One only needs to glance over Spin’s recent rundown of the 40 weirdest major label albums released in the wake of Nirvana’s epochal Nevermind to be reminded how thoroughly the grunge trio changed the game in the early 1990s. A select few acts had jimmied open the door separating underground rock from the mainstream to varying degrees throughout the previous decade, but Nirvana blew that sucker off its hinges. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in omnipresent radio rotation and Aqua Net suddenly on deep discount, the record industry naturally sought to capitalize (and survive) amid this unexpected turn of events and started searching for the next potential from-the-underground success story.
The search for the next Nirvana was in a sense a fool’s game, for zeitgeist-defining acts like that are by their nature in short supply. Furthermore, despite the industry’s marketing research apparatuses and relentless cool hunting, it could never with any reasonable certainly estimate what music millions of people would form meaningful connections with, otherwise those late-‘90s ska and swing revivals wouldn’t have flamed out so quickly. Hindsight is easy (the conditions that allowed Nirvana to become such a phenomenon were in retrospect just waiting for the right group to exploit them), while trying to plot the future of pop music can lead to squandered efforts and rude surprises (who would’ve thought at the height of alterna-mania that the most important rock band of the next decade would turn out to be the guys who wrote “Creep”?).
Twenty years since the height of the alternative rock gold rush, talk of finding the next Nirvana has taken on a less assured and urgent tenor. Few artists since have proven able to match Nirvana’s stature historically, commercially, and artistically, and as the years progress the cultural resonance of dividing time into pre- and post-Nevermind sections gradually loses its immediate relevance. Someday soon or someday later, there will be another band that has a similar impact, but we’ll only know it after the fact. In the meantime, we can look back over all the rapidly poached indie label rosters and the buzzed-about upstart genres, and try to figure out why some Nevermind-sized bets were placed where they were.
Heavier than Nirvana and brandishing riffs just as good, New York alt-metal act Helmet was at the epicenter of a record label bidding frenzy that resulted in a reputed million-dollar deal with Interscope. Musically, the band’s 1992 album Meantime, a punishing slab of post-hardcore aggression, was worth every penny. Yet for all its virtues, Helmet was never about catchy tunes, and leader Page Hamilton lacked the innate charisma of a Kurt Cobain or even an Evan Dando. Accordingly, Meantime remains a semi-forgotten gem still waiting for a critical rediscovery. Despite the failure to live up to the investment laid into it, Helmet’s detuned riffage and cathartic grooves did eventually seep into the popular conscious by the turn of the century, when the band turned out to be one of many pivotal antecedents for the nu metal genre.
Pavement was the Great White Indie Rock Hope of the 1990s, a perennial on-the-cusp-of-a-proper-breakthrough act that the underground’s tastemakers championed as the exact sort of outfit that deserved the heavy radio play and multi-million sales that Nirvana’s success had enabled. Slacker masterworks Slanted and Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and the rest have gracefully moved from “must listen new music” status to “rock nerd essentials” in the past two decades, but despite a plum spot on the 1995 Lollapalooza lineup and a fluke radio hit in the form of 1994’s “Cut Your Hair”, Stockton, California’s most treasured sons have never been embraced on a mass scale. In a bit of cosmic humor, the traits that make Pavement a difficult prospect for those weaned on radio-ready alterna-angst—the irreverent genre dabbling, the willfully fractured musicianship, Stephen Malkmus’ laconic sarcasm—are often what draws others to the band in the first place.
In an era when rock excess was supposed to be dead, ‘70s trash-culture aesthetes Urge Overkill got away with reveling in it courtesy of an expertly-deployed wink. Well, sort of. The band’s naked careerism ran afoul of the Chicago scenesters, with former BFF Steve Albini becoming their most vocal and withering critic. Despite big hopes and critical raves for major label debut Saturation, the goodwill afforded by rock radio to its lead single “Sister Havana” did not carry over to the LP, and most folks are only familiar with the creators of some of the best records of the decade due to a Neil Diamond cover that made it onto the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction.
Though both bands vied for stadium rock immortality, Urge Overkill possessed a hipster cache that its fellow Windy City inhabitants Smashing Pumpkins lacked. Urge Overkill could laugh off its Cheap Trick riffs and showy outfits if necessary, whereas the Pumpkins’ whole being was rooted in those twin banes of affected cool, raw sincerity and arty pretension. Not that the Pumpkins cared what their hand-wringing detractors thought—indeed, principle Pumpkin Billy Corgan wore his background as an uncool suburban misfit like a badge of honor. That non-judgmental “I’m one of you” stance is the real reason why the Pumpkins were able to ascend to a level so many hipster faves failed to—well, that and the arsenal of buzzed-out guitars that formed the basis of eternal alterna-anthems “Cherub Rock” and “Today”. The multi-Platinum sales of 1993’s Siamese Dream put the Pumpkins on par with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and for a brief shining moment when their follow-up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted at number one in late 1995, they were the biggest band in all of alternative rock.
The story of Beck Hansen’s rise to stardom sounds like a joke about how much Nirvana screwed up the music industry’s way of doing things: recorded a tossed-off white-boy rap over a blues riff onto an eight-track, released a couple hundred copies on an obscure label, got added into heavy rotation by alternative stations across America, and finally got signed to Nirvana’s label. Slacker anthem “Loser” was the true successor to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and a frankly bizarre song that could have only become a hit in those heady times. Rather than ride “Loser” to one-hit wonderdom, Beck took full creative advantage of his newfound big-bucks backing and, starting with 1996’s Odelay, positioned himself as one of alt-rock’s most acclaimed auteurs.
Come 1994, Britpop was well-positioned as a refreshing antidote to grunge. Whereas Pearl Jam et al. were grim, grimy, and sexless, Britpop radiated the optimism and cocksure arrogance befitting a generation of youth who expected the world to be its oyster. Britpop’s basic faltering point was for a movement intended to be so emblematic of contemporary youth, it was heavily indebted to the music the parents of the girls and boys of Cool Britannia grew up on 30 years prior. The UK understandably went gaga for the music, but the intrinsic Britishness of Blur, Pulp, and Suede made export difficult, leaving Oasis to become the only band out of its peer group to fulfill the genre’s promise on a global level.
Circa 1996 and 1997, the buzz emanating from journalists and industry types was that rock was dead and that electronic music was The Next Big Thing. Indeed, the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers made a noticeable dent onto the American pop charts, and not long after Moby rode his Play LP to millennial pop stardom. Yet the successes were more of a fluke, and after a couple of high-profile misses and some misguided electronic detours by established rock acts, record companies and consumers were quick to move on to teen pop and nu metal. Still, over 15 years later electronic dance music serves as the foundation for most modern pop hits, and far fewer people are cracking wise about going to shows showcasing middle-aged men playing beats from a laptop.
In the days when Korn and Limp Bizkit defined guitar-based music for legions of teenagers, a vocal minority called for the return of rock. Never mind that whatever its artistic shortcomings, nu metal at the very least managed to rock out adequately—what those dejected souls desired was a Platonic ideal of rock clothed in skinny jeans and dark shades. Suddenly, the Strokes’ Is This It? became the most talked-about record around, record stores suffered alarming shortages of the Nuggets compilation, and loads of bands developed a newfound inclination to include the definite article in their names. Always more hype than any sort of legitimate pop insurrection, the Strokes, the Hives, the Vines, and so on ultimately suffered from the same shortcoming that dogged the Britpopsters: they simply sounded too much like bands people had heard before. Despite the favorable notices, most of these group faded from view once post-punk came back into vogue, with only the White Stripes managing to cross over to proper rock stardom.