10 Best ’90s Indie Rock Albums
Sometime in the early ’90s, college rock became indie rock. Maybe it had something to do with Billboard finally recognizing modern rock with its own weekly airplay chart in the late ’80s. Or maybe it had to do with college-rock bands moving to the right of radio dials. Whatever it was, indie rock takes on tones and shapes that differ from the college rock of the ’80s. It’s just as adventurous, as our list of the 10 Best ’90s Indie Rock Albums proves, but it’s also, in a way, more grown up.
’69 Love Songs’
Yes, the album title is a sex joke. But there really are 69 love songs on the Magnetic Fields’ three-disc 1999 LP, which is framed as an ambitious concept record that chronicles the history of love songs over the course of the 20th century. Frontman Stephin Merritt adorns each one in period style — from music hall and Broadway to punk and New Wave.
‘Dig Me Out’
Sleater-Kinney’s third album kicks harder than almost any other record that came out in 1997. It’s rough, primal and so full of energy that the entire LP can barely be contained in its 36 minutes. Best of all, unlike so many other riot-grrrl records from the period, ‘Dig Me Out’ includes actual songs. This is old-fashioned punk with a brand-new purpose.
‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’
The fabled Neutral Milk Hotel released only two albums in their lifetime. Their masterpiece, 1998’s ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,’ was their final one. The low-fi pop explosion is ignited by everything from banjo and accordion to various horns and other random sound effects. Its influence continues to grow each year.
There’s low-fi indie rock, and then there’s Guided by Voices. Many songs on the the prolific group’s seventh album (released in 1994) sound like they were halfway over when the “record” button was pressed on the crappy old cassette player in the corner. But frontman Robert Pollard’s short Beatlesque pop songs are as sweet as they are sour and unkempt.
Nineteen-ninety-three’s ‘Painful’ launched one of the ’90s’ greatest indie-rock trilogies. Really, any one of the albums this New Jersey trio released mid-decade could fill this spot. (‘Electr-O-Pura’ and ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’ are the other two.) But we’re giving it to ‘Painful’ because of its tight, sharp and consistent songcraft.
Pavement’s debut, ‘Slanted and Enchanted,’ is a more important album (see No. 1 on our list of the 10 Best ’90s Indie Rock Albums). But 1994’s follow-up has better songs. No longer content with being America’s finest fractured-art / noise-rock band, the group sounds positively giddy trying on traditional pop and indie-rock tunes like ‘Cut Your Hair,’ ‘Gold Soundz’ and ‘Range Life,’ where they take shots at a couple of modern-rock giants.
Twee pop had been around for a while, but this Scottish collective took the delicate sounds of fragile folk music and chorale instruments to a whole new level with their 1996 album. At a time when indie rock was getting more aggressive and inching closer to the mainstream, Belle and Sebastian flipped it in the other direction with their lovely and intricate baroque-inspired pop songs.
My Bloody Valentine’s second album, from 1991, sounds like a mid-storm revolution. The woozy guitars, muddy vocals and needle-to-the-red production transport the music to blurry, violent territories marked by confusion and disorientation. No wonder ‘Loveless’ became a shoegaze milestone and one of the ’90s’ most heralded works. It’s an essential piece of indie rock history.
Who does Liz Phair think she is? The Rolling Stones? She sings about blowjobs, casual sex and bad, careless behavior. It’s no coincidence: Phair’s 1993 debut album was modeled after the Stones’ classic ‘Exile on Main St.’ right down to the number of songs and their themes. But more importantly, ‘Exile in Guyville’ opened up indie rock’s playing field to strong young women with raging guitars and libidos.
‘Slanted and Enchanted’
It’s hard not to overstate Pavement’s influence in the ’90s (see No. 5 on our list of the 10 Best ’90s Indie Rock Albums for another of their classics). The basic foundations of new-millennium indie rock can pretty much be found on the band’s five albums. But their 1992 debut set the template with buzzing guitars, random lyrics and a general sense of artiness that verges on bratty. Like almost all of the albums on this list, ‘Slanted and Enchanted’ didn’t sell a ton of copies, but its impact is immeasurable.