As a high school and college student when alternative was ruling the mainstream charts, I was exposed to quite a bit of alternative music during that period. This list includes some of my favorites of the time, but it is by no means complete.
One of my favorites is “Your Favorite Thing” by Sugar. It’s surprising that it never became a hit at pop radio when it was out, because musically, it would have fit in so well with the other alternative songs that were popular during late 1994 and early 1995.
Another alternative song I really liked was Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “All I Want,” which was a hit at pop radio during the fall of 1992. The song had a different sound compared to what else was being played at pop at the time, and it really grabbed my attention. There’s just something about the music, lyrics, and vocal delivery that grabbed me and has stuck with me all these years.
No list of the best alternative songs of the 1990s would be complete without the inclusion of Nirvana. While I liked “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” and the other songs from Nevermind, I would actually have to give the nod to “Heart Shaped Box,” from their 1993 album, In Utero. While this song has the elements you’d expect to hear in a Nirvana song, Kurt, Dave, and Chris were able to take those elements to “the next level.”
Pearl Jam was another big alternative band of the 1990s, and for me, their best song is “Jeremy.” Not only was it an excellent song in its own right, but the music video also really had an impact on me.
Another 1990s alternative song that grabbed me was Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush.” This may have been one of the bigger pop hits the band had, but there was something almost haunting about this song that caught my attention and made me like it. I especially like the acoustic version of “Plush” that was recorded at MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. The slower, acoustic version added to the “haunting” sound of the song.
Green Day is another alternative band I discovered during the 1990s. While I think the best material they’ve released came out in the 2000s on the American Idiot album, I do like their 1990s material as well. Looking back, I think I would have to say “Basket Case” is my favorite songs of theirs from the 1990s. It’s a catchy song, and it’s one that’s hard to get tired of. Funny thing is, I wouldn’t have said this back in late 1994/early 1995, because I felt that radio and MTV were playing it to death. As the years went by, though, I came to realize that I did like the song, but I had tired of it at the time it was a single due to the overexposure.
The Smashing Pumpkins got their start in the 1990s alternative scene. While their later 1990s material is good, my favorite song by them definitely comes from the Siamese Dream album, which was released in 1993. My favorite song would have to be “Today,” the song that first got me interested in the band. Being such an uptempo song, people seem to misunderstand what the song is about; rather than being a happy song, it has depressing lyrics set to an uptempo beat. And I think it’s that dichotomy that makes it my favorite song by the band.
This list only touches the tip of the iceberg of the alternative music of the 1990s. There was a lot of great alternative music released during that decade, and it’s definitely worth your time to learn more about 1990s alternative music and to listen to more than just the big acts of the genre.