The 1990s will be remembered as the American decade in more ways than one. The post-communist era saw the United States assume the supreme leadership of the world as the hegemonic power in military and economic affairs. You could argue that the same thing happened in heavy guitar music. People in the west lapped up grunge and alternative rock as easily as the old Iron curtain nations ate up loans from the World Bank along with IMF economic reforms. Seattle became the centre of rock music. Hip hop embarked on its journey to world dominance. Gangster rap changed the musical landscape for a whole generation of kids that once looked to rock for inspiration.
The university-educated no longer needed the art-school/new wave innovators of Great Britain to counter the corporate rock rubbish of the major labels. Instead, the corporations bowed down to alternative music in the wake of Nirvana’s commercial and critical success. Lavish budgets of $500,000 were the norm for a host of obscure bands that never made it. The whole industry relied on CD sales and promotion through radio play in a decade that birthed its eventual demise with the creation of the internet.
You could argue that the 1990s were one of the most fertile decades for debut albums. Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage produced stunning first records; Massive Attack and Portishead influenced thousands of bands with their inaugural LPs; Björk, Mansun, Saint Etienne and Suede also produced legendary efforts.
Heavy metal dropped the first part of its genre name as the definition started to loosen and miscegenate. Nu metal sprung out of the American infatuation with rap and the explosion of teen angst in pop culture. It dominated the last third of the decade as thrash metal disappeared and death metal put up a determined fight. Skateboards, dreadlocks, and wallet chains signified the cool rocker in this period. Most of the exciting developments came out of Europe, with the rise of black metal and new forms of death metal. But these gained little exposure in the American age and needed to wait until globalisation spread its wings in the 2000s to achieve global recognition.
On the other side of the pond, acid house, Britpop, trance and trip-hop flourished. The British public fell out of love with heavy forms of guitar music, yet the decade saw Paradise Lost invent gothic metal and My Dying Bride pioneer death-doom. In Manchester, it was a different story. The remarkable commercial and cultural success of Oasis defined the 1990s in the UK music scene. And how could we forget to mention the wonderful haircuts of this period? It’s easy to snigger at the classic wedge style of the edgy teenager or the ‘curtains’ of the weed-smoking weekend raver.
We know these lists are always based on a committee of opinions, and it’s hard to agree on what should and should not be included. Therefore, we based our choices on the following criteria:
- The immediate impact of the debut album
- Is it the best one in the artist’s discography?
- It’s long-term influence on other artists
- How synonymous it is with the zeitgeist of the 1990s
For the record, we know that Definitely Maybe would make this list using the standards above, but we don’t cover rock & roll or indie music at Scream Blast Repeat. Our focus is on metal, prog and dark alternative artists.
These are the SBR Top 7 debut albums of the 1990s. Watch our 16-minute documentary video below for a better understanding of this decade in heavy music.
7. Cynic – Focus (1993)
Aside from Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve, it’s hard to think of an album so ahead of its time and so confusing when it first appeared on a maturing death metal scene. The Swedes cite Cynic as an influence, and it’s easy to see why. You can play this record today and still feel like you’re hearing something from the future. Having dazzled the world with their chops on Death’s 1991 Human masterpiece, Sean Reinert and Paul Masvidal declined Chick Schuldiner’s invitation to stay in the band to concentrate on Cynic. Work on the album saw many delays, including a hurricane destroying their rehearsal studio, but the LP that emerged in 1993 astonished critics and musicians alike with its fluid blend of death metal, jazz fusion, and new age electronic experiments. From the avant-garde off-meter crunch of opener, ‘Veil of Maya’, to the closing vocoder-led metal odyssey of, ‘How Could I?’, Cynic take the Mahavishnu Orchestra, King Crimson and Death and throw out the rule book. The result is a form of progressive metal that sounds like no other artist.
Bands as diverse as Fallujah, Dillinger Escape Plan and Obscura have all heaped praise on this record, and Veil of Maya and Textures take their name from two songs on this LP. Indeed, its inspiration shows no sign of waning in the 2020s.
6. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes (1992)
There’s a reason why your favourite alternative artists of the 1990s from Tool to Nine Inch Nails love Tori Amos – the emotive power of her music. As a concert pianist and mezzo-soprano wonder, the American songwriter penned some of the darkest songs of the decade on her debut offering, Little Earthquakes. Flushed with sultry melodies and eerie minor key progressions mixed in with major key colours, she takes on the big questions of religion, relationships, and inter-generational dynamics but also dwells on her own experience as a rape victim in the haunting A Cappello ballad, ‘Me and a Gun’. It might help to view Tori like an insightful short story writer if you want to understand the true narrative genius of her music. Album opener, ‘Crucify’, contains the greatest bridge-chorus combination of the 1990s with a luscious post-chorus phrasing that releases the tension like a window opening to a pitch of snowflakes. And who can forget the spine-tingling chill of ‘Precious Things’, the teenage nostalgia of ‘Happy Phantom’, and the realist sexual appraisal of ‘Leather’?
Those unfamiliar with the work of Tori Amos should listen to this album then delve straight into the next three masterpieces that follow in its wake, right up to 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel.
5. Korn – Korn (1994)
Is there an album that had more of an immediate impact on alternative guitar music upon its release in the 1990s? Korn thought they were playing a form of funk-rock with hip-hop grooves. It wasn’t until Sepultura chose Ross Robinson to produce their seminal Roots album in 1996, that they saw their impact on metal. Yet it’s easy to understand how they changed the game by taking seven-string guitars in a drop-A tuning and adding them to simmering dynamic songs about fucked up childhoods and adult PTSD caused by teenage traumas. Let’s not forget how heavy this album sounded at the time. The likes of ‘Ball Tongue’, ‘Faget’ and ‘Clown’ are like Helmet boosted by the might of Prong and the downbeats of Faith No More. Everyone who heard the mechanics behind the extended intro to ‘Blind’ knew they were witnessing something new and exciting, just as those that listened to closing track, ‘Daddy’, felt like they’d spied on a traumatic therapy session involving doctor and patient. Add in the outlandish tracksuit and dreadlocks image of the band, the bag pipes, and the delicate mental health of Jonathan Davies falling apart before your eyes, and you have a record that defined mainstream metal for the remainder of the decade.
It may have spawned the last major label frenzy in heavy music and saturated metal with an abundance of useless clones, but the fact we needed to coin the term ‘nu metal’ to describe artists influenced by the music (and fashion) of Korn tells you much about the iconic impact of their self-titled debut.
4. Rage Against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
With the image of a self-immolating Buddhist monk on the front cover, you know the debut Rage Against the Machine album will be hard-hitting. Those metalheads and rockers that appreciated the first two Public Enemy albums from a distance, found a record with metal riffs, hard rock curves, and anti-establishment diatribes at a time of the Rodney King riots. Nobody had heard a singer rap his way through an assault on police corruption, institutional racism, the winners and losers of capitalism, and the injustices experienced by Native Americans with such acerbity as Zack de la Rocha. Add in Tom Morello’s Hendrix-inspired fretwork and scratchy guitar solos backed up by the mean bass grooves of Timmy C, and you have the ultimate rap metal album that remains untouchable and essential to the zeitgeist of the early 1990s. From opener, ‘Bombtrack’, to legendary anthems like ‘Killing in the Name’ and ‘Know Your Enemy’, Rage Against the Machine set the standard for alternative music in the 1990s with a breach into the mainstream on their terms and by their rules.
Many took the Rage blueprint in the 1990s, but none replicated it with the same urgency or pioneering imagination.
3. The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity (1999)
Think back to 1999. Nu metal is on the cusp of pop culture dominance. Every major label metal band sounds and looks like Korn. Grunge is dead. Marilyn Manson is the world’s biggest rock star. Faith No More have split. Black metal is still an underground scene with little press coverage in the mainstream metal media. Nine Inch Nails are the only hope for alternative music. And then a record emerges in the underground in the last year of the decade with guitars that sound like a malfunctioning computer hard drive and drums that have more complex time changes than a jazz fusion workshop.
One listen to the violent contortions and manic drum work of ‘Sugar Coated Sour’ will leave you with mouth agape. The sophisticated math-grind of ‘43% Burnt’ contains one of the greatest breakdown riffs of all time. ‘Clip the Apex… Accept Instruction’ redefines the meaning of technical music played at murderous levels of speed. The fact this record came from a bunch of kids out of New Jersey is even more impressive.
Those that did not live through the shock and awe of Napalm Death in the 1980s experienced the equivalent thrill in the 1990s upon hearing this record. Their predecessors in Deadguy might have sown the seeds, but Dillinger Escape Plan popularised mathcore and introduced levels of complexity into hardcore that will never be matched. You could argue that later albums were superior, but Calculating Infinity is the one that started it all. It might also be the heaviest album of the 1990s if not of all time.
2. Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994)
Black metal was once the most exciting genre of music in the world. We all know the stories about burning churches, intra-band murders, gruesome suicides, and homicides, but it’s easy to forget that the music was just as dangerous. Mayhem had one mission – to release the most evil metal album of all time, and they succeeded. They started writing it in 1990, but it only emerged in 1994 after numerous setbacks and lives lost in the process.
Forty-five minutes of nauseating guitar distortion, raw drums and self-sabotage vocals might sound like a hard sell, but this record’s ingenuity is the way it combines the darkness of Celtic Frost, the primitive brutality of proto-death metal, the DIY spirit of punk, and a fervent hatred of the mainstream. The audio production is rough, its tone is vile, and your ears will bleed. From the chilling opener of ‘Funeral Fog’ to the closing title-track, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas remains the benchmark for black metal and the standard for extreme metal to this day.
1. Machine Head – Burn My Eyes (1994)
Grunge made a mockery of mainstream heavy metal’s cliches and threatened its credibility. The cock rock bands disappeared over night. Thrash metal’s titans had to wrestle with a new direction to remain relevant. Punk re-emerged onto the charts. Hardcore stepped up to the challenge. Death metal benefited from the grunge wave as millions of people rediscovered heavy guitar music. By 1994, it looked like metal as a pop culture phenomenon had seen its final days. Then a band with roots in the Bay Area thrash scene appeared from nowhere and breathed new life into heavy metal using drop-tuned guitars, chunky riffs, vitriolic lyrics, and acerbic vocals. Pantera opened the door, but few took the opportunity like Machine Head. The opening drum fill of ‘Davidian’ and effervescent guitar attack signal to the listener that this is a new era for a harder and street-savvy brand of metal with the chops to match the bravado. Riffs burst out of the amps in ‘Old’, ‘A Thousand Lies’ and ‘None but My Own’ like precision-execution machines. Robb Flynn’s scathing words sear through skin like ammonium nitrate exposed to heat. This is thrash metal but in a mid-tempo grind of infectious grooves and baritone choruses that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the alienation of the grunge greats. Every song on this record throbs in righteous anger and pulsates with the eye-for-an-eye code of the street. Chris Kontos’ double-kicks test the limits of shatter-resistant audio. Have you heard anything as empowering and as vicious as ‘Blood for Blood’?
Machine Head produced a metal album of perfect symmetry, technical sophistication, and anthemic endurance on their 1994 debut. It’s no exaggeration to say that Burn My Eyes made heavy metal credible once again. It looked like they would never equal it until they reinvented their sound for 2007’s The Blackening LP.
Alice in Chains – Facelift (1990)
Anathema – Serenades (1993)
Curve – Doppelganger (1992)
Fear Factory – Soul of a New Machine (1992)
Mr Bungle – Mr Bungle (1990)
Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991)