So much of 90s alternative rock has been forgotten, left behind to die on a pressed CD, or trapped inside an archaic MP3 player that is as worthless as a brick.
This is my running list of 90s alt-rock bands and songs that kick ass; the tunes that helped shape my soul–many of which, still get played in regular rotation all of these years later.
If you feel a ping of nostalgia or discover an old-school gem that is “new to you,” please leave a comment. And don’t forget about the 90s alternative compilation CDs that made us.
Paw – “Jessie”
Imagine a mudslide decimating your garden, but every few weeks, a beautiful flower punches through the wet soil. That’s Paw, the not-really-grunge band that delivered grey days with occasional breaks of sun. If your idea of a nutritious breakfast is eating a bowl of steel nails sprinkled with sugar, Paw is the band for you.
Despite being billed as “the next Nirvana” and despite two fantastic albums, Dragline and Death to Traitors came and went with minimal residual fanfare. Perhaps a band hailing from the heartland of Lawrence, Kansas couldn’t capture America’s obsessive Seattle heart. But with an ode to a dog (“Jessie”), the desperation of being “caught in my own trap” (“Gasoline”), and the painful truth of owning a dark heart (“I Hope I Die Tonight”), I am grateful to be one of the few who continued to be moved by Mark Hennessy’s engulfing growl and Grant Fitch’s levitating guitar work.
“Why is my heart always angryHope I Die Tonight, PAW
My heart is always filled with rain”
Suppressed notes of country twang might have confused the masses, but Paw is a band that could deliver the sludge while emoting–sorta like rubbing your stomach and patting your head–no easy task.
I can recall one other person who was a fan. Other than that, Paw has gone widely unrecognized and unheralded.
Kerosene – “My Friends”
Long before there was Poshmark and Mercari and a bunch of other digital marketplaces that made selling old clothes surprisingly easy and shockingly lucrative–there was the donation bin. For better or worse, that’s where the majority of my 90s concert T-shirts wound up. But it’s not the stained Weezer or Sebadoh shirts that I miss the most. It’s the long-sleeve maroon shirt from the band Kerosene that I wish I still had. On the back of the shirt, in big, bold letters, it proclaimed a message that resonated:
FREAK. JOKE. FAKE. ALONE.
The lyrics were from “My Friends,” and I wore the hell out of that shirt.
Kerosene never really caught on, but their album Arrhythmia was pretty good in that 90s kinda way. And lucky for you, their stuff was recently added to Spotify. It’s like a portal right back to 1993. And sorry if I sold you overpriced concert tickets back in the early 90s.
Ednaswap – “Torn”
This is just here to tell you that “Torn” by Natalie Imbruglia is a cover song.
Yup, sorry to burst your bubble.
The track was originally written and performed by Ednaswap a couple of years before the attractive young lass from Australia made it her own. I’ll never forget the program director at the radio station I worked at while in college proclaiming, “This is going to be the biggest hit ever.” Maybe not. But “Torn” did ride the Billboard charts for 44 weeks, hitting #1 in May of 1998. Natalie’s version was great–but Ednaswap’s “Torn” was even better. Gosh, I hope they are getting some serious royalties.
Face to Face – “Disconnected”
Face to Face wasn’t considered original enough to get the props they deserved in the pop-punk scene, but that hasn’t stopped Big Choice from being a go-to album for the past 25 years. It’s an album you can listen to from end to end, never failing to get the adrenaline flowing. It ends on a high note, as “Disconnected” gets its third major release. “There’s no way this song is going on the album.”
Check them out kicking ass on the Jon Stewart show back in 1995. The Ed Lover and Doctor Dre cameo is merely a bonus.🙂
Dig – “Believe”
This is it. THE song of my high school years. I was a junior and at the peak of my concert-going obsession. Dig’s self-titled album checked all the boxes, guitars, guitars, and more guitars. It was a wall of sound that I happily ran into over and over again.
When I caught a glimpse of the video for “Believe” on MTV’s Buzz Bin while shopping at Urban Outfitters in Greenwich Village, I felt like a soothsayer. “I knew these guys would make it!” Like mank 90s alternative rock bands, they’ve recently recorded some new material. I might be partial, but it’s pretty damn good!
Urge Overkill – “Sister Havana”
Everything I know about Fidel Castro I learned from Urge Overkill. OK, not true. But with unique storytelling, killer swag, and a guitar riff that will stand the test of time, “Sister Havana” always hits the spot. I recall them opening for Nirvana on the Nevermind tour and then seeing them at The Academy, where Nash Kato was kind enough to sign my ticket.
Hip Young Things – “B-Movie”
This Sub Pop entrant hailing from West Germany somehow made it into my CD collection. The album, Deflowered, was pretty good. But the opening track always left me searching for more from the band…to no avail.
I Mother Earth – “Not Quite Sonic”
Capitol and EMI, which released Dig from I Mother Earth, must have been pushing the hell out of their artist because I can still recall seeing the posters and CDs in every records store–both large and small. While this rock album took a left turn from grunge at the time, “Not Quite Sonic” resonated, delivering sharp lyrics and taut guitars.
The Wonder Stuff – “On the Ropes”
I loved this song. Like obsessively. The Wonder Stuff reminded me of my musical soulmates, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but with a more aggressive edge. I searched the Wonder Stuff’s musical catalog high and low but never found anything I connected with like “On the Ropes.”
Best know for “Dizz Knee Land,” “I just crashed my car again, now I’m going to Disneyland,” Dada were the real deal in the early 90s: songwriting, guitars and energy. But like so many bands, it just wasn’t meant to be. But I’ve never shut the light on “Dim.”
No one told me the trouble I was in“Dim,” dada
Before my life went dim
School of Fish – “3 Strange Days”
While I credit Faith No More for introducing me to the world of alternative rock (Introduce Yourself, right on!”), it was School of Fish that first made me feel a tingle in my heart. Josh Clayton Felt emoted, and through tinny 90s speakers, his drug-induced haze gave me a contact high. I loved their self-titled debut and the follow-up, Human Cannonball, too. When JCF left earth far too prematurely, I felt the loss. Such a good band.
Porno for Pyros – “Pets”
A bunch of us went for a picnic. We had a boombox tuned to the local alternative radio station. “Pets” came on. It was 1993. Uncharacteristically, I grabbed the radio, cranked the volume, placed it over my head, and danced around the park–fully embracing the freedom of youth. Goddamn, I wish I had done that more often. Pets will always be my wormhole back to an easier time that should have felt even easier.
“Children are innocentPorno for pyros, Pets
And teenagers fucked up in the head
Adults are only more fucked up
And elderlies are like children”
While I was never the biggest Jane’s Addiction or Perry Farrell fan, he was by my side for quite a few life events. And holy shit, what a band name!
Rocket From the Crypt – “Ditchdigger”
I still randomly sing, “Ditch Digger, Ditch Digger, Lend me your ears.” Why? I have no idea. But this song clearly left its mark.
Forgotten 90s Alternative Rock Honorable Mentions
Catherine Wheel – “Black Metallic”
Catherine Wheel’s“Black Metallic” is shoegaze at its best. The track is heavy and atmospheric, with ethereal vocals that drift above the dense wall of sound. It’s a perfect example of the genre’s ability to create moody, dreamlike soundscapes.
Black Market Flowers — The entire Bind album!
Kent – “747”
Seven minutes and 47 seconds of Swedish rock can’t be wrong!
Tripmaster Monkey – “Goodbye Race”
Seaweed – “Kid Candy”
Possum Dixon – “Watch The Girl Destroy Me”
“Cause I like the movies and she likes the movies.”
Skiploader – “n2o”
Album: From Can Through String
Sons of Elvis – “Formaldehyde”
The Nixons – “Sister”
Post-grunge rock band never found their place in the music world, but they did win over fans with “Sister,” a song that shows that familial love is untouched by distance.
The Connells – “Slackjawed”
Upbeat guitars, soothing vocals and band members who look like they could be your next-door neighbors; I’ve always had a soft spot for The Connells.
Athenaeum – “What I Didn’t Know”
Marvelous 3 – “You’re So Yesterday”
Gwen Mars aka Gwenmars – “Cosmic Dick”
The basslines on the Magnosheen album reminded me of Smashing Pumpkins, and during the 90s, I kept waiting for these guys to break through. But like so many good 90s bands, they simply seemed to fade away.
Smile – “Staring At The Sun”
Hat tip to Spotify’s AI for recognizing this song fit in perfectly with my listening habits. I forgot all about this 90s alt rock song, despite the fact I wore it out from 1995 – 2002.
Samiam – “Capsized”
Clumsy was such a good album. SAM-I-AM was such a sold band, with pop/punk/emo elements aggressively dancing together.
Tripping Daisy – “Piranha”
You might remember these psychedelic dudes for the catchy diddy “I Got a Girl,” but “Piranha” was a solid song, too!
Velocity Girl – “Sorry Again”
Chick-fronted, Sub Pop-rockin’, Maryland-based Velocity Girl captured an indie vibe in the early 90s that still sounds swell today.
Fossil – “Moon”
Who the heck were these guys and why did they never make it big? They made me fall in love with their music AND Josephine Baker.
I can write this post forever. Consider bookmarking it as I will be updating it as time permits. Long live 90s alternative rock!
Check out Forgotten 90s Alternative Rock Part II.
Ronney Phillips says
I lived in Okinawa, Japan 1994 – 1996, ages 18-20. Occasionally, I regret it because I missed a lot of the cultural phenomena with other folks my age. However, being separated from the radio air waves was a great opportunity to find what suited me and not the culture. It also meant I didn’t have to hear Green Day on the radio 17 times a day, so I didn’t burn out on their stuff as early as others.
Anyway, you asked for it: Salt’s album Auscultate. What an insanely great album. I still listen to it through YouTube all the time. I found their song Bluster through a compilation album that also had G Love and Special Sauce, Whale and Rollins Band (the latter is one of my all time favorites) and ended up finding a copy of their CD somewhere.
Heather Nova’s “Walk This World” comes to mind as well, although I listened to it not too long ago and….well, it brought back memories, but I didn’t think the song stood the test of time.
Found you through Reddit writing about Mother Love Bone. I’ve had Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns stuck in my head for the past few days and was reading about it.
Paw. So glad they are still recognized by someone.
Jason K. says
Finally, someone else who appreciates the vast landscape that was 90’s alternative beyond Radiohead and Pearl Jam. I was in high school in the early 90s and college in the late 90s. I never got tired of discovering new bands, and still have most of the CDs. In high school my friends and I would constantly try to find new bands to tell the others about, and in College I lived right by a used CD store where I would go and scour the bins for anything that looked remotely interesting, much of it discarded promos from the college radio station. I still tell people to listen to BMF’s “Bind” to this day. I’m constantly going down rabbit holes of bands I’ve heard 20+ years ago and mostly forgotten about, and it’s like rediscovering them. Bands like Overwhelming Colorfast, Lifter, Alice Donut……so much forgotten goodness out there.
Drew Rosen says
Overwhelming Colorfast, yaaaaaasss! Thank you!