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By the dawn of the 90’s, many music fans grew tired of formulaic hair metal, wishing for a more authentic and earthy sounds, with lyrics that cut deeper than sophomoric sexual imagery.
This allowed for the burgeoning college rock sound to hit the mainstream. Rebranded as “alternative”, it allowed a marketing avenue for more esoteric groups like ‘The Pixies’, ‘REM’, ‘Nirvana’ and ‘The Smashing Pumpkins’ to attain greater success with raw guitars, inventive production, and deeply personal lyrics.
The elastic term ‘alternative’ encompasses so many sub-genres and styles that it can be overwhelming to navigate, leaving far too many bands, albums and songs competing for space, often lost in the shuffle.
So let someone who lived through it all walk you through some good 90’s alternative musical selections that fell through the cracks.
Essential Albums: ‘School of Fish’ (1991), ‘Human Cannonball’ (1993)
Essential Tracks: ‘Three Strange Days’, ‘Take Me Anywhere’, ‘King of the Dollar’, ‘Euphoria’, ‘Speechless’
And sometimes I find what I need // Sometimes I don’t find anything // But I’m waiting on that day to come // I’m waiting on my heart to sing…
This L.A. group fused American power pop with British Jangle (imagine Cheap Trick meets Squeeze), resulting in a collection of very catchy songs, buoyed by vocalist Josh Clayton-Felt’s sonorous delivery.
The group filtered with mainstream success with the minor hit ‘3 Strange Days’ but they never achieved true breakout status–leading to a breakup in 1995. That’s a shame given their catchy yet quirky style.
Guitarist Michael Ward would go on to join the Wallflowers, while Clayton-Felt sadly passed away from cancer in 2000, leaving behind two solid albums that still sound amazing.
Essential Albums: ‘EDC’ (1994), ‘The Family’ (1996)
Essential Tracks: ‘Suffering’, ‘More Ways Than 3’, ‘Taste It’, ‘The Roof Almighty,’ ‘Trouble Comes Down’, ‘Isn’t That Right’, ‘Criminal Justice’
What do you know about me // How can you possibly see // Without walking in my shoes // You’ll never taste enough of my blues…
While they emerged from Seattle, Satchel stood out in stark contrast to their Grunge contemporaries.
Fronted by the soulful voice of Shawn Smith (best known for singing on Lo-Fidelity Allstars hit ‘Battleflag’), the group crafted a sound that fused, 70’s funk and psychedelic soundscapes with an art-rock edge.
But don’t let that eclectic description intimidate you: their massive pop hooks make their ambitious sound surprisingly accessible.
Essential Albums: ‘Resident Alien’ (1995), ‘The Chinese Album’ (1998)
Essential Tracks: ‘In the Meantime,’ ‘Starside’, ‘Space Is the Place’, ‘Cruel to Be Kind,’ ‘Sand in Your Eyes,’ ‘Beautiful Girl,’ ‘Mungo City’
And in the end we shall achieve in time // The thing they call divine // And all the stars will smile for me…
Spacehog were a square peg in 90’s alternative culture. They rocked too hard for Britpop and were too glam for post-grunge. But that befits a group of British transplants that formed while living New York City.
The band, fronted by brothers Roy and Anthony Langdon, are best known for their Bowie-tinged hit ‘In the Meantime’. But despite the song’s massive success, their other material never caught on, rendering them one-hit-wonders.
It’s a mystery really, because other tunes like ‘Mungo City’ and ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ are insanely catchy. But they’re still plugging away, a welcome relief to their small but loyal cult following.
Essential Track: ‘Mr. Love’
Are you gonna save me? // Ya gonna make me happy? // Can you save me? // Tell me, Mister Love…
Texas rockers The Toadies 1994 album ‘Rubberneck’ spawned instant classics like ‘Possum Kingdom,’ ‘Tyler’ and ‘I Come from the Water.’
So, it’s mystifying that ‘Mr. Love’ wasn’t a hit single. Featuring a snarling riff and vocalist Vaden Todd Lewis at his most possessed, it sounds like The Pixies on steroids.
It’s tailor-made for blasting from a car radio while heading down the highway.
Essential Album: ‘The Cult’ (1994)
Essential Tracks: ‘Gone,’ ‘Coming Down,’ ‘Black Sun,’ ‘Real Grrrl,’ ‘Joy’, ‘Star’, ‘Saints Are Down’, ‘Sacred Life’
Kurt Cobain was so young // Sad to see this poet’s gone // Andrew Wood was so young // It’s hard to feel this priest is gone…
The Cult never got their due as Alt-rock pioneers. Thanks to albums like 1985’s Goth epic ‘Love’ and 1987’s bluesy ‘Electric,’ they made it okay for more cerebral musicians to rock out with wild abandon.
This helped influence heavier alternative bands like Jane’s Addiction, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden who would rule the 90’s.
After flirting with mainstream success with 1989’s ‘Sonic Temple’, they returned to their experimental roots on their 1994 self-tiled album, which acts like a microcosm of alt-rock stylings.
Between grunge-tinged rockers like ‘Black Sun’, the Brit-poppish ‘Star’ and the trip-hop flavored ‘Saints Are Down’, they had an album that deserved mass appeal.
But their stigma as an “80’s band’ helped them fall out of favor, and the album sank like a stone (making their “black sheep” album cover sadly appropriate).
The band rarely acknowledges it in their live sets, so it’s largely unknown beyond diehard fans. But it’s one of their best albums (and of the 90s in general).
That concludes my list of alternative rock from 1990-1995 that deserves to be heard by fresh ears.
It was a true golden era where musical misfits ruled the roost, warts and all, more concerned with emotional connection than technical perfection. That’ a far cry from present day where popular music is largely relegated to pop singers who rarely write their own material… or sing with their real voice!
It was a great time for rock music culture, and one I hold deep nostalgia for. And I’m not done yet! Stay tuned for the next installment where I’ll tackle group’s between 1995-2000.
What bands, albums and songs would you add to this list?
Be sure to tell me in the comments.
And for even more alt-rock recommendations, be sure to check out my lists of Underrated 90’s Alternative Bands, Underrated 90’s Shoegaze and Underrated 90’s Indie Rock!
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