There are some really great albums from my era that aren't on this list, since they achieved significant commercial success. For an album to be considered “underrated”, it had to have gone mostly unnoticed by the general public of its era. With nostalgic 80’s and 90’s Alternative Rock stations online and on satellite radio today, some of this music is more well-known now than it was back then.
I consider “my era” to be when I was in high school, 1989-1993, and college, 1993-1997. Many of the greatest albums of all time came out in the early 90’s, in particular 1991-1992. I was fortunate enough to be a teenager and an Alternative Rock fan at that time, so I enjoyed these albums immensely. That was the last great era of music. It’s been going downhill since the early 90’s, and most of today’s music is horrendous. While most of my contemporaries were listening to Snoop Dogg and Coolio, and the worst song of all time, Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, was dominating the airwaves, I was rocking out to the albums listed below.
13. The Church “Gold Afternoon Fix” 1990
Australian Alternative band The Church was under a lot of pressure to produce a successful follow up to 1988’s surprising hit album Starfish and brilliant single Under The Milky Way. After the distractions of producer switches, studio meddling, substance abuse, and volatile studio sessions, the result was 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix. Steve Kilbey’s ethereal voice, Marty Willson-Piper’s darkly toned guitar work, and a litany of ambient sounds make the songs sound haunting and desolate, yet they’re all so catchy. The single Metropolis is delightful and very underrated. Lead track Pharaoh is wonderfully eerie. Other highlights include second single You’re Still Beautiful, single-worthy Terra Nova Cain, Fading Away, and City, the poppy Transient, and the melodically slow Monday Morning. Even though it’s the band’s least favorite album, I loved it.
12. Local H “As Good As Dead” 1996
Illinois Alternative Rock duo Local H, consisting of vocalist/guitarist/bassist Scott Lucas and drummer Joe Daniels, had a College Radio hit with the rocking single Bound For The Floor, and minor hits with the clever pop-like Eddie Vedder and hard-edged Fritz’s Corner. The album is also note-worthy for the scathing potty-mouthed song High-Fiving MF. (You can use your own imagination on the acronym “MF”.) Lucas’ rock star voice, grungy looks, rocking guitar work, and energetic performing should have translated into major commercial success. Maybe his harsh fan and industry-attacking lyrics held them back?
11. Superdrag “Regretfully Yours” 1996
Knoxville’s Superdrag would have been Pop Rock superstars had they come out alongside the Beatles and other melodic Pop Rock bands of the 1960’s. Coming out in the 1990’s only allowed them to make it into MTV’s Buzz Bin. On the great lead single Sucked Out, both the music and John Davis’ vocals seamlessly transition between sweet Power Pop and whiney, almost EMO, Alternative Rock. Follow up single Destination Ursa Major may be even better. The bittersweet Alterna-Pop songs on this album definitely deserve a listen by anyone who grew up listening to 90’s Alternative Rock or the British Invasion of the 1960’s.
10. Violent Femmes “Why Do Birds Sing?” 1991
Is there anything more fun than an album by Milwaukee Folk-Punk trio the Violent Femmes? 1991’s Why Do Birds Sing? is often forgotten in comparison to the band’s earlier work, and most people have only heard their eponymous debut. But Gordon Gano, Brian Richie, and Victor DeLorenzo put together a great album for a new generation of fans before drummer DeLorenzo’s temporary split. Single American Music is one of Alt Rock’s greatest anthems. The Culture Club remake Do You Really Want To Hurt Me has a lot more passion than the original. Out The Window and Hey Nonny Nonny are fun story songs. Look Like That, Used to Be, Girl Trouble, and Lack of Knowledge are classic bouncy Femmes songs at their best. Flamingo Baby and He Likes Me would fit perfectly on the revered first album. More Money Tonight is an underdog success story any early 1990’s Alternative Rock fan can relate to. This is a great album that came out at a great time.
9. Eels “Beautiful Freak” 1996
Eels revolves around singer/guitarist/keyboardist/drummer E, aka Mark Oliver Everett, who had a semi-successful solo album A Man Called E. On the early Dreamworks Records release Beautiful Freak, E was joined by drummer Butch Norton and bassist Tommy Walker. E’s dreamy voice pushes out edgy lyrics while the melancholy, but enjoyable, music makes the perfectly somber songs stand out even more. The addition of Walker’s stand up bass really helped define Eel’s sound. First single Novocaine for the Soul is an Alternative Rock classic with a Beatlesque chorus. The darkly delightful single Your Lucky Day in Hell would be a Pop hit if it was about cheerier subject matter. Susan’s House gives a narrative about everything E sees on his walk to a girlfriend’s house. The title track is a beautiful love song for a one in a kind girl. My Beloved Monster is wonderful, cute, and catchy, with some hints of Rock and Experimental Rock, and lyrics that could easily have multiple meanings. This album also featured haunting cover art of a little girl with oversized eyes crawling on the ground. This is one of the best albums of its time, and is still very enjoyable today.
8. Cracker “Self Titled” 1992
Alt-Country band Cracker is most well known for 1993’s Kerosene Hat and its singles Low, Get Off This, and hidden track Euro-Trash Girl, but their finest moment was their 1992 self-titled debut. Singer David Lowery of Camper Van Beethoven brought his humorous lyrics to his new project Cracker, enlisting the guitar work of longtime friend Johnny Hickman. First single Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now) is a great Alternative Rock slacker anthem. It’s twangy, but it rocks. Second single Happy Birthday to Me is whimsical fun, harkening back to the wacky humor of Camper Van Beethoven’s Take The Skinheads Bowling. The album is fully of quirky, witty lyrics, especially on tracks like the Outlaw Country song Mr. Wrong, the self-defeatist Can I Take My Gun Up To Heaven, and the almost carnivalesque Dr. Bernice. Another Song About The Rain is a beautiful Country ballad with an Alt Rock edge. Songs like This is Cracker Soul, I See The Light, and Someday almost defy categorization, but do so brilliantly. Cracker even borders on Pop Rock with Satisfy You. Simply put, this album is fun to listen to, so get to it.
7. Lemonheads “It’s a Shame About Ray” 1992
This was the album that blossomed Evan Dando and company, with help from also about to blossom Juliana Hatfield, into Alternative Rock superstars…briefly…almost anyway. Unfortunately, this brilliant album full of deliciously sweet vocals and clever lyrics went largely unnoticed, until their rocking cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson from the remake of The Graduate was added on. If you only bought it for the soundtrack cover, you missed out on many great songs. Singles It’s a Shame About Ray and Confetti should have been enough to garner mainstream attention. Album tracks Rockin Stroll, Ceiling Fan in My Spoon, Rudderless, My Drug Buddy, Bit Part, and Kitchen are some of the best songs of their era. The rocking fun of Allison’s Starting to Happen alone is reason enough to buy this album. I met Evan Dando once, although he was too drunk to remember. Perhaps only Dando’s alcoholism and substance abuse prevented this handsome, beautifully voiced singer from becoming a superstar?
6. Live “Mental Jewelry” 1991
York, PA band Live hit it big with their sophomore effort Throwing Copper, but their best album was their first, which most people missed. Mental Jewelry, produced by Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads, has a raw edge the band seemed to lose when they went commercial. Everyone’s heard stories of how quickly success went to singer Ed Kowalczyk’s head, and it showed in their more pop-ready, singles factory albums to follow. Mental Jewelry is filled with socially, politically, and ecologically conscious lyrics from a youthful but intellectual and philosophical perspective. The beautiful anti-racism song The Beauty of Gray is by far the best song in Live’s catalogue. Youth anthems Pain Lies on the Riverside, Operation Spirit, and Tired of Me should have fueled an angst-filled generation. Mirror Song, Waterboy, Take My Anthem, You Are The World, etc are beautiful songs with poetic lyrics on topics most bands shy away from. The albums after Throwing Copper were a major disappointment to those of us who knew what Live was really capable of. If you want to know, check out Mental Jewelry.
5.Ned’s Atomic Dustbin “God Fodder” 1991
English band Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’s sound is fast paced, guitar and drum-driven Alternative Rock with the added twist of two bass players, Alex Griffin and Mat Cheslin. John Penney’s vocals spit out the band’s clever lyrics at a fast pace too. Their full-length debut God Fodder garnered them some short-lived notice on both sides of the Atlantic. The album starts off with the raucous rocker Kill Your Television that will kick your teeth in. Alternative Rock masterpiece Grey Cells Green is one of the finest songs ever written. Happy describes a volatile romantic relationship better than any of its contemporaries, while the blitzkrieg of Throwing Things kicks it up even another notch. Less Than Useful is a slacker anthem for a slacker generation. Your Complex has the best guitar riffs of the album. Selfish, Cut Up, What Gives My Son?, and You all exude angst-driven Alternative Rock greatness. Sadly, you probably missed out on this band.
4.Teenage Fanclub “Bandwagonesque” 1991
As with Superdrag, Scottish band Teenage Fanclub would have thrived in the 1960’s world of over-sweetened, harmonious British Invasion Power Pop. Their sound based around smooth but powerful guitar riffs and harmonized vocals has been likened to Big Star and the Byrds. Their third album, Bandwagonesque actually beat out Nirvana, R.E.M., and My Bloody Valentine for Album of the Year in Spin Magazine. Despite that honor, you probably never heard any of their songs until The Concept was in the 2011 film Young Adult. Star Sign would have been a #1 hit in the 60’s. Alcoholiday and The Concept are among the elite songs of a decade filled with great songs. Metal Baby and Guiding Star are beautiful Alternative Rock ballads that still find a way to rock. December, Sidewinder, and Pet Rock are Bubblegum Pop/Alternative Rock songs that your ears need to be treated to. If you saw a gorgeous flower, you’d probably pick it. Don’t pass by this piece of musical art without picking it up and giving it a listen.
3. Dinosaur Jr. “Green Mind” 1991
Another great album from 1991 is Dinosaur Jr.’s major label debut Green Mind. Most of the instruments on the album were played by singer J. Mascis, with drummer Murph (also of the Lemonheads) appearing on three tracks. If ever someone deserved be the voice of Generation X, it was the lethargic-voiced Mascis. Unfortunately, they didn’t bother to listen. Despite the title, Puke and Cry is one of my favorite songs of all time and a great Alternative Rock love song. The Wagon is a fast paced rocker (except for Mascis’ always drawn out vocals) with clever lyrics and fun music. Blowing It, I Live For That Look, and Thumb display both Mascis’ distinctive vocal and guitar skills, and could have easily been on mainstream radio. Without knowing better, you’d think Flying Cloud was by Led Zeppelin. How’d You Pin That One on Me is a blisteringly fast-paced Rock song, with the great line “Get me a bucket” in the chorus. Water almost sounds like a Bob Mould song, which is an amazing compliment. Muck would be a hit single with anyone else singing it. It’s the one song where J’s raspy voice doesn’t seem to fit. Despite that one criticism, this album is great from start to finish. Unfortunately, it’s more known for its controversial cover art by Joseph Szabo of a young girl smoking a cigarette than for its brilliant songs.
2. Nine Inch Nails “Pretty Hate Machine” 1989
I have a personal story about this one. At my graduating class’ all night party, my friends and I suffered through the Pop and Hip Hop songs our classmates were requesting, but took a chance and requested Head Like a Hole. This was before Trent Reznor became a household name and an MTV staple. Surprisingly the DJ had it, but was reluctant to play it, seeing as the crowd was appeased with the drivel his speakers were pumping out. We took turns requesting it all night, until he finally gave in just to shut us up. We had a great time dancing around to that great song, while all the Snoop Dogg fans quickly cleared the dance floor.
This entire indie album is brilliant, with no weak spots at all. It is intense Industrial Rock at its best, with detailed programming, expertly distorted sampling, powerful riffs, and well-written lyrics. The angry anthem Head Like a Hole rocks the socks off any other song from 1989. Terrible Lie and Sanctified lull you into a false calm before screaming straight to your brain and shoving their metaphysical feet down your throat. The great songs Down In It, Kinda I Want To, and That’s What I Get offer up clever lyrics and innovative music. Sin is an amazing barrage to your senses. The Only Time channels the Blues before erupting into Industrial Rock. Ringfinger is a guitar driven assault. And then there’s Something I Can Never Have… If you had the cassette tape like I did, this piece of bliss ended the often-played side one, and was the only reason you’d want that side to reach its end. That song provides the nearest to an orgasmic experience that listening to music can. Many people discovered the brilliance of Pretty Hate Machine after Nine Inch Nails achieved commercial success, but be honest, you didn’t hear it back when it was fresh…
1. Sonic Youth “Dirty” 1992
NYC Noise Rock pioneers and Alternative Rock icons Sonic Youth’s 7th studio album was produced by the highly successful Butch Vig. The diverse album seamlessly switches back and forth between songs showcasing Thurston Moore’s smooth voice and those assaulted by Kim Gordon’s intense growl, both taken to higher levels by Sonic Youth’s brilliant avant-garde musicianship and the perfected guitar work of Moore and Lee Ranaldo. No one does “Noise Rock” better, while still mastering traditional rock sounds. If you love guitars and hearing how far their limits can be pushed, this is that album for you. The aural assault starts off with 100%, a guitar and feedback driven song with Pop sensibilities. Next your ears are attacked by Kim Gordon’s scathing commentary on the modeling industry, Swimsuit Issue. Theresa’s Sound-World brings us back to the gorgeous vocals of Moore in a laid-back song that at times kicks into a feedback-fueled rage. In Drunken Butterfly, Gordon again kicks your teeth in, all the while saying she loves you, despite the not knowing your insignificant name. Shoot is Kim’s anthem of an abused and controlled woman’s sly self-liberation. Wish Fulfillment is yet another Thurston Moore Alternative Rock classic with the beauty of Mainstream Rock mixed with the intensity of hardcore. Sugar Kane is even better, with Thurston’s velvet vocals and he and Ranaldo’s virtuoso guitar work making it one of the best Alt Rock masterpieces of the 1990’s. Gordon’s hardcore Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit and Moore’s anti-racism rant Youth Against Fascism, featuring a cameo by punk legend Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi, pack the blistering sonic punch the band’s name suggests. In the short tirade of Nic Fit, Thurston somehow channels his wife’s frantic vocals. Kim then returns the favor by contributing her most harmonious offering of the album, On The Strip. Next is my personal favorite, Chapel Hill, an epic song, and quite possibly the greatest Alt Rock song of my era. Yea, I said that. Listen to the whole song and then try to prove me wrong… The chaotically beautiful JC (along with 100%) pays tribute to Sonic Youth’s murdered friend and roadie, Joe Cole. Purr kicks the frenetic Noise Rock back into high gear, again showcasing Thurston Moore’s lethargic, but rock star quality vocals. Kim Gordon puts the finishing touches on Dirty by growling out the pretty and simplistic song Crème Brulee. The US vinyl and the Japanese CD releases have a bonus track called Stalker, but I really don’t think it fits in with the other 15 tracks of the album.
Sonic Youth’s Dirty is the most underrated album of my era. I loved the whole album back then and I still love it today. If you see me walking my dog with earbuds in, it’s probably what I’m listening to. If you’ve never heard it, you’re really missing out on some great music. Now that you’ve heard of it, you have no excuse for denying yourself this epic event in music history.
©2012 Denim McDemus
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