The 90s were a fantastic and enormously influential era for rock music which took the genre in a new direction. However, as it’s now 2016 and the 90s are a distant memory, the era is generally condensed to seminal albums such as Nevermind and a handful of others. Summing up an entire decade of incredible music in this way does a major disservice to the era, which is much more expansive than just a few albums, so today we will be blowing the dust off 10 of the greatest records from the 90s that are sometimes forgotten. Hit play, sit back, and take a trip down memory lane with these brilliant albums.
10. Mark Lanegan – Whiskey for the Holy Ghost
Mark Lanegan first rose to fame as vocalist for grunge act The Screaming Trees in the late 80s and around that same time, he also started some low-key solo work. This has since blossomed into a critically acclaimed career, with 9 solo records to date. His sophomore effort, 1994’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, is an enormously overlooked album and a fantastic showcase of his distinctive whiskey and cigarette-soaked baritone vocals.
Lanegan has since delved into a range of different genres, but on this album he sticks to blues and folk rock, which is the perfect backdrop for his vocals and dark lyrics that explore loss, sin, and redemption. Although he was suffering from substance abuse problems at the time, the album is remarkably cohesive and shows his development as a songwriter (even if it took nearly 3 years to complete). Highlights include “The River Rise,” “Kingdoms of Rain,” “Dead on You,” and “Sunrise.”
9. Tom Waits – Bone Machine
A man with another distinctive growl is Tom Waits, who has developed a cult following for his distinctive musical persona and lyrics based upon seedy characters and places with a blues, jazz, and rock sound. He has an impressive and varied back catalogue dating back to the 70s, but 1992’s Bone Machine remains a standout record and one of the best of the decade.
The Grammy-winning record has sinister lyrical content and a stripped down, percussion-heavy blues rock sound which compliments Waits’ gruff vocal delivery and makes for a primal sounding record. Waits narrates a number of strange and brilliant tales, and although not as accessible as some of his work, Bone Machine displays fantastic songwriting and is an album unlike any other. It features perhaps his most popular track, “Goin’ Out West,” as well as notable tunes including “Earth Died Screaming” and “Who Are You.”
8. Blind Melon – Soup
Often (wrongly) remembered as a one hit wonder following the success of “No Rain” in 1993, Blind Melon are an overlooked and often forgotten band. Sadly, their progress was halted after just two albums due to the tragic passing of lead vocalist Shannon Hoon in 1995. Their sophomore effort, Soup, was released just 8 weeks earlier and is widely considered to be one of the most underrated rock records of the decade.
Much of the album reflects Hoon’s drug problems — and there is plenty more dark subject matter — but it’s balanced out by tongue in cheek humor and a song about the birth of Hoon’s daughter. Soup also blends a variety of genres, with elements of alternative rock, grunge, folk, and psychedelia. The album was panned upon release, but in recent years it has amassed a cult following and is certainly an album worth revisiting today.
7. The Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray
The Lemonheads achieved both commercial and critical success in the 90s, and despite reforming with a new lineup and releasing 2 albums in the 2000s, they are sometimes forgotten. The alternative rock act created some of the best pop rock songs of the decade and inspired countless acts that followed. They first rose to fame through their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and the release of their 1992 album It’s a Shame About Ray.
The album is full of catchy punk/folk rock songs which best showcase The Lemonheads’ signature sound, and it’s a fun and easy listen that clocks in at just under half an hour. Lead singer Evan Dando’s laidback vocals are bolstered by Juliana Hatfield’s harmonies, which add emotional power to many of the songs, including standout tracks such as the title track, “Confetti,” and “Alison’s Starting to Happen”.
6. Kyuss – Blues for the Red Sun
Something wild, heavy, and dangerous was blossoming in the California desert in the 90s and this was perhaps best exemplified by the hard rock band Kyuss. The band built a following in Palm Desert by playing at now-legendary “generator parties,” where bands played in the desert with the use of gasoline-powered generators to provide electricity for equipment.
Kyuss have an immediately recognizable sound thanks to guitarist Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age fame) using down-tuned guitars plugged into bass amplifiers, along with swinging groove-laden rhythms, and the snarling vocals of John Garcia. Their debut record, Wretch, failed to capture their formidable live sound, but in 1992 they worked with a new producer, Chris Goss, who understood the band. The result was 1992’s Blues for the Red Sun, which most consider to be a pioneering stoner rock album. Many of their most popular tracks come from this album, including “Thumb”, “Green Machine” and “Freedom Run.”
5. Nirvana – In Utero
Although Nirvana is typically the first band that springs to mind when discussing 90s rock music, often this is for the seminal 1991 release Nevermind. This is such a highly revered album that Nirvana’s other work is often forgotten, but it is certainly worth revisiting, particularly their following final album, 1993’s In Utero. This release challenged the band’s audience with a notable shift to a more abrasive and natural sound, and this was largely achieved through engineer Steve Albini’s work. Nirvana had gained a mainstream following and In Utero was a reaction to this.
Although very different from what came before, In Utero is a brilliant, yet very bleak and haunting record. This is of course reinforced by Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, which makes the album feel like his goodbye to the world and very difficult to listen to at times, particularly the beautiful closing track, “All Apologies.”
4. P.J Harvey – Rid of Me
P.J Harvey commands an immense amount of respect and has had a stellar career, yet for some reason, her work throughout the 90s is sometimes forgotten. In recent years, she has expanded her sound and experimented with art rock, but in the earlier stages of her career she harnessed a raw and aggressive alternative punk-edged rock sound. This sound was best displayed on 1993’s Rid of Me, which was the last album recorded as the trio that featured Harvey on guitar and vocals, Rob Ellis on drums, and Steve Vaughn on bass.
The harsh production style of Steve Albini (who went onto record recorded Nirvana’s In Utero a short time later) complements Harvey’s raw songs and powerful voice, with standout tracks including the titular opener, “50 ft. Queenie,” “Me-Jane,” and “Ecstasy.” The album entered the UK charts at number 3 and garnered considerable critical acclaim, and is certainly an album worth dusting off and revisiting.
3. Smashing Pumpkins – Adore
Although The Smashing Pumpkins do not command much respect these days, their contribution to alternative rock should not be overlooked. 1993’s Siamese Dream is (rightfully) considered to be one of the most pioneering albums of the 90s, but today we will be looking at a record which is often overlooked, 1998’s Adore. Adore marked a notable departure from their classic guitar-driven shoegazing style to a much darker and electronica based and sound aesthetic. It was also the first record without drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, with frontman Billy Corgan instead using drum machines, in addition to studio drummers. This notable change in style and sound divided many and marked the beginning of the end for the band, but Adore is still a bold, brave, and emotional record and displays some of Corgan’s finest and most personal songwriting. “Ava Adore” was the first single and best known song, but other highlights include “Perfect,” “Annie-Dog,” and “For Martha.”
2. The Afghan Whigs – Gentlemen
A key band who are sometimes forgotten, The Afghan Whigs rose to fame around the grunge movement, but carved out their own original sound which could be described as a blend of alternative rock with R&B. Their finest work is 1993’s Gentlemen, which received considerable airplay at the time of its release and is considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of the 90s. Vocalist and rhythm guitarist Greg Dulli’s lyrics are famously raw, personal, and self-flagellating, which is especially evident on standout tracks “Gentlemen,” “Be Sweet,” and “Debonair.” The anguished lyrics and delivery by Dulli make for a powerful listen, and their unique sound helped The Afghan Whigs form a dedicated cult following, but they struggled to break into the mainstream. The band, as well as the album, is receiving more attention now, following their recent return with 2014’s excellent release – Do to the Beast.
1. Elliot Smith – Either/Or
Another artist sadly no longer with us is Elliot Smith, and his tragic passing in 2003 only enhances his emotional, haunting, and powerful work. Smith’s music can be described as lo-fi indie rock, with an immediately recognizable vocal style that feels as if Smith is whispering in your ear. His finest work is 1997’s Either/Or, which is a collection of ethereal and delicate songs where Smith also plays all of the instruments. His introspective lyrics add to the personal nature of the album and often these are related to Smith’s depression, alcoholism, and drug dependence. Film director Gus Van Sant was so impressed with the album that he used 3 of the songs for his soundtrack to Good Will Hunting, with Smith also writing a new song for the film, “Miss Misery,” which earned a nomination for an Oscar in 1998 (Smith also performed at the ceremony).