The mid-90’s post Grunge Alternative movement was the popular music movement for a span of 4 years or so (94-98). In the late 90’s with the rise of Nu Metal, manufactured pop divas, and boy bands its popularity began to fade. Over the four years the music managed to leave a very lasting impression on a lot of teenagers who were just a short time before were immersed into the grunge scene. Like all second acts, however, it did not have quite as strong an impact.
The main difference between Grunge and Alternative is the diversity in sound as well as the fact that the groups involved in the Alternative movement of the 90s is that the bands that made up the genre were partly derivative of the grunge scene. In the end this was another genre killed by the music industry as the quality of the bands waned with the increased quantity of them. The diminishing returns and saturated marked of similar sounding and looking bands made the entire genre collapse under its own weight.
This list is made up of 31 of, what I consider, the best and most varied mix of songs of the era. I tried to showcase the genre’s ability to produce both fun and catchy songs with a backdrop of music that was varied and spanned both a heavy and soft sound. As always comments are welcome below if you disagree with a choice or feel that I missed an important song that should have been on the list, heck, if you enjoy the playlist leave a comment so that I know how you feel. The playlist is also available on Spotify.
When The Color and the Shape was released in 1997 it kicked off it’s singles with “Monkey Wrench”, a hard hitting and high energy first single. The second single showed the strength of songwriting that Grohl had developed in the previous years. “Everlong” has a slow build with that ends up crescendoing into a loud chorus at the end. From start to finish this song is a great example of a song that has an alternative sound but also has a great hooky chorus. This song never gets old.
Man On The Moon- R.E.M.While the band had been around more than a decade before the alternative movement of the mid-90’s it was during this time that they saw their success finally reach beyond the realms of college radio. This song is closely associated with the Jim Carrey bio-pic of the same name about the late comedian Andy Kaufman who is mentioned repeatedly in the lyrics. The movie brought back a popular focus on the song but the music and lyrical ability of Michael Stipe and the solid guitar work of Peter Buck drive the song.
Machinehead- BushBush came to the public consciousness at the tail end of the Grunge era and was partially associated with the movement. An attempt at a Facebook poll that I posted yielded a 50/50 split as to whether the band was considered Alternative or Grunge. My personal opinion is that they belong solidly in the Alternative genre due to their music style as well as the fact that the majority of their success and releases came in the Alternative era. “Machinehead” was the last single released from their debut album Sixteen Stone and followed the major success of their previous single “Glycerine”. Hard charging and energetic, this song belongs on any Alternative playlist of the era.
King of New Orleans- Better Than EzraBetter Than Ezra had a few different hits in the Alternative era. This song has a great start stop dynamic to the beginning of the verses and at the beginning of the chrouses. This helps to make the more musically full parts of the song more than just a senseless chugging of chords. The chorus vocals are melodic, catch, and understated. “King of New Orleans” is a constant in many of my personal playlists of the era. While containing many of the elements of the Alternative sound, Better Than Ezra manage to also sound distinct in movement. They are definately worth checking out if you are unfamiliar with their music.
Pepper- Butthole SurfersThe Butthole Surfers have always been a bit ‘out there’ musically. This art rock group from Texas managed to infuriate and entice the media and parents with their unique stage shows. “Pepper” is probably their most successful commercial hit. The song is very basic with the drums carrying the majority of the song. Gibby Haynes’ vocals during the verse are in a spoken word format and the chorus is somewhat nonsensical yet infinately catchy. One of the most lasting memories of this song for me is Eric Estrada in the music video. The Butthole Surfers are a shining example of how it was really kind of like the wild west in terms of the musical landscape in the mid-90’s. Anything went and record companies were more willing to give even the wierder acts a record deal.
December- Collective SoulHaving released other popular rock songs Collective Soul managed to maintain a thoughtful rock style to a genre of other acts that were just fine with jamming out. A three guitar band that was uncharacteristic of the Alternative genre but a hallmark for southern rock acts in the 70’s, the band managed to blend the different guitar parts into a cohesive sound. “December” is a moderate tempo toe tapper with a very basic chorus. In a similar vein as their single “Shine”, the song works on a steady tempo and instrumentation that is understated yet melodic.
Counting Blue Cars- DiswallaProbably the only song that is remembered by this Santa Barbara band, “Counting Blue Cars” is actually a great track. Another song with a laid back instrumentation in the verse that gives way to a powerfull chorus. This is one of the few times where a male singer refers to God as a woman. The narrative of the lyrics lay out the events of a long summer afternoon and the conversation between people of different age groups. Catchy and memorable, this song is a great addition to any Alt-rock playlist of the era.
Teen Angst- CrackerLike Cake and Beck, Cracker have always managed to wander through the musical landscape and pull many influences and sounds into their music. There is a very wide variety of styles in their music that often contrast from track to track that keeps their music fresh and interesting. Songs like “Teen Angst” are more straight ahead rock while other songs such as “Eurotrash Girl” show a storyteller side with a bit of avante garde thrown in. The lyrics “What the world needs now are some true words of wisdom like ‘la la la la la la la la la la'” is a fun example of the bands ability to write fun yet interesting lyrics. Speaking to the boredom of a generation and the somewhat stagnant social landscape of the mid-90’s, this song is a rocking reminder to all of us to look for things outside of the same old.
Long Way Down- Goo Goo DollsGoo Goo Dolls is a band that unfortunately got crushed under the weight of its own success. Long way down was one of the heavier songs on their 1995 album A Boy Named Goo which also contained one of their earlier softer hits “Name”. I remember this song mostly associated with the soundtrack for the movie Twister. The Goo’s are mostly known for their melodic balads such as “Name” and “Iris” but I am more partial to this song because it is a solid rock song that shows that the band could have been just as successful releasing more rock oriented material.
Seether- Veruca SaltNamed after a character from Roal Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book, Veruca Salt were one of the female rock acts that managed to make headway in the male dominated alt rock scene. Along with Hole and L7, Veruca Salt managed to show that female fronted rock groups were a viable source of income for record companies. Both “Seether” and “Volcano Girls” shows the bands ability to write upbeat and fun songs and that the band was just as good as the other bands but took themselves less seriously and were able to enjoy their music.
Break Me- The LemonheadsThe Lemonheads are one of the bands that are largely overlooked by the majority but managed to produced fun and interesting music. Frontman Evan Dando managed to keep the band going with a rotating supporting cast of musicans over the years but the sound has always been consistent. Probably best known for their cover of Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson”, the song “Break Me” shows their ability to write melody and airy lyrics into a catch and thoughtful song. I strongly suggest any fan of the era to go back and listen to some tracks by the band.
Popular- Nada SurfAn odd and quirky song from the era “Popular” is thematically about high school popularity and social dynamic. The song mentions cheerleaders and jocks. The verses underlying music is understated and somewhat dissonant but manage to push the speaking lyrics. The chorus is a power chord strumming sing along with catchy lyrics with the repeated refrain “I’m popular” ending the first three lines of the chorus.
Don’t Look Back in Anger- OasisOasis… What can I say? They were kind of like the 90’s version of the Beatles. They were brittish, wrote a great debut album full of alt-pop songs that were catch, and people kind of went nuts over them until they got too big and the founding brother’s infighting broke up the band. “Wonderwall” was a huge hit that opened the doors for Oasis but “Don’t Look Back In Anger” managed to show a more expressive side of the band. The chord progression of the guitar and the vocals work well together in creating an overall feel of both loss and catharsis. The heavy studio chorus in the mix makes the song have a feel of a bygone era of music. For me, this is the one Oasis song that managed to hold up well over the last two decades.
Banditos- The RefreshmentsProbably one of the most lasting and fun songs from the Alternative era, “Banditos” is a fun rock song from Phoenix’s The Refreshments. Along with the Gin Blossoms, The Refreshments were one of Arizona’s most popular exports in the era. As mentioned in a separate blog post about their debut album, I remember hearing “Banditos” on the radio while working my paper route back in high school. I sat up late into the night waiting for the radio station to play the song again so that I could record it on a tape. The entire Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big and Buzzy record is great. If there was only one detriment to the Refreshments career it is that they were mislabeled as an alternative act when in fact they were more a rock and songwriter outfit. “Banditos” stands the test of time as a song about bank robbing and bandits heading for the Mexican border, plus it was the only song to ever name drop Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
Somebody to Shove- Soul AsylumWhile there are more popular songs by Soul Asylum I chose this song because it was one of their more rocking numbers. The hits of the band tended to be more melodic slower songs like “Runaway Train” and “Misery” but “Somebody to Shove” shows that there was still an element of rock and punk in the bands music. I wanted to put the acoustic version of this song from their MTv Unplugged session on the playlist but thought better as the electric version shows the more dynamic range of the band when compared to the more acoustic songwriting of their more substantial hits.
Undone (the Sweater Song)- WeezerWeezer have always been a geeky talented bunch. Bursting on the scene with the strength of “Buddy Holly” Weezer quickly took a place toward the top of the alternative rock heap of bands. Their humerous lyrics and great use of musical dynmaics in their songs make their songs catch and relatable. “Undone” was actually the first single from their debut ‘Blue’ album but didn’t gain real popularity until after the success of “Buddy Holly”. A more melodic track that includes some recorded conversation between women, singsong lyrics and a strangely catch chorus about distroying a sweater there is a lot to love.
Santa Monica- EverclearEverclear was another band that buckled under their own success. Santa Monica was one of the first songs that they became popular for. Combining rock and pop with ease, Art Alexakis wrote catchy songs about bad relationships, growing up poor, and absentee parents that were catchy and yet relatable. I still love this song but cannot hear the first verse without my hearing my friend Pat sing “I’m still living with your, Goat”. Man, Pat and I really ruined a lot of songs for each other by making up funny lyrics to them but things like that tend to happen when you are tired and working a night shift.
Back Porch- P.U.S.A.The ultimate band for quirky songs and hillarious lyrics. The Presidents of the United States has a short popularity but were definiately the most fun of all alternative acts. Songs like “Peaches”, “Dune Buggy”, and “Back Porch” showcase the bands ability to write quirky, nonsensical, and catchy songs that you cant help but sing along to. Their songs never get old because they are just fun and funny while also being well constructed.
Milk- GarbageSure there are more upbeat or popular songs by Garbage, but “Milk” has always been my favorite song off of their debut album. Shirley Manson’s vocal abilities and the musical and producing genious of Butch Vig and company manage to put together a sprawling, atmospheric, and melodic opus that clocks in at just under 4 minutes. The beat is steady and the orchestration brings a minor key sorrowful feel to the song. Manson’s chorus singing is beautifully melancholic. Just a great song to end on… but wait..
Bonus: In the Mean Time- SpacehogSpacehog’s Resident Alien is a criminally overlooked album from the alternative era. More glam rock (talking 70’s Bowie, T-Rex not 80’s hair metal) than punk rock the band wrote great catchy songs and should have had more success. “In the Meantime” is a great song period. Upbeat, bass driven and hooky, all the elements of a great pop song. The music is simple but efficient in conveying the mood of the song. Royston Langdon’s vocals are grounded yet soar on the chorus. The bridge builds the song effectively upward before pushing into the chorus again. Another great example of a song that builds from a very quiet start to a strong and loud ending, the range and dynamics of the song keep it fresh even 23 years after release.