hinges on the line “I swear to God, I hope we fuckin’ die together.” But Biggie’s voice is also full of high-spirited fun, bringing the pleasure principle back to hip-hop. In “Big Poppa,” his idea of a romantic evening includes a T-bone steak, cheese, eggs and Welch’s grape, and that’s just while the Jacuzzi heats up.

7. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’

Nirvana, 'In Utero'

The basic tracks were recorded in two weeks; nearly all of Kurt Cobain‘s vocals were whipped down on tape in seven hours. If In Utero is a record born of great crisis — mostly Cobain’s personal war with overwhelming good fortune — it was made with concentrated purpose. Steve Albini’s corrosion-is-bliss production does not flatter songs of tempered, layered drama such as “Pennyroyal Tea” (Cobain’s definitive performance is on Unplugged). But Albini’s harsh touch was perfect for the extremism Cobain had already written into the soaked-in-lye cannonballs “Serve the Servants,” “Scentless Apprentice” and “Very Ape.” In the sun-dappled, cello-garnished sadness of “All Apologies” and “Dumb,” Cobain was also upfront about his oversize needs and diminished expectations for fulfillment. He ultimately proved incapable of pulling himself out of that funk; instead, he made fine, furious art from it.

6. Pearl Jam, ‘Ten’

Pearl Jam, 'Ten'

‘When their debut came out, Pearl Jam were competing with Nirvana in a grunge popularity contest they were bound to lose. Yet Ten is a near-perfect record: Eddie Vedder’s shaky, agonized growl and Mike McCready’s wailing guitar solos on “Alive” and “Jeremy” push both songs to the brink and back again.

5. Lauryn Hill, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’

Lauryn Hill, 'The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill'

After months locked in tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica, Lauryn Hill emerged from the shadow of the Fugees to create a stunning musical document that is equal parts Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and, well, no one but Lauryn Hill. She sings and rhymes; she gives us ballads, party rockers and doo-wop; she sings of love for men, her son, Zion, her New Jersey childhood and (maybe) her ex-boyfriend, Wyclef Jean. She wraps it all in a raw, completely human sound in which you can hear fingers plucking guitars, needles meeting vinyl and drumsticks touching cymbals. When someone asks you, “What is hip-hop soul?” play them The Miseducation. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-19691231/the-miseducation-of-lauryn-hill-lauryn-hill-19691231 The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill – Lauryn Hill

4. U2, ‘Achtung Baby’

U2, 'Achtung Baby'

It was one of the most extreme personality transformations in pop music — ever. U2, the Irish bards of cathedral-chime guitar and pub-stool sermonizing, said goodbye to the Eighties and the suffocating tide of their own sincerity by setting up their recording gear in post-Wall Berlin and saying hello to the two i‘s: irony and industrial dance music. The music — slower than The Joshua Tree — is corrosive, razed-city funk laced with mad laughter and creeping paranoia. Yet the album’s crackle and empty-hallway echo are really a kind of protective armor for the defiant heart in Bono’s lyrics (“One,” “Ultra Violet [Light My Way]”) and the real lesson of Achtung Baby‘s post­modern giggles: To appreciate the joys of heaven, sometimes you have to take a little walk through hell.

3. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’

Radiohead, 'OK Computer'

Progress is a bitch, but don’t let the machines, or their masters, grind you down: That is the simple message encoded in the art-rock razzle-dazzle of OK Computer. Hailed as The Dark Side of the Moon for the Information Age, Computer is too brittle in its time-signature twists and hairpin guitar turns, too claustrophobic in mood, to qualify as space rock. Instead, Radiohead shatter the soul-sucking echo of isolation and enforced routine with the violent mood swings of “Paranoid Android” and Thom Yorke’s arcing vocal anguish in the gaunt, yearning ballads “Let Down” and “Lucky.” Somehow, OK Computer went platinum a year after its release — a welcome testament that smart still sells.

2. Dr. Dre, ‘The Chronic’

Dr. Dre, 'The Chronic'

Once upon a time, Dr. Dre was just one of the guys from N.W.A, Suge Knight was just a bodyguard and Snoop Dogg wasn’t a star. Then The Chronic dropped, and the earth moved on Planet Hip-Hop. The sound is culled from George Clinton’s funk, the images are loosely inspired by the ominous malfeasance of The Godfather, and it is all pulled together by a tall, skinny new kid from Long Beach, California, who delivers vivid ghetto stories and marijuana paeans in a light, singsongy drawl that seems the epitome of cool under fire. It was the most original MC style since Rakim, and it magnetised listeners from coast to coast the first time they heard him say, “Ain’t nuttin’ buh a gee thang, bayyy-bay.”

1. Nirvana, ‘Nevermind’

Nirvana, 'Nevermind'

The album that guaranteed the nineties would not suck. Every word and note Kurt Cobain wrote for Nevermind now rings with the heavy clang of compound retrospect: his sad, foolish death; the thousand grunge-alikes who aped Cobain’s pain well enough but blew it with the music. In fact, Cobain’s special genius — and that of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic — was in barbed humor and the amp-joy classicism of the Sex Pistols, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. Nevermind pulled the decade’s ultimate mosh-party record out of a generation’s discontent — and showed that rock & roll, in its messy middle age, could still fuck things up, gloriously.