90s Alternative Rock


There was no decade quite like the 90s. Politically, economically, whatever. But nowhere was this more evident than in the music that was made during those years. In all genres, new styles rapidly emerged and evolved. Of it all, there was one genre that meant more to me than any of the others. I’m talking, of course, about rock music.

Growing up in New Jersey as a white, middle-class male, I easily identified with the ethos of rock. The rebellion, the angst, the idealism- born out of the 50s, these sentiments were still alive in the 90s, finding its form in newer and noisier ways. The stylings of 90s rock were wide ranged- grunge, britpop, pop punk, indie, rap rock- some were good, some were bad, some were forgotten to adulthood. Yet even though our tastes evolve after adolescence, the appeal of nostalgia can just be too hard to igore.

I’m calling this series “Rock By The 90s”. Each week, I plan to post a new article on a different subgenre of 90s rock, and the specific bands and songs that characterized each movement. By the end, I hope to have extensively recounted all things 90s rock.

But first, to tell the FULL story of 90s rock, we need to go back a little bit further in time. I’m talking ALL the way back…to…

The late 80s.



As the 80s came to a close, MTV had already begun to suck. No, not as badly as today- for one thing, they still played videos- but videos primarily of hair bands. Yup, in the late 80s, hair metal was the king of rock. And with it, an all-pervading, image conscious commercialism had become the status quo. Bands such as Bon Jovi, Van Halen, Motley Crue and Poison murdered our ears with sonic monstrosities, and burned our eyeballs with their high maintenance hair and flamboyant outfits.

But as the decade of the 90s began, glam metal started to be seen as excessive, both in its power ballads and its volumized hair, and the genre began to fall in to decline. Maybe the biggest indictment of this music was a scene from the documentary, ”The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years”, involving the guitarist from the band W.A.S.P., as he excessively abuses alcohol.

(Skip to 2:23 for the best part)


Below the surface of the glam rock spectacle, a vibrant music scene was developing. There was a wide array of bands (college rock refers mainly to US bands) experimenting in post-punk, new wave, and folk; bands like R.E.M., The Feelies, and The Violent Femmes. This music ruled the college radio airwaves and it developed a loyal following on student campuses. United by the spirit of anti-douchiness, College Rock laid the foundations of the Alternative explosion that was about to occur.


One of the most influencial alternative bands of the late 80s was The Pixies. Stylistically, they combined the abrasive sounds of punk and hardcore with the melodic sounds of pop (a key development and attribute of grunge rock).

“Bone Machine”

You’re into Japanese fast food
And I drop you off with your Japanese lover
And you go to the beach all day
You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me
You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me

You’re looking like
You’ve got some sun
Your blistered lips
Have got a kiss
The days are lit like everyone
Uh-oh, Uh-oh, Uh-oh, Uh-oh

Your bones got a little machine
You’re the bone machine


As the stage was being set for the alternative explosion in the US, across the pond, the UK alternative scene had been growing as well. Bands like The Smiths cultivated the sound of gothic rock in the mid-80s. By 1988, a scene centered around Manchester bands The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, groups that mixed 60s pop with acid house and funk, started to take place. The “Madchester” scene can be thought of as the precursor to Britpop.

So as you can see, on both sides of the Atlantic, vibrant new music was being made. The music industry didn’t know it then, but the days of glam metal were quickly dying, and the ascension of Alternative was looming on the horizon.

Make sure to read Part II of my “Rock By The 90s” series when I revisit the Seattle grunge bands of the early 90s.


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