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Originally known as “College Rock”, alternative is simply a blanket term for rock that goes for emotion and mood over virtuoso technique, offering music that can be heavy, but with a sensitivity lacking in metal, or offer pop melodies embellished by intense noise.
But while bands like Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead and Smashing Pumpkins sold millions of albums, other great alt-rock bands unfairly slipped through the cracks. Let’s take a look at the eight most underrated 90’s alternative bands that are worthy of a modern reappraisal and a bigger fan base.
Essential Tracks: Pennywheeels, Plowed, Wax Ecstatic, Molly, Drownin, Velveteen, 1000 Miles, Rainin
Essential Albums: Rotting Piñata, Wax Ecstatic
These Detroit rockers crafted a unique mix of grunge, glam, new wave and the blues, but despite hits like power ballad ‘Molly’ and the slamming ‘Wax Ecstatic’, they never achieved major success.
As of 2015: The band still tour regularly with vocalist and sole original member Vinnie Dombrowski, with the occasional new release.
Essential Tracks: Bound for the Floor, Eddie Vedder, All the Kids Are Right, Hands on the Bible, Half-Life, (Baby Wants to) Tame Me
Essential Albums: As Good as Dead, Pack up the Cats, Here Comes the Zoo
Long before power duos like The White Stripes and The Black Keys were fashionable, Local H was cranking out great tuneful alt-rock in the 90’s.
Frontman Scott Lucas pulls triple duties on vocals, guitar and bass (thanks to his modified guitar), augmented only by slamming drums. Local H only had one bonafide hit ‘Bound for the Floor’, but their cult fanbase knows better. Theirs is a rich discography worth discovering.
As of 2015: Still bravely plugging away with a new drummer and 2015 album ‘Hey Killer’.
Essential tracks: Faît Accompli, Superblaster, Chinese Burn, Blindfold, Horror Head
Essential albums: Doppelganger, Cuckoo, Come Clean
One can make the argument that Garbage wouldn’t exist without Curve’s influence. The British duo merged shoegaze guitars with dance beats and featured the soothing, siren song vocals of Toni Halliday.
While the band debuted to acclaim, internal band pressures caused the group to implode on multiple occasions, effectively short circuiting their career path. But one listen to songs like ‘Faît Accompli’ or ‘Chinese Burn’ shows a band deserving of a better legacy.
As of 2015: after a brief reunion in 2004 they look to be defunct permanently. A shame.
Essential tracks: Slightly Under, Medication, Kill the Crow, SOS, Superman Is Dead.
Essential Albums: Budspawn, Box Set
These D.C. rockers had all the ingredients for success: a sound that was heavy yet melodic, intense live shows, and high profile fans including Dave Grohl, and The Toadies.
So what happened? Truly one of music’s great mysteries, it looks like the lack of label support was the culprit. But tracks like ‘Medication’ and ‘Slightly Under’ are just as anthemic as anything in Nirvana’s catalogue.
As of 2015: the band folded in 1996. Singer Pete Stahl is now a stage manager for bands, including Grohl’s The Foo Fighters.
Essential Tracks: Gentlemen, Fountain and Fairfax, Debonair, What Jail Is Like, Blame, Etc., Going to Town, Matamoros, The Lottery
Essential Albums: Congregation, Gentlemen, Black Love, Do to the Beast
This Cincinnati, Ohio quartet combined postpunk guitars with 70’s soul, making for a sound rich with film noir atmosphere and sultry grooves, all while whiskey soaked Vocalist Greg Dulli’s lyrics paints vivid pictures of insatiable lust and dangerous excess.
Sadly, their genre-bending sound went over the heads of those looking for the next Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
As of 2015: Still going strong thanks to 2014’s ‘Do to the Beast’, one of the best comeback albums in recent memory.
Essential Tracks: Spanish Air, Catch the Breeze, Ballad of Sister Sue, The Sadman, Machine Gun, Here She Comes, Dagger, Blue Skied an’ Clear, Visions of La
Essential Albums: Just for a Day, Pygmalion, Souvlaki
A shoegaze band that never got the acclaim of peers like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive ironically had a more accessible, tuneful take on the sub-genre. But despite their exquisite attention to detail and song craft on albums like Just for a Day and Pygmalion, they were met with negative reviews and a middling fan base.
As of 2015: After breaking up in 1995, they reformed in 2014, and finally appear to be getting overdue attention after giving listeners and critics years to reassess their impressive back catalogue. A new album is also in the works.
Essential Tracks: Heartcatchthump, Connie I’ve Found the Door, High in High School, Loneliest China Place, Sore on the Floor, Pop Heiress Dies, We’re Like, Soldier on My Shoulder
Essential Albums: Flipped out in Singapore, Pop Heiress, Chainsaw Kittens
This band had all the ingredients for 90’s success: catchy songs and disciples like Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Fame seemed guaranteed with their Butch Vig produced album ‘Flipped out in Singapore’. Yet their magic mix of power pop, post-punk and new romanticism was relegated to cult status.
As of 2015: made a brief reunion in 2008, but have been dormant ever since. Maybe one day they’ll get the belated acclaim they deserve.
Essential Tracks: Saturday Savior, Stuck on You, The Nurse Who Loved Me, Hot Traveler, Another Space Song, Mulholland Drive
Essential Albums: Magnified, Fantastic Planet, The Heart Is a Monster
Lauded by artists like Tool, these L.A. space rockers forged a dense sound blending processed guitars and electronic textures. Their knotty, complex, yet always-tuneful arrangements went over the average music listener’s heads, but they won a small, fervent fan base thanks to their groundbreaking 1996 album ‘Fantastic Planet’.
As of 2015: reunited in 2014, the band is set to release their comeback album ‘The Heart Is a Monster’. Now is the perfect time to dive into their sound.
So that concludes my list of the most underrated alternative bands of the 90’s. I highly recommend starting off with Failure’s ‘Fantastic Planet ‘album. It’s one of the best-produced albums of all time.
So what 90’s alt-rock bands do you deem underappreciated and forgotten?
Feel free to share in the comments.
Great list. I would add The God Machine as well. “Scenes From a Second Storey” released in 1993 hasn’t lost any of it’s punch and the followup is almost as great. Band broke up due to the bassist dying of a brain aneurysm while recording the followup to scenes.
Hum, Jawbox, Far
I think this is a very underrated band from Spain, still alive but started in the 90s, too
No Rocket From The Crypt? They’d easily bump a couple of those others (by talent or force!) from the list in order to make room.
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Chainsaw Kittens!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Morphine. Cast. The Seahorses. My Bloody Valentine.
All good bands…but would MBV be underrated? I know they never sold millions of albums, but they certainly are legendary.
In certain circles. I always seem to be turning someone on to them ever 25+ years on…
I dunno if I’d call the Afghan Whigs underrated – they may not have sold units in large numbers, but they had a sizeable cult following and a lot of respect. But a nice list regardless. Kudos for including Curve, the Chainsaw Kittens and Failure (whose new album may be their best). My pick for most underrated 90s alt.rock band would be the British band China Drum – a great mix of Husker Du-like punk/pop and slighty progressive postpunk. They made two noisy, tuneful albums and an EP that I still go to regularly, but somehow never found even the tiniest audience (at least in the States), not even in a post-Green Day world. Shame, that.
Pete Stahl is also the lead singer of the contemporary doom metal band Goatsnake.
I’m on going to check them out ASAP. Love me some Stahl.
Great list! Definitely agree with #1, and there’s a few I’ll check out now as well. Just gotta say, sElf also belongs on this list. It’s weird having a favorite band that no one has ever heard of.
So much love for sElf. Favorite for decades now.
Failure is a great #1 but you’re missing Hum.
Have you heard Doosu? Always compared to failure, hum and shiner but they definitely had their own thing. Start with the aqua vita album.
Nice list. My favorite alternative 90s band was dEUS.
Catherine Wheel for my vote.
Oh, I forgot them. You are so right. Was just listening to “Chrome” the other day. I’ll never forget the first time I heard them. I was floored. MBV, too.
Michael Taylor, you da real MVP. These choices are spot on!
Thank you so much! Glad you liked the piece :)
With regards to Pete Stahl, I think you forgot to mention that he is in GOATSNAKE (among a few other great bands over the years) and that they just dropped a new album this summer. For shame.
I think you forgot to mention that Pete Stahl went on to form Goatsnake and that they just put out a new album this summer.
And how do Chainsaw Kittens or Sponge beat out underrated bands like Barkmarket, Course of Empire, Handsome, HUM, Quicksand, and Swervevdriver? You are out of your mind.
I actually was unaware of Goatsnake. Now I must got check them out! Stahl is also singing on the upcoming Teenage Time Killers album. Great song called ‘Plankwalk.’ Glad to hear you mention Course of Empire, I’m from Dallas and shared several beers with them back in the day.
If I had done a top 20, many of the bands you mentioned would have made the list…I need to listen to Hum in more detail apparently…lots of requests for them for inclusion!
Goatsnake has been one of the most influential metal bands for over the last 15 years.
Pete Stahl also went on to become a founding member of Earthlings? and was part of Desert Sessions volumes 1-4.
Course of Empire is criminally underrated in that most people don’t even know who they are, unless you are from Dallas (I am not). Mike Graff’s guitar playing was very innovative.
They were unfairly lumped into the whole NIN/Stabbing Westward/Gravity Kills/Alterna-Industrial scene, when in reality most of what they were doing was very organic (2 drummers!).
Sponge should not be on that list. They sold half a million copies of Rotting Pinata, and were on heavy rotation on MTV. Their records were mediocre at best.
As big as a Local H fan I am, what is truly underrated is everything they did post 90’s. 2 of their 3 records from the 1990’s were big enough for most people to not even realize that they have been cranking out even better records since Pack Up the Cats.
HUM is underrated, though some claim vastly overrated. The not underrated Deftones, among many other bands have cited HUM is a huge influence on them. HUM are still continuing to be discovered and still continue to influence bands to this day. Failure and HUM are both doing a mini-tour together in August so I guess both of those bands finally are able to make the connection that other fans have made for years.
Knew none of the listed bands, just followed the article and listened to all of them, they’re all really great. I especially like Curve. Great list :)
Thanks for the kind words, and always happy to turn people on to some great bands that never got their full due!
Awesome list, needs more HUM though
Jellyfish and Catherine Wheel need to be mentioned.
The most criminally underrated band of the 90s – perhaps, even, of all time – was 12 RODS.
Slowdive and Curve were certainly underrated IN the 90s but all those old shoegazers have enjoyed a career renaissance over the last decade or so.
Local H had their 15 minutes and they suck shit through 10 bricks, anyway.
I won’t hate on Failure. Good call there. Greg Edwards continues to be underrated in Autolux.
Failure is the perfect number one. I know there are so many underrated bands, but how about Neutral Milk Hotel? Hmm?
Going to see Local H in 2 days and Failure
with another band who should have been on the list, Hum on August 21!
Would definitely agree to Failure and Afghan but would put Hum, Doosu, and Barkmarket in there.
Happy to see Failure and HUM on this list, but I would have to include The Toadies, HUM, Helmet, and the Reverend Horton Heat.
All great bands…certainly would have included on a bigger list. I’m from the same town as the Toadies…enjoyed hanging out with them many times back in the day :)
I’ve always loved the Toadies…actually going too see them again here in two weeks. Also, I meant to write happy to see Failure and SPONGE on the list…not sure how I typed HUM instead. ;-)
Agree strongly with Failure and Afghan but I believe you are missing big time on Hum, Doosu, and Barkmarket for starters.
Agreed. I would also add Compulsion, Tripping Daisy, Helmet and the Verve. Failure’s new release is the best thing they’ve ever done, and I’m an original, long-time fan.
Maybe I just rolled in the right circle, but Helmet was huge with pretty much everyone indie/alternative-oriented I knew at the time. Meantime and Betty were mainstays that pretty much everyone agreed on.
The Verve were not underrated. They were critical darlings and had a massive radio hit.
Tripping Daisy, yes.
I saw every one of these bands and back in the day. The 90’s was a revolutionary time in music. In terms of volume and fresh approaches, the 90’s will be remembered as one of the most verdant and pivotal decades in music. I saw them all and so many more. I wish music was this fertile and vital again.
Dinosaur Jr. Are they underrated?
Local H frontman = Scott Lucas
Needs more Quicksand, Hum, Shudder To Think, Catherine Wheel, Knapsack, Echobelly… who did I miss?
The fact that Hum isn’t on the list is proof that they are the #1 most underrated band.
Great list. It’s pretty much a soundtrack for my life 20 years ago. Just missing Archers of Loaf
Morphine. That’s all I’m saying
Have to agree with Quicksand. I’ll add Heatmiser and Screaming Trees as well. I am a huge Failure fan, and I don’t get the constant comparisons to Hum, who I would call OVERrated.
#1 is right on… I also like #4…. other bands that I would have placed on this list: Truly, Blinker The Star, Shudder to Think, Bettie Serveert, Chavez, etc.
Tyson Meade still plays shows on his own, always chock full of Chainsaw Kittens songs. He dropped a solo project last year and remains very involved with the local scene here in OKC. We love him :)
Our Lady Peace, Nada Surf, Toadies, Marcy Playground
Just saw the Toadies in NYC, they still shred a stage, got to meet them after too.
No love for 12 Rounds or Drain STH?
Dig! They were awesome. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dig_%28band%29
Yup! An Austin, TX favorite who deserved more exposure. Catchy stuff.
The run of One Sock Missing, Crappin You Negative, and The Eureka e.p. is unmatched in 90s indie-rockdom.
as good as GBV’s run of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes…, which still gets ink almost once a week. 20 years on, Grifters are still more interesting.
A vote for Eleventh Dream Day and Sidewinders/Sand Rubies as grossly underrated.
As popular as they were in Europe, it’s difficult to include Jellyfish as underrated, but they’re deserving.
Shudder to Think, The Posies, Overwhelming Colorfast, Echobelly, The Seahorses, Mansun
The Grifters from Memphis, http://www.shangrilaprojects.com/the-grifters.html, and Swell from San Francisco. http://psychospecificmusic.com Definitely!
Sponge’s album is “rotting” piñata, not “rotten” piñata.
I knew Failure thanks the Enjoy The Silence cover of For The Masses tribute album. What a fantastic group
Thin White Rope are the greatest underrated 80s/90s band of all. How they didn’t go worldwide massive is an absolute mystery.
Without a doubt Hum should be on this list. Good call with Chainsaw Kittens though!
Kitchens Of Distinction
Manic Street Preachers
Failure, HUM, Shiner, Blinker the Star, Abandoned Pools, The Catherine Wheel.
All great bands! Love The Catherine Wheel. Be sure to check out my list of Shoegaze bands where I give Hum their due :): http://itcher.com/mag/underrated-90s-us-shoegaze-bands/
Some of the people involved with WHTG are now running an excellent thing called “Altrok Radio” — not a very subtle name if you ask me, but it plays lots of great new stuff and features live human DJs most of the time, even on weekends. It’s an HD-2 operated by a community college (which means a few annoying ads for their classes, etc.) but most of its listeners are surely online. I won’t provide a link since Disqus might auto-flag me for spam. It’s easy enough to find it with a search engine.
Very cool! I’m going to seek it out :)