Let’s just get the obvious out of the way now: depending on what you choose to believe, Nirvana either did or did not kill hair metal. Sadly, hair metal is still alive and well here in Los Angeles, so they obviously didn’t nip the thing the bud. But once you get away from all the hyperbole, both from their ardent supporters and their snarkiest detractors, the fact remains that Nirvana made some damn good music – blending pop and punk in a way that was awesome, as opposed to the way Blink-182 does it (which is terrible). They only made three proper albums, all of them of sufficient quality to warrant their reputation – and Kurt Cobain made time to write the first Hole record for his lovely wife. You could argue that Cobain killed himself before Nirvana had a chance to nosedive like, say, the Foo Fighters have since the 1990s, but that’s all hypothetical. The defense offers three key pieces of evidence for their awesomeness: Bleach, Nevermind, and In Utero. You can throw in the Unplugged album too, if only for its dogged to only play soft-rock versions of their hits.
While alternative rock was taking off in the early 1990s, a couple young dudes from Illinois named Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy were blending their favorite country and folk sounds with the punk stylings of the Minutemen. Their band was called Uncle Tupelo and they’re largely credited with giving birth to “alternative country” music, or “alt.country” as it is more retardedly known. To the band’s credit, nobody who played in Uncle Tupelo thinks they invented alt.country, and Jay Farrar has helpfully pointed out that there was no difference between what Uncle Tupelo did and what is commonly referred to as roots rock. Whatever you call it, their debut album, No Depression (and the three that followed it), is a whirlwind of ramshackle excellence. The band broke up because of conflicts (personal and creative) between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar. Farrar went on to form Son Volt, whose debut, Trace, is a lost treasure of the 1990s. Tweedy went on to form a band you might’ve heard of named Wilco, although his ability to get along with guys named Jay never really improved – he kicked guitarist Jay Bennett out of Wilco shortly before the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
The thing about 1990s rock is that a lot of us still know the bands that were worth knowing and hopefully we’ve forgotten the ones that are forgettable. A band you might’ve forgotten (or never known in the first place) that was heavy, loud, and totally underrated, was Hum, another Illinois band that quietly dropped a hit into the middle of alternative rock radio in 1995 with a little song called, “Stars.” The song has been featured in Cadillac commercials and, even better, in the video game Saints Row 2. But Hum don’t deserve to be considered one-hit wonders. You’d Prefer an Astronaut, the album that gave us “Stars” is one of the only down-tuned guitar albums I can tolerate. The music is murky, heavy, and melodic in a subtle sort of way. Sadly, you can probably find You’d Prefer an Astronaut in the 99 cent bin at your local used CD store, but that should give you the perfect excuse to pick up a copy. I know these guys didn’t ever make music history per se, but they’re worth knowing about and, like all popular historians, I’m perfectly willing to only tell you what I want you to know.
I know I’ve mentioned Tom Waits before, but I just wanna point out that he won two Grammies in the 1990s. Although Mr. Waits and I share a low opinion of that particular awards show, it’s worth noting that Tom Waits is the only guy to win a Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album (for Bone Machine) and then win one for Best Contemporary Folk Album (for 1999’s amazing Mule Variations, which was my introduction to Waits).
Also, I should mention briefly that the Smashing Pumpkins were awesome throughout the 1990s, crafting some of the heaviest guitar tunes of the decade, including “Bury Me” and “Cherub Rock,” which rivals “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for album-opening awesomeness. I pretend that Billy Corgan quit music after the pretentiously-named (but still good) Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It’s just easier that way.
A band that probably should have blown the lid off the 1990s entirely (I still don’t understand why In the Aeroplane Over the Sea isn’t in the Smithsonian or something) is Neutral Milk Hotel, led by the reclusive (to say the least) Jeff Mangum. Part of the Elephant 6 Recording Company that spawned the Olivia Tremor Control and the Apples in Stereo (obscure enough for you?), Neutral Milk Hotel only ever released two full-length albums that were driven by Mangum’s nasally yowl and often surreal lyrics. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, inspired by recurring dreams Mangum had about a Jewish family during World War 2 (some of the songs make reference to Anne Frank’s life; some songs make references to semen staining the mountaintops. That’s just how Mangum rolls), met with increasing critical praise that led to an ever-lengthening tour schedule which, naturally, led Jeff Mangum to have a nervous breakdown that forced Neutral Milk Hotel into a hiatus that continues to this day. Nowadays, Mangum is seen in public slightly less than Bigfoot, although he has appeared on a couple of tribute/charity albums in the last couple years, which keeps the hopes of a new Neutral Milk Hotel album burning bright for the optimists out there. Me, I think it’ll never happen. And part of me hopes not. At this point, any follow-up to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea will be expected to be the musical equivalent of endless orgasms brought on by the second coming of Christ during a hail storm of Milk Duds. Call me jaded, but there’s no way the next Neutral Milk Hotel album can be as good as we all think it will be. Although I welcome Jeff Mangum to come out of the woodwork and prove me wrong.
When can we talk about the Flaming Lips? In the early 1990s, they had a big radio hit called “She Don’t Use Jelly”, from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, which is an underrated album as well (“Be My Head” is a tremendous song). The band actually got their start in the 1980s in Oklahoma but the 1990s saw them really get their shit together in a big way. Following the awesome four-disc social experiment Zaireeka, the Lips released the best album of the 1990s (sorry, Nirvana fans), The Soft Bulletin, in 1999. The best compliment I can give an album like The Soft Bulletin is to say I’ve never heard anything like it. Because I haven’t. And you haven’t either. The Flaming Lips are as weird as they’ve ever been, and they’re still going strong – last year’s Embryonic is a kickass rock record and they put on one of the all-time coolest concerts I’ve ever seen.
That’s about it for the 1990s, I think. That pretty much catches us up to Modern Times, so I’ll conclude this increasingly not-brief history of awesome American music tomorrow by cluing you in on some stuff you might’ve missed in the last ten years. I won’t make any predictions about the future, though, ’cause that shit is always whack.