9 of the best ’90s bands you didn’t think were the best ’90s bands and the awesome stuff they’re doing now
by Andrew Sacher
It’s no secret that the ’90s are all the rage right now. The internet (and maybe even your real life) is filled with nostalgia for everything from Pogs to Nickelodeon cartoons to Tamagotchis and this reality check from The Onion that the ’90s weren’t only Pogs, Nickelodeon cartoons and Tamagotchis. Indie rock is no exception. The sounds of the Alternative Nation era can be heard in many of today’s indie bands, and countless ’90s OGs have reformed to excellent results, playing not just to the people who saw them the first time around but to many new, younger fans. When it comes to discussing ’90s rock, we usually turn the conversation towards critically acclaimed bands like Pavement, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Built to Spill, Neutral Milk Hotel, and My Bloody Valentine or huge bands like Nirvana, Weezer, and Radiohead. You don’t need another list telling you those bands are great. (But if you do, those lists are easily Googleable and recommended!) Instead, here’s an alternative (pun intended) way of looking at the decade. Here’s a list that highlights nine great bands who seem like they’re starting to get re-evaluated a bit and starting to get the credit they deserve (some more than others).
I’m not trying to take the obscurer-than-thou route either. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of all of these bands. All of them were on major labels. Some didn’t have enough hits to get legitimately popular or remembered for more than one or two songs, but because of their MTV/KROQ associations they weren’t very indie-cool either. Some achieved more mainstream success (often by changing their sound), an even bigger indie cred killer. But all of them are doing cool stuff right now, whether it’s new albums, vinyl reissues, tours of the classic material, or new related bands. Almost all of them also have a clear influence on younger, modern bands. Whatever it is, it’s reminding us why they were such great artists to begin with.
Of course this list could’ve had way more than nine bands. So feel free to comment telling us which ones you would’ve included and which ones you think we should’ve left off. Check out the list (in no particular order), with commentary and song streams, below.
UPDATE: Here’s why we didn’t include Nada Surf.
SUPERDRAG: Ironically, “Sucked Out,” the one song most people knew Superdrag for thanks to MTV and radio play, was railing against the way major labels, MTV and mainstream radio were exploiting alternative music, desperately looking for the next band they could capitalize on. “In your eyes you’ve already spread my thighs, and you’re rocking to the next big thing,” sang John Davis in the song’s first verse. And that throat-scratching chorus of “Who sucked out the feeling?” has to be one of alt-rock’s most memorable rhetorical questions. It’s a great song that lives up today, but the album it’s on, Regretfully Yours, Superdrag’s debut LP for Elektra Records, is packed with other excellent material. Whether or not there’s another could-be hit, the whole thing is a catchy-as-hell batch of punk-inspired power pop. Some tracks, like “Destination Ursa Major,” “Nothing Good Is Real,” and “Phaser” have a bit of a shoegaze influence that a couple of the members would fully embrace later on (we’ll get to that soon).
For their next record, 1998’s Head Trip in Every Key, they holed up in the studio with Green Day producer Jerry Finn (RIP) and made an ambitious followup that echoes The Zombies on opening track “I’m Expanding My Mind,” brings on George Harrison-style sitar on “The Art of Dying,” revisits the shoegaze influence on “Pine Away,” rails against the mainstream music industry once again on “Bankrupt Vibration” (“And your alternative station / Is such a bankrupt vibration / Counting on the confusion / Of an alternative nation”), and has lush string arrangements all over the record. Elektra was displeased with its lack of hits, which eventually led to the band and label parting ways. The split resulted in Superdrag signing with the smaller Arena Rock Recording Company and releasing their third LP, 2000’s In the Valley of Dying Stars, a darker album that returns in ways to the band’s punk roots and features some of the best songs of their career. And if you’re wondering how Davis was feeling about the industry at this point, well, the album opens with the line “I want rock ‘n roll but I don’t want to deal with the hassle.”
Now, Superdrag has teamed up with respected independent punk label SideOneDummy, who gave Regretfully Yours its first vinyl release in 2013 and did the same with Head Trip this week (August 12) (along with a collection of demos from the era). SideOne also signed John Davis and Superdrag guitarist Brandon Fisher’s new band The Lees of Memory, who go full-on MBV on their upcoming debut album, and it works. Garage rock label/lifestyle Burger is putting it out on cassette. Stream a track.
The Muffs at Burger A-Go-Go 2014 (more by Debi Del Grande)
THE MUFFS: The Muffs shared a producer (Rob Cavallo) and a punchy pop punk sound with Green Day on their 1993 self-titled debut for Warner Brothers, and on its two followups they’d share a label (Reprise, which Warner owns). But while Green Day and many of their pop punk contemporaries remained huge and eventually began making even more popular music that didn’t really deserve the “punk” suffix, The Muffs are best remembered by many for a cover of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America” which is on the Clueless soundtrack. It’s an unfortunate thing, because there’s hardly a dud in their discography. And those first three records (the major label ones) sound fresher today than many of their contemporaries. The band mixed the sugary sounds of early rock ‘n roll with rougher distorted garage rock (the Ramones had to be an influence too), and Kim Shattuck’s scream gave them an edge over even the more underground pop punk bands of the era. It’s all over their first record, which is probably their rawest (but still catchy) release, but that album’s followup, 1995’s Blonder and Blonder, is their crowning achievement. The scream shows up sometimes, like on album opener and standout “Agony,” but they also show their diversity on a track like “Funny Face,” a mid-tempo rocker with a descending chord progression that stands out among the peppier stuff and is one of their best songs.
Maybe The Muffs didn’t cause as many ’90s kids to pick up a guitar and learn three power chords as Green Day did, but their influence can undoubtedly be heard in today’s indie rock. Ohio’s scrappy All Dogs covered them on an EP last year, and The Muffs sound like a clear influence on Seattle-via-Brooklyn punks Big Eyes. The Muffs themselves put out a new album, Whoop Dee Doo (their first since 2004), at the tail-end of July on Burger Records, a go-to place for garage rock. Whoop Dee Doo is an excellent album that doesn’t sound very different from their early ’90s material, and like the Superdrag-related The Lees of Memory, it also fits right in on Burger in 2014. In 2013, Kim was briefly a member of the Pixies. While The Muffs will probably never be as legendary as the Pixies, if you compare their reunion album to Whoop Dee Doo, it’s easy to see which band still has it in 2014. Catch The Muffs on their tour which hits NYC in October with Miriam and Upset, and check out their new video.
HARVEY DANGER: Still to this day, one of the biggest crimes of ’90s indie rock is that Harvey Danger are considered a one hit wonder for “Flagpole Sitta”. It’s a great song, but only one of the ten great songs on their debut album, 1997’s Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?. Produced by John Goodmanson, who at the time had recently helmed records by Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill, Merrymakers is ’90s indie rock at its finest, and should appeal to any fans of the era’s more universally acclaimed bands. The slacker rhythms of early Pavement are here, and Sean Nelson’s nasal whine isn’t a far cry from Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, but Harvey Danger were more than the sum of their parts. Like those bands, they were strong songwriters, and Sean really had his own personality to him. When he yells “The desperate need to be together / must’ve been good for something, sugar!” on “Private Helicopter,” it’s too powerful to be the work of copycats. Album opener “Carlotta Valdez” is even more of a rocker than “Flagpole Sitta,” and at least as good of a song. “Problems And Bigger Ones” takes the slowcore formula that had been around for a few years by then, and throws in an anthemic chorus atypical of that genre. The whole record is a classic.
Sean Nelson has spoken about how the attention from the mainstream world for “Flagpole Sitta” was unnerving. There was an expectation that more hits would follow, but he wasn’t concerned with writing hits. This showed on the band’s followup album, 2000’s King James Version, which came out on Sire and London Records (London had reissued Merrymakers after “Flagpole Sitta”‘s fame) and sounded nothing like the radio-ready alternative rock that was expected of them. It did however, have 12 songs of quirky rock that would have fared much better on say, Barsuk, an indie label Sean was and is still friendly with. After that album, the band took a break and didn’t release new music again until 2005’s less aggressive Little by Little… (re-released in 2006 on Kill Rock Stars), which did produce some gems like the McCartney-esque piano pop album opener “Wine, Women & Song.” So what are they doing now? Sean put out a solo album in 2013 that wasn’t half bad and drummer Evan Sult formed the indie pop band Sleepy Kitty whose newest album Projection Room came out earlier this year (and a new video just came out). But most interestingly, they recently (July 29) gave Merrymakers its first-ever vinyl release on No Sleep Records, home to many of today’s forward-thinking punk/post-hardcore bands.
Jimmy Eat World at Osheaga 2013 (more by Toby Tenenbaum)
JIMMY EAT WORLD: Jimmy Eat World have probably gotten the most after-the-fact acclaim of all these bands for their 1999 masterpiece, Clarity, but I still encounter people unfairly judging them on the basis of their 2001 breakthrough single, “The Middle,” a good song from a great album (Bleed American) that just got played way, WAY too much. That song and the band’s mainstream success in the 2000s has scared people away from Jimmy Eat World, but they had an incredibly interesting ’90s career. Clarity is increasingly becoming a Pinkerton-style album, in that more and more fans and critics are recognizing its brilliance each year. Before I get there though, I’m rewinding to 1994 when Jimmy Eat World released their self-titled debut album. Unlike anything they’d follow it with, it was an album of emotionally-charged pop punk with all but one track being sung by current backup singer Tom Linton. Its followup, and their major label debut, was 1996’s Static Prevails which this time saw Tom splitting lead vocals with current lead singer Jim Adkins, and moving into the emo territory of bands like Christie Front Drive (who they released a split with and whose singer Eric Richter is on that record) and The Promise Ring (whose Davey Von Bohlen contributes to a song on Bleed American that both quotes his song titles and includes the lyric “come on Davey, sing me something that I know”). Static Prevails, excellent as it is, was a commercial failure and at the time it seemed like its followup Clarity would be Jimmy Eat World’s final shot at success.
Clarity, the album where Jim took over as lead singer save for “Blister,” is an absolutely brilliant record that moves them beyond the mid-’90s emo sound into far more dynamic territories. Its single, “Lucky Denver Mint,” was the closest thing to a hit (or an attempt at one) and predicted a sound the band would revisit on several of their 2000s albums. Elsewhere on the album, “Crush” maintains the heavier style of their earlier albums but introduces a new knack for melody. “Table For Glasses” is emo-fueled slowcore of the highest quality, and gives Mineral a run for their money. And the album ends with a borderline-post rock 16+ minute song that doesn’t drag. In Andy Greenwald’s essential 2003 book on emo, Nothing Feels Good, he says every contemporary emo band would call it their favorite album. It’s not hard to see why now. But at the time Clarity was another commercial (and initially also critical) failure, and it led to Capitol dropping them. Of course they didn’t give up and instead put together a batch of perfect power pop called Bleed American that landed them on a new major (DreamWorks) and skyrocketed them to fame.
The band is still active, still on a major, and still successful, though the last few albums haven’t quite captured the magic of their early days. They toured Clarity in full in 2009, and also gave it a vinyl reissue that year. This year, on September 30, they’re giving it another vinyl reissue (double LP) via Universal. Static Prevails and Futures reissues are also due on 8/19 and 9/2, respectively. They’ll go on another nostalgia tour this year, this time playing Futures in full for its tenth anniversary. The 2004 LP followed Bleed American, and while it’s not as classic as their earlier material, it’s still a solid record and probably the least radio-friendly of their post-“The Middle” years (in a good way).
Smoking Popes in Chicago in June (more by Jeff Ryan)
SMOKING POPES: Like some of these other bands, the Smoking Popes make punk-inspired alternative rock, though they were set apart by Josh Caterer’s croon that was closer to Morrissey than to any punk/alt-rock band. (Morrissey is a fan too!) They had a minor hit in “Need You Around” (it was also on the Clueless soundtrack) off their second and best LP, Born to Quit, which resulted in Capitol Records taking interest and re-releasing the record shortly after. While the album mostly embraces the band’s punk roots like on “Need You Around,” they do hint at the ballads they were clearly influenced by a few times, like on the romantic “Mrs. You and Me.” And the bits of rasp Josh let into the chorus of “Gotta Know Right Now” make the song almost Jawbreaker-style emo (Josh would write a song for/about Blake Schwarzenbach on the next album). Born to Quit‘s followup, 1997’s Destination Failure, was the first album recorded since signing to Capitol, and it would be their last. They got a bit more studio shine from Jerry Finn, but really embraced their love of balladry and classic pop this time around, and that didn’t give Capitol the hits they wanted (“I Know You Love Me” was a somewhat popular single for them though). Some of that early emo style shows up again too, like in the lyrics of “Pretty Pathetic.” Born to Quit may always be the album I associate with Smoking Popes, but Destination Failure is an (even more) overlooked gem that’s very close to as good.
The band went on hiatus after that, with their 1998-recorded covers album The Party’s Over (that Capitol rejected) eventually coming out in 2001. They finally reunited in 2005, put out a new album in 2008, and then like many other bands on this list, found independent punk labels who could give them the treatment they deserve, Asian Man Records and SideOneDummy. SideOne reissued Born to Quit on vinyl, and Asian Man gave them a place to get back to releasing new music, their most recent album being 2011’s This Is Only a Test. Like their 2008 LP, it’s mostly a return to the Born to Quit style, and good stuff. Smoking Popes have been embraced by a handful of newer bands too. Their influence on Michigan’s Cheap Girls is undeniable. That band also has releases on Asian Man, and just about any of their albums fit right in with the ‘Popes catalog, the newest being this year’s Famous Graves (out on Xtra Mile). Into It. Over It., one of the most acclaimed artists in the “emo revival,” also covered them in 2012. That was the same year the Smoking Popes toured Born to Quit in full. They haven’t done another nostalgia tour since then, but continue to play live. We just caught them in Chicago with Braid celebrating Double Door’s 20th anniversary, and they also played Riot Fest Chicago 2013 and NYE in Chicago with Jimmy Eat World.
Hum at FFF Fest 2011 (more by Tim Griffin)
HUM: While Hum already have a bit of indie acceptance (or had — if you want to see the 8.3 Pitchfork gave Downward Is Heavenward you’ll have to go to web archive, and if you want to see the album crack their top 100 of the ’90s, off to the 1999 version of that list you go, not the one on their site), they still feel like they fit on this list for a few reasons. Like all of these bands, they were a major label band, and their only real taste of mainstream success came from the single “Stars.” But most importantly, Hum have never been as influential on indie rock as they are right now. Their sound is all over Nothing, it’s crept pretty heavily into a few Title Fight songs (especially “Head in the Ceiling Fan”), and informs other modern bands like Superheaven (fka Daylight), Balance & Composure and still more.
In addition to “Stars” being a great song, the album it’s on, 1995’s You’d Prefer An Astronaut, is equally great and its 1998 followup, Downward Is Heavenward, may be even better. Both records mixed post-hardcore, alternative rock, and space rock/shoegaze into an atmospheric, crushing blend. The songs were heavier and clearer than My Bloody Valentine, but also had a lot more to them than a lot of the post-grunge bands of that time whose riffs weren’t all that different from Hum’s. At the time it was an interesting middle ground, but that sound didn’t live on into the new millennium of indie rock the way MBV’s did. Now that it’s finally being reclaimed, it’s a good time to revisit those records. Hum reunited at the beginning of this decade (and a tribute album featuring Junius, City of Ships and others was released around that time), and since reissued You’d Prefer An Astronaut on vinyl via Earth Analog Records. The label has recently been talking about a Downward Is Heavenward reissue too.
Toadies at Webster Hall in 2012 (more by Chris La Putt)
TOADIES: Fort Worth, TX band Toadies’ major single on ’90s alt-rock radio was “Possum Kingdom,” the hit off their debut album, 1994’s Rubberneck which came out via Interscope. It’s a fairly typical single of the post-grunge era, one that may not have caused you to explore the band further after hearing it on a playlist with Bush or Silverchair, bands that took on the mainstream appeal of Seattle grunge but ignored its underground roots. However, much of Rubberneck sounds rooted in the same kind of outsider punk and metal bands that inspired Nirvana (and likely rooted in Nirvana too). It may have come out a few months after Kurt died, but being a few years late doesn’t stop the album from being a gem of ’90s alternative. “Tyler” sounds closer to the Pixies than most bands on the radio did by then, “Mister Love” is straight punk with a guitar riff right out of the book of Cobain, and the loud-quiet-loud formula of “Quitter” is a fantastic take on grungy indie rock.
Toadies tried to follow up Rubberneck in 1997 with Feeler but when they showed the album to Interscope, the label rejected it. This sent the band back into the studio, resulting in Hell Below/Stars Above (which featured Elliott Smith playing piano on one song), which came out in 2001, thus making Rubberneck their only album of the ’90s. The album didn’t perform well commercially and the band broke up soon after. Though in 2006 they regrouped and have been going strong ever since, having released more albums in their second run as a band than their first — 2008’s No Deliverance, 2010’s re-recording of Feeler, and 2012’s Play.Rock.Music. Each one has its moments, and as a track like “Laments of a Good Man” on Play.Rock.Music proves, they can still be truly weird. Plus, unlike other bands that toed the line between “post-grunge” and “grunge,” they’re not doing things like inviting Linkin Park’s singer to join their band. Instead, they’re palling around with other greats from that era like Helmet, Supersuckers, and Old 97’s, the latter of whom will open Dia De Los Toadies Festival in Fort Worth this September, where Toadies are playing Rubberneck in full. The band also gave that album a reissue with bonus material on vinyl and CD earlier this year via their current label, Kirtland.
Veruca Salt at MHOW in July (more by Adea Loconte)
VERUCA SALT: BV’s Bill Pearis has written before that Veruca Salt stirred up buzz with their 1994 debut single “Seether” and the album it appeared on, American Thighs, but followed it with an over-produced second album (Bob Rock was at the boards). Co-frontperson Nina Gordon left shortly after, and drummer Jim Shapiro and bassist Steve Lack soon followed suit, leaving Louise Post as the only original member. “Seether” and the rest of American Thighs (produced by Brad Wood) are classics of ’90s indie rock, and it’s easy to see why the radio latched on to this stuff. Like Weezer, whose debut LP came out that same year, these songs have huge hooks — bigger than say, other Class of 1994 indie rock bands like Pavement or Guided by Voices — but they’re smart and intricately crafted too. My personal favorite Veruca Salt release came in between that album and its polished followup though, the 4-song Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt EP, which was just about the opposite of polished. Like many alternative bands who want raw but powerful, they went with Steve Albini to record this one, and he was the perfect fit for what turned out to be some of the most biting songs of their career.
Similarly to Hole or Liz Phair, the female-fronted Veruca Salt weren’t directly associated with the Riot Grrrl movement of that time (and were more popular than most bands who were), but Riot Grrrl’s feminist punk values found their way into the band’s music. The EP’s first track, “Shimmer Like A Girl” is an excellent example of this. Opening with a power chord riff and drum fill that could’ve come straight from Nirvana’s In Utero sessions (in case you don’t know, Albini recorded that album too), Nina Gordon rips right into “It’s a shame you have a mind of your own now,” and by the song’s chorus she howls the anthemic “Shimmer like a girl should.” Its unsubtle sarcasm fits better on a mixtape next to “Rebel Girl” than almost every band who would ever go on to record with Bob Rock. This year, Veruca Salt put out a new two-song single on Record Store Day, their first new music with the original lineup since ’97, and both tracks fit right in with their classic material. They’ve also been touring again to excellent results. They recently hit NYC for sold out shows at Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg, showing off how timeless those old songs are and how well they fit with the new ones. Here’s to hoping the reunion continues and more new music is on the way.
GOO GOO DOLLS: Okay I’m kind of cheating here because one listen to the Goo Goo Dolls’ 2013 album proves they are NOT doing anything awesome now, but here’s some wishful thinking that they’ll revisit the old days. Everyone knows that by 1998’s Dizzy Up the Girl they became one of the most successful adult alternative bands around, but what’s lesser known — and more interesting from an indie rock perspective — is that they started in the late ’80s as a punk band who by 1989 had signed to Metal Blade Records (who released the first two Slayer albums) for their sophomore album Jed. Like Jimmy Eat World, Goo Goo Dolls started with another member, Robby Takac, on lead vocals, and with each album the cleaner-sounding John Rzeznik increasingly took the lead. John sang two songs on Jed, but he really got it together on 1990’s Hold Me Up (which, if we’re keeping alt-rock cred score, is a year before Nevermind and Ten), where his best songs (“Just the Way You Are,” “There You Are”) had the band sounding like very good Replacements clones. They seemed to at least have a bit of that band’s support too, considering Paul Westerberg co-wrote “We Are the Normal” on the GGDs next album, 1993’s Superstar Car Wash, their first for Warner Bros. That album saw the band with higher production and sharper hooks, and it resulted in some of their best songs — “Fallin’ Down,” “Cuz You’re Gone” and “So Far Away,” to name a few.
They returned in 1995 with A Boy Named Goo, their last to prevalently feature their punk roots and their best album to date. At this point, Rzeznik had the Westerberg formula down, but he’d also fully developed a sound that was distinctly Goo Goo Dolls. The Goo Goo Dolls will never be as great a band as The Replacements, but it’s rewriting history to say The Replacements were ever this downright catchy. With Rzeznik’s ringing open chords, huge choruses, and guitar solos that were just the right mix of technical and hummable, A Boy Named Goo is responsible for quite a handful of ’90s alt-rock bangers. All of their records have filler, and this one’s no exception, but “Long Way Down,” “Ain’t That Unusual,” “Naked,” “Eyes Wide Open,” “Only One” and “Flat Top” are some of the best songs of that era. It’s also the album that produced the acoustic rocker “Name,” their first major hit and the one that laid the groundwork for pretty much every (equally uncool) Goo Goo Dolls single to follow (like “Iris”). I won’t hate on “Name” (and if we’re being totally honest, I won’t entirely hate on all of Dizzy Up the Girl either), but it’s far from representative of what this album has done and can do for indie rock.
Like I said, the Goo Goo Dolls haven’t hopped aboard the nostalgia train just yet (but guys, if you’re reading this, A Boy Named Goo turns 20 this March…) but until then we’ve got some modern bands keeping their early ’90s sound alive. Most notably, there’s Beach Slang — who themselves are fronted by a member of a loved ’90s band, Weston — who put out their excellent debut EP earlier this year. As many agree (myself included), they’re basically doing early ’90s Goo Goo Dolls for the current era, with some Jawbreaker thrown in there for good measure. You can also hear some early GGDs in bands such as Failures’ Union (who share the GGDs’ hometown of Buffalo), High Water and Cheap Girls (who we also compared above to Smoking Popes). Placeholder namedropped A Boy Named Goo as one of their favorites in an interview with us, and Chumped (who play with Beach Slang soon) are not shy about their love for the band either. Maybe the Goo Goo Dolls weren’t always the coolest to like, but in 2014 their classic material sounds a lot more like modern indie rock than even some of their more respected peers.