Three Albums You Probably Missed in the 1990s… But Need To Hear!

Sure… we all remember the Big 5 breakthrough bands of the early 1990s:  Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice and Chains, and Soundgarden.  Then there were all the other major 90s acts such as The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, and The Offspring.  And you can’t forget all the carryover acts from the 80s (or even the 70s) who either remained at the top or increased their stock in the 90s:  U2, REM, KISS, and Metallica come to mind.  But the 90s were also a time when it seemed a new band was breaking out every week –  the 90s equivalents of the 80s “One Hit Wonders.”  In the 90s, however, it seemed more like “One Album Wonders.”  Deep Blue Something, Tonic, and Candlebox would be good examples.

With a massive amount of new material being released, the advent of grunge, the resurgence of power pop, and the mainstream acceptance of what began as alternative, it’s no surprise that you might have missed some real gems that came out in 90s.  Here are three such albums you might have missed that certainly deserve your attention today… if you like remarkable albums, that is.  These albums were favorites of mine then and remain favorites today… but for one reason or another, never caught on when they were released.

Concrete Blonde - Mexican Moon1.  Concrete Blonde – Mexican Moon

Concrete Blonde was certainly not a “new” band by 1993 when they released Mexican Moon.  Johnette Napolitano and her band can trace their beginnings to 1982 and they signed to Miles Copeland’s infamous and legendary IRS Records in 1986.  It was in ’86 when they adopted a new band name, Concrete Blonde, as suggested by REM’s Michael Stipe.  They hit their peak in terms of commercial success in 1990 with the album Bloodletting.  The hit single from that album, “Joey,” is how most people remember Concrete Blonde.  But in my estimation, 1993’s Mexican Moon album was their career high point.

Mexican Moon continues their gothic musical style but adds a heavier edge to the songs on this album.  The song “Jonestown” is (obviously) about cult leader Jim Jones… and anytime you can include a minute of audio samplings from the likes of Jim Jones and make it work with the album, you’ve got my attention.  Johnette Napolitano’s always unique vocals are in top form throughout and the LP includes a Roxy Music track written by Bryan Ferry – so what’s not to love about this album?

The vibe of the album – dark, alternative, female, and heavy – should have sold well in the 90s. It had all the right elements.  Perhaps it was just a bit too polished for the early 90s grunge era?  Either way, it’s a phenomenal soundscape of beautiful and experimental songs that deserve a chance to be heard.

 

The Grays - Ro Sham Bo

2.  The Grays – Ro Sham Bo

Jason Falkner had recently left the power pop group Jellyfish when Jon Brion phoned him and asked him over to a jam session with two fellow musicians, Dan McCarroll and Buddy Judge.  This jam session served as the genesis of a band that would go on to release only one single album… but it just might be one of the greatest albums of all time.  And most everyone missed it.

Released in February of 1994, it sounded somehow nostalgic while still remarkably fresh.  Every song on the album drips of power pop perfection.  The chorus of the first song on the album, “Very Best Years,” serves as the album’s “hook” and the LP never lets you go over an exhilarating hour of excellence over 13 perfect tracks.  While the album can clearly be called “power pop,” there’s also something dark swimming just below the surface the entire time.  This is a trait shared by power pop pioneers Big Star with their first two albums before the let the darkness take center stage on Big Star’s Third.

This album is so incredibly good… so perfect… that I’m actually glad the group disbanded after its release, never to write and record together again.  I recently heard an older gentleman tell me a funny story.  When he was young, he was surfing at Cocoa Beach, FL when the national media was in town doing a cover story on surfing.  Many pro surfers were present along with many who wanted to become great surfers.  Being a novice surfer and having a great sense of humor, he walked in front of the media’s cameras, grabbed a young kid’s surf board, and said, “Watch this, kid.”  He swam out and looked up… to find the perfect wave heading his way.  In a stoke of luck that is usually reserved only for the movies, he rode a perfect ride all the way to shore in front of the cameras.  He tossed the surf board back to the kid, looked at the camera, and said, “Now THAT’S how it’s done.”  Knowing he could never repeat such a perfect ride again, he walked away with everyone eyeing him and wondering who this surf king was.  Everyone was amazed.  He went out on top.  That’s exactly how good this album is.  It’s so good that it could never have been repeated.

The sad part, though, is that no one bought the album and it later went out of print… like the surfer who walked away.

 

Material Issue - Freak City Soundtrack

3. Material Issue – Freak City Soundtrack

Stop reading this and go watch the documentary, Out of Time: The Material Issue Story, right now.

OK, I really hope you did. It’s a fantastic and tragic account of one of the most fun rock acts of the 1990s.

Material Issue was one of my favorite bands in the 90s.  You’ll certainly recall their hit song (“Kim the Waitress”) from this album that was in regular rotation on local modern rock radio stations in those days.  But the rest of the album could easily have been hits, as well.  The third studio album from the Chicago based power trio, Freak City Soundtrack was one of the standout albums from 1994… and was supposed to be the album that broke the band to international superstardom.  Produced by Mark Chapman (Blondie, The Knack), this album has everything going for it:  amazingly catchy songs, rock n roll attitude courtesy of frontman Jim Ellison, and a guest appearance by legendary Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen.  I’ll never understand why this album didn’t skyrocket to #1… instead, it was the last album released by the band before Jim Ellison’s death in 1996.

I’ve loved this band since the first time I heard them – and it’s so hard for me to pick a “favorite” album by them.  But it does seem that this is the album I pop in most often when I want to experience the magic of Material Issue.  Much has been written about how this album, more than their others, captures the “live sound” of the band; I tend to agree with that assessment and I credit Mark Chapman’s work in that respect.  But ultimately, I keep coming back to one other factor that sets this album apart:  It’s Jim Ellison’s songwriting, his lyrics, and the band’s energetic performance.

 

 

There are dozens of other albums from the 90s that equally deserved to make this list.  But I chose three, either for your short attention span or my own, I’m not sure which.  Perhaps I’ll write a follow up post in the future and offer further selections.  But to the listener, start with these.

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