The 90’s…yes, the summer of love. We stayed out late at the Sock Hop listening to Fleetwod Mac. James Garfield was president and a loaf of bread would only set you back 20 clams. It was the Age of Innocence and the start of Reconstruction. Ah the 90’s – I remember it like it was yesterday.
So now that that’s out of the way, with my credentials firmly entrenched, I assume you will take my view on all things music and the 90’s with the utmost respect and seriousness it deserves. In the 90’s, some of the best bands of the era went on to major success (kinda how it works, right?) and can still be heard in heavy rotation on the radios and jukeboxes throughout the land. But what about the bands that were big in the 90’s but never quite made it into heavy rotation on the classic rock station (yes, hearing Everclear on a classic rock station makes me feel very old and uncomfortable)?
Without further ado, a look at some of the best ‘alternative’ bands of the 90’s (I’m gonna use ‘alternative’ as a descriptor for pretty much any rock/punk/grunge band I feel like. They are all now part of MY Alternative Nation, thank you very much Kennedy).
The ranking system has 5 categories each scored from 1-5.
Hit Songs – Did the band have multiple “hit” songs (decent airplay at the time qualifies…none of these bands were The Rolling Stones popularity-wise, hence their inclusion on an “underrated” list)?
Longevity – Did they do one good album and fade away or did they hang around for a while?
Lameness – Did they get lame after a while? Did they forget how to rock?
90’s ness – How quintessentially 90’s were they? Did they embody the best/most iconic qualities of the decade?
Peak Awesomeness – How good were they at their best?
12. Stabbing Westward
(Years active 1986-2002, 2016-Present)
Stabbing Westward kind of gets lost in the shuffle of the Nine Inch Nails and Rammstein’s of the industrial world. The band remained relevant throughout most of the 90’s with three releases, Ungod, Wither, Blister, Burn & Peel, and Darkest Days. I would imagine people who say they don’t remember Stabbing Westward would probably recognize a bunch of their songs. “Oh that’s Stabbing Westward? I always thought that was Filter.” Although not the most 90’s ish band out there they do get credit for their fast-paced, dark 90’s looking videos and for having a song (“Nothing“) in both Bad Boys and Johnny Mnemonic . They might as well just have signed NAFTA while cloning a sheep while wearing a ‘Rachel cut’ wig.
The band earned a 2.5 in lameness, mainly due to their last album, 2001’s self-titled effort. The band seemed to lose the industrial, crunchy, screaming edge that defined them in favor of a more melodic, pop infused sound. Lame.
(Years active 1994-2000…Partial reunions in 2008, 2011, 2012)
Fans of the hardcore outfit, Gorilla Biscuits were likely a bit disappointed at the band’s new incarnation, CIV and their gradual mellowing from hardcore to punk to pop punk act, hence the 4 on the lameness scale. However, CIV, if only for a brief flash in the 90’s was one of the best acts in the punk game. Set Your Goals is easily one of the best punk albums of the 90’s, notable for their biggest hit “Can’t Wait One Minute More“ and producing such anthems as “United Kids” and “Do Something“. It was never necessary to hit “skip” on your CD player. You could seamlessly transition from gem to gem during this 31 minute masterpiece. CIV’s follow up, 1998’s Thirteen Day Getaway saw the band lose a bit of their hardcore edge, while still producing a quality album. They would disband two year’s later in 2000, leading to their low longevity score.
10. Our Lady Peace
(Years active 1992- Present)
Sometime in 1994, I was watching SoundFX w/ Karyn Bryant when she recommended Naveed by Our Lady Peace. My life was changed forever (in the sense that I now had an Our Lady Peace CD and about $10 less in my wallet). After listening to and enjoying the album I subsequently called 1-900-73-SMASH to have my approval officially noted. The album featured lead singer Raine Maida’s haunting vocal distortions on hits “Starseed” and “Naveed” (though they were and continue to be even bigger in Canada. OLP is to Canada as David Hasselhoff is to Germany.)
With a little success under their belt they unfortunately veered a little more mainstream/popish in their sound even opting for a more straightofrward vocal approach by Raine. I could deal with the follow up hit “Superman’s Dead“, but once “Somewhere Out There” became big it was clear OLP had went full on Matchbox Twenty. Lame!
9. Presidents of the United States of America
(Years active 1993-1998, 2000-2002, 2003-2016)
A less-talented, punkier, goofier White Stripes, without the girl – yeah, I’m gonna roll with that for my description of the no. 8 band on the list. The Presidents get an added bump for being the only band on the list parodied by Weird Al (1996’s “Gump”) and to do the theme song for the Drew Carey Show. They also get credit (alongside Sir Mix A Lot) as being successful musical artists from Seattle who did not find success with an uber-serious grunge sound. For a three piece outfit with not a ton of musical range, they did put out a couple solid, if repetitive debut albums (Presidents of the United States of America, and II). It’s hard though for most to see P.U.S.A. (sorry,I’m not writing their name out in full…wait it took more time to explain that…should have written it out) as anything more than a novelty act with their 2 biggest hits celebrating canned peaches and umm lumps.
(Years active 1994- Present)
Goldfinger burst onto the scene in early 1996 with the single “Here in Your Bedroom” off their self-titled album. As part of the ska-punk revival of the time, Goldfinger gained a devoted following but as with most similar artists never quite found sustained mainstream success. Goldfinger is one of the best albums of its era/genre with nary a clunker to be found (pretty sure I wore the cassette out back in the day), featuring other standout tracks, “King for a Day” and “Mable“. Their follow up, Hang Ups produced the single “Superman“, also featured in 1999’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Since then they’ve had sporadic success, often with cover songs, most notably of Nena’s “99 Red Balloons“. My personal favorite has to be their cover of “Rio” by Duran Duran, simply for how the song devolves into an unexpected tribute to Ronnie James Dio.
7. Rocket From The Crypt
(Years active 1989-2005, 2011, 2013-Present)
San Diego’s Rocket from the Crypt first burst on to the national scene with an appearance on the Jon Stewart Show in 1994 (in what is possibly the most 90’s thing you will ever see) as part of MTV’s Spring Break from RFTC’s hometown. After signing to Interscope records in 1992, it seemed the band was headed for big things, especially after their first label album Scream, Dracula, Scream was so well received. The band really never had any significant mainstream success on the airwaves or MTV however, and was later dropped by the label. Their unique repetitive rockabilly/punk sound and stage antics (holding raffles, breathing fire, etc.) as well a popular logo (free shows for life to anyone with a RFTC tattoo) weren’t enough to sustain the band who essentially called it quits in 1999 before performing on and off again until today. Take a listen to “On a Rope“, “Young Livers” and “Don’t Darlene” for a good taste of the band.
Personally, I always felt kind of bad for them whenever I saw their shows, as they never exactly fit in with whatever act they were supporting. They were playing their hearts out, dancing, rocking the horn section, but if you were there to see Foo Fighters you probably didn’t care too much.
(Years active 1989-2002, 2010-2012)
Taylor Swift may be mad about boys who wronged her, but Courtney Love is made about that too and well…everything else. Who else but Courtney Love can get away with the line (from “Plump”) “I don’t do the dishes, I throw them in the crib.”? She brought an uncomfortable “oh no, what is she gonna do next?” vibe to her performances and didn’t seem to mind baring her soul (especially after the tragic suicide of husband Kurt Cobain) to her fans and the world at large.
When Courtney Love’s Hole emerged (huh, huh) there was much talk of her just capitalizing on Cobain’s fame, and that she didn’t have any talent of her own. And while she certainly didn’t achieve Nirvana’s level of success or rival their talent, she and her bandmates carved out a niche all their own and produced one of the 90’s best “grunge” records, 1994’s Live Through This. The album served as middle ground to the gritty Pretty on The Inside (1991), and the more polished, poppy Celebrity Skin (1998). As a dude, I admittedly don’t know a whole lot about “girl power” but I’m guessing for all the girls who found the Spice Girls as role models there was an almost equal amount who found meaning and inspiration in songs like “Doll Parts”, “Miss World” or “Violet“.
(Years active 1991- Current)
Sponge is best known for their then ubiquitous song “Plowed“, but also for having the singer with the least 90’s alternative-sounding name, Vinnie Dombrowski (he sounds like he should be unloading counterfeit Gucci bags of the trains in Newark, NJ. “Yeah I got a guy, go see Vinnie Dombrowski.”). Their 1994 debut for Sony, Rotting Piñata went gold and produced another minor hit, “Molly“. However their pièce de résistance is perhaps the title track to their follow up album, Wax Estatic (an album which supposedly was originally intended to be a concept album based around the death of a Memphis drag queen. How’s that for some 90’s trivia for ya?).
4. Blind Melon
(Years active 1990-1999, 2006-2008, 2010-Present)
You would think Blind Melon was set up pretty well for legendary status in the realms of music lore. Having your frontman die (frontman Shannon Hoon sadly died of a drug overdose in 1995) in the early stages of your career usually gives bands some sort of added legacy, but alas most still saw them as that band with the bee girl video. Blind Melon however, was much more than their hit “No Rain” (which wasn’t even the first single off of their self-titled debut).
With Hoon’s sad wailing over a mix of hippyish hard rock, the band achieved quite a lot in their short time. They didn’t have the time or opportunity to become lame but obviously suffered here in the longevity category as they only produced 2-3 studio albums with Hoon (1996’s Nico was released after Hoon’s death and was cobbled together with mainly unreleased versions of Melon songs and covers). If you want to see a sad tale of what could have been, check out their 2001 Behind the Music special.
(Years active 1991- Present)
Cake had one of the most distinct sounds of the 90’s with John McRea’s singing/talking over funky bass lines and horn-infused peppy jams. They also managed to never lose their connection with their fan base, once famously playing a fan’s Bar Mitzvah (I heard it first…on MTV News). They managed a decent modicum of mainstream success with hits like “The Distance”, “Never There”, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”, and the fitting “I Will Survive” (a Gloria Gaynor cover…now with cursing!). It’s fitting because they survived the 90’s and are still around…clever, huh?
(Years active 1991 – Present)
Although often compared to The Clash, for their punk/reggae hybrid sound, it would be unfair to write them off as Clash ripoffs. The California-bred four piece has a style all its own with lead singer Tim Armstrong’s signature gravely voice bringing his unique perspective to songs like “Salvation“, “Journey to the End of the East Bay“, and “The Wars End“. Born out of the ashes of one of the 80’s most influential acts of the ska/punk scene, Operation Ivy, Rancid managed to briefly show up on the mainstream’s radar with hits like “Salvation“, “Time Bomb” and “Ruby Soho“.
The band continues on today with pretty much their original lineup in tact (save for a new drummer and the 1993 addition of Lars Frederiksen) and has released 9 full length albums (their most recent, Trouble Maker dropped earlier this June) and sold over 4 million records independently. For my money, you don’t get a more complete 90’s punk album than 1995’s And Out Come the Wolves.
(Years active 1989 – 2001, 2006 – Present)
So yeah, I’m a big Toadies fan. I have them right up there with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden on my list of favorite grunge/alternative bands from the 90’s. Their twangy, creepy,Texas swamp rock sound permeates all their records as they continue touring and putting out great records to this day (albeit in a slightly reconfigured lineup). They first hit it big with 1994’s Rubberneck, most notably with the single “Possum Kingdom“, though “I Come From The Water” also got some airplay as well as the stalker-anthem “Tyler”.
Things seemed to be going well for the four-piece from Ft. Worth until it came time for their follow up album, Feeler. When Interscope rejected the album, the band’s management entered into a drawn out argument with the label, keeping the Toadies from reentering the studio until 2000. With the newly re-titled Hell Below/Stars Above released seven years after their first record, all momentum was seemingly gone. Interscope didn’t put much promotion behind the effort, thus leaving many to forget about the band and unfairly relegate them to the one-hit wonder pile.
After a 7 year break up, the band reemerged from behind the boathouse in 2008 to show the musical world its dark secret. With six full length records now to their name, the band sets out in support of their upcoming seventh release The Lower Side of Uptown in September, including a spot on their perennial festival, Dia de Los Toadies.