The alternative rock explosion was in full swing in 1993, with highly anticipated new albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, and Depeche Mode all topping the Billboard 200. Breakthrough albums from Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders and Urge Overkill crashed into the mainstream, while Radiohead, Bjork, the Cranberries, and Belly released hit debuts. Left of the dial, indie classics by Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Fugazi, Morphine, and Stereolab ruled college radio.
On the margins, many more artists were angling for attention in the suddenly very crowded alternative landscape. Future platinum bands like Rancid and 311 released under-the-radar debuts, while Frank Black and Aimee Mann went solo from Pixies and ‘Til Tuesday, respectively. The Britpop era was just beginning to take shape in the U.K., and there were still a few bands left in Seattle that weren’t yet selling millions of records.
Here are 30 unique, fascinating, and occasionally great albums turning 30 this year.
Frank Black – Frank Black
Pixies frontman Black Francis announced the band’s breakup in early 1993 on the eve of his solo debut, inverting his stage name into Frank Black. Featuring the minor rock radio hit “Los Angeles,” the self-titled album was full of curveballs like a distorted guitar-heavy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Hang On to Your Ego” and a saxophone cameo by John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. Ultimately, Black spent most of 1993 getting handily upstaged by his ex-bandmate Kim Deal, whose band Breeders soared to platinum album sales and heavy MTV rotation with Last Splash that always evaded the Pixies in their original incarnation.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters – Sister Sweetly
Singer/guitarist Todd Park Mohr became one the most prominent Asian-American rock stars of the 1990s with the sleeper hit success of his band’s third album, which topped Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and eventually went platinum. Despite the album’s earthy, twangy sound, Sister Sweetly was recorded at Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota with longtime Prince associate David Z in the producer’s chair. “Broken Hearted Savior,” “Bittersweet,” and “Circle” were all rock radio hits, and the Denver quartet co-headlined the 1993 edition of the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, a jam band-friendly alternative to Lollapalooza.
The Boo Radleys – Giant Steps
There’s something a little embarrassingly pretentious about a British rock band, without any meaningful trace of jazz in their sound, naming their third album after one of the most revered jazz records of all time. The Boo Radleys’ Giant Steps isn’t an achievement anywhere near the scale of John Coltrane’s 1960 masterwork, sure. Nonetheless, it may be the band’s best album, ranging from the roaring shoegaze of “Leaves and Sand” to the kinds of upbeat Beatles-esque tracks that would lead to the Britpop-era success of its follow-up, 1995’s Wake Up!
Cell – Slo-Blo
After Sonic Youth helped recruit Nirvana to Geffen before the release of Nevermind, the label signed several more bands at the former’s suggestion, hoping to once again find the next big thing. The New York quartet Cell didn’t have much to make them attractive to a major label beyond the endorsement of Thurston Moore, but their debut album was picked up by Geffen in 1993 after being released in Germany by City Slang the year before. Slo-Blo was panned by SPIN, with Jim Greer calling it “a leaden fumble,” but there’s a ramshackle charm in these scuzzy guitar tones, deadpan vocals, and occasionally unpredictable instrumental passages.
Cop Shoot Cop – Ask Questions Later
One of the most unlikely buzz bands of 1993 was Cop Shoot Cop, a New York noise rock outfit with two members playing bass guitar, another playing a sampler, and a drummer making a junkyard racket with metallic found objects. Frontman Tod A. wrote genuinely catchy songs though, and the memorable video for “$10 Bill” received airplay on MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Terence Trent D’Arby – Symphony or Damn
In the late ‘80s, Terence Trent D’Arby shot to the top of the charts in the U.S. and the U.K. with genre-bending hits like “Wishing Well” which briefly seemed to herald the arrival of the next Prince. D’Arby’s commercial profile quickly sank with each subsequent album, but he pivoted to a harder sound on 1993’s Symphony or Damn and crossed over to rock radio, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart with the single “She Kissed Me.” In 2001, D’Arby changed his name to Sananda Maitreya and has since released nine more albums independently.
Ethyl Meatplow – Happy Days, Sweetheart
The Los Angeles trio Ethyl Meatplow’s debut album was a trippy mix of industrial rock and burlesque provocation. The band’s video for “Devil’s Johnson” was featured on Beavis & Butthead, but Ethyl Meatplow soon went inactive after releasing its only album and playing on a Lollapalooza side stage in 1993. Carla Bozulich pivoted to country influences with her next band, the Geraldine Fibbers, and the Ethyl Meatplow’s other singer, John “Wee-Wee” Napier, died in 2012.
Everclear – World of Noise
Everclear recorded its aptly titled debut for $400 in a basement with a squealing, malfunctioning amp. The lo-fi World of Noise still displayed Art Alexakis’ radio-ready voice, autobiographical lyrics, and big choruses well enough that Capitol Records wisely signed the band and re-released the album, setting the stage for the 1995 platinum breakthrough Sparkle and Fade.
Goo Goo Dolls – Superstar Car Wash
The standard rock critic knock against the Goo Goo Dolls is that they sold millions of records in the ‘90s with the same sound the Replacements struggled to reach the mainstream with in the ‘80s. Before that crossover success happened, the Buffalo, N.Y., trio won the approval of Paul Westerberg himself, who co-wrote the lead single from its fourth album. “We Are the Normal” marked the beginning of the Goo Goo Dolls’ commercial ascent, reaching No. 5 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, though the rest of the album still displays a bit of the rough-around-the-edges sound of the band’s early days.
Billy Idol – Cyberpunk
A decade of Top 40 hits finally came to a screeching halt for Billy Idol in 1993 when he decided to cash in his goodwill with a 70-minute concept album inspired by sci-fi authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. It’s fascinating to hear the most shameless crossover pop star from British punk’s first wave get ambitious and pretentious for once, but it would be an understatement to say that Cyberpunk’s reach exceeds its grasp. At one point, Idol turns the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” and Patti Smith’s “Gloria” into a seven-minute dance track.
Infectious Grooves – Sarsippius’ Ark
Suicidal Tendencies frontman Mike Muir’s funk/metal side project Infectious Grooves, featuring a talking reptile mascot named Sarsippius, may be the strangest band played regularly on Headbanger’s Ball in the ‘90s. The band’s second album featured funked-out covers of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie hits, as well as frequent skits with Muir in character as “the jolly green love machine” Sarsippius. Infectious Grooves has mostly been inactive since bassist Robert Trujillo joined Metallica in 2003.
Various Artists – Last Action Hero: Music from the Original Motion Picture
The Terminator co-starring in a Guns N’ Roses video was a pop culture event in 1991, so Arnold Schwarzenegger gamely dressed up like Angus Young to join AC/DC onstage in the “Big Gun” video to promote 1993’s Last Action Hero. The film, an underrated satire of action movie cliches, underperformed at the box office. The soundtrack album, however, was ubiquitous on rock radio thanks to “Big Gun,” singles by Megadeth and Def Leppard, and two new Alice In Chains songs at the peak of the band’s powers.
Love Battery – Far Gone
Even during Seattle’s reign as the center of the alternative rock universe, some well-connected bands remained firmly underground. Love Battery featured members of the influential early grunge bands Green River, Skin Yard, and the U-Men, and their third album Far Gone was set to become its major label debut. After being dumped by PolyGram Records before releasing anything, however, Love Battery remained on Sub Pop. Michael Beinhorn produced the album in between blockbusters like Soul Asylum’s Grave Dancers Union and Soundgarden’s Superunknown, but Far Gone feels like a modest collection of fuzzed-out riffs and deadpan vocals which was never going to get played on mainstream radio. Within a couple of years, drummer Jason Finn found platinum success with another Seattle band, the Presidents of the United States of America.
Lungfish – Rainbows From Atoms
Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson’s Dischord Records was famously founded in the ‘80s to document the Washington, D.C. punk scene. They made a notable exception in the early ‘90s to sign Lungfish from Baltimore, an hour north of the nation’s capital. It’s easy to hear why Mackaye and Nelson were entranced by the elliptical lyrics of frontman Daniel Higgs and guitarist Asa Asborne’s hypnotic riffs on their third album, Rainbows From Atoms, and they became the label’s most prolific band, releasing a dozen albums.
Sarah McLachlan – Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
Canadian singer/songwriter began playing electric guitar more on her third album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, and it became her American breakthrough, eventually going platinum in 1995. The lead single “Possession” was inspired by letters from obsessive fans, and one fan filed a lawsuit against her for using his words, but died by suicide before the case went to court.
Manic Street Preachers – Gold Against the Soul
Manic Street Preachers rhythm guitarist Richey Edwards played an unusual role in the Welsh band’s first three albums, writing most of the band’s lyrics and influencing their visual design and musical direction but seldom actually playing on their recordings. In fact, the only song on the Manics’ second album Gold Against the Soul featuring him on guitar is its most enduring single, “La Tristesse Durera (Scream to a Sigh).” Edwards disappeared in early 1995 and has since been presumed dead, with the band carrying on without him as a trio.
Aimee Mann – Whatever
Aimee Mann debuted as a solo artist in 1993, eight years after her brief mainstream fame with the ‘Til Tuesday hit “Voices Carry.” Jon Brion, a member of the final touring lineup of ‘Til Tuesday, produced Whatever, which was initially released on the indie label Imago, and didn’t sell much more after being re-released by Geffen. The textured and sophisticated sound that would make Mann and Brion darlings of not-quite-mainstream alternative rock over the next decade, together and apart, is pretty much fully formed on Whatever, which is full of gems like “4th of July,” which was praised voluminously by Elvis Costello, and the minor radio hit “I Should’ve Known.”
Maria McKee – You Gotta Sin To Get Saved
Maria McKee experienced some success in the ‘80s with the alt-country band Lone Justice before launching a solo career. Her second album featured a rendition of Van Morrison’s “The Way Young Lovers Do,” which Jeff Buckley would also cover a few months later on the Live at Sin-é EP. The album’s lead single, “I’m Gonna Soothe You,” had an acoustic demo on the b-side called “If Love Is A Red Dress (Hang Me In Rags),” which became the only original song on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack a year later.
Various Artists – No Alternative
In the 1990s, the Red Hot Organization released a dozen genre-themed compilation albums like Red Hot + Blue and Red Hot + Dance which raised millions of dollars for AIDS charities. In 1993, the series turned to alt-rock with No Alternative, a star-studded affair featuring Soundgarden, Beastie Boys, Soul Asylum, and a Pavement song right next to a Smashing Pumpkins track, a year before their “Range Life” feud. The biggest band on the album, however, kept a low profile, with the legendary Nirvana non-album song “Sappy” (also known as “Verse Chorus Verse”) appearing as a hidden track.
Phish – Rift
1993 was a significant year in Phish’s rise to becoming the biggest jam band in America. The Vermont quartet began headlining amphitheaters and charted on the Billboard 200 for the first time with its second major label album, Rift. “Maze” and “Sparkle” became significant contributions to the band’s live repertoire from this narrative-heavy concept album, which also includes staples such as “It’s Ice,” “Silent in the Morning,” and “Fast Enough for You.”
Porno for Pyros – Porno for Pyros
After Jane’s Addiction disbanded at the height of its popularity in 1991, anticipation was sky-high for the new band featuring frontman Perry Farrell and drummer Stephen Perkins. In fact, the self-titled debut by Porno For Pyros debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, higher than any Jane’s Addiction release. After the mellow, whimsical radio hit “Pets” however, sales quickly slowed down, and Porno For Pyros only recorded one more album in 1996 before disappearing for nearly three decades.
The Power Trio From Hell – American Man
Three musicians from Maryland calling themselves the Power Trio From Hell relocated to Southern California in the early ‘90s and signed with Reprise Records. The band’s sole album was an underrated gem of bombastic thrash metal, produced by rock legend Eddie Kramer, best known for his work with another power trio, the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Rancid – Rancid
Tim Armstrong and Matt Freeman formed Rancid after the demise of their influential previous band Operation Ivy, initially eschewing their ska influences for a straight-up punk sound. Rancid’s self-titled debut was released before singer/guitarist Lars Frederiksen joined the band. The song “Rejected” remained a staple of the band’s live shows for the next two decades.
Squeeze – Some Fantastic Place
In the early ‘80s, keyboardist Paul Carrack briefly joined Squeeze and sang lead on one of the band’s biggest hits, “Tempted.” A decade later, Carrack rejoined the band for its 10th album, Some Fantastic Place, singing lead on another track, “Loving You Tonight.” A few months after that, a remixed “Tempted ‘94” was released for the film Reality Bites and the song returned to the radio charts.
Matthew Sweet – Altered Beast
Released between the gold-selling Girlfriend and 100% Fun, Altered Beast was a relatively unsuccessful album for Matthew Sweet. The brooding project expanded Sweet’s sound beyond power pop and also expanded the repertory of all-star musicians often guesting on his albums, with appearances by Mick Fleetwood, Nicky Hopkins, and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.
Tears for Fears – Elemental
After three massively successful albums as a duo, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith of Tears For Fears went their separate ways in the early ‘90s, with Orzabal retaining the band name. The brilliant single “Break It Down Again” was the band’s last Top 40 hit in America, heralding a slightly more guitar-driven sound on Elemental. Smith, who also released his solo debut in 1993, eventually re-joined Tears For Fears in 2000, with the group returning to synth-dominated vibes for two subsequent albums.
311 – Music
Fugazi played a show in Omaha, Ne., in 1990, and the local opening band Fish Hippos announced onstage that it was changing its name to 311. The band’s 1993 debut, Music, featured the minor radio hit “Do You Right” and introduced an eclectic mix of rap, reggae, and hard rock which would make 311 a multi-platinum sensation after its 1995 self-titled album.
The Verve – A Storm in Heaven
The British band known as Verve became the Verve shortly after releasing its 1993 debut album, under legal pressure from the legendary jazz label Verve Records. The John Leckie-produced A Storm in Heaven features a more psychedelic and shoegaze-tinged sound than the glossier Urban Hymns, which enjoyed international success on the strength of the 1997 single “Bittersweet Symphony.” At times, Richard Ashcroft and company even sound a little like Oasis, the relatively unknown band who often opened for the Verve back then.
World Party – Bang!
Bang! was far less successful than World Party’s first two albums in America, but the London trio experienced a different trajectory in the U.K., where it became its highest-charting album on the strength of the single “Is It Like Today?” It was the last album to feature co-founding bassist David Catlin-Birch, as World Party started to become more of a Karl Wallinger solo project.
X – Hey Zeus!
The trailblazing Los Angeles punk band X’s seventh album featured the minor alt-rock radio hits “Country At War” and “New Life,” and was its last studio effort together until 2020’s Alphabetland. Hey Zeus! wasn’t produced by Ray Manzarek like X’s early albums, but the opening track “Someone’s Watching” is reminiscent of the Doors classic “Riders on the Storm” at times.