When Billy Corgan and his current incarnation of Smashing Pumpkins take the stage at UH's Cullen Performance Hall Wednesday night, they won’t be promoting a new album or playing new hits. Hell, the band hasn’t released an album of consequence in two decades.
Therein lies the point. The Pumpkins — and many of their '90s contemporaries — still enjoy a loyal following to this day, despite the fact that many of these artists haven’t put out quality music in more than 20 years. Whether it’s Pearl Jam touring, Soundgarden recording new music or Weezer still trying to recapture the magic of its 1994 debut, '90s rock is still prevalent today. Just tune to your local rock station for proof.
Let’s take a look back at ten bands that rose to mainstream prominence in the '90s, how they’re remembered, how they should be remembered, and the merits and drawbacks of burning out versus fading away. (Note: List is in alphabetical order.)
ALICE IN CHAINS
A ’90s band derailed by drug abuse (this will become a theme), Alice in Chains rode hits like “Would?” and “Down In a Hole” to multi-platinum status. To casual listeners, they’re simply the group that produced “Man in the Box,” which is kind of a shame — AIC might just be the best band of the grunge era. Drugs and depression both made and undid the band — they were major themes in its songwriting, whereas they also played a major role in the band's going on indefinite hiatus in 1996. Of all the grunge bands that disbanded before their time, AIC (the Layne Staley version) left the most on the table.
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The ultimate “what if” band, Blind Melon will always be the band that sang “No Rain” and had the video with the “bee girl.” Some speculate the group would have risen to greater heights had front man Shannon Hoon not overdosed during a tour stop in Houston in 1995. This is inaccurate. Blind Melon was a good band, but they were three years removed from “No Rain” when Hoon died on a tour bus. Their subsequent singles barely charted, and their most impactful years were already behind them.
You know the story: Indie trio rockets to superstardom on the strength of a generation-defining anthem, and follows that up with a bevy of hit singles. Iconic lead singer succumbs to addiction and commits suicide in April 1994; drummer later forms a little outfit called Foo Fighters. Make no mistake – Nirvana was at one point a supernova, but by the time Kurt Cobain killed himself, Nirvana’s grip on the public consciousness had already begun to fade. And all these years later, Cobain's mystique still outshines the music.
In some ways, the Bizarro Nirvana. Whereas both arrived on the scene in the early '90s and rode two classic albums to megastardom, Nirvana burned out. Pearl Jam, meanwhile, has maintained a steady presence over the past two decades, albeit one never approaching the heights of Ten and Vs. There’s something to be said for staying power, and Pearl Jam has that in spades; nine of the band’s ten studio releases have been certified gold in the U.S., and Pearl Jam still sells out arenas and headlines festivals to this day.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Among the more distinct mainstream bands of the early '90s, the Chili Peppers have grown stale in recent years, relying on tributes to California and whomever front man Anthony Kiedis is dating at the time to fill a record; the loss of guitarist John Frusciante certainly didn’t help matters. But, like Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers are an exercise in longevity. Bonus points for a late-'90s resurgence that came via Californication, the band’s most musically satisfying release.
Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is back in the fold, so the Pumpkins will rock half their original lineup at Cullen Hall (original members James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky have not rejoined the band). The band released a pop-rock masterpiece in 1995’s double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which produced hit singles like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” and “1979.” Billy Corgan’s antagonistic relationship with music critics and his own fanbase has soured some memories of just how good the Pumpkins once were. Zwan didn’t exactly help matters.
Of all the voices grunge produced, none was more powerful than that of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell. Despite that, the band always felt a notch below fellow Seattle heavyweights Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and recent efforts to produce new music haven’t really worked out. Soundgarden, while one of the bigger and better bands of the '90s, is one best left in that era.
STONE TEMPLE PILOTS
With the late Scott Weiland slithering and sneering on hits like “Sex Type Thing” and “Vasoline,” STP is a band that reached great heights but should have stayed there longer. Unfortunately, Weiland’s drug addiction — which claimed his life last December — robbed rock fans of one of the most talented, charismatic front men of his era.
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Poor Brad Nowell. Dude died of an overdose in May 1996, just as his band was poised to break out on the strength of singles “What I Got” and “Santeria.” Sublime is not a “what if” band in the vein of Blind Melon –no one knows what the group had ahead of it. Nowell had a knack for crafting radio-friendly singles about deep issues like class warfare and drug addiction, and one can imagine that had his own addiction not done him in, Nowell would have produced at least another album or two on par with Sublime’s self-titled breakthrough.
Do you get the sense that Weezer has been making bad music on purpose since the "Green Album” dropped in 2001? How else do you explain a band that produced classics like the "Blue Album” and the “Pinkerton” later releasing duds like “Raditude” and “Hurley?” After all, this is a band that once sang on the 2008 single “Pork and Beans” – “They say I need some Rogaine to put in my hair/Work it out at the gym to fit my underwear.” Go home, Weezer — you’ve had too much to drink.