Top 10 Best Alternative Rock Bands of the 90s

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The 1990s was the decade that returned the music world to the era of heavy guitar licks and angst-driven music. The recession that closed in on the global economy early in the decade filtered into the new music scene and the bubble pop and big hair bands of the 80s slowly made way for music that was, lets say, less optimistic. This new music wave flowed west from Seattle and settled in over a good portion of the Western world, paving the way for the new bands of the 21st century.

10. Blind Melon


Though the original members of Blind Melon actually began playing together in 1989, it wasn’t until 1991 that the band signed with Capitol Records and began recording their self-titled debut album. Even before the release of that album there was a whispering in the music world of a new, exciting band to excite music fans based entirely on lead singer Shannon Hoon’s connection to Guns N’ Roses, with whom he sang back up vocals in ’91. Blind Melon’s first album held 13 tracks that spread all over the musical palate. The pounding guitars on tracks such as Soak the Sin and Tones of Home, were heavily influenced be the heavy metal sounds of earlier years, yet other tracks carried an almost psychedelic sound bringing the late 60s a few decades ahead. It was in 1993 that Blind Melon truly caught fire with the release of the single No Rain. Its melancholy lyrics and melodic tempo resonated with fans all over the world and the album went on to go platinum four times over. Yet as success hit, Moon’s regular drug abuse spiralled out of control, disrupting tours and threatening the continuation of the band. However, in 1994 the second album, Soup, got underway and many of the songs, most notably St. Andrew’s Fall, which spoke of suicide, seemed to hark to the desperate cries of Moon and many others of the era. In 1995 while on tour supporting the second album, Moon was found dead on his tour bus from a cocaine overdose. Though another album was eventually released and garnered much attention, the band would never again reach the heights they saw in the early days and in 1999, the band members officially went their separate ways, leaving behind a solid legacy on the decade.

9. Nine Inch Nails


The influence of Trent Reznor throughout the 90s and beyond is undeniable. He is the sole member of Nine Inch Nails and the man entirely responsible for the direction of the music, and while the sounds of his music straddle the line between alternative rock and Industrial Electronica, the status of the band in the Alternative Genre is solid. Formed in Cleveland in 1988, Nine Inch Nails began as the darling of the underground music scene but by the early 90s, its distinct music caught widespread attention. 1994s Downward Spiral was the band’s most influential album, with songs like March of the Pigs, Closer, and Hurt, which was later covered by none other than Johnny Cash. Time magazine in 1997 placed Reznor among the list of the year’s most influential people and by 2004, following the great success of Nine Inch Nails in the previous decade and the continuing hold Reznor had on the music industry, Rolling Stone placed Reznor on the list of its top 100 greatest artists of all time.

8. Alice In Chains


Alice in Chains was spawned out of the great Seattle music movement of the late 80s that caught widespread attention as grunge moved mainstream in the early 90s. The band’s heavy metal-inspired guitar riffs blended with calmer, acoustic sounds and the meshing of harmonies between vocalist Layne Stanley and guitarist, Jerry Cantrell are unmatched in any band formed to date. Two of the band’s three studio albums, Jar of Flies and Alice in Chains went Number 1 on Billboard’s Top 200 list and the band had 11 top ten singles and six grammy nominations. Arguably one of the greatest albums the band put out was a live and unplugged recording of an MTV concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1996. To this day, the album remains one of the greatest unplugged live recordings by any rock band and the album proved once again that the range of music produced by Alice in Chains was limitless. As with many great bands of the era and despite its success, Alice in Chains was plagued by substance abuse throughout the decade and in 2002, Layne Stanley lost his battle with addiction.

7. Tool


Formed in 1990, Tool has consistently pushed the boundaries of art and music reaching a pinnacle at the top of the new rock movement with the 1996 release of Aenima. The band has continually evolved with each of its albums in its quest to mesh visual art with music and its live shows are arguably some of the most intriguing spectacles of entertainment, mixing entrancing lyrics from front man, Maynard James Keenan, with heavy guitar and the mesmerizing beats of drummer, Danny Carey. In its early days after the release of its first compilation, Opiate, the band proved ts willingness to push the envelope with its video for Hush, which tackled the Parents Music Resource Centre head on by displaying all band members prominently naked with Parental Advisory Stickers covering their most discreet body parts. The following album, Undertow, propelled the band even farther into the spotlight with hits like Sober, dealing with substance abuse, and Prison Sex, which dealt with controversial themes of child abuse and was removed from MTV’s playlist being deemed “too graphic.” Throughout the 90s, Tool rode a wave of support from devoted fans and that success has carried on to this day proving it is truly one of the greatest alternative rock bands to come out of the 1990s.

6. Radiohead


Though this list seems to deal mainly with bands out of the United States, there was also a wide range of alternative music that rose from across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, and no top ten list would be complete without giving credit to this British influence. During the 1990s, Radiohead fit this bill. This band, led by vocalist Thom Yorke, has been called one of the hardest working rock bands in the world. Their first single, Creep, was released in 1992, but it wasn’t until well after the 1993 release of its debut album, Pablo Honey, that it would catch on with international music fans and become and unfiltered success. Radiohead followed this momentum with the release of The Bends in 1995 and the band toured relentlessly to support the album, garnering much deserved attention and by the time OK Computer was released in 1997, Radiohead had positioned itself firmly as one of the top international bands of the decade. The eerie mix of Yorke’s voice combined with layers upon layers of guitars, piano and electric melodies and became a signature sound that has inspired a number of bands to follow, though none have compared. In 2000, Kid A was released followed by Amnesiac a year later and the experimental sounds of both of these albums prove that in the decade before, Radiohead had earned the right to challenge the limits of its musical power.

5. Soundgarden


Actually formed in 1984 in Seattle, Soundgarden didn’t reach a widespread audience until the emergence of the grunge movement from the west coast in the early 90s. When it did hit the charts, however, it was one of the great leaders in the charge of alternative rock, led by the unmistakable voice of front man Chris Cornell.Though it didn’t achieve initial success as the first “grunge” band to sign to a major label, Soundgarden did become one of the greats with the release of 1994′s Superunknown, which launched at number one on the billboard charts and produced two grammy award-winning singles, Spoonman and Black Hole Sun. Despite the fact that Soundgarden never made it through the 1990s in tact, breaking up in 1997, there is no question that as one of the first bands to bring attention to the Seattle sound, their impact was immense. Their estimated 20 million albums sold worldwide is a testament to that fact.

4. Stone Temple Pilots


STP (Stone Temple Pilots) front man Scott Weiland is probably one of the most colourful and provocative rock musicians to emerge out of the music scene of the 1990s. Like many of the successful musicians of that decade and many before, he struggled constantly with the burdens of drug addiction and lawlessness. Despite these troubles, the band defied critics with their 1992 album Core and became an almost instant legend when the album reached platinum status 8 times. Songs off that album, such as Plush, Dead and Bloated, Sex Type Thing, and Wicked Garden, are practically icons of the era and they helped establish the band as one of the United States’ great contributions to the international rock scene. It’s estimated that STP has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and though they eventually broke up in 2003, they recently reunited to tour again, much to the delight of a devoted fan base that feared the opportunity to see the band perform would never happen. Weiland remains an intriguing figure who, despite his numerous brushes with death while feeding his addictions, stands today as the lead in a band whose music carried a generation.

3. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers

By the time the Chili Peppers entered the mainstream with the release of Mother’s Milk in 1989 they had already released three previous albums. The band was formed in L.A. in 1983 but it would take nearly a decade before their funk/rock influenced style would propel the band to super star status. Mother’s Milk garnered serious attention in the music world but it was the release of Blood, Sugar, Sex Magik in 1991 that proved this band was destined to be one of the most popular bands in modern history. The single Give it Away from that album gave the band its first grammy and Under the Bridge is one of the most recognizable songs to come out of the decade. As seems to be the theme of this list, success had its dues to pay and they often came in the form of addiction. With the Chili Peppers, substance abuse helps explain why the band’s history holds the names of 9 former members, though amazingly enough, the original members of the band are the current members. In 1999, the band released its 7th album after reuniting with founding member, John Frusciante, who’d left the band years before to battle his addiction to heroin. The triumphant Californication, was an immediate success and went on to sell more than 15 million copies world wide and solidified the Red Hot Chili Peppers as capable of achieving almost unlimited success.

2. Nirvana


When Nirvana released its second album Nevermind in 1991 with its first single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, the band officially exploded into the mainstream and gave a voice and a face to the grunge aspect of the alternative rock world. Front man Kurt Cobain became the media’s example of the new generation – angry and lost in a world of uncertainty. Cobain was never comfortable as this poster child though he had little choice. By late 1991, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week – massive numbers that proved an insatiable appetite existed among music fans for the songs of this new music trend. Their third album, In Utero, debuted in 1993 at the top of the billboard charts and while its success was guaranteed, its release would also mark the beginning of the sad end for the band. Cobain was a hopelessly depressed heroin addict with numerous substance abuse problems and despite marriage, the birth of a daughter and overwhelming success, he escaped from a rehab centre in April, 1994 and was found dead a week later, apparently the result of a suicide gunshot to the head. The band’s short-lived time together in the early 1990s created a sound and a place in history among the greatest bands of the decade. To date, Nirvana has sold an estimated 50 million records worldwide.

1. Pearl Jam


One of the pioneers of the grunge music scene to come out of Seattle, Pearl Jam formed in 1990 and was an immediate success with the release of its debut album, Ten, in 1991. Despite being criticized early on as “cashing in” on the alternative rock movement, Pearl Jam has proved its willingness to move the other way from conformity by boycotting ticketmaster or refusing to make videos, despite the pleas of the powers-that-be at the record labels. Ten wasn’t an instant success but after remaining on the billboard charts for nearly two years it became a fixture in the rock world and has gone platinum 12 times over. The songs on that debut album told powerful stories through the crooning and wailing of front man, Eddie Vedder, who is blessed with one of the most distinct voices in musical history. The song Jeremy stands out among the band’s many hits as one of the most important tales of sorrow ever told, describing an incident based on fact where a young boy shot himself in front of his class mates in school. Pearl Jam’s songs told stories of a harsh reality and in the 1990s, these tales caught the overwhelming attention of a huge audience. Success was hard on the band, though, and early on they challenged their success at every corner. After the video for Jeremy won four MTV awards, the band refused to make any more, opting to be remembered for their music and not their videos. Their second album Versus, sold nearly a million copies in its first week of sales in 1993 and the band went through the 1990s at the top of the rock world where they remain to this day, with more than 60 million records sold to date.