10 obscure but brilliant 90s bands that deserved better

Screaming Trees
(Image credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

When Nirvana hit the big time with Nevermind in late 1991, they kicked off a feeding frenzy that saw major record deals thrust in front of every oddball, backwoods yokel and scruffy coffee shop intellectual A&R reps could find playing dive bars and ‘toilet’ venues. 

From bands who had a formative influence on Nirvana themselves (Melvins, Butthole Surfers) to those who took up the alt-rock charge in their wake (Bush, Candlebox, Stone Temple Pilots), everybody was suddenly a potential star in the making, a commercial goldmine just waiting to be tapped. 

That also meant the 90s were a time where seemingly any band could break big and climb the charts, whether it was the quasi-prog-funk noodling of Primus or the baffling success of comedy metal thumpers Green Jellÿ (who achieved a UK Top 10 single with Three Little Pigs). 

But even in a decade littered with oddities and surprise sensations, some bands remained frustratingly obscure. Whether by their own design or simply cursed with a lack of good fortune, these 10 obscure but brilliant bands had all the requirements needed for stardom but never quite crossed the finish line. 

Metal Hammer line break

1. Screaming Trees

Screaming Trees were already on their fifth album when grunge broke big in 1991, their moody, reflective sound a pitch-perfect predecessor for the likes of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains. Despite striking while the iron was hot with 1992's Sweet Oblivion (and featuring on the platinum-selling soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's grunge-era movie Singles), Screaming Trees found that mainstream success almost completely eluded them. Single Nearly Lost You stalled at No. 50 in the UK singles charts, failing to make the Top 100 in the US entirely (though it did reach No. 5 on the US Alternative Airplay and No. 12 on Mainstream Rock charts), proving to be as close to the big time as the band would ever come. 

Despite being grunge forerunners and having endorsements from both Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain (the former having helped produce the band's major-label debut Uncle Anesthesia, while the latter selected the band for inclusion on the 1993 Reading Festival bill), Screaming Trees remained a cult act for the duration of their existence. Despite climbing to No. 32 on the UK albums charts in 1996 with the superb Dust, the band were met with utter indifference when trying to court label interest in releasing a follow-up, ultimately disbanding in 2000. Considering the success singer Mark Lanegan went on to achieve as a solo artist (and just how ubiquitous the band's moody, radio-friendly sound would become), it beggars belief that Screaming Trees weren't more beloved in their day.

2. Alice Donut

New York's Alice Donut were exactly the kind of band the tag 'alt rock' was created for. Not entirely punk (though they certainly had their moments) and pretty far from straight-up rock, the band exhibited almost Frank Zappa levels of eccentricity (including releasing a trombone-led instrumental cover of Black Sabbath's War Pigs, a trick they later repeated in 2009 with Pixies' Where Is My Mind?) that in a just world would have enabled them to succeed in the alt-rock gold rush of the early 90s.

Frequent fliers at CBGB's and signed to Alternative Tentacles (the label owned by ex-Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra) throughout their initial run, Alice Donut were described by Biafra as being "the missing link between R.E.M. and the Butthole Surfers".

The band's genre-blurring sound meant they didn't fully fit in with New York's hardcore or noise rock scenes, closer resembling ’80s alternative underground acts like Husker Du and Minutemen, albeit a few years too late to fall in with either group. Nonetheless, their gloriously oddball sound helped them establish a devout cult following, with fans drawn in by their warped sense of humour and canny ear for wrapping brilliant radio hooks in squalling walls of sound that seemed to draw as much on twisted psychedelia as it did ’80s punk rock. 

Alice Donut ultimately decided to call it quits in 1996 after playing their 1000th show, in spite of the fact they had earned more acclaim than ever with the previous year's Pure Acid Park. The band ultimately reformed in 2001 and have operated intermittently ever since, their last album being 2009's Ten Glorious Animals (though they did put out the documentary Freaks In Love in 2011 - which you can currently watch on Amazon Prime). 

3. Bikini Kill

The 90s riot grrrl movement may have been iconic, but it seldom enjoyed the commercial success it so richly deserved. Yes, the likes of L7, Babes In Toyland and Hole (to whatever extent you include Hole as a riot grrrl band) would make their chart appearances, but with the exception of Courtney Love’s band they failed to break past the top 100 (in the US at least) and reach the same commercial peaks as other ’90s alt movements. Few were snubbed harder than Bikini Kill however. 

One of the most vocal and politicised forces in the scene, the Olympia, WA/Washington DC-based band had a direct hand in shaping both the style and ideals of the riot grrl movement but ultimately found themselves sidelined, vocalist Kathleen Hanna saying people would bombard the band with hatemail while drummer Tobi Vail described their shows as "all-out war". 

Though Bikini Kill were extremely active in the scene, and received endorsements from Nirvana and Fugazi, with Ian MacKaye producing their self-titled debut EP, they were slow off the mark to release an album - 1993's split-album Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah was their first to see widespread release, followed shortly by their full-length debut Pussy Whipped. The song Rebel Girl became the band's biggest 'hit' (as well as an anthem for riot grrl overall) but failed to make any major commercial dent. 

The band released only one other album before splitting in 1997, never truly reaping the popularity associated with the scene they helped create, though the huge excitement generated by their on-going reunion tour is a testament to their ever-swelling cult status.

4. A

The US didn't hold a complete monopoly on guitars in the ’90s. On the other side of the Atlantic, the rise (and chart success) of bands like The Wildhearts, Therapy? and Terrorvision helped cement the rise of Britrock, Britpop's noisier, more distortion-friendly sibling. A had actually formed the other side of the ’80s, albeit under the name Grand Designs (a nod to the Rush song, rather than the band being fans of daytime TV) with a decidedly more prog sound. 

By 1993 the Perry brothers had seen the light and rebranded into a punkish ball of energy that perfectly fit in with the Britrock scene. Neither of A's ’90s releases (their debut How Ace Are Buildings and the utterly superb A Vs Monkey Kong) managed to fully crack the charts however, Monkey Kong stalling at No. 62 in the UK. They did manage to enjoy some chart success the other side of the millennium however; the more nu metal adjacent Nothing broke the Top 10 of the UK singles charts, while its parent album Hi-Fi Serious reached #18. 

With a sunny sound that evoked the very best of ’90s pop-punk without ever sounding derivative, A should have been primed to take advantage of the popularity of bands like NoFx and The Offspring whilst also slotting in nicely with Britrock's biggest bands. 

But chalk it down to a case of bad timing (they came just a few years too late for Britrock's peak and slightly too early for the early 2000s pop-punk explosion), being on the wrong label (the band would have fit perfectly on an Epitaph Punk O-Rama compilation) or just being from the wrong country, A never managed to get the success they deserved. The band's prevalence at UK music festivals in recent years is heartening at least, the sizeable turnout of crowds a reminder that 25 years on from their debut the band are still loved in the right circles.

5. Cop Shoot Cop

Formed in New York in the late 80s, Cop Shoot Cop can neither be said to have come at the wrong time or wrong place. After all, New York's late-80s/early 90s hardcore and noise rock scenes are the thing of legend, the likes of Unsane, White Zombie, Type O Negative, Helmet, Biohazard and Prong all emerging (and catapulting towards success) in just a few short years. Unfortunately Cop Shoot Cop seldom even get mentioned when discussing the scene, perhaps deemed just a little too weird to fit in with an empire of freaks who would help reshape the metal world. 

Though starting out firmly rooted in noise rock, by 1994's Release Cop Shoot Cop had largely reigned in their most abrasive tendencies. It didn't make them any less unique; heavily bass-driven (Release was the only CSC album to feature a guitarist), Cop Shoot Cop's sound mixed elements of industrial, noise, alt-metal and even freeform jazz, Release just throwing some radio-friendly tunes onto the pile. 

The likes of It Only Hurts When I Breathe, Two At A Time and Ambulance Song are just the kind of weird that 90s alt-metal fans loved - think the Rollins Band's Liar, Filter's Hey Man Nice Shot or even the more out-there material by Tool or Therapy? and you're in the right sonic headspace. 

For all that Release was more straight-laced, it didn't help the band's fortunes; the album failed to make any decent in-roads commercially and ultimately contributed to the souring of their relationship with Interscope (singer Tod Ashley later saying they were treated 'poorly' by the label) and ultimate split in 1997 - the same year Devin Townsend covered their song Room 429

6. Majesty Crush

When it comes to talking about a band who were born in the wrong time and place, Majesty Crush might take the crown. Formed in Detroit in 1990, Majesty Crush were on the wrong side of the Atlantic to take advantage of shoegaze's 'peak', the genre never really taking hold in the US in the same way it had Britain. 

Even so, by the time Majesty Crush put out their debut (and only) album Love 15 in 1993 the genre was already in decline; its best elements subsumed into the burgeoning Britpop movement and years out from the 'nu gaze' revival of the early 2000s.

Majesty Crush's own take on shoegaze introduced radio sensibilities that, on reflection, are in-keeping with the tones and styles of many mainstream artists in the US during the 90s. Moments of Love 15 evoke the more ambient, reflective songs of Pearl Jam's Ten (think Release, or Garden), the discordant wall of noise that opens Boyfriend wouldn't be out of place on a Siamese Dream or Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins song (think Cherub Rock or I Am One) and Grow is akin to Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye

Unfortunately for Majesty Crush such elements were seemingly only palatable in the mainstream when absorbed into a wider musical genre (alt rock, grunge, pop) and when the band's label collapsed shortly after Love 15's release they never managed to recover. A subsequent 'best of' collection was released in 2009, but any chances of the band making a comeback to more receptive audiences were dashed when singer David Stroughter was shot and killed by Californian police in an apparent road-rage incident in 2017. 

7. Far

Formed in Sacramento, and fronted by the charismatic Jonah Matranga, Far cut their teeth in the same scene that gave rise to Deftones and while achieving a similar level of influence (particularly on the 00s post-hardcore and emo scenes), they never managed to commercially break through. 

It's something of a mystery of exactly why they never broke through however; the band's sound bore heavily resemblance to Deftones own, albeit replacing the nu metal elements with a post-hardcore crunch and alt-rock radio choruses. 

1998's Water & Solutions presented a meatier, more direct sound that was decidedly more radio-friendly and Far were even able to tour with Deftones and Incubus in that same period, exposing them to wider audiences. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to break them on a mainstream level and the band split in 1999, meaning they missed out on any increased profile they would have enjoyed when emo broke big post-2001. 

Water & Solutions remains a classic however, albeit in retrospect as it set out the stall for everyone from Finch, Hell is For Heroes and Hundred Reasons to Funeral For A Friend, Thursday and Biffy Clyro. The band reformed in 2008 and released At Night We Live in 2010, but have only operated intermittently since. 

8. Tad

The band that took Nirvana on their first European/UK tour (as support, no less), Tad somehow never managed to fully capitalise on the industry gold rush in the post-Nevermind era. In truth, Tad's sound bore more resemblance to the likes of Helmet or Prong than to Alice In Chains or Nirvana (though Soundgarden have their moments - just hear the metallic crunch of Room A Thousand Years Wide), but the band, fronted by the likeable Tad Doyle, were key early figures in grunge's development. 

From signing to Sub Pop to working with Steve Albini, Tad got in ahead of just about everyone else - and maybe that's exactly what held them back. Coming just a little too early for the wider music world to pay attention, the band's 1991 release 8-Way Santa would perhaps have also been their breakthrough had it not arrived in February that year - a full seven months before Nevermind. 

As it was, the single Jack Pepsi earned some traction before hitting legal snags from the Pepsi company, while the song Jinx (and the band themselves) would feature on the movie Singles. The band did move over to a major label amidst the changes in the industry and 1993's Inhaler was released through Giant Records (a company associated with Warner Bros.). 

Neither Inhaler nor 1995 Infrared Riding Hood managed to break the band and they were released from the label shortly after Infrared Riding Hood's release. A final single, Oppenheimer's Pretty Nightmare was released in 1998 but the band had reached breaking point and split in 1999, never having enjoyed the success they deserved as forerunners for many of the decade's biggest grunge acts. 

9. Girls Against Boys

By the end of the ’80s Washington D.C. had become a hotbed for post-hardcore acts, the likes of Jawbox, The Nation of Ulysses and Shudder establishing a strong presence in a scene popularised by local legends Minor Threat and Fugazi. 

With Fugazi’s Brendan Canty a founding member alongside Soulside’s Scott McCloud, Girls Against Boys already had a sense of indie cred before they'd struck a note. But despite being much love from the UK music press, appearances in movies and extensive tours overseas, Girls Against Boys never managed to outgrow their cult status. 

By 1993 the band had relocated to New York and released their second album, Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, their first album for label Touch And Go but also the first that truly established the heart of their sound. Now sporting two bassists, the band were affixing the bounce of D.C. post-hardcore to New York noise abrasion, but executing it in a way that wasn't an overload on the senses. 

Two more well-received albums (1994's Cruise Yourself and 1996's House Of GSVB) under Touch And Go ultimately led to the band signing with Geffen, 1998's Freak*on*ica becoming their highest-selling album but still not yielding major chart success (though the album did feature on the Billboard Heatseekers chart) and the band ultimately became inactive in 2003 after the release of You Can't Fight What You Can't See. In 2021 Girls Against Boys announced plans to play shows ahead of a reissue of House Of GVSB, leaving hope for a seventh album in future. 

10. Cows

Minneapolis punks Cows only existed for a fraction over a decade, but made the most of their time by putting out nine albums of chaotic, howling brilliance. Ostensibly sat somewhere between post-hardcore and noise rock, the band's sound felt more like a throwback to '77 and late ’60s garage rock than many of their contemporaries, always sounding one note away from collapsing completely but somehow keeping the calamitous racket together. 

Signed to Amphetamine Reptile for much of their existence (with only their 1987 debut Taint Pluribus, Taint Unum being issued elsewhere), Cows' output represents the best of ’80s punk, chaotic bursts of energy punctuated by obnoxious blasts of brass courtesy of vocalist Shannon Selberg. 

Though Cows never particularly dialled back their anarchic tendencies on record, there was a sense that by 1992's Cunning Stunts they had at least twisted their sound into something with (warped) pop sensibilities, albeit with the same breed of off-brand humour as Faith No More. Unfortunately, it never translated into any mainstream appeal and even drafting in Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins to produce their swansong, 1998's Sorry In Pig Minor, wasn't enough to push the band over. 

Shannon Selberg's relocation to New York in 1998 spelled the end and Cows split later that year. Three quarters of the band reconvened in 2015 to play annual punk event Grumps (albeit under the name 'Cowz' to differentiate the show from being a full-band reunion) but subsequent plans for a comeback have never surfaced. 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.