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Top 100 Greatest Alternative Rock Albums of the '90s

Updated: Mar 20

Top 100 Greatest Alternative Rock Albums of the '90s

(Pictured - Radiohead 2017)

The 1990s saw the golden age of what could be considered alternative rock, or non-traditional rock, following an explosion of artistic creativity throughout the 1980s with bands like Joy Division, The Cure, The Smiths, Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Replacements, and many more. Nonconformist musical ideals, alongside the creation of independent music labels across the US and the UK, filled a void the world was unaware need filling. The '90s was a unique time when alternative rock and mainstream rock almost merged for a brief period, as the masses began to embrace styles like jangle-pop and grunge. The '90s also saw the rise of Britpop in the UK, spilling over into the US and Canada and once again expanding the horizons of rock. For the purposes of this list, the near convergence of mainstream rock and alternative rock in the '90s allowed us to be pretty broad with our criteria. Styles considered indie rock, post-punk, jangle-pop, grunge, noise rock, experimental rock, new wave, Madchester, slacker rock, Britpop, shoegaze, and college rock all fall under the umbrella of '90s alternative rock. Some indie pop, indie folk, and industrial albums have been included if they have substantial rock undertones or if the artist is generally considered alternative or indie rock. More defined criteria like metal, ska, hip-hop, hardcore, punk, and mainstream pop have been excluded unless substantial alternative or indie rock undertones exist. For a look at songs specifically, be sure to check out The Top 100 Greatest Alternative Rock Songs of the '90s.

Not only was OK Computer the finest alternative rock album of the '90s, OK Computer is the most impressive and jaw-dropping musical feat released since 1990. Upon release in 1997, the record was immediately met with universal praise, even though critics and listeners were still trying to piece together exactly what the record was. By 1997, grunge had finished in the US, and Britpop was quickly fading in the UK. Radiohead's response to the decline of Britpop was perfect, releasing an album that was the complete opposite of Britpop, stunning listeners with the album's mystic darkness and expertly assembled songs. Thom Yorke's vocal style was dramatically different from the Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn styles (at least pre-1997) that were dominating British music at the time, captivating millions of listeners in a post-Britpop world. OK Computer was years ahead of its time and changed rock music forever, unlocking artistic sensibilities beyond what people thought were possible. OK Computer was the Dark Side of the Moon of the '90s—a true masterpiece from the overture that is Airbag to the triangle hit that ends The Tourist.

2. Nevermind - Nirvana

Grunge was the first and only alternative style of music in the US which wholeheartedly captured the attention of the American mainstream to a level that nothing else really came close to. Released a month after Pearl Jam's decorated debut Ten, Nevermind captured the attention of a generation of angsty American youth. Tracks like Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium, and Come as You Are are hailed as some of the greatest alternative rock songs of the decade, with Smells Like Teen Spirit often considered the best. Frontman Kurt Cobain's ominous lyrical style, backed up by his uniquely contagious style of guitar playing, struck a nerve with millions of listeners on a scale that still remains substantial today, nearly 30 years later. Nevermind is considered the quintessential grunge album, introducing much of the world to the Seattle sound before the death of Cobain essentially marked the end of the grunge style

Sometime in the early to mid-2000s, American indie fans realized that the uncovered gem of '90s indie was Neutral Milk Hotel's second record In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Following its release, less than 10,000 copies of the record were pressed, and the band embarked on a North American tour consisting of small to mid-sized clubs where they began to establish a reputation for legendary, chaotic shows. Shortly after, the band broke up before the greatness of the record had been truly uncovered. Following the turn of the century, retrospective reviews began popping up, generally giving the record a perfect score, while at the same time, new bands like The Decemberists, Arcade Fire, and Beirut recognized the record as deeply influential. Frontman Jeff Mangum turned into a larger-than-life character, absent from the mainstream as his masterpiece began to be discovered by more and more listeners. The record's psychedelic tendencies mixed with folk, rock, and pop sensibilities unsuspectingly ended up creating one of the decade's finest and most impactful records.

4. What's the Story (Morning Glory) - Oasis

Hardline Oasis fans tend to be split between what was the band's masterpiece; was it the band's debut Definitely Maybe or '95's What's the Story (Morning Glory)? No matter where opinions lie, it was 1995's What's the Story (Morning Glory) that made the larger and longer-lasting international impact, introducing much of the US to Britpop. Tracks like Wonderwall, Champagne Supernova, and Don't Look Back in Anger have gone down in history as some of the finest Britpop anthems, with Wonderwall establishing an impressive legacy of its own. Aside from the cultural impact the album left throughout the world, the record was (and still is) a near-perfect collection of alternative rock ideals, post-Madchester sounds alongside a revitalization of old-school British glam rock. The record marked the international peak of Britpop and was universally praised across the world, both within and outside the mainstream.

5. Slanted & Enchanted - Pavement

For as much praise as Pavement received from indieheads and critics, the band flew under the radar for most American listeners during their early to mid-'90s heyday. Neither the band's 1992 debut Slanted and Enchanted nor 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain cracked the Top 100 in the American charts, with their debut not charting at all. Aside from the near-complete ignorance from the mainstream to the brilliance of Pavement, the band's debut record was a special one, infusing eclectic, bright guitar playing with monotone and often humorous lyrics connecting deeply with listeners dissatisfied with the state of mainstream rock. Slanted & Enchanted became one of the quintessential records of the slacker rock movement in the US, with the record's lo-fi aesthetic paired with catchy melodies, deadpan vocals, minimalist production, and a complete, refreshing lack of glamor. Some have even gone as far as saying Pavement was the best band of the '90s, and at least for some listeners, there is a case there.

Primarily experiencing only localized success in California, once Green Day released Dookie in 1994, they immediately became one of the most intriguing and exciting forces in American rock music. Released at an interesting time, before pop-punk and just after the decline of hardcore punk in the '80s, Dookie was pretty much its own thing. Structurally, the record is compiled of relatively simple, short song forms, but it was Green Day's energy and knack for being catchy that radiated so well. Green Day captured the attention of mainstream listeners alongside the punks, and the underground rock listeners, becoming anthemic for an entire generation. The middle portion of this record is sheer gold with tracks like She, Longview, Basket Case, Welcome to Paradise, and When I Come Around all being exceptional rock songs. Filled with authentic punk energy, catchy hooks, and expert post-production, Dookie acted as the bridge between '80s punk and late '90s pop-punk.

7. Ten - Pearl Jam

Although Nevermind came out just a month after Pearl Jam's debut Ten, it by no means took the spotlight off of Pearl Jam's fantastic debut. In the early '90s, the hype of the American grunge scene had plenty of love to go around, with bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains establishing themselves in the scene as well. Ten is often hailed as one of the greatest American rock records of all time, alongside its longstanding praise within the grunge scene itself. Just as it was with Nevermind, the brilliance of Ten was realized almost immediately across the US. Mixing power chords with emotive lyrics, distortion, and sheer volume, Pearl Jam crafted a sound that, while Seattle to its core, was also uniquely their own, expressed through the iconic and recognizable vocal style of Eddie Vedder. Behind Vedder, Mike McCready unleashed an interesting, respected style of guitar playing to the world, one based on feel, and not technical in the slightest.

8. Automatic For the People - R.E.M.

With such a longstanding reputation in American alternative rock, R.E.M. seemingly got better and better with time following their fantastic 1983 debut album Murmur. Throughout the '80s, R.E.M. dominated American college radio while at times peeking their heads into the mainstream. By the '90s, the band showed no signs of slowing down or losing their groove, with their eighth studio album Automatic for the People turning out to be their masterpiece, released nine years after their debut. Automatic for the People unlocked a deeper, more emotional side of the band, with songs like Nightswimming and Everybody Hurts both being shockingly beautiful and heartfelt, in a way that a lot of alternative rockers tend to not venture into very much. Man on the Moon is a more textbook radio rock song while still possessing ominous verses and intriguing lyrics, whereas songs like Drive and Monty Got a Raw Deal are darker, haunting rock tracks. Automatic for the People touched on darker elements in a way their previous record Out of Time did not quite do and showed R.E.M. was still deeply confident, fresh, and on top of their game, over a decade in. The creative brilliance of Athens, Georgia.

9. Loveless - My Bloody Valentine

Released in 1991, Loveless has been hailed as the premiere shoegaze album of the entire style, and by quite some distance as well. The record has been praised for its groundbreaking use of guitar effects, innovative production techniques, and ethereal vocals, creating a soundscape that was both immersive and otherworldly. The album's dense layers of sound, coupled with Kevin Shields' unique approach to guitar playing, set a new standard for musical experimentation and influenced a wide range of artists across various genres. Despite its troubled and lengthy production process, Loveless emerged as a masterpiece of sonic texture and emotional depth, capturing the spirit of the era while transcending it. Being praised by a vast array of artists ranging from Robert Smith of The Cure to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Loveless dropped so many jaws that, in a similar way to OK Computer, it took years for people to really piece together just what it was they were listening to. Mixing avant-garde musical themes with noise rock and dream pop, Loveless was the most interesting alternative rock record to come through the shoegaze movement.

10. Grace - Jeff Buckley

In mixing jazz with folk and rock, Jeff Buckley created one of the most impressive and interesting solo records of the era. Jeff Buckley's first and only studio album Grace has since become a staple of alternative rock, coming from a direction uniquely different than most of the era's rock. Buckley's extraordinary vocal range, combined with his unique fusion of folk, rock, jazz, and blues, created an album of unparalleled emotional depth and musical sophistication. The album features a mix of mostly original tracks along with a few covers, notably the haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah, showcasing Buckley's ability to imbue each note with profound emotional resonance. Aside from Hallelujah, Buckley's song Lover, You Should've Come Over is one of the most intense and powerful love songs ever recorded. Starting off as a softer ballad, Buckley builds the seven-minute song into a completely out-of-this-world, heartfelt, loud expression of sheer power and longing. Buckley's tragic death two years later left the world wondering what else Jeff had in store that never made it to the studio.

11. Last Splash - The Breeders

13. If You're Feeling Sinister - Belle & Sebastian

15. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain - Pavement

16. The Bends - Radiohead

17. Screamadelica - Primal Scream

18. Parklife - Blur

19. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One - Yo La Tengo

20. Pinkerton - Weezer

21. Siamese Dream - Smashing Pumpkins

22. Goo - Sonic Youth

23. Violator - Depeche Mode

24. Either/Or - Elliott Smith

25. Superunknown - Soundgarden

26. Odelay - Beck

27. Spiderland - Slint

28. Repeater - Fugazi

29. Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against The Machine

30. Definitely Maybe - Oasis

31. Blood Sugar Sex Magik - Red Hot Chili Peppers

32. Dirt - Alice In Chains

33. Ritual de lo Habitual - Jane's Addiction

34. Urban Hymns - The Verve

35. Elastica - Elastica

36. Live Through This - Hole

37. Bee Thousand - Guided By Voices

38. American Football (1999)- American Football

39. Moon Pix - Cat Power

40. Keep It Like a Secret - Built to Spill

41. Modern Life is Rubbish - Blur

42. Different Class - Pulp

43. Tigermilk - Belle & Sebastian

44. The Holy Bible - Manic Street Preachers

45. Exile in Guyville - Liz Phair

46. Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morissette

47. To Bring You My Love - PJ Harvey

48. The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch Nails

49. Laughing Stock - Talk Talk

50. In Utero - Nirvana

51. Little Earthquakes - Tori Amos

52. Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches - Happy Mondays

53. Bone Machine - Tom Waits

54. Emergency & I - The Dismemberment Plan

55. The Lonesome Crowded West - Modest Mouse

56. Dog Man Star - Suede

57. Music from the Unrealized Film Script: Dusk at Cubist Castle - The Olivia Tremor Control

58. Call The Doctor - Sleater-Kinney

59. The La's - The La's

60. Flood - They Might Be Giants

61. XO - Elliott Smith

62. Out of Time - R.E.M.

63. The Colour and the Shape - Foo Fighters

64. I Should Coco - Supergrass

65. The Great Escape - Blur

66. Bakesale - Sebadoh

67. A Northern Soul - The Verve

68. Californication - Red Hot Chili Peppers

69. Homogenic - Björk

70. Badmotorfinger - Soundgarden

71. Dizzy Up the Girl - Goo Goo Dolls

72. Heaven or Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins

73. Weezer (Blue Album) - Weezer

74. In on the Kill Taker - Fugazi

75. Rid of Me - PJ Harvey

76. Vs. - Pearl Jam

77. Wowee Zowee - Pavement

78. Mermaid Avenue - Wilco & Billy Bragg

79. Your Arsenal - Morrissey

80. Dig Me Out - Sleater-Kinney

81. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness - Smashing Pumpkins

82. Bossanova - Pixies

83. Dirty - Sonic Youth

84. The Soft Bulletin - The Flaming Lips

85. Let Love In - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

86. 69 Love Songs - The Magnetic Fields

87. This is Hardcore - Pulp

88. Gentlemen - The Afghan Whigs

89. Facelift - Alice In Chains

90. X - INXS

91. Perfect From Now On - Built to Spill

92. Fakebook - Yo La Tengo

93. Suede - Suede

94. American Water - Silver Jews

95. Summerteeth - Wilco

96. Radiator - Super Furry Animals

97. Star - Belly

98. Under the Pink - Tori Amos

99. Pod - The Breeders

100. Monster - R.E.M.


Just Outside the Top 100

101. August and Everything After - Counting Crows

102. Bubble & Scrape - Sebadoh

103. Electr-O-Pura - Yo La Tengo

104. Mellow Gold - Beck

105. Everything Must Go - Manic Street Preachers

106. Alien Lanes - Guided By Voices

107. Deserter's Songs - Mercury Rev

108. Purple - Stone Temple Pilots

109. Souvlaki - Slowdive

110. Mezcal Head - Swervedriver

111. 0898 Beautiful South - The Beautiful South

112. Vitalogy - Pearl Jam

113. Giant Steps - The Boo Radleys

114. Diary - Sunny Day Real Estate

115. Mutations - Beck

116. So Tonight That I Might See - Mazzy Star

117. Garbage - Garbage

118. Blur - Blur

119. Foo Fighters - Foo Fighters

120. The Battle of Los Angeles - Rage Against The Machine

121. Some Friendly - The Charlatans

122. Elliott Smith - Elliott Smith

123. Celebrity Skin - Hole

124. Electro-Shock Blues - Eels

125. New Miserable Experience - Gin Blossoms


2000's alternative & indie rock playlist cover 2.JPEG
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