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12 Stellar Alternative Rock Songs From 1990

Updated on June 8, 2017
Jesse Drzal profile image

The '90s were a fun time to grow up, with some great music to enjoy during formative years.

Alternative Rock in 1990

1990 was an important year in alternative rock, as we had a brand new decade upon us that was ripe and ready to enlighten us with new music. The wheels were now set in motion for a great decade of exciting music to come. Here are some great songs from that year in no particular order.

1. ''Where Did You Sleep Last Night'' by Mark Lanegan

The most famous version of ''Where Did You Sleep Last Night'' was undoubtedly done by Nirvana for their Unplugged in New York performance. It was a highlight of the iconic event, and if Kurt Cobain's chilling and haunting vocals don't send shivers down your spine you are simply not human. The song is actually an old blues standard, at least a hundred years old, done most famously at one point by blues legend Leadbelly.

Before Unplugged in New York, Kurt Cobain and Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan were working on songs together, specifically Leadbelly and old blues covers. The project fizzled out, partly due because Kurt and Mark were very close friends first, and felt uncomfortable telling each other what to do in a working environment out of deep mutual respect.

These sessions with Kurt gave Mark the desire to continue with his own solo music, and one of the results was his 1990 solo album The Winding in Sheet. Included on the album was Mark's awesome cover of ''Where Did You Sleep Last Night''. It also featured Kurt on guitar and backing vocals as well as Nirvana's Krist Novoselic on bass guitar.

Mark Lanegan live in Seattle, 2015
Mark Lanegan live in Seattle, 2015 | Source

''Where Did You Sleep Last Night'' (Leadbelly Cover) Video by Mark Lanegan

2. ''Then She Did..'' by Jane's Addiction

In the mid to late eighties, glam and hair metal ruled the Los Angeles local music circuit, and this was the climate Jane's Addiction had to compete with. They forged their new style of rock, despite perhaps not fitting in with the trends of the time.

After a couple of albums, Jane's came out with the groundbreaking Ritual de lo Habitual, combining hard rock, funk, and dreamy textures. The strength of the singles ''Stop'' and ''Been Caught Stealing'' were staples of MTV and alternative rock radio at that time.

I have always been deeply drawn to some of the deeper cuts from that album, especially ''Then She Did..''. The song has an incredible ebb and flow, with strong dynamics and sophisticated instrumentations. It takes a listener on a journey through its various parts. The lyrics are about Xiola Blue, a friend of lead singer Perry Farrell, who succumbed to a heroin overdose. In the end of the song, Perry is telling Xiola to say hello to his deceased mother in heaven and offering anecdotes that parallel the relationship's he had with those women that he loved. A truly deep and epic track with music that ties in well with the subject matter.

Will you say hello to my ma?

Will you pay a visit to her?

She was an artist, just as you were.

I'd have introduced you her to her.

She would take me out on Sundays.

We'd go laughing through the garbage.

She repaired legs like a doctor.

On the kitchen chairs, we sat on.

She was unhappy, just as you were.

Unhappy, just as you were.

Unhappy, just as you were.

Unhappy, just as you were.

— Perry Farrell, ''Then She Did..''

''Then She Did..'' Music by Jane's Addiction

3. ''Laughing'' by The Church

The Church formed back in 1980 in Sydney, Austrailia. After sharpening their skills and paying dues for a number of years, the band had a breakthrough of sorts in 1988 with Starfish. That album spawned the hit song ''Under The Milky Way'' and saw the guys attain some recognition.

For the follow-up to Starfish, the group was eager to enlist John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin to produce the effort. But the record company and management shot down the idea in fear of the recording being too artistic and not a strong seller. It's a shame, because who knows what the final product would have been. But I bet it would have been cool.

Nonetheless, 1990 saw The Church release Gold Afternoon Fix. The band released the first single ''Metropolis'' which was a success and great track, but the deeper cut ''Laughing'' is my favorite track from Gold Afternoon Fix.

''Laughing'' Video by The Church

4. ''You My Flower'' by The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs had a nice run during the 90's releasing five albums before calling it quits in 2001. The guys reformed in 2012 and are presently active. The lyrics of the band are often witty with a heavy dose of dark humor.

Upon getting signed to the highly influential record label Sub Pop, The Afghan Whigs then delivered the goods with the Up In It album released in 1990. The record was produced by Jack Endino, who had produced many of the Seattle bands offerings, doing work for recordings by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Green River and a host of others. The Afghan Whigs were also one of the first bands signed by Sub Pop that did not come from the Pacific Northwest area.

Up In It was a great release, making lots of waves on college rock radio and solidifying a solid fan base which follows the band to this day. ''You My Flower'' and ''Retarded'' are solid tracks off of the Up In It release from 1990.

''You My Flower'' Music Video by The Afghan Whigs

The Afghan Whigs live in 2012.
The Afghan Whigs live in 2012. | Source

5. ''Crown Of Thorns'' by Mother Love Bone

The story of Mother Love Bone is pretty well known I would think, at least for a fan of 90's alternative music. Mother Love Bone was gaining steam in their local Seattle scene and a breakout for the band seemed imminent, revolving around charismatic lead vocalist Andrew Wood.

But it all came crashing to a sudden halt, as Andrew Wood passed away from a heroin overdose before the release of their debut album, Apple. That was it for Mother Love Bone, and we will never know the true impact of what the band would have been.

The death of Andrew Wood also radically impacted the course of 90's alternative music, there most likely would have never been Pearl Jam, as they were formed when Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard started a new project after the tragedy.

''Crown Of Thorns'' Music by Mother Love Bone

6. ''Titanium Expose'' by Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth had a do it yourself ethic in the eighties, putting together an original sound, and building a fan base through playing shows and recording albums. The culmination of this was the Daydream Nation album by the band in 1988, which saw the band continue to grow and evolve.

In 1990, Sonic Youth found themselves on a major record label, Geffen Records, and recorded the album Goo. The single ''Kool Thing'' even had a guest appearance from rapper Chuck D from Public Enemy.

Goo is a great album by the band, and when one thinks of alternative music, Sonic Youth has to be one of the first bands you would name. A highlight for me from Goo is the closer ''Titanium Expose'' which has a noise intro followed by a great punk inspired main riff and awesome vocal trade-offs between Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.

''Titanium Expose'' Video by Sonic Youth

Source
Sonic Youth live in Montreal, 2010
Sonic Youth live in Montreal, 2010 | Source

Opinion Poll #1

What Is Your Favorite Song From The First Six On The List?

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7. ''It Ain't Like That'' by Alice In Chains

Going away from the indie blueprint of some of their contemporary Seattle bands, Alice In Chains came out swinging on a major label, Columbia Records, for the debut album Facelift. Definitely on the heavier side of alternative, the group had metal leanings too.

Lead singer Layne Staley had massive vocal chops and flexed those muscles on the Facelift debut. His power and range was absolutely incredible and drove the ''Man In The Box'' single along with Jerry Cantrell's talk box effects guitar riffs. This was in big rotation for me during those times, and I most definitely wore out my cassette copy of Facelift in the car.

Another highlight on the album was ''It Ain't Like That'' with Jerry Cantrell's guitar string raking technique sounding like a thousand sheets of glass being shattered, then morphing into an incredible muted stomp part, and into a searing and soaring chorus. Amazing stuff that still sounds fresh today.

''It Ain't Like That'' Music by Alice In Chains

8. ''John The Fisherman'' by Primus

The Frizzle Fry album was my first exposure to Primus, and I was really impressed by the virtuoso bass guitar playing. The songs were drum and groove orientated with guitar textures sprinkled over the top with mastermind Les Claypool's quirky lyrics and persona featured too. While not alternative in the sense of Seattle grunge or the British bands, Primus was every bit alternative as those scenes.

Les Claypool (bass, vocals) was a native of the San Francisco Bay area and was a school mate and friend of Kirk Hammett of Metallica. Kirk had Les try out for Metallica when they were auditioning new bassists after the passing of Cliff Burton. Les was rejected because he was ''too good'' and his funk-inspired style did not fit.

Les still has his first squeeze Primus going here and there and does numerous bands and projects including The Claypool Lennon Delirium with Sean Lennon. He has also collaborated with Tom Waits, Gov't Mule and Death Grips and his own solo work.

''John The Fisherman'' is a classic Primus tune and touches on fishing themes that Les likes to write songs about. It is a common subject matter of Les as he himself is a fishing aficionado.

''John The Fisherman'' Music by Primus

Les Claypool onstage with Primus in Poland, 2011.
Les Claypool onstage with Primus in Poland, 2011. | Source

9. ''Joey'' by Concrete Blonde

Concrete Blonde started out in Los Angeles, California and was active from 1982 to the mid-nineties, with a few active/inactive periods after before calling it quits for good in 2012. Bloodletting released in 1990 was the band's big breakthrough album on the strength of the single ''Joey'' and still remains the band most notable recording. Bloodletting also features a guest appearance from Peter Buck of R.E.M on mandolin for the track ''Darkening Of The Light''.

''Joey'' Video by Concrete Blonde

10. ''This Is How It Feels'' by Inspiral Carpets

Inspiral Carpets are a British band formed in 1983, and in 1990 released the debut album Life. After an inactive period from the late 90's to early 2000's, the group is still active.

The band has an original sound which features a heavy dose of organ giving the music almost a Doors type feel, with vocals that sound like David Bowie in spots. The tune ''This Is How It Feels'' by the band deals with youthful alienation and problems within a family, and was a single released from the Life album.

''This Is How It Feels'' Video by Inspiral Carpets

Tom Hingley of Inspiral Carpets performing at V Fest in 2003.
Tom Hingley of Inspiral Carpets performing at V Fest in 2003. | Source

11. ''Everything Flows'' by Teenage Fanclub

Formed in Scotland in 1989, Teenage Fanclub came out with their full-length release A Catholic Education in 1990. This is to me is one of the sleeper albums of nineties alternative rock. It features great catchy hooks with a dirty and jangly guitar sound that sticks to the brain, and the track ''Everything Flows'' is the embodiment of that. The album Bandwagonesque by the group is also recommended, and also has a more mainstream and accessible sound.

''Everything Flows'' Music by Teenage Fanclub

12. ''The Happening'' by Pixies

The Pixes are an important band of American alternative who had a big impact on groups like Nirvana and countless others. Main songwriter Black Francis was influenced by sixties music, surf, and new wave, and later punk rock in his teen years. All of these genres meshed together to form the antithesis of Pixies songwriting.

The debut album Surfer Rosa (1988) and the follow-up Doolittle (1989) seem to get the most love from fans, but I have always been drawn into the Bossanova (1990) recording by the band. It was pretty much written entirely by Black Francis without any outside help, as the feud with bassist Kim Deal had come to a head at that point with basically no communication happening between the two.

''The Happening'' off of Bossanova may well be my favorite Pixies song of all time and touches on Black Francis's obsessions with aliens within the lyrics.

''The Happening'' Music by Pixies

Opinion Poll #2

What Is Your Favorite Song From The Last Six On The List?

See results

Overall Favorite

Feel Free To Leave Your Overall Favorite In The Comments Section!

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