The 10 Best Alternative Metal Singles of the 1990s

Antichrist superstars, astro-creeps, and broken machines all assemble for this look back at the ten best singles from alternative metal's golden era.

Despite what the nomenclature would have you believe, alternative metal isn’t simply a mash-up of alt-rock and headbanging heaviosity. In fact, alternative influences are not an essential component to classifying alt-metal bands. Alternative metal began to emerge in the 1980s as disparate left-of-center heavy metal groups dabbled in styles outside of hard rock orthodoxy, including funk, hip-hop, industrial, and, yes, alternative rock. The genre began to codify in the early 1990s into a modernist strain of metal that emphasized aggression and texture over melody and traditional hard rock lead guitar, a fortuitous development that allowed it to gain commercial ground at the same time thrash and grunge were redefining the boundaries of what sort of heavy music could garner mass appeal. Though its descendant genre, nu metal, would largely forgo its adventurousness and idiosyncrasies for rigid formula, alternative metal is still a vital force well into the 21st century, as its influence is so pervasive that its sonic hallmarks practically shape the sound of contemporary hard rock radio.

In recognition of its unappreciated longevity, Sound Affects is here to count down the ten best alternative metal singles from the form's golden era back in the 1990s. Before we begin, we’ve set some guidelines for the final list. Firstly, although there is considerable overlap between the two subgenres, artists typically classified as nu metal -- Korn, Limp Bizkit, Deftones, etc. -- don’t make the cut. Additionally, any alt-metal group that veered too closely to straight-up alternative was excluded (sorry, Jane’s Addiction, though we will give you honorable mention for freewheeling riff-stravaganza ”Stop!”). Finally, each artist is restricted to one song each, or else the countdown will be dominated by a handful of exemplary bands real quick. So lace up your combat boots and detune your guitars for a trip through the top tunes by those groups who could headline both Lollapalooza and Ozzfest during the reign of Generation X without punters batting an eye.


10. Type O Negative – "Black No. 1" (1993)

The dearly-departed Peter Steele always had his tongue planted firmly in-cheek, reveling in the inherent ludicrousness of his pitch-black compositions. The verses of the goth-chick tribute "Black No. 1 (Little Miss Scare-All)" amp up the moodiness to near-comical proportions ("She's got a date at midnight / With Nosferatu") that nevertheless manage to dig deep beneath your skin due to Steele's baritone intonation, while the choruses give listeners a well-deserved headbanging outlet after all that gloom. Even a harpsichord interlude and finger-snapping can't undercut the song's obsidian pall.


9. Marilyn Manson – "The Beautiful People" (1996)

Marilyn Manson’s image has always overshadowed his music, as his shock-rock scare tactics tend to lodge in the memory better than his hooks. Whether you think he’s the devil incarnate or a third-rate Alice Cooper wannabe, there’s no denying that he’s turned out at the bare minimum one evergreen metal standard in the form of “The Beautiful People” from his creative high-water mark, Antichrist Superstar. Driven by over-distorted guitars that swing instead of pummel and a growling arena-ready chorus, it wouldn’t be surprising if “The Beautiful People” was specifically designed to rile folks up into a frenzy.


8. Ministry – "Jesus Built My Hotrod" (1991)

Ministry prides itself on being an insanely loud and menacing purveyor of face-scorching industrial (on a related topic, it would also rather people overlook its early ‘80s synthpop phase). Having forcibly welded the industrial and metal worlds together ever since The Land of Rape and Honey (1988), the group peaked creatively with “Jesus Built My Hotrod”, a gonzo freak-out that feels as if it’s about to go off the rails at any moment. In the midst of Ministry’s relentless odd-meter speed riffing, special guest vocalist Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers steals the show by ranting along in the most over-the-top redneck voice he can muster. The end result is as ridiculous as you might imagine—and it’s all the more awesome for it.


7. Helmet – "Unsung" (1992)

In its heyday the jazz-influenced, noise rock-indebted New York City ensemble Helmet effortlessly merged the brainy and the brawny, an attribute which the horde of nu metallers who took cues from its records unfortunately overlooked. Although the band's lack of charisma and Page Hamilton's flat vocals kept the group from living up to the "next Nirvana" promise observers held for it leading up to its major label debut Meantime, on an instrumental level the band can’t be faulted, as the masterful “Unsung” attests. It's built around downtuned guitars that link together with the rhythm section in assembly line-like precision to form a rock-solid hip-hop-tinged groove where each snare hit is so impeccably placed in between the rests that they pop right out of the speakers. By the end, the song shifts gears into a driving swirl of distortion that would do pioneering alt-rock trio Hüsker Dü proud.


6. Tool – "Stinkfist" (1996)

Tool fans can be quite outspoken about the perceived genius of their favorite band. When a song is a good as "Stinkfist", though, ground can easily be conceded on that point. Tool's prog-rock leanings and arty pretensions can't obscure the fact that guitarist Adam Jones is an excellent metal riff-writer, and Maynard James Keenan's distinctive voice wafts throughout the recording with unimitatible ease.

Next Page





'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.


Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.