Back in November of 2011, I wrote 10 Kick-Ass Rock Albums You’ve Probably Never Heard after finding myself wanting to gouge my eardrums out every time my teenage daughter turned on the car radio. The list featured some of the hidden gems I stumbled upon during a glorious year working at Tower Records on West 4th & Broadway as a twenty year old back in 1991. I’d just come out of my teenage Death Metal years and was now witnessing the birth of the American Grunge and British “Shoegazing” era of music. Those were good days and good music was easy to find (yeah, even on the radio). Today? Not so much. Not by a long shot.
From Left: Jawbox, Mudhoney, The Boo Radleys
So if you already own The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Beatles’ “White Album“, Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Doolittle” by The Pixies and are wondering “What the hell other albums do I really need?”, then sink your teeth into this list of 90’s rock & roll gems and give them a listen on Spotify…
Yo La Tengo “Electr-O-Pura” 
For fans of the semi-obscure, indie rock legends Yo La Tengo, just about any of their albums could make this list. With 1993’s “Painful” or 1997’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One” offering some of their strongest work, I’m going with their 1995 effort, Electr-O-Pura, due to the album’s musical diversity. It contains not only their most perfect pop song in Tom Courtenay but my favorite song by the band (which I’ve included below). Ira Kaplan’s gritty guitar swirls around sweet melodies (many courtesy of Georgia Hubley’s haunting voice) to create one of their finest albums. It’s dreamy pop, bare-knuckled folk and brazen instrumentation all combined into one of the most intelligent musical albums you’re likely to hear.
Swirlies “Blonder Tongue Audio Baton” 
Originally a Go-Go’s cover band, Boston’s own Swirlies got lost in the “Shoegazing” craze of the 90s despite a brilliant album that combined the best of “noise rock” pioneers Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine (with a dash of the Pixies thrown in for good measure). Luscious guitars, crunchy rythms, quirky movie samples and bizarre melodies swarm the sweet boy/girl vocals by Damon Tutunjian and Seana Carmody to create a fuzz-pop masterpiece that still holds it own today. Listen…
Hammerhead “Into the Vortex” 
It’s no surprise that a band like Hammerhead never made it out of relative obscurity. With a battering ram of an album like “Into the Vortex” you’re not gonna crack the Billboard charts. It’s part metal, part punk and part grunge with savage guitars and a distorted bass that assaults you like a vicious mugger jumping out of the murky shadows of a dark alley. Guitarist/vocalist Paul Sanders sounds like somebody smashed his thumb with a hammer then told him to start singing. He’s pissed. As is the rest of this bloodthirsty album.
Mudhoney “Piece of Cake” 
After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew up the Billboard charts, record labels were quick to sign any Seattle band with the grunge sound. With several terrific indie albums already under their belts, Mudhoney were signed to Reprise Records and released their most eclectic album yet. More of a garage band than a grunge act, Mudhoney deliver delirious psychedelic guitar riffs that hit you like a bad case of heartburn. It’s dirty punk, infectious choruses, bizarre techno, and fart noises all rolled into one hell of a rock album.
The Boo Radleys “Everything’s Alright Forever” 
Combining densely packed acoustic guitars and luscious waves of fuzzy electric guitar with the choirboy voice of lead singer Sice, the second album by British band The Boo Radleys delivers one of the most brilliant “shoegaze” albums of the decade. Despite many critics pointing to their follow-up album “Giant Steps” as the band’s masterpiece (it’s also worthy to be praised), the groundbreaking dreamy sound of “Everything’s Alright Forever” wraps you up like a Snuggie on a chilly winter night.
Young Fresh Fellows “Electric Bird Digest” 
With a string of 6 albums already under their belts and a cult following, Seattle’s own Young Fresh Fellows got serious on their seventh album and delivered their finest effort yet. Produced by Butch Vig (who also produced Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” albums), “Electric Bird Digest” has more muscle than their past albums while maintaining the band’s trademark sense of humor. Buzzing guitars combine with vocalist Scott McCaughey’s quirky lyrics to deliver some of the most hook-laden, catchy, melodic rock of the decade.
Seam “The Problem With Me” 
Some albums are just too good to ever see mainstream success – this is one of those albums. Easily one of the finest albums released in the 90’s, Seam’s 3rd album delivers one hypnotic tune after the next. Dreamy guitars and some of the finest bass work you’ll hear on any album carry guitarist/singer Sooyoung Park’s wistful lyrics of melancholy and triumph. It’s an indie-rock masterpiece. Listen to the whole record. Then listen to it again…
Big Chief “Face” 
Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Big Chief combined elements of funk with blaxploitation movie samples and crushing Black Sabbath-like riffs making them not exactly grunge and not exactly metal – part of the problem why they never took off like their peers did. But if you’ve got an appetite for rumbling, brutal hard rock with a touch of the blues, then you need look no further than “Face”. Nuff said?
Jawbox “For Your Own Special Sweetheart” 
For most bands, making the jump from a revered punk indie record label like Dischord to a major label like Atlantic Records usually produces the same results as the BP oil spill – a friggin’ mess. But in the case of “For Your Own Special Sweetheart”, it produced the band’s finest effort. Chunky dual guitars, rumbling bass, and punishing drums collide with J. Robbins’ inscrutable lyrics; shifting gears from furious hardcore to traditional alternative rock like a Porsche 911 on France’s Col de Turini mountain pass (not that I would know anything about that).
The Afghan Whigs “Black Love” (1996)
The Afghan Whigs are perhaps the most surprising band to not enjoy the commercial success of fellow 90’s bands Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam despite an arguably superior string of albums during that period. Searing guitar riffs descend upon cocksure frontman Greg Dulli’s moody observations on revenge, pain, and redemption (‘When you say “We got hell to pay” – don’t worry baby, that’s okay, I know the boss’). Combining soul, r&b and post-punk, “Black Love” is a moody yet groove filled album that probably arrived about 10 years ahead of its time.
Have an album to add? Then drop it in the comments section below…
Oh, and if you’re wondering, “Where are all the kick-ass female rock albums, you macho pig?!”, don’t worry – that list is already in the works so stay tuned…
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