It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a time when bands took to its logical conclusion the one-word band name; a time when you could grab three random CDs from your binder and end up with either the proper ingredients for a meal (Cracker, Cake, Cranberries) or an impromptu construction job (Helmet, Tool, Pavement); a time when bands loved doing things (Smashing Pumpkins, Throwing Copper, Counting Crows) and juxtaposition (Spacehog, Soundgarden, Candlebox). It was a time when “alternative” rock saturated the airwaves, and perhaps not all of it has received the respect it deserves, for the '90s was a decade of abundance.
Notably, a band could sell thousands (millions even) of albums on the back of a single catchy song and a video on MTV. Cassette or CD singles existed, but if you were like most people, you went the full monty and sprung for the whole album. Often this was a wise decision, the album ended up being packed with many memorable songs that you would have never heard otherwise (e.g. The Wallflowers, Bringing Down the Horse). Though more often than not, the album had that one noteworthy track, and maybe if you were lucky one or two tolerable songs, and then a whole bunch of filler. Some bands made entire careers banking on this reality (looking at you, Fuel), leaving you kicking yourself and wishing you had kept your fifteen dollars and been happy with the shorter and static-y version of “Shimmer” that you had recorded off the radio.
Though most of the following albums have sold a significant number of records, it’s still appropriate to make the claim that they may have been “underappreciated” by many, simply because most copies were probably purchased exclusively for that one hit single, and people may not have given the whole thing a listen. If nothing else, these are some of the best albums from the alt-rock of the '90s, albums that maybe aren’t on everyone’s radar--except perhaps for that one big hit--and albums that still sound good today. Surely, a strong case could be made that there are dozens of more obscure albums that deserve a place on a list like this, but unfortunately those have been overlooked here as well. Here are ten albums that aren’t often found amongst the “greatest” albums of the 90s (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, OK Computer, Odelay), but albums that are still worth revisiting.
Highly rated and little talked about at the time, and since, R.E.M.’s tenth album never received the acclaim or airplay in the '90s as that of its predecessor, Monster, although many might claim that New Adventures is the better album. What this album lacks in coherence and singularity of vision, it makes up for in variety. Underrated amongst the R.E.M. canon, the album contains one of the band’s most anomalous (and greatest) hits: the haunting “E-Bow the Letter,” featuring Michael Stipe speak-singing his poetic ramblings of cherry mesh and tin-foil tiaras, while Patti Smith howls the backing vocals. The video, with its draped white holiday lights, received regular play on MTV for a while, but not on the same level as “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” or “Strange Currencies” from Monster. Other highlights include the tracks “Leave,” “Bittersweet Me,” and “Be Mine.” If it’s true that these songs were mostly recorded during rehearsals and soundchecks on tour, the album stands as a document of a group of musicians who are still at the height of their creative powers.
It wasn’t quite the 50s, doctors smoking in their offices, pilots smoking in their cockpits, but in the 90s smoking was still all the rage. If you didn’t smoke, you were lucky and wise, but also probably branded the biggest pansy in your school (check your yearbook). Perhaps no band of the 90s did more to promote this pernicious habit than Superdrag. The band name suggests a great inhalation of smoke, cigarettes are mentioned in multiple songs (“And I need more cigarettes, to build up my confidence”), and the lead singer is seen both lighting a cigarette and blowing a lungful of smoke into the camera in at least two videos from this album (oooh aaah). Despite this, the songs are uplifting and catchy, and not just the hit “Sucked Out,” which is as far as most people probably got with Superdrag. Regretfully Yours is a great album, full of space-pop guitar, consistently compelling melodies, and cynical lyrics, if you can hear them through all the smoke.
Some things changed between Live Through This and Celebrity Skin, the least important of which was that Courtney Love got a nose-job. This newly-streamlined appendage seems to have been symbolic of a general movement towards a cleaner image and sound. On Celebrity Skin, Hole showcases their calmer and more romantic side,incorporating brighter guitar tones, poppier hooks, and sunnier lyrics about Celebrity and California. To help her smooth out the band’s sound, Love enlisted long-time associate Billy Corgan to assist in the songwriting process. His influence is felt to a certain extent, a few lyrics being so beautifully nonsensical that it’s doubtful many would be surprised to find that they had been penned by the great pumpkin himself (“He rages to be true”). The album has sold over a million copies in the US, so it may be difficult to support the claim that it’s been overlooked or underappreciated, but, since it’s so often overshadowed by Live Through This, Courtney Love’s more polished incarnation of Hole deserves further consideration.
If you paid much attention to Out of Order with Jed the Fish, an alt-rock radio show, or watched a lot of MTV in the mid-90s, at some point you probably caught Tripping Daisy’s only hit, “I Got a Girl.” If you didn’t, they’re the neo-psychedelic band that Tim DeLaughter was in prior to starting the neo-neo-psychedelic group Polyphonic Spree, who were known for performing in white choir robes in the mid-00s. This album (and the follow-up Jesus Hits like the Atom Bomb) is an underrated classic of the post-grunge era. DeLaughter’s ecstatic, high-register voice melds perfectly with the fuzz-drenched guitars on epics like “Piranha” and “Motivation.” Listening to this album in its entirety, you may find yourself questioning the taste of a population that could let such an album drift into oblivion.
Rubberneck is another album that took the short road from platinum to obscurity, rising to prominence on the success of one song, “Possum Kingdom,” which may or may not be about a vampire. It’s the only album Toadies released in the 90s--since Feeler, the follow-up, was rejected by the record label. Take that with a grain of salt though, as Rubberneck deserves its place in the pantheon of iconic albums of the 90s. The oddly demented lyrics of songs like “Possum Kingdom” (“Do you wanna die?”) and “Tyler” (“I stumbled in the hallway, outside your bedroom door”), along with the screaming crescendo of “Away” combine with the rest to produce an unsettling mood reminiscent of a haunted swamp full of toads, possums, and hairless dogs. At the band’s concert five years ago, it was surprising to see what a large following of vampires were in attendance. Everyone had his or her two fingers in the air in the shape of fangs during “Possum Kingdom”--maybe not everyone overlooked this album after all.
The Flaming Lips - Clouds Taste Metallic (1995) Before all the glorious bleeps, sweeps, and creeps of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the Flaming Lips loved heavily distorted guitars. Clouds Taste Metallic showcases this admiration in a big way. “The Abandoned Hospital Ship” begins the album with a clicking film projector and Wayne Coyne’s distinctive wail before exploding into a orgiastic wall of frenetic guitar squeals and pounding drums that barely lets up until the end of the album. Distinctive of the Lips in general, the song titles and lyrics are packed with cartoonish images, full of enough brains, egg yolks, and embryos to soundtrack 2001: A Space Odyssey. The album is fun, and you hear about “Kim’s Watermelon Gun” and “Christmas at the Zoo,” but somewhere amidst all the pleasant phantasmagoria lurks a sinister side, like the trip is about to go awry, teetering on madness. That might be what’s most pleasant about it though, the feeling that at any moment the the music will descend into chaos.
The best way for Smashing Pumpkins to follow Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness might have been to drop the mic and call it quits. Fans were destined to be disappointed with whatever the band came up with after that gargantuan album and the expansive collection of high-quality Mellon Collie B-sides that quickly followed, especially after hearing that drummer Jimmy Chamberlin had parted ways from the rest of the group and would remain absent from the Adore recording sessions. Though, in large part, his absence makes the album what it is--an intriguing electro-acoustic album, and also an emotional document of personal loss. The programmed drum machines that stand in for Chamberlin help make songs “Perfect” and “Appels and Oranjes” sound like the closest thing to dance music the Pumpkins would get. However, the more subdued tracks are the highlights. The banjo of “To Sheila” sets the plaintive tone. Billy laments the loss of his mother on tracks like “Once Upon a Time” and “For Martha,” eventually finding comfort in the catharsis of an ascending guitar riff.
Blind Melon’s debut album is best known for the bee girl in the “No Rain” video, but it’s easily one of the greatest albums of the decade. Soup though, the more frequently overlooked follow-up, is an album that deserves its own recognition. It’s a manic album drawn from a mind unraveling. The debut album was somber at times (“I don’t feel the sun’s coming out today”), but it had a consistently brighter vibe than this one. The fourteen tracks on Soup are a darker and more varied bunch (“I can’t believe that I have to bang my head against this wall again”). “Vernie” is a hallucinatory view of singer Shannon Hoon’s grandmother and her “collection of glass chickens”; “Skinned” is an oddly upbeat song about serial killer Ed Gein; “Walk” is a straightforward acoustic song about embarrassment and depression; and “Galaxie” is an ode to Hoon’s car, the video for that one a living portrait of Shannon Hoon’s dark and downward spiral. Soup contains numerous references to drug abuse, a dark premonition of the future, but the album still lives today as a tragically-beautiful work of art.
The instrumentation on Ruby Vroom primarily consists of drums, guitar, and stand-up bass, but there are two things that make this album unique: 1. the consistent use of taped samples and sound effects and 2. M. Doughty’s clever wordplay. Like the seagulls in “Sugar Free Jazz,” or the answering machine recording of “Lemon Tree” playing in the background of “Janine, the album is experimental in its use of samples, loops, and sound effects. On top of this, Doughty deploys enough poetic activity to fill up a PhD thesis. What the songs are about is the wrong question to ask here. His lyrics are abstract, with a heavier emphasis on how the words sound together than what they might mean (see the b-side “Buddha Rhubarb Butter). This is M. Doughty spitting slam poetry, melodically rapping, and always enunciating the final consonants of words. One envisions the crowd snapping its approval for Soul Coughing, one of the great visionary bands of the 90s.
Hum - You’d Prefer an Astronaut (1995)
In more ways than one, Hum is a stellar band. Full of blissful distortion, heavy drums, and “nerdy” lyrics about bird-watching, constellations, and euthanasia, You’d Prefer an Astronaut is a masterpiece of the space rock genre. Layers of distorted guitars give the songs an atmospheric quality, while the lyrics bring to mind images of science and nature (“My baby spins propellants, the system's set to blow, she's at the milky way now, exploding into snow”). “Why I Like the Robins” is a particular stand-out. Admittedly, You’d Prefer an Astronaut did garner some attention, thanks to the semi-popularity of “Stars” (“She thinks she missed the train to Mars, she’s out back counting cue distortion stars”), but it is one of the great disappointments of 90s alternative rock that Hum was barely heard from again after the follow-up and final album, Downward is Heavenward, a great album in its own right, failed to meet corporate expectations.
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