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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.
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