The Best Indie Rock Albums of the ’90s

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By Philip Cosores

Lately we’ve been hearing the tag “'90s indie rock” used to describe bands ranging from Waxahatachee to Speedy Ortiz to Yuck, and while our brain immediately turns a switch that associates the phrase with “sounds like Pavement,” '90s indie rock was really as eclectic and undefinable as, well, contemporary indie rock.

So, what are the qualifications for being one of our 50 best indie rock albums? First, we tried our best to make sure every album was made on an independent label. These things can get murky, particularly when international factors and distribution and partial ownership come into play, and hell, when it came down to it, sometimes a judgement call would be made. But, as best we can tell, these are 50 indie albums.

Other than that, we also limited every band or artist to one entry, since Pavement could easily own 10% of the alloted space otherwise, and that allowed us to highlight some albums that might not get attention in these kind of discussion as often.

Lastly, it is indie “rock.” So, that rules out hip hop, obviously, and also groups like Boards of Canada and Portishead, who are more based in electronic music than rock culture. So before you freak out that we forgot Sonic Youth, remember Sonic Youth were living on Geffen money in the '90s and J. Mascis was also hooked up by the majors and The Flaming Lips are still with Warner Brothers after nearly 25 years. That doesn’t mean their albums are any less great, they just get a different list.

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  • mhann24

    Yo, her name is “Corin.”

  • jills

    I’m going to be one of those guys: There’s a glaring lack of Polvo on this list.

  • Jetsfoo

    I’ve been relunctant, but I think I’m going to start listening to Pavement.

  • TT

    How is there no Drive Like Jehu or Rocket from the Crypt and the Hot Snakes are referenced to the MCD?

  • joel

    Hmm.. a little dissapointed not seeing neither Kent, nor Broder Daniel, but i guess they only honed success in sweden?

  • Philip Cosores

    Yup, you got me there.

  • Philip Cosores

    Both released their best stuff on major labels, imo. Both were fully considered, though.

  • Philip Cosores

    Yeah, the math rock scene got the short end of the stick from me, and part is preference, part is lasting influence. While Dismemberment Plan and Slint are here, Jawbox and Polvo and Hot Snakes and Shellac and on and on, not that those are all strictly math rock, but just of a similar scene. Shudder to Think is another one. But yeah, 50 spots, Polvo was considered, and it didn’t make the cut for me.

  • Patrick Jennings

    not having the Grifters’ Crappin You Negative is a bit of a travesty. should be in the top 5. Jawbreaker’s Bivouac as well.

  • Philip Cosores

    Honestly don’t know the Grifters, I’ll look into it. Jawbreaker was considered and just lost out to space. Is it awful that I’m more of a Jets to Brazil guy? (it is, but I can’t help it)

  • vortura

    Needs more Unwound

  • Adam Alten

    Am I the only one who thinks Pavement is the most overrated indie band of all time. Followed closely by At the Drive-In.

  • Max

    No Brian Jonestown Massacre? Great music during the 90′s. Also, great list. Glad to see Blonde Redhead on there.
    1993 Spacegirl & Other Favorites
    1995 Methodrone
    1996 Take It from the Man!
    1996 Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request
    1996 Thank God for Mental Illness
    1997 Give It Back!
    1998 Strung Out in Heaven
    1999 Bringing It All Back Home – Again (EP)

  • Patrick Jennings

    If you are just getting acquainted, I would start with “One Sock Missing” over “Crappin You Negative” for chronology sake, although Crappin is probably the better record (debatable). Both are masterpieces. I think the pinnacle of their songwriting was on the Eureka E.P, (not a proper album, so wouldn’t be on the list.) after Eureka, they made a couple records for Sub Pop, neither of which (while both good) really was able to recapture the magic of the Shangri-La records. The rhythm section of Tripp Lamkins and Stan Gallimore now play with the Memphis trio Dragoon, featuring Bobby Matthews of Trusty (90′s Dischord band) on guitar/vocals. http://dragoongalaxy.bandcamp.com

  • Philip Cosores

    Good band for sure.

  • Philip Cosores

    Yes,

  • Philip Cosores

    Noted, not the first person to say this one either.

  • Philip Cosores

    Thanks, this is way helpful to me, and to interested readers. Appreciate it.

  • SandPatrol

    I agree with At The Drive In, but I’m part of the camp that believes One Armed Scissor was their best song ever

  • Patrick Jennings

    I would love to hear your impressions. Honestly think the Grifters are the most under-appreciated band in history, given the massive influence they have had on so many other artists….(Bob Pollard, Jeff Buckley to name a couple) also, by putting the studio phone # in their liner notes, their records brought attention to the now famous Easley-Mccain Studio , which later was called upon by Pavement, Sonic Youth, Come, Wilco, White Stripes, Blues Explosion, GBV, Cat Power, the Amps, and others. Without the Grifters, its quite likely that many records we all know and love today would sound quite different.

  • Philip Cosores

    Listening to the One Sock one now, and yeah, it is totally good, I guess I would sum it up as a “what if Nirvana and Pavement were the same band.” But very cool, thanks for the tip.

  • Flavio

    Agreed with At the Drive-In

  • Flavio

    Agreed with At the Drive-In

  • oldlystra

    Really? Circa Now (originally an indie just as loveless was originally an indie) was only just considered?

  • old lystra

    “thtdsdf

  • Philip Cosores

    What do you mean “only just considered?” There are a number of fantastic bands and albums that didn’t make the top 50. I had a long list that became a short list that became this list. The Jesus Lizard and Liz Phair and Sleep and of Montreal just to name a few.

  • You’retryingtoohard

    What a badly written list we have here. Obviously from someone who only read about what “indie music” was. Highlights include: “Not better than Pavement, but a good introduction to Pavement if Pavement seems too obtuse initially. (Don’t worry, no one likes Pavement right away.)” or “I’ve never heard of Butterglory before…” Sounds to me like someone who shouldn’t be writing something like this.

  • Philip Cosores

    Here is the whole blurb you are referencing, Not to reveal too much behind the scenes, but in the process of making this list, I discovered new music. Upon delivery of my initial list, the editors sent some suggestions to consider. And Butterglory, I can honestly say I’ve never heard of before. Nor had anyone I asked heard about the band. But, they were apparently a decently known band in the mid-90′s indie scene, releasing four albums in the ’90s on Merge Records. They sound like a more twee-influenced version of Pavement, and their masterpiece, Are You Building a Temple to Heaven, is more straightforward and quickly gratifying than Malkmus’ indie-rock legends. Not better than Pavement, but a good introduction to Pavement if Pavement seems too obtuse initially. (Don’t worry, no one likes Pavement right away.)

  • Nicole Frangione

    I just discovered Polvo last month and heard Shapes for the first time last night. Yes.