The Best Bands of the 1990s Effectively Killed Hair Metal With Their Infectious Raucous

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If you had the privilege of growing up in the 90s, you got to experience a decade in American history where everything seemed to be moving in the same, bizarre direction. It was as if the materialism of the 80s had shed its skin to reveal the discontented youth culture that had been brewing all along. The Angela Chases and Jordan Catalanos of the world had dethroned the Seaver clan (trying to harken back to poodle skirts were they?) and were the main characters. Generation X claimed its mascots in the form of flannel clad, stringy haired heroin addicts from a rainy town in the Pacific Northwest. The world of music was turned on its head, and would never recover – and neither would we.

5 Foo Fighters

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Many may gawk at this, but quite frankly my dear… well you get the idea. Dave Grohl was apparently expected to roll over and surrender when Nirvana went up in a puff of rifle-smoke. He didn’t. Not even close. Instead, Grohl released the Foo Fighters eponymous album, where he played every single instrument himself. If that isn’t proof of prowess I don’t know what is. With the same unflinching honesty that Nirvana professed, songs like “Big Me” and “I’ll Stick Around” grab your insides and twist. And if you thought that was good, The Colour and The Shape was waiting in the wings to blow your mind. One of the best love songs ever written, “Everlong” is still an imitable three minutes of pure musical genius. Some ups and downs followed Foo throughout the past 18 years (like Hawkins’ overdose, and some clunkers on Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace), but Grohl is still the unmatched performer he always was – and Wasting Light proves it. Pat Smear, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, and Chris Shiflett make Foo an unstoppable five some. The news of their 2012 hiatus has left many a fan wondering if this will be it – but I think the proof is in the pudding: Dave Grohl & Co. stop for no man, and Foo Fighters will come back to show us that.

4 Soundgarden

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One of the oldest of the Seattle six, Soundgarden may very well be the first Seattle grunge bands to come into being. Fronted by Rapunzel-like Chris Cornell, with the musical prowess of Kim Thayil, Ben Shepherd, and Matt Cameron, their 1994 album Superunknown was one of the heaviest albums released in the 90s. With powerhouse hits like “Black Hole Sun,” “Spoonman,” and my favorite “4th of July,” Soundgarden crafted out a little corner of the grunge market (as it had become) for themselves with a distinct sound – heavy, sludge ridden music melded with Cornell’s oddly dulcet tones. The release of the music video for “Black Hole Sun” was a film feat in its own right, and proved that Soundgarden’s artistic visions stretched far beyond the confines of music. Regardless of their reputation (Cornell’s side projects, homelessness, and religion), Soundgarden has come back from the abyss to enjoy the resurgence of grunge – proving that, once again, music that really means something cannot be stifled.

3 Phish

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Perhaps somewhere in the middle of the great genre gap, Phish are still rockin’. A group of real new-wave hippies, Phish formed at University of Vermont in the late 80s, and found major success amongst a die-hard following of fans (like their predecessors, the Grateful Dead. In fact, there was a huge surge in their popularity at the disbandment of Grateful Dead when Garcia passed in 1995.) Phish continued to boggle brains by switching things up – literally. They were famous for rotating musical instruments during live shows, going on extended jams, and crafting a sound that never seemed to be the same twice – yet you always knew what it was when you heard it. They covered bands like The Who, had a song on Beavis and Butthead, and famously made one video for MTV. Phish had a set of beliefs that somehow came through the music, though we didn’t know what they were, we loved them anyway.

2 Sublime

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On the complete other side of the genre spectrum, Sublime were the new age weed-toking hippie-ska brothers that everyone wanted to know (at least, on the surface). No kid in the 90s could deny the catchy ska punk beats that Sublime supplied. And everyone wanted a piece of it. With music that challenged the status quo, Sublime’s rap style music was oddly melodic, with a lyrical nature in the literal meaning of the word. Whether satirical, a la “Date Rape,” or celebratory, a la “What I Got,” Sublime always made music that encouraged its listeners to get up and dance – to shake off the troubles of the world (which in the 90’s were a-plenty) and rejoiced in good sounds, good vibes, and the music of the soul. Sublime remained unchanged until Bradley Nowell was claimed, like many other 90s artists, by a heroin overdose. The band may have called it quits, but their music still inspires people to take every day as it comes, cherishing it as it does.

1 Nirvana

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Everyone has their ‘the first time I heard Nirvana’ story. I was ten, and Cobain had already been dead five years. The 90s were coming to a close, and like many others in my generation I was only beginning to find my voice. Nirvana was the band that spoke for thousands of kids around the world, even when Cobain didn’t want to. Countless biographers have done a far better job of detailing their history, but despite the volumes of ink already published, Nirvana continues to inspire people to write, play, listen, draw, and create in many different ways. Their music mastered the bridge between gut wrenching rock and melodic harmonious pop, making it accessible without being artificial. Together, Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl (sorry Chad) were the ultimate power trio. No other band managed to achieve in such short time what Nirvana did. Forever 21 will still sell Nirvana shirts to 14 year olds who “don’t know what it means,” but in a way that is the beauty of Nirvana. They were unflinchingly honest, and force true fans to be honest too. And what is music if not the outpouring of the truth of the human soul? In August, Nevermind turned 20, and reminded us all that Nirvana is still one of, if not the most honest and powerful musical groups to exist in the 20th century.

The 90s were one of those decades where everything fell apart and came together at exactly the same time. It left a whole gulf of kids with no role models, no sense of self, and no one to help them get through the toughest years of their lives. Along came five bands, and despite their own problems, all of those musicians managed to help Generation X, and Y and Z (to come) find their own voices. Through honest music, Nirvana, Sublime, Phish, Soundgarden, and the Foo Fighters make up the best of what the 90’s had to offer – and continue to offer to those who seek it.


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