5 of the Best American Rock Bands from the 1990s

There’s an argument to be made for the 1990s being the last great decade for American rock bands or rock and roll generally. It was certainly the last decade in which rock music dominated culture.

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Think of the bands not on this list: Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, Weezer, Alice in Chains, The Black Crowes, Jane’s Addiction, Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, Pixies, The Breeders, Dinosaur Jr., Flaming Lips, Wilco, Pavement, Sleater-Kinney, among many others.

To celebrate oversized jeans, flannel shirts, chunky Doc Martens, and Manic Panic hair dye, consider this playlist your time machine to the age of Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano.

Here are five of the best ’90s American rock bands.

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Nine Inch Nails

Trent Reznor made industrial music accessible by merging earworm hooks with blown-out guitars and samples built from failing household appliances. Reznor’s masterpiece is The Downward Spiral (1994), which featured NIN classics like “Closer,” “March of the Pigs,” and the haunting and gorgeous “Hurt.”

The band’s muddy Woodstock performance in 1994 was a cultural flashpoint, and very few music acts, then or now, can match the intensity of a Nine Inch Nails concert.

It’s no surprise to witness Reznor’s success as a leading film composer. Underneath the layers of angst, chaos, and white noise is a classically trained pianist and forward-thinking producer who turned personal anguish into timeless, groundbreaking music.

Reznor also produced the Natural Born Killers soundtrack and followed The Downward Spiral with The Fragile in 1999.

Pearl Jam

If you’re familiar with the tragic ending of many of Seattle’s famous rock musicians, you’ll understand that simply surviving is an impressive part of Pearl Jam’s story. Pearl Jam had more in common with classic 1970s rock bands than their grunge contemporaries, but they had the second-most impact on 1990s pop culture behind Nirvana.

Singer Eddie Vedder spawned an entirely new kind of voice that dominated modern rock radio long after grunge had expired. Songs from their 1991 debut Ten spun endlessly on MTV, with raw live clips of “Alive” and “Even Flow” and the cinematic “Jeremy.”

The band was famous for hating being famous, and even when they stopped making music videos or battled Ticketmaster, they couldn’t stop selling millions of albums. Like it or not, the hits kept coming for Pearl Jam: “Daughter,” “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” “Yellow Ledbetter,” and “Better Man.”

Fashion designers copied Vedder’s brown thrift store jacket and made grunge expensive and chic. In response to Vedder’s discontent, Noel Gallagher wrote the first Oasis album, celebrating the rock and roll star.

Still, Pearl Jam survived and transformed into an American institution not unlike Bruce Springsteen.

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers emerged from the same funk and punk Los Angeles underground as Fishbone and Jane’s Addiction. Seemingly impervious to tragedy, the Funky Monks survived the death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, the near-death of guitarist John Frusciante—as well as his frequent exits—and singer Anthony Kiedis’ own struggles with addiction.

However, with the help of Rick Rubin, they made one of the decade’s best albums, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which included several ’90s anthems: “Under the Bridge,” “Breaking the Girl,” and “Give It Away.”

After an experiment with Jane’s Addiction’s guitarist Dave Navarro, the Chili Peppers closed the decade with another mammoth album, Californication, and haven’t slowed down in the 21st century.

R.E.M.

Beginning in 1983 with their debut album Murmur, R.E.M. quietly delivered underground music to mainstream audiences. The Athens, Georgia, band did so without the bombast or flashy image usually associated with popular rock groups.

R.E.M. makes this list regardless of whether the decade in discussion is the 1980s or 1990s. By the time they began working with producer Scott Litt on Document (1987), R.E.M.’s audiences had expanded as quickly as their sound. Green followed in 1988, which paved the way for the colossal Out of Time (1991). “Losing My Religion” was as ubiquitous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and Peter Buck wrote, perhaps, the most famous mandolin riff in history.

Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994, “I know we’re gonna put out one more record, at least, and I have a pretty good idea what it’s going to sound like: pretty ethereal, acoustic, like R.E.M.’s last album [Automatic for the People].”

Automatic for the People featured a string of hits, including “Everybody Hurts,” “Man on the Moon,” and “Drive.” In 1994, they turned up the volume on Monster and merged their jangly power pop with grunge and glam rock. Then, Michael Stipe mentored a young Thom Yorke through his early career growing pains, and R.E.M. took Radiohead on tour as an opening band. R.E.M. split up in 2011 after 31 years and 90 million albums sold worldwide.

Nirvana

Nirvana’s album Nevermind begins with four chords. Though four chords may not seem like much, they were enough to change the sound of rock and roll, fashion, FM radio, and MTV. Kurt Cobain borrowed from the Pixies and, with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became the unwitting voice of Generation X.

In early 1991, Alice in Chains had an MTV hit with “Man in the Box,” while Soundgarden prepared their second major-label release. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam was still deciding on a band name. But none of them had the singular power of Nirvana to shift pop culture with one song. Collectively, Seattle’s grunge bands completed the work of Jane’s Addiction and R.E.M., bringing alternative music to the mainstream.

However, Nirvana was the closest thing Generation X experienced to The Beatles landing on Ed Sullivan’s show. Like fellow Seattle native Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana changed the music world during a brief career that lasted only a few years.

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