The 25 Best Alternative Rock Bands of the 1990s


With Weezer out with a new album, it reminded us (actually it’s just me, but I talk to myself enough to engage the plural) that there were other bands that also existed in the 1990s. And most of them, regardless of what they sounded like, got marketed as “indie” (even if on a major label), alternative (even if they sounded like the Eagles with distortion pedals), or punk (grab a safety pin and say “Oi!”).

Were Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots or Nine Inch Nails really alternative groups back in the 1990s? I suppose Trent Reznor was scratching out a new sound, and Pearl Jam may have sounded like Blood, Sweat & Tears on “the clear,” but their business practices and general outlook on life once they’d sold 10 million copies of their first album was pretty much a “leave us be” kind of approach. Hole was terrible. Rancid sounded like the Clash, but much worse. Bad Religion somehow got popular. And Fugazi made dull records but managed to put their Marxist anti-consumerist values to the test and stayed true to their ideals until the end. Bravo for that.

This time around I decided to really mess with you. That’s right. I put SOLO ACTS on the list. Because even the best solo performers hire someone to play behind them. And while I still compromised the list a tad to include bands that sold a few records here — I mean, Beck was a hero to most, but he always seemed a little forced to me— I did manage to put some of my personal faves way higher on the list than any other listening human would. I did Nirvana the favor of keeping them in the top 10 out of pure crass cynicism. And Smashing Pumpkins were ignored because they’re not alternative, they’re Queen.

I also short-changed the English big time. (Belle & Sebastian are Scottish.) Somehow, it seems like they should have their own list someday, a place where Pulp and Blur and Oasis can duke it out without a bunch of loudmouth Americans getting in the way.

I had over 75 bands on this initial list and everyone included had to start in the first half of the 1990s to qualify. While cutting L7 was easy, trashing the unforgivable Goo Goo Dolls was natural, and losing Radiohead made me chuckle (oh, the hatemail), seeing the dude from Palace sent to the scrapheap made me a little sad until I realized, someday there will be an list that I can sneak him and Richard Buckner onto! But until then, we’ll stick with this crap. (And for those wondering, the Yo La Tengo snub was deliberate, too. I love plenty of dull, sleepy music, but not from Hoboken.)

25. Sebadoh

By acting like he didn’t care and singing as if he had a cold, Lou Barlow made sloppy, half-assed albums that always included a couple of heart-tugging tunes that made girls weep and boys think to themselves, “I gotta try that.” That’s right kids, even the losers get lucky sometimes!

24. Dinosaur Jr.

From the band that gave us Lou Barlow and Sebadoh, No. 25 on this list (just look above you), Dinosaur Jr. became the ruling party for J. Mascis, whose idea of a good time is making everyone in his audience completely deaf. He has essentially written the same three or four songs over and over and done so with just enough skill to make it seem irrelevant. As long as you like the songs he writes, who cares about diversity or variety. Just sit around and play video games and pretend your life isn’t going down the toilet. Works for me.

23. Sonic Youth

The band that wouldn’t die. Nothing could kill these guys — except an infidelity scandal and divorce, that is. For years, it seemed like they’d be making albums long after the rest of us were locked up in retirement communities or buried in landfills. And would continue to do so without ever properly tuning their guitars. And would continue to spout abstract poetry while fans argued over what moves were “too rock,” “too commercial,” “too experimental” and “too over with.” Sonic Youth is split up now, but each new generation will like them for three to five albums and eventually move on to breed children and attend soccer games, much to their inner horror.

22. Pavement

By acting smarter than everyone else, they became smarter than everyone else. And by having friends in the music business who liked to tell everyone how smart they were, it became fact. To me? The Tom Petty of Alternative Rock. A couple of nice tunes per album with a bunch of filler that only the diehards need to understand. The rest of us can go shopping for furniture.

21. The Flaming Lips

Ambitious young scamps, whose workaholic ways guaranteed them a staying power no one expected when the Lips first burst onto the scene in the mid-’80s. Who would’ve known that Wayne Coyne would have such ambition in him, such single-minded devotion to being so weird? To releasing an album that required four CD players to listen to? To cover Sgt. Pepper with Miley Cyrus?

20. Cracker

David Lowery was once in Camper Van Beethoven. Who would’ve thought he’d have even more success with his follow-up? I think he did. “Low” was a pretty sizable hit, and they kept making records that had decent tunes on them, which probably meant that they didn’t do so well, since writing decent tunes is often the death knell for songwriters. You gotta write crappy and stupid if you want hits. Everyone knows that!

19. Beck

The post-modern Dylan? The just-in-time Donovan? The England Dan and John Ford Coley for the hipster set? The Doobie Brothers without the brothers? The man is a performer wrapped inside a recording studio hiding behind a sampler that’s been hitting him in the head repeatedly. He never makes the same move twice. Unless he forgets what his last move was. Then he might. He doesn’t look like he’s paying attention, but someone in his management must be. Or maybe he does everything while he sleeps. Some sleep aids make people gamble and eat without them even realizing it. Maybe it’s like that.

18. Weezer

Am I supposed to like these guys or hate them? Take them seriously or figure they’re being ironic? Do I get it or are they getting me? Hmmn, why does this scenario seem so familiar to me? Why does it seem as if I’ve somehow been here myself? A parallel universe? Psychic vibes? Blood brothers fighting a war against intellect and the right to be stupid? I think it’s over my head.

17. Giant Sand

An interview with Howe Gelb of Giant Sand usually goes something like this: You say, “Hello, Howe, how are you today?” And then Howe begins explaining how he is and then recounts everythingthat happened to him since the making of his latest album. At which point, 45 minutes have elapsed and he has answered all your questions without you even having to ask anything more. You simply say, “Thank you, Howe,” and hang up the phone.

16. Afghan Whigs

Greg Dulli was always destined for semi-greatness. In another era, with Andrew Loog Oldham promoting him, he might’ve been huge. Instead, he had to settle for mostly hated. He makes my fanclub look like a gentlemen’s auxiliary. But no matter how many slings people take at this poor chap, he comes back stronger, angrier, and more seductive. Black Love still sounds like a film noir where nobody survives. But they must because he went on to the Twilight Singers and the Gutter Twins with Mark Lanegan, where he continued to entertain and irritate with maximum efficiency before reuniting his Whigs. But stop hitting on my sister!

15. The Breeders

The one time I interviewed these folks was one of the most surreal moments of my incredible and useless journalism career. They were throwing the phone to each other, pretending to be someone else and giving answers that were mostly unprintable or incoherent. They were having so much fun at my expense that I decided to just go with it and play along. I even promised them I would listen to their album afterwards. I think I did. And I think it was pretty good.

14. Belle & Sebastian

What began as a school project turned out to be full employment for a large group of Scottish youth. If we had programs like this in the United States, we’d have even more bands living in Brooklyn! There might be a reason we don’t support these kinds of things. And while I avoided most “twee” things for this particular article, I couldn’t ignore these folks. They almost make me feel like dancing but that would be going too far.

13. Elliott Smith

Weird to think this guy was ever alive. Listening to his albums today, especially the self-tilted one and Either/Or, it’s like hearing a ghost. His elegant quiet, his compulsive misery, his inability to sound happy even when he’s imagining himself singing a Beatles tune indicates the sound of a man not long for this earth. Sad, but not surprising. What were his options? Join Sigur Ros?

12. Mudhoney

The boys who were supposed to be Nirvana. Yes, Mudhoney was there first and everyone was convinced that if the universe worked right, they would one day be rich and famous and the kids would understand. But these guys never really went about it the right way and the kids didn’t really care. The kids were happy with the Green Day. They didn’t want stuff this messy.

11. PJ Harvey

It’s no wonder she ended up dueting with Nick Cave. She’s like his mirror image in a girl package. Her blues can get a little trying, but her quiet whisperings and her piano stuff is unnerving in itseerie solitude. And while there were once rumblings that PJ Harvey was a band, she was pretty quick to stop that idea.

10. Nirvana

These young men changed everything. Well, not everything. But certainly the bank accounts of not just people who worked for them, but even the bank accounts of bands who once had a career before they showed up. Just ask the guys in Winger or any hair metal band what happened to their show business receipts once “Smells Like Teen Spirit” got a hold of MTV and radio stations across the land. Not everyone profited at Kurt Cobain’s expense.

9. Guided by Voices

Bob Pollard wrote 10,000 songs during this decade and he released every one of them twice. Or so it seems. He has become a legend if only by sheer numbers. And why not? Quantity is quality sometimes.

8. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

The Lord of Darkness came into the ’90s with The Good Son and then rolled out a procession of albums that in retrospect just get better and better. He threw off the more affected Southern Gothic Snake Blues for his own weird ballad lust and a healthy dose of Arthur Janov-inspired primordial yelping. That he actually caught on in some small way is beyond strange. Since it seemed as if he was almost going out of his way to annoy anyone who would dare befriend him. In other words, don’t lend him money.

7. Vic Chesnuttt

There’s a reason why Michael Stipe wanted to get this guy into a recording studio. He knew he’d found a local talent who deserved to be less local. And while not everyone enjoyed his voice or comprehend his twists of phrase, that didn’t mean the rest of us had to eat crappy hot dogs for the rest of our lives. No, we could dig into a delicious Vic burger where his Southern charm spiced up tales of brave sissies. Athens, Georgia’s finest songwriter in a wheelchair? Even from that position, he xculd kick our butts. Sadly, Vic died in 2009, but his music lives on.

6. The Fall

Mark E. Smith will never run out of ideas. Because he’s redefined the idea of what an “idea” is. It’s pretty much anything he can get away with. Just as”The Fall” consists of whomever he decides. Whether he’s been getting better or worse is a matter of personal mood. Some days it seems like he’s a bit off. Other times, it all makes sense. The Fall operates the opposite of an old man’s digestive tract, where a good day is any day you’re close to regular. For the Fall, you’re looking to be “irregular,” because that’s where the magic happens.

5. Mark Lanegan

The Screaming Trees were his day gig. His solo career was where he belonged. This dark, serious blues singer has always had the ear of the cognoscenti — from Kurt Cobain (who learned at his feet) to Greg Dulli (who now collaborates) —and with good reason. The man has a Leonard Cohen gravitas attached to his Nick Cave heart of darkness. And he’ll kill you if you disagree.

4. Julian Cope

Who would’ve thought a guy from a British ’80s psychedelic group — that would be the Teardrop Explodes — would end up churning out some of his best work a decade later after flunking the pop charts? But artistic freedom’s just another phrase for self-indulgence, but if the self-indulger has a lifetime of good influences under his belt — in Cope’s case, Krautrock and the Stooges — then you’re more likely to get something worth looking into. Vacuum cleaners suck by nature, but if you’re cleaning a gold mine, whaddaya got?

3. American Music Club

They’ve tried to put it back together. But some moments in time are simply the confluence of factors beyond anyone’s control. And for a flicker, this unlikely group — the pedal steel player was their secret weapon and he looked like an accountant — bopped and weaved among the sadcore, the hard rock (they opened for Pearl Jam and were pelted with garbage), the ambient, and turned everything into cataclysmic, earth-shattering heartbreak. The Restless Stranger, Engine, California, United Kingdom, Everclear, Mercury, San Francisco, each album presented new options and new difficulties, like a game you can never actually win. But you keep playing because your luck eventually has to turn. Doesn’t it?

2. Red House Painters

It’s Mr. Sun Kil Moon to you these days, but Mark Kozelek crept into the ’90s with long, slow tunes that altered reality as we knew it. The rules of rockwere rewritten by this incredibly patient songwriter. Imagine, if you will, sitting at the DMV or standing in line at any bureaucratic office and enjoying yourself. That’s how revolutionary this band was. Like Big Ben, they changed the nature of time itself.

1. Tom Waits

The man is an industry all too himself. Hung around as a beatnik in the ’70s, turned to Captain Beefheart for the ’80s, and then fired off more bizarre shots in the ’90s and onward. Every picture tells a story but the man is so brilliantly out of focus that the picture becomes an afterthought. Someone tell him to take his thumb off the lens. The going got weird and the weird turned pro. And when he goes on late-night talk shows, the night immediately gets even later.