A few weeks ago, I offered my thoughts on the complicated and extremely non-specific genre known simply as “alternative.” Survey most experts, music critics, or anyone who has listened to the radio in the last 20 years on what they would consider “alternative,” and you may get a different answer, but they’re likely all thinking the same thing. It’s a bit like pornography: you know it when you see it. But the funny thing about “alternative” is that it pretty much encompasses anything that’s rooted in indie rock, but isn’t exclusively independent.
With this in mind, it seems almost futile to base one of our 90 Minute genre guides on something so broad. But it gets a little easier when you take away one subgenre at a time. No shoegazer. No post-hardcore. No dream pop. No punk. No post-punk. No Britpop. And only a minimal amount of grunge. From there, it gets easier. But then comes the inevitable quest of slogging through the muck to highlight only the most interesting or enduring “alternative” music, rather than the forgettable knock-offs or just plain awful acts that somehow rose to fame or notoriety. In other words, there’s no Incubus here. However, we also had to cut a ton of other bands that arguably deserved a place on this genre guide, including Faith No More, Ben Folds Five, Soundgarden, Garbage, The Breeders, Beck, Grant Lee Buffalo, Björk, and a ton of others.
But what’s here is essential.
Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock”
As alternative rock songs go, few are as iconic as the opening track from Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. Frankly, it’s in a class that only tracks like “Black Hole Sun” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come close to in terms of magnitude and power. There’s so much distortion, so many layers, such an intense wall of sound, it’s almost too mighty a production to be anything other than a classic rock song, and in a sense, that’s what Billy Corgan was going for. Poking fun at the insular world of indie rockers while schooling commercial rockers with an anthem that seemed as timeless as it was timely. After seventeen years, this song still sounds amazing.
R.E.M. – “Radio Free Europe”
R.E.M. was one of the first bands I explicitly remember being called “alternative,” and in the ’80s, they were underground heroes. Certainly, they would become absolutely huge a decade later, with hits like “Losing My Religion” and “Everybody Hurts” becoming MTV staples and crossing over to pop radio rather than just the limited space on the left side of the dial. But in the early days, they were jangly post-punk rockers, equal parts Byrds and Pylon, led by the shaggy haired mumblings of Michael Stipe. To this day, I couldn’t tell you 100 percent what the words to this incredible song are, but heck, they sure sound good.
The Smiths – “What Difference Does It Make?”
This is arguably a song better saved for starting off a Britpop 90 Minute Guide (and who’s to say we won’t do that?), but one can’t really accurately represent a historical sampling of the best moments in “alternative” without some Smiths. One of the best things to happen to guitar-based music, The Smiths combined gallows humor with genuine emotion, and jagged riffs with gorgeous melodies. For that matter, you can’t listen to any of the obligatory Memorial Day Top 500 countdowns that many stations hold without hearing at least six or seven Smiths classics (“How Soon Is Now?” topped a local station’s for years). “What Difference Does It Make?” isn’t their most famous song, but it is a prime example of what the band did so brilliantly, combining Morrissey’s charismatic delivery with Marr’s superhuman fretwork. And let’s not forget, without The Smiths, the next band on this genre mixtape would not exist, and if they did, they would likely sound very different.
Radiohead – “Just”
Radiohead is, with good reason, a band that has maintained a gargantuan presence on alternative radio, frequently in stark contrast to whatever else is popular at the time. They started out fairly unremarkably with Pablo Honey, but had a massive hit with “Creep,” and from there, their ambition skyrocketed and their constraints essentially disappeared. By the time they released Kid A, it was clear that the rules no longer applied. Still, for a band who never seemed too interested in doing what was expected of them, they knew how to write a great single, and one with some kickass guitar work for that matter. Hearing The Bends for the first time was an eye-opening experience, and for all its haunted atmosphere and emotional balladry, it did contain some real rippers, particularly “Just.” It’s always been a personal favorite, and its video is one of the greatest in the history of the medium. I can still remember what a kick to the face that ending was. Damn.
The Pixies – “Debaser”
Were I forced to distill this into a ten minute guide, I would be forced to keep the R.E.M. song, the Smiths selection, and this classic by The Pixies. Let’s face it, Black Francis & Co. created the template by which most 1990s guitar-based bands formatted their own sound. Four chords, a screeching frontman, unstoppable pop melodies and the occasional Dadaist or surrealist lyric (in this case literally, what with the song paying homage to Luis Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou”)-it all started here, more or less. Kurt Cobain even once said he was attempting to copy The Pixies, which is probably a case of him being modest, but also not far from the truth. Gavin Rossdale’s attempt was not nearly as successful.
The Replacements – “Bastards of Young”
Drunken, irreverent, loud and snotty, The Replacements were about as punk rock as you could get while still writing some affecting and sometimes beautiful pop songs. I recall saying this song was like a godfather to “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I stand by it. But even more so, it’s a bridge between “Born to Run” and Nirvana’s breakthrough hit. Bob Stinson’s solo especially seems to recall the stadium grandeur of the E Street Band, while maintaining a scratchy and defiant indie rock stance. And let’s not forget, the video, with its unexpectedly awesome image of the dude kicking in the speaker.
Nine Inch Nails – “Wish”
In my late teens and early twenties, I came to have a problem with Nine Inch Nails that I didn’t many years prior, when I was but a naive, impressionable youth. Trent Reznor’s lyrics seemed to blatantly angry and woeful, it seemed almost like self-parody at times. Funny thing though, after listening to his lyrics again with fresh ears a few years later, I discovered that my reservations had since vanquished. Reznor, in a way, is like Morrissey, frequently dismayed but never without a clever turn of phrase. In “Wish,” the band’s gateway to frequent MTV rotation, Reznor is at his most pissed and angst-ridden, but it’s hard not to laugh at the line “you know me…I hate everyone.” With a verse like that, even an industrial masochist like Reznor proved himself capable of taking the piss.
Failure – “Stuck On You”
Failure wasn’t together for very long, and their output was limited to three albums and some compilation tracks. But in their short time as a band, they took rock music to a thrilling and dense new plateau. Where 1994’s Magnified was sort of like a skewed take on grunge with some Fugazi-like dissonance, their third and final album Fantastic Planet was a sprawling epic that contained not only kickass rock songs, but mesmerizing ballads and space dirges as well. “Stuck on You” was the lead single, and perhaps their best song. It’s a simple concept, as Ken Andrews sings about a song stuck in his head, but it’s bigger than its lyrics, exploding into an immense anthem. More than a decade later, emo-core darlings Paramore covered it, without changing it much, interestingly enough, suggesting that it’s best not to mess with perfection.
Sonic Youth – “Titanium Expose”
I know, I know, this space should be reserved for “Teenage Riot.” It’s a great song, there’s no denying that, and another entry in the canonical tracks that defined the late ’80s underground. But there’s something just so intense and badass about “Titanium Expose,” the powerful closing track to Sonic Youth’s major label debut, Goo. It teeters back and forth between its careening, high-speed intro and its hazy verses, tossing all of the band’s strengths into one massive exercise in melodic destruction. I’m still baffled that this iconoclastic, noise-loving group’s only “best of” collection to speak of was released through Starbucks.
PJ Harvey – “Rid of Me”
The female frontwomen that were given the most attention in the ’90s were largely cut from the Lilith Fair cloth. Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Sarah McLachlan, et al. And the Rolling Stone special issues on “Women in Rock” weren’t helping matters. And yet, in spite of the typecasting that the largest media outlets perpetuated, there was PJ Harvey, far more guttural and brutal in her approach than anyone might have expected possible from a 5-foot, 90-pound Englishwoman. She’s downright villainous on the title track to her 1993 album Rid of Me, alternating between howls of “Don’t you wish you never met her?” and “Lick my legs, I’m on fire!” Amazing stuff, and not a piano in sight.
Jeff Buckley – “Dream Brother”
It’s well documented that Jeff Buckley was one of Thom Yorke’s biggest influences, and the late troubadour’s influence is pretty widespread a decade and a half after his Columbia debut. So it’s easy to forget that when Buckley released Grace in 1994, it was a pretty unusual release. His own influences were varied and disparate, from Leonard Cohen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Led Zeppelin to flamenco. It was beautiful, powerful and utterly original. And while any of its ten tracks could be considered the best (some more strongly endorsed than others, I suppose), “Dream Brother” is one of its most mystical and alluring. Not to belabor the point, but we really lost someone special.
Afghan Whigs – “Debonair”
Listening back to how dark and fucked up The Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen is, it’s a wonder it actually launched a few successful singles. There’s drugs, sex, betrayal, depression and the very literal act of going to hell, as Greg Dulli sings in the amazing, furious standout “Debonair.” The opening clap and deep bassline sound like pure seduction, but it doesn’t take long for that to translate into a truly harrowing experience. They got a bit funkier and less terrifying later on, but this is still their most transcendent single.
Dinosaur Jr. – “Freak Scene”
Dinosaur Jr. has been considered one of the loudest live acts in America, and J. Mascis was indie rock’s first true guitar hero (some may debate me on that but they’ve been at it for a really long time). Grungy before grunge was even part of the lexicon, and boasting more hooks than the meat-packing district, Dinosaur Jr. are legendary for good reason. And for underground icons, they’ve managed to land a lot of radio singles in their day. This isn’t one of them, beyond college radio that is, but it’s one of the strongest tunes in the group’s discography, a fuzzy celebration of outcasts kicking off their 1988 album Bug. I almost chose “Start Choppin'” instead of this, for sheer recognition, but there’s something endearing about this late ’80s lo-fi gem, an essential alt-rock single if there ever was one.
Weezer – “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here”
Perhaps it’s a better thing for Rivers Cuomo, personally, that he’s happily married, has kids and would rather make Auto-tune heavy albums with Weezy cameos. It’s not a better thing for the rest of us, though. Many point to Pinkerton as Weezer’s masterpiece, and it’s a valid argument. But tracks like this one, from the band’s Ric Ocasek-produced debut, are pure pop perfection. The fuzz on the band’s guitars is dense, but not heavy. And the misery is relatable. More than anything, it’s just a great melody, with some stellar vocal harmonization to make it that much better.
Flaming Lips – “Lightning Strikes the Postman”
After about a decade of releasing underground oddities, The Flaming Lips earned themselves a hit in the mid-90s with their goofball anthem “She Don’t Use Jelly.” This led to an appearance on Beverly Hills 90210, a spot on the Batman Forever soundtrack and a much higher profile than anyone might have expected otherwise. Of course, they were still pretty weird, but they had the tunes to back up their eccentricity, as evident on their outstanding 1995 album Clouds Taste Metallic. It didn’t launch any real hits for the band, other than the nursery rhyme revenge fantasy “Bad Days,” but the farthest that got was a play or two on 120 Minutes (which ain’t bad, I suppose). That album also contained this fuzzy gem, a dense, psychedelic standout that came to be a pretty intense live staple. It probably wouldn’t have made as big an impact on radio, even if anyone was bold enough to play it, but it’s undeniably one of the group’s finest songs.
Sparklehorse – “Someday I Will Treat You Good”
Looking back, it’s a bit peculiar that I discovered Sparklehorse through Los Angeles alt-rock powerhouse KROQ, of all places. Mark Linkous doesn’t seem like the kind of person whose music might belong next to that of Green Day or No Doubt. Alas, I heard “Someday I Will Treat You Good” several times on that very station in 1995, and while I’d like to give them credit for a brave choice, this song actually is pretty damn catchy. Though not exactly a rare track on Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot, “Someday” is nonetheless one of only a few that actually sounds like a single. It’s punchy, crunchy, angst-ridden and tuneful. All the makings of an alt-rock hit, right? Eh, sorta. The song’s tenure on the radio was fairly short lived, but damn if it wasn’t a bright, shining moment.
Jawbreaker – “Fireman”
It’s likely not a coincidence that Jawbreaker’s Dear You came out a year after Green Day’s Dookie. But beyond the fact that both groups were Bay Area-based trios with punk rock energy and an affinity for power chords, they weren’t all that similar. Jawbreaker had a more abrasive, less snotty, and decidedly more “emo” sound (by 1995 standards, not so much today’s). Blake Schwarzenbach had a far more insular and intellectual presence than Billie Joe Armstrong, and their riffs, such as those in “Fireman,” were much more abrasive. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that this song didn’t have the same widespread appeal as “Basket Case,” but seeing it on 120 Minutes was still pretty awesome.
The Dandy Warhols – “Be-In”
The Dandy Warhols have a reputation for releasing silly singles, from “The Dandy Warhols’ TV Theme Song,” to “Not If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth,” to “Bohemian Like You.” Yet, in spite of their occasionally tongue-in-cheek lyrics, they’ve got the melodic chops to back them up. In fact, their first three albums are truly outstanding neo-psychedelic pop records. “Be-In,” which kicks off their second album The Dandy Warhols Come Down, is a seven-minute monster of a psych-rock epic, building slowly into an intense, swirling chorus that’s as catchy as it is heady and weird. While lately, the group has gotten by on a C average, they were honor students just a few years before, kicking out incredible anthems like this one.
Eels – “Hospital Food”
There were a lot of bands doing the boho, sample-based coffeehouse jive in the 1990s, from Beck to Soul Coughing and King Missile. It was easy to lump Eels in with that crowd at the time, but E had been writing and performing long before Beck Hansen declared himself a loser. Furthermore, E’s compositions were a lot more varied than first single “Novocaine for the Soul” suggested. By second album Electro Shock Blues, perhaps the simultaneously most joyous and depressing album ever, E was trying on all kinds of different sounds and styles, such as this jazzy, Tom Waits-like noir pop tune.
Queens of the Stone Age – “First It Giveth”
You may have noticed that there’s no Foo Fighters on this guide, and I realize that might look like a massive oversight. Dave Grohl was responsible for some of the best mainstream rock songs in the ’90s, and the early part of the ’00s, but he’s already represented in two songs here, including this Queens of the Stone Age track. While he technically wasn’t a full-time member of the band, he drummed for the band on the sessions for Songs for the Deaf, and his skin work is badass as always. But Josh Homme’s furious chug is massive as well. I can understand why this song wasn’t as big as “No One Knows,” but it’s at least as good, and far more brutal.
And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – “How Near, How Far”
And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead are a peculiar band, having started life as a noise rock outfit before refining their sound into the pristine art-rock perfection on Source Tags & Codes. They got kind of baroque and weird after that, but here, they sound their most triumphant and heavy. Their strength has always been balancing powerful, punishing rhythms with transcendent melodies, and “How Near, How Far” is a song that shows off this strength with its transition from slow intro to hyperspeed verse and back. They’ll probably never release an album like Source Tags & Codes again. Nobody will, probably.
Nirvana – “On A Plain”
So, it’s probably best to close this out with the band who is most closely bound to “alternative rock.” Nirvana is, for better or for worse, the reason that indie rock bands were given such a bright spotlight in the ’90s and long thereafter. And I’m not about to argue against Nevermind as being a solid rock album. But I like this song a lot better than “Teen Spirit.” So there you go.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.