Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A look back at the most influential albums of the 1990s

Angst abounds on these classic records
Collegian File Photo

If the 1980s emphasized the fun, experimental side of music, the 1990s took a turn in the opposite direction.

A new decade called for a new musical landscape — one shaped by the darker, grittier attitude of Generation X, who were entering adulthood. Grunge, a previously unknown genre born out of Seattle, became the foremost sound of the decade. Pop fell to the wayside as hip-hop branched out, creating a rift between the East and West coasts that would go on to define the foreseeable future of the genre. A tumultuous era, marked by doomsday cults and the “heroin chic” aesthetic, called for an equally tumultuous soundtrack.

1. “Nevermind,” Nirvana (1991)

Nirvana’s first album with a major label, “Nevermind,” was a global success and a landmark moment for alternative music. Grunge was a relatively new genre, thought to have little mainstream appeal. “Nevermind” not only exposed the general public to grunge, it encapsulated an era in a way that few albums truly have.

Kurt Cobain’s strange, often brilliant songwriting combines with melodies and instrumentals that are simultaneously unsettling and familiar to create something truly unique on “Nevermind.” A record full of volatile emotion, it pokes fun at the very audience it appeals to: “He’s the one / Who likes all our pretty songs / And he likes to sing along / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he knows not what it means,” Cobain laments on “In Bloom.”

The album’s influence is evident in the sheer number of grunge and alternative bands that found their way onto the charts shortly after its release. Without “Nevermind,” grunge, arguably the defining genre of the ‘90s, might never have gained the exposure that it needed to make such an impact.

2. “The Chronic,” Dr. Dre (1992)

The album that Kayne West called, “the hip-hop equivalent to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life,’” has remained a classic for 30 years. Throughout the late ‘80s, hip-hop was synonymous with a biting sound and graphic, unapologetic lyrics. The 1992 release of “The Chronic,” Dr. Dre’s first solo album, changed hip-hop forever. A laid-back record that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “The Chronic” proved that rap could be fun. Snoop Dogg, who features on over half the tracks, aids in fostering the light-hearted, relaxed sound that has become synonymous with West coast rap. Not only that, but it put Death Row Records, the label that would go on to produce many of the decade’s most iconic hip-hop albums, on the map. The album’s production, its sampling of ‘70s and ‘80s funk and clever wordplay contribute to a body of work that is unlike anything before or since.

3. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” Ms. Lauryn Hill (1998)

In 1998, after the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac, the future of hip-hop was uncertain. No one would have guessed that a 23-year-old woman would be the one to reshape the genre.

Rap had been almost exclusively focused on the experiences of men, but Lauryn Hill’s lyrics openly talked about motherhood, love and heartbreak. Despite the major that “Miseducation” represented, or perhaps because of it, the record was a resounding success. The first hip-hop album to win Album of The Year at the Grammys, “Miseducation” broke barriers in more ways than one. Its feminism is subtle but powerful. Hill recorded most of the album while pregnant, which undoubtedly inspired the song “To Zion,” an ode to her son. Hill took the foundations of hip-hop laid at the beginning of the decade and stretched them to their limits, creating something truly beautiful in the process.

4. “Jagged Little Pill,” Alanis Morissette (1995)

If female rage and all its complexities could be condensed into one song, it would be “You Oughta Know,” the lead single from Alanis Morissette’s third studio album. In the mid-‘90s there were few other female singer-songwriters writing lyrics as disquieting and raw as, “Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back / I hope you feel it.” While “You Oughta Know” isn’t the only break-up song on the album, “Jagged Little Pill” touches on everything from mental illness to the aesthetic expectations placed on women and objectification. No matter the subject, Morissette’s lyricism and intentionally imperfect delivery creates a sense of brutal honesty. She’s desperate to be heard, but she doesn’t care what you think of her. Nearly 30 years later, there’s still something liberating about this record. It is undeniably one of the very first, and best, entries in the canon of records by unapologetically angry women that would follow.

5. “Everyone Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We?,” The Cranberries (1993)

In an episode of the cult-classic teen drama, “My So-Called Life,” angsty high schooler Angela Chase collapses on her bed and blasts “Dreams,” one of the first singles from The Cranberries’ debut album. The scene seems to capture the essence of “Everyone Else Is Doing It So Why Can’t We?,” a deeply adolescent record that enshrines the high and lows of young adult life. While the subject matter — the uncertainties of a new relationship on “Sunday,” the sting of unrequited love on “Linger” — might seem trite to some, the music itself demands to be taken seriously.

Today, dream-pop is a staple of mainstream music, but in 1993 the genre was still in its infancy. It is Dolores O’Riordan’s charming, yet intensely emotional vocals that set the band apart from other pop groups of the time. Ethereal production and brutally honest lyrics complete the remarkably cohesive body of work that is “Everyone Else.” For a record that feels like the sonic equivalent of flipping through someone’s diary, it’s hard not to see reflections of yourself in at least one of its twelve tracks.

Molly Hamilton can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Massachusetts Daily Collegian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *