Why 1996 Was the Best Musical Year of the '90s

Spice Girls
Ray Burmiston/Photoshot/Getty Images

Spice Girls photographed backstage at the Brit Awards in February 1997 

After focusing on 1994 last week, now, we're wondering what the best year for music was of the '90s. We've already made a case for 19901991199219931994 and 1995. Now it's time for 1996 and 1997.


When critics go about naming the best albums of the '90s, the top choice is almost never a record from 1996. It is not the year of The Chronic, OK Computer or Loveless. But unlike most years in the '90s, 1996 boasted a diverse slew of trailblazing albums that actually span a range of emotions, genres and regions. Eighteen years later, we can rightfully call them classics.
In hip-hop alone, OutKast released their first start-to-finish masterpiece, ATLiens, and Fugees' changed rap forever with The Score. 1996 saw two perfect debuts with Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt and Lil' Kim's Hard Core, as well as the release of not one but two classic albums from 2Pac: the acclaimed All Eyez on Me and Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. The latter, a posthumous album met with confusion at the time, is now often considered his best.

While Weezer released their immortal ode to angst, Pinkerton, Beck made his Beck-iest album, Odelay. Aphex Twin revealed his face with The Richard D. James Album. Parents clucked their tongues in fear as kids rocked to Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar, Rage Against the Machine's Evil Empire and Sublime's self-titled album. It turned out the kids were alright.
And in rock's fertile underground, Wilco unleashed the sprawling Being There, Fiona Apple introduced the world to her inimitable talents with Tidal, Sleater-Kinney destroyed eardrums with Call the Doctor and Belle & Sebastian released their gentle masterpiece If You're Feeling Sinister. As for the Billboard Hot 100, need we say more than Spice Girls' "Wannabe"? With that sugary sucker punch, the Spice Girls entered the world and brought the joy of pure, unabashed pop music back to the charts, paving the way for boy bands and future pop divas.
Mariah Carey scored two No. 1 hits with the immortal "Always Be My Baby" and her Boyz II Men duet, "One Sweet Day." Toni Braxton – at the height of her powers in 1996 – also notched two No. 1s with "Un-Break My Heart" and "You're Making Me High."

Breakup songs aside, the year's best tearjerker was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's "Tha Crossroads," their tender ode to late mentor and N.W.A rapper Eazy-E, also a No. 1 hit. We still miss our Uncle Charles, y’all.

And, of course, 1996 saw Los Del Rio's "Macarena" top the Hot 100 for an incredible 14 weeks. Scoff if you must, but the "Macarena" is one of a handful of non-English language songs to top the U.S. Hot 100, shrinking the world just a little bit while the Internet was still in its infancy. And with its goofy, easy-to-master dance, the “Macarena” appealed to people of every age from the '90s fashionably fractured families.
So no, Nevermind did not come out in 1996. Neither did Illmatic. But taken as a whole, it's the decade's most musically eclectic year, and its best.