Top 20 Best Alternative Rock Albums of the 90s
In the 90s, it seemed for a while that in the music world only grunge mattered. Bands out of the Seattle scene dominated the “alternative” landscape in the early part of the decade beyond the actual sales impact. Of course, this is not all that happened in rock for a entire decade. When you try to define the top 20 best alternative rock albums of the 90s, grunge plays an oversized role, but there was more to it.
As we asked in our previous summary of the best alt rock of the 80s, what is alternative rock? In the 90s many would have had some difficulty beyond the grunge genre (however that was defined). Did R.E.M. and U2 still qualify as alternative bands after the massive success of their work in the late 80s? It seemed that even most of the “alternative” acts were not really “indie” in the sense they were on major labels. Labels like Sub-Pop, SST, Twin Tone, etc – whose rosters spawned much of the impactful acts of the mid and late 80s, were becoming less relevant as the 90s progressed.
So back to the central question – what are the best alternative rock albums of the 90s? Since this is my list, I set a few clear rules, if clear is defined by complete subjectivity based mostly on my musical taste. However, I attempted to be a little objective, factoring in the influential and critical impact of records that I my not have personally felt strongly about.
- Unlike my list for the 80s, I am more adamant that these be “rock” albums. For me this means: has to have a strong guitar sound, real drums, and light on electronica (mostly, except industrial).
- Except I break rule #1 on several of my choices. Some recordings were too good not to list even if light on guitar. Flaming Lips The Soft Bulletin is one example because when you say “alternative” this is a band that comes immediately to my mind.
- Ok there are no clear rules.
There are literally hundreds of records that could be considered important or influential that came out during this time. However, I included ones that had at least some commercial impact, had acknowledged artistic importance, and limited to one album per band (hey, that’s a clear rule). These are not listed in any particular order, as I do not try to define one as more important than another. So here we go.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
So let’s get this one out of the way right now. This is the 900 lb. gorilla of the grunge era, although many would argue the stage was set well before this album came out in 1991. Seattle based bands like Mudhoney, Green River, TAD, and Screaming Trees were already delivering gobs of sludgy, heavy guitar riffs, pounding drum beats, and angst-filled, screaming vocals. But Nirvana, for better or worse, made it a world wide phenomenon due to the impact of this album.
Their major label debut on DGC was preceded by their Sub Pop release Bleach in 1989. Much punkier and jagged than Nevermind, that release established the basic quiet/loud dynamic that was the basis for their signature sound. Bleach didn’t make a big impact at the time except in the Seattle area and college radio, many later fans didn’t realize Nevermind wasn’t the first album for the band. Famously produced by Butch Vig, the album’s lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” completely blew up partly due to a dark MTV video. Music history followed and grunge went mainstream.
Eventually reaching No.1 on the Billboard charts and selling 7 million copies, it was a rock landmark release beyond even it’s sales success. Nirvana released a compilation album Incesticide in 1992, followed by their second studio album In Utero in 1993. In Utero was a slightly less polished recording, although it still retained it’s soft/loud dynamic and Kurt Cobain’s raw, sometimes ragged vocals. It was also a huge commercial success, debuting at No.1, though it didn’t have the same sledgehammer impact as Nevermind.
As well documented, Cobain’s suicide in 1994 sent a shockwave through the music world. Like Hendrix or Joplin, he left the world far too soon. Nirvana only really existed for half a decade, but their impact and influence will be felt for generations. Nevermind was a landmark album that represented an artist at his peak.
Pixies – Bossanova (1990)
Is Bossanova the Pixies best album? No – I believe Surfer Rosa and Doolittle were significantly better recordings overall. But the third best Pixies album is still better than 99% of the music of the era. The grunge era would have existed without the Pixies but it might have sounded different. The quiet/loud dynamic that influenced bands like Nirvana wasn’t necessarily invented by this band, but they came close to perfecting it. Combined with indirect off-beat lyrics on subjects like aliens, they set one of the primary templates for 90s alternative.
After the tour for Doolittle, the band’s tensions almost had them breaking up, with both leader Black Francis and Kim Deal pursuing outside projects. They regrouped in 1990 and recorded Doolittle for 4AD records. There were two singles released, “Velouria” and “Dig For Fire”, which both did well on the Modern Rock Charts. The album had minimal commercial impact and somewhat mixed critical reviews, but in retrospect was still an important influence in the early 90s emergence of alternative.
The Pixies released on more album, Trompe Le Monde, in 1991 before breaking up. Kim Deal went on to form The Breeders and have more commercial success than the Pixies ever enjoyed. Black Francis has recorded and toured under the moniker Frank Black. The original members reformed in 2004 for concert tours, and in 2014 released new material. In my mind the Pixies were criminally underappreciated in their time and can only be fully appreciated for their influence on what came out after them.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
Although My Bloody Valentine’s discography consists of only three studio albums, one per decade, their influence is unmistakable. They were an originator of the “shoegazer” genre – introspective, dreamy, feedback-drenched psychedelia with a detached live stage presence. With the debut release of Isn’t Anything in 1988, band leader and guitarist Kevin Shields established an effects driven sonic texture that would be an “alternative” to the grunge dominance to come.
Recorded over an almost two year period in multiple studios, Loveless was released in 1991 on Creation Records. Almost universally adored by critics, the album had somewhat modest sales and didn’t dent the charts. This was not really surprising, as the album is more about mood and ambiance than songs, and is not that accessible to the average listener. Vocals are often muddy and buried in the mix, so the lyrics become an afterthought to the guitar landscape. But what a landscape it is – cavernous, slithery, ethereal, grinding. It is easy to see how this album had such an over-sized influence despite it’s lack of mainstream success.
Although the band signed a contract with Island Records in 1992, they did not release another studio album in the decade. They reunited in 2007 and released a third album in 2013 m b v. Although they never achieved any degree of commercial success, you can hear them reflected in work by peers Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Smashing Pumpkins and others.
Pavement – Slanted And Enchanted (1992)
In full disclosure, I am not a huge Pavement fan. Leader Steven Malkmus’ vocals don’t do much for me, the slacker vibe seems a little disingenuous at times, or at least it feels that way. When this album came out in 1992 I was not that impressed and consider them another poser indie band with no real new ideas.
Despite that intro, I can not deny this album’s importance. Looking back now, I see what I missed. What I thought was a poor man’s Sonic Youth was something different. The music is overly spiky guitar noise at times, ragged beats and sonic mish-mash. But it works and grows on you with more listens. Which is kind of the point. They shift between chaos and pop melody with ease, the style moving seemingly randomly. Speak-sing vocals with lyrics that mean – something. The variation in music and theme is the only constant, which I appreciate much more than I did at the time – back then it was just a little confusing.
Critical review of Slanted and Enchanted was almost universally positive, the album appears on many “best of” lists and is considered by many as one of the best indie rock albums ever. Pavement released four more albums in the 90s, including the follow up Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, considered by some as good or better than Slanted and Enchanted. The band broke up in 2000 and reunited briefly in 2010.
Smashing Pumpkins – Gish (1991)
Although most would consider 1993’s Siamese Dream as the Smashing Pumpkins zenith, and an alternative rock iconic album, their debut recording Gish seems a more honest and less “professional” blast of heavy guitar psychedelia. With a grunge-like soft, loud dynamic with soaring guitar heroics, leader Billy Corgan was finding a sound that wore their influences on their sleeves but was still their own.
Recorded with producer Butch Vig (Nevermind) in 1991 on Caroline Records, the Chicago band’s early influences leaned towards goth. With the addition of powerhouse drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, the band moved towards heavy, deep psychedelic rock. With the release of the single “Rhinoceros” which received some college radio attention and MTV video rotation, the album made a modest impact on the indie scene. However, they were overshadowed by the explosion of grunge (Nirvana), until the release of Siamese Dream which found it’s own more mainstream commercial appeal.
The Pumpkins released two more recordings in the 90s – the double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, another major hit, and Adore. Adore moved the band towards a more electronica sound which they maintained through various breakups and reunions up to this day. While I still enjoy the band’s work, for me they can never equal that first sonic blast of Gish.
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
The English band Radiohead can be considered to have two career eras – starting with a more conventional rock origin on their initial two releases Pablo Honey and The Bends. Then a turn into a more eclectic form of electronica typified by albums like Kid A and Hail to the Thief. Unlike most critics, I have never been a huge fan of their more recent work absent the up front guitars. Thom Yorke’s angsty, keening vocals haven’t changed but the lyrical themes have evolved. My personal favorite is The Bends for it’s more straightforward rock, but I am probably not with most of the cool kids on that.
OK Computer falls in the midst of that transition, and I think most agree is their high point because of it. The guitars still ring, the vocals soar, and the melodic feel is gorgeous. This is a band who have figured out what they want to do and are proficient enough to do it with confidence. There is complexity while still maintaining passion, atmospherics without overwhelming the beat. This is experimental art rock that stays true to it’s intentions. There were reviews at the time that accused it of being overly morose and somewhat soulless, but in retrospect I think those reviews missed the point.
After the awards and commercial success of this album, Radiohead continued to stay true to their experimental spirit, with acclaimed releases every few years. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.
Green Day – Dookie (1994)
There has always been a significant love-hate fan and critic relationship with Green Day. Formed in the San Francisco area by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt, they came out of the Cal-punk scene of the late 80s / early 90s. Along with peers like NOFX, The Offspring, Bad Religion and Rancid, they led the way for the mainstreaming of punk music in the US. Because of the commercial success of their career and the evolution into a more pop-rock aesthetic, they often were labelled as “sell-outs” or posers. I would argue that if they had just started their career with Dookie they would just be known as simply a great hard rock power trio, period.
After signing with Reprise Records in 1993, Dookie was released in 1994. Their previous indie label releases 39/Smooth and Kerplunk! were punk records that got some underground attention and major label interest. Armstrong made it known later that he didn’t want to be constrained as only a punk band, and it was clear from the poppier aesthetic of Dookie the direction they were headed. However, it retained it’s snotty, slashing punk roots and Armstrong’s lyrics about self-loathing, alienation, loneliness, and, yes, masturbation spoke to millions of disaffected kids. Tight, loud, and eminently catchy, it became a huge commercial success with three popular singles and 10 million copies sold. It was the Nevermind of the mid-90s with much less critical acclaim.
The band’s next three albums did not match the success of that initial grenade blast, and many started to consider the band irrelevant. Then in 2004 the band released American Idiot, a concept album that re-catapulted them back to fame – it reached No.1 on the Billboard charts and was eventually made into a stage show. It was a long way from their punk roots, and it demonstrated that they were more than just 3 chords and a sneer. They continue to record and tour, and to date have sold over 90 million records, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
Sugar – Copper Blue (1992)
After the breakup of the hugely influential rock-punk band Hüsker Dü, singer-guitarist Bob Mould released two solo albums to little critical or fan acclaim. They were a radical departure from the Hüsker sound, with a much poppier and low-key dynamic. Mould was dropped from the Virgin Records label, and subsequently looked to put together a full new band. In 1992 this new band released it’s first album, Copper Blue, on Rykodisc.
With a more straightforward rock sound, the album was a critical success and with the singles “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Helpless”, received moderate MTV and radio air time as well. Although not really part of the grunge scene, the album fit into the guitar heavy sound of the time. Mould had greatly evolved as a singer from his earlier pitch challenged beginnings and his strong songwriting and lyrical abilities transitioned him into a new era. This was an indie-sounding pop record that retained Mould’s signature power chord riffing.
With the decline of the original “Minneapolis sound” of the mid-80s due to breakups of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Mould led a revival of the scene with other bands like Soul Asylum and Semisonic. It was more pop-rock oriented, with little of the punk origins remaining. Sugar released two more well-received studio albums in the 90s, including my favorite, File Under Easy Listening, before the band broke up in 1996.
Tool – Undertow (1993)
There is nothing happy or fun about the music of Tool. It is relentlessly deep and dark. It is not motivational or uplifting. What it is is engrossing and immersive. It is an artsy rock band that incorporates psychedelia and metal rock into a dark stew, with Maynard James Keenan’s distinctive keening vocals soaring over the top.
After their first EP release in 1992, Opiate, created some buzz around the band’s heavy sound, Undertow was released on Zoo Entertainment in 1993. The initial single “Sober” received significant radio air play, but it was the distinctive MTV video that really pushed the band into commercial success, with the album eventually reaching platinum status. Despite, or maybe because of, some clashes with censorship, including for the video of the second single, “Prison Sex”, the band grew in popularity. Their lyrical content often touched on taboo topics, constantly pushing against the boundaries.
Tool have won four Grammy’s for their work (for whatever that’s worth) and have continued recording and touring to this day. Although they have only released six studio albums in their 30 year career, they have staked out their spot in the heavy art rock pantheon. Despite their success, nobody will ever accuse them of selling out or compromising their ideals, they have always been true to their vision – even if it is often an ugly one.
Sonic Youth – Goo (1990)
Coming on the heels of their critically acclaimed 1988 release Daydream Nation, Goo continued the Youth’s trend towards (slightly) more accessible noise rock. They had already created a critically acclaimed underground reputation with five releases in the 80s, Goo forged a new path for the 90s that wasn’t just about the grunge movement.
Goo was still based primarily on the twin guitar interplay of Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, utilizing alternative tunings and effects to create the noisy machine rock sound that was their calling card. However, there was obvious influences from punk, metal, and avant garde as well. In addition, Kim Gordon had a bigger influence on the music, including the lead single “Kool Thing”. As a woman in a male-dominated band and industry, much like Kim Deal of the Pixies she helped re-define the perspective of her band and the alternative genre.
Although Daydream Nation may still be considered the band’s artistic peak, this prolific band continued to make artistically complex, sonically challenging music for 20 more years. The group remains one of the icons of the alternative music world, never compromising their indie roots after the success of Goo and the followup release Dirty. The band disbanded in 2011, all the members moving on to new projects.
Liz Phair – Exile In Guyville (1993)
The debut album by Liz Phair was a lo-fi masterpiece by an artist unafraid of saying the quiet part loud. In the age of grunge domination, it was a more low key but no less visceral musical statement of independence and personal angst. Is it a feminist album? Well it certainly spoke to the power of women, and she seemed to align with other prominent female artists of the time like PJ Harvey and Tori Amos. But it is also distinctly her own.
A true indie story, Phair recorded her initial demos on tapes while in Chicago, eventually signing with Matador Records and releasing her debut album Exile in Guyville in 1993. The album was almost universally critically acclaimed, the simple musical structures a platform for her audacious confessional, sometimes crude, lyrics. These brash lyrics were delivered in a deadpan vocal style, which somehow only seemed to add to the authenticity of the music. This was a tough girl who wasn’t afraid of you. Much like the punk movement of the 70s, she showed you don’t have to conform to a certain image and didn’t have to be a technically great singer or guitarist to make a personal, meaningful statement.
After the success of Guyville, the expectations were high for Phair. Her second release, Whip-Smart, eventually went gold but was not as universally acclaimed. It was clear there was some attempt to appeal to a wider audience, and some of the edge was lost. Subsequent albums turned more towards pop, and she never recaptured the magic of the debut album or even the follow-up. This should not detract from the impact and influence of that first album, as it helped pave the way for independent-minded female artists of the future.
Weezer – Pinkerton (1996)
Weezer certainly did not invent “geek rock“, but they were close to perfecting it in the 90s. While their look was the type of uncool that was cool, their sound was pure power pop. Like a harder edged Marshall Crenshaw or a less abrasive early Elvis Costello, they wrote songs that spoke to the lonely loser in all of us. But they often did it with crunching guitars, which was cool.
Originating in Los Angeles and led by uber nerd Rivers Cuomo, the band released their debut album Weezer or “The Blue Album“, in 1994. With heavy MTV rotation for the geek-tastic videos for the singles “Buddy Holly”, “Undone – the Sweater Song” and “Say It Ain’t So”, the album was an enormous hit, quickly going multi-platinum. The followup in 1996, Pinkerton, did not fare nearly as well commercially, with much less pop sheen and not as radio friendly. At the time, it was also not a critical favorite, appearing on a number of “worst of” lists. Only in retrospect has the album received acclaim similar to the Blue Album as an anthem of the 90s. My personal opinion is that while it had it’s awkward moments, it’s an honest awkwardness borne of frustration and introspection.
After Pinkerton, Weezer returned to more pop friendly songwriting. The Green Album featured more radio friendly fare and more closely matched the sales success of the debut. Weezer continues to make geek rock safe for the masses, somehow remaining an alternative vibe while being clearly mainstream capable. Rolling Stone and others may have disliked Pinkerton at the time, but I don’t think Weezer needs their approval.
Soundgarden – Superunknown (1994)
Soundgarden had all the hallmarks of a “grunge” band – a massive sludgy bottom end and power chord heavy and often distorted guitar riffs. But their real musical weapon was the otherworldly howl of lead singer Chris Cornell. With a range from soft growl to full-throated screams, Cornell made Soundgarden a force in a crowded field of the early 90s. As one of the pioneers of the “Seattle sound”, they helped define a sound that influenced musicians for decades to come.
With elements of heavy metal reminiscent of Black Sabbath, Soundgarden’s earlier releases Ultramega OK and Louder Than Love had elements of punk, but moved inexorably to a deeper, melodic metal edge by the time the third release Badmotorfinger was released in 1991. The lyrical content was also evolving, with Cornell exploring personal issues as well as societal ills. With singles and MTV videos “Outshined” and “Rusty Cage”, Badmotorfinger was a relative commercial success, although being a little overshadowed by the release of Nevermind that same year.
Superunknown came out of the chute with a roar in 1994, debuting at No.1 on the Billboard charts and eventually selling 11 million copies worldwide. With lyrical themes ranging from depression and alienation, it’s depth matched the heaviness of the music – although they also demonstrated a softer touch on songs like “Black Hole Sun”. This was a powerhouse album, although personally I think my personal preference is Badmotorfinger – although Superunknown is probably overall the more consistent album.
After breaking up in 1998 after their fifth album Down on the Upside Cornell joined supergroup Audioslave and also did solo work. The other members worked with other groups until Soundgarden re-united in 2010, recording one more album in 2012. Cornell’s tragic death in 2017 meant the loss of one of rock’s more distinctive and powerful vocalists, and the permanent end of Soundgarden.
Beck – Odelay (1996)
The artist Beck, born Beck Hansen in Los Angeles, is a musical mixologist. A dash of folk and country, add a little funk and blues, a major dose of pop, shake it up and serve with a big dose of off-kilter lyrics. If Weezer is the definition of geek rock, Beck is the slightly cooler, avent garde version. Through a 28 year career, Beck has changed genres like changing underwear, a musical prodigy, an indie soul with a mass appeal.
Beck burst onto the alternative scene with his third album, Mellow Gold, in 1993. With it’s mash up of dance funk, folk, pop and country, along with it’s indecipherable and eclectic lyrics, it became a hit primarily due to it’s ubiquitous hit “Loser”. Concerned about becoming a one hit wonder, the release of Odelay in 1996 was a critical juncture for Beck. He needn’t have worried. Odelay was an immediate critical and fan favorite, Grammy winner, and spawned three hit singles. With his mish-mash of influences, Beck could go almost anywhere from song to song, and this variety kept things fresh and immediate. Although lyrically slightly more accessible, it still had the arty free form poetic style of earlier work.
Although Odelay was clearly his 90s zenith, Beck has released nine studio albums up to 2019, never showing signs of running low on creativity or inspiration. From the peaceful dream pop of Morning Phase, the romantic despair of Sea Change, or the return to Odelay’s funk-inflected style with a Latin edge of Guero, Beck keeps the tasty cocktails flowing.
Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral (1994)
Nine Inch Nails, which was really just Trent Reznor and hired hands, released only two albums in the 90s, and only The Downward Spiral truly mattered. Originating in Cleveland, Nine Inch Nails released their first album in 1989, Pretty Hate Machine, they (or he) quickly became an industrial rock star. The album had two very popular singles on MTV, “Down In It” and “Head Like a Hole” – overall it was a very auspicious debut.
After releasing the EP Broken, NIN released the long awaited followup to Pretty Hate Machine in 1994. The Downward Spiral debuted at No.2 on the Billboard Charts and became the band’s biggest selling album. With it’s often disturbing lyrical content and dark, grinding and often dissonant musical textures, the album was a tour de force. With his command of studio technology, Reznor shaped the sonic layers to match the dark subject matter, using guitar, synth and drum machines to create a noise rock base, with his distinctive nasal whisper to a scream vocals.
Reznor continued to be a force into the 2000s, releasing six studio albums, while also working as a producer and composer. Although never again reaching the heights of his early releases, the influence of Reznor’s work can be seen in many later industrial rock artists.
PJ Harvey – Rid Of Me (1993)
Choosing the best PJ Harvey album of the 90s is like choosing your favorite child. They are all different, you love them all, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. But for the rock chameleon that is Englishwoman Polly Jean Harvey, her sophomore effort Rid of Me is the kid with the most personality.
PJ Harvey (the band) released their debut album Dry in 1992 to almost universal critical acclaim. Some will argue it is still her best album, showcasing all her vocal and songwriting skills in her first recording. After signing to major label Island that year, they released Rid of Me in 1993. With elements of punk, rock, and blues, it was a rawer, edgier sound that fit Harvey’s passionate vocals. Explicit and dark, the lyrical content was overtly sexual, both angry and yearning. It’s intense and powerful.
It didn’t stop there. After going solo for the following albums, Harvey released three more albums up to 2000, and they were all great. Veering through different visual concepts and musical explorations, the music remained challenging, with the constant being Harvey’s exceptional vocal and lyrical range. Whispering seductively one second and screaming at your worthlessness the next, this is no shrinking violet. She continues to record strong albums, my personal favorite was 2000’s Stories from City, Stories from the Sea. Very few artists have been as consistently innovative and just plain good as PJ Harvey.
Faith No More – Angel Dust (1992)
The band Faith No More originated in the Bay Area of California in the early 80s. After two albums with lead singer Chuck Mosley, they turned to vocalist Mike Patton for their 1989 release The Real Thing. The album became an alternative smash, with the single “Epic” becoming a huge MTV video hit. Fusing metal guitar with prog rock electronics, funk, and rap, they created a blueprint for nu-metal acts to follow.
After the success of The Real Thing, the band felt the freedom to be more experimental on the next album, Angel Dust. An eclectic mix of styles, four of the band members contributed songs, including Patton for the first time. Many of the lyrical topics are darkly humorous, sexual, or both. The end result is almost relentlessly non-commercial but still had it’s accessible moments, including the singles “Midlife Crisis” and “Everything’s Ruined”. But in general it was an artistic statement, taking risks because they could.
After the early 90s heyday, Faith No More next two releases didn’t match up in terms of impact, although King for A Day…Fool for a Lifetime and Album of the Year still had the artistic imprint and respectable sales. In 1998 Patton moved on to other projects, as did other band members. They reunited in 2009 and released an album in 2015, Sol Invictus. Their legacy is intact, with a major influence on the alternative metal scene that was open to disparate elements such as funk and rap.
Pearl Jam – Vs. (1993)
Sometimes it’s difficult to define a band as alternative when they a sell a ridiculous number of records. Formed from the ashes of the seminal grunge band Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam emerged from the exploding Seattle scene in the early 90s. With vocalist Eddie Vedder’s signature growl and the band’s tight rhythms and dark introspective lyrics, they were a band aligned with the times. Sometimes denigrated for being a classic rock version of grunge, this seems a knee-jerk reaction to their success, versus an honest assessment of their artistic integrity and skill.
The band’s debut album Ten in 1991 was an immediate smash, despite it’s dark subject matter of depression, alienation and suicide. Hit singles “Alive”, “Even Flow”, and “Jeremy” drove the sales of the album to unexpected heights, competing with the likes of Nevermind the same year. The success created some inevitable envy and backlash, and the band decided from that point on to keep promotional efforts low key. For the followup album in 1993, the band stopped making videos and focused on a more raw, immediate sound for the album Vs. Despite the lack of promotional efforts by the band, the album was still a huge commercial success, with four hit singles and multi-platinum sales.
Pearl Jam continues to record and has a secure place as one of the best live bands around. As a politically and socially conscious group, they have been one of the more activist bands to come out of the era. Although they fought a well-publicized losing battle with Ticketmaster, they have always attempted to act in the best interests of their fans, and if for nothing else this makes them one of my personal favorites. And the music is pretty damn good also.
Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against the Machine (1992)
From the name of the band, to the titles of many of their songs – it doesn’t really take long to understand what this band is about. It’s about justice, or the lack of, and they are going to pummel you with this message with metal guitar, relentless pounding bass and drums, and raging vocals from Zack de la Rocha. The message isn’t subtle, it’s raw and real, and it’s delivered with conviction. It was rap-metal before it was really a common form, but it was really more of a militant poetry, delivered over the effects driven guitar wizardry of Tom Morello.
The debut album Rage Against the Machine, released in 1992 on Epic Records, was a blast of righteous anger and aggression that received critical acclaim. With singles like “Killing in the Name”, it was a somewhat surprising commercial success as well, eventually reaching triple platinum sales. With an iconic cover of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk, the band delivered serious messages with a radical aesthetic. Fans got that message and the band had continued success on their subsequent three studio albums, Evil Empire, The Battle of Los Angeles, and Renegades.
In 2000, the band broke up, with members of the group, minus de la Rocha, formed Audioslave with Chris Cornell in 2000, while de la Rocha worked on solo projects. Rage had a reunion after the breakup of Audioslave in 2007, and have performed off and on since then. They continue to be politically revolutionaries in all their projects and the legacy of the band will always be one of social activism messaged through a rap metal delivery system.
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin (1999)
Welcome to the weird wonderful world of Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips. Perhaps the most experimental and “alternative” of any of the bands on this list, while still maintaining a major label presence. The band formed in Oklahoma and had 16 years and 8 studio albums behind them before the release of The Soft Bulletin in 1999. Very much a cult band, they had gained a strong critical and fan following with their eclectic mix of symphonic rock, psychedelia and twisted lyrics.
Although much more conventional than their previous release Zaireeka, the album retains a deep mysteriousness and mystical feel. Many of the songs have a lush, 70s pop feel to them, atmospheric and sonically dense. Coyne’s lyrics are more personal and accessible, emotional and still raw. It needs to be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated, this is not an album where there are a bunch of standout singles. It is the Flaming Lips version of Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds, a big sounding but intimate piece of melodic arty pop rock. It has been critically acclaimed as one of the best albums of the era, a unique masterpiece.
The followup album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots also received much critical fanfare, and incorporated more electronic sounds and less conventional rock instrumentation than previously. The Flaming Lips continue to record to this day, with six additional albums since Yoshimi was released in 2002. They have carved a unique space for themselves in the alternative music universe – there is really nobody that sounds quite like them or experiments so heavily with their sound. In this list only Radiohead really compares, both take non-commercial approaches to making their sounds but Radiohead resonates more with a wider audience. Flaming Lips is more an acquired taste.
The 90s was a great time for rock music. Especially if you liked heavy, loud guitars and flannel. The beginning of the decade in particular was a fertile time for a new wave of socially conscious, intelligent rock music with less concern about image and more focus on the music. Many artists also felt the freedom to cross boundaries and experiment with sound and styles – it wasn’t all just grunge.
From a personal perspective, I don’t think there has ever been a better time for real rock music. Everywhere you turned, there was a new band that excited you and opened your mind. The really good stuff of the era has stood the test of time – it sounds as amazing and real today as it did 20-30 years ago. It was an embarrassment of riches, and with the changes that have occurred in music in the 21st century it is unlikely we will see a decade like this again. But we can hope.
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