It’s been well established that the 1990s were a volatile era for Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. The decade pervasively relied upon, came to be defined by, and eventually was destroyed by the smash success of what came to be known as “Grunge.” A genre in which the ever-candid frontman of Oasis, Liam Gallagher, described its fan base as people who, “Want a grungy bunch, stabbing themselves in the head on stage. They get a bright bunch like us, with deodorant on, they don’t get it.” While this is humorous, and extreme, to a certain extent, it was also true.
As the decadent 1980s came to a close, the stalwart Glam and Hair Metal rockers of the era were suddenly enveloped by a dark and dim sadness which oozed out of every orifice within the Seattle music scene and slowly unfurled over the rest of the country. Before we knew it, larger-than-life Rock icons such as David Coverdale, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, and Jon Bon Jovi were replaced with the likes of sullen, and supposedly downtrodden slackers such as Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Layne Stayley.
None of this is to say Grunge was good or bad, as that’s a completely different discussion for a different day. What’s more interesting is the sudden and precipitous fall from grace that those 80s Rock heroes experienced. Never before had so many top-class musicians become so relegated, so quickly.
Still, the genre of “Rock” survived, albeit in the shadows. Now, if you’re not a fan of Grunge specifically, at least in the commercial sense, the 90s had a lot of fantastic Rock music to offer in the way of those forgotten 70s and 80s heroes adapting as best they could. Moreso, and also worth examining, are the truly fantastic and widely underrated Alternative and Indie Rock artists which in retrospect can be looked upon as some of the best the decade had to offer.
In the heat of the moment, while Grunge as a commercial entity may have stolen the limelight, a whole subset of rather unpopular albums were created, and ex post facto, we now can give thanks for these artists manifesting these creations knowing full well their fan base may never receive them in the way they deserved to be. While the Rock heroes of yesteryear may have been surviving as splinter cells, their drive and determination to create these records are worth looking back on. And so, let’s dig into Five Forgotten Rock albums of the 90s.
5) Therapy? – Troublegum (1994)
While many may not realize it, Ireland has a rich Rock history. When you think of Rock acts spawned from The Emerald Isle, bands such as Thin Lizzy, U2, The Pogues, and The Cranberries come to mind, but one of the most underrated outfits to come out of Ireland is none other than the genre-bending group, Therapy? Armed with a devastatingly powerful rhythm section, crunchy, Metal-laden guitars, and a vocalist with a penchant for spitting literary references disguised as maladies Therapy? was never going to be “popular.” Still, in a way, they had their time in the sun culminating in the often forgotten Alternative Metal juggernaut Troublegum. As some of you may recall, Troublegum’s memorable cover art is paired nicely with the raging opener “Knives,” which surges seamlessly into the coulda been, shoulda been 90s Alt-Rock chart-topper “Sceamager.” Seriously, this is one of the finest Alternative albums of the decade, and the fact that so few have heard it, let alone remember it is downright criminal. After the release of this record, the group would go on to release eleven more records, and are still active to this day, albeit in relative obscurity save for their small, but ravenous fanbase. You will be hard-pressed to find a physical copy of this album, as major record labels continue to ignore it, but it is available via streaming, and I highly encourage you all to listen.
4) Union – Union (1998)
At its core, the aptly named Union was formed by Bruce Kulick and John Corabi just after their time in KISS and Mötley Crüe respectively had ended. Soon after, former Eddie Money and David Lee Roth bassist, Jamie Hunting was recruited, and he was followed by Brent Fitz of Slash fame on the drums. Together, these four stalwart rockers formed one of the heaviest and sadly underrated Rock outfits of the late 90s. Retrospectively, the group’s debut album, Union, is considered one of the strongest Rock efforts of its era, but at the time of its release, it was buried in a musical landscape which was awash in late-stage, overwrought post-Grunge acts who over time have proved to be assuredly forgettable. One of the wonderful things about Union as a band and this record as a standalone piece is it truly proved the musical wherewithal of Bruce Kulick and John Corabi. In the vast expanse of KISStory, it’s easy to forget just how important Bruce Kulick was to the band, and as frontman of Mötley Crüe, John Corabi ably guided an 1980s flagship band into the 90s abyss, all the while being handed the grueling task of replacing a legacy member in Vince Neil. I am of the opinion that both Kulick and Corabi played major hands in keeping their respective bands afloat during a time where they may have been otherwise deemed irrelevant. As for Union, this was a classic case of a public who simply wasn’t listening, and a mindless record industry who refused to get behind a band who deserved better. With that being said, I am happy to say that eOne Music will be reissuing both Union, and Union’s second album, The Blue Room in the physical format later this year. Perhaps if the public shows enough interest, we could see this absurdly underrated group take the stage together again. Time will tell.
3) KISS – Psycho Circus (1998)
This is a pick that will get a lot of hate from both KISS fans and KISS detractors alike. I say this with conviction though: Psycho Circus is not only one of the most underrated Rock records of the 90s, but it’s also one of the better albums within the KISS-Katalog in general. As I said, that will get a lot of hate. I am aware that this album was billed as the group’s “Reunion Album.” I am aware that in fact, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley barely played on the thing. I am aware that Tommy Thayer handled most of the lead guitar work, and that Bruce Kulick handled most of the bass work. All of that aside, Paul Stanley was in rare form here. While Paul may look back on this record, and this era as a whole with regret, the fact that “Psycho Circus” remains in the band’s setlist to this day speaks volumes. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons will never admit it, the fans will never admit it, and the press will never admit it, but Psycho Circus rocks. I don’t care who’s playing what instruments, tracks such as “Raise Your Glasses,” “I Pledge Allegiance To The State of Rock & Roll,” and “Psycho Circus” are as anthemic as anything KISS ever put out before or after. Gene Simmons contributed two of his better tracks in years with “Within,” and “We Are One.” You can hate on Psycho Circus all you want, and it’s true the muddled recording history, and erroneous initial billing certainly makes for cannon fodder. Still, the fact remains that Psycho Circus is and probably always will be the band’s last truly great and classic album. Furthermore, it was the group’s best record since Creatures of the Night. Better than Lick It Up. Better than Animalize. Better than Revenge. You heard it here first.
2) Frank Black – Frank Black (1993)
Here’s another hot take that people are going to hate: Frank Black’s debut solo record, Frank Black, fully and undoubtedly proved that when it comes to the Pixies, the buck starts and stops with Frank Black. Sure, Kim Deal is a wonderful talent, and her work with The Breeders is commendable, if not borderline fantastic, and of course, Joey Santiago is ever the Indie Guitar Hero, but the Pixies truly go as Frank Black goes, and this album full-on proves it. Don’t believe me? Listen to tracks such as “Los Angeles,” “I Heard Ramona Sing,” and of course, possibly the best song Frank Black ever laid to tape, “Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em,” and tell me I’m wrong. Frank Black’s solo output is oftentimes unfairly derided by angry Pixies fans who wish these songs were records as…Pixies songs. Meanwhile, I am over here wondering when Frank Black will launch his solo tour so I can finally hear some of his best work again. Don’t get me wrong, the Pixies are as seminal as they are legendary when it comes to the Indie and Alternative Rock circuit, but when it comes to albums, Frank Black is as good as it gets, truly. If you’re a fan of the Pixies or just good music in general, and you haven’t heard this one, I strongly encourage you to change that right away. Again, “Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em” is Frank Black’s low-key preeminent moment. No one will ever admit it, but it’s true. Prove me wrong.
1) Hum – You’d Prefer an Astronaut (1995)
No self-respecting list of underrated 90s Rock albums would be complete without this absolute monster of an album. With only five full-length albums released since the band’s inception in 1989, Hum has long been enigmatic, but even if You’d Prefer an Astronaut proved to be the group’s only release, their place in Rock history would still be firmly cemented. While all of Hum’s catalog is worth diving into, this album is the fat cat if you’re only going to listen to one. With standout tracks such as “Stars,” “The Pod,” and “I’d Like Your Hair Long,” soaring and buzzing through space and time, all the while colliding into one another and exploding through the speakers of teenage 90s bedrooms, it’s a true wonder how this record has only sold some 250,000 copies since its release in 1995, which for those keeping score is not even good enough for RIAA Gold Certification. For too long this zebra-streaked album has remained in the shadows of 90s toxic waste, but it still survives. As is usual, record companies ignore this forgotten gem, and thus physical copies remain scarce, but you can find the album on the all-powerful and all-knowing Spotify as well as its iOs counterpart, Apple Music. If this album has thus far eluded you, prepare to have your mind blown, followed by the striking and stark realization that not nearly enough people have basked in its glory. Do yourself a favor– take the journey.
So that’s my list of Five Forgotten Rock albums of the 90s. I expect its official entry into the zeitgeist to be a bumpy one, but as always, I implore anyone to share their opinion and debate. More importantly, I too often hear people say that “Rock is dead,” and that it, “Has been for some time.” I for one disagree. While Rock music may not exist as you remember it, want it to, or hoped it would, it still does exist. That is to say, it’s alive and well. It was not buried in a forgotten, and forlorn graveyard as 1989 turned over to 1990. No, it exists as it always has, in many forms and across many genres. Some of which you are going to hate. Some of which you are going to love, and some…you are going to forget. So, the next time you quip that “Rock is dead,” remember that it does in fact live on, and remember to never stop digging.
Interested in getting lost in the spaced-out wonder of Hum? Check out the video for “The Pod” below:
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