If you ask me, I firmly believe the ’90s gave us some of the best rock n’ roll of all time – including quite a few alternative titles. As you may or may not know, I put out a book a few months back, Overlooked/Underappreciated: 354 Recordings That Demand Your Attention, in which I…well, you can probably figure out from the title.
What better way to give you a taste of my book AND include what I feel were the most underrated alt-rock albums of the ’90s then by compiling 10 (actually 11 due to a controversial two-way tie) tasty titles from the book, all of which should have gotten a whole lot more attention?
10. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me 
Production-wise, this album is oh-so-close to Nirvana’s In Utero, and with good reason – the same chap produced both recordings (Steve Albini). And like In Utero, Rid of Me seems at times to be an unflinching warts-and-all/view-into-the-soul snapshot of the artist. Unfortunately, the CD (along with Harvey’s stellar debut, Dry) contains probably one of the worst mastering jobs of all time – it’s so bloody “quiet” at points it’s annoying – and is in desperate need of a remastering (are you listening, Island Records?). Lastly, the tune “Missed” always reminded me of early Pretenders for some reason. Do you agree, too?
9. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless 
“Shoegazing” is a style that never seemed to really take hold in America (it was far more popular in the land were it originated – England). But it certainly spawned a few classics – most notably My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The group’s second studio album overall sounds like the perfect soundtrack to either a dream or a hallucination (or perhaps dreaming while on hallucinogens). Also, the strum-the-night-away-on-your-Fender-Jazzmaster-while-your-long-bangs-cover-your-eyes style that select guitarists would later indulge in can be traced directly back to this recording.
8. Morphine – Cure for Pain 
There have been very few artists in the history of rock that could be as mood shifting as Morphine was. And while their third album, Yes, was under careful consideration for my Morphine pick for this book, I opted to go with Cure for Pain. Few rock bands – if any – were incorporating saxophone into their sound circa the mid to late ’90s, and certainly none (apart from the more mainstream-sounding the Presidents of the United States of America) included a two-string bass instrument…played with a slide. But somehow, it all adds up to create one of the most original rock sounds of the decade.
7. Shudder To Think – Pony Express Record 
There weren’t many alt-rock bands of the early ’90s that embraced prog-rock/art-rock, but Shudder to Think was one of the few bold enough to do so. And Pony Express Record was a most welcomed release amongst Hootie and all the lame grunge rip-offs that were being spun by MTV at the time (the channel was even bold enough to spin S2T’s striking “X-French Tee Shirt” clip a bit…during non-vampire friendly hours, too!). Although the band has issued several other sturdy releases, Pony Express Record gets my vote for being S2T’s finest hour. One of my fav (and most listened to) rock n’ roll recordings of the ’90s.
6. Brad – Shame 
When you heard that a rock band was “funky” during the early ’90s, it usually meant that they were merely a rip-off of either the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Faith No More, and perhaps the only classic funk artist they may have heard/studied was P-Funk. Brad was one of the first ’90s rockers to play it funky but not cheesy – mainly because singer Shawn Smith sang in falsetto and didn’t come off like an obnoxious fraternity boy. Also, Prince seemed to be their main funk influence, and Smith was not afraid to offer up an Elton John-like piano ballad when needed. Stone Gossard had already shown that he was quite adept at offering up killer guitar grooves on such albums as Mother Love Bone’s Apple and Pearl Jam’s Ten, but he’s even groovier here…which would continue on PJ’s next release, Vs. (while Smith and drummer Regan Hagar would launch the more metallic Satchel).
5. fIREHOSE – Flyin’ the Flannel 
Not only did fIREHOSE sound differently than most rock bands at the time – they also looked different (namely, the scruffy-yet-charming Mike Watt). And arguably, their best album was their major label debut, Flyin’ the Flannel (its title is a tip of the cap to Watt’s favorite shirt material). “Tight yet loose” is a fitting description for the performances here, but it remains bewildering as to why not more people knew about this band/heard this album (especially since it was issued around the same time that alt-rock was finally infiltrating the mainstream, and Flyin’ the Flannel would have been a perfect fit).
4. [2-WAY TIE!!] Faith No More – King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime 
What the heck was Faith No More going to sound like without Jim Martin supplying his trademark Sabbath riffs? The question was answered quickly upon hearing King for a Day…Fool for a Lifetime – Mr. Bungle guitarist Trey Spruance had no problem supplying metalloid guitar when called upon. However, the focus was placed more on singer Mike Patton, who certainly delivers, with an outstanding performance throughout, and expertly handling a variety of styles – soul ballads, Portishead-like fare, death metal, country, prog-rock, etc. Surprisingly, the album didn’t sell all that well Stateside.
Mr. Bungle – Disco Volante 
As I state in my 2013 book, The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion, I feel that there have been only a few times in rock history where a band has grown leaps and bounds artistically between albums as much as Bungle did between their self-titled debut and Disco Volante. While Bungle’s debut was juvenile and relied too much on funk metal clichés, DV touches upon numerous styles, that helps create a completely original recording – and sounds like no other artist before or since. Admittedly, it’s a challenging listen at times (the Bungle boys could never resist assaulting the listener with unexpected noise detours here and there), but Disco Volante was a much-needed antidote to the Hooties, Alanises, and Bushes that were clogging the radio airwaves, MTV, and charts at the time.
3. Truly – Fast Stories…From Kid Coma 
Truly’s Fast Stories…From Kid Coma gets my vote as one of the most underrated rock recordings of the ’90s (or even perhaps of all time, for that matter). When I think of the blah doo-dah that MTV and radio was championing at the time (Live, Bush, Silverchair, etc.) and they could have been playing bands like Truly, the Beautiful, and Brad – that were both musically and artistically far more deserving – it really gets my goat. Picture a psychedelic take on grunge (without coming off as pretentious or indulgent), or a hybrid of Nirvana and Radiohead (without sounding like copycats), and you’re close to what the material on Fast Stories…From Kid Coma sounds like.
2. The Beautiful – Storybook 
One of the more obscure bands and releases of the early ’90s alt-rock movement – I’ve never seen or read about the Beautiful besides the aforementioned items [listed in the book], and have crossed paths with few human beings who stated they fancied them (or even knew who the heck they were). This is unfortunate, as Storybook is a very interesting recording that should have been popular – and one of the few bands that possessed a cool Jane’s Addiction influence/vibe (for as popular as Jane’s was at the time, if you think about it, there wasn’t a wave of impersonators of Perry and his pals…unlike the grunge groups, who did have their fair share of copycats). The album also has some artsy fartsy bits between the tracks – something else that wasn’t very common during the era.
1. Blind Melon – Soup 
It seems like my mission in life has been to turn as many people as possible on to this woefully underrated release. You have to give oodles of credit to Blind Melon for not taking the easy way out and issuing an album comprised of “No Rain”-like ditties (similarly, the same could be said about FNM’s Angel Dust, as the band wisely chose not to merely put out a bunch of “Epic” knock-offs), but rather, a pretty darn original and challenging album. And possibly only outdone by Layne Staley’s “my life is an open book” style of lyric writing, it appears as though Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon somehow knew his life was rapidly approaching its end, as he wonders if the birth of his baby daughter will bring new life to him (“New Life”), writing what seems like a description of what heroin use feels like (“2×4”), and trying to pick himself up and get his life back on track (“Walk”). For reasons unknown, Soup was panned upon release by most critics (Google Rolling Stone‘s original review to see what I mean) and took a dive on the charts. And most obviously, Hoon’s tragic death barely two months after the album’s release served as the main reason why the album was never properly promoted. But in ensuing years, Soup has seemed to – deservingly – build a cult following. If I had to pick one favorite all-time rock album, it may very well be this one.