Besides for being my birth year, the year 1996 was a very interesting year for music. For me personally, it’s tricky to classify which musical generation I fall under. I’m still considered a 90s kid born on the tail end of the grunge movement, but growing up when pop punk, nu-metal, and numerous rock sub-genres were taking off, not to mention the classic rock influence I was exposed to by my dad. For me, the end of the mid 90s seemed to be a very unconventional period for music. It felt like a new style caught in between various different sounds, each of which were trying to find their own unique identity. It was the middle school of music, not quite in high school but too old for recess, not sure where it belonged. It wasn’t until I got older and started playing music and learning about its history that I realized 1996 became a turning point for music and a new rock sound.
The raw, grunge sound that took over music the first half of the decade and its flannel wearing fan base started to become less of a prominent influence. As the sub-genres of rock were beginning to evolve, many of those original 90s acts had to evolve their own sound to fit the mold of what hard rock was becoming. Grunge took on a different form and pop-punk began to take over radio and video for a new generation of music faithfuls. This era became all about finding the next successor to the groups that previously stood at the top of the charts. Shortly thereafter, the rap-rock sound introduced what became nu metal, the sound that dominated rock as the new millennium approached. As many talented acts as the nu metal era produced, I’m sure many music fans like myself could have done without acts like Limp Bizkit and P.O.D.
This evolution of music turned into one of the biggest years of the decade as each and every new sound was fighting for musical dominance. As a new era was approaching, the previous sound didn’t just disappear. The genre of music that I resonate with in connection to the 90s still remained on top. So I wanted to take the time to appreciate the musical excellence of the year I was born and look at the top 10 rock albums of 1996 that were a part of the old and new genres of rock.
- Marilyn Manson – Antichrist Superstar
Let me start out by saying I am not a fan of Marilyn Manson by any means. However, the way his sound and persona completely rattled the music community and scared parents all over the globe made the album worthy of a mention. Antichrist Superstar was one of the first incredibly new sounds of the year that opened eyes to Manson’s craft and character. This debut album turned out to be what fans saw as a new force for the rock and metal community. “The Beautiful People,” which is still played heavily on the radio today, was an aggressive, almost sinister track; whereas, “Tourniquet” included more of an alluring, tempting delivery that stuck with Manson throughout his later work. The album also included “Man That You Fear,” which helped the album reach platinum level. Antichrist Superstar not only became a new sound for rock and metal in 1996, it was the start of Manson’s fame and hatred.
- Pantera – The Great Southern Trendkill
Today many fans remember Pantera for their tragically sad demise and the substance abuse problems of lead singer Phil Anselmo, but in 1996 the band was still performing on “A New Level.” Pantera was a well-known powerhouse and force to be reckoned with. A deadly combination of sounds came together and produced perhaps their most menacingly heavy album to date. The impact of alcohol and drug dependence is felt in almost every track as a movement of genuine disdain and blistering riffs. The albums singles, “Floods,” “Suicide Note Part I” and “Suicide Note Part II”, set the tone for the entire album. The songs “War Nerve” and “Drag the Waters” hit you right in the face, while “Drag the Waters” is one of the most crushing anthems of the band’s entire repertoire. Featuring the piercing vocals of Anselmo, Pantera took the album to the level of intense artistry that they have always been known for.
- Screaming Trees – Dust
One of the original groups that made up the “Seattle Sound,” the final album by Screaming Trees was one of the final true albums from that era. Dust contains music that is much more influenced by folk and blues rather than their normal psychedelic, punk sound, but still stays true to their aggressive, edgy sound. “All I Know” was their biggest radio hit from the album, along with “Dying Days,” which featured Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. Other songs included “Sworn and Broken” and “Gospel Plow,” which incorporated a raw nuance of the grunge era and a sound that was beginning to die out. Dust was a new spin on an old sound. It kept listeners tuned in with a sound that had been consistent for years. Dust was the perfect send off for Screaming Trees and the sound they left behind in 1996.
- Sublime – Sublime
I first noticed Sublime in middle school when classmates of mine would walk around wearing t-shirts of the band. The appeal to many back then was the fact they were just discovering music and weed, but the impact of the self-titled album is worth so much more. Unfortunately, lead singer Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose shortly before the album was released, but thankfully the music he left behind is what left the greatest impact. Sublime incorporated the free spirit of 90s youth and mixed it in with elements of reggae, ska, and punk that hit home with many young fans and became the epitome of the SoCal sound. The songs “What I Got,” “Santeria,” “Wrong Way” and “Doin’ Time” still prove to be the band’s biggest hits and continue to be in constant rotation on the radio 20 years after their breakup.
- Butthole Surfers – Electriclarryland
When I think of a quintessential 90s album I immediately think of Electriclarryland. The album’s hit, “Pepper”, is one of those songs that unleashes some sort of euphoric tone that takes you on a trip to a completely different time. It’s pretty rare for a band to produce album after album and still not be labeled to a particular genre of music, but Butthole Surfers have a way about them that cannot be confined to one genre or style. Throughout all eight albums, they have constantly blended genres and different sounds that most acts won’t touch. Butthole Surfers are a strange group and their band name says it all. It isn’t necessarily music you take seriously, but it is still music that should be appreciated. It’s much more than funny song names and strange cover art; with this album you get a punk influence, a splash of alternative and even a feel of 60’s surf music. “Pepper” possesses a droning sound that almost sounds scary. The effects of the guitar and dark lyrics make it one of the most intense hits they have. Songs “Birds” and “Cough Syrup” incorporate a punk sound with lyrics and undertones that are hard to make note of. “Ulcer Breakout” is the most face-paced song on the album and “TV Star” uses more of a surf influence. At a time where many new acts sounded just the same, Butthole Surfers were as absurd as ever and produced one classic 90s album.
- Stone Temple Pilots – Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
1996 featured the third release from STP, and regardless of the conflict among band mates, they created one of the most underappreciated albums of the decade. STP comes out strong with Tiny Music … Songs From the Vatican Gift, firing off single after single. “Big Bang Baby” was one of the songs that received the most radio play, while “Lady Picture Show” incorporated a soothing, melodic sound that wasn’t used as much during the time when most groups wanted to shatter glass with their sound. “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” may be known by a younger generation for appearing on Guitar Hero II. I can say that its one song at 9 years old I frequently played on those plastic, colorful buttons, even if I couldn’t understand the lyrics. The album was missed by many as singer Scott Weiland’s drug abuse canceled tours and became the group’s identity for many years. With Weiland’s recent death, the album feels that much more impactful. The legacy STP left might have been tempered by Weiland’s issues, but his vocal range and gift as a singer could not be questioned. His vocals on tracks “Tumble in the Rough” and “Art School Girl” only add to the quality of this album and the band’s complete body of work throughout the 90s.
- Tool – Ænima
Over the years it has been a constant challenge trying to categorize Tool’s greatest body of work. As uncomfortable as the album might sound, many fans would argue the LA rockers’ greatest masterpiece is Ænima. The songwriting, sound and imagery of this album were completely innovative. The album has the ability to keep the listener guessing and simply get lost in the ripping sounds that it holds. Ænima entered territories that were previously uncharted. A poetically dark album mixed with the lyrics by Maynard James Keenen, it created a sound of anger and rebirth to match the feeling of listeners adapting to new music. It was as heavy as it was smooth. With foreign influences mixed in throughout the album, Ænima became its own influence. Songs such as “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” “Pushit” and “Ænema” topped the record and cemented itself as an album that changed hard rock and metal.
- Soundgarden – Down On The Upside
Released just one year before a temporary split, Soundgarden showed their fans that they hadn’t missed a beat with Down On The Upside. The fifth album by one of the all-time great Seattle rock groups showed their ability to consistently produce real, spirited music with a great level of depth. Soundgarden was able to incorporate a sound of power and depression with both electric and acoustic instruments. From the dark and eerie opening track “Pretty Noose” to Chris Cornell’s sheer vocal aggression of “Burden in My Hand,” to the ominous “Blow Up the Outside World,” Soundgarden proved they will always be a band that defined the 90s.
- Rage Against The Machine – Evil Empire
It’s hard to top the self-titled debut album, but Rage’s follow-up album Evil Empire, released in 1996, proved to be the defining album for the emergence and longevity of the rap/rock genre. The bashing style, the fierce and ferocious power possessed by Zack de la Rocha, and the delivery to incorporate those sounds with a rap background caught the attention of many. With the unconventional sound and playing style of Tom Morello on guitar and the true emotion and stage presence of Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk, the group created a sound that was truly unique and truly heavy. From the level of rage on “Bulls on Parade” to the hectic “People of the Sun,” this album was one of extreme power and musical range.
- Alice in Chains – MTV Unplugged
Alice In Chains’ MTV Unplugged album allowed fans to truly hear how beautifully haunting their sound was. The overall theme felt somewhat depressing, but not in a bad way. If you watch the performance you can see just how sick and damaged frontman Layne Staley was at the time and the strain it seemed to put on him to continue singing. However, the performance accidentally became one of the defining moments for the Seattle rockers with 13 tracks of harmonious brilliance. With all the great unplugged albums from the likes of Nirvana, Kiss, Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Alice in Chains stole the sound with something different. The group left out most of their heavier songs and incorporated a set list of darker melodies and impeccable lyricism that never seems to lose meaning. Songs such as “Sludge Factory,” “Angry Chair,” “Down in a Hole” and “Would?” all provide this melancholic tone and help shine a light on what was a period of darkness for Staley. Along with the album’s other main tracks, “Nutshell,” “Brother” and “Killer Is Me,” AIC changed what it meant to perform unplugged. This album proved to be a defining moment for a sound people thought was fading away. 20 years later, Unplugged still has the power to overwhelm fans with its raw emotion and artistry.