Can You pinpoint greatness? Who were the best bands of the ’90s? There’s no way to determine what exactly it is that makes a band great. Sometimes their transcendent powers come primarily from a single member, as with Freddie Mercury of Queen. Sometimes it’s the mix of personalities, as it was with The Beatles.
Bands sometimes attain legendary status with a single notorious album, like Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. But, unfortunately, there’s no formula, so to claim that anyone can find the greatest bands from any single decade is preposterous.
In order to compile this list, we tried to consider greatness across the entire spectrum. We looked at the overall cultural impact of the band’s work. How many artists did they influence, how did they change the musical landscape, what did they bring to the art form, what did they leave fans with, and how did they contribute to music as a whole?
Hundreds of musical acts were considered but ultimately didn’t make it. However, the list below covers the most significant acts that impacted a musical decade that came with a lot of pressure.
What Counts as a Band from the ’90s
This is a difficult call since there are bands that came out big in 1989, but it wasn’t felt until the 1990s. Then some were marginalized, only receiving recognition later. Some artists dropped onto the scene in 1999 but weren’t noteworthy until later. It’s a broad spectrum, bearing exceptions to every rule.
To choose a “band from the ’90s,” they had to have been prolific during the period in question, done some of their most seminal work during that period, and be primarily identified with that timeframe.
For the purpose of this list, we also considered some solo acts as bands, not because we were short on options but because while the name might represent a single artist, there was more to their stage presence than just them.
Best Bands Of The 90s
Those are the rules, now here’s the list:
1. Tupac Shakur
The ’90s was a huge time of growth for rap and hip-hop music, with many artists making a name for themselves in these genres, breaking into the mainstream. Perhaps most famous is a man who would give his life to symbolize the East Coast vs. West Coast rap scene and the seriousness with which music was taken at that time.
Rock music was another genre that received a complete overhaul in the ’90s, with alternative rock cropping up everywhere. However, probably no single band was nearly as influential as the grunge rock of the murky, angsty, disillusioned Nirvana. Another tragic tale, the landscape of the rock and pop world, was forever rocked by this band, whose influences are still felt today.
3. Garth Brooks
Unlike rap and rock, both of which saw a significant upheaval in the ’90s, country music quietly plugged away with few breakout stars. Garth Brooks managed to make country more fun with his stadium appearances and approachable lyrics. He gave city folks a more relatable kind of pickin’ and grinnin’ than the standard twangy steel guitarist.
4. No Doubt
Led by Gwen Stefani’s musical vision, No Doubt was a quiet riot of strong, catchy lyrics with socially conscious overtones, all fronted by the classy yet aggressive Stefani. Doing a lot for women in rock, No Doubt helped break barriers for female-fronted bands that could truly kick the PA.
5. Pearl Jam
Among the more thoughtful of the grunge rockers, Pearl Jam was a little more soulful and melancholy than the disenfranchised ennui of Nirvana. Crooning at times and then switching over to rampant attacks against social injustice, Pearl Jam is a mix of human interest and derisive condemnation.
6. Snoop Dogg
Snoop didn’t always get high and make commentary on internet videos while he cooks with Martha Stewart. Instead, he used to get high and make really incredible music boasting street-level reality.
7. Destiny’s Child
Pop was soft and light in the ’90s, with Destiny’s Child and the incomparable Queen Bee Beyoncé Knowles landing in the latter part of the decade. Evidence that female minorities can bring the noise and empower. While they became the ninth biggest-selling group of the 2000s, there can be no escaping the fact that Destiny’s Child will look back at 1999 being the year that made them.
Hate them for being pretentious or adore their bold vision, Radiohead joined with oddity bands like Pink Floyd and Daft Punk as unique outlooks often not fully understood by the dominant culture. Proof that weirdos need love too, and that they should celebrate their oddities, rather than trying to be “normal.”
Though hardly a force these days, the inflammatory Marshall Mathers was the ’90s all over the place, even when we’d rather forget how obnoxious and intolerant we were back then.
10. Insane Clown Posse
I.C.P. rose in the ’90s, and their particular brand of vicious, downtrodden rap and screaming rock still speaks to those who spend their lives scraping along on the forgotten lower end of society.
11. The Offspring
Fun, fast, and playful, The Offspring show an offshoot of rock that none anticipated. While others were going the route of depression, The Offspring reveled in simple licks and a sense of wacky that was infectious, then would blindside with insight.
12. Whitney Houston
Celine Dion falls into this category too, but Houston really broke the mold of the true, classy diva. Every warbly-voiced young girl still emulates her vibrato singing, and her stage power is that of an operatic star turned pop singer.
Weirdness personified, the enigmatic Tool gets noticed as much for their oddball videos as for their industrial rocking and incisive, cerebral decrying of the establishment.
Largely considered to be the progenitors of Nerd Rock, Weezer rose to prominence during the ’90s with their debut studio album, “The Blue Album,” delivering two of their biggest hits to date: Buddy Holly and Say it ain’t so. It remains their biggest selling album.
15. Foo Fighters
Though it wouldn’t appear much in the actual ’90s, the rise of smart, thoughtful rock like Foo would become the norm over the next twenty years, proving the staying power and dominance of Dave Grohl, rocker, filmmaker, and human being extraordinaire.
Throwing Copper was a cornerstone album, and the spiritual, thoughtful, sometimes explosive band Live was one of the few groups that could make the human condition both soft and powerful.
The ’90s seemed built for R.E.M., with the odd pop-culture references of Stipe’s music. Though they came from the ’80s, R.E.M. defined the alt-rock segment of the community, leaving many to consider whether they were with or against this reflective rock bastard child.
18. Notorious B.I.G.
Though not as influential as Tupac, Biggie Smalls brought his own sad anthem to the mix, and he did it with a sense of style and swagger that genuinely made him the king.
19. Sheryl Crow
One of many pejoratively-named “girls with a guitar” that came out of the ’90s, women who were writers, singers, musicians, deadly talents, and stunningly beautiful, arrived in the ’90s with Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, and many others showing the heart and soul of rock and pop lies with the ladies.
Awkward and odd, Beck was a guy playing a rock star who actually became a rock star emulating himself. So strange, only the ’90s could have spawned him.
21. Nine Inch Nails
The angry industrial scene was dying out in the ’90s as the anger of the ’80s gave way to the Weltschmerz of grunge, but NIN was still out there screaming strong and renouncing God, offering anthems for the thrash metal crowd.
22. Alanis Morissette
One of the first ladies to make a pop/rock crossover that actually worked. Alanis Morissette was a vanguard who cemented empowerment for women in a new age. Though hardly Tina Turner or Aretha Franklin, Alanis had her own kind of sweet spirit but could transform into a lady tiger at a snap.
From their self-titled debut album with its string of hit singles wasn’t enough to make Garbage one of the best bands from the ’90s; the fact they also sang the title to the decade-closing Bond film confirms it.
The R&B, hip-hop trio of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas brought ghetto existence to life and gave voice to a community of women largely unheard.
25. Rage Against The Machine
Bob Dylan might have defined a generation with his protest songs about stopping the fall of bombs, but Rage is protest music for the new era. Polarizing and unrelenting, they’re the example to follow now more than ever: Caustic civil disobedience. Come back to us…
The only sound that accurately captures what it was like to be a teenage boy in the mid-1990s. Their second album, What’s the Story Morning Glory is one of the biggest selling albums of all the decade and will be fondly remembered for creating an entire attitude when it was released in 1995.
Seattle was responsible for a lot of great music through the 1990s, and while many may think of Nirvana, to a large number of music fans, Soundgarden is the band that best summarises 90s Washington music. Their fourth album Superunknown was released in 1994 and brought the band the biggest commercial success, cementing them in the hearts and ears of fans worldwide.
28. Spice Girls
When talking about music in the ’90s, it is impossible not to mention the Spice Girls. Love them or loathe them, any band that starts a movement as empowering, far-reaching, and long-lasting as Girl Power, deserves its place in the annals of history. They burned fast and they burned bright in the often dreary ’90s pop scene. Their debut album earned them the record as the best-selling album by an all-girl group ever. They followed it up with a masterfully managed media storm, that saw them capitalize on their fame by going all-in on their target demographic.
You could make a list of any decade (from the ’70s onwards) and Metallica will be on it somewhere. While the albums most music fans will cite as being their best work were released in the ’80s – Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, it was their first album of the ’90s – Metallica- that scored them their first-ever number one album. Topping the charts worldwide, it was certified 16x platinum. Two further albums and a string of sellout tours more than qualify them for a spot on the list.
30. Red Hot Chili Peppers
The chilies may have formed in the 1980s however it was their fifth album, released in 1991 Blood Sex Sugar Magik that made them the household name they are now. Despite member changes and a less than successful sixth album, they ended the decade with Californication which again propelled them into a new level of superstardom.
31. Alice in Chains
Seattle was the undisputed center of rock and grunge during the 1990s, and for the first half of the decade, Alice in Chains was one of the bands leading that charge. They had a string of successful albums that saw their popularity skyrocket. Sadly substance abuse problems saw the band all but disappear for over 14 years in 1995. It wasn’t until 2009 that they reformed and released the first of three further albums.
After forming in the mid-’70s, U2 faced early success yet was looking at a dreary future at the end of the ’80s. However, they went back to the drawing board, put in the hard work, and came back with a vengeance to claim their spot as one of the best bands of the ’90s. Achtung Baby was released in 1991 and represented a new look and sound for the band. They moved from strength to strength selling out every leg of every tour from 1990 through to 2016.
Time means nothing to Aerosmith. Despite forming in 1970 and seeing great success in the ’80s, there is no denying that the ’90s was a vital year for the band. All members had just completed rehab programs and taken a short break following their 1989 Pump album. They needed to hit it big and did so. Releasing their first ever number 1 album Get a Grip. Success continued for the group, who released several albums during the decade and of course, in 1998 provided some of the most important songs to the soundtrack to Armageddon.
34. Goo Goo Dolls
The Goo Goo Dolls hit their stride in the mid-nineties, reaching the dizzy heights of mainstream success in 1995 with their song Name. The band was further immortalized after they provided their career-defining single Iris to the movie City of Angels. The song spent 12 months in the charts including 18 weeks in the number one spot. While maybe not as mainstream successful as some of the other bands on this list, their placement is warranted, for they dared to stand out in an age of high competition.
A unique band that came to to the front in a unique time for music. Phish is known for its wide range of songs and the different ways in which they play them. Their claim to fame is never playing the same set twice. They are also renowned for their use of somewhat random props during their gigs, including vacuum cleaners and trampolines.
36. Dave Matthews Band
Rising to prominence in the mid-1990s the Dave Matthews Band hit the ground running and never looked back. Their third album – and their first as part of a major label – propelled them onto the main stage. Under the Table and Dreaming became a 6x platinum-selling album. DMB is a band that loves music. They love to jam, and as a result, they are said to never play a song the same way twice.
37. Smashing Pumpkins
Alt-rock legends the Smashing Pumpkins rose to international acclaim in the mid-’90s. Three consecutive albums achieved mainstream success and propelled them into superstardom. Siamese Dream got the group noticed, while the double-album follow-up Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, scored them the number one spot on the Billboard charts.
38. Stone Temple Pilots
Starting with the release of their 1991 debut album Core the Stone Temple Pilots went on to dominate the 1990’s music scene. Selling more than 40 million records globally. They released four albums through the ’90s, with one final release in 2001 before they went their separate ways. Reforming in 2008 the band is still together today and still owns a large amount of their success to the receptive ears of a ’90s audience.
39. Green Day
Dookie, the major-label debut for Green Day propelled them towards rock stardom. The tracks on the album set them up as one of the leading voices in the US punk rock love affair. Shifting over 10 million copies in the US alone, they followed this up with Insomniac and Nimrod. The latter of which went double platinum and cemented the group’s place as one of the best bands of the ’90s.
40. Guns n’ Roses
While they had already found some success in the 1980s, it was the release of their double-album Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II that really propelled the group into the hearts and minds of the music-loving public. The related tour ran from 1991- 1993 and saw them gain a near-cult following. They built their legacy off the back of the 1990s and in fact, it took fifteen years for them to get back into the recording studio following their 1993 Spaghetti Incident? cover album. Despite their lack of new material, Guns N’ Roses remain a highly popular band all thanks to the musical hotpot that was the 1990s.
41. The Cranberries
When their debut album Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? set the music-listening world ablaze in 1991 The Cranberries knew they had made it. The album saw the release of several hit singles including the timeless classic Linger. The ’90s saw the band record and release four albums, and became one of the biggest selling bands of the ’90s. They disbanded in 2019 after releasing one final album.
Nu metal was just a simmering craze when Korn started playing. However, their success saw them drag the genre into the mainstream, kicking and screaming all the way. They released their first four albums during the 1990s as they established themselves as a rock force to be reckoned with. Their third and fourth albums – Follow the Leader and Issues – both entered the charts at number 1.
43. Blink 182
A punk-pop-rock band, Blink 182 emerged in the tail end of the ’90s but had more than enough time to stake their claim for being one of the best. Their influential third album Enema of the State was released in 1999 and catapulted them to international acclaim. Unlike many of the artists on this list who either saw their heyday or only days in the ’90s, Blink 182 used it as the starting point and moved from strength to strength through the 2000s.
44. Jane’s Addiction
There will be some who dispute the placement of Jane’s Addiction on this list. After all, they disbanded in 1991 and spent the rest of the decade apart. However, their second album Ritual de lo Habitual was released in 1990 to critical acclaim, and their farewell tour resulted in the first annual alt-music festival Lolapalooza. If that doesn’t make them a culturally influential ’90s band then nothing will.
45. Counting Crows
After their debut album, August and Everything After saw Counting Crows receive two Grammy nominations their path to becoming one of the best bands of the ’90s was set. The remainder of the decade saw two more albums and a string of hits for the band including Big Yellow Taxi featuring Vanessa Carlton. While the pressures of fame took their toll on the band, they continued making music through the ’90s and beyond, steadily building a legacy.
When it comes to heavy metal, there are not many acts like Pantera. After forming in 1986 they pioneered the groove-metal genre finding their feet in the 1990s. Their fifth album Cowboys from Hell saw their popularity begin to grow. Their following album Vulgar Display of Power saw them further set themselves among the metal greats, before dominating the charts with their seventh album Far Beyond Driven, which debuted at number one on the Billboard charts.
47. Matchbox 20
Formed in 1995, Matchbox 20 saw their greatest successes from their debut album Yourself or Someone Like You, which went certified 12x platinum. They released one more album in the ’90s and while it was not as big as their debut, it still hit double-platinum. While they were not the most active band on the list in terms of new music production, Matchbox 20 has left a lasting legacy that sees them still the topic of conversation to this day.
48. The Black Crowes
Formed in 1984 the band hit the ground running with their debut album Shake Your Money Maker which was released in 1990. It went multi-platinum and saw 6 different singles released. Their second album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion topped the charts and while they released three further albums in the ’90s, none of them hit the same heights as their first two albums.
49. Faith No More
Album sales are important, but they are not everything. Many of the names on this list have sold more music than alternative rock band Faith No More. However, few can claim to have been as influential and experimental. Unafraid to step out of their comfort zone and try something new. If the 1990s were the era to experiment musically, then Faith No More took that to heart. Perhaps their commercial successes would have been greater had they been more focused on one sound, however, their impact would have been far less grand.
50. Limp Bizkit
A band that arrived late and in style to the party, Limp Bizkit earned their stripes in the underground music scene before releasing their debut album Three Dollar Bill, Y’all to much hype and adulation in 1997. Their second album Significant Other was released in 1999 and propelled them into the mainstream spotlight. Riding the high wave out of the 1990s, it is only fair that Limp Bizkit is the group to round off our list of the best bands of the ’90s.
As mentioned at the start, there is no shortage of bands that could warrant a place on this list. So let’s take a look at a few honorable mentions. These bands were all HUGE in their time and could easily be placed among the best bands of the ’90s.
- Marylin Manson
- Deaf Tones
- The Calling
- The Verve
- Wu-Tang Clan
- The WallFlowers
- Barenaked Ladies
- Sonic Youth
- Babes in Toyland
All of the above bands made enormous contributions to music in the 1990s. Whether it is because of a single track or because of their continued ability to push the boundaries both in their chosen genre and within the industry as a whole.
Final Thoughts on the Best Bands of the ’90s
Music is a strange phenomenon. One song can be received as great or crap by different ears. People who generally share the same tastes can find themselves at loggerheads when it comes to a certain track, album, or artist. That’s the beauty of music. It speaks directly to our souls, and be it words, melody, or a combination of everything.
Music creates a resonance that moves us to the very core of our being. That personal touch is what makes defining a list so hard. What’s good for one is not necessarily good for the other. We hope to have captured a rounded image of music from the 1990s. It was a hard era in many ways, coming off the back of the ’70s and ’80s. The weight of expectation was heavy. For many, it disappointed by comparison, however, as we have shown if you dig, there were a lot of great sounds out there.
Don’t be shy. Hit us up in the comments with your thoughts and feelings. Did we list your favourite band? Perhaps there is a name you feel is glaringly obvious in its omission. We’d also love to hear your musical memories of the ’90s. Concerts you attended, festivals you went to, artists you met along the way.