Five Overlooked '90s Alt-Rock Albums You Should Revisit

Would this grungy crew recommend these records?
Would this grungy crew recommend these records?
fanremixnyc.com

News flash: The 1990s are back.

You already knew this; I did too. The music and culture that defined the Alternative Nation-era are everywhere. Still, when I passed throngs of teenagers in the mall last week (don't ask) wearing Doc Martens, ripped stockings and "vintage" Nirvana shirts on the way to J.C. Penney's "Doorbuster!" sale (don't ask), I didn't expect to find their attire actually at the J.C. Penney.

That got me thinking: What a weird time that was. Alt-rock had become a big-business commodity almost overnight, but who knew exactly where alt-rock began and ended?

Well, certainly not the executives at major record labels. With CDs becoming the dominant format and Nirvana adding a new sales model, A&R teams hit the streets, essentially to spend tons of cash without discretion because they didn't have a clear idea of what they were looking for.

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Some of the recipients of said money were bands like Radiohead or the Flaming Lips, who are either still superstars or considered definitive to their era by general or popular consensus. Others -- Pavement and Fugazi, notably -- declined to partake but still made it to the upper echelon of now-classic rock music.

The records on this list are in a different category. Their creators got the major label contract and money, but the albums have been lost either in time or in the shadow of the band's other, better-received albums. This fact that has much more to do with circumstance than quality, and which is why they need to be revisited.

Are your personal favorites missing? Of course they are. List them in the comments below.

1. Stereolab - Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Random Announcements (Elektra)

Stereolab's 1993 major label debut is many things: The band's second full-length, first double album and 11th or 12th -- it's difficult to keep an exact tally for an act that defines "prolific" as "sadistic prank on its audience" -- release in just over two years. It's also enormously influential on experimental rock music into the present and the artistic peak of Stereolab's early, more abrasive period. Transient Random-Noise Bursts is full of references to '50s audiophile stereo test records; Martin Denny-influenced exotica; the drones and churning monorail rhythms of Krautrockers like Neu!, Faust and Can, as well as "Sister Ray"-era Velvets; obsessive devotion to the earliest electronic recordings; and lyrics often promoting Marxism and often sung in French in a classically-influenced counterpoint style by Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen.

But you know what? Screw that nonsense. Stereolab isn't just for elitist jerks.

"Tone Burst" is a wailing wall of distorted organs welded onto to a relentless beat. "Our Trinitone Blast" is edgy, tense and feels like waiting for a bomb to explode for around five minutes; as soon as it ignites the song promptly ends. Conversely, "Pack Yr. Romantic Mind" wraps lilting harmonies and sweet keyboard flourishes around lock-step lounge groove.

And those are just the first three songs -- the 18-minute "Jenny Ondioline" grafts all of what came before into a corrosively gorgeous endless symphony.  

2. Elastica - Elastica (DGC)

Let's face it: Elastica was and will always be cooler than you could ever hope to be. In between playing muse/heart-destroyer to Brit-pop titans Suede (whom she co-founded with then-boyfriend Brett Anderson) and Blur (whose acclaimed 1999 album 13 was largely inspired by her breakup with Damon Albarn), frontwoman Justine Frischmann threw together 16 pop-punk gems for 1995's Elastica.

While Elastica's aesthetic, sound and vision was contextualized distinctly in line with that era of British youth culture and pop music, parallels can be drawn to the American punk resurgence happening simultaneously. But Green Day's monochromatic whine, Rancid's self-seriousness (and dubious achievement of kicking off a third wave of ska-punk) and Offspring's utter lack of personality didn't even pose the slightest threat artistically to Frischmann and Elastica's fundamental understanding of rock 'n' roll: Sass and style go a lot further than self-pitying, passive aggressive nonsense, as do bright hooks and incisive lyrics.

Bonus points go to the band's biggest hit, the period-classic "Connection," with a Wire-biting main riff that exponentially improved the record collections of countless kids on both sides of the Atlantic.  

3. Sonic Youth - Washing Machine (DGC)

I know, I know. What is Sonic Youth doing on this list, you ask. Sonic Youth is generally acknowledged as one of the most influential and significant alternative rock bands ever, you say. Sonic Youth is hardly missing from the public consciousness, let alone forgotten five years after their final album, 2009's The Eternal, you say.

But I say this 1995 album isn't usually counted among the legendary New Yorkers' biggest commercial or artistic achievements. I say Washing Machine is where Sonic Youth went back underground after unsuccessfully flirting with mainstream acceptance. I say this marks the moment when the band gave up on its half-hearted pursuit of stardom, stopped giving a fuck and made its best record of the '90s.

Washing Machine wasn't a retreat back to insular, arty indie rock. While it was arty and insular, it was in a different manner than before, reflecting the influence of a generation of bands Sonic Youth had influenced, and the mark of rejecting an audience that had rejected them in favor of Bush and Weezer.

From the compact and creepy opener "Becuz," which was pop on Kim Gordon's own, atonal terms, through the epic, translucent guitar baptism in "The Diamond Sea," Washing Machine wasn't so much a return to the trenches as the trading of frightening catacombs for heavenly sighs.  

4. Royal Trux - Thank You (Virgin)

On occasion when I've run out of useful things to think about, I sometimes wonder what became of the hapless A&R person at Virgin Records who thought throwing a reported million dollars and three-album contract at a Captain Beefheart-influenced avant-blues-rock band that injected enough smack to potentially create a worldwide heroin shortage called Royal Trux would be a solid investment.

For this 1995 major label debut, Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty switched it up a little bit: Instead of double albums filled with side-long tracks of formless yet compelling pastiches like "Edge of the Ape Oven," they developed a surprising fondness for The Allman Brothers Band on songs like "The Sewers of Mars."

What could possibly go wrong?

Commercially speaking, obviously everything. But Thank You is a filthy, raw, ugly beast of a record, and stands up nicely to Royal Trux's consistently strong catalog. Picking up where 1993's Cats and Dogs left off, Virgin's budget added a funky swagger to the backbeat and a clarity to see just how sublime Herrema and Hagerty's drug-fueled mess was.  

5. Spiritualized - Pure Phase (Dedicated)

The second album from J. Spaceman's rotating cast of British psych outfit Spiritualized often takes a back seat to 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, the band's most famous record. But 1995's Pure Phase is every bit as worthwhile as its successor.

Regarding this release, Spaceman said at the time that every Spiritualized record is "shooting for Electric Ladyland." Pure Phase is appropriately grand and ambitious. It's filled with huge, layered instrumentation painstakingly finished off with distinctively different mixes in each stereo channel. jumping from R&B to ambience to Ornette Coleman-style cataclysms.

But it's the songs that matter here -- the classic two-chord soul burner of "Medication," the unhinged free-jazz touches of "These Blues," the atypical upbeat and anthemic "Lay Back in the Sun" and the gospel-ish masterpiece "Let it Flow" highlight one of the '90's greatest and most underrated rock records.

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