The ’90s were the decade when the alternative went mainstream, though it didn’t take long for the normal state of cheesy radio-ready pop music to take over once again, forcing most alt-rockers to return to the dingy basement venues from whence they came. Either way, the short span of 10 years saw a wealth of influential new releases that continue to inform the state of music today, whether you’re looking at the burst of alt-rock icons, the encroaching dominance of hip-hop, or the early stirrings of a major movement in electronic music. Trying to make sense of an entire decade’s worth of music may be a fool’s errand, but we’re just fool enough to try it anyway with this list of eight great bands and musicians of the ’90s.
The mid-’90s saw the rise of radio-friendly Britpop. Along with its media rivals Oasis, Blur was at the forefront of this short-lived movement in British pop rock, but its albums throughout the ’90s, from the poppy Parklife to the creative drones of 13, present a band that wasn’t always easy to categorize. Even popular tracks like “Coffee & TV” feature extended musical interludes that experiment with electronic and guitar noise alongside their infectious hooks. Blur explored the ever-expanding possibilities of music production, nodding forward to frontman Damon Albarn’s later releases with Gorillaz, and created unique, enduring alternative rock as a result.
After a mostly forgettable first release that nonetheless produced the band’s biggest single in “Creep,” Radiohead slowly morphed into one of the most interesting voices in music, beginning with the 1995 release The Bends and continuing with 1997’s OK Computer. The latter record especially found the band touching on themes of digital age alienation and paranoia while deftly combining electronic production and live recording into one like no other band had before. The band’s skilled production and moody, textured songwriting has since been imitated plenty but rarely equaled, and Radiohead would continue to expand its sound to fascinating new places well into the next decade.
3. No Doubt
Amidst all the interest in alternative rock, listeners in the ’90s were briefly infatuated with the Caribbean-imported upbeat tones of ska music. No Doubt helped to popularize the genre’s so-called third wave with its second and third albums The Beacon Street Collection and Tragic Kingdom, combining brass instrumentation and Gwen Stefani’s pop vocal chops to create a sound caught somewhere between new wave, punk, and reggae. No Doubt managed to carve out its own sound by blending unlikely influences from throughout recent musical history and continued to capture mainstream attention thanks to its unique genre mishmash and strong hooks.
You knew this was coming. The tragically short-lived run of Nirvana brought the underground of the 1980s to the forefront of the early ’90s music scene, as the monster hit album Nevermind blended polished production styles with the hard-edged songwriting and compelling wails of frontman Kurt Cobain. While other popular acts dealt in sunshine, Nirvana proved that there was a market for mainstream music that wasn’t quite so easily digestible and spoke to the angst and frustrations of listeners. Even as the group shunned its newfound popularity on final studio album In Utero, Cobain and his band were creating music to endure long after their many imitators have been forgotten.
5. DJ Shadow
DJ Shadow makes this list on the strength of a single album — his 1996 release Endtroducing….., an album of dark musical jams made almost entirely from sampled materials. Using a vast record collection, the American producer used his own creativity to create an electronically-derived sound more suited to haunted houses than dance floors, blending acid jazz with funk and hip-hop beats, paving the way for another generation of innovative electronic producers that deal in atmosphere rather than bass drops.
After Nirvana, many alternative bands dealt heavily in angst, but R.E.M. found popularity simply by refining the jangly pop reminiscent of ’60s acts like The Byrds it started creating in the ’80s. Thanks to the increased awareness of alternative music, some of the group’s best releases found mass audiences, including the expanded sounds on Out of Time and Automatic for the People, both of which elevated R.E.M.’s endlessly listenable folk-rock tunes with heartfelt songwriting. Widely recognized as an influence on modern indie music as well as the early ’90s artists who became popular even before it did, R.E.M. is a peon to the enduring power of smart, catchy power pop.
Hip-hop was often simplified by West Coast and East Coast styles, but Outkast made a strong case for a third frontier of American rap music. The Atlanta-based duo released its first three albums in the 1990s, and though they weren’t as commercially successful as their later releases, all three explore the lyrical and musical versatility of the genre. Capturing various atmospheres through their beats, the songs drew from the region’s rich musical history, drawing inspiration from gospel and soul almost as much as from earlier hip-hop acts.
No artist on this list is quite as versatile as Beck, who’s made a career out of constantly shifting styles. Though he became famous for his alt-rock rap slacker anthem “Loser,” Beck was never content to be pigeonholed into any one genre. Instead, he synthesized his diverse influences into new incarnations on every new album. Odelay is maybe the most representative of the artist, as he blends hip-hop with alternative music and folk, but his other ’90s releases, One Foot in the Grave, Mutations, and Midnite Vultures, find him aping traditional folk, world music, and funk with equal success. Like many artists of the ’90s, Beck is the sum of his diverse influences, but he’s also so much more.
9. Dr. Dre
As one of the founding members of N.W.A., Dr. Dre was one of the pioneers of early hip-hop. It was his solo career though when things really took off. The Chronic is still to this day regarded among some of the best albums of all time, with hits that are still played out on the radio. Dre has since made himself into a mogul in every sense of the word. 2014 saw him sell Beats to Apple for a cool $3 billion, and that was just the icing on the cake for all the years of work he’d put in making music, and supporting up-and-coming new artists on his Aftermath label.
Simply put, there wouldn’t be a pop punk genre without Blink-182. Late-90s albums like Dude Ranch and Enema of the State put the power trio on the map, vaulting them into a career’s worth of Warped Tour appearances, global tours, and an iconic status among 90s children. They’re even still around today, having released their first new album in years, albeit with Alkaline Trio frontman Matt Skiba replacing the departed Tom Delonge following a lengthy feud.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf
Additional reporting from Nick Cannata-Bowman
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