The 25 Most Underrated Albums of the 1990s

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A couple of weeks back, Flavorwire film editor Jason Bailey published his list of the most underrated films of the 2000s. Unsurprisingly, it generated plenty of discussion, because if there’s one thing people like to argue about, it’s which works of art are underrated (and which are overrated). The Flavorwire editorial crew aren’t exactly immune to the lure of such discussions, and talking about underrated films soon got us onto all sorts of other topics. First: music, and specifically the 1990s, a decade that’s undergoing a sort of critical renaissance at the moment (perhaps because of the surfeit of 20th-anniversary think-pieces). But it wasn’t all Nirvana and Weezer, y’know — here are 25 ’90s albums that are worth remembering all over again. (Oh and by the way, for anyone wondering why there’s no hip hop on this list: that deserves a list of its own, and will no doubt get one in due course.)

All Saints — All Saints (1997)

A band that briefly threatened to be globe-destroyingly huge, and never quite lived up to its promise — but that doesn’t mean All Saints’ debut isn’t a great pop record. (It’s a shame it doesn’t include their single best moment, “Pure Shores,” which didn’t appear until the soundtrack to The Beach a couple of years later.)

Arab Strap — Philophobia (1998)

It’s easy to see why Arab Strap were never hugely popular — downtempo bedroom sad jams about squalid sex and bad relationships, all rendered in an impenetrable Scottish accent, aren’t for everyone. But if you like such things, then by God this was (and is) a band you needed in your life.

Belly — Star (1993)

Tanya Donelly was the unsung heroine of Throwing Muses, and her solo work has been consistently excellent without ever quite attracting anything resembling mainstream attention. This was about the closest she got, thanks to the success of single “Feed the Tree,” but the entire record is great and well worth hearing. (As is the follow-up, King, released a couple of years later.)

Bentley Rhythm Ace — Bentley Rhythm Ace (1997)

The late 1990s were a time when all sorts of people who’d previously been rock ‘n’ roll purists discovered ~*~*electronic music*~*~, thanks largely to the success of gap-bridging acts like The Prodigy and Chemical Brothers. A bunch of artists followed on the heels of those acts, and while some blew up, most didn’t. It seems strange that UK oddballs Bentley Rhythm Ace were ever tipped for success, but for a brief moment they were — and while they never really hit the big time, this debut album still sounds as strange and wonderful as it did nearly 20 years ago. (Also: excellent acronym band.)

Bis — This Is Teen-C Power (1996)

Scottish trio Bis kinda divided opinion in the 1990s — depending on your point of view, they were either the source of plentiful DIY pop thrills or the source of endless headaches and a desire to throw your stereo out the window. Your correspondent largely falls on the former side of the fence, and this 1996 EP is a fine place to start with the band’s work — it was a US-only release that pulled together some of the best stuff from their first couple of EPs.

Chapterhouse — Whirlpool (1991)

Shoooooooooooegaze, baby.

John Frusciante — Niandra Lades (And Usually Just a T-Shirt) (1994)

Frusciante’s mid-’90s lost years are notorious for his terrifying drug consumption and the fact that it almost killed him. The music that he produced during the period is largely overshadowed, which is a shame, because while it’s certainly not easy listening, Niandra Lades — made before Frusciante descended into full-blown heroin addiction — is a great record. With less, um, idiosyncratic vocals and less DIY production, some of the songs on this album could well have been played on the radio, not that Frusciante would have ever wanted such a thing.

Lisa Germano — Geek the Girl (1994)

If, like me, you always got Lisa Germano mixed up with Lisa Gerrard, then this record will come as a pleasant surprise — I listened to it on the insistence of learned colleague Judy Berman, and it’s really great. If erudite, downtempo, reflective pop is your sort of thing, you’ll also find a lot to like here.

Hole — Celebrity Skin (1998)

In which Courtney Love channels Fleetwood Mac and makes her most accessible record — one that, curiously, has never enjoyed the reputation of her earlier, more shambolic albums. This doesn’t have the sense of deep drama that characterizes Live Through This, but it’s arguably the most complete album she ever made, and one that deserves a better reputation than it has.

The Jesus Lizard — Goat (1991)

David Yow sneers at your lily-livered post-millennial post-hardcore jamz. David Yow gives zero fucks. David Yow’s band was better than your band. These days, David Yow is drawing pictures of cats. Honestly. They’re ace, too.

Kenickie — At the Club (1997)

UK quartet Kenickie’s career was all too brief, sadly, but they still gave us one of the 1990s’ great sources of pop thrills — their 1997 debut album, which was jam-packed with sub-four-minute jams whose melodies had a way of lodging themselves in your head immediately. These days, Lauren Laverne is a prominent TV presenter and general mee-jah personality in the UK. The more you know.

L7 — Bricks Are Heavy (1992)

Also from the vaults of unfairly overlooked grunge era bands: L7, arguably the best of all and definitely one whose name deserves to be in lights far above the likes of Soundgarden and Bush, for Chrissakes. This is their heaviest record, touching on metal territory at times, and also their most fun. Honestly, if you haven’t shouted along with “Shitlist” at least once, you haven’t lived.

Lilys — Better Can’t Make Your Life Better (1996)

A genuine overlooked gem, from a band who often get written out of the history of the 1990s despite writing some of that decade’s most memorable indie tunes. Fun fact: apparently singer Kurt Heasley ate only garlic during the recording sessions. Ewwwww.

Lush — Lovelife (1996)

Lush’s last album, and one that was markedly different to their earlier, shoegaze-y work. This record found them taking their cues from Britpop, to surprisingly good effect — “Ladykillers” was a knockout single, and the rest of the songs were pretty great, too (there’s even a Jarvis Cocker duet!). Sadly, the band came to an end barely six months after the album’s release, when drummer Chris Acland committed suicide.

Manic Street Preachers — The Holy Bible (1994)

Not underrated on the other side of the Atlantic, perhaps, but the Manics have never really found any sort of wide audience in the US — which is criminal, really, considering they are in your correspondent’s opinion the single best rock band of the 1990s. This was their masterpiece. It’s one of the bleakest and most harrowing albums you’ll ever hear, and also one of the very best.

Melvins — Lysol (1992)

It was the Kurt Cobain-produced Houdini that won Melvins a measure of commercial success, but the band’s best work had already been done by then. Their early records, and this one in particular, laid a template for pretty much every doom metal act that’s come after — Boris even take their name from a song on the band’s third record, Bullhead. If you like guitars that sound like tectonic plates moving, look no further.

Mercury Rev — Deserter’s Songs (1998)

I remember the NME going batshit about this when it was released — for a brief, fleeting moment circa The Soft Bulletin, downtempo American psych was all the rage on the other side of the Atlantic — but since then, it’s largely faded into history. This is a shame, because it remains one of the most beautiful records you’ll ever hear.

Morphine — Like Swimming (1997)

It’s rare to come across a band with a genuinely unique sound, but Morphine really did sound like no one else — their idiosyncratic instrumental combination of baritone sax and home-made slide bass gave their music a bass- heavy, strangely seductive sound, one that was heightened by Mark Sandman’s subterranean vocals. All their mid-’90s records are worth investigating, and their career was tragically cut short just before the turn of the millennium by Sandman’s sudden death of a heart attack.

Radar Bros. — Radar Bros. (1997)

The 2005 Radar Bros. masterpiece The Fallen Leaf Pages is one of my very favorite records of the ’00s, but their 1997 debut isn’t far behind in terms of quality or general atmosphere. It’s characterized by everything that makes this hugely underrated band great — a sense of deep melancholy underlying melodies that are so light and beautiful that they seem to float on some sort of unseen musical breeze.

Rowland S. Howard — Teenage Snuff Film (1999)

As I’ve written here before, former Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard was John Cale to Nick Cave’s Lou Reed — the one who went on to have the less successful but arguably more interesting solo career. This is his masterpiece, and an album that deserves a prominent place on the shelf of any discerning music lover. Howard’s wry lyricism, sneering vocals, and coruscating guitar work are all at their peak, to compelling effect.

Screaming Trees — Dust (1996)

Mark Lanegan and co. labored in relative obscurity for the best part of a decade before the grunge explosion finally brought them to an audience who could appreciate their charms. These days, their work tends to get overshadowed by Lanegan’s (excellent) solo career, and on this record you can see the genesis of the sort of blues-influenced style he’d go on to adopt in the 2000s. His voice, meanwhile, sounded like he’d smoked a pack a day since the day he was born.

The Sundays — Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (1990)

Released precisely two weeks after the 1980s ticked over into the 1990s, this was a fine way indeed to start the new decade — The Sundays would go on to be perhaps the single best indie pop exponents of the 1990s, and this record was full of the sort of intelligent songwriting that made their work such a pleasure. (Also, yes, I may have had a whopping great crush on Harriet Wheeler.)

Super Furry Animals — Fuzzy Logic (1996)

Bands just don’t have blue rave tanks anymore, y’know?

Terre Thaemlitz — Tranquilizer (1994)

Beautiful, atmospheric ambient music from one of the most interesting people working in music today.

Velocity Girl — Copacetic (1993)

A lost classic from the tail end of the shoegaze era. Velocity Girl’s later work was more straight-ahead indie rock, but this synthesized a whole lot of more abrasive and distortion-laden sounds, pairing them with instantly memorable melodies and creating the sort of noise pop that would make Kevin Shields would proud.