Ah, the 90s, a decade when the most improbable bands were topping the charts and the most left-field indie acts were courted by the majors. In some ways the underground never had it so good, yet it was inevitable that some great records would succeed while equally great ones fell through the cracks. The ten groups below don’t encompass a definitive list but represent forgotten 90s bands overdue for rediscovery.
If any band seemed set for next-big-thing status it was this trio with a unique “low rock” sound and a charismatic frontman. The perfect comeback to big-time 90s production, Morphine did it all with baritone sax, drum kit and bass; Mark Sandman even took two strings off his bass, tirelessly explaining that the two remaining strings had all the notes on them. It might not have worked if Sandman didn’t evince such impeccable cool, if his songs weren’t wise and memorable, or if the band didn’t groove so well together. Morphine were a group that the jam-band fans and alternative types could rally around. Sadly, it ended when Sandman died of a heart attack onstage in Palestrina, Italy, in July 1999, though the surviving members play today as Vapors Of Morphine.
Not all 90s bands that came out of Seattle had to do with grunge. The Posies had a thankless task, waving the flag for beautifully constructed pop songs when the world at large wanted more volume. They were, however, a beloved cult band from the start; their labelmate Aimee Mann was one of the many who declared their third album, Frosting On The Beater, a pop masterpiece. (The band is touring that album’s 25th anniversary, with the line-up that recorded it, this summer). To these ears, however, the best Posies album was the next one, Amazing Disgrace, which added their shimmering harmonies to a grungier sound and was the greatest thing Cheap Trick never did (two Cheap Trick members even guested on the album). Nobody was too surprised when frontmen Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow became half of the 90s incarnation of Big Star; Ken Stringfellow was also a longtime R.E.M. associate.
Their 1995 self-titled debut got more praise in the UK that year than anyone who wasn’t named Gallagher, but time has largely failed to remember it as the enduring classic that it is. A nonstop rush of two- and three-minute songs, Elastica found Justine Frischmann swaggering like a natural-born pop star. There were slight flaps over a couple obvious nods to Wire and The Stranglers, but both only showed Elastica’s sense of history; they had more than enough great hooks of their own.
If Seattle hadn’t stolen his thunder, New York City’s Page Hamilton might have emerged as the father of grunge. Conceived as a metal band for musos, Helmet combined sophisticated writing with the cheap thrills of high volume and maximum riffage. Hamilton was classically trained and had little use for pop crossover, though he could come up with the occasional chorus hook. Helmet’s breakthrough album, Meantime, was an inspiration to the “math rock” movement and suggested a new direction for 90s bands: louder, trickier and more brutal.
Sometimes marked as Big Star disciples, this Scottish band had a wider grasp of rock history, going back to The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, and they didn’t mind a good noise jam, either (check their parting gesture to the Matador label, a largely instrumental album called The King). But it was the pop-based Bandwagonesque album that put them on the map, thanks partly to Kurt Cobain, who twisted enough arms to get the group a spot on Saturday Night Live. They’re still going strong and adding new gems to their catalogue.
After Nirvana’s success, just about all 90s bands with an underground buzz got a major-label deal, even these guys, who’d seemed like the single least signable band in America. It happened that, just a few years after snottily naming an album Hairway To Steven, the group were in the studio with a member of Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones, who oversaw 1993’s Independent Worm Saloon. Jones felt that Paul Leary’s psychedelicised guitar leads and Gibby Haynes’ oddball charisma weren’t all that far removed from Zeppelin, and, in retrospect, he was right. Even with the band’s guttural sense of humour, the album and its follow-up, Electriclarryland, were surprisingly classic rock-friendly. If only they’d picked a name you could say on the radio.
Speaking of 90s bands who sealed their commercial fate with their choice of a name, Ass Ponys sounded like a band of oddballs from somewhere deep in the Ozarks, or someplace equally rural. In truth, they were from Cincinnati, but frontman Chuck Cleaver’s sense of dry humour was from another place altogether; call him a backwoods Randy Newman. ‘Little Bastard’, about a guy who yearns to be called “Snake”, instead of the song title, was their college-radio hit, but Cleaver’s pithiest lyric (from the same album, Electric Rock Music) was addressed to a lady with an artistic streak: “It’s a doll completely made of socks/… It’s a clothespin duck and a Funfur cat/… Earth to grandma, what the hell is that?”
One of the decade’s great one-album wonders, The Stairs were a UK trio that did everything The Strypes did two decades later, except hang out with Elton John. They revived garage, Yardbirds-style blues-rock with youthful spirit (they were all teenagers) and spiffy tunes to spare. Throw in some stoner-friendly humour (the first three tunes on their album were ‘Weed Bus’, ‘Mary Joanna’ and ‘Mr Window Pane’) and you’ve got a winner. And ,to cap it off, they recorded the whole thing in mono, also beating that revival by decades. So what went wrong? Maybe just that the title of their album Mexican R&B, with the trio pictured in bandido outfits, was a joke nobody got, riffing on The Who’s “Maximum R&B” slogan.
A two-piece band with no bass, playing primal blues-informed rock? There’s an idea that would have commercial potential, just not yet. And Royal Trux offered an unusually wild ride, initially matching Jennifer Herrema’s dark-side narratives with Neil Hagerty’s walls of distortion. Fiercely experimental at first, the duo became a more-or-less straightforward rock band after signing, and made a trilogy of albums – Thank You, Sweet Sixteen and Accelerator – that respectively put their own spin on the music of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
The Geraldine Fibbers
For R.E.M., ‘Country Feedback’ was a song title; for The Geraldine Fibbers it was a way of life. With a contralto voice that can stop you in your tracks, frontwoman Carla Bozulich could have probably been a terrific straight-ahead country singer, but she was far edgier by nature. The drama she pours into the 1995 single ‘Dragon Lady’ will either wear you out or make you a fan for life. By their 1997 album, Butch, Bozulich’s film noir lyrics had found their perfect match in guitarist Nels Cline, who got even more space to go wild than he currently does with Wilco.
Listen to other classic 90s bands on our 90s playlist here.