10 underrated rock bands of the 90s
The 80s began a trend of indie rock bands finding their footing, with REM and Sonic Youth both enjoying some success after initially gaining critical acclaim. But the pattern of indie rock bands becoming truly recognized didn’t solidify until the early 90s, with the grunge movement and other eccentric bands like Pavement. No matter how many independent bands have achieved success, there will always be exceptions to the rule – bands that are nearly, if not as good, that have been left behind. Here’s a list of ’90s rock bands that never quite achieved the success they deserved, although many were incredibly influential.
Palm Desert’s Kyuss were one of the few bands to help establish “desert rock” or “stoner rock” as its own genre. Although mostly comprised of glorified, instrument-focused jam sessions, Kyuss’ first two albums are punchy, grimy, and dark. Wretched (1991) and Blues for the red sun (1992) are aggressive yet complex, sometimes masquerading as much heavier, metal-inspired mathematical rock. Their two subsequent records, Welcome to Sky Valley (1994) and …and the circus leaves town (1995) are both more complete records, reminiscent of member Josh Homme’s future with Queens of the Stone Age. But either way, their instrumental expertise is exceptional, especially for anyone who likes heavier, grungier music.
Sloan is an incredibly rare example of a band that has been together, in its entirety, for thirty years now. The band of Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson and Andrew Scott have been making music in the same band, of the same name, since 1991, and the level of consistency they still exhibit today is surprising to say the least. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that they all write and sing songs for the band. The band primarily features a smooth, indie rock sound (with the exception of their shoegazey debut, Coated (1992)) associated with a composition that is both transparent and positive. They like to crack funny jokes and sometimes break the fourth wall – “Underwhelmed” never fails to put a smile on my face. But despite two or three decent-sized hits in Canada, they’re never discussed. Their first five albums in the 90s are certainly their best, but even twelve albums they create fun music that is more than respectable.
3. Plum tree
Most people probably recognize the name Plumtree, either from the t-shirt that Scott Pilgrim wears in the movie, or from the fact that their song – “Scott Pilgrim” – literally inspired Bryan Lee O’Malley to write the graphic novel. Either way, their value outweighs this fun pop culture fact. In a genre filled with young men (at least at the time), Plumtree is a breath of fresh air, bringing a variety of female perspectives to the table. Mass fainting in teenage girls (1995) is a quaint and fun look at youthful frustrations, lashing out at more mature morals and telling tales of boring everyday life in songs like “In the Sink”. Predicts the future (1997) is a more refined and mature approach to similar topics. And while This day won’t last at all (2000) is nowhere near as good as the other two, it’s still a solid release to end a trio of quality records. Plumtree’s brilliant sound is incredibly youthful, and their songwriting is surprisingly good – apparently so good they’ve spawned a slew of now-classic media.
4. Don Caballero
Don Caballero entered the math rock scene right after it was created by bands like Slint. And after taking the reins of the genre, they expanded it, especially in the field of percussion. The jazzy, ten-minute jams are conducted entirely by drummer genius, Damon Che, but still replicate the beautiful guitar tapping of their predecessors. Their early albums are actually quite fast, hard and sound much more lo-fi and amateurish. But with the issues ironed out, they released two classics not just of the genre, but of the music itself. What burns never comes back (1998) and American gift (2000) are both arguably in the top ten math rock records of all time, with some of the most magnificent and breathtaking instrumental sections ever recorded. Yet, they are almost at the bottom of this list in terms of monthly Spotify listeners.
It’s surprising – and a bit disappointing – for Sebadoh to make it onto this list, but despite their crazy influence on the indie rock genre, bands like Nirvana and Pavement have eclipsed them due to their best record release. Sebadoh III (1991) is as classic as it gets, helping to flourish the indie rock genre through teenage tales and relatable ignorance. Lines like “I’m self-righteous and rude” are confident, yet self-aware, which is a lot of what the record is about. It also combines an adorable, fun, folksy sound with distorted hardcore guitar sounds, similar to some of what’s on Tilted and enchanted (1992), but with a more innate juxtaposition. Apart from this release, however, the band went on to create several great records. bubble and scrape (1993) was Eric Gaffney’s last record with the band, but he clings to most of what made III awesome, just with much smoother production and a bit more melodic cuts. And after they broke up in 1999, they came back and made two records since 2013, the last of which is pretty good.
6. Eric’s Journey
Named after the Sonic Youth song of the same name, Eric’s Trip actually brushed off some of their lo-fi Sebadoh sound, as both bands were signed to Sub Pop records. But their focus leaned heavily on melodic, lyrical ballads rather than pure indie rock. Their first album, Love Tara (1993), is the perfect break-up record, swinging between raw, acoustic, soulful love songs, and fast, loud, aggressive punk – or sometimes exploring both sounds in the same song. The passion then dissipates in the final track, “Allergic To Love”. For all time (1994) is then a perfect continuation, tightening the writing of the songs to diversify it. And their last complete project, purple blue (1996), favors longer, atmospheric tracks with an experimental song progression – much like their inspiration, Sonic Youth, at times. When asked to describe their sound, one of the band members, Mark Gaudet, said they play “dreamy punk”, and that’s probably as accurate as it gets, but either way, it’s damn good.
In a genre like math rock or post-hardcore, minimalism isn’t very prevalent, as both rely on insane instrumentals and complex beats, much like progressive rock. But Shellac takes a minimalist approach to the genre, as if it were something as simple as punk. Instead, they push repetition alongside anomalous key signatures to provide a facade of that basic complexity. Steeped in hatred of the music industry, much of what drives them to opt for these unconventional, punk sound qualities is due to their desire to make it different, fun and anti-mainstream. The band prefers to play in small venues, and much of their music is even referred to as “amelodic”. Nevertheless, all of their records (with the possible exception of Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007)) are remarkable with unique takes on the genre.
Connected to the aforementioned Sloan, Jale is another band from Halifax, Nova Scotia – and apparently guitarist Jennifer Pierce sang backup vocals on Sloan’s Coated. They represent a lot of the sounds and ideas already touched on in this list, but as a mesh of them all. This is another band full of women like Plumtree and their lo-fi, hard guitars are also very similar to the instrumentation of Eric’s Trip. But the two come together in an indie rock take on shoegaze and grunge. Extended and robust guitar chords support very happy vocals on songs like “To By Your Friend” and “Again”. The introduction to dream cake (1994), “Not Happy”, is almost a Hole song, but with a much prettier and welcoming vocal performance. so hurt (1996) stripped away much of their lo-fi plot, but is still full of gorgeous, catchy cuts like “Ali” and “Despite.”
Now the third representative of math rock on this list, Polvo from North Carolina also appeared in the early 90s, during the rush of bands like Slint. Their difference, however, is their wall of guitars – and very offbeat uses of the instrument – as well as much more melodic tracks. Today’s active lifestyles (1993) is much brighter and more bouncy than anything from Slint, Don Caballero or Shellac. Tracks like “Time Isn’t on My Side” even use weird electronic beeps and filtered guitar slides, which I imagine at least partially inspired Hella to bring similar tools a decade later. Another innovative and distinctive detail is their oriental influences, even naming a song “My Kimono” and featuring Asian-inspired art on Exploded drawing (1996). Polvo’s recognizable, loud, guitar-driven music is one of a kind and must be listened to by guitarists everywhere.
Rooted in old ’60s influences, The Inbreds’ music is akin to the music of the early Beatles and the Beach Boys, with a ’90s indie twist. Consisting of just two members, Mike O’Neill and Dave Ullrich, their music is simplistic, focusing on a single set of drums and bass, with an occasional guitar. Their sound is also very raw and sounds like your local college indie band, which brings an inherent charm to their music and has naturally brought them an insane amount of college radio play in Canada in particular. Yet the talented duo only lasted four albums and six years before a breakup in 1998. Their music remains as innocent and unassuming as ever, and are one of the select few bands that can appeal to both the rock obsessed 60s and grungy rock.