8 Underrated Bands of the '90s
Cover photo: Failure via punktastic.com
The world of alternative rock was undergoing an evolution in the '90s. Bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden were finding massive mainstream success, selling millions of records and attracting attention worldwide, owing a massive debt to outlets such as MTV. While there's no doubt that the huge bands in the grunge scene were rightfully praised, it was easy for other excellent bands to become lost in the wave, not garnering as much attention as they deserved. Here's a list of just a few of the many bands whose music you may have never heard that you should turn your ears to.
Los Angeles cult rock band Failure had a lot of comparisons thrown at them in the '90s to Nirvana. While there may be some similarities in frontman Ken Andrews' grungy voice to that of Cobain, Failure elevated the grunge tropes with monolithic guitar tones, filling space with their use of effects and signal processing. Failure's landmark 1996 release Fantastic Planet is a supremely underrated touchstone of '90s rock music, weaving a conceptual space-rock odyssey with somber and self-reflective lyrical content. Their subsequent breakup was unfortunate, but thankfully that was nullified with their reunion in 2014 and the release of a new album in 2015, the excellent The Heart Is a Monster.
Many bands in the wake of Nirvana's success were unfairly labeled as "grunge", and Dallas, Texas-based Tripping Daisy were no exception. Their music was far more in the vein of psychedelic rock, however, more similar to a band like The Flaming Lips' early work. Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb is arguably the band's finest work, melding catchy power pop with a noisy kaleidoscope of colorful rock textures. With their very recent reunion, expect to hear more from them soon.
San Francisco-based power-poppers Jellyfish had a short-lived career in the early '90s. Taking heavy influence from the music of Queen, their gaudy and hyper-catchy songs took a lot of strange twists and turns song structure wise, with singer Andy Sturmer's often childlike vocals giving the band a sense of quirk and playfulness. Spilt Milk is Jellyfish's masterpiece, emphasizing their knack for huge rock production and bizarre songwriting that would serve as a precursor to future bands like Foxygen and Foxy Shazam.
Hailing from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Morphine had an incredibly unique sound that remains unparalleled to this day. They combined soft rock tendencies with a jazzy approach, accentuated by frontman Mark Sandman's smoky voice. Slow and murky basslines from Mark's unusual 2-string style combined with a prominent saxophone gave Morphine a cool and mysterious vibe. The band's career came to an untimely end with the death of Sandman in 1999, but their underground legacy continues to live on to the present day. A documentary on their career entitled Morphine: Journey of Dreams was released in 2014.
Not much is known about San Jose space-rockers Duster, but the release of Stratosphere in 1998 has sort of an underground legend to it that has only increased with time. It's spacey indie rock at some of its slowest and most methodical, with the mellow, warm guitar tones giving an entrancing feeling of mystery and lethargy. The band broke up in 2001 after the release of Contemporary Movement, but as their strange legacy continues to grow you shouldn't be surprised to hear from them again in the future.
Shoegazers Starflyer 59 have a prominent and cryptic spiritual theme underpinning their music, a theme that has often labeled them as "Christian rock." The somber and heavy 1995 release Gold is a wonderful guitar-oriented album, with walls of sound giving way to passionate angst from frontman Jason Martin. Starflyer 59's shoegaze-inspired sound of the 90s may have been abandoned over the years in favor of a more standard indie rock approach, but the powerful, distorted, and riff-heavy work of their early years still sounds great in modern times.
When My Bloody Valentine released Loveless in 1991, it signaled a sea change in alternative rock. A slew of bands came after that relished in the distorted guitar textures and walls of sound that would be known as "shoegaze." Many of them just seemed like direct copies of Loveless, but Boston-based Swirlies took that sound and really made it their own. Their landmark 1996 album They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days... featured hypnotic riffs melded with swirling synthesizers. The blissful wonder of songs like "Pony" and "Two Girls Kissing" echo bands like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, yet Swirlies managed to find a singularity in the dissonant riffs and heavenly guitar tones that rank them among one of the best bands to come out of the shoegaze scene.
The Afghan Whigs
Cincinnati band The Afghan Whigs is arguably the most well-regarded band on this list in the indie world, but they never seemed to make as big a wave in the '90s mainstream as they should have. Singer Greg Dulli's voice is dripping with style and soul, and the energetic, grungy 1993 album Gentlemen rivals that of some of Nirvana's best work. The moody atmosphere of releases like Black Love and 1965 were made better by Dulli's straight R&B and soul influence, and the romantic slickness of their music catapulted The Afghan Whigs high over many of their contemporaries. While they split up in 2001, they would later reunite in 2011, releasing the overlooked Due to the Beast in 2014, and the recent In Spades in 2017.