The future of music

42 Best 90s Alternative Bands

June 16, 2023
90s alternative bands

The 90s witnessed a new awakening of alternative music, with dozens of music bands achieving commercial success. 

The alternative rock bands in the US and UK presented themselves as a revolt. 

This led to bands playing alternative music to the pop and phony rock spectacles of mainstream music. 

Below, you’ll discover the 42 best 90 alternative bands that peaked in the 1990s. 

From punk to grunge and Britpop, these bands helped shape alternative music throughout the 90s.

1. Nirvana

This is perhaps the most influential alternative rock band in history.

Their music combines elements of grunge, punk rock, hard rock, and alternative rock. 

One year later, Nirvana rose to fame with their iconic song “Smells like Teen Spirit” from the successful album Nevermind, which captured their signature blend of darkness and humor.

Nirvana ultimately achieved five #1 hits on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, making them one of the top-selling bands of all time and further popularizing the alternative rock genre.

2. R.E.M.

Established in 1980 and active for 31 years, R.E.M. has secured a spot on our list of the best 90s alternative bands.

What sets R.E.M. apart from other bands is their ability to merge traditional mainstream rock with the edgier tones that would later define alternative rock.

While most people recognize their chart-topping hit “Losing My Religion,” the band’s broad range of musical creativity is on full display in songs like “Radio Free Europe”, “Night Swimming”, and the upbeat “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”

3. Rage Against The Machine

In 1992, Rage Against The Machine launched their first album, which received critical acclaim and secured them a spot at the Lollapalooza Festival the following year.

The group’s second and third albums, Evil Empire and The Battle of Los Angeles reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart.

This helped the group cement its status as one of the most significant acts in the emerging nu-metal scene.

4. Pavement

During its early years, Pavement relished its obscure and underground status more than most bands.

The group’s members scarcely promoted their music and intentionally shied away from the press and live performances.

Nevertheless, Bob Nastanovich, Stephen Malkmus, Mark Ibold, Scott Kannberg, and Steve West gained a loyal following of fans.

Although Pavement’s single “Cut Your Hair” was moderately successful, the band never achieved mainstream success.

Despite this, their first album, Slanted and Enchanted, remains widely regarded as one of the best records of the 1990s by both fans and critics.

5. U2

U2 might be an unexpected entry in our list as the band was founded in the 1970s and is typically considered a more conventional rock band.

They first gained recognition with tracks such as “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

However, the Irish quartet shifted towards alternative music in the early 1990s, exemplified in their album Achtung Baby, which is arguably the peak of their alternative rock career.

Nevertheless, in the early 2000s, Bono and his band returned to mainstream pop-rock and experienced tremendous success.

6. They Might Be Giants

While alternative music often gets associated with gloominess and melancholy, not every band within the broad category is macabre.

They Might Be Giants is one such band, who, despite having downbeat lyrics, have managed to captivate audiences with their upbeat sound and consistent musical output since the 1980s.

Although there have been several changes in band members, the band’s core comprises John Fansburgh and John Linnell.

With a total of 23 albums produced over the years, it’s challenging to identify a single song or album that defines They Might Be Giants.

However, “Don’t Let’s Start,” one of their earliest tracks, is perhaps the band’s most famous song, showcasing the duo’s playful and lighthearted nature.

7. Radiohead

Radiohead is another fundamental band in the history of alternative rock music.

Despite being formed in 1985, the band gained worldwide recognition with their single hit, “Creep” in 1993.

Subsequently, they established themselves as an alternative music icon, only possibly surpassed by Nirvana.

The legendary band has released nine studio albums, almost all of which have enjoyed immense success.

The three studio albums released in the 1990s – Pablo Honey, OK Computer, and The Bends had a massive impact on the stylistic and thematic elements of alternative rock music.

For many, these albums gave voice to the societal torment of the American experience during the ’90s.

8. Weezer

There’s a very thin margin when it comes to the difference between punk and alternative rock.

However, if there’s a band that bridges the gap, it’s undoubtedly Weezer.

The band has been active for over 30 years and has established itself as a titan among alternative rock bands.

What’s contributed to their success is their ability to evolve.

Their debut album Blue Album and its successor, Pinkerton, featured an eclectic sound, a fusion of Metallica’s intensity, and the Velvet Underground’s lyrical poetry.

Weezer’s work in the 2000s, including the Green Album and Red Album, leaned towards a more pop-punk sound.

In recent years, Weezer’s music has become more self-referential and idiosyncratic.

This is evident in their all-cover-song Teal Album and OK Human.

Regardless of the phase, Weezer remains one of the perpetual innovators of alternative rock music.

9. Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse emerged from the grunge scene, incorporating a variety of underground music influences from the 1980s.

The group comprised lead vocalist and guitarist Isaac Brock, bassist Eric Judy, and drummer Jeremiah Green for much of their career.

Following years of performing in packed bars and releasing singles, the band released its debut album, Tube-Fruit, All Smiles, and Chocolate, in 1996.

Modest Mouse became a prominent choice for alternative rock and indie enthusiasts during the 90s.

However, it wasn’t until 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News that they achieved a breakthrough album.

The record’s two lead singles, “Ocean Breathes Salty” and “Float On”, demonstrated a fresh sound for the band and garnered radio airplay.

10. Soundgarden

Alongside Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana, Soundgarden played a pivotal role in popularizing grunge music, gaining recognition within the Seattle music scene.

Although their debut album struggled in sales, their second album, Ultramega OK, was well-received by critics and even garnered a Grammy nomination in 1990.

They were among the first alternative bands to sign with a major record label, marking a significant milestone for the advancement of alternative rock within the music industry.

Their 1994 album, Superunknown, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart and earned them two Grammy Awards for their singles “Spoonman” and “Black Hole Sun”.

11. Violent Femmes

Violent Femmes’ musical style is alternative rock with a leaning towards the folk side, hence their designation as folk punk.

They have created some truly iconic pieces of music, such as “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” which blend the powerful energy of punk rock with the acoustic instruments of folk and the mellow rhythms of reggae.

These influences are evident in Violent Femmes’ first period of activity, spanning from the 80s to 2000, as well as their more recent period, which has witnessed the release of two studio albums since 2016.

12. Pearl Jam

In the 90s, Pearl Jam emerged from Seattle alongside other renowned bands like Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden and surpassed them in terms of popularity.

Despite their deliberate distancing from the mainstream music industry, they were among the best-selling bands of that decade, which sometimes worked against their interests.

Renowned for their exceptional live performances, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten, reigned atop the Billboard 200 charts for five consecutive weeks. 

The album is regarded as one of the most successful rock albums ever released.

13. The White Stripes

The White Stripes, an American rock band, may be the smallest on this list, comprising just two members, Jack, and Meg White.

However, their size did not hinder them from achieving musical success.

During their active years, they seamlessly fused the traditional alternative rock style with blues, folk, and country genres, as seen in their famous track “Seven Nation Army”. 

The band’s six studio albums included three that won the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album and were ranked as the sixth-best duo of all time by Rolling Stone.

14. Green Day

Hailing from the punk rock scene in the Bay Area, Green Day achieved significant success with its major label debut album, Dookie, in 1994.

Two of its most notable tracks, “When I Come Around”, and “Basket Case” continue to enjoy airplay on mainstream rock stations.

Dookie’s success propelled the band to win a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Album in 1995 while also contributing to the popularization of punk rock among mainstream audiences.

It eventually became one of the rare diamond-certified albums in music history.

15. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers is another successful band in the history of alternative rock.

The band was formed in 1982 and is known for its abundance, having gone through 14 members and producing 13 studio albums.

Red Hot Chili Peppers has sold over 120 million records, including 14 number-one singles.

Although the band is immensely popular, their musical style is not easily defined, drawing on a wide range of music genres such as metal, punk rock, rap rock, hip hop, and psychedelic rock, as evidenced in hit singles like “Californication”, “Snow”, and “Dani California” among others.

16. Nine Inch Nails

Formed in 1988, Nine Inch Nails was the brainchild of Trent Reznor, who remained the only permanent member until 2016.

The band received a total of 13 Grammy Award nominations, ultimately winning for their singles “Wish” in 1992 and “Happiness In Slavery” in 1996.

Rolling Stone named Reznor one of the most influential individuals in 1997 and ranked Nine Inch Nails at number 94 on their 2004 list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

17. Gorillaz

Damon Albarn created the “members” of Gorillaz as part of a complex inner world that unfolds through comics, music videos, and virtual concerts.

Despite this intricate backstory, Gorillaz produced some of the finest alternative rock music of the late 90s.

They stand out for their unique sound, which combines traditional rock elements with synthetic pop instrumentation.

To sample their music, listen to songs like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.”

The latter song reigned at the top of Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart for eight consecutive weeks.

18. The Smashing Pumpkins

The Smashing Pumpkins would certainly be considered Olympian in the world of alt-rock bands, having played a significant role in popularizing this genre.

What sets The Smashing Pumpkins apart is their unique approach to alternative rock, which differs from what we’ve seen with other bands.

While bands like Nirvana, Radiohead, and Weezer drew on punk to develop their musical style, The Smashing Pumpkins delved into post-punk, gothic, and psychedelic rock.

But listening to The Smashing Pumpkins is not just an intellectual experience, as their music is incredibly appealing to a wide audience.

Hits like “1979”, “Zero”, and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” has even found success on pop music stations.

19. Oasis

Oasis brought the sound of Manchester’s Britpop subgenre to the alternative rock scene with an aggressive, Beatles-inspired overdrive sound.

Their barre chord structure provided space for Liam Gallagher’s expressive vocals and empowering lyrics, complemented by Noel’s classical guitar euphoric technique.

The band’s statement-filled tunes resonated with an entire generation from the earliest stages of their career.

Oasis embraced a classic “live forever” ethos in rock music and lifestyle, infusing their distinctive layered sound with a mix of nostalgia and contemporary “walk the walk and talk the talk” bravado.

The Gallagher brothers became a hit-making machine and an irresistible phenomenon for the British audience of the nineties. 

20. The Smiths

Most alternative rock fans believe that The Smiths represent the epitome of early British alternative rock.

While American alternative music emerged from the swirling cloud of distress emanating from the Pacific Northwest, The Smiths brought their alternative sound to the forefront amidst the backdrop of British synth-pop.

The band famously rejected this prevailing style, striving for simpler instrumentals and gloomy yet humorous lyrics.

Despite only being together for five years, The Smiths split up in 1987, and the band members pursued individual projects.

Nevertheless, you can still relish their distinct style in tunes such as “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”

21. The All-American Rejects

Despite being formed in the late 90s, The All-American Rejects emerged as one of the most prominent groups in the alt-rock genre. 

The band dominated the airwaves with chart-topping hits such as “Dirty Little Secret”, “Swing Swing”, and “Move Along”. 

Their style is notable for blending emo music’s deep lyricism with the forceful pop-punk instrumentals, resulting in a distinctive alternative rock sound.

Moreover, The All-American Rejects refused to conform to rigid musical categories, which only enhanced their uniqueness.

22. The Offspring

Having been active for almost four decades and releasing 10 studio albums, The Offspring first gained attention for their role in bringing punk rock into the mainstream during the 90s.

They have sold over 40 million records worldwide, making them one of the highest-selling punk bands ever.

Their 1994 album Smash is one of the top-selling indie records of all time, having sold over 11 million copies, and helped bring punk rock to a wider audience, leading to a major record deal for the band.

23. Muse

Their debut studio album was released in 1999, but they had already gained some attention with their second EP, which reached the number three spot on the UK indie charts and drew interest from local radio stations.

This led to them being flown to the US to showcase their music for Columbia Records and American Records, both of which were familiar with their alternative rock sound.

The band eventually signed with Maverick Records, an American label, before returning to the UK.

24. Foo Fighters

Undoubtedly, Foo Fighters stands as one of the most significant alternative rock bands in history.

Originally established as a solo project by Dave Grohl, the former drummer of Nirvana, in the aftermath of the band’s dissolution, Foo Fighters served as a means of catharsis for Grohl, allowing him to return to music after the tragic death of Kurt Cobain.

With time, Grohl expanded the band, incorporating a revolving cast of musicians.

Its style was influenced by Nirvana’s sound, alternating between delicate lyrics and soaring instrumentals.

To get a taste of the band’s finest works, check out tracks such as “Everlong”, “Best of You”, and “Learn to Fly”.

25. Beastie Boys

Beastie Boys is a groundbreaking alternative rock group that played a pivotal role in popularizing the rap-rock genre.

Initially, Beastie Boys started as a hardcore punk band but later gravitated towards hip-hop and rap-rock.

Their unique sound incorporated elements of funk, jazz, and electro, and their career spanned several decades, culminating in their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, becoming the third rap group to receive this honor.

The band’s diverse discography includes hits such as “Intergalactic”, “Sabotage”, and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, making them a must-listen for any alt-rock enthusiast.

26. Blur

Blur is an iconic Britpop band known for its ever-evolving sound.

The band played a pivotal role in revolutionizing the Britpop genre in the 90s by infusing it with socially, alternative, and experimental introspective themes.

The band set a new standard by blending traditional sounds with layered synth-pop and shoegaze elements, creating iconic tunes complemented by culturally brash lyrics.

Formed in 1988 and led by Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, Blur began as a relatively unknown band, touring as an opening act for The Cramps.

Their unique sound drew heavily from The Kinks’ strong pop sensibilities and the experimental side of the New Wave. 

This resulted in an obscure, emotional, humorous, and youthfully ethereal take on Britpop.

27. Incubus

Like many bands featured here, Incubus has its fingers in various genres, making it such a formidable music band.

The band’s utilization of funk, jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, grunge, and other genres has resulted in each new album being a distinctive listening experience.

Some of their chart-topping hits in the Alternative genre include “Drive” and “Pardon Me”. 

“Drive” peaked at #1 on the US Alternative Airplay charts and #5 on the US Adult Alternative Songs.

28. The Cure

The Cure is an English group that originated in West Sussex.

They are recognized as one of the founding bands of the alternative rock genre, which is why, at 45 years of age, they are the oldest inclusion on this roster.

Interestingly, upon listening to The Cure, one might not realize that they played a significant role in the emerging alt-rock culture.

This is because the ever-present sound of “Friday I’m In Love” heard in grocery stores worldwide is far from alternative rock.

However, this band had a more somber and daring sound in the early 80s, which influenced bands like The Smashing Pumpkins and Interpol.

To experience The Cure’s varied musical range, listen to “Friday I’m in Love” as well as tracks from their album Seventeen Seconds.

29. Beck

Beck, the experimental and authentic artist, is considered a quintessential fit for alternative rock due to his ability to seamlessly blend different musical genres.

He is renowned for his use of samples and diverse musical styles, which have earned him recognition as an all-rounded musician.

In the 90s, he became an underdog champion and cult figure, eventually achieving legendary independent status in the 2000s and early teens.

Beck became a critics’ darling with his trademarked “blues, folk-ish” background and grungy rapped vocals, epitomized by his hit single “Loser”.

He emerged as one of the most iconic artists of the decade, and his raspy voice became a model for modern soloist acts.

30. Pixies

Established in 1986, this band is recognized for bridging the gap between the early alternative rock of the 80s and the more mature alternative rock of the 90s.

Pixies are renowned for being one of the distinctive stylistic features of 90s alternative rock, particularly for popularizing the transition from soft verses to loud choruses and back.

This musical pattern is prominently evident in their hallmark track, “Where is My Mind?”, which was so influential that it impacted major alternative rock bands like Weezer, Foo Fighters, and Nirvana.

31. My Bloody Valentine

My Bloody Valentine is known for their innovative sound, which incorporates shoegaze, noise rock, and dream pop elements.

The band’s early releases influenced the shoegaze genre, such as the E.P. This Is Your Bloody Valentine and their debut album Isn’t Anything.

However, their 1991 album Loveless cemented their reputation as one of the most innovative and influential bands of their time.

After the release of “Loveless,” My Bloody Valentine went on a lengthy hiatus; the band eventually reformed in 2007 and released their third album, mbv, in 2013.

32. Tool

Tool is a progressive metal band, often categorized under the alternative rock and alternative metal genres.

The band was formed in Los Angeles, California, in 1990 and consisted of vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and bassist Justin Chancellor.

The Tool is known for its complex and intricate musical arrangements, often incorporating alternative, progressive, and psychedelic rock and heavy metal elements.

The band’s lyrics are often introspective and deal with personal transformation, spirituality, and social and political issues.

Some of their most well-known songs include “Schism,” “Vicarious,” “The Pot,” and “Sober.”

The band has won several Grammy Awards and has a devoted fanbase that appreciates their complex and thought-provoking music.

33. The Cranberries

The Cranberries is another Irish alternative rock band formed in Ireland in 1989.

The band is known for its distinctive sound, which combines elements of alternative rock, pop, and Irish folk music.

The Cranberries released their debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? in 1993, which included the hit single “Linger.”

They followed up with several successful albums, including No Need to Argue (1994), which featured the hit single “Zombie” and “To the Faithful Departed” (1996).

The band’s lyrics often dealt with political and social issues, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland and themes of love and loss.

The Cranberries sold over 40 million records worldwide, making them one of the most successful Irish bands of all time.

34. Blink-182

Blink-182’s music is often characterized as pop punk, with catchy hooks, energetic rhythms, and humorous lyrics.

Their early albums, such as Cheshire Cat and Dude Ranch, helped to popularize the pop-punk genre in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Some of Blink-182’s most popular songs include “All the Small Things,” “What’s My Age Again?,” and “I Miss You.”

The band has released nine studio albums, with their most recent album, “Nine,” released in 2019.

35. Stone Temple Pilots

Stone Temple Pilots (S.T.P.) became one of the most commercially successful bands of the 1990s alternative rock movement, blending elements of grunge, hard rock, and pop into their music.

The band consists of vocalist Scott Weiland (who passed away in 2015), brothers Robert DeLeo on bass and Dean DeLeo on guitar, and drummer Eric Kretz.

They released their debut album, Core, in 1992, which featured hit songs like “Plush” and “Creep.”

Their second album, Purple, followed in 1994 and included the singles “Vasoline” and “Interstate Love Song.”

They released several more albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including Tiny Music… Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop (1996), No. 4 (1999), and Shangri-La Dee Da (2001).

Following Weiland’s death in 2015, the band briefly recruited another vocalist, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, before ultimately settling on Jeff Gutt as their new frontman.

36. Alice In Chains

Alice in Chains gained popularity in the early 1990s with their albums Facelift, Dirt, and Jar of Flies.

Their music often deals with themes of addiction, depression, and isolation.

The band consists of Jerry Cantrell (guitar, vocals), William DuVall (vocals, guitar), Mike Inez (bass), and Sean Kinney (drums).

They are known for their unique sound that combines heavy metal, grunge, and acoustic elements.

Bands like Black Sabbath and Soundgarden heavily influenced the band.

37. Suede

Suede’s music is known for its dark, theatrical, and often glam-inspired sound, with lyrics exploring love, lust, and self-destruction themes.

The band consists of Brett Anderson (vocals), Richard Oakes (guitar), Mat Osman (bass), Simon Gilbert (drums), and Neil Codling (keyboards).

The band’s self-titled debut album, released in 1993, was critically acclaimed and became a cornerstone of the Britpop movement.

They went on to release several more successful albums, including Dog Man Star (1994), Coming Up (1996), and Head Music (1999).

Suede has had a significant influence on the British music scene and has been cited as an inspiration by bands such as Radiohead, Blur, and Arctic Monkeys.

38. No Doubt

No Doubt’s music combines different genres, including ska, reggae, punk, and pop.

The band members include Gwen Stefani on vocals, Tom Dumont on guitar, Tony Kanal on bass, and Adrian Young on drums.

The band gained popularity in the 1990s with their album Tragic Kingdom, which featured hit songs such as “Don’t Speak” and “Just a Girl.”

They continued to release successful albums throughout the 2000s, including Rock Steady and Push and Shove.

In addition to their music, No Doubt is known for their energetic live performances and distinctive style, which often includes bright colors, bold patterns, and a mix of vintage and modern fashion.

39. Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth is known for its unconventional sound, which blends elements of punk rock, noise rock, and avant-garde music.

The founding members of Sonic Youth were Thurston Moore (vocals, guitar), Kim Gordon (vocals, bass guitar), Lee Ranaldo (vocals, guitar), and drummer Richard Edson (who left the band after their first album).

The band’s early albums, including Confusion Is Sex (1983) and Bad Moon Rising (1985), were characterized by their abrasive, dissonant sound and experimental approach to songwriting.

Sonic Youth gained wider recognition by releasing their 1988 album Daydream Nation, now considered a classic of alternative rock.

Throughout their career, Sonic Youth continued to push the boundaries of rock music, experimenting with unconventional song structures, alternate guitar tunings, and a wide range of influences, from free jazz to experimental noise.

40. Eels

Eels was founded by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Mark Oliver Everett, also known as “E” or “Mr. E.”

The band’s music is characterized by its eclectic mix of genres, including rock, pop, folk, and electronica.

Eels’ lyrics often deal with loneliness, heartbreak, and loss but are also known for their humor and irony.

The band’s debut album, Beautiful Freak (1996), was a critical and commercial success, featuring the hit single “Novocaine for the Soul.”

Other notable albums include Electro-Shock Blues (1998), inspired by the death of Everett’s mother and sister, and Daisies of the Galaxy (2000), which features a more upbeat and optimistic sound.

41. Concrete Blonde

Concrete Blonde’s music is known for its mix of rock, punk, and folk influences, and its lyrics often explore themes of love, loss, and social issues.

Some of their most popular songs include “Joey,” “God Is A Bullet,” and “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song).”

The band released several successful albums throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including their self-titled debut album in 1986, which included the hit song “Still in Hollywood.”

They followed up with albums like Free, Bloodletting, and Mexican Moon, which received critical acclaim and helped solidify their place in the alternative music scene.

While the band officially disbanded in 1995, they reunited for a brief tour in 2001 and have continued to play occasional shows since then.

42. New Radicals

Singer-songwriter Gregg Alexander and keyboardist Danielle Brisebois formed the New Radicals.

Their music was characterized by catchy pop hooks, upbeat rhythms, and Alexander’s distinctive vocals.

The New Radicals released their debut album; Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too, in 1998.

The album was a critical and commercial success, spawning the hit singles “You Get What You Give” and “Someday We’ll Know.”

“You Get What You Give” was a chart-topping hit in several countries and is still remembered as a classic of 1990s alternative rock.

Best 90s Alternative Bands – Final Thoughts

Alternative rock has undergone a great deal of transformation over the past few decades, however, it remains one of the most interesting musical genres to listen to. 

The bands discussed in this post led a musical transformation from the heavy metal and extravagant sounds popular in the 80s. 

Many of these songs achieved mainstream success, which allowed the bands to dominate numerous charts in that decade. 

After reading through the best 90s alternative bands, we hope you have a better sense of what these bands had to offer and how they’ve left a lasting imprint on music. 

You may also like: Best 90s Alternative Songs

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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