INTRODUCTION TO 90S INDIE ROCK BANDS: DON’T LET THEM SEE YOU TRY
The thing with history is, there’s a lot of it. But you gotta start somewhere.
The ‘90s were the last decade the term ‘indie’ actually meant something. It has pretty much always been used interchangeably with alternative rock, but it originally was used to describe bands from independent record labels. For the purpose of this exercise, that’s the definition we’ll be using.
This means the exclusions of several acts most people associate with ‘90s indie rock bands, Nirvana, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins, et al. To make this list you had to be the real deal, that is the band had to be on an independent label at the time of the release to be considered. With the caveat that this list is meant to be an introduction and in no ways is complete, let’s get started with our top 90s indie bands.
PAVEMENT - CUT YOUR HAIR
No band summed up the ‘90s indie aesthetic better than Pavement. The lack of fucks given was the main ingredient to the indie scene then. And no one wanted to downplay how fucking great they were more than these dudes.
The track is a critique of the vanity and importance of looks in the music industry. So of course it was also their biggest hit, reaching #10 on Billboards Alternative Songs chart.
Pavement could’ve written dozens of catchy songs like this and put several bands out of business. Instead, they covered School House Rock songs. This is the most perfect distillation of what it means to be “indie”.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE - ONLY SHALLOW
Eventually, every form of counter culture is absorbed into the mainstream and repackaged at an exorbitant upcharge. All it takes is for someone like Kanye West to put on a shirt for some obscure shoegazer band, and next thing you know that same shirt is being sold on eBay for hundreds and thousands of dollars.
My Bloody Valentine was one of the most influential bands of the ‘90s, indie or otherwise. They pioneered a dozen new production techniques while creating a distinct sound of wall-to-wall noise. They’re almost single-handedly responsible for shoegaze, noise pop, dream pop, chillwave, and Yeezy’s Wednesday afternoon fit.
NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL - SONG AGAINST SEX
No band is more synonymous with hipsterdom than Neutral Milk Hotel. And while hipster and indie are not exactly the same thing, they might as well be. Hailing from the legendary underground label Elephant 6, the band is known for its experimental sound, abstract lyrics, and eclectic instrumentation (they use a hand saw in several songs).
While 1999’s In Areoplanes Over the Sea was their magnum opus, true Milk-Heads know the entire catalog is gold.
The band broke up after a faint brush with commercial and critical success, which is indie as fuck.
THE BREEDERS - CANNONBALL
Fronted by Kim Deal, The Breeders were one of the definitive bands of ‘90s indie rock. She is also the bassist for the Pixies, but they had already made all of their classic albums by the time the last decade of the millennium came around.
According to legend, Deal was in the studio recording “Cannonball” when news broke that Pixies had broken up. Her sister Kelley, also a member of The Breeders, was the one who delivered the news. The track would go all the way up to #2 on the Alternative Song charts, surpassing the heights of Deal’s former band.
Kim gets bonus points for being the quintessential ‘90s alt. girl (with apologies to Parker Posey).
BELLY - FEED THE TREE
Tanya Donelly co-founded The Breeders with the Deal sisters, but left before they recorded their biggest hit to focus full-time on Belly. No matter, since Donelly would top the Alternative charts with “Feed the Tree.”
The ’90s were a wild time. You could write a song about “commitment and respect”, as Donelly told the Illinois Entertainer in regards to “Feed the Tree”, and it would be a smash hit and eventually end up the Rock Band game.
SPIRITUALIZED - LADIES AND GENTLEMEN WE’RE FLOATING IN SPACE
Spiritualized didn’t invent Space Rock, they just perfected it. (For further evidence, see the track they recorded with actual sounds from space in it.) And truthfully, their music should be its own genre: Gospel Shoegaze.
The title track off their third and seminal record repurposes the classic melody of Pachebel’s “Canon in D”, better known as the Wedding March. The title for the song and album comes from Sophie's World, a philosophical novel by Jostein Gaarder.
The initial version of the song incorporated Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, but Presley’s estate later refused permission for the usage. An alternate version was recorded, only for the original to replace it on reissues of the album.
DINOSAUR JR. - GET ME
Founded by drummer Murph, lo-fi God Lou Barlow, and some guy named J Mascis, Dinosaur Jr. started out in the 80s before reaching their critical and commercial peak the following decade. Their 1993 LP, Where You Been, reached the top 10 in the UK and top 50 in the US.
Mascis was the preeminent indie rock guitarist of the ‘90s. His unique style was a throwback to classic rock’s heyday, accented by the indiscriminate use of distortion and feedback.
The list of his acolytes, many of whom have achieved for more ‘success’, could be a lengthy post of its own.
BUILT TO SPILL - NOWHERE NOTHIN' FUCKUP
Along with the above-mentioned J Mascis, the other canonical guitarist of ‘90s indie rock was Doug Martsch. Martsch was also the lead singer for Built to Spill.
The band would later sign to Warner and stop being indie on a technicality. But with “Nowhere Nothin' Fuckup”, off their debut from C/Z Records, they’ve got a song whose title is from a Phillip K. Dick novel and borrows most of its lyrics from “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.”
You can’t possibly get more indie than that, though that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
MODEST MOUSE - STYROFOAM BOOTS/IT'S ALL NICE ON ICE, ALRIGHT
Like so many other bands on this list, Modest Mouse would eventually sign to a major label after years spent in the underground. They started out on a local label and even after acquiring the reach of a Sony affiliate, Epic, didn’t break into the mainstream until “Float On” in 2004.
A note-perfect pop-rock song is a strange and unhelpful introduction to the world of Isaac Brock. This is a deeply weird and talented dude who spent his entire career writing songs railing against consumerism and the slow creep of corporate fascism only to become a huge commercial success.
Everyone on this list was way too good to be somewhat anonymous while making a career out of music. It’s likely that they all resent this to varying degrees, which is the perfect epitaph for ‘90s indie rock.
Calvin Paradise is not any one thing. The half-hearted vagabond and forgetful luddite currently resides in Los Angeles and how he spends his time is none of your damned business.