AltPress was started 35 years ago because there was more great music happening than what radio and MTV would let people believe. We’re confident about this throwback list of bands from the ’90s you’ve never heard of for a few reasons.
First, the geographical spread of these bands is worldwide. We can’t help but think that each band’s environs and communities had something to do with the stuff coming out of their amps. Secondly, this list illustrates how fertile the music scene was at the time. Even if radio station music directors and segment producers didn’t want to hear it. And finally, like we stated, we’re sure you’ve never heard of them.
We’ve saved a space in the time machine for you and fur-lined its seats. It’s true your favorite scene bands were extolling the virtues of, say, Frente!, Fastball and/or Semisonic. But beyond that, there was a tidal wave of joyous noise under the surface. These are the bands from the ’90s that you never heard of—and it’s a damned shame.
Bailter Space – “Projects”
Christchurch, New Zealand, trio Bailter Space hit all of the sweet spots in the world’s underground. After releasing several records in their homeland, the band moved to New York City and completely ratcheted up the extremity. Menacing riffs, commanding vocals and both guitar noise and samples were their stock in trade. “Projects,” from their 1994 release Vortura, approximates Sonic Youth sniffing glue while playing through Dinosaur Jr.’s stolen amplifiers. You may also want to check out the live version from their Retro EP. Unless, you know, you’re a coward.
Boredoms – “My Mum Is Car”
Boredoms hailed from Osaka, Japan, with an aesthetic that completely embraced chaos. If you ever wondered how twisted and fractured rock could get while still being semi-linear, you should get to streaming. Lead singer Yamantaka Eye had a gnarlier scream than four-fifths of the bands who played Warped Tour. Oh, and as far as lyrics go, you can make up your own: Think of Eye as another instrument and not an introspection porthole. Nirvana had them open dates on their In Utero tour, and the Japanese delegation polarized the crowds magnificently. When Boredoms signed to Warner Records, the company allegedly sent out more promotional copies of their first U.S. release, Pop Tatari, than actual store stock. Who cares? This writer bought one…
Chavez – “You Must Be Stopped”
Chavez founder Matt Sweeney is so connected, he can play six degrees of separation with your music library. (He’s done stints with Queens Of The Stone Age, Iggy Pop, Billy Corgan, Josh Groban and tons more.) In this writer’s mythology, he will always be known for the last song on 1996’s Ride The Fader. “You Must Be Stopped” is quite simply the alt-rock masterpiece that never happened. Sweeney’s Gen X-angst vocal rides on a meaty, harmonic riff, with drummer James Lo driving it all. Listen to it repeatedly as you file your vote-by-mail paperwork.
The God Machine – “The Tremolo Song”
This trio of ex-pat San Diegans snuck over to the U.K. and made jaws drop with their 1993 debut, Scenes From The Second Storey. The God Machine understood that you can generate tension with decibel levels and slow-motion minimalism. “The Tremolo Song” is stentorian in both its power and its sadness. Guitarist/vocalist Robin Proper-Sheppard sets his trem pedal to “wound” while barking his invective. The song is from their second and final album, 1994’s One Last Laugh In A Place Of Dying. Sadly, bassist Jimmy Fernandez passed from a cerebral hemorrhage during the mixing. In tribute to their friend, Proper-Sheppard and drummer Austin Lynn Austin kept those mixes for the final LP.
Kinky Machine – “Shockaholic”
Kinky Machine (like a lot of bands in those days) hailed from West London. We never heard them saddled with the term “Britpop” like most of their millionaire contemporaries were. “Shockaholic” is a sweet slice of ‘70s glam swagger with some Sex Pistols snottiness and a weird synth squiggle for flavor. (They also had a great song called “Clever?,” which was the best song Buzzcocks never wrote.) “Shockaholic” remains great at top volume in a convertible or echoing in the lobby of the bank you’re robbing after hours.
Mercury Rev – “Young Man’s Stride”
In some parallel universe, this song is bigger than Nevermind. Mercury Rev formed in Buffalo, New York, with a neo-psychedelic blend that was trippy, semi-pastoral and volume-dealing. After two albums with frontman David Baker, guitarist Jonathan Donahue assumed center-mic position for 1995’s See You On The Other Side and unleashed this burner. The Rev still exist under the aegis of Donahue and guitarist Sean Mackowiak. Last year, they recorded their version of country-pop songwriter Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete with a cast of female singers.
Moonshake – “Seen & Not Heard”
British unit Moonshake were considered by many to be the premier post-rock band. They were one of the first bands to use samplers in their inspired post-punk creations when keyboards were the providence of industrial rock and dance music. “Seen & Not Heard,” from their 1992 album Eva Luna, is definitely none of those things, owing more to Public Image Ltd than Ministry or C+C Music Factory. This one is cool and creepy, with frontman/guitarist Dave Callahan taking on a persona of a normal guy by day and complete maniac by night. Definitely one of the more artier bands from the ’90s that didn’t get their due.
Skyscraper – “Choke”
This 1993 workout was too propulsive to be considered grunge, too deranged for Britpop and too concise for noise-rock consideration. Skyscraper were a British indie supergroup consisting of members of Swervedriver, Milk and Octopus who released two albums before calling it a wrap. “Choke” was their murderous debut single that distilled so many things that were happening in the underground at the time. Nearly 30 years later, it’s the kind of thing you turn up in the car so you can drown out the sounds of sirens outside.
Wool – “SOS”
Respected hardcore dudes need paid, too. Brothers Pete and Franz Stahl were the founders of legendary Washington, D.C. punk band Scream. When Dave Grohl left to make rock safe from poodle metal with Nirvana, the Stahls enlisted Government Issue drummer Pete Moffett and bassist Al Bloch (Concrete Blonde). Wool’s 1992 EP, Budspawn, was noisy enough to appeal to the underground but accessible enough to people proud of their first Jane’s Addiction shirt. With “SOS,” Wool delivered a solid track that was deserving of all of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” spins. Don’t kick yourself for missing it. We’re stoked you’re hearing it now. Out of all the bands from the ’90s on this list, everyone should’ve heard Wool.
Urusei Yatsura – “Hello Tiger”
In the late ’90s, Scottish noise-pop hopefuls Urusei Yatsura were holding court and tearing up the U.K. indie scene. When genres such as grunge and indie-pop were becoming tired and cliched, Yatsura took the best elements of each. The result felt like a mound of fresh ginger to the brain. “Hello Tiger” was the pop song My Bloody Valentine wouldn’t deliver. And the title of their album, Slain By Urusei Yatsura, was funny in a hyperbolic way. But it didn’t matter: In 1998, America was all up in Marcy Playground. That was the kind of thing really great bands from the ’90s had to endure.