Essential Alternative 1991-2011

I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a big fan of Alan Cross, music journalist, broadcaster, guru of all things new rock. Every week I drag my sorry carcass out of bed way too early on a Sunday to listen to the latest installment of Alan’s The Secret History of Rock.  Alan also gave some love to MIXTAPE a little while back, which I really appreciate.

Anyway, some time back, Alan did a show on what he felt were the ten alt-rock albums everyone should own, and … well I’ll let him explain:

Many years ago, I did an Ongoing History of New Music show on the ten alt-rock albums everyone needs in their collection and I still get requests for that this.  So, one more time, here it is:

  1. The Velvet Underground/Debut album
  2. David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
  3. Sex Pistols/Never Mind the Bollocks
  4. The Ramones/Debut album
  5. Joy Division/Unknown Pleasures
  6. Clash/London Calling
  7. Smiths/The Queen Is Dead
  8. Beastie Boys/Licensed to Ill
  9. U2/The Joshua Tree
  10. Nirvana/Nevermind

Considering that this list is decades old, it’s still not bad.  Everyone should still have those records in their collection.  But then last night, I received this email from Brad:

The most recent album on that list is Nevermind, and that came out nearly 23 (!) years ago.  And I’ve been wondering; what would you say the essential alt rock albums of the 20 years post-Nevermind are?

I mean, are there even 10?  Who would make the cut? Nine Inch Nails would have to be there, right? What about PJ Harvey or Liz Phair? Smashing Pumpkins? Green Day? Moby?  Any of the other Seattle bands? What about Britpop — who’s more essential, Oasis or Blur?  And that’s just the 90s. What about the 2000s?  There’d definitely need to be some White Stripes … but who else?  And what about Canadian artists like Arcade Fire?  Feist? 

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

So there’s the challenge.  What are the essential 10 post-Nevermind albums in alt-rock? Right off the top of my head, I’d start with Radiohead’s OK Computer and Definitely Maybe from Oasis.  American Idiot from Green Day?

So that’s pretty cool.  And the discussion is just getting started on Alan’s website.  So, since I instigated this, I gave it a serious think and narrowed my choices down to these ten. It’s less a “favorites” list, but rather one that tries to link everything like Alan’s initial list linked The Velvet Underground and Bowie to U2 and Nirvana.

Here we go …


1. PJ Harvey – Dry (1992)

“Chicks rock” became a clarion call in the 90, with artists like Liz Phair, The Breeders, Juliana Hatfield , Tori Amos and the whole Riot Grrrl movement.  But for many  it all began with a 22 year old Polly Jean Harvey , still going strong today.


2. Siamese Dream – Smashing Pumpkins (1993)

Following Nirvana, did any other band dominate the 90s the way Smashing Pumpkins did?  Before they embraced bloat, they released Siamese Dream which remains a near perfect little album.


3. The Downward Spiral – NIN (1994)

Because Trent Reznor channeled rage better than anybody else, and brought industrial to the mainstream.  Because you couldn’t escape The Downward Spiral when it dropped in ’94. And because you never stopped listening to it.


4. (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – Oasis (1995)

Because Britpop was, for a brief moment in time, huge. And following the implosion of grunge, kept the party going a little bit longer. Until the Spice Girls came along and ruined everything.  I know more people like Definitely Maybe, but this one has “Don’t Look Back In Anger” which became the anthem for that era.


5. Moby – Play (1999)

His then controversial decision to license out every song on his album at the tail end of a decade where openly vying for commercial success was anathema, he changed the way music reached listeners (and brought him from the underground to the mainstream). Now everybody, from U2 and Sleigh Belles and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, does whatever they can to make sure their music gets as wide a reach as possible. It’s almost as if Moby saw the writing on the wall isn’t it? Oh, and Play is pretty good too.


6. Radiohead — Kid A (2000)

Love them or hate them (and there’s plenty who do both), you can’t deny the impact Radiohead has had on music, and the business of making music in general.

AROBTTH1a 7. Coldplay – A Rush of Blood to the Head (2002)

Joke all you want about Coldplay (and the members of the band frequently do themselves), but has any band formed since 1999 broken as big as they have, with their soaring U2-esque anthems and bigger emotions?  Even diehard Coldplay haters will admit (grudgingly) that A Rush of Blood is a pretty good album, and the one U2 wishes they’d made.


8. The White Stripes – Elephant (2003)

You can’t look at the first decade of the 21st century without the White Stripes in there somewhere. As the record industry was collapsing, as bands struggled to keep their contracts alive, Jack and Meg reinvented fuzzy garage rock. And it worked. Beautifully.


9. American Idiot – Green Day (2004)

In 2004 Green Day was considered over, finished, washed up.  And then they released American idiot, their melodic howl of rage at the post 9/11 Bush era.  And it sold. Huge.


10. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2011)

Yes, more people are going to go with Funeral, but for me The Suburbs captures what it’s like to be a teenager, in love with the music they and their friends love equally.  It’s the antithesis to American Idiot; channeling the same themes and angst, from the perspective of someone who realizes that while the world has changed (for the worse), the simple pleasures remain what they always have been; friendship, romantic longing, and music. (I wrote at length about The Suburbs here)

[And that doesn’t even begin to cover the genuinely great albums that didn’t make my top 10. Rage Against The Machine (self); REM (Automatic for the People); The Breeders (Last Splash); Faith No More (Angel Dust); even U2 (Achtung Baby).  I wanted to avoid repeats of the initial list, and again, wanted to focus on influential/essential over “my personal favorites”.

So, if you are so inclined and (I hope) interested in joining the conversation, you may do so here. And if you have any comments directed at me, have at it below.





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About Brad

I'm the author of MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, writer and creator of MIXTAPE, the screenwriter of STONEHENGE APOCALYPSE, ROBOCOP PRIME DIRECTIVES, FRESH MEAT, and this bio.

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