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16 Alt-Rock Albums That Turn 30 This Year and Serve to Remind You That Death is Right Around the Corner

Ah, the 90s. That magical decade of grunge, flannel and other things we here at The Hard Times don’t remember, due to a crippling keyboard cleaner addiction. But still, the ‘90s was truly a decade of the highs and lows of pop-culture. One that gave us “Friends” or, depending on your taste… gave us “Friends.”

It may seem impossible to think that 1993 was thirty years ago, but with a renaissance in ‘90s culture booming among Gen-Z (and a possible “King of the Hill” reboot on the way), it seems appropriate to turn back the clock a little bit and take a listen to these alt-rock albums that are turning thirty this year.

The Breeders “Last Splash”

The Breeders are pure ‘90s goodness. Kim Deal from the Pixies? Check. Tanya Donelly from Belly? Check. Kinda. She’s a minimal presence on this album, appearing only on the tie-in EP. But still, this second album by The Breeders combines grunge, punk, garage rock and surf rock, as well as Deal’s icy and detached vocal delivery in an absolutely exquisite way.


Pearl Jam “Vs.”

It’s interesting to consider that this album came out the same year as “In Utero.” Like the Nirvana album, this is pure grunge chaos with Eddie Vedder at times doing more wailing than singing, on songs like “Animal.” But where “In Utero” is pure anarchy, screaming and misery, “Vs.” is an exercise in control and style, with songs like the more mellow “Daughter,” showing an enormous ability to bend style and create a diverse and engaging listening experience.



Morphine “Cure For Pain”

There is something vaguely evil (in a good way) about the slinky, bass-driven, jazz-rock conjured here. Mark Sandman’s writing and playing are enticing and coldly detached, while the music itself carries almost a jam-band like spirit. It’s not hard to see why a song like “Buena” left the imprint it did, with its effortless cool, but even for the deep cuts, this album is well-worth revisiting. Side note: how cool of a last name is “Sandman” though? It’s like getting a new license plate that randomly says “666 420.”


Beck “Golden Feelings”

Yes, it’s finally happened. The debut album by anti-folk troubadour, erstwhile Scientologist and one-time “Futurama” guest-star Beck has finally turned 30. Really, “Golden Feelings” feels as much like a musical shitpost as it does an actual album, with Beck’s distorted vocals and warped playing. It’s astonishing, listening to it, how in just a few years, Beck was able to go from the bizarre sound on songs like “The Fucked Up Blues” to the rollicking, rock of “Midnite Vultures,” but Beck has always been a musical chameleon.


Melissa Etheridge “Yes I Am”

Oh sure, to some of you, it’s just “that CD that Mom has in her car,” but on listening to Melissa Etheridge’s “Yes I Am,” it’s not hard to imagine why this blues-rock album had the impact that it did, with singles like “Come to My Window,” “If I Wanted To” and “I’m the Only One” becoming her signature song, and the album itself has come to be remembered as Etheridge’s “coming out album.” On top of all that, it sounds fantastic and is well worth more modern attention.



Björk “Debut”

Icelandic singer-songwriter, Björk has had an incredible and varied career. Her songs contain the same weird, dreamy, experimental spirit of Kate Bush or Tori Amos and her song “Venus As a Boy” is probably one of the best to come out of this year. (Remember when it was in “Léon: The Professional?” Wasn’t that a great movie?) But ultimately, whether she’s acting for Lars Von Trier or Robert Eggers or being played by Winona Ryder pissing off Alex Tribeck, everything stems from this international debut, an album so sophisticated and wide-reaching it’s almost shattering to remember her only prior releases were as a member of a jazz combo and as a child artist releasing novelty songs.

Nirvana “In Utero”

On Nirvana’s third and final album, it’s impossible not to hear the pain and self-destructiveness that plagued the final months of Kurt Cobain’s life. The original title, after all, was “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” As far as the band’s grunge sound goes, this is the grungiest, with distorted, reverb-heavy guitars and vocal performance from Cobain that feels more like tortured wailing than singing. This is something that feels horrific at first, but becomes oddly soothing the longer one listens.



Belly “Star”

Eerie, jangly, abrasive and oddly soothing, “Star” – the first album by the Tanya Donelly fronted band Belly – is a truly indispensable ‘90s relic. On this record, Belly truly feels like a slightly harder, drone-heavy, American answer of the witchy jangle pop of the Cranberries, with Donnelly’s distinct, often detached vocals perfectly countering hard-driving guitar. With odd song structures and strange lyrics, Star isn’t necessarily easy to get into. The album, and the band that made it, seem overlooked today, which is both odd and a little sad, since both “Star” and Belly were nominated for Grammys. Standout songs include singles “Feed the Tree” and “Slow Dog,” as well as the witchy “Low Red Moon.” This album is well worth your time, especially in one sitting on a cold, overcast afternoon.

PJ Harvey “Rid of Me”

PJ Harvey is the coolest. Like Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, she seems almost to be a genre in and of herself, where each of her albums feel strikingly different from each other, each imbued with their own artistic personas, but each one feeling like they could only be made by her.“Rid of Me” Harvey’s sophomore album, is different even by her standards. This is evident in the songs with “Man-Size Sextet” sounding like a lost Bernard Herrmann score, and an eerie re-working of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisted,” as well as the almost over-the-top “Rub ‘til It Bleeds.” These are droning, deranged, sexual songs that are pure PJ Harvey and show an artist with a fearlessness to rival her true talent.

Counting Crows “August and Everything After”

The most interesting thing about getting into Counting Crows is realizing that the best part of any of their songs is Adam Duritz’s heroic, belting voice, while the worst part is Adam Durtiz’s freakish, caterwalling seal-bark. Often, these two versions of Duritz co-exist within the same song. Sometimes they happen at the exact same moment. Duritz’s ability to bring us into his world is best felt in the first three songs, “Round Here,” “Omaha” and “Mr. Jones.” His delivery on “Anna Begins” has, at points in my life, actually made me tear up. On the whole, “August and Everything After” is ghostly, strangely uplifting and relentlessly nostalgic. A perfect early Fall album.

Uncle Tupelo “Anodyne”

The fourth and final album by the Illinois-based Roots Rock/Alt-Country band is, in many ways, an oddity in their discography. With Jeff Tweedy as one of Uncle Tupelo’s co-frontmen, the band spent the first chunk of their career making more or less straight punk music, with country/folk inflections. Its opener, “Slate,” is a fiddle-driven tune that feels almost aggressively nostalgic, while tracks like “The Long Cut” feel like the perfect accompaniment for a country road trip. Ultimately, though it does drag at points, tracks like “New Madrid” and “Give Me Back the Key to My Heart” are worth every slow moment. “Anodyne” is a brilliant slice of alt-country/roots rock, a great swan song for Jay Farrer and Jeff Tweedy’s creative partnership and a great intro piece to a band that was often so much more punk than expected.

Mazzy Star “So Tonight That I Might See”

In many ways, the sophomore album by California-based dream-pop/psych rock duo Mazzy Star has a lot in common with “Blacklisted” by Neko Case, despite the almost decade in between their release. Both are psychedelic and reverb-heavy, both conjure up not just country and rock images, but an oddly chaotic desert-like sonic landscape. “So Tonight That I Might See” feels like the soundtrack to an unmade David Lynch film. A noirish, luxurious album of midnight images that calls to mind lonely nights out in the desert, with scorpions and tarantulas on the prowl and forgotten corners of U.S. states you’ve never been to.

Aimee Mann “Whatever”

Aimee Mann is one of the few artists that seems genuinely impossible to dislike once you’ve given her a fair chance. Like Tom Waits by way of Daria, Mann’s lyrics often balance extreme darkness (see “Home by Now,” “Just Like Anyone” or “Philly Drinks”) with extreme, acerbic, deadpan humor. “Whatever” is Mann’s solo debut, and a supremely confident debut album for an artist who has always stayed true to her style and convictions, even as her sound has evolved drastically over the years.



Liz Phair “Exile in Guyville”

There’s no doubt this album rocked a lot of dorm rooms at Wellesley when it first debuted, with opener “6’1” and lead single “Never Said” serving up shredding guitar and a blunt delivery that permeates through the album. Songs like “Help Me Mary,” “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” “Divorce Song” and “Johnny Sunshine” pack the album with strangely catchy bops, while “Dance of the Seven Veils,” “Fuck and Run” and especially “Flower,” pack the album with a raw, almost supernaturally frank sexuality. “Exile in Guyville” is a perfect mixture of Riot Grrrl, Grunge and Punk Rock, as well as something uniquely original that only a first-time artist with no more fucks to give could muster.

Radiohead “Pablo Honey”

From its opener “You,” this debut by English male-manipulator – I mean – rock band Radiohead is crunchy, staticky and almost industrial. Thom Yorke’s vocals feel more like a rigid and fragile Jeff Buckley than the “ghost of Victorian boy who was drowned in a well by his governess” tones they would become by the time he made the “Suspiria” soundtrack, or even “OK Computer.” On the whole, while the album isn’t as polished as later outputs by the group, there is a lot here, with break-out single “Creep,” feeling like a festering, oozing send-up to Leonard Cohen’s song “The Future,” while “How Do You?” plays like a lost track off of “Ziggy Stardust” if Ziggy had been really into paint thinner. (I mean that in a good way.)

The Cranberries “Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

Quite simply one of the greatest albums of all time, the debut by the Irish alt-rock band The Cranberries produced two all time hits in “Dreams” and “Linger,” as well as a minor masterpiece in “Sunday,” which seems to be gaining new life on TikTok. Throughout their career, the jangly sounds of the Cranberries remained consistent even as Dolores O’Riordan nuanced her punk-infused “angry Irish woman” persona. As such, even though they never made a bad album, it’s forgivable and understandable to think of this one as their best. Even the deep cuts, songs like “I Still Do,” “Waltzing Back,” “Pretty” and “Wanted” shimmer.