The year was 1993. Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated for his first term as the American President, movies like Groundhog Day, Jurassic Park and Dazed and Confused were in theaters, and “The Puffy Shirt” episode of Seinfeld aired on TV for the first time.
1993 was also a banner year for rock. After Nirvana opened the floodgates with the chart-topping Nevermind and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in ’92, the genre was at a creative and cultural apex upon the arrival of 1993. Lollapalooza was in its third year as a traveling U.S. festival, that summer headlined by such acts as Alice in Chains, Primus and Rage Against the Machine, with bands like Tool and Unrest performing on the side stage.
Sifting through the top albums released in 1993, there’s a disproportionate number of them that still sound as shockingly fresh and even relevant today. From the Pumpkins’ tightly-packed guitar symphony to the electronic art-rock of a certain Icelandic prodigy, these 10 classic albums still rock two decades after the fact.
Tool – Undertow
After making noise with their initial Opiate EP, Tool exploded onto the rock scene with the release of their full-length debut. Blasting through the grunge anthems of the day, Tool’s technically advanced musicianship and singer Maynard James Keenan’s operatic vocals trod the fine line between heavy metal and prog-rock. Songs like “Sober” and “Prison Sex” became instant fast favorites, with both tunes coming with stark music videos that found heavy rotation on MTV. The band remains one of the holdouts that still refuses to sell albums on iTunes.
An apparent reaction to the polish of breakthrough album Nevermind, Nirvana recruited notorious Chicago producer Steve Albini to helm this 1993 follow-up, which would turn out to be the band’s last studio album. “Heart Shaped Box” was an instant hit, followed by the controversial “Rape Me.” Cobain committed suicide before “Pennyroyal Tea” could be released as the third single. The song was given an emotionally-charged acoustic reworking on Nirvana’s popular posthumous MTV Unplugged in New York album.
Considered at the time a shocking departure from the cool minimalism of their breakout 1990 album, Violator, this massive follow-up found the band embracing big rock guitars, gospel choirs and heavy blues influences. Singles “I Feel You” and “Walking in My Shoes” propelled the band to even higher heights, all the while the now-sober lead singer Dave Gahan was suffering through a debilitating drug and alcohol addiction that nearly claimed his life with an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 1995. This was also the last Depeche Mode album to feature longtime member Alan Wilder.
Driven by the caustic and graphically confessional lyricism of frontman Greg Dulli, the fourth album from this Ohio band turns post-relationship analysis into a brutally beautiful concept album. Pairing those lyrics with sharp musical arrangements rooted in Motown soul and post-punk guitars, songs like “Debonair” and the title track, exemplified the album’s dark-lit emotion and enduring sonic power. The album’s quieter moments, like “When We Two Parted” and “My Curse” (sung by Marcy Mays of fellow Ohio band Scrawl) are no less devastating.
Already a regional sensation on the strength of debut album Gish, Billy Corgan and the Smashing Pumpkins turned the rock world upside down with sophomore full-length, Siamese Dream. Packed with now-classic singles like “Cherub Rock,” “Today” and “Disarm,” Corgan’s symphonic wall of guitars and psychedelic shoegazing sounds launched them to the front of day’s alt-rock pack. A precursor to the double-album opus that was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the tight, cohesive feel of Siamese Dream still stands out as one of the most fully realized artistic statements of Corgan’s often controversial career.
Long before the band would reinvent rock not just once with 1997 album OK Computer but again with the techno-powered 2000 full-length, Kid A, Radiohead was just another wet-behind-the-ears alt-rock group out of England hoping to make an impact in America with an impressive debut LP. The record was propelled by radio hit “Creep,” the song Thom Yorke and his band of progressive art-rockers would go on to notoriously shy away from performing live in the years to follow. Jimmy Eat World recently covered “Stop Whispering” from this album for a special 2013 Record Store Day release.
Heavily influenced by the Kinks, Blur moved away from the shoegazing tint of their debut LP, Leisure (which boasted college radio hits “There’s No Other Way” and “She’s So High”) to all but kickoff the mid-‘90s Britpop phenomenon with their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, which featured singles like “Chemical World” and “For Tomorrow.” Reveling in all aspects of the band’s home country, the record oozed British culture and was an integral component in what would come to be known as “Cool Britannia.” The predecessor to 1994 smash Parklife, Modern Life is Rubbish captured Damon Albarn and the band in mid-evolution towards becoming a defining British act of the ‘90s (and lead-up to their legendary feud with the Gallagher brothers of Oasis).
Fresh from breaking away from band the Sugarcubes (who saw minor success in America with songs like “Birthday”), Bjork’s aptly-titled debut as a solo artist heralded the arrival of a true musical visionary. From the ornate pop of “Human Behaviour” to the dance-floor pulse of “Violently Happy” and “Big Time Sensuality” (both would find club success in remixed form), Bjork’s dazzling, otherworldly voice shone through it all. An immediate favorite with critics and college students, Bjork co-produced the album with Nellee Hooper, of Massive Attack and Soul II Soul fame.
Like Nirvana with In Utero, PJ Harvey would turn to controversial producer Steve Albini to produce her 1993 release. Recorded as a trio with Steve Vaughn on bass and Rob Ellis on drums, the album expanded on the critical acclaim of her full-length debut, Dry, with hard-edged and powerful songs like “50ft Queenie” and “Man-Size,” Rid of Me also featured Harvey’s take on Bob Dylan’s 1965 song, “Highway 61 Revisited.” From the striking cover art to the incendiary music inside, Rid of Me solidified PJ Harvey’s status as an artist to be reckoned with in the years to come.
Pearl Jam – Vs.
With the Seattle band still reeling from the stratospheric success of their 1991 debut album, Ten, Eddie Vedder and the members of Pearl Jam began systematically backing away from the media buzz surrounding the grunge music scene with this thoughtful, much looser album. For the most part, Vs. avoided the big rock anthems that made Ten such a massive success. Still, the album would not only sell more than a million copies within the first ten days of being released, Vs. came loaded with fan favorites, from the guitar rush of album opener “Go” to reflective ballads like “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” and “Daughter,” which remains one of the band’s most enduring numbers.
Honorable Mentions: Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville, The Breeders – Last Splash, The Verve – A Storm in Heaven, Mazzy Star – So Tonight That I Might See, Stereolab – Transient Random Noise-Bursts with Announcements, The Flaming Lips – Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, Swervedriver – Mezcal Head, Primus – Pork Soda, Suede – Suede, Slowdive – Slouvaki