10 Bands From the ’90s That Were Cooler Than You Think
Ah, the '90s. Two decades after the rise of alternative music, Generation X nostalgia is in full swing. These days, you can't throw an OK Cola in Anytown, U.S.A., without hitting someone in a Pearl Jam or Nirvana T-shirt. There's even an alt-rock comeback circuit -- maligned though it may be -- where everyone from grunge heavies Soundgarden and Alice in Chains to indie heroes Pavement and the Pixies have been hitting it hard in recent years. But there was much more to '90s alternative rock than grumpy guys in flannel shirts and indie hipsters not giving a f---. There were plenty of quality bands that achieved commercial success yet hardly got the respect they deserved. Here, we look at 10 bands from the '90s that were cooler than you think. (Not necessarily super cool -- just cooler than you remember.) They broke on through to the mainstream, but we don't hold that against them.
'Hey Jealousy,' indeed. The Gin Blossoms were in the studio recording their full-length debut when guitarist and chief songwriter Doug Hopkins' drinking and chronic depression became too much for his mates to handle. He was subsequently booted from the band, and nearly two years later, after the Blossoms had scored major hits with two of his songs -- 'Hey Jealousy' and 'Found Out About You' -- he tragically offed himself, unable to cope with his former group finding success with his tunes. Subsequent releases have showcased the Blossoms' underrated take on Big Star-inspired power pop, but it was those early days with Hopkins, who brought some authenticating pain and torment to a somewhat milquetoast formula, that truly stand out.
A bona fide indie band back in the era when the genre was unabashedly called progressive or college rock, BoDeans were a quartet from Waukesha, Wisc., with just one album on punk-centric Slash Records to their credit when they joined the Talking Heads' Jerry Harrison in the studio to record 'Outside Looking In,' their breakthrough disc. It spawned the rock-radio hits 'Only Love' and 'Dreams,' which BoDeans supported by opening for U2, who were then touring behind 'The Joshua Tree' and had not yet applied to be The Biggest Band in the World. Less than a decade later, BoDeans were alt-rock retreads with a pair of hits on the Adult Top 40 chart -- remember that 'Party of Five' theme 'Closer to Free?' -- but even that can't take away from their roots.
A band often considered so innocuous that they're not even worth bashing, the Goo Goo Dolls have made quite a career out of churning out polished, radio-friendly pop, albeit with enough of an edge that frontman Johnny Rzeznik was once tapped to appear in a Gap ad singing a Supertramp cover. But back in the day, the Dolls had quite the Replacements jones going on, with a bit of the Dictators and Cheap Trick thrown in for good measure (but with better hair, of course). As if peppering their early albums with rifftastic power-punk gems like 'Just the Way You Are' and 'There You Are' wasn't enough, the Dolls snagged Paul Westerberg to contribute lyrics to 'SuperstarCarWash' centerpiece 'We Are the Normal.' It's been more than a decade since they last landed a hit on the alt-rock charts, but the Dolls still play the old stuff live -- once in awhile, maybe.
As the son of Bob, Jakob Dylan had it rough from the start. Few musicians in the history of the world can hold a candle to the quintessential folk-rock icon, so forget holding a blood relative to such impossible standards. Nonetheless, reluctant frontman Jakob and his backing band the Wallflowers went against the odds and turned out a totally respectable debut album, 'Bringing Down the Horse.' (Go back and listen to it -- it's worth revisiting.) But it was their follow-up, '(Breach),' which upped the ante with a biting aggression and bolder tone, that's the real keeper in their catalog. (Even dad would be proud!) Also worth noting is their recent comeback disc, 'Glad All Over,' which gets a serious cool-quotient boost from Clash guitarist Mick Jones' guest spot on lead single 'Reboot the Mission.'
There was always more to Soul Asylum than Dave Pirner's nappy dreads and brief fling with Winona Ryder and the band's smash crossover hit, the grunge-goes-acoustic 'Runaway Train.' In fact, the Minneapolis-based band released three excellent but mostly ignored albums on local indie Twin/Tone Records (and another two flops on the major A&M) before signing with Columbia and striking platinum with 'Grave Dancers Union.' Sure, 'Runaway Train' was an obvious tune with inane lyrics ("So many secrets I couldn't keep / Promised myself I wouldn't weep / One more promise I couldn't keep"), but one major misstep, no matter how overexposed it was, does not a band ruin. And by bringing on ex-Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and former Prince drummer Michael Bland in the '00s, maybe all is forgiven (or at least forgotten?).
Arriving on the scene during the mid-'90s swing revival, the Squirrel Nut Zippers rode the coattails of their crossover hit 'Hell' all the way to the bank. Though they played a weird hot jazz at a time when big-band swing and jump blues were en vogue, their old-timey vibe and brassy sound were close enough to get them lumped in with the trendy hep cats of the day. (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy playing the halftime show of the Super Bowl, anyone?). Swing, gypsy jazz, Delta blues, calypso, klezmer: Really, what's the difference? It all predated rock 'n' roll -- and those sharp tuxedos certainly didn't hurt the cause, either.
Speaking of ska, the genre's so-called "third wave" sound rose from the early-'90s underground to reach mainstream saturation by the middle of the decade, with the major labels swooping in and signing any band with walking bass lines and accented upbeats -- or, if nothing else, a shiny horn section. But the Boston-based Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who had strong ties to the local hardcore scene and had been playing what they dubbed "ska-core" for more than a decade, were no Johnny-come-latelies; when they signed with Mercury Records in 1993, they were perhaps one of the more authentic -- or at least most earnest -- bands on the scene. In other words, they actually deserved the success that hits like 'Someday I Suppose' and 'The Impression That I Get' finally got them.
Formed in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1989, the Toadies benefited from impeccable timing. The band got its Pixies-meets-Nirvana chops together and released a self-financed EP just as alt-rock was breaking. They signed with Interscope and jumped in the studio with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf -- who had just hit big with Beck's 'Mellow Gold' -- in time to release their debut, 'Rubberneck,' as alternative peaked in 1994. Two years and a handful of singles later, the Toadies had a platinum record on the wall and were a major live draw. Despite the success, they're still mainly remembered for their breakthrough single, 'Possum Kingdom,' a curve ball of a hit (in 7/8 time, no less) that -- how should we put this? -- didn't exactly showcase the band's strongest lyrical efforts to date. But deeper digs into their catalog certainly yield rewards.
It's not easy being Art Alexakis. Although he crafted the irresistible hooks behind a string of alt-rock hits, the Everclear mastermind never got the respect lavished upon his Pacific Northwest peers. Everclear wasn't in with the genre dubbed grunge that was en vogue when his band first hit -- their pop sensibilities were too developed to fit the mold -- but Alexakis spent the mid-to-late '90s churning out modern-rock gems like 'Father of Mine,' 'Everything to Everyone' and the slow-building 'Santa Monica,' which rode heavy rotation on MTV to the top of the rock charts. But despite (or perhaps because of) their success, Everclear were unfairly shunned in the band's home port of Portland and beyond, and by 2005, Alexakis' longtime mates had quit the band, his second wife had left him and he had declared bankruptcy. Those troubles fueled this year's 'Invisible Stars' album, another worthy addition to the Everclear canon, despite its obvious slant of casting Alexakis as unlikely survivor.
Island Records had the best of intentions when selling Tripping Daisy as a Texas-fried version of Jane's Addiction, but Daisy singer Tim DeLaughter was never quite weird enough to pull it off. Not that this was a shortcoming -- few people are as out there as Perry Farrell, nor should they be -- but Tripping Daisy would've been better served by just being Tripping Daisy, a band whose power-pop assault had just enough of an offbeat psych vibe to qualify as alternative rock at a time when it wasn't quite clear what the genre offered an alternative to. It's unfortunate that the quirky novelty hit 'I Got a Girl' was their only song to find its way to the charts, because their major-label debut, 1995's 'I Am an Elastic Firecracker,' had much to offer. But if nothing else, the band's inevitable breakup a few years later was an economic boon for their hometown of Dallas, which saw the gainful employment of dozens of local musicians thanks to DeLaughter's sprawling post-Daisy collective, the Polyphonic Spree.