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

Would this grungy crew recommend these records?
Would this grungy crew recommend these records?

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.

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