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.)
Big Audio Dynamite
Had Mick Jones only fronted Big Audio Dynamite, we’d still know him as one of the most forward-thinking rockers of his generation, and the group probably wouldn’t make unsung-heroes lists like this one. Unfortunately, Jonesy formed this on-again, off-again dance-rock outfit in 1984, just after he’d been sacked from the mighty Clash, and as a result, the project was always going to seem like an inferior sequel. And that’s pretty much what it was, though BAD and the Clash weren’t so different.
Both were more ambitious than they were talented, and both nudged rock ‘n’ roll into the clubs, incorporating bits of hip-hop, disco, and whatever folks were grooving to at the time. BAD weren’t the kind of band that inspired fans to change their haircuts or political affiliations, and no one has the lyrics to 1991’s Modern Rock No. 1 “Rush” tattooed on their biceps, a la “Death or Glory” or “Straight to Hell”. But they were charmingly doofy—beatbox-bumping pop utopians whose theme song, “Just Play Music”, speaks to the guilelessness of their mission.
Rock history is packed with power-pop bands that never got their due, so at least Fastball is in good company. The problem here might have been timing, as this Austin trio came along in the age of Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, Tonic, and other hooky guitar bands of little or no consequence. None of them made anything nearly as indelible as All the Pain That Money Can Buy, the 1998 Fastball record that gave the world “The Way”, an amazing song even if you don’t know the touching story that inspired the lyrics. It’s a shame these guys spent last summer slumming with Smash Mouth and Vertical Horizon, but at least they had the next band on our list to keep ‘em company.
One hopes they had their own buses, but if they rode tandem on last summer’s Under the Sun tour, Gin Blossoms and Fastball might have had some great chats about being wrongfully dismissed as disposable ‘90s hit makers. The Arizona band’s 1992 album New Miserable Experience is top-to-bottom brilliant—think Big Star with a dusty, downtrodden Southwestern feel—and even after the death of Doug Hopkins, the guitarist responsible for writing most of it, the group has continued dropping poignant jangle-pop of the highest order. Go back and spin “Found Out About You”, the maudlin slow-burn that Modern Rock Nation stood and saluted, and then for a pick-me-up, try one of the faster cuts from 2010’s sweetly sour No Chocolate Cake.
Toad the Wet Sprocket
This California foursome first hit the charts around the same time as the Gin Blossoms, and they probably could have sold their t-shirts in two-packs. After all, both bands played—and continue to play—tastefully earnest alt-rock with a timeless feel indicative of their impeccable influences. Toad the Wet Sprocket scored a major hit with 1992’s “All I Want”, but it was the slightly harder “Fall Down”, from 1994’s solid Dulcinea, that earned them their place in Modern Rock Tracks history. Check out last year’s New Constellation for a reminder of why there’s more to these guys than two terrific singles and a truly terrible band name.
One of those rare ‘90s alternative acts whose videos crossed over to Vh1, then a bastion for adult-contemporary fare, the ‘Berries floated two songs to the top of the Modern Rock Tracks tally. First, there was the moody 1994 grunge ballad “Zombie”—memorable for spitfire frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan’s proto-Alanis over-enunciation on that line about “their bombs, and their guns, and their bombs”—and 1995’s “Salvation”, a punky little number you could almost spin back-to-back with the Rancid rager of the same name. Last year’s reunion disc, Roses, delivers more of what makes this Irish group worthy of rediscovery: Celtic dreaminess crossed with caustic alt-rock crunch and indie jingle-jangle.
In 1990, a few years after the giant pop smash “Beds are Burning”, these righteous Aussie rockers struck Modern Rock gold with “Blue Sky Mine” and “Forgotten Years”, both from the stellar Blue Sky Mining album. Big and blustery, these songs make you want to grab a handful of environmental leaflets—or hell, a broad sword—and go out and fight for a better world. Neither would have stood a chance after the fall of 1991, when Nirvana issued “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and made idealistic calls to arms like these sound pretty freakin’ ridiculous, and that might be why yelpy chrome-dome singer Peter Garrett and his idealistic cohorts don’t get a whole lot of love from Gen X.
Dan Wilson is one of those songwriters’ songwriters, and he proved it in 1998, when he sold America on “Closing Time”, a song about his unborn child disguised as a weary lament about chasing tail at last call. In the dozen years since Semisonic’s last album, Wilson has written or co-written hits for the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Adele, and in the meantime, “Closing Time” has become an unlikely cult favorite, showing up in episodes of How I Met Your Mother and The Simpsons, among other shows. Feeling Strangely Fine, the album it kicks off, would be bland if it weren’t so likeable and well constructed, and anyone curious enough to listen past the 4:34 mark won’t be disappointed.