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The 20 best ’90s bands

Our definitive list of the best ’90s bands ranks the decade’s most essential pop, rap and rock hit makers

Written by
Bryan Kerwin

Like any era, the ’90s had its share of musical phenomena—the ascendance of hip-hop as a cultural force to be reckoned with, the brief supremacy of grunge miserablism, the influx of Nordic acts adept at making the best pop songs. Many of these ’90s bands outlasted the fickle trends of a confused decade (or even predated them by writing the best ’80s songs) but whether or not they survived Y2K, their bona fides were solidified as the world was cruising towards the last New Year’s Eve of the millennium.

Best ’90s bands

Photograph: wagz2it

1. Radiohead

Morphing from an on-trend crunchy guitar band into art rock's most sophisticated innovators, Radiohead let their millennial anxiety run rampant over both icy electronic futurism and organic, stately melancholia until the seams were invisible. We're still feeling the existential reverberations 20 years later, while they're still indebted to and definitive of their original time and place.

Best song: “Paranoid Android”


2. Nirvana

In their abbreviated time as the underground's official ambassadors, Nirvana managed to make uncompromising, thoroughly aggressive noise into the most popular pop music on the planet, proving the value of integrity at the cost of sanity.

Best song: “Lithium”

Smashing Pumpkins

3. Smashing Pumpkins

Lollapalooza's original tortured mascots couldn't outlast death, lineup changes and Billy Corgan's ego's assault on everything in his vicinity, but the audaciously ornate masterpiece of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness makes all that easy to ignore.

Best song: “1979”

Pearl Jam
Photograph: Danny Clinch

4. Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam separated themselves from the Seattle flannel pack with a surprisingly varied sonic palette and a political awareness more in line with punk activism than the introversion and seclusion of their peers.

Best song: “Jeremy”

A Tribe Called Quest

5. A Tribe Called Quest

Tempering the brazen anger and frustration of contemporaries like NWA with a strong doses of artistry and humor, Tribe's music could be chill & literate, but was no less socially conscious.

Best song: “Can I Kick It?”

My Bloody Valentine
Photograph: Anna Meldal

6. My Bloody Valentine

The architects of shoegaze led a dreamy revolution with 1991's Loveless, an arduous project that more or less killed the band but birthed wondrously new sonic textures and shook loose closely held emotions.

Best song: “Sometimes”

Photograph: Justin Stephens

7. Weezer

With the awkwardness and weirdness of a genuine nerd, River Cuomo laid his true feelings bare by couching them in thick-framed D&D references and metal-indebted guitar solos—a surprisingly natural combination that made heroes out of his band of outcasts.

Best song: “Buddy Holly”

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Arlise Cardoso

8. REM

The original alternative band exploded from cult status in the early '90s with a jangly, enigmatic sound that ran counter to grunge's weighty bludgeon while still embracing the turmoil and bewilderment of late-century existence.

Best song: “Losing My Religion”

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Arlise Cardoso
Photograph: Courtesy Matador Records

9. Pavement

A serendipitous confluence of sound and attitude, Pavement's slacker abandon led a slow train through all corners of messiness, making indifference the one important thing you had to try hard to care about.

Best song: “Gold Soundz”

No Doubt
Photograph: Mark Squires

10. No Doubt

Ska's sudden popularity seemed less inexplicable on the strength of Gwen Stefani's no-frills charm and her band's nimble combination of influences, taking just as much from Detroit soul as Caribbean-toned dance music or piercing, distorted punk.

Best song: “Spiderwebs”

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