The 90s were the formative years of rock and roll, separating the classic arena and glam rock from the styles we know today. It was also a time of massive changes in music in general, with alternative sounds finally coming into the mainstream and finding huge amounts of success. In this article, we’ll take a look at the 25 best alternative bands that made the 90s one of the best decades in music.
It’s hard to put Nirvana anywhere but the first spot on this list. They, more than anyone else, are responsible for alt-rock getting to mainstream audiences thanks to the Nevermind album and Smells Like Teen Spirit. They became one of the best-selling bands of all time en route to being the reason there’s a divide in rock history between classic rock and modern rock, separating the old arena and glam rock from the alternative sounds that are so common today.
2. Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam was one of the best-selling bands of the 90s, forming in Seattle alongside the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains and outperforming them in that decade. One of the best live groups of all time, they eschewed the mainstream music industry as much as possible, much to their own detriment but this never stopped them. Their debut album Ten sat atop the Billboard 200 for five consecutive weeks, went 13 times platinum in the US, and is one of the best-selling rock albums in history.
3. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers was formed in 1983, but they hit their stride in the 90s with their Blood Sugar Sex Magik album. This brought them into the mainstream, but Californication in 1999 became an even larger success. While they continued to grow into massive icons in the music world, the 90s was when they got their real start within record labels, a career that led to multiple Billboard chart records, three Grammy Awards, 120 million worldwide record sales, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Oasis is one of the most successful groups in UK music history, forming in Manchester in 1991 and becoming the preeminent alternative band on that side of the Atlantic. Pioneers of Britpop, a brighter and catchier version of alt-rock, they have sold over 70 million records worldwide and achieved three platinum albums in the US.
5. Green Day
Green Day emerged from the Bay Area punk scene and found breakout success with their major record label debut album Dookie in 1994. Basket Case and When I Come Around were two of the biggest songs off that album, still finding radio play today on mainstream rock stations. The album would ultimately win the band a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album in 1995 and helped bring punk rock to mainstream audiences, becoming one of the few diamond-certified albums in history.
6. Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails was originally formed in 1988 and was the baby of Trent Reznor, who was the only permanent member from its inception to 2016. In total, the band was nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning for the singles Wish in 1992 and Happiness In Slavery in 1996. Reznor has been named one of the most influential people in 1997 by Rolling Stone, who also ranked them at number 94 on their 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Soundgarden was instrumental in popularizing grunge music, getting its start in the Seattle music scene alongside Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Alice In Chains. Their debut album wasn’t a big seller, but Ultramega OK found great reception among critics and earned them a Grammy nomination in 1990. They were among the first grunge bands to sign with a major record label, a massive step for the progression of alt-rock in the music industry. Their 1994 album Superunknown debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and won them two Grammy Awards for the singles Black Hole Sun and Spoonman.
8. The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins are one of the most versatile alt-rock groups, incorporating elements of goth-rock, heavy metal, dream pop, progressive rock, and electronica in their music. Selling over 30 million records worldwide made them one of the best-selling alt-bands of the 90s, with them being acclaimed as one of the groups to help popularize alternative music during that time.
9. Foo Fighters
Foo Fighters was formed by Dave Grohl after Nirvana ended with the death of Kurt Cobain and picked up where they left off. It initially started as a solo project by Grohl but found immediate success with his debut album and became a long-term group. The lifetime of the band has seen them become one of rock’s biggest groups, win the first-ever Global Icon award at the 2021 MTV Music Video Awards, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in that same year, and win 15 Grammy Awards, five of which were for Best Rock Album.
Weezer’s debut album featured many of the songs we know them for today, from Buddy Holly to Undone (The Sweater Song) and Say It Ain’t So. The Blue Album is widely considered by critics to be one of the best albums of the 90s alongside their second album Pinkerton. They didn’t slow down as the millennium turned either, releasing the 2001 Green Album with singles like Hash Pipe and Island in the Sun before releasing Maladroit in 2002 and seeing Beverly Hills top the US Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Radiohead is best known for its debut single Creep, which is one of the best-selling songs of all time and generally appears in lists of the best singles of all time. While the band found early success with it, their OK Computer album in 1997 is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time and brought them international fame for its complex styles and relatable theming.
Another English alt-rock band, Blur debuted in 1991 and was a major influence in popularizing Britpop internationally. In 1995, they went toe-to-toe with Oasis on the charts, resulting in a battle dubbed The Battle Of Britpop by music media.
Beck loves experimenting with all kinds of musical styles, producing music with elements of folk, funk, electronic, alt-rock, psychedelic, and electronic genres. He found his big break in the 90s in the single Loser, which was a worldwide hit by 1994, and by 1996, his studio albums had earned him several awards and critical acclaim. While not a purely alt-rock artist and not particularly a band, they were still one of the greatest alternative acts of the 90s.
14. Alice in Chains
The final member of the Seattle grunge big four, Alice In Chains incorporates more heavy metal elements in their sound than their contemporaries. In total, the band has earned 18 Top 10 songs on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart, with five number-one hits, and 19 million records sold in the US. Despite being mostly inactive after 1996, they did receive nine Grammy Award nominations and are generally considered to be one of the greatest alt-rock acts of all time.
Muse just skates by for a list focusing on the 90s, forming in 1994 and releasing their first studio album in 1999. Their second EP made it to number three on the UK indie charts and got them the interest of local radio broadcasters. They eventually were flown to the US to showcase their work for Columbia Records and American Records, which by then was familiar with their alt-rock sound and the band signed with American Records label Maverick Records before going back to the UK.
16. Stone Temple Pilots
Stone Temple Pilots found initial success as part of the grunge movement of the early 90s but moved on to include a wide variety of influences in their music. In the 90s alone, the band sold 18 million records in the US and 40 million worldwide, releasing a total of four albums in that decade.
17. Rage Against The Machine
Rage Against The Machine released their debut album in 1992 and immediately found critical success that landed them a place at the Lollapalooza Festival the next year. Their next two albums, Evil Empire and The Battle Of Los Angeles, hit number one on the Billboard 200 chart, and the band became one of the most influential groups in the emerging nu-metal genre. VH1 ranked the band at number 33 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.
18. The Offspring
The Offspring have had a career spanning nearly four decades and released a total of 10 studio albums, but they got their start as part of bringing mainstream interest to punk rock in the 90s. At over 40 million worldwide record sales, they’re one of the best-selling punk bands of all time. Their 1994 album Smash is one of the best-selling indie records of all time at over 11 million and pushed punk rock to mainstream audiences, landing them a major record deal.
Blink-182 has become famous for its use of catchy pop melodies and punk rock blends. They tend to use simple, straightforward arrangements that helped bring about the entire genre of pop punk and earned them over 50 million worldwide record sales.
20. The Cranberries
The first of two Irish rock bands to make this list, The Cranberries gained their current name in 1990 when Dolores O’Riordan took over the lead singing role for them. They produced several hit singles in the 90s, including Zombie, When You’re Gone, Salvation, Linger, and Dreams.
Their career would see over 50 million record sales, several award nominations and a few wins, and international acclaim as one of the preeminent alt-rock groups of the 90s.
Tool isn’t exactly what you expect of a 90s alt-rock group, but hear me out. Their ridiculously complex brand of metal places them firmly in the alternative band category, and they dominated the metal scene of the 90s. If you only look at the two albums released during the 90s, Undertow and Aenima, their debut album went triple-platinum, and their second one debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, which also went triple-platinum and popularized metal in mainstream music circles.
U2 is the second Irish alternative rock band on the list and realistically has been more successful than our first. They were at their commercial peak in the 90s, building on the incredible success of The Joshua Tree and releasing several studio albums. Their 22 Grammy Awards and 150 million plus worldwide record sales speak for themselves in terms of their success as an alternative group.
23. The Cure
The Cure was reasonably successful in the 1980s, but they hit their stride in the 90s and shifted to more of a mainstream sound in England—which was Britpop, the alt-rock style over there. In 1991, they were awarded the Brit Award for Best British Group and followed it up with the Wish album the next year, which earned them a Grammy Nomination for Best Alternative Music Album in 1993.
R.E.M. was one of the very first alternative rock bands, a pioneer even to groups that paved the way for alt-rock in the mainstream music world like Nirvana. They had their best commercial success in the 90s with albums like Out Of Time, which received seven Grammy nominations alone, and produced their best-selling single Losing My Religion. Due to the popularity of alternative rock and their stardom, they signed a record deal in 1990, $80 million with Warner Bros., which was the richest recording contract in history at the time.
25. My Bloody Valentine
My Bloody Valentine is sort of the forefather of the goth and emo bands of the late 2000s. Their dissonant guitars and androgynous singing styles helped them pioneer the 90s shoegaze genre. Their Loveless album in 1991 is generally regarded as one of the best rock albums of the 90s, though this would be their final album. They were dropped by their label for extensive production costs and didn’t reunite until a 2007 world tour, finally releasing a third studio album in 2013.
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