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.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
England's so-called “second summer of love” in 1988 (and 1989 — when you're that high on ecstasy, summers tend to blur together) not only gave the world rave culture — it helped to launch the careers of numerous bands who mixed dance grooves with elements of post-punk and psychedelic rock. Many of these, including The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Primal Scream and Jesus Jones, went on to international fame and fortune — and for a minute there, it seemed as though Ned’s Atomic Dustbin might join them. The Birmingham quintet, who distinguished themselves by having two bass players and more of a punk edge than most of their peers, even scored a U.S. modern rock No. 1 with “Not Sleeping Around” in 1993 — but after breaking up in 1995, they became something of a footnote to the whole era. Which is crazy, because 1992's Are You Normal?, in particular, is one of the best dance-rock albums of the decade. The original lineup finally reunited in 2008 and can still kick up a raver-punk riot of sound.
The ’90s were a great decade for Boston alternative rock (see also: Letters to Cleo, The Lemonheads, Juliana Hatfield Three, the list goes on). But no Boston band was cooler than the oddball trio led by the late, great singer and two-string bass player Mark Sandman. Together with sax player Dana Colley and drummers Jerome Deupree and Billy Conway, Sandman created music that was dark, sexy and mysterious, like something you might hear playing in a smoky basement cabaret in a David Lynch film. Tragically, Sandman died of a heart attack during a 1999 Morphine concert in Italy at the age of 46. But he left behind five albums’ worth of entrancing songs, of which 1993's Cure for Pain is probably the best entry point into one of the most distinctive catalogs in ’90s rock.
This New York quartet started out in the ’80s, when they had their greatest commercial success with their multi-platinum debut album, Vivid, and its ubiquitous hit single, “Cult of Personality.” Led by shredder extraordinaire Vernon Reid, the band's early fusion of funk and metal could come off as gimmicky, but by 1990’s Time’s Up — still their best album — they had matured into something unique and often thrilling, a punk/funk/metal freight train of a band capable of both punishing heaviness (“Type”) and startling beauty (the highlife-influenced “Solace of You”). Their heaviest album, 1993’s Stain, might also be their most slept-on, showcasing the amazing rhythm section of bassist Doug Wimbish and drummer Will Calhoun on the math-metal tempo changes of “Mind Your Own Business” and the goth-y funk of “Nothingness.” They’re still active today but never really topped their stellar ’90s output.
The Folk Implosion
Lou Barlow is rightly famous for his work in Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh — but Folk Implosion, his mellower side project with John Davis, deserves more credit than it usually gets for producing some classic ’90s alternative rock. Barlow and Davis achieved some success with the sinister “Natural One,” which was featured on the soundtrack to Larry Clark's controversial 1995 film Kids. But the duo’s distinctive mix of chiming guitars, looped beats and droning, dubby bass never quite connected again with a larger audience. After Davis left the group in 2000, Barlow released one last album, 2003’s The New Folk Implosion, with Russ Pollard and Imaad Wasif, then scrapped the project around the time he was invited to rejoin Dinosaur Jr. in 2005.
Cap’n Jazz are one of those bands that didn't become famous until after they had broken up, mainly because nearly all their members went on to form more successful groups, including Joan of Arc, The Promise Ring and American Football. But even though they only released one album during their brief existence — the insanely titled Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards in the Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We've Slipped On and Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over, better known to fans as Shmap’n Shmazz — Cap’n Jazz were arguably just as influential to late-’90s and early-2000s emo as Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbreaker, The Get Up Kids or Weezer's Pinkerton. Frontman Tim Kinsella’s strangled yawp of a voice is an acquired taste, but his lyrics are often brilliantly evocative (sample: “Hey coffee eyes, you got me coughing up my cookie heart,” from “Little League”) and his band’s ramshackle style gives every song a falling-down-the-stairs energy that rivals Pavement at their most unhinged. They’re playing FYF Fest in July, in their first live show since 2010. If you've ever raged to “Ohio Is for Lovers” at Emo Nite, don't miss it.
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