The Most Underrated '90s Bands

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Live

Live the band
Frank Micelotta Archive/Getty Images

For every Nirvana, there were dozens of bands who were just as talented, hard-working and (anti)fashionable. We asked our readers to vote for their unsung heroes on our Facebook page. The answers ranged from piano goddesses to emo pioneers to moody nu-metalers. Here are the '90s groups who deserve a another listen. 

 

Live

The “I Alone” crew were deemed the most criminally underrated band of the ’90s by our readers. Perhaps it was Ed Kowalczyk’s way with imagery in his lyrics. (Remember the heavenly allusions in “Lightning Crashes,” juxtaposing angels with births and deaths, electric and somber?) The Pennsylvanians were pros at following poetic verses with powerful choruses, rocketed by the guitars of Chad Taylor and Patrick Dahlheimer and the drums of Chad Gracey. Kowalczyk departed for a solo career in 2009 and was replaced by vocalist Chris Shinn in 2011. It’s sort of the Journey situation in a hard rock context— between the two camps, there’s no shortage of opportunity to “Sell the Drama” on tour. 

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Verbena

Verbena Souls for Sale
Setanta/Merge

Shambolic yet composed, Verbena were the X of alternative. The interplay between A.A. “Scott” Bondy and Anne Marie Griffin recalled that of John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s and other enmeshed musical pairs. Their 1997 Dave Fridmann-produced debut, Souls for Sale, caught the ear of Dave Grohl. He agreed to produce their 1999 follow-up, In the Pink, a grunge-y, feral wallop. Amid a number of breakups and shakeups, Verbena ultimately split in 2003. 

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Tori Amos

Tori Amos Silent All These Years
Atlantic

The piano mistress, the “Cornflake Girl,” the enchanted seraphim— whatever one calls her, Tori Amos is among the most distinctive musicians in history. After leaving behind an ill-fated pop career with Y Kant Tori Read, the flame-haired songstress embellished in faerie melodies and lyrics torn from diary pages. Little Earthquakes caused a stir in 1992, with the tinkling yet fierce “Silent All These Years” and the spiritual dart “Crucify.” Nearly 25 years later, Amos reigns as the queen of the outcasts, encouraging all to embrace their inner nerds via classical piano and their inner banshees via tough-as-nails prose. 

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Liz Phair

Liz Phair
Capitol

If Tori Amos was sweet on the palate, Liz Phair was salty. Her locker-room lyrics about being a blowjob queen and living to “Fuck and Run” made her a parent’s worst nightmare— and a young feminist’s idol. Compared with some artists on this list, Phair’s career hasn’t gone completely unsung. Exile in Guyville is considered one of the greatest albums of all time, according to Rolling Stone. But when she traded her lo-fi brashness for mainstream success, many fans abandoned ship. Phair is concurrently working on two albums for release in 2016, as announced on her Twitter profile.

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Hum

Hum the band
Windish Agency

The astral churn of “Stars” positioned this Illinois band alongside Smashing Pumpkins and Failure in terms of bombast. Flash forward 20 years later, and Hum have taken to the road with Failure, a wall-of-sound dream come true. Since You’d Prefer an Astronaut earned them acclaim in 1995, Hum have been steadily collecting followers. This underground heroism has intrigued many— including front man Matt Talbott, as he revealed in this 2011 A.V. Club interview

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Sunny Day Real Estate

Sunny Day Real Estate
Sub Pop

Pre-Foo Fighters, bassist Nate Mendel and drummer William Goldsmith formed this Seattle project that “virtually defined emo in the ’90s,” in AllMusic’s terms. The bleeding-heart vocals of Jeremy Enigk and the desperate ascent of guitars by Dan Hoerner spilled out onto 1994’s Diary. From there, a million men in sweaters and beat-up Strats capitalized on this formula. Many overshadowed their forbearers, and after one more release, 1995’s LP2, Sunny Day Real Estate called it a day. They’ve reunited multiple times, on the road and in the studio, as SDRE and side project the Fire Theft.

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Everclear

Everclear-2013.jpg
MSO PR

Armed with infinite downstrokes and drawling “Yeeah”s, Everclear ruled the airwaves but came up short in critics’ eyes. But you couldn’t get any more autobiographical than this West Coast trio. Art Alexakis turned his pain into healing with mega hits like “Santa Monica” (about a girlfriend’s suicide) and “Father of Mine” (about his childhood with an absentee dad). Everclear give back not only lyrically but literally— doing charity concerts for troops overseas and for music education nonprofits

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4 Non Blondes

Linda Perry 4 Non Blondes
Jeff Kravitz/Contributor/Getty Images

“What’s Up?” with the masses not giving Linda Perry’s band the respect they deserve? The dreadlocked, hat-wearing singer was Chrissie Hynde and Chris Robinson rolled into one, a ragamuffin not of this world. The music off the Blondes’ sole disc, Bigger, Better, Faster, More!, was a battering ram against established genres: The bluesy hype of “Train” gave way to the heady funk of “Superfly,” to the Bowie-like “Spaceman.” The group’s significance might be lost to the ages, but Bigger did go platinum and Perry became one of the greatest behind-the-scenes songwriters in modern times.

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Guster

Guster
Courtesy the artist

Another group that’s tackled “What’s Up?” in concert (YouTube it if you dare), Guster plugged away for eight years before their major-label debut, 1999’s Lost and Gone Forever. Their Paul Simon/R.E.M. style – born of Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner’s twin guitars and Brian Rosenworcel’s massive percussion collection – eventually landed their songs on The OC and mainstream airwaves. They only ever bubbled under widespread fame, but their fans remain rabid. 

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Wide Mouth Mason

Wide Mouth Mason
Courtesy the artist

How could a threesome that opened for the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and ZZ Top fly under the radar? Maybe the Canadian artists were too difficult to pin down aesthetically? The “soul power trio” started in 1995 when the members were barely out of their teens. Singer/guitarist Shaun Verrault had a tenor more commonly heard in pop than in jammy rock. The polyrhythms of drummer Earl Pereira and bassist Safwan Javed defied chart-topping conventions. Theirs was truly pleasant music. Heck, they even named their 2011 album No Bad Days

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You Am I

You Am I
Courtesy the artist

“You’re dragging down my coattails,” Tim Rogers whines in “Berlin Chair,” a scruffy number from Australia’s You Am I. Though the song was released on 1993’s Sound As Ever, it might as well have been nagging Jet and Kaiser Chiefs. The aughts ushered in plenty of groups who owed their existence to You Am I, but the pugnacious band couldn’t quite grab ahold outside of their home country. They still play around the continent gigs that the Sydney Morning Herald calls “messy and weird.” As they should be. 

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The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs
Piper Ferguson

Too often lumped in with the grunge scene, these growlers played punk, soul, no-wave, classic rock and cinematic noir. Greg Dulli had a hellcat tone, putting wimpier alterna-rockers in their place. The Afghan Whigs weren’t afraid of controversy, choosing racy and drug-alluding images for album covers and conquering the darkest of demons in song. “Fountain and Fairfax,” for example, recalled Dulli’s drinking and using days, with him begging an angel for one last hit. 

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The Bluetones

Bluetones
Martyn Goodacre/Contributor/Getty Images

While most of the Britpop affectionate were arguing over Blur and Oasis, the Bluetones delivered equally finger-popping, pretty songs. From the velveteen vocals of Mark Morriss to the dreamy British Invasion strings of Adam Devlin, these lads never quite made it across the pond. In England, however, they clenched number one on the charts with 1996’s Expecting To Fly. And who did they dethrone that week? Oasis. Not too shabby, guys. 

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Buck-O-Nine

Buck-O-Nine
Covert Booking

These San Diego ska acolytes give fans “a piece of mind that can’t be beat,” as their 1997 hit, “My Town,” goes. Influenced by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, among others, the gang were blessed to open for their heroes in 1992. From there on in, Buck-O-Nine seemed a little SOL. Certainly, they built a following on the strength of 1994’s Songs in the Key of Bree and “My Town’s” home, Twenty-Eight Teeth. But their lineups changed as frequently as a downtrodden NFL team, and one member, bassist John Bell, nearly succumbed to an unpleasant-sounding affliction called Meckel's Diverticulum.

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Deftones

Deftones
Velvet Hammer

You still see kids wearing Deftones shirts, even though the band’s aggressive music is no longer part of the mainstream. But appealing to alienation and hurt never goes completely out of style. Albums like 1997’s Around the Fur and 2000’s White Pony tapped into adolescent and young adult ferocity like few others could. Chino Moreno’s whisper-to-a-scream performances steamrolled the audience; and the creepy voraciousness of Stephen Carpenter’s guitars, the behemoth bass of Chi Cheng and the thunderous drums of Abe Cunningham permeated the soul.