Best indie/college rock bands 1990s
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The 1990s were a time of great upheaval in the music industry: grunge and flannel were in, spandex and hairspray were over. Bands that had survived the 1980s, such as Bon Jovi, found their footing outside of the decade of excess and dug deep to craft some of their greatest albums yet (see: These Days). The question remained, however, what new styles would find favor with the college scene? The following 10 bands were some of the shakers and makers of the 1990s indie and college rock music scenes, the bands which would go on to shape the minds of the generations to come.

10. Oasis

The band that everyone either loves or loves to hate, no one can deny that Oasis helped shape the 1990s college rock scene forever. Disharmonious brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher changed the music industry when they rolled out debut album Definitely Maybe, which shattered sales records around the globe. The band’s tensions eventually led to their implosion, but not before they had entered the lives of disaffected youths of their generation.

9. Neutral Milk Hotel

Lacking the commercial success of most of their peers on this list, Neutral Milk Hotel were the ultimate 1990s indie group. Later acts such as Sufjan Stevens carried on their twee stylings, but it was NMH who did it first, finding the majority of their fanbase through the beloved release In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. The Louisiana group only made it until 1999, when frontman Jeff Magnum became disheartened by the music scene and faced the difficulties of a nervous breakdown. Proving that great reunions can indeed happen, the group reunited briefly in 2013, before announcing in 2015 that it had been fun but that they were over again for the foreseeable future.

8. Modest Mouse

As a band still putting out records and playing in the 2010s, and sounding as relevant as anything on the radio, few but their biggest fans remember that Modest Mouse was actually born out of the 1990s indie rock scene. Struggling to get signed by a major label in their youth, Modest Mouse still put out multiple EPs across different labels. Finally, in 2000, they put out their first feature length album, and after a brief stint where Johnny Marr of The Smiths fame joined them, they reached mainstream success.

7. Dinosaur Jr.

Fighting back against the overtly poppy hair metal and synth-saturated New Wave of the 1980s, guitar rock found its place once again in the 1990s. One of the best of this cohort was Dinosaur Jr., J Mascis’ brainchild. They never broke as big as their generational peers such as Soundgarden, but Dinosaur Jr. were the band that other bands adored and would draw inspiration from for the next 20 years or more.

6. Belle and Sebastian

One of the early bands to emerge out of what would later be the Glasgow music scene, Belle and Sebastian have forever been cult favorites, and even critic darlings, that failed to find the large commercial success of other bands from their decade. In the case of Belle and Sebastian, it was not for lack of talent that they did not break mainstream. The band’s folk-rock tinged pop music has influenced indie bands of generations to come, and they remain active well into the late 2010s.

5. Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan’s distinctive growl dominated college airwaves throughout the 1990s, as he helmed the Smashing Pumpkins steadily through the course of lineup changes and the inability to mesh into any one genre. Their peers turned to early punk rock, but Smashing Pumpkins roared on with their guitars, arching over Corgan’s grandiose ambitions to set his band apart. Smashing Pumpkins’ dark, soul-searching lyrics filled the gap between often unapproachable metal and the 1990s otherwise fluffy pop songs, leaving a deep mark on the decade.

4. Weezer

You know a band is good when, just like The Beatles, their self-titled albums become known by the simple color of their covers. Nary a 1990s college kid didn’t listen to Weezer, and many remain devoted fans today. The band enjoyed commercial success, topping the Modern Rock charts multiple times, but little did their fans care about commercial achievements or critical reviews. They were just content to see them featured on Saturday Night Live and MTV. 

3. Pearl Jam

If ever you need to know what it sounds like when indie breaks mainstream, listen to Pearl Jam. Coming from the same Seattle scene as the likes of Nirvana, vocalist Eddie Vedder lacked the internal darkness that brought down much the rest of his generation. That isn’t to say Pearl Jam lacked substance - they had just as much, or more, than any other grunge band. Further setting Pearl Jam apart was their blatant differentiation from the rest of the music industry, such as refusing interviews and boycotting a widely-used ticketing vendor. It was moves like this, and the very songs the generation needed, that made Pearl Jam an important part of the 1990s rock scene.

2. Radiohead

Regardless of the sometimes strange moves, the group has made in later years, it’s hard to argue with Radiohead’s position amongst 1990s college radio groups. The band took the experimental and made it mainstream, toying with the themes of isolation and an increasing growth of computerized technologies that dominated the decade. Their most monumental feat has been still finding a place in the pop culture of the 2010s, for example making their way into hit show Westworld’s organ grinder lullabies.

1. Nirvana

The biggest, the most memorable, the most legendary - we all know Nirvana. It is monumental for a band to have not only shaped the 1990s college rock scene and spawned the grunge subset, but changed the future of music indefinitely, and yet only have released three albums. Nirvana started out on an indie label before being launched into an unexpected superstardom. Few people expected the dissonant, long-haired trio to find such resonance with America's youth. If it weren't for Kurt Cobain's untimely demise, it can be imagined that Nirvana would have seen a long and prosperous career, but instead burned out just as quickly as their spark was lit. Fans today are left to follow Dave Grohl's career with Foo Fighters, and otherwise.