The 1990s was a time of tremendous change for the music industry with the alternative scene gaining traction fast. There was a huge push to promote alternative bands and fans couldn’t get enough. So here are my picks for the absolute best alternative bands of the 90s.
Top Alternative Bands of the 1990s We Love
Let’s begin with Nirvana.
Nirvana was huge in the 90s not only for their music being great, but how they also addressed social issues in interviews and in their art. Nirvana also steps up as the face of the grunge movement that swept the country and produced raw anger-fueled music led by Kurt Cobain. The band formed in Seattle in 1987 and went mainstream with their second 1991 album, Nevermind.
The band’s sound was the perfect blend of rock’n’roll and punk rock and housed the iconic overdriven guitar style perfectly pairing with Cobain’s vocals and Ghrol’s drumming. Nirvana used Cobain’s unique vocals to make loud and angry music that makes you feel alive and want to jump around. For many fans of alternative 90s music, Nirvana will always be in the top 10 of the best alternative bands of the 90s.
- My Favorite Nirvana Song: Smells Like Teen Spirit from the Nevermind album (1991)
This song helped break Nirvana into more mainstream music, as it was common to turn on the radio and hear it. I personally think of this song as an anthem for the 90s and still, to this day, it caters to young listeners. I love how nostalgic this song is and takes me back to how great the music scene was during this time period. Smells Like Teen Spirit perfectly encapsulates how unique this band was and how much talent each member had.
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2. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers is another band that stormed the alternative 90s scene. Flea’s versatile basslines and Kiedis’ chopped vocals create some of the most iconic music from the 90s that has always stayed true to its core. RHCP has such a creative aesthetic when it comes to their music, it’s hard not to find a song of theirs to like. The 1991 release of their album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, is the breakthrough album and is considered their best album yet.
Red Hot Chili Peppers was able to change the alternative scene by creating something new that was energetic and raw. In an interview with Kerrang!, RHCP Anthony Kiedis said, “We yearn to shine a light in the world, to uplift, connect, and bring people together.” I feel their music has done just that and brought together a whole variety of people and allowed them to bond over a unique, one-of-a-kind style of music.
- My Favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers Song: Snow (Hey Oh) from the Stadium Arcadium album (2006)
I love how this song immediately throws you into a baseline that tapped back into the magic of the Californication era. I love how the bass and the guitar pair each other very well and sounds like they are back at their roots for music. There are many great RHCP songs that are fantastic but for me, this song will always be a timeless masterpiece that I can listen to all the time.
3. The Offspring
The Offspring is another alternative band of the 90s and their signature style was their chorused “yeahs:, “heys”, and “whoas”, which were impossible not to sing along to. In a recent interview celebrating their 20th anniversary with Kerrang!, The Offspring said, “How do you sound like your old self without sounding like you’re repeating yourself?” That’s something that I really love about The Offspring is they have managed to change their style slightly over time to where it’s not recycled material.
They still stay true to who they are with their instrumentals and vocals, but you can tell they are actually putting in the time and work, not just rebranding a song over and over again. The Offspring started to get big in the 80s but really took off in the 90s with their 1994 album, Smash. Altogether, the band released 10 studio albums, five demos, four Eps, two compilation albums, and over 30 singles.
- My Favorite The Offspring Song: Pretty Fly (For A White Guy) from the Americana album (1998).
The song begins with the nonsense phrase, “Gunter glieben glauchen globen” from Def Leppard’s song “Rock of Ages.” The verse “Give it to me baby,” was done by Nika Futterman and adds to the theme of ridiculing poseurs. This is such a catchy song and it makes it even more enjoyable because it has a silly undertone and meaning.
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If you love long bass solos and more instrumental than vocals, Tool is the perfect band for you. For many bass players, bassist Justin Chancellor is someone who introduced them to all that the bass guitar has to offer and how it can be a frontline sound rather than just background noise. According to this article from Forbes, Tool’s song “Fear Inoculum,” is an impressive 10-minute and 20-second long single that holds the record for the longest metal song to win a grammy.
Tool has released five studio albums, one EP, and one box set since the band formed in 1990. Many fans also love how they incorporate a lot of visual arts into their music and especially concerts. It’s really impressive how Justin Chancellor manages to fill every second of song time with hard bass riffs that are unlike anything else.
- My Favorite Tool Song: Sober from the Undertow album (1993)
Not only is the music great, but the music video is awesome with stop-motion animation characters designed by Adam Jones. I love how this song was written about a friend of the band who was only creative when under the influence. This is the perfect song that represents how some people can become a slave to addictions and let them take over their lives.
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5. Blind Melon
Blind Melon is a band that earned success in the early 90s and really hit it off with their 1993 hit, “No Rain.” The bands success was tragically cut short with the death of lead singer Shannon Hoon in 1995. Even though Blind Melon is considered an alternative band they are basically a mashed together band of different genres. Some songs have a rock sound, others have a grunge sound, and many have a blues undertone. This band just has a loving undertone and their music gives off positive vibes.
- My Favorite Blind Melon Song: No Rain from the debut Blind Melon album (1993)
When Blind Melon is brought up, the first song that comes to mind for many is “No Rain.” I love how giving this song a quick listen can instantly make my day feel better and completely stands out from the rest of the music on the album. The music video is also fantastically done and depicts a bee girl as she is trying to figure out where she belongs.
6. Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam is a great band that not only rocks you but makes you think at the same time. The band helped to popularize grunge music in the 90s and continued to be a main alternative rock group into the 21st century. When it comes to alternative music of the 90s Pearl Jam and Nirvana go hand in hand to become two of the most memorable bands of the time period.
Fans loved how melodic the music was; it was enough to get even moshers to sing along. Pearl Jam managed to inspire bands like Puddle of Mud, The White Stripes, The Strokes, and Silverchair. The band’s ability to make either rage-inspired or thoughtful music is enough to develop a connection with every listener.
- My Favorite Pearl Jam Song: Black from the Ten album (1991)
I love how the song is Vedder’s personal account about hanging on to a relationship that has ended some time ago. The lyrics are very relateable to the pain that this situation can cause and the music is very catchy.
One unique thing that gave Oasis an appealing quality is that they are an English band from Manchester that hit the scene in 1991. Many fans have called Oasis “The Beatles of the 90s” and Oasis had the fan base to back this up. The band was extremely electrifying live and managed to grow even more fans through their lively stage presence. While Noel’s songwriting is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is lyrically genius and deep.
- My Favorite Oasis Song: Wonderwall from the (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? album (1995)
This song is considered by many Oasis fans to be their favorite and it still stands as one of the band’s most popular songs. While many people think the song is about Gallagher and Matthews’s divorce, there is actually a different meaning behind the lyrics. The song is about an imaginary friend that is going to come and save you from yourself. The lyrics are slightly gloomy but overall, it’s great quality.
8. Nine Inch Nails
One of the best things about Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor’s ability to convey emotion in both his vocals and instrumentals. For a one-man band, TR managed to accomplish a lot with Nine Inch Nails and still has the success that resonates today. Not only is NIN music influential but TR managed to have a cultural impact that went further than just record sales; the NIN logo started to appear everywhere from t-shirts to being incorporated into Captain Marvel’s Easter egg where he wears a NIN shirt.
- My Favorite Nine Inch Nails Song: Closer from The Downward Spiral album (1994)
I think this song is so appealing because it almost immediately catches your attention. It’s a very heavy and loud sound and is the perfect ballad for NIN.
9. Foo Fighters
After Nirvana, Dave Grohl initially started Foo Fighters as a one-man band. After the success of his 1995 album, he eventually landed with bandmates Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett, and Taylor Hawkins. When it comes to alternative bands of the 90s, many people think of the Foo Fighters with their mix of grunge and alternative rock sound.
As you can imagine, the Foo Fighters were commonly compared to Grohl’s previous band, Nirvana; leading Grohl to state in interviews how Kurt Cobain influenced his songwriting for the Foo Fighters. I personally like how the band has a grunge sound at times but also mixes with hard rock. If you like the sound and style of Nirvana, the Foo Fighters would be an excellent band to check out.
- My Favorite Foo Fighters Song: Monkey Wrench from The Colour And The Shape album (1997)
From the opening guitar riffs to the intro vocals, the entire song has a pumped and upbeat rhythm that is easy to move with. I love how this track shows how talented Dave Grohl is and how well the bandmates work together to create this song. I’m still amazed how Dave Grohl was able to say the ending verse all in one breath.
Weezer is a very nostalgic band of the 90s that is known for catchy songs, crunchy guitars, and silly lyrics. They are more of a silly band and not really everyone’s cup of tea; nonetheless, they were still a pretty big band that had multiple singles played constantly on the radio. I personally enjoyed how easy it is to sing along with their songs and how the melody and lyrics were catchy. Weezer is a great band that emerged out of the grunge-alternative rock scene and managed to incorporate 70s-sounding metal into their music.
- My Favorite Weezer Song: Say It Ain’t So from the Weezer album (1994)
Like many Weezer fans, “Say It Ain’t So” is the song that put the band on their music radar. Weezer’s music may not be for everyone, but the youth of the 90s thoroughly enjoyed this song and the music video. Personally, I love the reggae-ish beat that is under the verse vocals and the accompanying guitar riff that manages to copycat the beat.
Bush is another English rock band that was formed in London in the early 90s. Though Bush is an alternative rock band, they have also been described as post-grunge, grunge, and hard rock. When listening to Bush you can clearly hear that Nirvana was a huge influence in their work, with many people saying they were the most successful band to mimic Nirvana.
Though many of the bandmates have also cited multiple different artists for inspiration from The Beatles to Tom Petty, the band holds firm that their style is original and only draws slight inspiration from different bands. Bush was a great grunge band formed in the alternative era of the 90s and is worth a listen if you like the style of Nirvana.
- My Favorite Bush Song: Glycerine from the Sixteen Stone album (1994)
Gavin Rossdale wrote “Glycerine” about his girlfriend at the time, Suze DeMarchi, and the song’s title is used to describe how their love was like a bomb. I love how the lyrics are not only deep but they tell a story about what his life was like at that time and how relatable it is.
Beck is another alternative band of the 90s that is cited for helping to mold 90s culture and help shape rock. Beck has the uncanny ability to effortlessly blend together styles and genres to fit perfectly into the vision he has. His music is always pure and raw; allowing you to feel he really means what he is singing and that it’s coming from the heart.
Beck’s stage presence is also the most amazing and is very energetic and engaging with his fans. In all, Beck is a very well-respected artist who plays several instruments paired perfectly with his vocals.
- My Favorite Beck Song: Loser from the Mellow Gold album (1994)
Beck’s “Loser” is the ultimate anthem for the 90s and I feel defined the typical teenager in high school during that time. This song has the perfect blend of melancholic, sarcastic, sappy, and light-hearted tones and even though the lyrics are somewhat depressing, it cheers me up to hear this song.
Blur is yet again another British band that arose during the 90s alternative band takeoff. They have great delivery, deep lyrics, and a ranging style that made them hard to match with other bands coming out of the woodwork in the 90s.
The 90s were a huge time of change for music and bands were learning to either sink or swim with the new times. Blur decided to take a leap and instead of just changing with the times, they decided to do a complete artistic overhaul.
- My Favorite Blur Song: Song 2 from the Blur album (1997)
When “Song 2” was written, it was nearing the end of the grunge era of the 90s, and this song was written as a parody of the overplayed grunge all over the radio. I love how the song has small bits that sound similar to Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam; in a way mocking these bands and their sounds.
The overall lyrics are extremely catchy, I can still to this day remember all of the words because of how simple the lyrics are, but it’s hard not to sing along when listening.
14. Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins deserve more credit as a band considering their first three albums were pretty solid. The Smashing Pumpkins was even an influence for bands like Weezer and My Chemical Romance and they are still active in the music scene.
With over 30 million records sold worldwide, the Smashing Pumpkins quickly became a successful band of the 90s and helped to popularize the alternative rock scene. Many listeners love the Smashing Pumpkins for their fuzzy guitars with hard rock undertones, rhythmic bass, and underrated vocals.
- My Favorite Smashing Pumpkins Song: Bullet With Butterfly Wings from the Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness album (1995)
The way that “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” has a loud, crunchy sound that builds up to the anger of the situation is amazing. Even when the song gets to the lighter parts, there is still a lot of tension that you can feel. I love how the Smashing Pumpkins’ music can invoke raw emotion out of you and they particularly are great at it.
The legacy of Soundgarden was amazing while it lasted. The band ultimately broke up in 1997 due to differences in creative direction and being exhausted from touring. Soundgarden did reunite in 2010 to make their King Animal album. They were known for using fuzzy-sounding distortion with their guitars to make their music sound sludgy with a splash of metal and punk rock.
With influences ranging from Led Zeppelin to Blue Oyster Cult, it’s no wonder the band has such great taste. The band’s biggest success came with their 1994 release of the Superunknown album.
- My Favorite Soundgarden Song: Fell on Black Days from the Superunknown album (1994)
This ballad song for the Superunknown album will always be my favorite Soundgarden song. It was a fantastic break from the other songs on the album that were maybe a little too aggressive. The song had fantastic bass and guitar lines and the guitar solo to this day is still in my top 10 favorite solos.
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