Like any decade, the ‘90s had its share of musical greats – the popularity of hip-hop as a cultural force to be reckoned with, the abundance of catchy dance hits, and the influx of poppy girl and boybands (Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, NSYNC, TLC, etc.). But what dominated the ‘90s music scene was grunge and pop rockers.
Most of the time, speakers were blasting with hard-core, shredding sounds of a guitar. The music, especially the lyrics, reached most people when they’re at their lowest. It speaks to them, connects to them, and inspires them. That’s what the great music of the ‘90s did. Here are the top 20 bands of the decade:
If you were to ask random people to name bands from the ‘90s, chances are they’ll mention Nirvana first. It was one of the few bands in rock history that had an immediate and tangible impact on the contemporary pop musical landscape. Formed in 1987, the punk rock band was founded by lead singer and guitarist Kurt Kobain and bassist Krist Novoselic. The band went through a succession of drummers before having Dave Grohl in 1990. The band became popular for their 1991 album Nevermind, which featured the popular singles “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come as You Are,” “Lithium,” “Polly,” and “In Bloom.” Nirvana maintained a spot on the Billboard 200 for around nine years, and their third album In Utero reached the #1 spot.
When the punk rock band burst into the mainstream in 1991, it changed the landscape of rock music that was awash in the hair metal of Def Leppard and Poison. The release of Nirvana’s angry single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” pure and raw emotion became king. The success of the band popularized alternative rock, and they became a cultural phenomenon of the ‘90s. Nirvana was considered as the flagship band of Generation X, while frontman Cobain was described as the “spokesman of a generation.” The group disbanded after Cobain’s death in 1994.
2. Foo Fighters
After the disbandment of Nirvana, drummer Dave Grohl formed the post-grunge alternative rock band Foo Fighters in 1994. What turned up to be a personal project became one of the most iconic brands in the rock music industry. Grohl was writing songs during Nirvana’s tours, but he held back the songs from his former band because he was intimidated by Kurt Cobain’s songs. After Cobain’s suicide, Grohl recorded 15 of the 40 songs he has written, and the rest was history. He launched the first Foo Fighters album as a one-man band, as he did the vocals and every instrument of the tracks. He hoped to keep his anonymity under a new name, but of course, he was known due to Nirvana’s fame. It included some of the band’s most famous songs, “Everlong,” “My Hero,” and “Monkey Wrench.”
In 1995, Grohl recruited drummer William Goldsmith, bassist Nate Mendel, and Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear. The band put out back-to-back records in 1995, 19997, and 1999 that dominated movie soundtracks. Throughout their career, Foo Fighters had four of its albums win Grammy Awards for Best Rock Album.
3. Green Day
Arguably one of the most famous rock bands in history, American rock band Green Day was formed in the East Bay of California in 1987 by lead guitarist and vocalist Billie Joe Armstrong, and bassist and backing vocalist Mike Dirnt. For much of Green Day’s career, the band has been a trio with a drummer Tre Cool, who replaced John Kiffmever in 1990. The band was initially part of the late ‘80s to early ‘90s punk scene at a club in California. They debuted a major-label album Dookie in 1994 and experienced a breakout success. The album eventually sold more than 10 million copies in the US alone. The songs from the album “Longview,” “Basket Case,” “Welcome to Paradise,” and “When I Come Around” turned the punk band to superstars overnight.
Green Day continued to experience commercial success well into the 21st century, giving the world unforgettable hits such as “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (2004), “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (2004), and “21 Guns” (2009). The band has sold more than 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling music artists.
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers is a funk rock band formed in 1983 and became one of the ‘90s’ most recognizable music groups. It was founded by vocalist Anthony Kiedis, guitarist Hillel Slovak, bassist Flea, and drummer Jack Irons. According to allmusic.com, the Chili Peppers is a “California band that mixed biting rock guitar with funk rhythms to become superstars by the 1990s and inspire legions of imitators.”
The band had a difficult time in 1988 after losing Slovak due to drug overdose, but while dealing with his death, Kiedis wrote what became their breakout hit “Under the Bridge,” which made the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik reach #3 on the Billboard 200 charts in 1992. The album was the band’s first commercial success. Irons quit soon after Slovak’s passing, and the two former members were replaced with drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. The Chili Peppers were one of the best-selling bands of all time, with more than 80 million records sold worldwide, and six Grammy Awards.
5. Smashing Pumpkins
Smashing Pumpkins was formed in 1988 by frontman and lead guitarist Billy Corgan, bassist D’arcy Wretzky, guitarist James Iha, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. The alternative rock band from Chicago had undergone many lineup changes, with a current lineup featuring Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin, and guitarist Jeff Shroeder. The band created a unique guitar-driven sound with influences from heavy metal, dream pop, progressive rock, Goth rock, and psychedelia.
Its early ‘90s EP “Siamese Dream” earned the band a pair of Grammy nominations, but it was their 1995 album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that cemented their popularity. The album notched seven more Grammy nominations and featured hit singles that the band was known for: “1979,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” The band faced many controversies like Chamberlin’s death, lineup changes, and Corgan’s ego assaults, but that album made that all easy to ignore.
Formed in 1992 in LA, Weezer and its members steered away from the long-haired rocked icons that the ‘90s audience was used to seeing. With the awkwardness and geekiness of a genuine nerd, River Cuomo – the band’s lead vocalist, lead guitarist, and keyboardist – bared his true feelings by couching it in thick-framed D&D references and metallic guitar solos. It was a surprisingly natural combination that made the band special. The band’s geeky appearance drew a different kind of rock enthusiasts and kept them coming back with a hook-heavy guitar pop.
Weezer became one of the top modern rock artists of the decade and enjoyed success well into the 21st century. The current lineup includes Cuomo, drummer Patrick Wilson, guitarist, and keyboardist Brian Bell, and bassist Scott Shriner. Both Bell and Shriner also work as backing vocals. Their 1994 self-titled debut album, also known as the Blue Album, brought upon hit singles such as “Buddy Holly,” “Undone,” and “Say It Ain’t So.” The album became a multiplatinum success. Their second album was a commercial failure at first but received cult status and critical acclaim years later.
Radiohead, an English rock band formed in 1985, left a significant mark in’90s pop culture – thanks to the albums The Bends and OK Computer. Radiohead first reached worldwide success after the release of their 1992 debut single “Creep.” Their popularity increased in the UK after the 1995 release of their second album, The Bends. OK Computer, the third album of the band released in 1997, brought them international fame. The latter was noted for its themes of modern alienation and complex production and was considered as one of the best albums in pop music.
The band consists of Thom Yorke (vocals, piano, guitar, and keyboards), Ed O’Brien (guitar and backing vocals), brothers Jonny Greenwood (lead guitar and keyboards), and Colin Greenwood (bass), and Philip Selway (drums and percussion). Radiohead’s career and popularity continued until the 2010s as they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. By 2011, the band had sold more than 30 million albums worldwide.
8. Pearl Jam
One of the most famous American rock and roll bands of the ‘90s, Pearl Jam separated themselves from the Seattle grunge with their varied sonic palette and political awareness in line with punk activism. The band’s current lineup consists of lead vocalist and guitarist Eddie Vedder, bass guitarist Jeff Ament, rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard, lead guitarist Mike McCready, and drummer Matt Cameron, who joined in 1998. Pearl Jam became a household name after the release of Ten in 1991 – an album that spent five years on the Billboard 200.
Until today, the band continues touring with a resume that includes five #1 albums and more than 60 million records sold worldwide. Pearl Jam was the type of band that often shunned popular music industry practices like giving interviews and making music videos. In 1993, after their third album debuted at #1, the band opted not to play in large stadiums and decided to play for more intimate settings like college campuses and small arenas. They also sued Ticketmaster for claims that it monopolized the concert ticket market.
Oasis is an English rock band formed in Manchester in 1991 and was one of the most successful British and one of the best-selling bands of all time. During the split-up of the band in 2009, Oasis has sold more than 75 million records worldwide. The group shot from obscurity to stardom in 1994 and was responsible for bringing back British guitar pop to the top of the charts. Founding members consisted of lead vocalist Liam Gallagher, guitarist Paul Arthurs, bass guitarist Paul McGuigan, and drummer Tony McCarrol. When Liam’s older brother Noel Gallagher returned to Manchester, he joined the group as a fifth member. Noel led the group and worked as the band’s songwriter, vocalist, and lead guitarist.
The Gallagher brothers were always fighting but remained as staple members until the group’s disbandment as Oasis had various lineup changes. The band adopted the rough, thuggish image of The Who and the Rolling Stones and crossed it with Beatlesque hooks and melodies. Their best-selling album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? produced their most popular hits, “Wonderwall” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
Though REM was initially founded in 1980, the ‘90s was the biggest decade for the alternative rock band. Being the original alternative band, REM defined the alt-rock segment of the community and exploded from cult status in the early ‘90s with their enigmatic and jangly sound that ran counter to grunge’s weighty beat. REM consisted of lead vocalist Michael Stipe, drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, and bassist Mike Mills. The band was notable due to Stipe’s distinct vocal quality, Berry’s tight and economical drumming, Buck’s ringing guitar style, and Mill’s melodic basslines. In 1991, REM brought us their biggest hit “Losing My Religion,” which was and still a worldwide hit that receives heavy rotation on radio.
After Berry left the band, REM included musical changes such as including pop-rock sounds and electronic music and continued its career in the 2000s after splitting up amicably in 2011 as the band members devoted their time on solo projects. REM sold more than 85 million records worldwide and is one of the world’s best-selling music artists.
It’s hard to talk about ‘90s music without mentioning the pop-punk sensation, Blink-182. Formed in Southern California in 1992, the band was founded by Mark Hoppus, Tom DeLonge, and Scott Raynor. Since 2015, the group consisted of vocalist and bass guitarist Hoppus, drummer Travis Barker, and vocalist and guitarist Matt Skiba. The band emerged from the punk scene in the early 1990s and gained notoriety for their hooky, high-energy shows, and irreverent lyrical toilet humor.
The band tasted a slice of mainstream success with their 1997 album Dude Ranch, which went platinum by the end of 1998 – thanks to the song “Dammit (Growing Up).” The band closed out the ‘90s with their third album Enema of the State, which released a steady song of hits bolstered by humorous music videos popular during the waning days of MTV’s musical programming.
12. No Doubt
Formed in 1986, California rock band No Doubt consisted of vocalist Gwen Stefani, guitarist Tom Dumont, drummer Adrian Young, and bassist Tony Kanal. They hit the mainstream in 1995 with the release of their third album, Tragic Kingdom. The record has almost as many hits as there were songs on it, including “Don’t Speak,” and “Just a Girl.” The band also ushered ska punk’s sudden popularity, thanks to Gwen Stefani’s no-frills charm, and her band’s combination of Caribbean-toned dance music and distorted punk.
We all know that Gwen Stefani has gone her own way and had a successful solo pop career, but the band and its members continued making music. The men of the band have spent years putting together an album in secrecy with a new frontman Davey Havok, forming a new group called Dreamcar in 2016.
13. The Cranberries
The Cranberries were an Irish alternative rock band whose variety of themes in their music touched a nerve in both their European homeland and in the US. The band incorporated aspects of indie-pop, folk-rock, pop-rock, and post-punk into their sound. Formed in 1989, the band consisted of guitarist Noel Hogan, bassist Mike Hogan, lead singer Niall Quinn, and drummer Fergal Lawler. Dolores O’Riordan replaced Quinn in 1990 as lead singer.
The band rose to fame immediately with their debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, which received commercial and international success. This album brought the hits “Linger,” “Zombie,” “Dreams,” and “Ode to My Family” in the world. The band continued to experience commercial success and was still making music in the late 2010s. When lead singer O’Riordan was found dead in 2018, The Cranberries disbanded. The band earned numerous awards in the length of their career, and their final album In the End still earned them a Grammy nomination.
Incubus is an alternative rock band from Calabasas, California, formed in Calabasas High School in 1991. The band members established the group while enrolled high school and includes vocalist Brandon Boyd, lead guitarist Mike Einziger, and drummer José Pasillas. The band was known for their clean, warm, and polite sounds, and Boyd’s sensitive and thoughtful demeanor altered the front rockman game for the better.
Incubus’ second album SCIENCE (1997) was a niche cult hit, especially for the high schoolers in Calabasas, but their 1999 album Make Yourself was what catapulted the band into mainstream recognition. The album spawned several hits, including the band’s highest-charting track “Drive.” Incubus continued to receive mainstream success with their 2000s albums. The band remains active as they recently released a single “Our Love” in January 2020.
15. Alice in Chains
In 1987, vocalist and guitarist Jerry Cantrell and drummer Sean Kinney formed Alice in Chains in Seattle, and later recruited lead vocalist Layne Staley and bassist Mike Starr. The band started with struggling musicians who became one of the 90s’ most popular grunge acts. Though the group was widely known for its grunge music, their sound incorporates heavy metal elements. They were famous for the distinctive vocal sound that usually included the harmonized vocals between Staley and Cantrell (and later Cantrell and William DuVall).
Alice in Chains rose to international fame as part of the grunge movement in the ‘90s, along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The band sold over 30 million records worldwide with six top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 chart. The group reached critical acclaim with their hit single “Man in the Box” from their 1990 debut album Facelift – an album that has been certified double platinum. Their second album Dirt was certified quadruple platinum, and the third eponymous album was certified double platinum.
Sublime was a punk band from Long Beach, California that fused genres like hip-hop, ska, and punk into a cohesive sound. Formed in 1988, the band consisted of vocalist and guitarist Bradley Nowell, bassist Eric Wilson, and drummer Bud Gaugh. The band’s lineup stayed the same until 1996 when the band broke up after Nowell’s death due to heroin overdose. Sadly, Nowell died two months before their self-titled 1996 album was released, and that album propelled the band’s name to fame.
The band was quite popular in the US for their first two albums, 40oz. to Freedom (1992) and Robbin’ the Hood (1994). But it was their 1996 album that reached significant commercial success and peaked at #13 on the Billboard 200. The single “What I Got” was the band’s #1 hit single. In 2009, the band sold 17 million albums worldwide.
17. Rage Against the Machine
An American rock band from LA, Rage Against the Machine was formed in 1991, consisting of vocalist Zack de la Rocha, guitarist Tom Morello, bassist and backing vocalist Tim Commerford, and drummer Brad Wilk. Their songs were famous for their revolutionary political views. Rage Against the Machine’s debut self-titled 1992 album went triple-platinum, and their follow-up albums Evil Empire (1996) and The Battle of Los Angeles (1999) were also commercial successes, both topping the Billboard 200 chart.
During their initial nine-year career, Rage Against the Machine was one of the most popular and influential bands in music history. The band had a huge influence on the nu-metal genre, which became popular during the second half of the ‘90s. The group was supposed to reunite in 2020 for a world tour, but plans were rescheduled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
18. Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails is an American industrial rock band formed in Ohio in 1988. Singer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor was the only permanent member of the group until the official addition of Atticus Ross in 2016. Reznor started recording the band’s debut album in 1989 while working overnight as a janitor in a recording studio until he released the influential albums The Downward Spiral in 1994, and The Fragile in 1999. Both albums received critical acclaim and commercial success.
The band varied its lineup over the decades and has sold over 20 million records worldwide. The band was the most popular industrial group ever and was mostly responsible for bringing the genre to a mass audience. In 2004, Nine Inch Nails was considered as one of the 100 greatest artists of all time by the Rolling Stone.
Slipknot was an ambitious yet successful heavy metal band who debuted their eponymous album in 1999 – the year when boy bands and Britney Spears conquered the music industry. Though the heavy metal scene wasn’t as popular as pop during that year, they still managed to rise to fame, thanks to their attention-grabbing image, and aggressive music style. The band was founded in 1995 in Iowa by percussionist Shawn Crahan, bassist Paul Gray, and drummer Joey Jordison.
Over the years, Slipknot released six studio albums, had lots of hiatus, and had several lineup changes. They have sold more than 30 million records worldwide. As of now, the band is still very active, as they were supposed to have a world tour in 2020 but was postponed due to the pandemic. Guess their aggressive music equally matches their aggressive and ardent fanbase.
Sacramento’s Deftones is an inimitable alternative metal band formed in 1988. The band has a large cult following after the 1995 debut of Adrenaline and its follow-up album Around the Fur. They are one of the most experimental groups of the alternative metal scene, and they were sometimes dubbed as the “Radiohead of metal.” The group’s lineup changed several times but was formed by lead vocalist and guitarist Chino Moreno, lead guitarist Stephen Carpenter, bassist Dominic Garcia, and drummer Abe Cunningham.
While other bands promoted their albums by touring exhaustively, Deftones manage to gain a dedicated fan base just by word of mouth. The group has three albums that were certified platinum in the US. Their latest album release was in 2016, entitled Gore.