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Creating the Essential '90s Alternative Rock Playlist

Updated on June 8, 2012

Perhaps it is a sign of getting old (I am in my late 20s) but for the past several years I have been particularly nostalgic for my adolescence in the 1990s where I first began getting into music. Throughout the 1990s, music lovers experienced a full decade of ever-changing music trends, a decade defined by grunge, college radio, britpop, and third-wave ska. In this current age of iTunes, music fans can pick and choose their favorite songs and amass their own collection of specialized playlists. The downside of this is that even though most songs only cost 99 cents, your essential playlists can be quite expensive. However, the music-streaming software company Spotify allows users to stream hundreds of thousands of albums and songs by countless artists but relies on advertisements for revenue. Even though there are a few restrictions, I was able to create an essential playlist of songs that I believe to be representative of the musical trends, culture, and hit songs of that era.

Personally, alternative rock hit me at a young age. The summer after the fourth grade, I bought Nirvana’s “Nevermind” on cassette, two months after the untimely suicide of lead singer Kurt Cobain. I wasn’t aware of the band’s existence before Cobain’s death but had heard about the band from classmates. Upon first the listen, I was hooked. Soon enough, I was watching MTV (back when they actually played music videos) and immersed myself into ‘90s rock music. My local modern rock radio station WMRQ-FM 104.1 introduced me to new music before the bands hit it big. However, their struggling ratings due to the ever-changing music landscape forced the station to transition to hip-hop in 2003. Yet, in a triumphant turn of events, the station went back to modern rock in 2007 and that’s when I first became nostalgic over that era of music. Cut to today, where I have put together a massive playlist on Spotify, bringing together an eclectic selection of music. But I wanted to expand what I believe to be an essential playlist of ‘90s alternative music.

First and foremost I have to begin with emergence of grunge in the beginning of the 1990s. Grunge grew out of the Seattle music scene… distorted guitars, DIY ethics, and flannel. Of course, Nirvana is on top of the list. But for my essential ‘90s playlist, I will forego the obvious “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As great and influential as the song has been known to become, frankly it’s the clichéd pick. Instead, I choose “In Bloom,” the fourth single from their breakthrough record “Nevermind.” As a companion piece, I’ve chosen the catchy post-success single “Sliver” off their b-side compilation record “Incesticide.” Seattle’s other breakthrough band was Pearl Jam, who released the massive blockbuster debut record “Ten” in August 1991. Aside from their signature singles “Jeremy” and “Even Flow,” I chose “Alive” to be on my list, along with the singles “Daughter” and “Better Man,” from the band’s subsequent records “Vs.” and “Vitalogy,” respectively. Since Seattle remained a hotbed for musical talent, I threw in singles by Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, bands who were never compared to Nirvana and Pearl Jam because they were so talented in their own right.

The death of Cobain signaled the end of the classic Seattle sound. In what has been described as the “post-grunge” era of the mid 1990s, major labels were signing quote-unquote copycat bands to carry on the music trend. In other words, labels were looking for bands to record “radio-friendly unit shifters,” a term which happened to be a tongue-in-cheek song title from Nirvana’s 1993 record “In Utero.” Candlebox’s “Far Behind,” Fuel’s “Shimmer,” the Australian wunderkinds Silverchair with their debut single “Tomorrow” were marketed towards music fans still reeling over the death of Cobain. Don’t get me wrong, I am not putting these particular bands down, but from a consumer standpoint you could see why they were pushed for heavy airplay. Stone Temple Pilots, who initially were accused of being grunge rip-offs, were still able to have a somewhat sustainable career with a few quality records, despite the on-and-off drug and legal troubles of lead singer Scott Weiland. So I included some of their hit singles from their first three records, including “Creep,” “Interstate Love Song,” and “Plush,” the single from their debut album that made them stood apart from their contemporaries.

The early to mid-90s also saw hit singles from bands that may not have had a long consistent career, but chances are if you heard their song on the radio, you immediately recalled the lyrics to the chorus. Examples include “Low” by Cracker, “Possum Kingdom” by The Toadies, “Bound for the Floor” by Local H, “Molly (Sixteen Candles)” by Sponge, and “All I Want” by Toad the Wet Sprocket. I wouldn’t classify these bands as “one hit wonders” but their peak happened to be brief with notable follow-up singles.

Many artists on my playlist could be classified as “college rock,” at least in terms of their status in the 90s. I included songs by bands like The Pixies, Faith No More, The Meat Puppets, The Lemonheads, and R.E.M. Bands that first gained prominence in the 1980s were still relatively low on the mainstream music radar in the 1990s. Of them all, R.E.M. happened to find the most success in the 1990s after the release of their 1991 record “Out of Time” and their career-defining single “Losing My Religion.” Again, feeling this to be the clichéd pick, I opted for three R.E.M. songs that showcase the band’s pop sensibility: “Orange Crush,” “Man on the Moon,” and “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” The Smashing Pumpkins had two critically acclaimed records that decade: “Siamese Dream” and the ambitious double album “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” I included songs like “Cherub Rock” and “Zero” on my playlist, songs that should be cherished due to the fact that lead singer Billy Corgan has since bastardized the band’s name with whatever incarnation it currently holds.

Across the pond was a burgeoning scene known to American listeners as Britpop, alternative rock that was heavily influenced by the guitar pop scene of the 1960s and 1970s. At the top of the list is obviously Oasis and their landmark record “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” The band was unfairly compared to the Beatles and the short-tempered Gallagher Brothers and their drunken escapades was easy fodder for the press. Nonetheless, they put out a solid record which happens to stand the test of time, thanks in part to their signature single “Wonderwall,” which is still being played today on acoustic guitars by guys trying to get laid. However, I will forego “Wonderwall” on my list and instead choose the closing track anthem “Champagne Supernova.” Other Britpop hits include “Girls and Boys” by Blur and “Connection” by Elastica. While Britpop was seeing a decline in the late 90s, bands like Radiohead and The Verve began receiving critical acclaim. The former happens to remain one of the biggest bands on the planet today, but their early songs like “Creep,” “High and Dry” and “Paranoid Android” remain 90s staples. Bush could be called the British grunge band of the decade with their hit debut record “Sixteen Stones” which produced multiple hit singles like “Everything Zen” and “Comedown.” Just outside of Britain were bands like Teenage Fanclub and Travis from Scotland, The Cranberries from Ireland, Bjork from Iceland, and The Cardigans from Sweden with hit songs.

Another defining genre of the alternative music scene was third-wave ska, a mixture of traditional ska, punk, swing and reggae. Bands like No Doubt, Sublime, and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones gained mainstream attention after years of touring the underground music scene. In particular, No Doubt has blossomed to be a bona-fide pop band but early singles like “Spiderwebs” showcased their ska influence. Swing music saw a brief comeback in the late 90s, with notable singles by Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zipper, and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.

By the late 1990s, we still saw a lot of memorable pop/rock singles: “The Way” by Fastball, “If You Could Only See” by Tonic, “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers, and “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies. Unfortunately, mainstream music was soon populated by goth & nu-metal as well as the increasingly annoying boy-band craze. Very few bands that first gained attention in the 90s were able to crossover into the 2000s while staying relevant today. The aforementioned Radiohead keep reinventing themselves while The Foo Fighters remain one of the most popular rock acts today, yet it is in this writer’s opinion that they will never be able to top their 1997 release “The Colour and the Shape,” which features the fan-favorite single “Everlong.” In recent years Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden have treated fans to successful reunion tours. But thanks Spotify and Youtube, we can relive those days through our own specialized playlists.

For those with a Spotify account, you can access my 90s Alternative Rock playlist here. In addition, what are your favorite alternative rock bands and songs from that decade? Any particular memories that tie into 90s alternative rock music? What are some songs that may have been overlooked here that deserve to be included in the playlist?


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    • UnknownWon profile image

      Joe Smith 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

      This is the most amazing list I have seen! This is great! This, to me, was the golden age of music and the 90s were the greatest time to grow up in. If I were to come across Doc Brown's time machine in 2015, I am going back to 1990 to relieve those ten years that's for sure!

    • Barking Brain profile image

      Dan 5 years ago from Boston

      Nice Hub Brad. I was also a big fan of 90’s music although I’m probably 20 years older than you ( I was 28 when Nevermind came out) I think every decade has it’s great bands. Today with the technology to produce great music in your own basement and circumvent the record labels by promoting yourself through various internet sources, one may have to do a little more work to pull together the best new music to suit their taste. But at least we are not dependent on payola paying labels to tell us what we like (well not as much).

      You should also check out the bands that influenced these great 90’s bands like Husker Du, The Replacements, X, and a whole bunch of other 80’s bands that never get their due.

      BTW, going way back, I saw the Mighty Mighty Bosstones on Halloween 1986 back when they were just “The Bosstones”. They opened for the hardcore band “Gang Green”. Great show!!

    • Roger D Almon profile image

      Roger D Almon 5 years ago from Cincinnati, Ohio

      I grew up in this time period of music, and what a great time period it was. I would say it rivals the 60's as one of the great eras in the history of rock. My personal favorite tunes from this period would be any Oasis song, 'Everlong' by Foo Fighters and as you mentioned in your hub, '1979' by the Pumpkins. Weezer's two albums from the 90's were also miles more brilliant than anything they've released over the past 12 years.

    • Nykki13 profile image

      Nykki 5 years ago from Germantown, WI

      Great article! I also love 90s rock music. Nirvana changed my life. I now work for an alternative rock station that helps feed my love of grunge music haha.

    • hlruther profile image

      hlruther 5 years ago from USA

      Awesome list! 'Plush,' is one of my all-time favorites. My 7 year old now knows all the lyrics because I listen to it too often I guess.