A Young Cynic's Guide to '90s Alternative Rock | Staff Picks

We all have a special soundtrack to our own nostalgia—the songs that immediately kick us back to a specific moment of our lives, regardless of where we are or what we're doing when we hear them. And I would argue that there's perhaps no nostalgia quite like that which we have for high school, right? It's that explosive time we all spend hopelessly preoccupied with our own identities, still briefly unfettered by worldly adulthood responsibility, like work and, also, work. Maybe this sounds like college to you, or even those few reckless years you spent thereafter, but this is about me, and I'm talking about high school.

When asked what music catapults you back to the dog days of sneaking joints, setting off fireworks, and cruising around in your friend's mom's car with nowhere specific to go, your list will probably betray your age. What was on the radio at the time? But, me, I didn't listen to the radio in high school, because my manual '94 Honda Prelude didn't have one. What was I, some sort of rich person? And even if my radio had worked, I never would have listened to it anyway—I was 16 years old and far too pretentious for that.

Instead, I collected alternative records from the 1990s and spun them on the '78 Technics SL-1401 turntable I inherited from my dad. I listened, soaking it all in, from the soft carpet of my bedroom floor. I made mixtapes. I pushed my way to the front row of a Dinosaur Jr. show and scream-sang every word. I revolted against the radio. I chose the teenage music experience of someone who was actually settling into 10th grade homeroom on the Monday morning I was born in May of 1994.

These records may not have made up the musical landscape I was born into, but they made up the one I chose to define my times anyway. So, without further ado, here are five of the most magical '90s records that, without fail, always kick me right back to the early 2010s.

Pixies

Trompe le Monde

Though 1989's Doolittle is absolutely my desert island Pixies record (and the previous year's Surfer Rosa is my first alternate), the band's 1991 release, Trompe le Monde, will always be extremely close to my heart. If you don't already feel the same way, try this:

  1. Channel your inner 16-year-old.
  2. Get into your manual '94 Prelude and roll the windows down (remember, it's summer, and you're 16).
  3. Turn on Trompe le Monde, and flip to track two, "Planet of Sound."
  4. Turn it up. Louder.
  5. Take an aimless drive through the suburbs.

If that doesn't work, flip to track six, "U-Mass," and repeat steps 1-5.

My Bloody Valentine

Loveless

Ultimately, shoegaze would turn out to be a passing indulgence for me. I never really moved deeper into the genre beyond My Bloody Valentine's classic and well-known Loveless, but like so many others, I fell hard for this record.

Rumored to have cost well over £200,000 to make, Loveless famously took the characteristically meticulous Kevin Shields close to two years to record in 19 different studios and with several engineers. The final product is a relentlessly layered wall of sound, featuring a lot of innovative guitar work that came to define and inspire the genre.

Pavement

Slanted and Enchanted

As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as a bad Pavement record, but most people will agree that it doesn't get better than their 1992 debut Slanted and Enchanted.

The band wasn't even fully formed before the Slanted recording sessions started, with most members joining at various points throughout its production. But this gives the music a special kind of looseness and uncertainty, an utter lack of pretentiousness and willingness to experiment that's perfectly reflective of a young band just getting started. It's what cements this record as an unlikely classic, and one especially tuned for the ears of a burgeoning, wannabe-adult adolescent.

On the same record, you'll find traditionally organized singles—like everyone's favorite and the album-opener, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)"—mixed in with much more experimental songs defined by their goofy chaos and unpredictability, like "Fame Throwa." If you've never listened to Pavement, there's no better place to start than at the beginning.

Dinosaur Jr.

Without a Sound

I'm not here to argue that You're Living All Over Me isn't Dinosaur Jr.'s best record, because it is, and I'll go to the mat on that. But still, 1994's Without a Sound isn't one to overlook for a variety of reasons.

I love Dinosaur Jr. as a complete band, which of course includes Murph the drummer and bassist Lou Barlow. But anyone familiar with Dino's history knows that the bandmates haven't always lived in harmony, and, in fact, there were a number of years when it was essentially J's solo project—he toured with a backing band, but wrote and recorded all of the music and instruments himself.

Without a Sound is the first in the string of those "solo" records, with Barlow having been gone since '88 and Murph departing after Where You Been in 1993. It's my favorite of that stretch and the most commercially successful up to that point for the band, featuring still-popular singles like "Feel the Pain" and "I Don't Think So."

Le Tigre

Le Tigre

The second debut record to grace this list, Le Tigre by Le Tigre is an absolute banger. If you're not sure whether you recognize the name, flip on the first track—"Decepticon"—and see if that jogs your memory. Better yet, watch the choreographed video (which, yes, I learned in high school).

Though most of the classic riot grrrl bands had broken up by the time Kathleen Hanna (previously of Bikini Kill) formed Le Tigre, it was a band that definitely still embodied the true ethos of the original movement—not the watered-down "girl power" appropriation that was gaining mainstream attention at the time via groups like Spice Girls.

Drawing from her punkish roots, Hanna's lyrics are unabashedly liberal, political, feminist, and subversive, set over almost surprisingly upbeat and playful instrumentation made with drum machines and lo-fi electronic samplers.

One of my personal favorites from the record is track eight, a super fun go-go-style song titled "My My Metrocard" in which Hanna sings: "Oh, fuck / Giuliani— / He's such / A fucking jerk. / Shut down / All the stripbars / Workfare / Does not work" over an organ riff lifted from an old record and sampled through a secondhand Ensoniq Mirage.

On a small scale, this track broadly exemplifies what Le Tigre is to me on a whole: politically driven and fun as hell.