Time is relative, I suppose, and every generation marks it in a different way. As a Gen Xer, when I hear “30 years ago” my first guess is that someone is talking about the 1960s. But lo and behold, when 2019 became 2020 last month, 30 years ago is now officially … 1990.
1990 kicked off a (mostly) fabulous decade for music of all stripes. People hear “90s” and tend to think grunge, and there’s no denying the impact that bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden had on the music scene. But there was more: techno and house music ruled the clubs, new jack swing and g-funk infused new life into hip-hop, and “power pop” that started as the Green Day punk revival took shape.
The rock scene, though, seemed to tucker out. With a few exceptions (Lenny Kravitz, Foo Fighters, Stone Temple Pilots, Oasis), rock and roll took a back seat to the other genres. But there were a few bands that Blur-red the line between rock and alternative and are worth looking back at. If they’re not already part of your playlist, here are five bands that flew mostly under the radar but turned out some of the most serviceable rock albums of the mid-90s.
Hum: “You’d Prefer an Astronaut,” 1995. A plain teal cover and a zebra. Didn’t tell you much about what was inside, but if you heard “Stars” on the radio that summer, you’d have been hooked. Cut from the same cloth as bigger names like Smashing Pumpkins, Hum churned out sonic experiences that ranged from sludgy to sublime – masterfully balancing barely-perceptible guitars with crushing chords in a way few bands could match.
Maids of Gravity: self-titled, 1994. Not a lot of bands were successfully sampling psychedelics in the 90s, but this band pulled it off. (Not that mainstream radio noticed.) Their self-titled debut was anchored by the brooding, trippy “Only Dreaming,” but the entire album floats along through swirling guitar spirals and slow grinds that were a welcome tonic to the decade’s louder, angrier sludge metal bands.
Sloan: “Navy Blues,” 1998. A minor disclaimer – Sloan was under-the-radar in the U.S., but huge in Canada by the time this album was released. “Money City Maniacs” got most of the airplay, but tracks like “She Says What She Means” (the opener) and “I’m Not Through With You Yet” (the closer) make it easy to see what Canadians saw in them. Or, rather, see in them: Sloan is still going strong, boasting the same lineup since they debuted in 1991. Maybe that’s the secret to their success.
Sponge: “Rotting Pinata,” 1994. “Molly” and “Plowed” (the “world of human wreckage” song) were minor hits for this Detroit-based band that had previously popped up on the soundtrack to the Keanu Reeves flick “Point Break.” Start to finish, though, “Pinata” doesn’t have a single skippable track. Sponge nearly broke through two later with 1996’s “Wax Ecstatic,” but their 1994 debut is the album to download.