The 80s began a trend of indie rock groups finding their footing, with R.E.M. and Sonic Youth both becoming fairly successful after they garnered some critical acclaim first. But the pattern of indie rock bands becoming truly recognized didn’t solidify until the early 90s, with the grunge movement, and other, quirky bands like Pavement. No matter how many indie bands gained success, though, there are always going to be exceptions to the rule—groups that are almost, if not as good, that got left behind. Here’s a list of 90s rock bands that never quite broke through to the success they might’ve deserved, even though many were incredibly influential.
Palm Desert’s Kyuss were one of a few groups that helped establish “desert rock” or “stoner rock” as its own genre. Though primarily made up of glorified, instrumentally-focused jam sessions, Kyuss’s first two albums are hard-hitting, grimy, and dark. Wretch (1991) and Blues for the Red Sun (1992) are aggressive but complex, sometimes masquerading as a much heavier, metal-inspired math rock. Their two later records, Welcome to Sky Valley (1994) and …And the Circus Leaves Town (1995) are both more well-rounded records, reminiscent of member Josh Homme’s future with Queens of the Stone Age. But in both instances, their instrumental expertise is outstanding, especially for anyone who enjoys heavier, grungier music.
Sloan are an incredibly rare example of a group that stays together, in entirety, for now thirty years. The group of Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland, Jay Ferguson, and Andrew Scott have been making music in the same band, with the same name, since 1991, and the level of consistency they show even today is surprising to say the least. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that they all write and sing songs for the group. The group primarily features a soft and indie rock sound (with the exception of their shoegazey debut, Smeared (1992)) paired with songwriting that is both transparent and positive. They enjoy making fun quips and occasionally breaking the fourth wall as well—”Underwhelmed” never fails to make me smile. But despite two or three decent-sized hits in Canada, they’re never discussed. Their first five albums in the 90s are definitely their best, but even twelve albums in, they’re creating fun music that’s more than respectable.
Most people probably recognize the name Plumtree, either from the t-shirt Scott Pilgrim wears in the movie or from the fact that their song—”Scott Pilgrim”—literally inspired Bryan Lee O’Malley to write the graphic novel. Either way, their value way outweighs that fun pop culture fact. In a genre filled with young men (at least at the time) Plumtree are a breath of fresh air, bringing a variety of feminine perspectives to the table. Mass Teen Fainting (1995) is a quaint, fun look at juvenile frustrations, lashing out against more mature morals and telling tales of dull, everyday life in songs like “In the Sink.” Predicts the Future (1997) is a more polished, mature take on similar subjects. And while This Day Won’t Last At All (2000) isn’t nearly as good as the other two, it’s still a solid release to finish a trio of quality records. Plumtree’s bright sound is incredibly youthful, and their songwriting is surprisingly good—apparently so good that they spawned a now-classic series of media.
4. Don Caballero
Don Caballero entered the math rock scene right after it was stamped into existence by bands like Slint. And after they took hold of the genre’s reins, they expanded upon it, specifically in the realm of percussion. The jazzy, ten-minute-long jams are driven entirely by the genius of drummer, Damon Che, but still replicate the gorgeous guitar tapping of their predecessors. Their first albums are actually quite quick, harsh, and do sound much more lo-fi and amateurish. But once the kinks were worked through, they released two classics of not just the genre, but music itself. What Burns Never Returns (1998) and American Don (2000) are both arguably in the top ten of all-time math rock records, with some of the most gorgeous, mind-blowing instrumental sections ever recorded. Yet they’re almost at the bottom of this list in terms of Spotify monthly listeners.
It’s surprising—and kind of disappointing—for Sebadoh to make this list, but despite their insane influence on the indie rock genre, groups like Nirvana and Pavement overshadowed them due to the time of their best record’s release. Sebadoh III (1991) is as classic as it gets, helping blossom the indie rock genre through adolescent stories and relatable ignorance. Lines like “I’m self-righteous and rude” are confident, yet self-aware, which is a lot of what the record is. It also combines a lovable, fun, folky sound with distorted, hardcore guitar tones, similar to some of what’s on Slanted and Enchanted (1992), but with more innate juxtaposition. Outside of that release, though, the group went on to create multiple great records. Bubble & Scrape (1993) was Eric Gaffney’s last record with the group, but it hangs on to most of what made III great, just with much smoother production and a bit more melodic cuts. And after their breakup in 1999, they came back and have made two records since 2013—the latter of which is pretty good.
6. Eric’s Trip
Named after the Sonic Youth song of the same name, Eric’s Trip actually grazed part of their lo-fi sound off of Sebadoh, as both groups were signed to Sub Pop records. But their focus relied heavily on melodic, lyrical ballads instead of pure indie rock. Their debut record, Love Tara (1993), is the perfect breakup record, bouncing between raw, acoustic, and melancholy love songs, and quick, loud, aggressive punk—or sometimes exploring both sounds in the same song. The passion then dissipates into the final track, “Allergic To Love.” Forever Again (1994) is then a perfect sequel, tightening up songwriting so it’s more diverse. And their final full-length project, Purple Blue (1996), favors longer, atmospheric tracks with experimental song progression—not unlike their inspiration, Sonic Youth, at times. When asked to describe their sound, one of the band members, Mark Gaudet, claimed they played “dreamy punk,” and that’s probably as accurate as one can get, but either way it’s damn good.
In a genre like math rock or post-hardcore, minimalism isn’t very prevalent, as both rely on insane instrumentals and complex rhythms—not unlike prog rock. But Shellac take a minimalistic approach to the genre, as if it were something as simple as punk. They instead push repetition alongside abnormal key signatures to bring a facade of that staple complexity. Drenched in a hatred of the music industry, a lot of what drives them to go for these unconventional and punk-esque sound qualities is due to their desire to make it different, fun, and anti-mainstream. The group prefers to play small venues, and a lot of their music is even named “amelodic.” But nonetheless, all of their records (with maybe the exception of Excellent Italian Greyhound (2007)) are outstanding with unique takes on the genre.
Connected to the aforementioned Sloan, Jale are another group from Halifax, Nova Scotia—and apparently guitarist Jennifer Pierce sang backup vocals on Sloan’s Smeared. They represent a lot of the sounds and ideas already talked about on this list, but as a mesh of them all. They’re another women-filled group like Plumtree and their lo-fi, harsh guitars are very similar to Eric’s Trip’s instrumentation as well. But the two come together in an indie rock rendition of shoegaze and grunge. Extended, rugged guitar chords back very joyous vocals on songs like “To By Your Friend,” and “Again.” The intro to Dreamcake (1994), “Not Happy,” is almost a Hole song, but with a much prettier and welcoming vocal performance. So Wound (1996) took away a lot of their lo-fi intrigue, but is still full of gorgeous, catchy cuts like “Ali” and “Despite.”
Now the third math rock representative on this list, North Carolina’s Polvo also came up in the early 90s, during the rush of bands like Slint. Their difference-maker, however, is their wall of guitars—and the very off-kilter usages of the instrument—as well as much more melodic tracks. Today’s Active Lifestyles (1993) is much brighter and bouncier than anything from Slint, Don Caballero, or Shellac. Tracks like “Time Isn’t on My Side” even utilize weird, electronic beeps and filtered guitar slides, which I imagine at least partially inspired Hella to bring similar tools ten years later. Another innovative and distinctive detail is their Eastern influences, even naming a song “My Kimono,” and featuring Asian-inspired art on Exploded Drawing (1996). Polvo’s recognizable, noisy, guitar-driven music is one-of-a-kind and a must-listen for guitar players everywhere.
10. The Inbreds
Rooted in old 60s influences, the Inbreds’ music is akin to early Beatles and Beach Boys music, with a 90s indie touch. Made up of just two members, Mike O’Neill and Dave Ullrich, their music is simplistic, focusing on just one set of drums and a bass—with occasional guitar. Their sound is also very raw and feels like your local college indie group, which brings an inherent charm to their music, and understandably brought them insane amount of college radio play in Canada specifically. But still, the talented duo only lasted four albums and six years before a breakup in 1998. Their music maintains as innocent and unassuming as ever, and is one of a select few bands that can appeal to both 60s rock and grungy rock obsessors.