5 Forgotten Alt-Rock Debuts Ripe for Rediscovery
If you could sum up the period between the late 1980s and early 1990s with a fake movie title, it would be ‘How We Learned to Stop Worrying About Hair Metal and Love Grunge.’ Nirvana had a lot to do with this, but they don’t deserve all the credit. Props also go to the A&R guys that helped sign bands of all shapes, sizes and sounds to the big and small labels, and we can’t forget the good folks at the forefront of the DIY/college-radio movement, which, for years, had been gathering arms for its own revolution.
During this late-’80s/early-’90s onslaught of great alt-rock music, many albums launched on strong lead singles failed to gain traction with their follow-ups, and before long, they wound up buried deep in the bargain-bin depths of the local Strawberries or Tower Records. Others got lost in the shuffle completely. That is, until now. Here, we look at 5 Forgotten Alt-Rock Debuts Ripe for Discovery — albums we feel should be pulled from the time capsule and put back on the stereo.
Ben Lee – ‘Grandpaw Would’ (1995)
This super-duper lo-fi acoustic album shows tremendous promise from the then-barely pubescent singer-songwriter. The album was produced by Brad Wood, who may be best known for, er, manning the board for Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville,’ itself a strong debut. ‘Grandpaw’ was released on the Beastie Boys‘ now-defunct imprint Grand Royal Records, and it features 18 tracks of acoust-o-pop from the masturbatory mind of a teenage guy, including the radio-friendly ‘Away With the Pixies,’ featuring Phair on backing vocals. Dig deep for ‘The Loft,’ which pinches a misheard Lemonheads lyric (“kinda shoulda sought her,” instead of “kinda shoulda sorta”). ‘Grandpaw’ is soo begging for reissue.
Blake Babies – ‘Nicely, Nicely’ (1987)
The Babies were part of the great indie rock scene that exploded in Boston in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Ever heard of a little band called Pixies? ‘Nicely’ predates the ‘Singles’ soundtrack sound and what would become a major ’90s theme: kickass female lead singers fronting alt-rock bands (Belly, 4 Non Blondes, etc.). Remember Juliana Hatfield, of ‘My Sister’ semi-fame? That’s her on lead vocals. And of course, Boston-based friends-of-the-band the Lemonheads make a cameo via lead singer Evan Dando on ‘Better’n You.’ You’ll have to buy this album on CD (remember those?), ’cause it ain’t on Spotify.
Eels – ‘Beautiful Freak’ (1996)
Eels are a weird band, for sure. Lead singer and songwriter Mark Oliver Everett (better known as just ‘E’) is a mad genius, and each of his songs a latticework of samples, found sounds and thrift-store instruments. (Think Beck, but less rappy and more depressed.) Even odder may be the success of ‘Freak’ nuggets like ‘Novocaine for the Soul,’ which got some MTV spins (remember the video featuring the band floating?), and ‘Lucky Day in Hell,’ which made it onto the ‘Scream 2’ soundtrack. ‘Rags to Rags’ is garage-rock goodness and should’ve been a single; ‘Manchild’ is a ballad that rivals R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’ on the cry-o-meter.
Supergrass – ‘I Should Coco’ (1995)
Oxford, England-based Supergrass launched their career on this album, whose title, in cockney dialect, is slang for “I should think so.” It’s generally remembered here in the States for its lone radio hit, ‘Alright,’ featured in the essential ’90s movie ‘Clueless.’ The album missed the U.S. charts, but it hit No. 1 across the Atlantic, and the young band would go on to put out a string of U.K. hits. Strains of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles and the Stooges all bleed through. Lead singer Gaz Coombes has one of the better howls of the era (there’s something satisfyingly androgynous about it), and his guitar work is ridiculously underrated (and plastered all over the album). Instead of revisiting the obvious, take a gander at ‘Lenny’ and ‘Lose It.’
Teenage Fanclub – ‘Bandwagonesque’ (1991)
This Scottish band’s debut album may have spawned a Modern Rock charter (‘The Concept’ reached No. 12), but it unquestionably had the most strenuous uphill battle of all of these albums, having been released by DGC the same year labelmate Nirvana dropped its massive ‘Nevermind.’ The album, whose songwriters favor rock’s B’s — the Beatles, Beach Boys, Byrds, and Big Star — is a master class in feedback, chunky riffage, and the fine art of the multi-part harmony. Start with ‘Alcoholiday,’ then fan out. You will not be let down.