4 More of the Best American Rock Bands From the 1990s (Part 2)

Welcome to the second edition of the best American rock bands from the 1990s.

Videos by American Songwriter

There are many great bands to choose from as rock and roll—specifically, alternative and indie rock—dominated popular culture. This list includes slacker rock kings, emo troubadours, durable rock stars, and a Chicago band that foreshadowed Nirvana’s breakthrough. (Reread the previous sentence in the voice of Bill Hader’s Stefon from Saturday Night Live.)

Travel back to the early days of Lollapalooza, where suburban mall rats came face to face with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and people choked down Bagel Bites, burned their mouths on Hot Pockets, and tuned in to see what the devious Dr. Michael Mancini would do next on Melrose Place.

Despite all my rage…


While many indie bands from the era signed with major labels, Pavement ignored the temptation and chose to release music on an independent. In 1994, “Cut Your Hair” enjoyed a glimpse of mainstream attention, but it didn’t last long. Nonetheless, Pavement became one of the most influential underground rock bands.

Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Mark Ibold, Steve West, and Bob Nastanovich embraced the unprofessionalism of The Replacements and at times it appeared like they were trying not to be successful. Still, they blended the noise of Sonic Youth with the songs of The Fall to create a new sound that inspired bands like Weezer and Radiohead.

As Pavement fate would have it, “Harness Your Hopes” went viral on TikTok in 2020 and became the band’s most-streamed song. The track was originally recorded for Pavement’s fourth album Brighten the Corners but Malkmus chose not to include it, as he put it, “for no good reason.” It first appeared as a B-side on their 1999 EP Spit on a Stranger. So, “Harness Your Hopes,” a Pavement reject song, is now poetically their biggest hit.


Following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, two touchstone rock albums arrived: Weezer’s self-titled debut (the Blue Album), and Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. (This list is occupied with American rock bands so the Gallagher brothers will have to wait their turn.)

If you are interested in a perfect rock debut, the Blue Album is for you. Weezer’s singles “Undone – the Sweater Song,” “Buddy Holly,” and “Say It Ain’t So” were as ubiquitous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart-Shaped Box.” Rivers Cuomo matched Pixies-style songwriting with metal guitar solos that were both shredding and singable.

Between stints at Harvard, Cuomo wrote only one more album during the 1990s, Pinkerton. Weezer’s follow-up was considered a commercial failure when put against the Blue Album. With the benefit of hindsight, Pinkerton has grown in stature into a beloved, weird album, embraced for Cuomo’s honest songwriting and Pavement-leaning raw production.

Foo Fighters

Nirvana topped the previous list of ’90s American rock bands. Though their career was short, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl had a Beatles-like effect on popular culture. However, no one could have predicted a scenario where Nirvana’s drummer steps out from behind the kit to form a stadium-selling band of his own.

But that’s exactly what Grohl did. In 1995, a little more than a year following Cobain’s death, he released Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut. It’s essentially a demo. He played all the instruments and later formed a band to tour with after signing with Capitol Records. The drummer from the world’s greatest grunge band kicked off the post-grunge movement with MTV hits like “This Is a Call,” “I’ll Stick Around,” and “Big Me.”

The Colour and the Shape followed two years later and “Everlong” established Grohl not only as a remarkable musician but like Cobain, as one of his generation’s most prolific songwriters. Grohl’s career is defined as much by resiliency as it is by his two famous bands.

The Smashing Pumpkins

In the 1990s, Billy Corgan wrote as prolifically as his peers, even when he didn’t edit himself. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a 28-song collection and unlike most double albums, there’s not a single track that should have been excluded. The deluxe edition is a 92-song, six-hour affair, and a third side could easily have been squeezed from the outtakes. Also, Corgan wrote the decade’s second-best alt-angst anthem, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.”

Working in reverse order, Siamese Dream is a masterpiece, too. The opening riff to “Cherub Rock” is as good as any to start an album. Pixies’ songwriting dynamics had reached Chicago and Corgan created his path using Black Francis’ blueprint. Meanwhile, “Disarm” and “Today” became ’90s anthems, proving Corgan was just as lethal without a loud riff.

The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1991 debut Gish pushed alternative rock toward the mainstream, continuing the work of Jane’s Addiction. Butch Vig produced Gish. He also produced Nirvana’s Nevermind, and Pitchfork once argued “Without Gish, there would probably be no Nevermind as we know it.” Returning to Mellon Collie, Corgan’s coming-of-age anthem “1979” is one of the decade’s finest songs.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for KROQ/Entercom

Leave a Reply

Bruce Springsteen

4 Alternate Songs That Reference America for Your Patriotic Fourth of July Playlist

Classic Patriotic Toby Keith Speech Resurfaces on Fourth of July