The Weird And The Wonderful.
The 90’s was a majestic era for rock music. Alternative broke the mainstream, and, for once, there was music on the radio that was both commercially viable and actually of some substance before the wheels came off and the post-grunge of Creed and Nickelback took over. As such it seems predictable that in an era of such wonderful quality, many bands and albums would be overlooked and under rated.
Here we will have a look at a host of albums from the era that were either unfairly under rated critically, or never found the commercial audience they deserved. Have we covered them all? Let us have it in the comments.
18. Melvins – Stag (1996 – Atlantic Records)
Upon its release in 1996, NME gave this album 2/10. Lunatics. Sludge metal/grunge pioneers Melvins do nearly everything on this record. In fact, I would argue Stag is the quintessential Melvins record. It rocks bloody hard on ‘The Bit’ (my favourite Melvins track), ‘Bar-X The Rocking M’, and ‘Buck Owens’. It includes Melvins at their most melodic and poppy on ‘Black Bock’. It has the weirdness that they would explore over the next ten years on ‘Sterilized’, ‘Yacob’s Lab’, and ‘Goggles’. On top of this there’s trumpets, pianos, and they released it on Atlantic Records! Needless to say, Melvins were summarily dropped by Atlantic after the album’s release, but it’s a wonderful ‘fuck you’ to the major label who had been waiting for a hit record from the group. Like that was ever going to happen.
17. Faith No More – Album Of The Year (1997 – Slash Records)
Its a bit ironic that this album was slated upon its release, while Faith No More’s recent reunion album Sol Invictus has been loved all over the place. This is simply because Album Of The Year is a better record than their latest offering and perhaps their second best album (Angel Dust for the win) overall. It is concise, controlled, and cuts back on the excesses of its still awesome predecessor King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime. On top of this it sports some of the band’s best straight up rock songs (‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘Last Cup of Sorrow’, and ‘Collision’) combined with the moody ‘Stripsearch’ which delves into trip hop, and FNM’s atypical penchant for exploring curve-ball genres on ‘She Loves Me Not’, and ‘Helpless’. I can’t fault it. Unfortunately, the music press hated it, no one bought it, and the band broke up in 1998 because they had “started to make bad music”. I guess they weren’t big fans of Album of the Year either.
16. Tad – Inhaler (1993 – Giant/Warner Bros.)
Lets face it, the only reason that Seattle ‘lumberjacks’ Tad never got bigger is because their formidable front-man Tad Doyle was not as photogenic as Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, or even Billy Corgan. Despite this, their albums rocked and had great titles (see God’s Balls, and 8-Way Santa). Coming up through the ranks of Sub Pop, by the time they got to their penultimate album Inhaler in 1993 they were firing on all cylinders. This is a robust, taut, and melodic record that hints at post-grunge but without all the gurning, over earnestness, and religious imagery (see Creed and Live). Fuck it. Crank up the Soundgarden-esque roar of ‘Greasebox’ and start chopping down as many trees as you can find.
15. Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (1998 – Virgin Records)
Billy Corgan may be somewhat objectionable at times, but he is right about a couple of things. One thing he is correct about is that he is one of the very greatest songwriters of his generation, a fact I feel is often just ignored. On all of his albums there are tracks that are so amazingly awesome that I have no idea why they are not lauded more in the music press. There’s ‘Mayonaise’ on Siamese Dream, ‘XYU’ on Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, and on Adore there is ‘For Martha’. This track, which is a delicate and poignant ode to Billy’s mother who died soon before the album was recorded, is nuanced, lyrically honest but not obvious, and, in true Pumpkins style, epic. In 1998, Adore was a commercial disappointment, despite being a success with the critics. I sang its praises then, and I will continue to do so now. (2000’s Machina is a bit pants though).
14. The Lemonheads – Car Button Cloth (1996 – Atlantic Records)
An underrated band in general, Evan Dando’s The Lemonheads wrote some of the best pop rock songs of the 90’s. In The Lemonheads hey day 1992’s It’s A Shame About Ray was a hit both critically and commercially, and its 1993 follow up Come On Feel The Lemonheads managed to attain gold record status in both the US and the UK. Both were chock full of these jangly, pop flecked indie rock songs. As was 1996’s Car Button Cloth. However, the poor bugger was roundly ignored by audiences despite much love from Spin and Rolling Stone. Sure the album’s a mess, but its a glorious mess. I find it hard to believe that listeners managed to miss the beauty and charm in ‘If I Could Talk I Would Tell You’ (Dando’s collaboration with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines), ‘The Outdoor Type’, and ‘Hospital’. Go figure.
13. Guided By Voices – Do The Collapse (1999 – TVT Records)
For this album the legendary lo-fi indie rockers brought in big time ‘RAWK’ producer Ric Ocasek (Weezer, No Doubt) to beef of their sound to create more commercial appeal. Critics and fans balked at the results, but 16 years distance suggests that the results were not as absolutely terrible as Pitchfork would have you believe. Turns out it’s a bloody great record. As usual, GBV band leader Robert Pollard pulls an unholy amount out great songs out of nowhere. If you listen to just a few of them, go for ‘Teenage FBI’, ‘Hold On Hope’, Wormhole’, and ‘Things I Will Keep’. Actually, fuck it, listen to the whole thing. Seems to me the critics and fans were worried that GBV would get big and stop being their best kept little secret and so had written off the album before it was even released. Their loss.
12. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Madonna (1999 – Merge Records)
Of course while everyone (by everyone I mean music hipsters like me) remembers these Texas noisy Sonic Youth influenced rockers for their rise and fall with their critically lauded third album Source Tags & Codes which was followed by the equally derided Worlds Apart, their second album, 1999’s Madonna, is often neglected as a result. This is despite it being rather excellent. Songs like ‘Mistakes & Regrets’, ‘Marc David Chapman’, and ‘Totally Natural’ show a deft combination of melody and chaos, while ‘Aged Dolls’ shows the ambition they would explore in future with varying degrees of success. I really can’t fault this album. As a band Trail of Dead should have found a larger audience over what has been an intriguing career. This album could be their pinnacle.
11. Blind Melon – Soup (1995 – Capitol Records)
Why were retro rockers Blind Melon so roundly under valued over the last 20 odd years. Was it because singer Shannon Hoon was Axl Rose’s cousin? Was it because of their mega hit ‘No Rain’, which painted them as one hit wonders? Was it because they actually had fun songs? Who knows. I do know that their second album Soup was ignored by audiences and critics alike. This is despite it crossing the gamut of human emotions and musical genres. I mean, there’s what sounds like a kazoo solo on one song. Elsewhere there’s Eastern melodies, straight up rock, earnest folk, and a cabaret intro. Regardless of what the prevailing wisdom is, I know that I love this album from ‘Mouthful of Cavaties’ to ‘Toes Across The Floor’ to ‘Walk’ to ‘Car Seat (God’s Presents)’. Listen to it.
10. Watercress – Bummer (1997 – Creeping Herb)
Northern Irish folk rock group Watercress never got the audience they deserved despite considerable support from the likes of The Levellers. Their single album Bummer was a raucous, fun, heartfelt ode to quirky, unique songcraft imbued with a touch of melancholy. Their live show was legendary, and I was lucky enough to catch them in the now defunct venue The Lobby in Cork way back in 2000 just before they broke up. At fifteen, it was pretty much my first time drinking in a pub and I made the most of it, dancing in a doorway while my sister looked on quite embarrassed. Get onto Spotify and cook the dinner to ‘Spacegirl’, and ‘Candlemaker’. Afterwards get a little sad to ‘I Wish (Someone Would Shoot Me), and ‘Oh Yeah’.
9. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen (1993 – Elektra/Blast First)
Ohio’s The Afghan Whigs seemed to always be on the cusp of being huge. They had all the ingredients. They signed to Sub Pop in the late eighties, played with loud guitars, and had an earnest soulful singer. That’s pretty much the essential recipe for success in the early 90’s. So why didn’t their 1993 masterpiece Gentlemen sell by the bucketload? Perhaps they were too soulful and sexy. Too much 70s Motown attached to their 90s alt rock. Whatever the reason they remain one of the most original, dark, and rocking bands of the alternative rock movement. Their recent comeback album Do to the Beast shows that they’ve still got the chops, and are ironically probably only now getting anywhere near the level of popularity they always deserved.
8. Screaming Trees – Dust (1996 – Epic Records)
In 1992, The Screaming Trees had a minor hit with ‘Nearly Lost You’ which appeared on the Singles soundtrack and the band’s Sweet Oblivion album. Their label, Epic, probably thought that they had the next big thing on their hands. Unfortunately, souring band relations meant that they didn’t follow up Sweet Oblivion until 1996’s Dust. By this time, grunge was on the wane. Kurt Cobain was dead, Layne Staley was disappearing into a heroin addiction, Soundgarden were on the verge of breaking up, and Pearl Jam were still amidst a battle with Ticketmaster, popularity, and themselves. If Dust had been released in 1994 it may have been a totally different story. Poor Screaming Trees missed the boat. Still, Dust is a classic, and singer Mark Lanegan went on to be the 00’s most prolific colaborater, working with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age, and Isobel Campbell.
7. Placebo – Without You I’m Nothing (1998 – Hut/Virgin Records)
Post-grunge is a much maligned term, but Placebo were always one of the more accomplished of the bands that came in the wake of the Seattle explosion. Placebo were a huge hit in the UK, but, like many British bands of the era, never found a footing in the US. What makes this a surprise is that their sound seems tailor made for a US audience who at the time were embracing bands like Fuel and Third Eye Blind. Critically, they always seemed to be this idea that they weren’t quite on the level of those that came before. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t release a succession of top albums, with 1998’s Without You I’m Nothing being their best.
6. Deftones – Adrenaline (1995 – Maverick Records)
I guess 1995’s Adrenaline gets overlooked critically because of what Deftones managed to achieve after its release with seminal albums like 2000’s White Pony and 2010’s Diamond Eyes. Can you name any other band that continues to release music of such quality twenty years after their debut and nearly twenty seven years since they formed? Didn’t think so. Long may it continue. Classics on here include the singles ‘7 Words’ and ‘Bored’, but elsewhere the is great songs aplenty. ‘Engine No. 9’, ‘Lifter’ and ‘Minus Blindfold’ show why the band are held in such higher esteem than their nu-metal peers. This one is raw and unadorned by anything superfluous. Just lots of compressed chugging, rapping and anger.
5. Oasis – Definitely Maybe (1994 – Creation Records)
Seems ridiculous to have this here, right? It is one of the best selling albums of all time and critically acclaimed. How could it be under rated? Well, it is. Both in the Oasis catalogue (c’mon, its way better than Morning Glory!) and in terms of Oasis’ peers. Critically, the Manchester fellers are always in the shadow of bands like Blur, Radiohead, and Pulp, but this album is imbued with a righteous energy, and anger that informed much of Noel Gallagher’s writing before he got rich, and extremely mid tempo. This is an album that bridged the gap between commercial appeal and making a statement. That should never be under rated. It’s virtually impossible to pull off with any credibility. Plus, my old flatmate Adrian and I used to sing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Star’ on a Friday night before going to the pub. Excellent times.
4. Superchunk – Foolish (1994 – Merge Records)
Any Superchunk album from the 90’s could be here really. I think I’ve just got a real soft spot for their fourth studio album Foolish. It sees the band move in a new direction away from the ramshackle, fecklessness of their first three albums towards a more somber, but no less melodic direction. There’s a tension to the album that had not been present in previous efforts, probably much influenced by the breakup of singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Ballance. How these guys never got huge is beyond me.
3. Red House Painters – Rollercoaster (1993 – 4AD)
Mark Kozelek, and his current group Sun Kil Moon, may be the toast of Pitchfork these days (more or less), but it seems his work with Red House Painters from the 90’s has been largely forgotten despite the critical acclaim it garnered at the time. A pity, as any fan of Sun Kil Moon will find much to love in the low-key, winding arrangements and wordiness of tracks like ‘Katy Song’, ‘Grace Cathedral Park’, and ‘Mistress’. Kozelek’s lyrics and vocals are more ‘singy’ than his literate, stream of consciousness speak-singing that he engages in these days, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about Kozelek. Plus they only sold about ten records in their day. That’s an absolute disgrace.
2. Helmet – Meantime (1992 – Interscope Records)
Without a doubt one of the most over looked rock/metal records of the 90s. Page Hamilton’s groovy masterpiece has been influential in everything from nu metal, post grunge, to alternative metal and post-metal. Listen to the main riff in ‘In The Meantime’ and tell me that half a dozen nu metal bands haven’t aped that poorly. Listen to Hamilton’s hardcore influenced bark throughout and then listen to post metal legends Neurosis and ISIS. The more metal guitar tone can be found throughout the denizens of post grunge. Finally, if you can’t hear the influence of Helmet on bands like the aforementioned Deftones, I think you need to be put out of your misery. Meantime for the win.
1. Neutral Milk Hotel – In An Aeroplane Over The Sea (1998 – Merge Records)
This is the album that convinced Arcade Fire to sign with Merge Records. That should say it all really. Over the years this has gained both critical acclaim and a more commercial footing, but at the time of release it barely sold any records and, while many critics loved it, both Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau panned it. Well, you can trust Overblown, In An Aeroplane Over The Sea, is a lo-fi, affecting, fuzzed up folk-rock gem of a record inspired by Anne Frank’s Diary. Band-leader Jeff Mangum went into seclusion after the album was released due to poor health and suffering a nervous breakdown, which only further fuels the myths surrounding this absolute classic. The title-track, ‘Two Headed Boy’ and ‘Holland, 1945’ are particular highlights. Perhaps the most important album of the last twenty years, its influence can be heard everywhere today, for better (Wilco) and for worse (Mumford & Sons).
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