“Sales is not a mark of success": 10 rock bands from the '90s who should have been absolutely massive

'90s alt. rock bands Handsome, Shudder To Think, Cay, Into Another and Drugstore
(Image credit: Press)

In the wake of Nirvana's phenomenal success with Nevermind, it was entirely possible for left-of-the-dial, quirky, idiosyncratic alternative rock bands to sell millions and millions of records in the '90s: in keeping with the history of the music industry, however, it wasn't always the best bands who did so. 

Sales is not a mark of success," Fugazi's Ian MacKaye once astutely noted, and here are 10 bands from the 1990s who should have been huge, but can sleep easy at night knowing that they could go song-for-song with any of their more marketable, multi-platinum peers.

Louder line break


Quite how Mercury Records managed to fuck up making superstars of Kerbdog - a band with riffs, melodies and personality for days - upon the release of the Kilkenny's trio's second album On The Turn is a crime against humanity. Vocalist/guitarist Cormac Battle, bassist Colin Fennelly and drummer Darragh Butler had already put in the groundwork with their eponymous 1994 debut album - which boasted a Top 40 single in Dummy Crusher - but the Garth 'GGGarth' Richardson-produced On The Turn is a massive record, featuring three superb singles (JJ’s Song, Sally and Mexican Wave) all of which should have become generational anthems. With original guitarist Billy Dalton returned to the fold, the band still play sporadic reunion shows - selling out London's Islington Academy on St. Patrick's Day earlier this year - and it's never too late to get acquainted with their compact but killer catalogue, re-released on Hassle Records in 2020.

The God Machine

Whether The God Machine would have become a household name had they elected to stay in San Diego rather than relocating to Camden, north London we shall never know. What's certain is that Robin Proper-Sheppard's band deserved much more than just critical acclaim for their excellent debut album, 1993’s Scenes From The Second Storey, and it's even better follow-up, 1994's One Last Laugh in a Place of Dying..., released in the wake of bassist Jimmy Fernandez's tragic early death from a brain hemorrhage. If the thought of your new favourite [old] band occupying the hinterlands between Nick Cave, Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails at their bleakest and most downbeat appeals, consider this your introduction. 

Girls Against Boys

Formed from the ashes of Washington DC post-hardcore crew Soulside, NYC's Girls Against Boys - vocalist/guitarist Scott McCloud, bassist Johnny Temple, bassist/keyboardist Eli Janney and drummer Alexis Fleisig - were the suave, subversive and undeniably sexy face of '90s alt.rock, the perfect soundtrack to secret after-dark misadventures, and every music magazine's hot tip for superstardom following the release of 1993's dark, dirty and dangerously seductive Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby. They're yet another band who benefitted little from dipping their toes in the major label world, but every GVSB album has its merits, and the good news for fans and new initiates alike is that the group still play occasional shows, still look and sound fantastic, and might yet release a new album in the not-too-distant future. 

Whipping Boy

By turns tender and terrifying, unsettling, hopeful and poignant, Whipping Boy's second album Heartworm is one of the greatest Irish rock albums ever made. But, emerging at the height of BritPop, its unflinching dissections of the raw, messy realities of life, the souring of love and the death of dreams, were entirely out of step with the cultural climate in the UK, and business mis-steps meant that the Dublin-based band never got a genuine shot at America. Somehow, word of mouth recommendations ensured that the album's cult status has grown since the band's dissolution, and a new generation of Irish artists such as The Murder Capital and Fontaines D.C. have hailed it as a masterpiece. No-one ever said that life is fair.

Shudder To Think 

In the post-Nirvana A&R 'gold rush', only two bands - Shudder To Think and Jawbox left Washington DC's Dischord Records for a new major label home: neither truly benefitted. Theatrical, arty and angular, Shudder To Think's three Dischord albums - 1990's Ten-Spot, 1990, 1991's Funeral at the Movies, and 1992's Get Your Goat - are so far removed from the stereotypical 'DC hardcore sound as to be on another planet, while frontman Craig Wedren's flamboyant, androgynous aesthetic confused macho alt. rock bros when the band toured with Fugazi, Smashing Pumpkins and Foo Fighters: Vanity Fair later called Wedren "the Freddie Mercury of the Dischord scene."

Much loved by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, the band were signed to Epic Records at the behest of Pearl Jam's A&R man Michael Goldstone, and delivered, with Pony Express Record, one of the most left-field, colourful and deliciously confusing major label debuts of the decade. And no-one really cared. Wedren now composes for film and TV, most recently writing the score and theme song for cult Showtime drama Yellowjackets, alongside former That Dog vocalist Anna Waronker, and is sanguine about not becoming a rock superstar: "We had imagined that we would continue to make these awesomely crazy art-rock records," he told Vanity Fair. "Little did we know that was to be Radiohead’s job."


Raised in the New York noise rock scene which spawned Unsane, Helmet, Surgery and Cop Shoot Cop, Handsome made just one album, their self-titled 1997 debut, produced by Terry Date (Soundgarden / Deftones) but it’s one of the decade's true ‘lost’ classics. Featuring ex-members of Helmet (guitarist Peter Mengede) and Quicksand (fellow guitarist Tom Capone), the band’s pedigree was undeniable, and in Jeremy Chatelain, they had a frontman with a voice to rival Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, or any other '90s alt. rock poster boy. Handsome are forever doomed to mere cult status, but if you know, you know.


Dublin-born, north London-based Compulsion were too self-aware to subscribe to the post-Nirvana alt.rock world, the Green Day/Offspring-led mid-90s punk explosion or the Britpop scene, though their music had elements which could have fitted all three. The quartet's delightfully snotty 1994 debut Comforter boasts killer singles in the form of Basketcase and Mall Monarchy, while their acerbic, incisive, and cruelly-underrated second album The Future Is Medium remains a fiercely intelligent and painfully relevant examination of societal ills and the draining of hope and humanity in the name of 'progress'.

Success arrived for individual band members in different forms. Guitarist Garrett 'Jacknife' Lee is now a superstar producer for the likes of U2 and Snow Patrol, and currently plays alongside ex-Siouxsie and the Banshees drummer Budgie and ex-Cure drummer Lol Tolhurst in Lol Tolhurst x Budgie x Jacknife Lee (their debut album Los Angeles is out in November) while, in a unanticipated career left-turn, bassist Sid Rainey created popular CBeebies animated series Underground Ernie.


That Cay were not driven by the pursuit of world-conquering megastardom was clear in Dutch vocalist/guitarist Anet Mook's stunned six word speech when accepting the Best British Newcomer award at the 1999 Kerrang! magazine awards. "Fucking hell!" she exclaimed in obvious surprise. "We won. We won."

Somewhat inevitably, as with almost every fierce alt. rock band fronted by a woman in the '90s, Cay were compared to Hole, a reductive comparison which doesn't do them justice. The most succinct description of the London-based quartet's rise and fall is a mini-bio, written by an uncredited former band member, on their bandcamp page, where their excellent debut album, Nature Creates Freaks, is available as a free download. "We were a band sick of the predominance of anaemic indie rubbish who were determined to make cathartic, loud, angry, emotional and interesting music," it reads. "I think we succeeded in the very early days... We released one album and a few EPs, we fought with each other a lot, won an award, got dropped and fizzled out." Mook died in Amsterdam in 2011, a low-key tragedy which went almost unnoticed, an appropriately ironic epitaph for a band with so much promise and so little reward to show for it.

Into Another

Don't go searching on Spotify for Into Another's finest album, their 1995 major label debut Seemless, released on the Disney-funded Hollywood Records, because, ridiculously, it's not there. Recorded in Seattle with Rick Parashar, whose CV includes Pearl Jam's Ten, Alice In Chains' Sap and the sole Temple Of The Dog album, it's a record that still sounds incredible today, with stellar performances from vocalist Richie Birkenhead (ex-Underdog/Youth Of Today) and guitarist Peter Moses. According to the band, "terrible distribution and promotion" from their label meant that Seemless disappeared between the cracks, which really is a crying shame: seek it out on YouTube before some tiresome Disney jobsworth pulls it off there too. 


That, El President, Drugstore's biggest and best-known hit, a duet between Brazilian vocalist Isabel Monteiro and Radiohead's Thom Yorke, was a salute to Chile's democratically-elected socialist leader Salvador Allende, overthrown in a 1973 coup led by right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet with the support of the US government, says something about their idiosyncratic nature. The London-based dream-pop band released four fine albums, the best of which may be their 1995 self-titled debut, which shimmers, twinkles and soars on undeniably lovely tracks such as Alive, Solitary Party Groover, Superglider and Fader, without ever threatening to transcend their cult status. With TikTok teens rediscovering lost treasures free from media gatekeeping, perhaps their time to shine still lies ahead.

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.