Welcome to my blog, where I’ll mostly ramble on about some of my favorite things. It could be an unsung rock band, a defunct pro wrestling promotion, or anything else that comes to mind. Enjoy!
25 '90s ALT-ROCK GEMS
For a kid who grew up with a beat-up guitar and a fixation with The Replacements in the '80s, the alt/indie/punk explosion of the '90s was a welcome diversion from the ego-driven hard rock that dominated the MTV and Billboard charts just a few years prior.
What follows is a list of albums. Not a comprehensive critical list of what's good and what isn't, there are plenty of those out there. Landmark multi-platinum albums are similarly omitted because, while I adored many of the bands that recorded those records, there really isn’t much to say that hasn’t been repeated a thousand times before.
This is simply a selection of LPs from one listener’s journey through the world of rock music in the 1990s (approximately). What follows are just a few of the albums that dominated my car's cassette deck and CD player way back when. Hopefully you will discover a gem or two that you haven't listened to before. Because musical discoveries are the best discoveries. - BW
“Bandwagonesque” - Teenage Fanclub
At one time, Teenage Fanclub were pegged as the "Next Big Thing" in alternative rock. With Bandwagonesque they sure had all of the boxes ticked; Self-deprecating album title? Check. Afterthought cover art? Check. Big Star hero worship? Of course. Heck, the record even beat out some Nirvana record for Spin's 1991 Album of the Year. (Death Cab For Cutie singer) Ben Gibbard is such a fan that he didn't just cover a song or two, he rerecorded theentirerecord.
Unrealized aspirations of superstardom aside, Teenage Fanclub have produced several records that are technically superior to Bandwagonesque. So why this album? Let's just say that as of this writing, I've purchased it four times over and listened to it nearly as much as Nevermind. Here's hoping digital is here to stay.
Best song title: "Alcoholiday"
“Too High To Die” - Meat Puppets
An ironic album title considering the fate of Kurt Cobain, who shared his spotlight with the Kirkwood brothers on Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged album. But that’s where the irony ends with this record. Instead of withdrawing into a shell of slacker apathy like other bands of the era, the Meat Puppets puff out their collective chests and crank it with an album that borrows from metal, Appalachia, psychedelia, and electric blues.
Riding the wave of their Unplugged cameo and alt-rock popularity, Too High To Die outsold all of the Puppets' previous records combined. It also nearly destroyed them.
In an era rife with brilliant song titles, the Meat Puppets take home the Grand Prize with “Severed Goddess Hand.”
Best lyric: “I want more eyes / I wanna see more lies”
“Nonsuch” - XTC
Until the arrival of Oasis' Definitely Maybe and Blur's Parklife, Nonsuch was my go-to record for unfiltered English aural bliss. Keep in mind this record sounds absolutely nothing like Britpop. Instead it is a vivid pastiche of British musical themes, think less Wonderwall and more Pet Sounds for the new wave blokes.
As with most of XTC's catalogue, Andy Partridge's bright songwriting stands at the forefront of Nonsuch. The difference here is the lavish production that evokes memories of Sir George Martin. Unlike popular American alternative artists of the era, there's nary a sour note or untuned guitar string to be found.
And just check out that cover art, the most overtly British since The Who's Greatest Hits.
Recommended track: "Humble Daisy"
“Houdini” - The Melvins
The Melvins never wanted to play the role of low-key indie darlings. They wanted to be Kiss (the polar opposite of indie!), to the point that they covered “Goin’ Blind” on Houdini. In fact, if Gene Simmons had actually listened to Nirvana instead of just saying he did, his band might have ended up sounding much like this. Listen to Houdini and you'll soon discover that’s not a bad thing.
King Buzzo's mush-mouth metallic growl has always been a Melvins' trademark, but special mention has to go to Dale Crover’s incredible drumming. Slack-paced and economical, he strikes a perfect balance of intensity and restraint. Rare are the occasions where a drum kit takes over a record, but it nearly does on Houdini. Need proof? Check out the closer, “Spread Eagle Beagle,” a 10-minute opus of instrumental tribal warfare.
Best lyric: Who can tell? It's mostly gibberish.
“Let's Knife” - Shonen Knife
Predating our nation's manic obsession with Japanese pop culture by at least a decade, Shonen Knife's first English-speaking record is a sparkling lesson in punk-pop mastery. The Ramones-influenced songs are direct and sincere, yet—as with most things Japanese—there's a distinct lack of angst to be found here. There are no testimonials to the pitfalls of tortured relationships or drug addiction. The angriest song is about a Barbie doll.
It's a shame that Let's Knife didn't come along later, if it did Shonen Knife would have their own cartoon show and action figurines, and the album would have become a million-seller.
Recommended track: “Black Bass"
“Fantastic Planet” - Failure
Chock-full of space-trippy hallucinogenic lyrics, fuzz-soaked guitars, grungy vocals, and understated pop brilliance, Failure's "Planet" should have occupied a much bigger space in the alt-rock solar system. Instead it was universally acclaimed by critics then promptly jettisoned into the Milky Way.
Of course there is some justice. A Perfect Circle covered "The Nurse Who Loved Me" and likely made it a bigger hit than the song's creators could ever imagine.
I actually saw Failure live twice in a single day. At Lollapalooza '97, they were the opening band on the main stage and the headliners on the side stage. Maybe that says it all.
Best lyric: “She's got everything I need / pharmacy keys”
“Tigermilk” - Belle and Sebastian
Unlike his musical contemporaries, Scottish songwriter Stuart Murdoch couldn't find anything in his personal life to complain about. So he invented people who had issues and wrote about them instead. The result is one of the angst-ier albums this side of Morrissey.
More Burt Bacharach than Black Flag, Belle's lightweight pop architecture is a welcome respite from the distortion-soaked standard of its day. Lavishly produced with a variety of string and wind instruments, the quiet sound design is probably several decibels below anything else you're listening to at the moment.
Best lyric: “Your obsessions get you known throughout the school for being strange / Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay”
“Either/Or” - Elliott Smith
Of all the troubled artists of the post-grunge era, Elliott Smith was perhaps the most affected. Not that you need to pay attention to any of this to appreciate his total mastery of the art of songcraft.
Either/Or represents an understated genius still capable of living in the moment, before the major label contracts, the Oscars appearances, and the blinding glare of the eternal spotlight. As we all now realize, this world of ours can change in the blink of an eye. Thankfully this record never will.
Recommended track: "Speed Trials"
“...And Out Come The Wolves” - Rancid
At first glance you might mistake Rancid for a Cartoon Network version of a punk band; the goofy name, the skyscraping mohawks, the anti-establishment anthems (“Nihilism!”). But as George Michael once suggested, listen without prejudice and you’ll find one of the very best rock bands this era has to offer. The anarchic spirit is a trad-punk prerequisite, but this album is also complimented with street poetry, pop and ska hooks, and some of the catchiest damned choruses this side of Hanoi Rocks.
...And Out Come The Wolves was eventually certified platinum, not to mention that revivalist punk is about as alternative as revivalist metal. So why is it mentioned here? Because this record is justthatgood.
Best lyric: “All I know it’s four o’clock and / she ain’t never showed up and / I watched a thousand people come home from work”
“Trompe le Monde” - Pixies
Hardcore Pixies fans may feel that I should have picked any record other than Trompe le Monde (transl: Fool the World) because it is less of a Pixies record and more of a Black Francis solo effort. But screw it, I love this album. At times you have to wonder if Francis is actually singing about sound planets and sad punks, or slyly forecasting the new wave of chart-toppers he would directly inspire ("one thousand miles an hour / I'm just like anyone").
Nearly everything that is considered ‘90s alternative is encapsulated in this record; the quasi-metal guitars, the cynical lyrics, the loud-quiet-loud arrangements, there's a Jesus and Mary Chain cover and even a song about Sea Monkeys. The critics can keep Doolittle (actually I love that record too), I’ll vote for Trompe.
Best lyric: “And evolving from the sea / Would not be too much time for me / To walk beside you in the sun.” Wow.
“Apocalypse Dudes” - Turbonegro
Need a catchy headline for this record? How about, “Norwegian punk band sets out to piss off the world, inadvertently records one of the all-time great guitar albums.” Actually, I’m not sure how inadvertent this was as the band had just hired the bastard son of Ace Frehley and Johnny Thunders prior to the recording of Dudes. As a result, every song is littered with Euroboy's searing guitar tracks, solos interweaving and dueling for attention.
Turbonegro barely qualifies as alt-rock, unless you take the word "alternative" at face value. On Dudes they forge their own nihilistic path, a path the band unapologetically refers to as "deathpunk." As for the Village People shtick, one only needs to review the thinly-veiled lyrics to “Prince of the Rodeo” to get the point. As one band member stated, it was the only way to infuriate the metalheads.
Recommended track: "Self-Destructo Bust"
“Daisies of the Galaxy” - Eels
Years removed from the mainstream MTV success of his debut album, Beautiful Freak, Eels leader E created a record of playful exuberance that at times feels every bit like an extension of the album cover art.
Special mention has to go to the tender piano ballad "It's A Motherf***er." This song should have went on to sell a million copies and win a million Grammys, except... well, you know.
Best lyric: “The kid at the mall works at Hot Dog On A Stick / His hat is a funny shape / His heart is a brick"
“Last Splash” - The Breeders
As The Pixies were burning out and fading away in the early '90s, bassist Kim Deal formed a new band with sister Kelley. The rest, as they say, is alternative rock history.
Last Splash was a platinum-selling smash hit for The Breeders, so it's not exactly an undiscovered classic. But none of that matters when you listen to gems such as "Cannonball" and "Divine Hammer." This record sounds every bit as glorious now as it did in 1993.
Best lyric: “Saw it on a wall / Motherhood means mental freeze"
“Midnite Vultures” - Beck
Nearly everything Beck Hansen has done in his lengthy musical career has been a rousing success, and it’s because of risk-taking ventures like this. Vultures is an album where Beck sheds his unassuming indie folk-rock leanings to emulate… Prince. And the best part is, he totally nails it. Listen to “Get Real Paid” and you’d swear Vanity 6 dropped in the studio for a guest shot. This album feels like one big party and should be celebrated as such.
Now let's talk about that album cover for a moment. On second thought, let's not.
Best lyric: “Like a fruit that's ripe for a pickin' / I wouldn't do you like that / Zankou Chicken”
“Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” - Pavement
More than anything that isn’t named Nevermind, this is the single LP that defined ‘90s alt-rock for me. Crooked Rain is pure gift, the lo-fi slacker ideal fully realized.
Underlined by an earlier Pavement song titled "Shoot The Singer," Stephen Malkmus literally defines the "untrained indie vocalist" stereotype. But it’s the times when he reaches for the stars that still makes the hair on my arms stand up on end. Perfect sound forever, indeed.
One experience I had with Crooked Rain sums it up best. I had a musician friend who was quite anti-indie, stating that he “hated college rock.” Halfway though the opener “Silence Kid,” his mind was changed. Slightly.
Best lyric: Not only is the final verse of “Range Life” prime Malkmus at his all-time snarkiest, it may have kneecapped any chance of the band's continued success.
“Around The Fur” - Deftones
It's difficult to look back on nu-metal with rose-colored glasses. Once Korn hit the scene, it seemed as though every guitar player needed an extra string and every singer needed a psychiatrist. But there are always exceptions, and the exception here is Sacramento's Deftones, whose intense Around The Fur set a high water mark for the genre that was never quite equaled.
Two key factors to the band's success are the underlying pop sensibilities that other nu-metal bands seemed to be lacking entirely, and Chino Moreno's emotive vocal delivery. He constantly alternates between a dreamy whisper and screaming as though his feet were on fire, without ever sounding like he's simply falling in line with his nu-metal contemporaries.
Recommended track: “Lhabia"
“The Soft Bulletin” - The Flaming Lips
I'll never forget that day in the summer of '99, when the softest bullet ever shot was fired.
I was shopping for used CDs at Arons Records on Highland. "Race For The Prize" sifted through the store stereo, and I immediately paused to ask my friend if he was hearing this. He said he was. A store clerk told me it was the latest Flaming Lips album, but I was already losing focus on the outside world. By the time the Lips had "lifted up the suuuuun," I knew this album was always going to occupy a special place in my heart.
A musical detour from experimental indie into a world of fairy-tale orchestral arrangements and prog-rock density, The Soft Bulletin is considered to be one of the very best albums of the 1990s. It's definitely one of my favorites.
Recommended track: "A Spoonful Weighs A Ton"
“Bakesale” - Sebadoh
In the early '90s, Lou Barlow distanced himself from Dinosaur Jr. to step into the spotlight and form his own band. Along with Harmacy, Sebadoh's Bakesale is a prime example of lo-fi indie shoegazing. This album has its share of noisy moments, but it's when Barlow switches off the distortion pedal that he is at his most vulnerable, and his most successful.
Nothing screams '90s alternative rock like a random Polaroid for an album cover. This album just so happens to feature one of the better ones.
Best lyric: “Black-jawed living room couch professor / When will you be through with me? / I'd like to know"
“American Water” - Silver Jews
I once had a conversation with a fellow indie enthusiast who told me, "I'm not a huge Pavement fan, but I like the Silver Jews." Which seemed ironic at the time, as Stephen Malkmus' influence is a steady undercurrent throughout American Water. Same river, different tributaries.
Undercurrents aside, this album belongs to the late David Berman. While he may not have intended it, his "all my favorite singers couldn't sing" lyric is probably the most blatant indie rock statement that has ever been delivered. American Water is precisely that record that casual rock fans will despise and critics will adore, but none of this matters when you put on a set of headphones and lose yourself in Berman's faded monotone dreamscape.
Best lyric: “I asked a painter why the roads are colored black / He said 'Steve it's because people leave and no highway can bring them back'"
“Dirty” - Sonic Youth
This or Goo, take your pick. Both are near-perfect examples of alternative rock artistry in the 1990s. And while every Sonic Youth fan has his or her own favorite LP, I prefer Dirty for the pop songwriting hooks. Not that there's anything overtly commercial here, but Sonic Youth were that rarest of alternative bands that could reach for the stars without losing their street cred.
Fun fact: After the release of Dirty, Sonic Youth had attained both critical and mainstream success. They were so popular that the band members were featured as secret players in the console edition of NBA Jam: Tournament Edition. Talk about making it!
Recommended title: “Shoot"
“Without You I'm Nothing” - Placebo
The first time I heard "Pure Morning" on KROQ, I actually thought that Rush had gone alt-rock (they did for a minute, but this wasn't them). And while Brian Mosko's nasal delivery may evoke visions of a new world Geddy Lee, his tales of toxic relationships, unrequited love and morbid obsessions ("Carve your name into my arm / Instead of stressed I lie here charmed") are anything but Tom Sawyer.
Recommended track: “Every You Every Me"
“Where You Been” - Dinosaur Jr
By the early '90s, Dinosaur Jr. had essentially become a one-man act, with J. Mascis handling all of the songwriting/singing chores and recording all but a few drum tracks. He croons through every song on Where You Been with his trademark lonesome lyrics and wounded drawl, and while his heartache may be hard to accept at face value, what is undeniable is his soaring lead guitar work. It's as if Jimi Hendrix joined Husker Du.
Defying the time-honored alt-rock tradition of not caring about solos, Mascis stamps on the distortion pedal and loses himself in the moment all over Where You Been. The album opens with a 40-second lead and it only gets better from there.
Recommended track: “Get Me"
“Keep It Like A Secret” - Built To Spill
Built To Spill's "Secret" is an exceptional example of mid-'90s indie rock, which puts it more or less on the same plateau as hundreds of other albums of the era. But it is a single song that puts it over the edge, the gorgeous "Carry The Zero" is one of the best songs the genre has ever produced.
Special mention goes to singer Doug Martsch's low-profile '90s outfit, The Halobenders. If you're looking for something a little less polished and a little more indie, the 'Benders may be right up your alley.
“The Sophtware Slump” - Grandaddy
Equal parts Pavement and Radiohead, The Sophtware Slump is a shimmering, keyboard-laden journey through our hectic modern world, a place where the forest meets the freeway and computer technology has a living, breathing soul.
But really, it's Jason Lytle's songwriting that makes Sophtware a must-listen. Never thought a song about an android could make you cry? Think again.
Recommended track: "Jed The Android"
"Psalm 69" - Ministry
"Destroy All Astromen!" - Man or Astroman?
"Scandal, Controversy & Romance" - The Prissteens
"Elastica" - Elastica
"Don't Tell Me Now" - The Halobenders
"Nihil" - KMFDM
"Fashion Nugget" - Cake
"The Hour Of Bewilderbeast" - Badly Drawn Boy
"Meantime" - Helmet
"Exit Planet Dust" - The Chemical Brothers
"Scream, Dracula, Scream!" - Rocket From The Crypt