best 1996 albums
[Photos by: Chris Cornell/Paul Lorkowski, The Cranberries/YouTube, Matchbox Twenty/Spotify, Korn/Joe Banker]

The year 2021 stands out for, at the very least, two distinct reasons. One, we all simply could not wait for it to get here and to promptly put the horrific year that was 2020 in our collective rearview mirror. And, two, it’s the year that some of the best albums of the ’90s will turn 25 years old.

Yep, the quarter of a century mark for what is easily some of the best music of that decade and, for a few bands, their best records ever. Surely when live music commences, many of these acts will no doubt hit the road to perform these babies front to back. Who knows? Maybe we can even get to that point by the fall. In the meantime, let’s head back to the year 1996, shall we? 

Read more: Gerard Way and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan contemplate rock ’n’ roll

Pearl Jam – No Code

Yes, the album where the Seattle rockers decided to spread their wings and show the world (and, admittedly, a befuddled fanbase) just how diverse, eclectic and experimental they were was released in 1996. The first of Pearl Jam’s records not to reach multi-platinum status, No Code followed quickly behind the punch in the face that was Vitalogy and is a personal favorite of this writer. Eddie Vedder was a study in restraint on No Code, but the trademark intensity remained, bristling and simmering throughout each methodical cut. Standout track: “Present Tense.”   

Fiona Apple – Tidal

While Fiona Apple was a critical darling in 2020 with the release of her latest, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, this is the 25th anniversary of Tidal. The one that put her on the map. The one that started it all. And rightly so. From the hits (“Shadowboxer,” “Criminal”) to deeper cuts such as “Slow Like Honey” and “The First Taste”—two songs where she really showed what she was capable of as a vocalist—Apple proved too tempting to resist. She snapped up a Grammy the next year for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The music may not have rocked technically, but Apple rocked our world.  

Bush – Razorblade Suitcase  

The Gavin Rossdale-fronted British band had their work cut out for them following up a debut that gave us hits such as “Glycerine” and “Comedown.” And what they showed more than anything with their sophomore effort was that they had no interest in slowing things down or offering up another “Glycerine.” Bush came out swinging, with their first single being one of their hardest rocking songs to date, “Swallowed.” Debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the record earned the band comparisons to Nirvana’s In Utero, as ambitious as it was guttural. It was straight no chaser, to be sure.

The Cranberries – To The Faithful Departed

Dolores O’Riordan and company had the same dubious task as Bush with following up the album that gave the alternative-rock world its boot-stomping anthem, “Zombie.” To The Faithful Departed was no sophomore effort, but the pressure was still on. First single “Salvation” was pure Cranberries, at once catchy and captivating. It was dance-floor friendly and boasted a crowd-pleasing chorus. But Departed also had a “Zombie” of its own with “Hollywood,” an anthem if ever there was one and a finale-worthy beast of bombast. 

Matchbox Twenty – Yourself Or Someone Like You

If any of the records on this list deserve one of those “playing it front to back in honor of the anniversary of its release” tours, it’s this one. Matchbox Twenty hit the ground running with their debut, with five singles released that can be found on the terrestrial radio dial to this day. Easy to dismiss as a pop-rock act destined for the Adult Contemporary chart, singer Rob Thomas embraced the zeitgeist just as it embraced him, quickly belting out a hit for Santana (“Smooth”) and never trying to be something he wasn’t. His vocals remain just that, smooth, and “Push” begs to be turned up on the radio today just as it did in 1996. Standout track: Album closer “Hang,” one of the most bittersweet and beautiful of ballads perhaps ever recorded. 

Soundgarden – Down On The Upside

Chris Cornell and company, too, had some pretty major hits already behind them—“Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman” among them—and the order was tall with the follow-up. Soundgarden self-produced, made this fan favorite, then called it quits, albeit temporarily, not long thereafter. That being the case, ’90s music lovers deem Down the reason, but it was really the band’s super-fast ascension, thanks to Superunknown and Cornell’s on-demand vocals, from Temple Of The Dog to eventual “Billie Jean” covers.” One listen and you know Down didn’t disappoint, churning out rockers such as “Pretty Noose” and “Burden In My Hand,” the latter being some of Cornell’s best vocals ever. 

Weezer – Pinkerton

Like so many already mentioned on this list, Weezer found themselves in that time-honored precarious position of following up a record that not only introduced them to the world but gave that world hits such as “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So.” Were critics initially harsh and fans kept at bay for a bit? Absolutely. Pinkerton has aged well and soon found those very critics gushing that it was one of the best albums of the decade. As for the fans, well, Pinkerton became a fan favorite, thanks to quirky cuts such as lead single “El Scorcho” and ahead-of-its-time rocker “Pink Triangle.” Rivers Cuomo could do the whole thing front to back armed only with an acoustic, and it would be a triumph. 

Metallica – Load  

At the time, and clocking in at five years since the self-titled hit that spawned “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman” (to name a couple), Load puzzled head-banging fans of Metallica who wanted more of the same. Sure, they got to bang their heads, but the LP was loaded with Southern rock and blues, too. Drummer Lars Ulrich was quoted at the time as saying, “The minute you stop exploring, then just sit down and fucking die.” Amen. “Hero Of The Day” and “King Nothing” are stellar, and speaking of clocking in, Load does as Metallica’s longest record. It kicks off with “Ain’t My Bitch.” They announced themselves on this one, no?  

The Wallflowers – Bringing Down The Horse  

Easily the Wallflowers’ biggest record ever, and one many are no doubt tempted to slap with a big, fat “one-hit wonder” sticker, the ’90s music lover (and music lovers in general) can only come away from a listen thinking to him or herself, “And…?” Jakob Dylan’s breakthrough on the scene was nothing short of extraordinary, largely due to his being pioneer Bob’s son. This was pure ’90s rock, from the hit “One Headlight” to the achingly overlooked “6th Avenue Heartache” (with Counting Crows’ frontman Adam Duritz) in tow and everything in between. There was no ultra-acoustic, activist singer-songwriter moment to be found. Just exultant, in-the-moment rock ’n’ roll. Which, actually, is pure Dylan.  

Sublime – Sublime

While this self-titled 1996 gem would prove to be the band’s final (at least with singer Bradley Nowell out front), it lives on for so many reasons beyond the tragedy that coincided with its release. Sure, that elevated interest in the record, but one couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the infectious “What I Got” all year. That’s solely due to it being one of the best songs of the year. Merging alt-rock and ska was all the rage at the time, and Sublime did it with skill. Meanwhile, they still managed to speak to the headlines of the day, most notably with the song “April 29, 1992 (Miami).” 

Screaming Trees – Dust

Here’s another rocker from 1996 that wound up serving as Screaming Trees’ swan song. The band’s seventh, it fused psychedelic rock with punk and even dabbled in some folk and blues. First single “All I Know” fared well on the charts, with radio stations across the country slowly hopping on the ol’ bandwagon, even while the band were slowly disintegrating. Still, they toured the record for two straight years, with Queens Of The Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme handling guitar duties. In further guitar news, Pearl Jam’s own Mike McCready played on the eerily titled “Dying Days,” which is exactly what the band were in the throes of without knowing it.  

Reel Big Fish – Turn The Radio Off

As the third ska invasion continued to pick up steam in the mid-’90s, Reel Big Fish cashed in big time in ’96. And why wouldn’t they? From Orange County, California—much like those other ska purveyors killing it at the time, No Doubt—it was something they were living and breathing in the warehouses of the California suburbs they already called home. “Sell Out” wasn’t only the perfect first single, but it went hand in hand with a record title such as Turn The Radio Off. This was Reel Big Fish sticking it to “the man,” ska-style. Other standout tracks include “Snoop Dog, Baby” and the simply titled yet universally lauded “Beer.” 

Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire

 

1996 was kind to Rage Against The Machine. Not only did their sophomore effort take things to the next level, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and scorching radio with single “Bulls On Parade,” but they won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance. The singles were plentiful, from “Down Rodeo” to “People Of The Sun,” and the record ended with the killer track “Year Of Tha Boomerang,” which had actually set expectations for the album when released as a single two years earlier. 

Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island

Louisiana’s fuzz brigade almost single-handedly put indie rock on the map, and this 1996 opus played quite a role in doing just that. Sure, follow-up In The Aeroplane Over The Sea cemented that status, but Avery inspired every kid with a beat-up Strat and used amp in garages throughout the Midwest. The band’s catalog ain’t exactly huge. iIn fact, that’s mostly it. But Avery inspired many mid-’90s acts to mess around with audio quality intentionally, even if no one else had the guts to include some singing saw or a zanzithophone on any records. From “Song Against Sex” to “April 8th,” Neutral Milk Hotel broke ground and then recorded on it. 

A Tribe Called Quest – Beats, Rhymes And Life 

A Tribe Called Quest went from jubilant and celebratory to deeper, darker and even profound on Beats, Rhymes And Life, which left fans and critics alike baffled. Why, they ruminated, would a high energy hip-hop act suddenly release music bordering on R&B and and writing songs about O.J. Simpson? Did it slow Tribe any? Only if you consider debuting at No. 1 and being certified platinum slowing. The R&B was most evident in the record’s lead single, “1nce Again,” which snagged a Grammy nomination. That’s about when critics began rethinking things and realized the Quest part of their name wasn’t just because it sounded good.  

Marilyn Manson – Antichrist Superstar 

 

What few music writers failed to mention upon the ascension of Marilyn Manson was just how spectacular his timing was. The mid-’90s saw grunge kicking rock ’n’ roll while it was down, and here came this glam-rock throwback, a la Ziggy Stardust, with a guitarist named Daisy Berkowitz, who provided crunchy hooks reminiscent of T-Rex and firmly rooted in the here and now. This record taking its bow in 1996 could do nothing other than blow minds, especially with Manson’s bizarre approach to vocals on hits such as “The Beautiful People,” just before Berkowitz’s guitar would assure listeners that what was happening wasn’t totally new. It was riffing on the rock ’n’ roll we already knew we loved. The catchier stuff would come on later records, but for now, the wounded had their tourniquet.  

Korn – Life Is Peachy

It must have come as quite a surprise to Korn fans to find out that the name of their second record was Life Is Peachy. Korn basically erected the template that remains nü metal, and the subject matter on many of the songs here reflected that life was anything but peachy. Damn, they’d even just gotten off the road with the Sick Of It All tour at the time of the record’s release. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, their amps were plugged firmly into sockets, and the singles took off like rockets. Especially standout track “A.D.I.D.A.S.” 

Type O Negative – October Rust 

Type O Negative also threw their growing fanbase a curveball in 1996, but it came in the form of a record that had a few ballads on it, with their rock entries considerably less doom metal. Hell, they even covered Neil Young. (To be fair, it’s a hell of a hard version of Young’s hit “Cinnamon Girl.”) First single “My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend” aptly alerted fans and critics alike as to what to expect, at least as far as the tone of the record is considered. October Rust wound up being one of the standout records in the band’s back catalog, if not their best. 

Tool – Aenima

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Showing they were way ahead of their time, Tool first released Aenima on vinyl. Again, the year was 1996. Most ’90s kids didn’t even know what a turntable was—they had cassingles. Ultimately certified triple platinum, it earned the mercurial rockers a Grammy for the title track. As puzzling as that title may have been, so too were the singles: “Stinkfist” and “H.,” in particular. But frontman Maynard James Keenan has never been big on explaining himself. That’s just part of the band’s charm, and on this record, there’s plenty of that. Titles notwithstanding.          

Stone Temple Pilots – Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop

Let’s be honest: Purple is probably the hardest record to follow up of all the records bands had to follow up on this list of 1996 albums. A handful of Stone Temple Pilots’ biggest hits can be found there, from “Vasoline” to “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty.” Plus, there was late lead singer Scott Weiland’s growing drug problem to contend with. Still, the San Diego rockers offered up this collection of alternative rock with a dash of psychedelia, kicking things off with the single “Big Bang Baby.” “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart” holds up remarkably well all these years later, with a personal fave being “Art School Girl.”