I spent a lot of time in my early, formative years listening to my parents’ music. I don’t say this as some sort of dark confession – my parents were hippies and the music I listened to for my first decade and a half was amazing stuff: The Beatles, The Who, Jimi, Janis, all that awesome Classic Rock™ shit formed the soundtrack to my life. And honestly, I don’t regret not really coming into my own taste-wise in the eighties. Here is the bald truth, people: on the whole, the music of the eighties was complete and utter garbage. You heard it here first. But then a magical thing happened – the eighties ended and music started getting good. Sure, the nineties were still fraught with horrors like Ace of Base and Deep Blue Something, but if you ignored Top 40 radio it was a decade of wonders. For this list, I’m going to forgo the things you already know were awesome about the nineties like Nirvana (shut up, Sarah, Nirvana was too a great band!), Tupac and Radiohead and instead concentrate on some of the lesser-known gems of the decade that birthed grunge, made alternative music popular and was the golden era between legwarmers being fashionable and legwarmers returning as “ironic fashion”.
10. Willie D – “Somethin’ Good”
This is without question the greatest song ever written about a penis. It’s little touches like the incredible gift for rhyme displayed in the lyrics “But first let me find myself a rubba/ before I mess around and get in troubba” that really showcase why Willie D has been given the vaunted place in the pantheon of hip-hop that he enjoys today. Gangster rap was king in the nineties, and Willie D (formerly of the Getto Boys) was, like, probably the twentieth or twenty-fifth best gangster act to release an album in 1994.
9. Whale – “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe”
This is probably the most terrifying video of all time. That woman and her braces fill me with the kind of deep existential dread that is usually only evoked by contemplating the future of humanity or watching Welch’s commercials. The song, though, is tits. Between its grungy man-screaming and the chick’s hauntingly atonal vocal stylings, it covers pretty much everything nineties alternative music stood for. And the fact that everyone who hears it wants to gouge their eardrums out means that it’s a special treat for me to enjoy alone during one of my many sabbaticals away from humanity.
8. Supersuckers – “How To Maximize Your Kill Count”
When I was a lad, Sub Pop Records was the greatest goddamned thing on earth. And the greatest thing on Sub Pop was the Supersuckers, a band that played punk-infused rock that loved white trash culture like a Scandinavian loves pickled fish. Supersuckers drank PBR and wore Stetson hats before it was cool, motherfucker, and if you tried calling them hipsters they’d punch you in the balls and shit in your mouth while you were down. I often wondered if they wrote this song specifically for me, since it pretty much sums up my whole attitude in college.
7. The Pharcyde – “Otha Fish”
The Pharcyde were one of the first hip-hop artists that I can say I truly adored. Of course DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince will forever stand as my first rap music love, but once I was old enough to appreciate songs about smoking pot, accidentally having sex with a transvestite, smoking pot, “ya mama” jokes and smoking pot, I graduated to the superlative Bizarre Ride 2 Tha Pharcyde. And nothing made love-addled teenaged Andy happier than songs about love-addled people overcoming their crushes, a genre that is pretty much perfectly demonstrated by “Otha Fish”. This was my de-facto song when yet another girl I had a crush on had absolutely no interest in me whatsoever. Which is to say that I listened to it nearly constantly between its release in 1992 and about 1996, when I met my ex-wife.
6. Mark Lanegan – “Carnival”
After he gained some fame as the lead singer for Screaming Trees but before his short, poorly-thought-out stint with Queens of the Stone Age, Mark Lanegan released Whiskey For the Holy Ghost, quite possibly the album that I listened to most in college. The purely acoustical instrumentation was a lovely change from the grunge I had become accustomed to and the lack of horns was a nice departure from the ska I was just getting addicted to (more on that later). Plus, it was largely composed of laments over lost love which I have already pointed out was a big thing for me at the time. “Carnival” was the liveliest song on the album and the one I loved to listen to in my rare good moods. True fact: I actually learned the chords for this song and sung it as part of my audition for Eric Bogosian’s play SubUrbia at my university. I didn’t get the part.
5. Mudhoney – “Suck You Dry”
Yes, the nineties were the decade of grunge. And yes, I fucking loved grunge music. I wore flannel shirts and “shants”, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And the grungiest grunge band of all time was Mudhoney. Those fuckers were so fuzzed out that sometimes it was hard to tell whether or not your speakers were completely shot to shit. To this day, when I need a quick pick-me-up, I will get in my truck, turn the stereo up as loud as I can handle (which is considerably less loud now in my dotage than it was at the time this album came out), put on Mudhoney’s Piece of Cake and scream this song at the top of my lungs. And it never stops being completely fucking awesome.
4. The Slackers – “You Don’t Know I”
The other giant trend of the nineties was ska. I did that one too. Shit, I was a proud member of Cincinnati’s most popular ska band, Nice Guy Eddie. When I say “most popular” I don’t mean our music was any good at all, I mean we threw pornography at the audience during our shows, so nerdy college boys came to our shows religiously. Absolutely true story, friends. Anyway, the best of the nineties ska scene was The Slackers (who, technically, play rocksteady and not ska, but you don’t even know the difference so I’m wasting my breath here). This is another song that held boundless appeal to lovelorn teenaged Andy. I was a lonely, lonely ska nerd. Sidebar: if I ever wrote a Rogers and Hammerstein satire musical, one of the songs would be called “The Lonely Ska Nerd”.
3. Daisy Chainsaw – “Love Your Money”
Daisy Chainsaw were a weird sort of band for me to be listening to. They were forerunners of the (largely Japanese) noise rock movement, they had a singer who consistently sounded like a pouting five-year-old, and if their lyrics made absolutely no sense by any standards. But I loved them. This was the closest thing they ever had to a hit. I think it got played on 120 Minutes two and a half times. It’s also the closest thing they had to a recognizable song. And I love it, so shut up.
2. Beat Happening – “Redhead Walking”
Beat Happening had been around for, like, seventy years before Dreamy was released, but this song is, to me, what the nineties sound like. It’s weirdly simplistic, lo-fi, and fucking awesome in every way. It was with the premiere of The X-Files in 1992 that I discovered the glory of Gillian Anderson, and a nescient lust for redheads was born within me. Suddenly this song took on new meaning and became the anthem of everything I wanted in the world but could never have. If 1993 Andy ever met 2011 Andy and found out that he’s been dating a hot redhead for a while now, there would be a high-five of such primal explosive force that the very foundations of spacetime would be rocked.
1. Cop Shoot Cop – “Room 429”
Let me say this right out: Cop Shoot Cop will forever be one of my absolute favorite bands. I have a deep, abiding, spiritual love for frontman Tod A.’s later band Firewater, but CSC is the band that taught me to harness my fury and direct it at a musical instrument. They were an angry socialist post-industrial band that used weird time signatures and hunks of metal in their songs, had two basses and no guitar, and promoted their band in the early years through prolific graffiti, and when I heard “Ten Dollar Bill” for the first time my entire world was turned upside-down. “Room 429” is probably my favorite track from their 1992 album Ask Questions Later because it’s yet another of those lovelorn songs that I was so attracted to in those days, but with a seriously distressing serial killer bent.
Special Bonus Song: Morphine – “Hanging on a Curtain”
No band has ever sounded like Morphine, and no band ever will. The lineup consisted of drums, saxophone and a bass guitar that was the invention of frontman and musical genius Mark Sandman which had only two strings, tuned to the same note. They produced music that was alternately some of the most haunting ever released and so sexy I got pregnant seven times just by listening to it. In college, when I shared a bedroom with Jon Stothfang (of Hard Nipples Forever fame), Morphine was our version of the tie on the doorknob: if one of us came home and heard Like Swimming playing in the bedroom, we knew we were going to have to sleep on the couch that night. This is, hands down, one of the greatest bands of all time and if this is the first you’ve heard of them I suggest you do yourself a favor and go to iTunes immediately and download their entire catalogue. It’s only five albums, so it shouldn’t be that big of a burden and believe me, it is completely worth it. In one of those great tragic victories that only happen in rock and roll, Morphine’s glorious career ended when Sandman died on stage in Italy in 1999. You cannot be more fucking rock and roll than that, friends.