90s Rock Bands

You know the bands, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, to name a few. You know the songs, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Black Hole Sun, When I Come Around and the Sweater Song. You know you miss it.

A list of bands that changed the musical landscape of the 1990s and beyond.

The 90s kept the volume of the 80s, but ditched the tone. Gone was the lyrical unity of getting babes, arriving in it's place a layer of introspection and authenticity. True, babes were still gotten, but they were no longer the subject(s) of the song. They were no longer Love Bombs (Baby).

Stadium grade performances met arthouse songwriting. Rock never burned brighter. Until 1997, when rock music went Supernova.

Like Alderaan before it, awesome Rock Music was destroyed by the Music Industry Death Star known as Butt Rock. It wasn't truly called Butt Rock until 2005(ish) when Nickelback's Photograph was released. But it's origins in Nu-Metal and Post Grunge were formed in the late 90s.

So we tell to you now the tale of the heroes of yore, the heroes of the 90s who, while destroying Hair Metal, were the last known excellent musical movement.

A list of the Best 90s Rock Bands

The band Pearl Jam playing a live show in Amsterdam in 2018
Pearl Jam live in 2018

Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam is the Tom Brady of American rock bands. Adored by many, hated by more, and reluctantly appreciated by all in the end.

They arrived on the scene and put out 50 straight high quality songs until they dropped Hey Foxymomma at the end of Vitalogy. Their early B-Sides could be a Top 10 90s Rock Album on their own. Top 5 Grunge.

Their collaboration with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden as Temple of the Dog also falls into that category. Add that to the fact that PJ had two albums that fit that description on their own, Ten and Vs. respectively, and it should come as no surprise as to why they are here at the top of 90s Rock Mountain.

Opponents of Pearl Jam as the best of all of the 90s band like to lean on the fact that they never led the Grunge movement, as Cobain, Grohl and Novoselic had in Nirvana. We posit that Pearl Jam was actually slightly outside of Grunge, leaning a bit more on the blues-driven, stadium anthems of the Classic Rock 70s.

Check out the video for Jeremy and argue us down from the genius that is the Jeremy video. We dare you.

As for the Brady comparison, the band’s outstanding live performances throughout the 2000s & 2010s have kept them near and dear to the hearts of every fan of rock & roll, despite producing inferior studio recordings. Even detractors reluctantly admit that Pearl Jam’s longevity is good for the spirit of rock.

Those same detractors are now hoping that tragedy never befalls Pearl Jam’s legendary frontman, Eddie Vedder, as the band is now the final giant of the (extended) Grunge movement, given that Cobain, Cornell and Weiland are dead, and have been for some time now.

One final note before we pull the mic on Pearl Jam like Congress at the Ticketmaster hearings in 1994, Ten may just be the very best debut album any band ever had. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. It had A+ lyrical content. It was bereft of the fluff that pervaded the albums of its 1980s hair metal predecessors.
  2. Excellent guitar work. Despite the changeover in decade and musical genre, Ten managed to retain high power riffs and stadium shaking songs, thanks to the songwriting prowess of rhythm guitar player, Stone Gossard, and hall of fame lead guitarist, Mike McCready.
  3. The album was infinitely singable, regardless of whether or not you knew the lyrics that Vedder was singing.
  4. The album looped naturally. Speaking of infinite, the album could be played infinitely on repeat on compact disc. Ten’s hidden track, “Master/Slave” syncs right up with the start of track one, Once.

Last, most forget that PJ was on the Judgment Night soundtrack, putting out the track, Real Thing with hip-hop group, Cypress Hill.

  • Albums: Ten, Vs., Vitalogy, No Code
  • Songs: Alive, Even Flow, Black, Jeremy, Daughter, Rearview Mirror, Spin the Black Circle, Better Man

Nirvana

The biggest Grunge band there ever was. Seattle’s Nirvana was a commercial success beyond their wildest imagination. And Smells Like Teen Spirit was the catalyst for it all. Kids born between 1975-1985 wanted a song that was the sonic representation of how they felt. And they sure got it.

It was the song that kids used to rebel with. It was the song that a kid in a drugged-out baja could headbang to. It was the song that warmed up your JV basketball game. It was the song that you angrily wrote the 12 page term paper to. It was the song that (amazingly) fit at your sixth grade dance.

It's all right there in the Smells Like Teen Spirit video.

Teen Spirit was quickly followed by a variety of Grunge-leading tunes that included Come As You Are, Lithium, Breed, Drain You, Something in the Way, and our personal favorite, Territorial Pissings. Hell, that’s pretty much the whole of Nevermind right there.

In Utero came out just as strong, just 2 years later. Then Kurt Cobain died. Grunge, and rock, were never the same. Dave Grohl went on to form The Foo Fighters. Bassist Krist Novoselic joined an array of bands and musical projects. And Nirvana ceased to exist, a little group that always was until the end.

  • Albums: Nevermind, In Utero
  • Songs: Smells Like Teen Spirit, Heart Shaped Box

Metallica

Metallica was (still is) one of the biggest heavy metal bands of all-time. Unlike a lot of their contemporaries, Metallica injected pop songwriting sensibilities into their music. At least, on the radio friendly songs such as Enter Sandman, Sad but True, and Nothing Else Matters. The Black Album, one of the best-selling albums in rock of all-time, is more of a Hard Rock piece than true heavy metal, which helped contribute to it’s dominance in the 90s.

Check out the video for Enter Sandman and feel the impending doom.

The San Francisco, California natives had a twin guitar attack that was every bit as sneering as Newstead’s bass was punishing. Ullrich, despite his .. Ullrich-yness, was understated as a drummer.

Metallica pounded its way through the 90s (and Billboard charts) with more compact song offerings than in the Cliff Burton era 80s. Looking at you, One.

  • Albums: Metallica (Black Album), Load, Reload
  • Songs: Enter Sandman, Sad but True, Wherever I May Roam, Nothing Else Matters, The Unforgiven, Until it Sleeps, Hero of the Day, Fuel, The Unforgiven II

Green Day

SEVENTEEN, and strung out on confusion!

And by that we mean, if you know, you know. Green Day's rise to popularity came just after Grunge bands took over the airwaves, despite having formed a few years before many of them in 1987.

Much like 90s Rap/Rock band, 311, Green Day didn't emerge until their third album, their biggest, and the best they'd ever be. Unlike 311, Green Day voyaged into the late 90s, 2000s and 2010s with relevancy and more commercially successful tunes.

What's amazing about the power trio of Billie Joe Armstrong (who was almost in Empire Records), Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool is how, like AC/DC, they've built a 30+ year career out of the same song. Speaking of Billie Joe, Vulture pulled this one amazingly refreshing quote from him regarding what he considers his favorite Green Day album, "At the moment, I’m going to say 1991’s Kerplunk. It’s kind of autobiographical. We wrote that record when I was 18, 19 years old, and it was at a time before punk became mainstream."

So many bands list their current album as the work they are most proud of, because C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me). But not Billie Joe.

Green Day's sound is unmistakable. Their stage energy obvious. Their place in Rock & Roll History secure. They are, and will always be, one of the best rock bands of the 1990s.

  • Albums: 39/Smooth, Kerplunk, Dookie, Insomniac, Nimrod
  • Songs: Welcome to Paradise, Longview, Basket Case, She, When I Come Around, Geek Stink Breath, Brain Stew / Jaded

Soundgarden

Most attribute the success of Soundgarden to Cornell and only Cornell. That just hurts, man. Thayil, Cameron, Shepherd (as Yamamoto prior) all crushed at their respective instruments.

If we recall, Soundgarden was the first on the Seattle Music Scene to by signed to a Major Label in the early 90s. They were rock stars before Vedder even joined Pearl Jam. Unlike the 4/4 and 4 chord bands of today, Soundgarden played in signatures you couldn't measure with chords you didn't know existed.

We're of the firm belief that adjusting the volume on your boombox is actually what dictates the tone of a Soundgarden song, and not the recording itself. Humor us, just try hearing it in your head for a moment.

Consider The Day I Tried To Live lightly playing on your grandpa's AM Radio. You could play that back a thousand times while choring in the back barn like it was easy listening.

Now consider diming Rusty Cage on your car stereo. Your foot is itching to slam the pedal to the floor, right?

Soundgarden could thrash and delight, all in the same song. True artistry within the corporate music machine.

  • Albums: Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Down on the Upside
  • Songs: Rusty Cage, Outshined, Jesus Christ Pose, Spoonman, The Day I Tried To Live, Black Hole Sun, My Wave, Fell on Black Days, Pretty Noose, Burden in My Hand, Blow Up the Outside World

R.E.M.

Yes, R.E.M. was a rock band. Relax yourself.

The 90s were the band's midpoint. It was also their commercial zenith, as all of their biggest hits came out in the decade.

R.E.M. made a career out writing catchy chord changes that structurally supported the band's lyrical poetry. They may have borrowed a few Tom Petty chords in the process, but no one's judging; plus, it's not like Tom owned them.

The kids who liked to pretend that they were smarter than the dumb jocks who loved Pearl Jam and Metallica tended to gravitate toward Stipe & crew. Maybe because R.E.M. wrote "smarter" tunes than a band such as Bush, or maybe it was just because the band swam in the original wave of Alternative Rock.

As to the latter, don't be confused by the Alternative Rock band roots, R.E.M. was a commercial success. They sold over 90 million albums. This easily qualifies them for being among the best to do it.

  • Albums: Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Up
  • Songs: Losing My Religion, Shiny Happy People, Drive, Man on the Moon, Everybody Hurts, Nightswimming, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

Alice in Chains

The coolest of all the 90s bands. No band had more indie respect and cachet than AIC. Staley's haunting vocals were the tipping point to their excellence. They were a world class band without him, but all of the best songs involve Layne taking over the mic and bringing you, the listener, on a journey through the pain, the struggle and the resolution.

Funny story, their original foray into the music world was as Alice N' Chains, a band with a bit more Hair than Dirt in their sound. Even funnier is what Mike Inez once wrote on his bass during MTV Unplugged.

  • Albums: Dirt, Jar of Flies
  • Songs: Would?, Them Bones, Rooster, Angry Chair, Down in a Hole, Nutshell, I Stay Away, No Excuses, Don’t Follow

The Smashing Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins are the audible conduit into the head of Billy Corgan. No rocker, perhaps in any decade or genre, has possessed a more vampiric thirst for seeing their vision come to life.

They were at the height of their powers in the Mid-90s when Grunge and Alternative were blending. And no band blended the two styles like The Smashing Pumpkins. The aesthetic, the guitar tones, the lyrical content, it was all there.

You could hear the sonic growth, if a bit more theatrical, between songs like Disarm and Tonight, Tonight. Bullet with Butterfly Wings went harder than anything on Siamese Dream, much like Skid Row did in their debut album's follow-up, Slave to the Grind.

Plus, The Pumpkins, like Corgan himself, were amazingly unique in that they employed D'arcy Wretzky, an outstandingly talented bass player. Girls simply didn't exist in Dude Rock bands that could be considered among the best of their times. Usually bands were were just made up of 4-5 dudes who were working gas stations in San Diego prior to be in a world famous rock band, a la Eddie Vedder. It was awesome, and we wish her well in her post Pumpkins life.

Before we go, know that Wretzky and Corgan had a working relationship that may have been worse than the Brothers Gallagher and than Black & Deal (Pixies), according to Farout Magazine.

  • Albums: Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
  • Songs: Cherub Rock, Today, Disarm, Bullet with Butterfly Wings, 1979, Tonight, Tonight, Zero

Rage Against the Machine

We aren't qualified at Hair & Flannel to discuss what Rage Against the Machine meant to anyone. We had access to life's basic necessities ... the ones should be afforded to everyone on the planet, the ones that Rage raged about.

What we will say about the music is that it was a world class, Tyson haymaker-to-the-jaw, beat down in sonic format. You couldn't listen to Rage without wanting to break something, either your neighbor's window with a rock or an entire system of government. Everything in-between was fair game.

We'll leave you with these lyrics to sum up Rage Against the Machine, because once again, if you know, you know.

"Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!"

  • Albums: Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire, The Battle of Los Angeles
  • Songs: Bombtrack, Freedom, Killing in the Name, Bulls on Parade, People of the Sun, No Shelter

Stone Temple Pilots

It's hard to imagine that a Top 10 band in the world went underrated, but somehow STP did. They put out two outstanding albums in Core and Purple, along with a pretty good follow up in 1996's Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop.

Their songwriting never dulled, regardless of the level of distortion on the guitars. The acoustic version of Plush was as popular, if not more than the album's recorded version. Sex Type Thing and Vasoline rocked every arena they were ever performed in. Interstate Love Song was a fantastic mid-pace rocker that could mistakenly get played in a West Texas bar on Country Night and drunk folks might not be the wiser.

Stone Temple Pilots is certainly one of the best rock bands of the 90s, and the songs below will show.

  • Albums: Core, Purple, Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, No. 4
  • Songs: Sex Type Thing, Plush, Creep, Big Empty, Vasoline, Interstate Love Song, Big Bang Baby, Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart, Lady Picture Show, Sour Girl

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Early punk rock with a hip vibe that leaned on surf and the overall indie DIY of the decade. That's sort of how we will intro RHCP?

Like AC/DC, Green Day, Sublime and more, the Red Hot Chili Pepperse have a sound. It's their sound, and it's a sound that only they can produce.

They're the musical equivalent of a meal comprised of what's left in your fridge and cupboards. When your world-class bass player is an accomplished trumpet player and he and your frontman found their way onto the silver screen with Point Break, you find out that anything goes.

Among this list of the best rock bands of the 90s, they're perhaps the easiest to question. Yes, they had plenty of hits. Yes, they continued on after many bands of the decade folded. Yes, they still have some relevance today.

But a lot of their work is hard to go back and listen to.

  • Albums: Blood Sugar Sex Magik, One Hot Minute, Californication
  • Songs: Give It Away, Under the Bridge, Suck My Kiss, Breaking the Girl, My Friends, Aeroplane, Scar Tissue, Otherside, Californication

Nine Inch Nails

Like the Pumpkins, only way more one man's vision. If that can even be said.

There is really nothing like Nine Inch Nails out there. Some bands possess elements, but no one does rock industrial like NiN.

There is, and will only ever be, one Trent Reznor.

  • Albums: Broken, The Downward Spiral, The Fragile
  • Songs: Wish, March of the Pigs, Closer, Hurt,

Radiohead

First and foremost, we acknowledge Radiohead's musical excellence. No doubt that excellence extends well beyond the 90s, but we aren't here to discuss the future. Well, the past's future.

The band's songs and performances were not food for the soul's of Beer Chugging Bro's, even if a few Bro's loved it anyway. No, Radiohead was for people who loved art as much as they loved music.

Fake Plastic Trees is so incredibly loved that it gets covered by everyone. The list includes:

That doesn't happen without immense songwriting talent, which Thom Yorke and the gents have in spades.

  • Albums: Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer
  • Songs: Creep, High and Dry, Fake Plastic Trees, Just, Street Spirit, Paranoid Android, Karma Police

Weezer

The Blue Album itself was enough to get them on the list of the band rock bands of the decade. It was garage rock perfected. It captured what it meant to be alive in 1994, and it audibly sounded like the transition from Middle School to High School. And like many of the bands on this list, there will always be clones, but there will never be another Weezer.

Music: Songs like Say It Ain't So took on a life of their own. Every station wanted to play it. Every band wanted to cover it. Every kid wanted to listen to it.

Video: Buddy Holly (the song) became arguably more famous than Buddy Holly (the man) for several years. The throwback to Happy Days video was outstanding.

Lyrics: Undone: The Sweater Song had lyrics just a hint above Beck's Loser and Spacehog's In The Meantime with regard to clarity of meaning. Sure, Weezer was saying more than destroying one's sweater in the song, but this was their genius. They were able to convey so much meaning with so little. They were the lyrical equivalent of an Art Teacher discussing how a little glue will go a long way.

  • Albums: Weezer (Blue Album), Pinkerton
  • Songs: My Name is Jonas, Undone: The Sweater Song, Buddy Holly, Say It Ain't So, El Scorcho, The Good Life

Foo Fighters

Dave Grohl made our list twice, first as a drummer in Nirvana and second here as the frontman and driving force of Foo Fighters. They're (probably) the most relevant band from the 90s that's still going today.

Dave wrote and recorded the debut Foo Fighter album all by himself. While the stories surrounding the album's release seem Cinderella-like, make no mistake about Grohl's status as the drummer in one of the world's biggest bands as to why the first album took off like wildfire.

Uncle Dave's voice - Uncle being a moniker he'd pick over the years as the steward of "Rock & Roll" - was just individual enough to carve out a space in the overlap of the Grunge, Alternative and Hard Rock Venn Diagram to help the Foo Fighters ascend to the upper echelon of the recording industry.

That plus, their legendary live shows are why they should be considered amongst the best of the best.

  • Albums: Foo Fighters, The Colour and the Shape, There is Nothing Left to Lose
  • Songs: This is a Call, I'll Stick Around, Big Me, Monkey Wrench, Everlong, My Hero, Learn to Fly

Guns N’ Roses

Guns N' Roses could have made a career in the 90s alone, release three albums and storming through cities on the Use Your Illusion Tour like General Patton through Northern Africa. Here's a few bullet points for the band:

  • Original Band members leaving Steven Adler (1990), Izzy Stradlin (1991), Duff McKagan (1996), and Slash (1997)
  • The G'N'R Video Trilogy of Don't Cry, November Rain and Estranged
  • The Montreal Riot where Metallica's lead singer, James Hetfield, got burned and Axl refused to keep playing and walked off stage. (Faith No More opened)
  • 2 American Music Awards
  • A 28-month tour (Use Your Illusion Tour) being their only tour of the decade
  • And countless dollars spent firing people, hiring people, attorneys to draft documents to sign away rights, destruction of property, lawsuits, arrests. Real band stuff, ya know?
  • Albums: Use Your Illusion I, Use Your Illusion II, "The Spaghetti Incident?"
  • Songs: Knockin' On Heaven's Door (cover), Don't Cry, Live & Let Die (cover), November Rain, You Could Be Mine

2nd Tier 90s Rock Bands

Other 90s Rock Bands

  • Blink 182
  • Blur
  • Hole
  • Sonic Youth
  • The Refreshments
  • The Verve

90s Rock Bands that are Absolute Rubbish

  • Crazy Town
  • Korn
  • Limp Bizkit

MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged, as (probably) jumpstarted by Jovi and Sambora’s performance at the 1989 Music Video Awards, stripped away all of the distortion and feedback of 90s rock albums and allowed the songwriting of the decade to shine through our speakers naturally. Bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam used this platform to capture many, many more fans than their hair metal counterparts did in the 80s.

It was also a chance for bands to make statements, however political they may be. For instance, Alice in Chains bassist, Mike Inez, wrote, “Friends don’t let friends get haircuts” on his acoustic bass during a performance of Nutshell. Check out Cantrell & Ullrich discussing the message.

Then there was Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder using the band’s performance of Porch to share their Pro Choice stance. He doesn’t swear, as is written for the third word of the lyrics, but has no problem whipping out a black sharpie and getting artistic during the song’s breakdown.

Below is a chance to see Nirvana cover Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World. It’s a great example of the more intimate experience that was MTV Unplugged.

Our Opinion on 90s Rock Music and What Followed

Rock music was never the same after the 90s. In fact, it died.

Every generation likes to say that rock music died and was reborn by the next generation to follow. But it’s simply not true after the 1996. Sure, good bands have formed and hit the stage, but never on the grand scale of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Even the mediocre bands had albums worth of good-to-great songs. Seven Mary Three comes to mind. One true radio hit and a bevy of solid, guitar-driven tunes round out their body of work.

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