Deciding on the best rock bands of the 90s means somebody will always have a problem with the list. There are too many great bands to choose, so there may be acts you feel should be on here but aren’t.
You may be right.
That said, this is our view of the best rock bands of the 90s. Let us know in the comments if we missed any out.
#1 Alice in Chains
Buckle up because #1 might be a bumpy ride. Ask almost anyone, and the number one slot should be Nirvana. I understand, and I would probably put Smells Like Teen Spirit at the top of the best songs due to nostalgia alone.
But we’re looking at the best bands here, and Alice in Chains made better albums with more interesting hit songs than Nirvana. My argument is, take away Teen Spirit, and which songs keep Nirvana in the top slot? I don’t think any do.
Plus, only Alice in Chains could craft a Grunge masterpiece like Rooster.
Smells Like Teen Spirit was such an incredible, industry-changing smash hit that Nirvana always tops lists about 90s rock.
Have you ever heard of a big hair band called Poison or Def Leppard from the glam metal days? Glam was what people were listening to until Nirvana hit the scene with a twisted, dark, pep rally video in 1991.
Music changed for the rest of the decade. Showing off was out, and displaying raw and anarchic emotions was in. The 80s were officially over, and Nirvana created the predominant 90s bands sound.
#3 Green Day
Green Day wasn’t just one of the best 90s bands. They’re still going strong today. A topic for a different article, Green Day probably made their finest and most influential album in the 2000s. Topping their 90s work was no small feat.
Driven by a rolling drum beat that formed the band’s sound and was the envy of many, Green Day got started by developing a cult following in California. When they hit the mainstream, they never looked back.
Green Day exploded onto the scene with their album Dookie in 1994. The punk rock band became an overnight success, and suddenly everybody had Green Day on the tip of their tongue.
#4 Foo Fighters
You may have just learned or already knew what a seminal band Nirvana was for 90s Rock. Unfortunately, Kurt Cobain died in 1994. That same year Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, formed one of the must-listen 90s bands, the Foo Fighters.
Dave Grohl played most of the instruments in their 1995 album The Color and the Shape and supplied the lead vocals.
The first album was a smashing success and contained several of their most beloved songs, including Everlong, a 90s classic. The band may have shifted members around occasionally, but they are still together.
#5 Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had an unusual journey that led to becoming one of the most iconic rock bands of the 90s. They started in 1983 and by 1989 the band was in trouble after one member died and another departed.
After a severe bout with heroin addiction, their lead guitar player John Frusciante returned, and the band was whole again. Their 1999 album Californication is an unforgettable experience that produced many hits.
After repairing the bumpy road from 1989, they forged ahead and stamped their funky sound into the 90s forever.
#6 Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam, led by frontman Eddie Vedder, is the last unforgettable entry from the Seattle Grunge scene that dominated half of 90s rock.
Pearl Jam managed to hit the scene hard and fast, considering they formed in 1990, and Nirvana changed music in 1991. By 1991, Pearl Jam was signed to a label and recorded their iconic album Ten which had a list of smash hits.
Grunge took off, and Pearl Jam was one of the big boys who rode the premium wave. You can't have the same 90s rock sound if you omit Pearl Jam.
Soundgarden was a full-fledged member of the Grunge music scene, which dominated early 90s rock after Nirvana changed everything.
One of the big things that happened in the early 90s was that fans got a new sound in Grunge that they hadn’t heard before and wanted more.
Not to take anything away from Soundgarden, a great band made up of talented musicians who were one of the first Grunge bands to sign to a major label. I’m saying that Grunge was something like a bull market where everybody made money.
Seattle’s impressive run of Grunge domination, mainly spearheaded by a handful of bands, didn’t survive the decade.
Formed in 1985, hailing from England, and having to compete in the early 90s Grunge explosion, Radiohead fared well.
The single Creep, released in 1991, propelled the band to international stardom and set the stage for their 1993 album Pablo Honey, which received international acclaim.
Unlike some other bands, Radiohead built on their success with follow-up 1995 and 1997 albums which received increasing praise popularly and critically with each successive album.
By the late 90s, Radiohead was an international music brand and a household name for rock fans.
#9 The Smashing Pumpkins
The Smashing Pumpkins hail from Chicago with alternative rock, and punk roots. It wasn’t easy to compete against Grunge in the early 90s, but they managed and enjoyed massive success.
Whether you came from punk or grunge in the 90s, most successful rock bands understand that the use of heavy guitar with a thick, distorted, grumbled sound was important.
The Smashing Pumpkins knew what to do. Add in the sense of screaming out, so prevalent in angry and emotional 90s rock, and you have the right recipe, which The Smashing Pumpkins embraced well.
#10 No Doubt
No Doubt formed in 1986 but failed to make a massive splash until 1995. The band intertwined Ska with their unique sound. Ska went through a late revival in the mid-90s, and the album Tragic Kingdom shot up to number 1 on the charts and refused to budge for weeks.
No Doubt’s next efforts transitioned to the 2000s, but songs like I’m Just a Girl from the album Tragic Kingdom, a diamond-certified album, stayed at the top for so long, enjoying so much success that No Doubt left an undeniable mark on 90s rock with one album.
Essentially there is no problem with Beck, but if there is a problem, the problem may be that you can’t pigeonhole Beck into a genre. Beck is just Beck.
Nobody gets into Grunge and ends up finding Beck. He sounds a bit like rap, funk, rock, and a lot more in the mix.
Amazingly he lived in rat-infested squalor in the early 90s, and a lackluster label didn’t want to devote too much attention to promoting him. His hit single Loser luckily got played on a few college radio stations, took off, and he never looked back.
Take Beck away, and 90s rock is mostly heavy guitars without enough variety.
Despite how much grunge and punk changed rock in the 90s, fans still expected musicians to have long hair. 80s hair was big and manicured, and 90s hair was straight and natural.
Weezer couldn’t care less. They were sort of geeky and had short hair. They looked kind of like 90s high school nerds.
They used the sound that people knew in the 90s, like rough guitar feedback, but they made catchy music that people loved, whether dancing or just listening.
Weezer may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but their multi-platinum Blue Album shows that their fans were legion.
R.E.M. fits into 90s rock in a weird place. The band formed in 1980, and their unique sound found better footing in the alternative rock explosion in the 90s.
Their 1994 hit Losing My Religion played on radio and MTV constantly. Every time people turned around, there was R.E.M. again. The song was that big and came off the album Out of Time which enjoyed seven Grammy nominations.
Blink-182 just qualifies as a major 90s rock band with their unforgettable 1999 album Enema of the State. The band formed in 1992, but recorded independently and didn’t attract a massive following until 1997 and after signing with MCA in 1999.
They had attracted a lot of attention with an excellent performance at the Warped Tour. Criticized by some for having a punk-pop sound, not true punk, Blink-182 stayed true to themselves. Their long-awaited success in 1999 came to the tune of 15 million album sales.
#15 Guns N’Roses
Guns N’Roses is another tricky entry into the best 90s rock bands. They exploded onto the Rock music scene in the mid-80s. With the 90s Grunge boom around the corner, GNR had no relation to the Seattle music scene.
On the back of their 80s success, they put out the two album set titled Use Your Illusion I & II in 1991. The albums have sold 35 million copies and heavily feature the iconic lead guitar player Slash.
U2 is another band that enjoyed huge success in the 80s and had to scramble and adapt to the new alternative rock scene of the 90s.
To complicate things, their previous album from the late 80s received criticism, and the band needed inspiration. Unfortunately, the early days of their 1991 album Achtung Baby didn’t go well with in-fighting amongst band members.
Everything changed when they experienced sudden inspiration and wrote the song One. Achtung Baby was one of the most successful albums in U2’s lengthy run.
There was a period that began in the mid-90s that seemed like another British invasion, similar to the 60s when bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones took over the music scene, period.
Oasis would have to enjoy one of the top slots in any list about the 90s period of British Rock dominance. 1995 was the year when the album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? became an international sensation and enjoyed multi-platinum success in the U.S.
The album is also one of the best-selling albums of all time.
#18 The Verve
The Verve, like some other bands we’ve already looked at, appeared to come out of nowhere in 1997, but the band formed in 1990.
Through arguments and problems with drug abuse, they finally put all the pieces together and came out with the album Urban Hymns. You can’t overstate how well this album did. They received multiple awards and nominations and made the cover of Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone doesn’t seek out mediocre bands. The Verve was officially a big deal.
#19 Nine Inch Nails
Nine Inch Nails, how does one talk about 90s rock without touching on NIИ. At the same time, how does one talk about Trent Reznor’s Frankenstein creation in an all-encompassing way?
Is the music electronic? Yes. Are there guitars? Yes. Are there drums? Yes. Nine Inch Nails isn’t in any category of music. NIИ is a category of music, and no other sound even comes close.
Unique is too weak a word. Trent Reznor, the primary musician on all tracks, had ups and downs in the 90s, but the album The Downward Spiral from 1993 is the band’s biggest seller of all time.
For a good reason, listening to songs like Closer you can drive for miles without even noticing.
#20 Rage Against The Machine
Sometimes a name says everything. Feeling angry, and you want to get angrier and lash out? Put on some Rage Against The Machine (RATM). Hopefully, you don’t get arrested.
If you’re new to 90s music, you may have noticed that, even in a genre with a “sound” like Grunge, most of the music has a unique sound.
RATM has a sound that isn’t like anyone else’s in a decade where many bands didn’t sound like anyone else. Instead, the band embraced and fueled a frustrated youth’s inner demons and unleashed all that energy in raw explosions of musical fury.
#21 The Offspring
Along with Green Day, The Offspring is one of the bands you have to credit with bringing punk back from obscurity and into the light for the masses to enjoy.
Does mainstream appeal mean the music gets tamed and controlled (according to core fans)? Yes, mainstream punk bears almost no relation to underground club punk where there are no rules.
Not many punk bands experience the spotlight of mainstream appeal. The fact that The Offspring tried and succeeded is no small feat. Millions of album sales don’t lie.
#22 Stone Temple Pilots
Let’s get STP’s criticism out of the way first. The band comes from California, but, in the early days, sounded distinctly like a copy of the Seattle-driven Grunge movement.
Arguments aside, let’s let good music be good music. STP also showed they could draw upon a wider talent pool in later years. Maybe they cashed in on Grunge, but they sold millions of albums and made good music.
#23 The Cranberries
As the video shows, the Cranberries could make great music. The only problem was, that they lacked consistency.
Who knows, perhaps they would rank much higher on the list if they had spent more time writing and ensuring their music’s quality. The album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We? was a commercial success in the early 90s and contained several hits, including the iconic song Zombie.
Zombie is the song people know, even when they don’t know the Cranberries, let alone anything about the band’s Irish roots.
#24 The Wallflowers
Jakob Dylan is the frontman and primary instrumentalist for the Wallflowers. If that name sounds familiar, the answer is, yes, he’s the son of the legendary musician Bob Dylan.
The Wallflowers formed in 1989, but the band’s most notable success came in 1996 with the album Bringing Down the Horse.
Contemporaries have recognized The Wallflowers' achievements by awarding them two Grammy awards.
#25 The Brian Setzer Orchestra
To keep up the eclectic 90s rock theme, making our 25th slot is The Brian Setzer Orchestra. This jazzy rock band isn’t the first on our list to stand out, but outside of NIИ and Beck, they’re probably the most unique.
No other band has the same kind of sound, not even when you go back to the era Setzer draws upon the most heavily, the 50s Jazz Swing era. Brian Setzer found continued success in the 90s. He had already made a name for himself since the late 70s in the band The Stray Cats.
#26 The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are the leading edge of the third-wave Ska movement. The band also gets the credit for spawning other Ska sub-genres. Their original genre is ska punk.
The Bosstones are another addition who got started in the early 80s but transitioned to the 90s by remaining true to themselves and their fans and riding the wave to success or disaster. Well, the result wasn’t a disaster.
They made a platinum album in 1997 titled Let’s Face It. They loved their craft and stayed in the game until shortly before the writing of this article. They disbanded in January 2022.
If you were growing up somewhere in Great Britain during the 90s, you probably know Blur as the band that rivaled Oasis in star power. In the USA, on the other hand, Blur didn’t exist until 1997 for mainstream audiences.
Song 2 reached American charts first and got used in movie trailers such as Starship Troopers.
The Pixies are an interesting band because what they did almost always happens in reverse. Usually, a British or European band reaches the pinnacle of success when they break into the U.S. music market.
The Pixies went the other way and reached the top of the charts in Europe. They’re a punk band whose sound resonated with the music scene across the pond more than in America or California, where they originated.
Many people may recognize the song Where Is My Mind? from the film Trainspotting, which was an 80s hit for the Pixies.
#29 Jane’s Addiction
Ironically one of the most lasting marks Jane’s Addiction left on the music industry wasn’t a song. Their initial farewell tour launched the famous music festival Lollapalooza.
The band had a significant cult following before getting noticed. In 1990 they released the album Ritual de lo Habitual to critical acclaim. Unfortunately, the title may have given the band’s biggest problem away.
Massive issues with drug use tore the band apart. Lead guitarist Dave Navarro went on to join the Red Hot Chili Peppers for several years.
Bush is another import from Great Britain. Unlike most other English bands, Bush only achieved moderate success at home, but had a number one album in the U.S., along with singles that did well in the charts, holding the number one slot for 7 weeks with Swallowed.
Disney Records was initially going to sign with Bush in 1993, but the deal fell apart after internal politics at Disney flared. The band members all took any job they could get until their next opportunity came. The second time, there would be no more poverty for Bush.
#31 The Lemonheads
As far back as three decades ago, having Johnny Depp star in your music video was an accomplishment.
Well, the Lemonheads can claim such an accomplishment because Mr. Depp did star in their video for the track It's a Shame About Ray from the album with the same name in 1992.
I decided to link their cover of Mrs. Robinson because the track does a much better job of displaying The Lemonheads' punk roots.
#32 Sonic Youth
Like so many on our list, Sonic Youth had a whole career throughout most of the 80s, mainly enjoyed by a cult following. The band signed with a major label in 1990, and a new mainstream audience discovered their talent and creative, unorthodox musical style.
The band’s peak popularity was during the 90s. The mark they made left enough of an impact to get featured in Guitar Hero III. Their peak success during the 90s came in 1994 with the album Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star.
#33 The Flaming Lips
For some bands, talking about their run in one decade is to talk about one of the decades in which the band stayed creative. The Flaming Lips are one such band.
Early in the 90s, the band shuffled around band members, something that wasn’t irregular, with members seemingly coming and going. The new formula worked, and in 1993 the band released the album Transmissions from the Satellite Heart.
The success of the album saw the band get invited on to TV shows. They opened for massive bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
#34 Goo Goo Dolls
The Goo Goo Dolls started in 1986 in Buffalo, New York. They waited twelve long years to score a massive hit, Iris, in 1998. The song went to the top of multiple charts and remained dominant for weeks and months in some cases.
The Goo Goo Dolls aren't a one-hit-wonder, though. They have sold millions of albums and can add four Grammy Award nominations to their list of accolades.
By the time Grunge had flared up and was beginning to burn out, Garbage came along in 1993. In their early years, they charted with numbers in the 30s, 40s, or 50s.
In 1995 the self-titled album Garbage allowed the band to put real separation between their former success and their newfound success.
Then in 1997, they released an even more popular album, Version 2.0. Garbage wisely stuck with the style that so many people already liked from their Garbage album two years before. They received pressure to make changes but refused and worked on becoming better musicians instead. They made the right choice.
#36 Counting Crows
Counting Crows didn’t dominate the 90s like some of our higher ranking bands, but they made songs almost everyone recognizes and can sing along to a bit.
Their biggest success came in the early 2000s by getting played in Shrek 2. Their 90s work laid the ground for such success, and the band gained a reputation for having good live performances.
Performing well live is the true talent index for those in the know. Loads of bands cut a popular single in a studio and fall apart when their live performances turn people away.
If life were fair, Sublime would rank much higher on this list, and I mean up near the top, easily in the top ten.
The problem is, like so many before and after, the lead singer Bradley Nowell died at the age of 28 of a heroin overdose the night after finishing a tour in 1996 and just before the release of their most popular album, the self-titled Sublime.
Sublime, the album, went certified 5x platinum. Suddenly a whole new generation knew about this band, and the lead singer was dead.
If you want to do yourself a musical favor, do a deep dive into Sublime’s wild blend of ska, reggae, punk, surf rock, and hip hop.
#38 Blind Melon
Blind Melon is another band that could’ve easily ranked higher on the list, and they didn’t make it for the same reason as Sublime. Their lead singer Shannon Hoon died of a cocaine overdose while on tour.
When you listen to the musical quality, you can easily see how they became famous and imagine where they could’ve gone if not for drug addiction.
The remaining band members never managed to find a suitable replacement for Hoon during the 90s.
#39 Faith No More
As you dig through a list of this style, it’s amazing what reasons pop up for why great bands don’t become famous long-lasting bands that define an era.
Faith No More started in 1979 in San Francisco. They experienced several early line-up changes and achieved moderate success. The change that needed to happen occurred in 1988 when Mike Patton became the new lead singer.
The band experienced platinum album sales shortly after that, but the ride fell apart by 1998 when rumors that Mike Patton had left the band turned out to be true.
Epic, one of the greatest songs of the 90s, came out in 1990.
#40 Dave Matthews Band
While the Grunge scene and bands like Faith No More were busy using a heavy guitar sound, DMB came out in 1991 with a different idea. Singing with a soft voice and often acoustic guitar, this band led with melody, not attitude.
Their first major success came in 1994 when the album Under the Table and Dreaming went platinum six times over. They’re still going, and once the world fully returns to normal, you will be able to find them regularly touring again.
Many critics regard Pavement as one of the best bands you probably never heard of during the 90s. The reason they relied on a cult following was that Pavement never signed to a mainstream label.
They chose to release their music independently and were influential enough to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Typically signing to a major label opens those kinds of doors.
While we have left heavy metal off this list because this is a rock band list, Tool qualifies because their sound blends the 90s alternative and metal sounds. The band's musical category is usually alternative metal.
Tool was probably more infamous than famous. The reason was the subject matter of their songs often drew criticism from certain groups. Censorship was a common problem, and MTV took a video down after a few airings due to complaints about the subject matter being child abuse.
Creed often gets mislabeled as a Christian Rock band. However, making music for Christians was never Creed’s goal. The lead singer, Scott Stapp, had a strong religious background and wrote his beliefs into many songs.
The band formed in 1994 but experienced real success in 1997 with the release of the album My Own Prison (remixed). Wind-up records signed Creed and performed the remix. Technically, this was Creed’s debut album, and every song released reached number one.
Deciding whether or not Silverchair is a great band because of the quality of their music or that they became famous while they were still in high school is not an easy decision to make.
Either way, for fifteen-year-olds to shoot out of Australia and become world-famous rock stars is unbelievable. When they got started, their parents were their managers. Their single Tomorrow was single-handedly responsible for making them famous.
#45 Bon Jovi
For people who know 80s music, Bon Jovi was one of the mega-stars of that decade. When the 90s came, they never matched their former success, but they didn’t go away. The band still appeared on MTV, sold platinum-level albums, and remained relevant.
Many people forget that their 1994 hit Always stayed on the charts longer than any other song of theirs. On a most successful bands list, Bon Jovi would be near the top as their success ranges from the mid-80s up to the present day, with a tour currently planned.
Incubus formed in 1991, but their mainstream success didn’t come until 1999. Once they received recognition, their former two albums experienced improved sales.
Their commercial success continued into the 2000s. As with some other bands we’ve already looked at, Incubus chose to have a cult following and publish independently for years. They come from Calabasas, California, and were well known on the L.A. Strip for playing world-famous clubs there.
#47 Hootie & The Blowfish
Hootie & The Blowfish were a highly successful 90s rock band. They went platinum many times over. The only reason the band doesn’t rank higher is that they released three albums during the 90s. The first two were successful, but by the third, which was a commercial success, public interest was waning.
By early 2003, they released another album that failed to go platinum. Maybe the market’s mood changed, or the band lost its magic. Their best years were 1994 to 1997.
Top Rock Bands Of The 90s, Final Thoughts
The 90s rock scene was a diverse, wild ride overflowing with talent. Grunge made such a huge impact that people still count the genre as a favorite or the favorite.
The decade moved on, and Grunge still had an influence, but the sound changed along the way.