Back in the 1990s, the term indie meant something very different from what it means now. For one thing, the term was still closely associated with the idea of being signed to an independent record label.
But even back then it was starting to be used a term to define a specific musical sound, one that didn’t care all that much for the mainstream conventions of the day.
The best indie bands of the 90s were groups that stuck to their guns, even in the face of low-selling albums and concerts.
In fact, several of the bands that made our list didn’t even have any serious amount of success during the 90s, but only found mass-market appeal a decade or so later, when indie music started to really come into vogue.
With that said, let’s check out the list.
Oh, and if you’re looking for some slightly more sophisticated tunes, then check out this guide to getting started with classical music.
Just to be clear, Sonic Youth didn’t get their start in the 90s. The band technically formed back in the 80s. But it wasn’t until the release of their 1992 album Dirty that these noise rockers hit their stride.
While some fans prefer the band’s earlier, rougher work, Dirty was a fantastic cross-section of what Sonic Youth did best.
Different band members got to shine on separate tracks, each with very different feels and musical arrangements.
A few of the songs are relatively radio-friendly, while others were more or less destined to become deep cuts sought out only by die-hard fans.
I think it’s a testament to the genius of Pavement that their music still sounds fresh, even today.
The band’s output, much of it the work of frontman Stephen Malkmus, was way ahead of its time.
Just go back and listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA’s Desert Origins. Chances are if you play this record for someone who’s unfamiliar with Pavement, they’ll probably think it’s some brand new indie act out of Austin.
Then you can go ahead and fill them in on how this is actually a 90s band, one of the best. Tell them it’s a band that shied away from the spotlight for a good long while, instead opting to just record incredible music in relative privacy.
Even after finding a bit of mainstream success, Pavement opted to remain an indie band in the literal sense, meaning they signed only with independent labels.
The Pixies are another seminal indie band that got their start in the 1980s but caught the country’s attention in the 1990s.
In fact, the band really only stayed together for a few years, initially, breaking up in 1993 to the disappointment of their weirdo fanbase.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that the band pulled themselves back together for a few reunion tours.
But their late-80s albums Surfer Rosa, Come on Pilgrim, and Doolittle got so much play in the 90s.
And maybe it was even the band’s brief lifespan that fueled their underground credibility.
Their high point was arguably in 1999, when Fight Club closed out with the Pixies track, Where is My Mind?
This simple inclusion in a fantastic David Fincher movie spurred a revival of interest in the band, and was possibly an indirect cause for the band’s eventual reunion.
Neutral Milk Hotel
Alright, so Neutral Milk Hotel is arguably the most indie band on our list of 90s indie bands. And as we alluded to earlier in the article, the group did not find significant success during the 1990s.
Their 1998 album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was a sleeper hit in the truest sense of the term.
It was the kids of the 2000s and the 2010s who made it a classic indie album, and for good reason.
And it was this late success that inspired the band’s own reunion tour a few years back.
Their music is able to find its own highly unique space, one that makes use of elements of classic rock as well as the warbly vocal style of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus.
Portlandia’s own Carrie Brownstein was a founding member of this all-girl punk outfit who released their first album way back in 1994.
They played a major part in the riot grrrl movement of the 90s and early 2000s.
Their early work is raw and unfocused but always fun and surprisingly danceable. Meanwhile, their later albums make use of more sophisticated recording techniques that helped focus their sound while never dampening their energy.
Their self-titled album, Dig Me Out, and Call the Doctor are all fantastic albums that hold up well even to this day.
The group also had a profound influence on the direction of indie music over the course of the next decade and a half, inspiring numerous young acts to follow their own distinct musical voices.
Belle and Sebastian
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Belle and Sebastian wasn’t releasing music. Their quiet tones silky smooth instrumentation served as a lovely soundtrack for many of us back in the 90s and onward.
Most surprising of all, the band is actually Scottish, despite dodging typical accents in all their singing.
Notably, the band was also featured in the John Cusack film High Fidelity, based on the novel of the same name by British author Nick Hornby.
From then on, the band was associated very closely with the burgeoning indie sector of the music industry.
Death Cab for Cutie
Death Cab for Cutie just barely makes the cut for our list of the best indie bands of the 90s.
The group formed in 1997 in Bellingham, Washington, performing early shows in the nearby metropolis, Seattle.
Frontman Ben Gibbard apparently formed the band as a solo project originally, but quickly found that his bandmates had plenty to contribute.
Their debut, Something About Airplanes, released in 1998, showed some of what the band was really capable of, including some highly insightful songs that weren’t afraid to delve into the depths of human relationships.
And of course, after the turn of the century, Death Cab continued to expand their repertoire, which included even more complex tracks that changed melodies and rhythms frequently.