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The 90s was an era that might have just been one of the last golden ages of pop culture. During this time, alternative rock gained footing and quickly became a mainstream phenomenon. If you ask many rock fans, alternative rock defined the decade—and never was quite the same after.
For kids who felt disillusioned with the overly fake veneer of suburban living, alt rock was the only real voice that said what they were thinking. It was a genre that acted as a voice of a generation, and often was the only kind of music brave enough to talk about the problems 90s society had.
If you really want to understand the decade's music scene, you need to listen to the best 90s alternative rock albums at least once. I ought to know; I was there at the time.
Here are my personal selections of the top alt rock albums of the decade, as both a 90s kid and an audiophile...
(Note: For the sake of this list, we're keeping it to one album per band.)
Ten by Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam was one of the first flannel-wearing grunge rock bands to really be honest about the problems that a lot of kids faced at home and in school.
Ten was an album that made serious waves thanks to its song, "Jeremy," which was all about a troubled boy that acted out due to problems at home. Pearl Jam's other smash hit on the album, "Alive," was all about child abuse.
The raw lyrics, Vedder's crooning voice, and the sheer grungy style of Pearl Jam's riffs made Ten one of the best 90s alternative rock albums you can buy—and one of the best alt rock albums to ever be made, period.
Nevermind by Nirvana
We can't make a list of the best 90s alternative rock albums without including a Nirvana album. It would be sacrilege! Nirvana was not just a grunge rock band; they were the grunge rock band.
No other album could better encapsulate everything about the alternative rock movement of the 90s than Nevermind. This album was filled with Kurt Cobain's anger at the world, and every single song showed it.
Excellent guitar riffs, Cobain's gravelly-good voice, and shockingly graphic lyrics was what made Nevermind a multi-platinum album. Chances are that you've already heard most of the tracks on it, too, since most of them became smash hits in their own right.
Top tracks include "Smells Like Teen Spirit," an anthem of disillusioned teenagers everywhere. Other smash hit tracks include "Come As You Are," "Lithium," and "In Bloom."
With over 30 million album copies sold, it's safe to say that Nevermind is worth every penny.
Siamese Dream by Smashing Pumpkins
Siamese Dream was one of the albums that really brought alternative rock into the limelight, and as such, it definitely deserves a place on any list of the best 90s alternative rock albums that rock historians should own.
Though the album may look cheerful, much of the subject matter is actually quite dreary. This album's most famous hit is "Today," an upbeat-sounding song about suicide.
The Smashing Pumpkins played a huge amount of influence in a number of genres, including shoegaze, dream pop, and heavy metal. Siamese Dream will allow you to see all those influences in a single tidy package.
Odelay by Beck
Odelay isn't like many of the other alternative rock albums on this list, primarily because it's not all depressing. Rather, indie rocker Beck worked to create a more stoner-esque sound that later became hugely popular in the mid-to-late 90s.
"Devil's Haircut," one of the biggest hits, was all about coming to terms with vanity — all the while giving subtle hints to how jostled around Beck felt when he was constantly being forced to ride on tour.
Meanwhile, "Where It's At" is a song that's hotly debated over its meaning. Is it about two turntables and a microphone, or is it about sex? No one really seems to know, and that's part of its charm.
If you love stoner rock, then Odelay definitely will rank high among your own list of the best 90s alternative rock albums to listen to.
Violator by Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode is one of the very few alternative rock bands of the 90s to successfully create a brand new, sexy, smooth sound using synthesizers. They also happen to be one of the only mainstream alternative rock bands to really become super popular with goths because of their mysterious-yet-sultry vibe.
Violator is often considered to be one of the best albums this incredibly talented group ever produced—and I'm inclined to agree. This album delivers hit after hit of incredible music, all of which remain just as timeless today as they did 20 years ago.
"Personal Jesus," "Enjoy the Silence," and the striptease-tempo "Policy of Truth" all are featured on Violator. However, I personally think that the best song on this album is "The Sweetest Perfection," an intensely emotional song that's all about heroin addiction.
Depeche Mode's skill is laid bare for all to see in this album, and that's why it's one of the best 90s alternative rock albums you can buy. Even if they still are world famous, I believe that Depeche Mode is one of the most underrated bands of the 90s.
Automatic for the People by R.E.M.
R.E.M is a band that was emo before it actually became emo. Lead vocalist Michael Stipe's soulful, heartfelt singing had a way of melting into people's hearts and striking an emotional chord deep inside us.
Unlike other bands of the age, R.E.M made no attempt to be aggressive or involve hard rock elements in their music. Rather, they offered an alternative rock style that was way softer—and more thoughtful than angsty.
Automatic for the People also had one of the band's biggest hits, a very sorrowful yet understanding song called "Everybody Hurts." Needless to say, many emo bands were seriously influenced by this album.
In terms of sheer creativity and thought-provoking lyrics, Automatic for the People still stands as one of the best 90s alternative rock albums that you can listen to in a pensive mood.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik by Red Hot Chili Peppers
Veering on the punk side of alternative rock were the Red Hot Chili Peppers—and they are just as iconically 90s as the rest of the bands on this list. Their breakout album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, quickly became known for its massive number of rock anthems.
Between the extremely emotional "Breaking a Girl," the in-your-face aggressiveness of "Suck My Kiss," and the smash hit anthem "Under the Bridge," it's easy to see why this album ranks as one of the best 90s alternative rock albums to hit store shelves.
Often imitated, yet never duplicated, millions of bands around the world have been inspired to create surfer-punk rock thanks to Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Needless to say, no 90s rock library would be complete without a copy of this career-making album.
Dookie by Green Day
How ironic that an album called Dookie would end up being pure 90s rock gold, right? Green Day's most famous album was one that is regularly cited as one of the best 90s alternative rock albums by music critics—and often gets called a "musical masterpiece," too.
Dookie contained a slew of major hits, including "Nimrod," "When I Come Around," "Basket Case," and "Welcome to Paradise." Each song had its own level of punk-rock snark in the lyrics, but also had an incredibly good grip of the cynicism many youthful people felt during the era.
Some of the world's biggest bands were influenced by Green Day's pop-punk take on alternative rock. Even Lady Gaga pulled inspiration from Dookie—and she's not even alt rock!
The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails
For many young gothlings, myself included, The Downward Spiral was our first introduction into real industrial music. Nine Inch Nails was one of the greatest industrial bands to ever make, and actually is one of the only industrial bands to see long term mainstream music success, too.
The Downward Spiral's tracks are best described as animalistic, intense, and hypnotic in their own unique way. Above all, the lyrics and pain you feel in every track are very real, and to a point, that's what makes the music so damned great.
Songs like "Closer" perfectly describe what it's like to be addicted to a person—or to a drug, for that matter. Other tracks, like "The Downward Spiral," bring out the tortured feeling of being stuck in a vicious cycle of self-destruction.
Overall, it shouldn't be too hard to see why The Downward Spiral is one of the best 90s alternative rock albums out there. After all, few understand how to make art out of pain like Trent Reznor.