The 90s represented an interesting time for music. New genres of music emerged from relative obscurity into the mainstream. Established genres from the past became less popular and began to take a back seat within the industry.
Some of the best 90s Rock bands came from this emerging new music. Consequently, a lot of the bands on my list come from the world of Grunge, Britpop, and Indie music. I hope you like my choices, but I apologize in advance if your favorites aren’t included.
So, if you’ve been around the sun a few times, come with me on a trip down memory lane as I take a look at the greatest 90s Rock bands.
Top 13 Best 90s Rock Bands
Although Nirvana we’re the first “mainstream” Grunge band, the true honor goes to Green River. Nirvana were one of the first to be recognized and the first to receive widespread commercial success. But I digress.
Any list of the best 90s Rock Bands has to contain Nirvana, and such was their prominence; it’s only right that they get the first slot.
Nirvana was formed in 1987 in Aberdeen, Washington State, and not Seattle as is often assumed. However, it’s fair to say that it’s Seattle where they initially came to prominence in the early 90s. It’s also where they recruited one of the greatest Rock drummers of all time, David Grohl.
That name sounds familiar…
Nevermind went to #1 in the US and has sold over 30 million copies. It featured their best-selling single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which sold a cool million copies and reached #6 on the US charts. The album also included the excellent “Lithium,” which reached a surprisingly lowly #68 in the US charts.
To those few of you not familiar with Nirvana, and I can’t imagine there will be many, you’ll probably be familiar with the album cover. This featured a baby swimming underwater, in a swimming pool, looking at/following a dollar bill.
Interestingly, the baby in the photo is now suing Nirvana for failing to protect his identity.
The arrival of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not only cemented Nirvana as a superband but also cemented the arrival of Grunge as a mainstay musical genre. Sadly, their only other studio album was In Utero, which was released in 1993. This also went to #1 in the US and sold over 15 million copies worldwide.
In the 90s, at the peak of Grunge and with Nirvana still riding high, Kurt Cobain sadly took his own life. That spelled the end of the band, but it didn’t spell the end to hard, heavy-driven music filled with dark lyrics and dirty guitar riffs. That would continue in one form or another to the present day.
Pearl Jam is another of the four major 90s Grunge bands to come out of Seattle. The band formed in 1990 and consisted of Stone Gossard on guitar, Mike McCready on lead guitar, Jeff Ament on Bass guitar, and Eddie Vedder as the frontman and guitar.
Amazingly, these four core members, together with drummer Matt Cameron who joined them in 1999, make up the current band lineup. Unlike many Grunge bands, the vocals of Eddie Vedder are a real standout.
Grunge bands are not renowned for the brilliance of their vocalists, but in this respect, Pearl Jam shines. Eddie’s vocals are quite phenomenal, and this sets Pearl Jam apart. It also explains their huge success in a career that’s produced eleven studio albums resulting in over 60 million record sales.
For all their commercial success…
They’ve achieved the most sales and critical acclaim with their debut album, Ten. Although not reaching #1 in the US, it sold a staggering 16 million copies and counting.
Ten dealt with familiar Grunge-style themes of loneliness, depression, suicide, homelessness, and drug addiction. Four singles were released off the album, charting as high as No.3 and No.4 though they never charted particularly well outside of the US.
As well as producing some amazing studio albums, they are known for superb live sets and performances. In 2006, they were rightly rewarded for these efforts with the Esquire Best Live Act of 2006 award. A truly great band.
Let’s step away from Grunge for now and take a look at something altogether much more cheerful. But, still one of the best 90s Rock bands we have ever seen.
Foo Fighters were formed in Seattle in 1994. At this time, it was a one-man band and more of a project than anything else. The only group member was Dave Grohl, who at the time was still better known for his efforts as Nirvana’s drummer.
After a couple of years, Grohl released the first self-titled Foo Fighters album, still as the only band member. He sang and played all the instruments which clearly shows the depth of his musical prowess and explains why he is regarded as such a brilliant drummer and musician.
The album went platinum and sold one and a half million copies. Grohl, possibly taken by surprise, then began recruiting other band members. At this point, thankfully, he also decided to step out from behind the drums and take on the role of the lead singer.
Not a bad idea…
Grohl had previously been immersed in one of the most successful 90s Grunge Rock bands of all time. However, his previous musical experience didn’t unduly influence the musical direction of Foo Fighters. Instead, they took more of a Heavy Rock, Rock, Rock/Pop approach to their music.
One of the enduring features of the band is their fun attitude to music. When they play live, they look like they’re enjoying themselves and having a good time. Additionally, their videos are also lots of fun and never fail to raise a smile or even a laugh.
So not Grunge, eh?
In my opinion, the best example is from their 1999 video and single “Learn to Fly,” taken off the album, There is Nothing Else to Lose. Another great video was from the 2011 single “Walk” from Wasting Light.
Something to leave you with is that Grohl is widely considered to be one of the nicest people in the music industry. In an entertainment industry plagued with narcissists, that’s something to be proud of. I’m sure his Mum would agree.
One of the most popular 90s Rock bands in the UK. It’s fair to say they very much led the way in the creation of Britpop. Next to the Spice Girls, who were all Pop without the Rock, they were the second most successful Britpop band selling a cool 70 million records.
Oasis came from Manchester in the north of England. And, like many of the bands from the area, their music contains a kind of swagger. You just need to look at any Oasis Live Video performances to see exactly what I mean.
Plenty of attitude for sure…
Oasis was formed in 1991 and is best known for the two brothers, Liam and Noel Gallagher. Liam was the lead vocalist, and Noel was the lead guitarist and backup vocalist.
The brothers were also notorious for their well-publicized fights and spats. This friction is what eventually led to the band’s split in 2009.
But, before that happened…
Their debut album, Definitely Maybe, was released in 1994. It went multi-platinum in several countries and has currently sold over nine million copies. “Supersonic” was the best single released from the album and was an indication of what was to follow.
The second album, and undoubtedly their best, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? was released in 1995. Like their debut album, it went to #1 in the UK but also achieved the same status in several European countries. It made #2 in the US and has sold over 22 million copies.
(What’s The Story) Morning Glory? was, in my opinion, their best album. It also contained most of their best singles. These included the highly successful “Wonderwall,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and “Champagne Supernova.”
Despite these hugely popular singles…
I believe the B-side of “Wonderwall” was easily the best. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen to “The Masterplan.” This was Oasis and BritPop combined with Alternative Rock and Indie at its very best.
Frankly, Definitely Maybe and (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? were pretty much their best work. They still went on to make some great music, but it would never be good enough to convince me to buy another of their CDs. Yes, I was buying CDs back in those days.
I love Pulp, and they are my favorite Britpop band of the 90s. Although they were formed in Sheffield way back in the late 70s, they are best known for the music they released in the 90s. This was not only the best time for their music but the band line-up too.
Before the early 90s, they were a relatively obscure band. Things changed with the release of His N’ Hers in 1994, which was their fourth and what proved to be their breakthrough album. It didn’t sell many records, but it did make the music industry sit up and listen. That subsequently paved the way for future success.
This success was duly delivered…
…following the release of Different Class. Like the title, the album’s contents were just that when compared to their previous music. The album went to #1 in the UK and sold two and a half million copies in Europe alone.
It’s one of the few albums I’ve ever bought that hasn’t contained at least one bad track. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Although the public voted with their wallets by buying “Common People” in their droves, although, I think “Something Changed” is better.
Whatever your opinion, there’s no doubt about the brilliance of the writing. The songs are a poignant portrayal of UK society at the time. They wrote perfectly about the social scene, the emergence of Dance music, and widespread drug use.
However, that wasn’t all…
What separates Pulp from many other bands’ social accounts of the era is the more lighthearted and humorous approach to the music and lyrics. It doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the topics they covered. But, they showed their ability to laugh at the situation rather than wallow in it.
They went on to release two more albums, This is Hardcore in 1998, and We Love Life in 2001. Though successful, they never achieved the same success as Different Class. They eventually hung up their guitars and cymbals in 2013.
One last thing to leave you with…
I was lucky enough to see them at the peak of their popularity. And, I can tell you from personal experience that Pulp Live is something well worth your time.
Tool has one of the greatest line-ups of musicians ever assembled in one band. They have a cult following from their fans. What’s more, the music press and fellow musicians worship them. No doubt part of the reason for their four well-deserved Grammy awards.
So, what are they all about?
Essentially, they are a Progressive Rock, Post, or Alternative Metal band. Much of their music is characterized by Heavy Metal riffs and thumping bass lines.
However, it never gets so heavy as to be confused with Metal. This is also down to the fact that it has a rich feel with tons of complexity and finesse. If you want one of the most distinct sounding 90s Rock bands, Tool will get your attention.
They were formed in Los Angeles…
…like so many bands in 1990. And the original band members were Adam Jones on guitar, Paul D’Amour on bass, Danny Carey on drums, and Maynard James Keenan as the lead vocalist. Other than changing the bassist for Justin Chancellor in 1995, the band has remained unchanged to this day.
Their debut album, Undertow, was released in 1993. It charted #50 in the US and went on to sell over three million copies in the US alone. Their best-selling album, Aenima, was released in 1996 and currently has enjoyed over four million sales.
Tool has a predominantly US fan base, which I find incredibly strange, given their immense talent. Despite this, they’ve currently sold 14 million albums worldwide, with twelve and a half million of them being sold in the US.
Tool doesn’t release many studio albums. To date, they’ve only released five. The last of these, Fear Inoculum, was released in 2019 which was a cool thirteen years after their previous album, 10,0000 days.
Amazingly though, they still make a living. This could be down to the high prices they charge for tickets when they tour. So, if you do go to see them expect to dig deep. But, if you do, I’ve been reliably informed that the extra you pay is well worth it. Their merch is on the expensive side too.
They were originally formed in 1987 but under the name Sweet Children. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that they changed their name to Green Day. Coming from the San Francisco area, the new band name is thought to be a nod to the local slang that refers to a relaxing, chilled day whilst smoking weed.
What I’ve always been impressed with is their raw energy and power. It’s probably what you’d expect from a Pop Punk band. What you probably don’t expect is that this wall of noise came, for most of their career, from just three guys.
In the early days…
The band consisted of Billie Joe Armstrong on lead vocals and guitar, Mike Dirnt on bass, together with Tre Cool on drums. Although they’ve undergone a few changes and added personnel when on tour, the line-up remains the same.
Green Day was far from being an overnight success. It was almost seven years until they eventually hit the mainstream with their third album, Dookie.
Their breakthrough was in no small measure helped by MTV endlessly plugging their music at the time. Dookie went on to sell a phenomenal 20 million copies.
They have continued to release albums…
And to date, have thirteen studio albums to their name. None achieved the same level of sales as Dookie. But, in 2004, they released An American Idiot, which sold over thirteen million albums worldwide and became their second best-selling single.
Although the band’s founding trio has been involved in a series of side projects over the years, they continue to make music together. What’s more, they also continue to tour and as one of the best live acts out there.
That’s something I’m personally very pleased about. I’ve not seen them yet, but hopefully, one day soon.
The Black Crowes
The founding force of the band comes from brothers Chris and Rich Robinson. This is a story of international success from humble beginnings as a high school band. Happily, despite a few periods of inactivity and plenty of fighting between the brothers, they’re still together and making music.
During their 30-plus years playing together, there have been several personnel changes. However, now Sven Pipien seems to be cemented as the bass player. A great addition to the band.
Lighting a candle…
These were their most successful albums, and both achieved platinum status. In the US, they reached #4 and #1, respectively. Despite releasing a further five albums, sadly, none achieved the same level of commercial success.
What do I like about The Black Crowes?
The uncomplicated way they construct and deliver their songs. It feels like the music and the message of the song have time to breathe. I love this style of Rock and Blues, and if you haven’t heard any of their music, you should check them out.
They are probably best known for the two singles, “Hard to Handle” and “She Talks to Angels.” However, I’ll always remember them for “Your Touch,” taken from The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.
It holds special significance since it was the first song that I ever performed with my first band.
Soundgarden was formed in Seattle in the 80s but will be most strongly associated with Grunge music coming out of the region in the 90s.
The band underwent several personnel changes. But, they will probably be most remembered for their association with Chris Cornell, one of the original members, along with guitarist Kim Thayil and their bassist Hiro Yamamoto.
They released two albums in the 80s…
Both received relatively little interest. Then, in 1991, Badmotorfinger produced significantly more sales and critical acclaim. However, it wasn’t until the release of their 1984 album, Superunknown, that they hit mainstream superstar status.
The album went to #1 in the US and sold four million copies. Additionally, it sold a further five million copies around the rest of the world. The following album, Down on the Upside, released in 1996, would be their last with Chris Cornell as the lead vocalist.
So, what happened?
There was a fallout between Thayil and Cornell. The band, until this time, was known for their Grunge style, characterized by heavy riffs. This kind of playing was evident in their most successful single, “Black Hole Sun,” which was taken off the album, Superunknown in 1994.
Cornell wanted to move away from Grunge, and this is what he did. He followed his musical interests and forged a solo career before moving on to form the incredibly successful band Audioslave in 2001.
Despite the breakup…
In 1998, they eventually reunited in 2010 and released their sixth and final album, King Animal, in 2012. Five years later, Chris Cornell tragically took his own life.
Soundgarden is no more, and one of the greatest 90s Rock musicians has been lost to his fans, friends, and family.
Radiohead was one of the most influential Rock bands of the 90s. They were formed in Oxfordshire, England, in 1985. However, it wasn’t until 1993 that they released their first album, Pablo Honey. But, boy, oh boy, it was certainly worth the wait.
It achieved platinum status in the UK and US and has sold two million copies. Not bad for a debut album, eh?
The band has remained unchanged from 1985. The lineup is Thom Yorke, Colin and Jonny Greenwood, Philip Selway, and Ed O’Brien. The band is allegedly still together, but therein is an interesting story.
Rather quiet as of late…
Radiohead hasn’t produced any music or toured in the last few years. That in itself isn’t unusual. Take a look at the history of bands like Pink Floyd and Tool for a lesson on inactivity.
But, what is fascinating is that their lead guitarist, Thom Yorke, together with their band member Jonny Greenwood have joined forces to form a new band, Smile.
It could be that Smile is just a side project, or then again, it might not be. And although Radiohead has never officially broken up, it’s now looking increasingly likely that they have. It could well be that they never bothered or got around to telling anyone.
So, what did they leave behind?
Other than Pablo Honey, just some of the most progressive Jazz, electronically fused Rock, that’s what.
They also left behind nine incredible studio albums, including their most popular and critically acclaimed album, OK Computer. This multi-platinum album, both in the US and the UK, contained some of their best work.
With total sales of over four and a half million, it is also their best-selling. So, I hope that Radiohead, despite the rumors, is not done quite yet.
We’re heading back across the Atlantic now to take a look at this UK band. They were formed in Wigan, in the north of England, led by the charismatic Richard Ashcroft. Like Pulp and Oasis, Verve has a lot of its roots in Britpop. However, unlike either of these two bands, Verve produced music with a much more Pop-based bias.
Many of their best-selling singles sounded more like Rock ballads and felt a long way from what most Britpop bands were making at the time. The best examples of their sound can be found in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “Sonnet.”
A sound that sold…
Their best-selling album, Urban Hymns, was released in 1997. It was their third studio album and went on to become one of the most successful UK albums of all time. Selling over four and a half million copies, this was the album, despite the reasonable success of the previous two, that propelled them to superstar status.
Four singles were released from the album, and all became smash hits. Along with “Bitter Sweet Symphony” and “Sonnet,” the former being their biggest ever hit, “The Drugs Don’t Work” and “Lucky Man” was amongst them.
The songs felt very much of the time…
Perhaps, “The Drugs Don’t Work” is the most fitting for a period when the UK was gripped in a drug-taking frenzy during the height of the House music club scene. It’s worth noting that this song had a very personal connection to Richard Ashcroft and the rest of the band. Sadly, during the height of their fame, they became increasingly drawn into the drug culture of the time.
It was this, together with the issue of multiple legal battles, that led to their break up in 1999, just nine years after they formed. They did reform in 2007 for a couple of years. But now, unfortunately, the music has stopped.
Britpop undoubtedly produced some of the best 90s Rock bands. We’ve looked at three of the biggest, but the list wouldn’t be complete without also taking a look at Blur. For many, they were the biggest of all. I strongly disagree and still regard Oasis as the rightful owners of that title.
There’s no doubt that Blur was successful and an integral part of UK Rock music in the 90s. They were frequently involved in the dialogue and recording of British culture throughout the decade. They were also a sound that the UK could better identify with.
That was all great…
But, unlike Oasis, they were much less successful in firing the imagination of people from beyond the shores of the UK. Sales were mostly confined to the domestic market despite both Parklife and Blur selling over half a million and two million copies, respectively.
I love both of these records. They easily have as much musical merit as anything released by Oasis. However, Oasis became very much a global phenomenon selling north of 70 million records in their career. Blur, in contrast, sold around a tenth of this which I think is completely crazy.
A good run all done?
Blur was formed in 1988, and up until 2015, despite a couple of long periods of inactivity, continued to make music and tour. However, since this time, other than a brief reunion in 2019 for a one-off event, they have not been active.
I think that’s a shame since the last three albums after 2010 showed an interesting shift of musical style towards Alternative Rock and Indie. Like Verve, I hope we haven’t seen the last of them yet.
Dave Matthews Band
The 90s weren’t all about Grunge, Alternative Rock, Indie, and Britpop. There were plenty of other successful and not-so-heavy groups doing their thing. The Dave Matthews Band was one of them and shined the torch for Soft Rock, Folk, Funk, and Jazz Fusion.
The band was formed in 1991 and originated in Charlottesville. After more than thirty years, they are still together.
Three of the original band members still make up the current line-up. These include bassist Stefan Lessard, drummer Carter Beauford and, not surprisingly, Dave Matthews, who is the singer-songwriter and the main driving force of the band.
Developing a sound…
The band, by their admission, was far from polished when they began to perform. However, in the space of just three years, they’d developed their sound and polished their act sufficiently to attract the attention of a major record company.
In 1994, they released their debut album, Under the Table and Dreaming, which sold six million copies. Their follow-up album, released in 1997, Crash, sold seven million and clearly showed their first record was far from a fluke. Consequently, they quickly established themselves as major artists.
The band also, through reputation, became known as a great live act. This is backed up by the fact that they have released just nine studio albums but a staggering 85 live albums. This, undoubtedly, makes them one of the best 90s Rock bands to see live.
So, what makes the shows so great?
People like to see them because they frequently put a new twist on their songs and re-interpret them for a show. This is for both their original work and for covers. Although I’ve never seen them live, I have seen one of their live performances, “The Central Park Concert,” and loved it.
I was particularly blown away by “Cortez the Killer” at their New York Central Park concert in 2003. It features a guest appearance by Warren Haynes from Government Mule fame.
The interpretation of this Neil Young song is nothing short of magic. Even better, Warren Haynes pulls off one of the greatest guitar solos of all time. I’m so pleased the band is still together since they are another group and on my ‘must see’ wish list.
Looking for More Great Music?
If so, take a look at our detailed articles on the Best 90s Love Songs, the Best 90s Hip Hop Songs, the Best 70s Rock Songs, the Best Songs of The 2000s, the Best Funk Songs of All Time, and the Best Reggae Songs Ever for more amazing song selections.
Also, you’ll need to hear those tunes. So, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, and the Best Headphones Under $200 you can buy in 2023.
Best 90s Rock Bands – Final Thoughts
So, there you have it. It was great to delve back a few years and take a closer look at some of the best Rock bands from the 1990s. The decade was an influential period in music, and much of what came out of the 90s still influences musicians today.
I hope you enjoyed the trip down memory lane, and apologies again for any glaring omissions.
Until next time, happy listening.