90s Alt Rock

My Ten Favorite CDs of the decade!
July 22, 2010
90s Alt Rock
My Ten Favorite CDs of the Decade!

I was taking a stroll down the electronics aisle when I caught something that made me feel very, very old: out of the corner of my eye, I saw a display for a couple of portable CD players. . . For $4.99 USD.

Five dollars. I remember saving up money all summer to pick up my first portable CD player, and it cost me a good eighty five bucks. And now, they are available for just five dollars retail.

That. . .hurts. Have things really taken that much of a technological leap? I mean, sure, I kind of figured that the I-Pods and the Zunes. . .well, OK, just the I-pods, would have made those old disc players obsolete, but not five dollars obsolete. Hell, it costs more to buy the batteries to power the device than it costs to buy the device itself these days!

The funny thing is, as far as actual sound quality goes, CD quality is still better than MP3 in pretty much all categories: that being said, the forward movement of time has made the CD a thing of the past in the present, and its only a matter of time until all of those shimmering circles find themselves sharing attic space with the 8 tracks and BETAMAX tapes of the world.

I still have a fondness for the compact disc, however. The same way all of those old, bearded music nerds claim that Led Zeppelin IV on vinyl simply sounds better than it does digitized, I happen to believe that my favorite music genre was made for the CD format, and I mean that rather literally.

A lot of you kids have the wrong idea about 90s alt rock. Some of you were too young to recall those days, and maybe some of you have had your memories muddied by years and years of revisionist media history. The fact of the matter is, there was WAY more to the genre than Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and no matter what those cruddy compilation discs try to tell you, NO, Eagle Eye Cherry and Dishwalla DID NOT define the decade OR the alt rock genre. I swear, the next person that tells me that they love 90s music and reference either Lifehouse or Papa Roach is getting guillotine choked.

90s alt rock was, and still is, my favorite time and genre for music simply because there was so much originality in what was being put out there. Nowadays, good luck trying to tell the latest death metal bands apart, or figuring out which R&B singer is which. 90s alt rock was all about experimentation and taking chances, and the end result was some of the best music of any decade, and music that stands up incredibly well twenty years later.

As always, this list is biased as all hell and you will disagree with what I have to say, and that is totally OK with me. The important thing is, you at least give these albums a try, ESPECIALLY if you are one of those millennial kids that thinks the N64 was the first Nintendo console. And if you DO recall these albums, well, just kick back and groove on the times when the economy was up, Crystal Clear Pepsi was en vogue, and portable music meant lugging around a five pound block of plastic that skipped if you so much as stepped on an ant turd.

Anyway, the following is my humble list of the ten greatest alt rock CDS of the 90s. So unplug the Xbox and turn off the Justin Beiber. . .its time we took a trip down memory lane. Just as soon as the dial-up modem boots up and I finish this Orbitz. Oh yeah, NOW I am in a 90s mood. . .

#010 Soundgarden - Badmotorfinger - 1990

By the time the opening chords of Rusty Cage kicks in, you simply KNOW that the 90s is going to put a boot up the ass of all of that namby-pamby, hairspray crap that came out of the 80s. There is no denying the sheer power of Kim Thayil s shrill, sharper than a razor blade wail on this album s opening track, and it sets the stage for not only one of the best pure rock albums of the decade, but the entire alt rock genre as a whole.

Of all of the bands from Seattle that gained fame and fortune in the 90s, I think its pretty much a given to state that Soundgarden was the best of the bunch in terms of sheer musicianship. Kurt may have had the better lyrics and AIC may have had more atmosphere, but there is no denying Soundgarden s incredible dexterity as an ensemble after listening to Badmotorfinger. This is far and away the group s best album: tighter and more polished than Louder Than Love and infinitely less choppy and overproduced than Superunkown, this album is a Led Zeppelin meets Black Sabbath meets The Stooges electric maelstrom from start to finish, featuring some of the decade s most beautiful noise. Outshined, Jesus Christ Pose, Holy Water, Slaves and Bulldozers. . .this is an album that combines late 60s fuzz rock with the insane electro-intensity that only Gibby Haynes craziest drug trips could equal. The media may have called it grunge, but I simply refer to it by the more apropos moniker of EFFING AWESOME.

#009 Hole - Live Through This - 1994

Boy, this ought to piss off the Nirvana fans, huh?

Unless you are a super duper Courtney Love hater, and lets face it, there s a pretty large number of them, you have to give Live Through This props for being one of the high water marks as far as 90s alt rock is concerned. No matter how you feel about Courtney, you have to admit, she has some absolutely amazing chops: her screams on Violet may very well be among the decades most memorable, and haunting growls, and THAT S counting all of the stuff that came from Death and Emperor at the same time frame!

Live Through This is such a remarkable album because it manages to mix soft, emotional and atmospheric ballads with hate filled, atomic angst: when the album is melodic, its downright beautiful, and when it amps up the intensity, it gets harder than trying to give a rhinoceros a pedicure. That perpetual duality is what gives the album such an unmistakable aura, this sense of bucolic tranquility that periodically transmogrifies into dizzying levels of art school anger.

When you really think about it, 90s alt rock was sort of the inverse of 80s heavy metal: whereas that genre was all about misogyny and looking like a chick, 90s alt rock was basically about getting in touch with ones femininity while looking like a fifty year old logger. You catch that weird mishmash of testosterone and womanhood throughout this album, and thanks to some of the decades most well crafted lyrics, no matter your gender, you walk away with an understanding of what its like to be someone in Courtney s predicament. This album is like spending a romantic afternoon in a candle lit trailer with an incredibly beautiful and intellectual girl from a lower class background, and then, right before you finally hold hands. . . BAM! Time to taste the sonic wrecking ball.

The songs are great. That goes without saying, since all you have to do is give Miss World and Doll Parts a listen and you will be converted. The less renowned songs, like Olympia and Jennifer s Body, are downright aural pleasures, too: ultimately, this is one of the decades loveliest, and most bruising albums, and one certainly worthy of its vaunted reputation.

#008 Fugazi - Repeater + 3 Songs - 1990

This is the album that pretty much set the precedent for the 90s to kick ass. I mean that quite literally, since this album was originally released the first week of January in 1990. Without question, it was an amazing album 20 years ago, and it is an equally kick ass offering today.

If you are not an Ian MacKaye fan, you do not count. As anything. Seriously, do not even bother voting, since your non-liking of MacKaye automatically negates you from public decision making. Anyway, for those that ARE fans of the mighty Ian, you do not have to say too much about this album - it is effing great. In fact, it is so far beyond effing great that neither MacKaye or Fugazi could match the greatness of Repeater ever again, and there are some folks out there that believe that this album is EVEN better than MacKaye s previous work in Minor Threat, Embrace and even the seminal 13 Songs from 1989.

Repeater is one of the best post punk albums ever, and one of the decades FEW concept albums worth half a hoot. Merging just about ever genre under the sun into a fast, aggressive, albeit still fairly melodic indictment of consumer culture, Repeater is one of the best start to finish albums of the decade, and an album that is just as impressive under its reduced parts as it is as a collective achievement.

Where to begin with this album? Do you begin with Greed, or Sieve Fisted Find, or the stand out title track? Do you begin with that awesome reggae-infused beat that combines corporatist angst with individual longing? Or do you just say who cares, pour yourself a non alcoholic beverage and just listen to this NON pretentious avant-garde masterpiece and wallow in its inherent greatness?

I would listen to your reply, but I am just too busying shoving this disc BACK into my five disc changer to hear you.

#007 Helmet - Meantime - 1992

When you listen to this album, its like taking a time machine back to the early 90s, getting a job as an office drone, and being forced to watch cable news for hours on end while you hear your neighbors getting shot to death. Assuredly, that is what Helmet MEANT you to feel with their breakthrough album Meantime, and that cold, metallic lifelessness shines through this album like a Turtle Waxed suit of armor.

Its really hard to describe what makes Helmet such a great band. Their music has been RIPPED off by just about every alt rock group since: although there are plenty of bands that try to sound mechanized through electronica, Helmet was a band that achieved that desired effect by sounding like a malfunctioning FAX machine, although the most musically fine tuned malfunctioning FAX machine in the world. Everything they did was frigid, and monotone, and efficient as an assembly line robot: through the bands amazing lyrics and fretwork, you could see sparking glimmers of humanism and cultural dismay cut through the pulsing, machinelike bleakness of the world of Meantime. Forget all of that crappy music that claimed to be industrial rock: nothing was more industrial in the 90s than THIS album.

Ultimately, it is easy to see why Helmet never capitalized on the fame of Unsung, a song that has been featured in pretty much every video game made since 2005. No matter how badly the record label wanted them to put on flannel and produce poppy ballads, they simply refused to parade themselves as caricatures or alter their grey, idiosyncratic sound. Helmet produced a very good follow up in 1994 entitled Wilma s Rainbow, and while that album did not take off the way this one did, it likewise stands as one of the decade s foremost underappreciated releases.

Whenever I think of criminally underrated bands, I always think of Helmet. Whenever I think of the 90s absolute best music, I likewise think the same. Meantime is incontestably one of the best alt rock albums of the Clinton Years, and an album that STILL sounds impressive all these years later.

#006 Faith No More - Angel Dust - 1992

So, FNM s breakthrough album The Real Thing was released in 1989. The hit song from that album was Epic, which was one of the first crossover alt-rap tracks to ever gain mainstream radio appeal in the US. So, when it came time to realize a follow up, at a time when alt rock had never been bigger, one simply assumed FNM would rehash that tried and true formula, right?

Buddy, you do not know wrong you would be. Angel Dust is one of the ballsiest , experimental albums of the early 1990s, and to this day, I wonder how in the hell FNM managed to convince their record label to release it. Of course, the reception of Angel Dust was absolutely horrendous - critics hated it for being too avant-garde, mainstream alt rock fans hated it for being too adventurous, and now, twenty years later, those same concurrent haters look back on the album is an example of retroactive genius. Hey, don t they always?

Angel Dust is an album that travels all over the place: at a time in which the idea was to produce as rhythmic a distorted tune as you could, FNM was crafting some truly esoteric songs that eschewed the refrigerator poetry lyrics in favor of songs about sleep deprivation, recreational vehicles, and partaking of that national pastime, slamming on Madonna - seriously, that s what Mid Life Crisis, the album s most revered tune, was written about.

Like I said, the album takes a lot of chances, and even now, some people have a hard time embracing the albums intentionally ersatz production and out there compositions - all you have to do is listen to the track Be Aggressive, a song with a cheerleader chorus, a Transylvanian opening and lyrics about male on male loving and you can tell that Mike Patton is some sort of insane genius. . . Or at least, a dude still trying to get the Mr. Bungle out of his system.

Medical trials, addiction to caffeine, and a concluding cover of The Commodores - it s a weird album, to be sure, but its also a damned impressive one from start to finish. Very, very few albums have such an incredibly unique, and enjoyable pacing: Angel Dust is not an album that you listen to as much as it is an out of body experience you feel through your ears.

#005 Liz Phair - Exile In Guyville - 1993

The 90s was the era of the alt rock chick. Granted, this subgenre ranged from great - see L7, Veruca Salt and the afore-mentioned Hole - to that which is really, really overrated. See PJ Harvey, Bjork and ESPECIALLY that no-talent ginger Tori Amos to see, er, hear what I mean.
Liz Phair was one of those highly touted songbirds, and unlike the abovementioned alt rock goddesses, Phair actually produced some damn good, straight up guitar rock. No overwrought songs about eating disorders and molestation and Hindu philosophy here, just good old fashioned observational rock and roll, sort of like the female inverse of Bruce Springsteen s stuff before he started sucking.

I suppose the story of 90s alt rock WASN T to bash your brains in with riffs and drums, but to express as much through minimal, almost muted sound, as possible. Exile in Guyville is really a reserved album, and its in that quaint, quasi-tranquil composition that the album comes into its own. The songs all have a certain feel to them, but they all sound different, both lyrically and structurally. For example, Stratford On Guy sounds WAY different than Shatter, but they both convey something of the same meaning. . .and undeniably, that meaning is one of the absolute best sounds to come out of the 1990s.

This song produces a weird sentiment for me. In a way, listening to Exile in Guyville is sort of like being a guy that is in his 30s looking back on his life when he was 20, and while still feeling the sting of his youth, he is ALMOST detached from it, and in that, there is this almost indescribable sense of muted longing emanating from the album. Its hard to explain with words, but as soon as you listen to the album, you will know EXACTLY what I am talking about.

There are just so many great songs on this album, and it just gels track to track. The lyrics are normalized and relatable, the guitar playing is reserved yet provocative and Phair s delivery is just about pitch perfect on every tune. Whether she s singing about being at fault for a crappy relationship or just singing about riding in an airplane, you FEEL what she s droning about. Pretty much all of the elitist music critics consider this one of the best albums of the 1990s. For once, all of those dingle berries at Rolling Stone and Spin are actually RIGHT about something.

#004 Matthew Sweet - Altered Beast - 1993

Matthew Sweet IS the single most underrated musician of the 90s. Outside of being a tremendous guitar player, the guy wrote some of the best songs I have EVER heard, and music that, more than anything else, is just out and out true to your mind, heart AND ears.

Sweet s 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend may have gotten him famous on MTV for a bit, but it was his criminally neglected follow up Altered Beast that serves as his magnum opus. Technically, the songs are tremendous, and unquestionably, Sweet is something of a laid back virtuoso whose simple, 60s influenced riffing stands out amongst the sea of distorted heroin junkies that could barely rip off Cobain without tripping over the wires to their fuzz pedals.

Altered Beast works because it s such a true album - it does not masquerade itself as something higher or mightier than a simple guitar rock album, and Sweet certainly has the ability to evoke a multitude of feelings from several different genre stylings. Whether he s blasting out some joyous surf rock or spitting out a heartbreaking southern and western tale of longing, everything the guy does just resonates with you.

Altered Beast pretty much covers the gamut as far as genres and subjects go: Dinosaur Act is a sardonic song about overcoming the plight of being in your 30s, Ugly Truth Rock is a song about smarmy disenchantment with the world around you, and The Devil with the Green Eyes is about NEVER being able to get over that one girl, no matter the fact that you should have ten years prior. This album truly covers the extremes, from songs about altruistic bliss - We re the Same - to songs about pseudo-suicidal depression - Someone to Pull The Trigger, and everything, no matter the content, simply works as both individual songs and as parts of the albums cohesive tapestry.

Altered Beast is simply an amazing album, and one that is strikingly antithetical to what everyone THINKS the 90s was about. If you grow tired of the overproduced, soulless, sound-a-like nature of whatever the radio is throwing at you, than I strongly advise giving Sweet a listen. And yes, in case you are wondering, the album IS named after the Sega Genesis title, which is reason enough for this album to make the top ten as far as I am concerned.

#003 Foo Fighters - The Colour and The Shape - 1997

This album has Everlong on it. That is reason enough for it make the list. Next!

Oh, OK, I suppose an album of this caliber deserves a more through analysis. Say what you will about Dave Grohl the person, and like Courtney Love, there are PLENTY of opinions out there, you have to give the guy major props on transitioning from Nirvana to Foo Fighters. Not only did the dude switch instruments, he created an entirely different sound, and instead of rehashing the same old same old, he actually managed to produce something that was perhaps EVEN better than the stuff he and Kurt had worked on. Yeah, I know, it is not like a give you guys fuel for dissent, huh?

This is just an expertly arranged album, as everything just flows from one song to the next. Of course, every song on the album sounds different than the one before and after it, but there is still a sort of cohesion within the mixing of the album. Even the songs on here that, on the surface, seem like throwaways - like the opening track, Doll - have a certain aesthetic power that permeates throughout the whole album. No, this is not a concept album, well, as far as I consider it, anyway, but the songs seem to tell the same story throughout, without becoming overbearing or repetitive.

This is an album that is just LOADED with top-tier, decade defining songs. Monkey Wrench, My Hero, the criminally underappreciated February Stars, Hey Johnny Park and Walking After You. . . All incredible songs, and all incredible songs that sound incredibly different while simultaneously sounding incredibly connected. Like I said, the mixing on this album is phenomenal, and the segues on here are among the most masterful I have ever heard. Listening to February Stars transition into Everlong is almost as good as listening to the songs as a whole, I say.

What else could I possibly say about this album? For my money, it was the last TRULY great alt rock album of the 1990s, and represents the end of what began with Soundgarden and Fugazi seven years before. This album, fundamentally, is the cornerstone of TRUE, post-Cobain modern-rock, and stands as one of the genre s most towering achievements. This is an album you simply HAVE to love if you are a 90s alt rock aficionado.

#002 Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream - 1993

This album could not have come out at a better time. Released right around the timing of the last studio release by Nirvana, the Pumpkins second mainstream contribution to alt rock radio served as one of the medium s most inventive, emotional and technical offerings, and proved that the genre could survive even without its purported great grandfather releasing albums.

This is really an atypical sounding album. Whereas most 90s alt rock was dedicated to getting the cleanest distortion - an oxymoron, I know - from their production team, this album simply achieved the inverse, creating some of the most beautiful, and haunting ambience of the decade.

Of course, alt rock was defined by songs about alienation, and detachment, and depression, and anti-intellectual nihilism. What made Siamese Dream so different was the fact that it reached outside of the boundaries of the genre and implemented a lot of world music sounds into the compositions, and instead of simply singing about how much being a teenager sucked, and how much the world sucked to be a teenager that sucked, the Pumpkins actually wrote songs about introspection, and personal meaning, and spirituality, and by god help us. . . Falling in love.

There is a lot of ground covered on Siamese Dream, and while none of it sounds formulaic and similar, it still manages to convey a semblance of connectivity from song to song. Whether the band is putting out technical, guitar driven sardonic alt pop like Cherub Rock or Today, or producing darker, more atmospheric ballads like Disarm or Mayonaise, every song seems expertly constructed without being overproduced or mechanically shallow. The Pumpkins never sacrifice artistry for technical excellence, and on this album, the do not sacrifice technical excellence in favor of producing adventurous, unique, experimental music, either.

This is an album that was fantastic when I first bought it back in 1995, and a good fifteen years later, I think it may actually sound EVEN better today. This is just an outstanding rock and roll album, one that manages to be pulse pounding and soothing and unusual without becoming pretentious, overtly mixed or bogged down in too much artsy fartsy experimentalism. With so many outstanding tracks, not to mention really underappreciated, unsung classics like Hummer and Rocket alongside all of those 90s standards, not only is this one of the best alt rock albums of the 90s, this is far and away one of the best albums EVER released by a mainstream record company.

And my ALL TIME favorite 90s Alt Rock Album is. . .

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#001 Weezer - Pinkerton - 1996

If you hear someone talking about how much they loved this album back in the day, you are talking to a major league pants on fire lie teller. The fact of the matter is, NOBODY bought this album when it first came out, and owning a copy of this CD made you an incredibly uncool customer.

Rolling Stone hated it. Spin hated it. MTV refused to play the videos. The public reaction to this album was so bad that it made Rivers Cuomo leave the music industry for five years. It pretty much forced Matt Sharp out of the group, and came THIS CLOSE to killing Weezer for good.

And now, EVERYBODY looks back on this album as a retroactive masterpiece. Now, of course, they SHOULD view it as the incredible, truly decades defining work that it is, but the fact is, they should have acknowledged it as so, I don t know. . . when the damn album was actually released!

Anyway, what is important here is the actual music, and this is unquestionably the best arranged CD I have ever heard. The album is about 36 minutes long, ten songs, and everything is orchestrated in a manner that never extends the nature of the music. The shortest song is a little under 2 and a half minutes, and the longest track is a little under 5. Nothing is pretentiously short, and nothing is pretentiously lengthy. Instead, you simply get a wonderfully produced, wonderfully recorded, and wonderfully performed album. THIS is the way rock and roll music SHOULD be made.

You really cannot listen to this album as anything other than a holistic recording. This is probably the only album in my collection that I simply HAVE to listen to from start to finish every time I put it on. . . the songs ARE THAT well assembled and cobbled together. Removed from the days of Buddy Holly, the songs on Pinkerton are simple, uncomplicated and startlingly authentic. There is nothing grandiose about Pinkerton, just ten songs with something of a unifying theme about sexual frustration and growing up. Apparently, the album was originally planned as a Madame Butterfly inspired space opera, so . . . yeah, do not ask.

Each song is different, yet in tune with everything else on the album. Tired of Sex is one of the most riveting opening salvos of the decade, which segues into the neo-Orbison tunes Getchoo, No Other One and Why Bother before taking a 180 with the albums literal anchor, Across the Sea, a song Cuomo wrote about a Japanese admirer. From there, the album switches into songs about false hope - The Good Life and El Scorcho, before hitting a sweetly lachrymose pivot with Pink Triangle and Falling For You before ending with the heartbreaking, acoustic reminder of lost love, Butterfly.

Simply put? This album IS perfect. I have never listened to a more well designed, well pieced together record, and fifteen years after the fact, it remains the SINGLE defining album of the 90s for me, simply because it exists in that vacuum that makes it something BEYOND a great album at a certain juncture in pop history.

Obviously, Weezer never managed to recapture the magic of this album, even though Pinkerton is long considered their single best offering to the music world. Whether or not you are a Weezer fan, hell, whether or not you are a MUSIC fan, you owe it to yourself to give this album at least ONE listen before you croak. It may not be the album of the 90s EVERYBODY remembers, but it is easily the album of the 90s that alt rock fans will NEVER forget.

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And there you have it, my humble listing of the ten 90s alt rock CDS that changed my life and all that jazz. Of course, there are plenty of other great albums from the timeframe, and I intentionally tried to avoid posting the really obvious stuff, so if you are pissed with my selections, feel free to eat a bar of soap. . . Or, uh, make your own list, I guess.

The important thing is, you at least TRY to give these tunes a listen. I cannot guarantee that you will dig them, but they are not too difficult to find. So what are you waiting for, the YouTube is calling you! Well, right after giving my article a thumbs up vote, that is. . .

James Swift is a 20-something writer, and the author of How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College, which is currently available at iuniverse.com. Hit him up on the Facebook, why don t you?
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