Just as mainstream rock encompasses many different styles, so too does this list of essential contemporary rock albums run the gamut from punk to metal to industrial to hard rock. These 10 offerings lean heavily on '90s albums that set the stage for the bands that would flourish in this new century. There's something for everyone here, so happy hunting.
Their guitarist had died of a heroin overdose and they were looking for a new record label. Out of that trauma came Blood Sugar Sex Magik, an album that stared into the abyss of drug addiction but also celebrated kinky sex and transcendence. With this breakthrough record, the Los Angeles band Red Hot Chili Peppers brought together their disparate influences Parliament-Funkadelic, Bad Brains, Sly & the Family Stone and merged them into one tasty sound that's become their musical blueprint.
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Where would bands like Staind and Papa Roach be without this alternative-metal pioneer? Faith No More came to prominence on 1989's rap-metal hybrid, The Real Thing, and its breakout single, "Epic," but for the follow-up the group decided to ditch their radio success and freak out. Angel Dust is all over the map touching on hard rock, ballroom music, heavy metal and '70s funk and part of its immense pleasure is following along with the album's adventurous experimentation. Angel Dust was dismissed as weird at the time, but its forward-thinking approach to cross-pollinating musical styles is still being felt.
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You might remember Tool's terrifying stop-motion animated videos, but as great as those videos are, the songs are just as unforgettable. On Undertow, Tool leader Maynard James Keenan introduced audiences to his brand of metal-infused rock, excavating his psyche for lyrics about wasted lives lost to fear and addiction. Even without the imagery of the brilliant "Sober" video, the song will haunt you, thanks to Keenan's distraught shrieks and the angst-heavy riffs.
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Managing to be both heavier and more accessible than their earlier records, Superunknown staked Soundgarden's claim as a new generation's Led Zeppelin. Vocalist Chris Cornell sang about alienation with a philosophical, Zen-like calm, although he could still bellow with the best of 'em. Incorporating everything from monolithic power ballads to psychedelic influences, Superunknown remains a looming tower of hard-rock ambition and scope.
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Hitting stores the same day as Superunknown, The Downward Spiral, the second album from Nine Inch Nails, proved that industrial hard rock could be commercially viable without sacrificing any of its snarling menace. Trent Reznor built on the gloomy postpunk desperation of bands like Joy Division and introduced elements of dance and prog-rock to the mix, resulting in an album with an almost suffocating atmosphere of self-loathing and disillusionment.
Read my review of The Downward Spiral
Who says rock music is a man's world? Actually, lots of people, which is why Courtney Love's arrival on the scene in the early '90s was a welcome change of pace. Though Live Through This had the unfortunate timing of coming out right after the discovery that Love's husband, Kurt Cobain, had committed suicide, the album now plays as an unapologetic feminist statement, taking aim at sexists with fiery guitars and banshee wails. Love's career soon became a tabloid disaster, but Live Through This captures her once-flowering potential.
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It's hard to remember now what unreal expectations were placed on Dave Grohl in the wake of Nirvana's collapse. But rather than worrying about living up to Kurt Cobain's legacy, Grohl just rocked like a hurricane. Recorded largely by himself, Foo Fighters is a surprisingly confident coming-out party, displaying significant musical chops, melodic instincts and self-deprecating humor. Later Foo Fighters albums would feature his full band and a more sophisticated sonic assault, but in terms of sheer passion, the first record is still the best.
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One of the '90s' greatest albums aspired to be one of the '60s' greatest as well. On their second full-length release, Oasis answered the challenge of topping their celebrated debut, Definitely Maybe, by threading their Beatles-esque tunefulness through their Stones-like ego. Impeccable melancholy ballads "Wonderwall" and "Don't Look Back in Anger" made Oasis radio stars, but the druggy majesty of the furious title track and the bitter discontent of "Some Might Say" demonstrated Noel and Liam Gallagher's affinity for rock's dark undercurrents.
Read my (What's the Story) Morning Glory? review
Also known as Rated R, the second album from this stoner-rock collective echoed the desert environment in which it was recorded. Desolate and ominous, R's songs spread out into the distance, conjuring a slow-motion world where psychedelic visions are the trippy byproduct of indiscriminate drug use and the harsh surroundings. Most disturbing of all is the wicked delight Queens leader Josh Homme gets in concocting these nightmarish tunes: He seems to love being our tour guide into hell.
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Ten years after Dookie established Green Day as the godfathers of the '90s punk revival, the band consciously separated itself from its roots in search of a new direction. The resulting album, American Idiot, was a commercial comeback for Green Day, but it also showed the possibilities of political protest rock in the age of the Iraq War. Conceived as a concept album based around some suburban teens struggling to make sense of their world, American Idiot married smart commentary to rock hooks, giving fans something to think about while they sang along to every word.
Read my American Idiot review