For 21 years, from 1988 to 2009, Billboard published something called the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Since renamed Alternative Songs, it was designed to measure the success of cool underground music, and while it often skewed fairly mainstream, the list of 141 singles that hit No. 1 during the ‘90s—the heyday of the Alt-Rock Revolution—includes a ton of great tunes by underappreciated artists. The following nine acts didn’t have the lasting success or influence of U2 or the Chili Peppers—bands that dominated the chart for much of the decade—but they’re better than you remember. While everyone’s still talking ‘90s nostalgia, they deserve at least a passing whisper.
For a few years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, INXS challenged U2 for global stadium supremacy. It was easy to dismiss them as cheeseball pretty-boy pop stars, especially since frontman Michael Hutchence looked so damn dreamy in those leather pants, but the Aussie crew started life as a credible post-punk/New Wave band. Their self-titled 1980 debut is all nerdy, twitchy, sax-driven fun, and mid-period faves like 1982’s Shabooh Shoobah offered a sexier, more mischievous take on the “big music” of bands like Big Country and Midnight Oil.
The 1987 blockbuster Kick might be the awesomest Reagan-era rock album no one ever talks about. As funny as “Suicide Blonde” looks sandwiched between Jane’s Addictions “Stop!” and the Cure’s “Never Enough” on the list of 1990 Modern Rock chart-toppers, it’s the perfect synthesis of Depeche Mode and George Michael—wiggly alt-butt-rock you can’t help but sing along to. (Note: This critical revaluation only works if you ignore everything that’s happened since Hutchence’s death in ’97—particularly the unforgivable decision to replace the late singer with a reality show contestant.)