In the spirit of full disclosure, this column started out as Underrated Albums From The ‘90s. However, the tone of the piece quickly devolved into “sexually frustrated mid-level Pitchfork writer who hates everything about the Midwest town he left to move to Brooklyn.” And that’s not my game. I fully believe, however, that there are (like in every decade) musical artists who didn’t “make it big,” because they didn’t have a prototypical radio sound, came out at the wrong time, or had one song that defined them, and never made it past that. So the goal of this list isn’t as much about proving my underground music taste as much as it is highlighting some phenomenal artists who maybe didn’t get a fair shake.
1. The Verve Pipe
“The Freshmen” both made and destroyed The Verve Pipe. The band originally wrote the song as an acoustic ballad for their ‘92 album, I’ve Suffered A Head Injury, which no one listened to. The original release of 1996’s Villains didn’t even include “The Freshmen.” They decided after the release of the record to do an updated, full band version of “The Freshmen” to release as a single. That little rerecording of an acoustic bummer song about a young man’s girlfriend getting an abortion went over like gangbusters (I still have no idea what that means). As a side note, what the hell was with 1997 and slow ballads about young couples having abortions? Between “The Freshmen” and Ben Folds Five’s “Brick,” ‘97 just decided that it was gonna be weird for the fuck of it, I guess.
Anyway, after “The Freshmen” peaked at number 5 on the charts, it was included as track seven on Villains, which, in my opinion, really hurt the album overall. The Verve Pipe might have never made it anywhere without “The Freshmen,” but the song itself is so different from the whole album, that most people who grabbed the record were ultimately turned off by it because it wasn’t what they were expecting. Villains suffered the same problem Drive had. It was marketed as a slick Fast and Furious-type action movie, and people felt robbed when it turned out to be an hour of Ryan Gosling brooding, followed by thirty minutes of Cronenberg-esque ultra-violence –which is awesome in its own right, but definitely nothing like Dom Toretto gutturally explaining how family is the most important thing right before tackling someone off a bridge onto another bridge.
The point that I’m making is that you should go listen to Villains, because it’s a perfectly executed example of first wave post-grunge. And because it fucking rocks.
I say the words, “Virtual Insanity,” what do you think of? A groundbreaking push of fusion jazz into the mainstream? Complex music theory combined with perfect pop sensibilities? No. You immediately think “fuzzy hat and moving floors.” The “Virtual Insanity” video is incredible, and is rightly considered one of the best and most innovative music videos of all time. But Jamiroquai’s aesthetics ultimately got in the way of people realizing how incredible his music was. Listen to “Seven Days In Sunny June.” The man is a damn melodic genius. Ultimately it makes sense that a music act centered on a weird, future jazz/funk sound didn’t have much staying power in the Mountain Dew-driven culture in which it was released. I suppose it makes poetic sense that we didn’t really see Jamiroquai featured prominently again until “Canned Heat” was used in the weird, off-beat, how-is-this-popular hit Napoleon Dynamite as the backing track when the titular hero takes the stage to dance for the high school talent show.
On a side note, why the fuck is the US blocked as a region to view the “Virtual Insanity” video? I spent longer than I’m proud to admit trying to reroute through proxy clients to watch it with no success. We put his ass on the map; LET US SEE THE INSANITY DAMN IT.
3. Collective Soul
Of the five artists listed, Collective Soul certainly had the most popular success. “Shine,” “December,” “Smashing Young Man,” and “The World I Know” all featured prominently in the culture when they were released. But it seems like the band isn’t credited with their share of the sound of rock in the mid-nineties. It’s not like their music doesn’t hold up. Their ‘95 self-titled album is still a phenomenally cohesive piece. I suppose it’s not completely surprising, given that many of their contemporaries (Candlebox, Toad The Wet Sprocket, The Wallflowers) are also brushed a bit to the side. It likely has something to do with being in between eras. They gained popularity as grunge was dying, but before the glitzier pop-rock bands like The Goo Goo Dolls, Blink 182, Green Day, and Third Eye Blind would come out later. Either way, give “Shine” another listen. I guarantee you’ll think to yourself, “Oh yeah, Collective Soul was awesome. Thanks, Knox!”
4. Cree Summer
When you’re talking about someone who just barely missed their opportunity to hit the big time, Cree Summer is a textbook example. She puttered around in a couple of bands that went nowhere before recording a solo album toward the end of the decade. The whole album is incredible, mixing the female acoustic sound that was popular at the time with funk guitar and more intriguing song concepts than most of her contemporaries. The whole record sounds like Alanis Morissette tripped acid with Chaka Khan and sang songs over a track created by George Clinton and the producer for The Cranberries. The song that you might recognize is “Mean Sleep,” which features a duet with Lenny Kravitz. Cree Summer was poised to make some waves, but her label ended up dropping her only a few months before she was scheduled to play at Lilith Fair, a festival focusing on female artists that helped Sarah McLachlan, The Indigo Girls, Liz Phair, Sheryl Crow, and many others make the jump to stardom. Would that appearance have catapulted her? Who knows? But it might’ve gotten us another album at the very least.
Happily, the story ends well. Cree went on to become a successful voiceover artist, most popularly providing the voice for Princess Kida in the coincidentally underrated Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Female driven folk rock isn’t nearly as popular as it once was, but I don’t think I’m the only one hoping Cree Summer decides to get back in the music game.
5. Souls of Mischief
This is a weird one. On the one hand, Souls of Mischief are considered to be one of the seminal groups that formed the sound of hip hop in the ‘90s, so in that respect, they’re certainly rated properly. On the other, ask your average Gene or Sally on the street (if you can find anyone with those names in 2014), and they probably don’t have the first clue of who Souls of Mischief are. They’re like the rap equivalents of The Replacements or Dinosaur Jr. You might not know any of their music, but as soon as you hear it, you immediately understand how the sound of an entire generation of music was formed. And like those bands, their music holds up significantly better than many of the more popular groups that followed them. It’s hard to explain exactly. Their music is both inherently of the time it was released, yet inarguably timeless. Sorta like how U2’s stuff is completely coded within the cultural context of the ‘80s, and yet sounds nothing like the rest of decade’s music. Does that makes sense? Shit, I’m devolving into that weird, amorphous pretension I was worried about in the beginning. Time to wrap up. Just go listen to ‘93 ‘Til Infinity. You’ll see what I’m saying.
I suppose if you take anything away from this, it’s a song or two to add to your next playlist. There are some gems hidden in the discography of these bands, and even if you’re not into the genre any of these particular artists perform in, I think you’ll definitely get a basic appreciation for their musicianship. Or you might not. Who knows? In the immortal words of Staff Sgt. Dignam, “Maybe, maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.”