10 Underrated ’90s Bands You Need to Hear Now
Only in the '90s could a band like Soul Coughing be on a major label.
Warner Bros. Records
The music of the ’90s never really gets enough credit for how weird it could be. Sure, it was the decade of grunge and boy bands. But the ’90s were also the decade of Tool and Primus, Beck and Portishead, the decade that launched Björk’s solo career and gave the Butthole Surfers their only No. 1 radio hit. And, because the ’90s were the last decade in which major labels still had obscene amounts of money to throw at bands, even the weird stuff often got fat advances and lavish video budgets.
Not every band on the following list is weird, necessarily. But they all made music that was strikingly unique and that has, over the intervening years, often faded from memory. Let’s fix that right now.
Born out of the downtown Manhattan music scene of the early ’90s that centered around the Knitting Factory, where jazz, punk and art-rock bands all rubbed shoulders, Soul Coughing had one of the most immediately recognizable sounds of any band of the decade — a mix of jazz, hip-hop, beat poetry and lo-fi indie rock that frontman Mike Doughty sardonically dubbed "deep slacker jazz." For three albums, Doughty and his bandmates — bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Yuval Gabay and sampler/keyboardist Mark de Gli Antoni — turned out delightfully eccentric collisions of funky rhythm, absurdist poetry ("You're banging on freon/Paleolithic eon/Put the fake goatee on") and random snippets of noise, cartoon soundtracks and Andrews Sisters records. But addiction and personal tensions drove the band apart in 2000, and the divisions seem permanent; in Doughty's 2012 memoir, The Book of Drugs, he expresses his contempt for his former bandmates by referring to them only as "the drummer," "the bass player" and "the sampler player."
You know the ’90s were a weird decade when a cello-rock band gets signed to a major label. But that's exactly what happened to Melora Creager's merry band of steampunk cellists, who released their first two albums, Thanks for the Ether and How We Quit the Forest, on Columbia Records in 1996 and 1998, respectively. Using distortion pedals to give their cellos a little post-grunge grit, Rasputina made their unusual instrumentation sound less like a gimmick than a revelation — a track like "The Olde Headboard" makes you wonder why more bands don't use cellos, because clearly one can rock the fuck out on a cello. Though they eventually parted ways with Columbia, Creager and her rotating cast of bandmates have continued to release album after album of music that, despite the quirky sound and antiquated themes (sample song title: "Momma Was an Opium Smoker"), is highly engaging and often downright catchy.
This San Francisco group released only two studio albums during their brief early-’90s run, but their influence on subsequent generations of power-pop artists is hard to overstate. The band's core duo of drummer-singer Andy Sturmer and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr. were freakishly good at combining their disparate influences — Queen, XTC, Cheap Trick, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, ELO — into songs in which virtually every instrument and backing vocal was a pop hook unto itself. Their 1990 debut album, Bellybutton, added a little rock & roll crunch to its candied arrangements courtesy of two L.A. musicians, former Three O'Clock guitarist Jason Falkner and Redd Kross bassist Steve McDonald. But by 1993's Spilt Milk, Sturmer and Manning had withdrawn into their own little cul-de-sac, turning out ornate power-pop symphonies like "Joining a Fan Club" and "New Mistake" with help from a few studio hands (including Jon Brion) that were almost too perfect — which maybe explains why the duo parted ways soon after the album's release.
Everything But the Girl
Hull natives Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt met in college and began making music together as Everything But the Girls as far back as 1982. Their ’80s output is pleasant but largely unremarkable "sophisti-pop," heavy on jazzy horns and bossa nova rhythms. But sometime in the early ’90s, the duo discovered dance music and began sprinkling their mostly acoustic music with synths, drum loops and subtly pulsing bass lines, finding a compelling middle ground between electronica and folk music that was the perfect backdrop for Thorn's increasingly assured, soulfully melancholy vocals. After a Todd Terry house remix of the 1994 single "Missing" introduced EBTG to a wider dance-music audience, Thorn and Watt responded with their masterpiece, 1996's Walking Wounded, a pitch-perfect blend of trip-hop beats and lovelorn songwriting that still sounds fresh. Though Watt remains an active DJ and producer, and Thorn has found success as a solo artist, the couple hasn't released any new EBTG music since 1999.
A lot of people didn't know what to make of this New York duo when they first emerged in 1994, playing catchy, sampled-based trip-hop grooves over which lead singer Miho Hatori crooned songs about food in a thick Japanese accent. Some dismissed them as a novelty act, but it was no joke; closer listens to Cibo Matto's 1996 debut album, Viva! La Woman, reveal cleverly stitched-together traces of jazz, funk, bossa nova and no-wave under Hatori's nonsense lyrics about beef jerky, chicken and white pepper ice cream. By 1999's Stereo * Type A, multi-instrumentalist Sean Lennon and drummer Timo Ellis had joined Hatori and her fellow Japanese transplant, Yuka Honda, making their music groovier and more polished but ultimately no less eccentric. They broke up in 2001 but got back together in 2011 and even released a new album, 2014's Hotel Valentine, that holds its own against their ’90s output.
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