Best Alternative Albums of the 90s : Part 2
Just as our “Top 20 Best Alternative Rock Albums of the 80s” required a Part 2, our “Top 20 Best Alternative Rock Albums of the 90s” also needs a followup. The decade was simply too rich in great albums by alternative acts – or at least what I define as alternative.
Unlike the Part 2 of the 80s alternative, there was no way I could narrow down each year to only 3 albums – there was simply too many great releases, especially in the early part of the decade. Even expanding this to 5 choices per year was very difficult. Essentially if it came down to a decision between 2 albums I went with my personal bias, because it’s my list.
Before we get started, as before in my previous 80s list, I would like to make a couple disclaimers. Here are some of my less-then set in stone parameters:
- Though I specifically stated “rock” albums in the original 20 list, I stretched this a little in a few cases, just as in my 80s list. But it’s my list, so I say it is allowed. For this list, I will just say “alternative” albums.
- In the first list, I kept it to what I felt was each band’s best or most influential album. For this list, I have included some bands more than once – because they deserve it.
- I have put this in table format with not a lot of commentary – I have added links on the album title for relevant reviews. Though I can add my opinion, others have said it better before me. The fact that the album is on the list means I really, really like it already.
- I purposely left off some bands that I arbitrarily decided were no longer “alternative” because they had become pretty mainstream. At this point they belong more on a “classic rock” list, although at the time they may have still been considered alternative. Examples are U2’s Achtung Baby, Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik, some (but not all) Pearl Jam and R.E.M. etc. As I said, pretty arbitrary.
So let’s get started. For those who are interested in classic rock vinyl for their collection, we have a summary of what we would recommend, as well as new vinyl albums just released.
Best Alternative Albums of the 90s : By Year
|The Replacements||All Shook Down||Swan song of a band that coulda, woulda, shoulda. Or maybe this was how it was supposed to be. This is mature, thoughtful pop rock from a band that really wasn't meant to grow older and lose that don't care attitude. This is a prelude to Paul Westerberg's solo career.|
|Midnight Oil||Blue Sky Mining||Overtly political and focused on social issues important to the band, nobody could doubt their good intentions or the power of the music. Peter Garrett's imposing physicality and unique vocal style meshed with the band's tight muscular beat to produce a strong musical and lyrical statement.|
|Concrete Blonde||Bloodletting||With a more produced and goth-y sound than their debut "Free", this was the band's commercial peak. Featuring Johnette Napolitano incomparable husky vocals, the songs are dark and often lyrically wrenching.|
|Fugazi||Repeater||Although their sound was based in punk, they were a lot more. Slashing, distorted guitar riff, metal beats and a lot of funky bass made their sound hard but also catchy - an American version of the Clash with shouted anthemic vocals.|
|Depeche Mode||Violator||A more electronica version of the Cure, goth inspired synth pop with an edge. Dave Gahan's deep emo vocals drove singles like "Personal Jesus", "Enjoy the Silence", "Policy of Truth" and "World in My Eyes". Hugely successful and hugely influential.|
|Soundgarden||Badmotorfinger||A big step forward from their previous Sabbath-heavy efforts, both musically and lyrically. More focused with better song writing, this is when Soundgarden became a metal grunge contender. Chris Cornell's howling vocals drives tracks like "Jesus Christ Pose" and "Outshined".|
|Pearl Jam||Ten||Singles with stark lyrics like "Even Flow", "Alive" and "Jeremy" drove this album to rarefied sales heights, but at heart it was an earnest, dark, often angry critique of societal ills. While the music had elements of blues-rock with plenty of pop hooks, the guitar interplay gave a it classic rock feel.|
|Dinosaur Jr.||Green Mind||Essentially a J Mascis solo album, it continue the Dino tradition of coming off as thrown off and sloppy, but also strangely proficient and often beautiful. Mascis' often pitch challenged laconic singing is a counterpoint to his bombastic howling guitar solos. This is heavy metal with an indie twist.|
|Ned's Atomic Dustbin||God Fodder||The British band with two bass guitars, NAD had a hooky energetic hard rock edge with a droning guitar sound - pop rock with a difference. Singles like "Kill Your Television" and "Grey Cells Green" were catchy, inescapable college radio fodder.|
|Primus||Sailing the Seas of Cheese||They may often come off as a novelty act with bassist Les Claypool's nasal cartoon vocals, but this band has serious chops mixed with their trippy and oblique lyrics. Too weird to be mainstream, but too musical and intense to be ignored.|
|Alice In Chains||Dirt||A grunge band that actually made an impact prior to Nirvana, their roots were in heavy metal. Their second album was a dark descent into drug fueled nihilism, driven by Layne Staley's nasal howl. A classic of the era.|
|Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds||Henry's Dream||Rooted in a punk folk ethos, Cave's apocalyptic, theatrical vocals spoke of love and death over mostly acoustic arrangements. Not everyone's cup of tea, but possibly Cave's best in a long, varied career.|
|R.E.M.||Automatic for the People||Although an enormous sales success, this is really a quietly heartfelt work of an articulate band at their artistic peak. This is pop folk-rock at it's best, dissecting pop culture and rock stardom's absurdities.|
|Buffalo Tom||Let Me Come Over||An overlooked classic American rock album, coming as it did during the grunge explosion - this is not a grunge band. This is heartfelt well-crafted power pop rock with chiming guitars that holds up over time. Contains one of my favorite ever songs "Taillights Fade".|
|Soul Asylum||Grave Dancers Union||One of the somewhat unsung progenitors of the "Minneapolis sound", with roots in punk not unlike their peers The Replacements. Ignore the inescapable one-off hit "Runaway Train" and focus on the power pop, hard rock diversity of the rest of the tracks.|
|Smashing Pumpkins||Siamese Dream||Before Billy Corgan got a little (more) full of himself, he created a sonic masterpiece, a massive sound wall of bombastic drums and hyper-drive guitars. Veering from quietly beautiful to howling arena rock, this is an artistic studio creation with few equals in rock.|
|Uncle Tupelo||Anodyne||Before Wilco carried the alt-country banner, there was Uncle Tupelo. In their final album, the Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrer partnership created a lasting piece of Americana. Lyrical pain, regret and sadness, dosed with alcohol, melded into guitar driven rock folk.|
|Morphine||Cure for Pain||They sounded like no other band - based on a deep sax and bass groove, they were as much jazz and blues as a rock band. An oddball power trio, the tales of pain and loss fit the late night cocktail vibe.|
|The Breeders||Last Splash||With pure pop-rock blasts like "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer", Kim Deal kept elements of the Pixies while creating her own cool indie vibe. With twin sister Kelley harmonizing and adding spiky simplistic guitar punctuation, the band produced a chaotic yet tight set of scrappy pop nuggets.|
|Nirvana||In Utero||Nevermind was a tough act to follow and Kurt Cobain didn't really try for a part two. Instead, the band created an even darker, nihilistic vision true to their leader's principles, and unfortunately, state of mind. His often conflicted lyrics are made even more poignant by his tragic loss the following year.|
|Jeff Buckley||Grace||There is no denying the voice. The title of his only studio album is descriptive - this is an eclectic and very often moving set of songs. His lyrics were yearning, sung with passion with an instrument that could move from falsetto to howl with fluidic ease. It was truly a great loss to music upon his death in 1997.|
|Guided By Voices||Bee Thousand||22 songs, 36 minutes. The definition of short but sweet. Lo-fi power pop masterpiece, the very epitome of scrappy sometimes sloppy indie rock - you didn't hear GBV on the radio and never will.|
|Pavement||Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain||A cult indie band that had it's brushes with the mainstream, including the single "Cut Your Hair" from their second album. More focused than their debut, it still retained a noisy, jagged, messy edge that blended well with Stephen Malkmus' edgy lyrics. In the age of grunge, they were a contrast in style, or lack thereof.|
|Sugar||File Under Easy Listening||While it retains the power chord guitar crunch and melodic sense that are Bob Mould's trademarks, there is little of the Husker Du punk - this is adult power pop with plenty of hooks.|
|Manic Street Preachers||The Holy Bible||Not well known in the US, this Welsh band's 3rd album traded some of their punk past for a heavy goth metal sound featuring sheets of power chord guitars. Overtly political righteousness on previous work morphs into more introspective battles with personal demons. A visceral gut punch, powerful and often bleak.|
|Elastica||Elastica||The debut album by this short-lived Britpop quartet was a jagged blast of short power pop songs, long on attitude and heavy on hooks. With swaggering lyrics of sex and empowerment, Justine Frischmann carved out a space in the crowded male-dominated British scene of the time.|
|Teenage Fanclub||Grand Prix||Sometimes dubbed the Scottish Big Star, TFC were masters of melodic jangly guitar pop, culminating in what is considered a career peak on their fifth album. It may be a stretch to call them an alternative band, this is primarily simple but dynamic pop rock, melodic love songs with a whiff of indie edge.|
|PJ Harvey||To Bring You My Love||Polly Jean Harvey has rarely disappointed even as she shifts styles as easily as changing clothes. For this album she howls and moans through blues-inflected songs of anger and angst.|
|Son Volt||Trace||Along with Wilco, Son Volt took up the mantle of alt-country alternative heroes after the demise of Uncle Tupelo. Although some may find this too country flavored and Jay Farrar's singing limited and too world weary, there is a deceptive lyrical power in the well-worn themes of alcohol, poverty and depression.|
|Radiohead||The Bends||This is album when Radiohead became Radiohead. My personal favorite, it retains much of the guitar crunch of their debut, while greatly expanding their musical palette. They were still figuring out their path, but in the process they created some pretty damn fine songs. This is the Radiohead for rock and electronica fans alike.|
|Screaming Trees||Dust||It would difficult to choose between 1992's "Sweet Oblivion" and this record, but they are both excellent examples of why Screaming Trees had been a Seattle fixture since the 80's. Mark Lanegran was one of the best voices to come out of the grunge era - his growling whiskey vocals elevated almost any song to the next level.|
|Wilco||Being There||The sophomore release after the breakup of Uncle Tupelo, Jeff Tweedy and crew created a classic double disc album with less country and more rock. This is a distinctly American recording, full of the variety and contradiction of "Being There".|
|Jon Spencer Blues Explosion||Now I Got Worry||This was added because it is one of my personal favorites - many preferred 1994's "Orange". This was a controversial band, but they paved the way for bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys to incorporate blues into an experimental rock framework. Say what you will, they stirred the pot and rocked out doing it.|
|Manic Street Preachers||Everything Must Go||A much different album than the previous "Holy Bible", with less snarl and more melody. With a more symphonic sound and more muted guitars, it was created during a time of personal and musical turmoil for the band and it shows in the mature introspection. It defined them in a new light.|
|Tool||Aenima||Is this prog rock? It certainly has all the elements of heavy metal, but with a more experimental feel. So whether it is or isn't, this is Tool at it's best, Maynard James Keenan's barely controlled anger howling over dark menacing guitar. Like most prog rock, there are some periods of pointless interludes, but when they hit the right groove, there are few better.|
|The Verve||Urban Hymns||Although lumped in with the tail end of the Britpop era, this album differentiated itself with it's lush symphonic beauty. And while leader Richard Ashcroft is known for his prickliness, he is capable of lyrical and melodic genius. Even leaving out the enormous hit "Bittersweet Symphony", this is a soulful art rock masterpiece.|
|Modest Mouse||The Lonesome Crowded West||Relentlessly weird and jagged but often funky. Veers from punk shout outs to quiet lo-fi interludes to Cake-like bouncy beats. Try to define their genre, I dare you. Lyrical wordplay from leader Isaac Brock, speaking of the encroachment of suburbia in the west, meshes frantically with the spiky musical palette.|
|Sleater Kinney||Dig Me Out||A bass free power trio, this band still manages a crunching yet melodic noise that hits as hard as any band of the era. Corin Tucker's vocals are revelatory, howling out cathartic lyrics of anger and empowerment with conviction. Messages aside, this is also simply just a great rawk album.|
|Supergrass||In It For The Money||They were in it for the fun. It is clear they liked being a rock band. However, this album was a bit of a departure from their lighthearted debut "I Should Coco", with more serious themes and harder hitting musically. However it still retained some of the playful pop cheekiness - this is the fun younger brother to Britpoppers Blur, Pulp et al.|
|Built To Spill||Perfect From Now On||Moving from a more lo-fi approach to full blown indie prog, with it's cosmic themes and matching song length (long). Innovative and quirky yet built on a classic rock platform, an opus without most of the usual prog rock pretensions.|
|Semisonic||Feeling Strangely Fine||On their second album after rising from the ashes of the criminally overlooked Trip Shakespeare, Dan Wilson crafted a pristine power pop gem. Containing the world conquering single "Closing Time", the rest of the album had hardly a misstep.|
|Elliott Smith||XO||Beautiful acoustic folk pop with just touches of organ and electric guitar, at times dreamy and light, then dark and ominous. Deeply and sometimes uncomfortably person lyrics delivered in a mostly whispery, atmospheric vocal style. Low-key but affecting tales of a troubled soul.|
|Beck||Mutations||In a pretty hard pivot after the mish-mash success of "Odelay", this is (mostly) "serious" Beck. Some songs sound like lost tracks from a 60s Beatles imitator. Throw in some slow honkytonk, pseudo-blues, folk - well this is still a Beck album, it still gets weird sometimes. But most of it is just pretty, melodic, slightly surreal, landscapes over which Beck croons dreamily.|
|Neutral Milk Hotel||In The Aeroplane Over The Sea||I have no idea what the band's name means, and some of the music is a little eclectic for most of us, but this is known as a bit of an indie album icon. Their second and last album, ostensibly based on the story of Anne Frank, it's unique instrumentation and plaintive vocals draw you in. It's a unique work of art that takes some time to appreciate.|
|Sunny Day Real Estate||How It Feels To Be Something On||Considered to be a major influencer of the indie emo genre, the bands third album displayed multiple musical influences. In the end it's the guitar textures and rhythms that speak to me, a Radiohead-like ethos to find beauty in dissonance.|
|Rage Against the Machine||The Battle of Los Angeles||The message hasn't changed - they are mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. Although the themes are the same as the first two albums, they are worthy subjects and are given the full Rage treatment, sincerity is not an issue here. Combined with Tom Morello's inventive guitar scream and thrash, another intense collection of rebellion music.|
|Guster||Lost And Gone Forever||Moving beyond their dismissive "college band" label, their major label debut was a simple but sweet power pop collection. With pure vocal harmonies and shiny guitar hooks, the band is not breaking new ground, and that's ok because it does what it does quite well.|
|Jimmy Eat World||Clarity||Before "Bleed American" broke this band into the mainstream consciousness, the band had already released 3 albums, including "Clarity", which more clearly (pun intended) established their sound. With elements of power chord rock, pop punk and emo, this is one of the bands that put a final cap to the grunge era.|
|Incubus||Make Yourself||At times it felt like appreciating Incubus was almost a guilty pleasure, akin to being a Third Eye Blind fan. The singer was boy band handsome, they had enormous hit songs, and there was a whiff of pretentiousness - whether real or imagined. But at the bottom line, both bands had good rock songs. Incubus sometimes got lumped with the nu metal posers, but they were above that. This was a tight hard rock band with something to say - and I confess to thinking it's fine to admit that.|
|Wilco||Summerteeth||After finding their groove on "Being There", Wilco produced an eclectic yet somehow familiar sounding 17 song cycle, varied in theme and style, but remaining coherent. Lyrically diverse, sometimes uncomfortable dark, sometimes pop catchy, it showcased Jeff Tweedy's songwriting chops.|
What Have We Learned
The 90s had a plethora of great alternative bands emerge, as well as many of the pioneers of the 80s. Obviously the emergence of grunge had a huge impact on what was now becoming “popular” music – which led to somewhat of a backlash later, but a minor one – this wasn’t a faddish thing like disco. In retrospect, we didn’t realize how great we had it – real bands playing real rock music.
Once in a while we have to look back to see how rock became what it is currently. With the advent of digital music dominance in the last couple decades, we have lost much of the album-based musical culture. The 90s started the transition to a digital platform with the dominance of the compact disc, but there was still a lot of the analog mindset. In my opinion the music was better for it.
Please note that we have linked these albums to the vinyl version on Amazon. If you feel Jeff Bezos already has enough of your money, please consider the sites below if you are looking to purchase these LPs:
Every generation tends to think the music of their era is superior in some way. Every decade has seen innovation and new styles emerge, all adding to the melting pot of rock and roll music. Having grown up in the 80s and 90s, at least musically, I would argue that the rock music of the 90s, in terms of quality and quantity, would rank at the top of the scale.
Our focus on vinyl music is more than nostalgia, it’s part of an ethos. Just as I think alternative rock of the 90s was a more honest and substantive era of music, putting in the effort to listen to that music in an analog form also seems more true to the original form. Please take a look at our other articles on the vinyl hobby if you agree.
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