A few months ago, Vice published a massive survey of 50 of the most memorable “landfill indie” tracks, that short-lived genre that rose in the wake of bands like the Arctic Monkeys to dominate charts at home and abroad for a few years. Because I’m old, it had me thinking about a similar wave of equally maligned bands from the early to mid-90s. Even as Seattle became the “birthplace of grunge,” indie artists primarily inspired by R.E.M. and the Replacements were getting signed, putting out one hit if they were lucky and then disappearing forever.
By early 1996 Oasis had started to hit and the new wave of Britpop pretty much sealed the coffin for landfill alternative, although as you’ll see a few sneaky entrants made their way through all the way until 2000. Every so often, a single will still hit the radio that carries the same spirit — “Pumped Up Kicks” is a great example, as is “Rude” — but the kids are over it. I’m not, though, so here are my picks for 50 essential landfill alternative tracks.
Miracle Legion — Snacks And Candy
What better band to start this off with than the group whose members would go on to record the theme for Nickelodeon’s The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, the quirky kids TV show that would embody many of the key aesthetics of the landfill alternative era. Miracle Legion, like many of the bands on this list, hailed from New England and started out in the 1980s as a R.E.M. clone. By the 90s, they’d been winnowed down to a duo and released Drenched, the only album ever put out on Morgan Creek Records.
My Friend Steve — Charmed
By the end of the 1990s, the most coveted achievement for a landfill alternative band was to land a slot doing the theme song for a sitcom (see how the Friends theme basically made the Rembrandts financially solvent). Unfortunately for Florida’s My Friend Steve, the short-lived Zoey, Duncan, Jack and Jane was no Friends, and “Charmed” didn’t end up having the same cultural impact. The group dissolved shortly into the 21st century.
The Caulfields — Devil’s Diary
Naming a band after the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is a landfill alternative move so spot-on it’s almost parody. Delaware’s The Caulfields entered the game fairly late with their debut album in 1995, but “Devil’s Diary” charted in Australia (a nation that had a long-running affinity for the genre) and shows a slightly harder edge coming to the music, but delivers an anthemic chorus that still works. A&M fired their rep two weeks before their second album dropped, always a good sign.
Chalk Farm — Lie On Lie
Is there any more fitting way for a landfill alternative band to close out the 1990s than by being the group playing at the bar in the last scene of Coyote Ugly? Los Angeles’s Chalk FarM (yes, they capitalized the M) always seemed polished and inauthentic even by the standards of the genre, and their album underperformed so badly that Columbia dropped them before giving them a second shot.
Lotion — Tear
New York indie band Lotion briefly seemed like Manhattan’s next big thing after a series of well-received singles and a solid first album, which spawned the single “Tear.” In one of the most legendary landfill alternative moves of all time, they somehow got Thomas Pynchon to write the liner notes for their sophomore release Nobody’s Cool because his accountant was the drummer’s mother. It didn’t do much to spike sales and the group went on hiatus in 2001.
Tonic — If You Could Only See
This justifiably forgotten Los Angeles band formed in 1993, right at the peak of the alternative boom, and were notorious for contributing tracks to movie soundtracks including Scream 2 and Clay Pigeons. The breakthrough track from their debut album, “If You Could Only See,” is tailor-made for this list. It was a massive radio smash in 1997, hit #1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock charts, was one of the most-played songs in the country, and absolutely nobody remembers it today.
Live — Selling The Drama
Formed in York, Pennsylvania by a bunch of high schoolers, Live muddled through the 1980s before signing to Radioactive. Unlike many of the bands on this list, their sophomore release, Throwing Copper, was the breakthrough album that spawned a number of hit singles. Live often wobbled into the post-grunge camp and singer Ed Kowalczyk liked to take his shirt off, but the first single, “Selling The Drama,” was absolutely landfill indie.
Deadeye Dick — New Age Girl
This New Orleans trio had a radio hit with this single from their self-produced first album, and they’d shortly be signed to Ichiban, a Georgia-based label that spent a lot of money in the 90s on bands that didn’t pan out. This song would land on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack, quite correctly identified by @NecroButcher187 on Twitter as a touchstone for landfill indie. Incredibly stupid lyrics — “She don’t eat meat, but she sure likes the bone,” in this case — would become a hallmark of the genre.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters — Bittersweet
There’s definitely an overlap between landfill alternative and the burgeoning 90s jam band scene, and many jam groups would tone down the noodling for crossover singles. Colorado-born Big Head Todd and the Monsters followed the H.O.R.D.E. Festival with the release of their major label debut Sister Sweetly on Giant, which went platinum and hung around the bottom half of the album charts for an entire year. The lead single, “Bittersweet,” was a re-recording of a tune from one of their earlier albums and became ubiquitous for a few months on weepy boy mixtapes.
Sprung Monkey — Get ’Em Outta Here
A spectre constantly hovering in the background of 1990s alternative was the whiteboy funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and a few landfill bands enjoyed a flirtation with that chickenscratch guitar sound. One of the most notable was San Diego’s Sprung Monkey, who were experts at getting songs placed in some of the decade’s least essential movies like National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. They were also the musical guests playing at the Bronze on the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer — now that’s a club that booked more than its share of artists on this list.
School Of Fish — 3 Strange Days
A lot of these bands started out as just some buddies fooling around, then the universe converged in synergy, gave them a single hit and immediately returned to normal. School Of Fish started as a duo in Los Angeles, added a rhythm section, then quickly got signed to Capitol. Their debut album spawned the single “3 Strange Days,” which hit #6 on the Billboard Alternative charts. You know the story by now — sophomore album didn’t perform, band got dropped, a tale as old as time.
Vertical Horizon — Everything You Want
This track was a massive hit in 1999 for the Georgetown-based band that had been putting in work since 1991. Vertical Horizon signed with RCA in 1998 and the label re-issued their indie releases before following them up with Everything You Want. The title track was the second single and it was absolutely unavoidable for a few months, hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Adult Top 40 charts. And just as suddenly as it came, Vertical Horizon was gone — label restructuring sunk their next release, and in the mid-2000s they started collaborating with Neil Peart of Rush.
Toad The Wet Sprocket — Walk On The Ocean
With a ridiculous name swiped from a Monty Python sketch, Toad the Wet Sprocket were an unlikely success story in the early 90s with their deeply generic radio-ready alt-rock. The group had a number of charting singles, but the one that most ably embodied LA was “Walk On The Ocean,” with its inoffensive guitar strumming and curiously farty bass tones leading into a heavy-harmony chorus with a little violin, why not?
Dog’s Eye View — Everything Falls Apart
After forming in 1994, it was a short path for Dog’s Eye View to get signed to Sony on the recommendation of Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows. That’s just how things happened back then. Dog’s Eye View had a solid performer on VH1, which was a potent tastemaker for landfill alternative, with “Everything Falls Apart,” but couldn’t make anything happen after that and after two further albums decided to call it a day.
Hazel — Dayglo
A lot of bands in this era had gimmicks, and Portland’s Hazel had a doozy — a massive bearded man who danced crazily on-stage while they knocked out brisk, poppy indie anthems like “Dayglo.” They were actually pretty great, with dueling vocals from Jody Bleyle and Pete Krebs coming together on the big parts, but they never managed to break through to that next level despite having some MTV airplay and landing on a few compilations.
Loud Lucy — Ticking
In contrast to grunge, which had a very specific regional focus, landfill alternative bands popped up everywhere. There were a few nexuses, though — Boston was a big one, and several groups hailed from the Midwest as well. Chicago’s Loud Lucy signed to DGC, flush with Nirvana money and looking to spend it, in 1995. Led by singer-songwriter Christian Lane, they dropped one marginal hit in “Ticking” before splitting up just two years later. The hooks were certainly solid but nothing made them stand out from the ocean of similar bands doing the same thing.
Black Lab — Wash It Away
So many of these bands feel like they should be remembered more than they are. Idaho-based Black Lab had a song on the Spider-Man soundtrack, were called the “American U2” and toured with Our Lady Peace, but you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who can tell you what they sounded like. Their second act pivot included a 2007 album of electronica remixes, but the big hit was “Wash It Away” from their debut album. Their label went out of business at the end of the decade, leaving them unable to advance their career beyond a respectable start.
Sixteen Deluxe — Idea
This Austin-based band were the beneficiaries of the Butthole Surfers signing to a major label, as King Coffey used some of his cash to start a label of his own. “Idea” was Sixteen Deluxe’s first single and it got them on MTV’s 120 Minutes and signed to Warner Brothers a few years later. This is definitely on the harder end of landfill alternative, but it packs a radio-ready hook behind the squalling guitars.
Agents Of Good Roots — Come On
Richmond, Virginia-based Agents Of Good Roots were notable for singer/ bassist Stewart Myers’ rasp, caused by larynx damage as a kid. They got signed to RCA and had a pair of singles do moderately well in 1998 from their sole major-label release, but swiftly faded back into obscurity. “Come On” is a perfect example of the kind of audio wallpaper that landfill alternative excelled in — a perfectly competent song that you forget the instant it’s over.
The Buck Pets — Pearls
Texas’s Buck Pets have a classic 90s alt-rock origin story — they got signed to a major label, in their case Island, pretty early on in their lives and then struggled to show that they were financially feasible. When Island sold to PolyGram in 1990, right as their sophomore album Mercurotones was releasing, it marked the end of their label’s interest in them. It’s a shame, because they’re actually one of the more underrated acts from this era, with solid songwriting coupled with harder guitars. The opening line of “Pearls” is an iconic hook, too.
The Lowest Of The Low — Rosy And Grey
In many ways Canada was a second home for landfill alternative, as content broadcasting rules made unlikely stars out of bands that wouldn’t have made it otherwise. In the first half of the 90s, many music writers considered the Lowest of the Low as one of the most influential groups in the country, and their debut album Shakespeare My Butt (oof) became the best-selling indie album in Canadian history. The pick single was “Rosy and Grey,” which has a sonic texture that perfectly encapsulates the genre — a little Irish in the guitar leads, a little adenoids in the vocals, a little harmony in the choruses.
The Why Store — Lack Of Water
Indiana-born The Why Store might fall a little closer to the post-grunge basket due to singer Chris Shaffer’s gravelly voice, which definitely has a little hint of the Vedder to it, but the other bits of the band’s sound — the jaunty guitars and harmonies in the chorus — make it definitely qualify as landfill alternative. “Lack Of Water” went to the top spot on Billboard’s AAA chart for two weeks in 1996, but the group split up in 2000.
The Judybats — Native Son
Knoxville’s Judybats got signed to Sire at the start of the decade and swiftly secured a slot opening for R.E.M. on their tour next year, as coveted a landfill alternative coup as you could get. They knocked out an album pretty much every year in the first half of the decade through many lineup changes, but never managed to break through to that next level. “Native Son,” the title track of their first Sire album, had a video made and definitely sums up their sound.
Geggy Tah — Whoever You Are
You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Geggy Tah” was the name of some undiscovered Jamaican reggae singer, but the Pomona-born alt band was actually named after mispronunciations of the two main guys’ names. They signed to Daivd Byrne’s Luaka Bop label in the early 90s and dropped a few albums of almost insufferably quirky alt-pop. “Whoever You Are” managed to chart, but label issues with their third record prevented them from capitalizing with a follow-up. At their peak, they even had a toll-free fan line at 1–888-GEGGY-TAH.
Michael Penn — Seen The Doctor
The early 90s were a prime period for post-Lyle Lovett white guy singer-songwriters, and Michael Penn cashed in. His 1989 debut March is a solid platter that did well, but by 1992 he was solidly lumped in with a wave of similar talents. The second single from Free-for-All, “Seen The Doctor,” is a hooky little number with a self-consciously arty video and a great chorus. Penn transitioned into soundtrack music, working with Paul Thomas Anderson and on a bunch of HBO shows.
Grant Lee Buffalo — Lone Star Song
A sort of yearning for the American West characterized a lot of 90s indie music, and L.A.-based Grant Lee Buffalo definitely tapped into that. Originally formed as a rawk outfit called Shiva Burlesque, they changed their name (inspired by lead singer Grant-Lee Phillips) in 1991 and embarked on a reliable career of B-level alt-rock. “Lone Star Song,” off of 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon, was as good a track about Texas as a guy from Stockton could ever write. Phillips went on to perhaps the ultimate landfill alternative post-career ever as the town troubadour on Gilmore Girls.
The Bogmen — Suddenly
This Long Island band started playing music together in the late 1970s as high school kids and ground away on the Suffolk County bar scene for a decade and a half before being signed to Arista. The 1995 album Life Begins At 40 Million was produced by Jerry Harrison and, even by landfill alternative standards, is eminently forgettable. “Suddenly,” one of the singles, boasts numerous genre cliches — a found sound / answering machine intro, semi-spoken word bridges, pop culture references and jangly guitars. Their next album was produced by Bill Laswell of all people!
Huffamoose — Wait
Philadelphia-bred indie band Huffamoose labored in relative obscurity through most of the 1990s before scoring radio placement with “Wait” in ’98. They were signed to Interscope, which was in many ways the seminal label of the 1990s, home to a staggering number of one-hit wonders due to their philosophy of putting more trust in A&R reps and picking up both niche bands from around the country and some of the most important hip-hop artists in the world. Huffamoose broke up and then got back together with their original lineup in 2018 after 14 years off.
Frente — Bizarre Love Triangle
This Aussie band demonstrates a landfill alternative power move: the quirky cover song. They called their record “Marvin The Album,” and though it charted at home they only broke through in the States courtesy of a New Order track they did a skiffle version of for an EP. “Bizarre Love Triangle” was tacked on to the CD release and briefly started a thing for Frente on alternative radio. They landed a spot on the Melrose Place soundtrack, but their sophomore album didn’t deliver any songs and they broke up in 1997.
The Dambuilders — Shrine
Boston-by-way-of-Hawaii group the Dambuillders basically stumbled into a major label deal with EastWest, and against all odds they delivered a charting single with “Shrine,” an unusual track that combined noisy guitars with electric violin played by Joan “As Police Woman” Wasser. There’s a lot of energy at play here, and although it doesn’t quite hang together it’s a good snapshot of where indie was in the early 90s as grunge was collapsing under its own weight.
The Refreshments — Banditos
Tempe, Arizona-based Refreshments were an early 90s SXSW success story, being signed to Mercury shortly after coming together. Their first album featured the single “Banditos” which hit #1 on the Billboard Heatseeker list and fell off just as quickly. By their second album, Mercury had lost interest and dropped them soon after, a common thread on this list. They did go on to write the King of the Hill theme, so there’s probably some royalties still coming from that.
Nada Surf — Popular
There’s a lot of overlap between landfill alternative and “songs of the summer,” jams that are inescapable for a three-month period and then are never heard or thought of again. New York’s Nada Surf dominated 1996 with this track, which features the talking-style vocals that you’ll see a lot on this list. The lyrics were entirely lifted from a self-help book for teens, a meta “we’re so smart” move if I’ve ever heard one. Produced by Ric Ocasek of the Cars, who did a lot of journeyman work with bands around this time, the song charted but Nada Surf couldn’t catch another wave in the future, despite continuing to release albums and tour.
Third Eye Blind — Semi-Charmed Life
The last gasp of landfill alternative happened at around the rise of Britpop, and San Francisco’s Third Eye Blind got their big break opening for Oasis. Their debut album launched a flotilla of singles, but the one that grabbed the zeitgeist most potently was “Semi-Charmed Life,” which coupled power-pop dooting, half-rapped vocals, clipped, jangly guitars and lyrics about crystal meth. Huge hit, appeared in dozens of soundtracks, and Third Eye Blind are still together. Did you know that in 2012 they released a digital single in support of Occupy Wall Street?
A House — Endless Art
Aesthetically this one lands outside of some of our prescribed boundaries but the ubiquity of Irish band A House’s albums in 99 cent bins throughout the decade means they have to get in here. These guys have been all but forgotten by history but were actually pretty great, capable of a wide range of tonalities. The 1991 single “Endless Art” was their one stab at the big time, a quirky spoken-word piss take on aesthetics, but their label at the time wasn’t able to press product fast enough to keep up with demand and it soon faded like a fart in the wind.
Gigolo Aunts — Where I Find My Heaven
It’s not fair to characterize Potsdam, NY-born Gigolo Aunts as a 90s cash-in, considering the principals started playing music together in middle school. They soldiered through the 80s in the Boston area before signing with RCA in 1994. The album that came from that, Flippin’ Out, finally brought them mainstream attention, with the lead single “Where I Find My Heaven” appearing on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack. The group continued to play on and off until disbanding in 2002.
Dishwalla — Counting Blue Cars
You’d be hard-pressed to name a more 90s lyrical choice than using female pronouns for God in your lyrics, but back in the day Dishwalla singer J.R. Richards got actual death threats for doing just that in the band’s sole hit, “Counting Blue Cars.” Dishwalla came out of nowhere to get signed to a major in 1994 and had a knack for landing tracks on compilations and soundtracks, notably slacker comedy Empire Records, which featured “Counting Blue Cars.” and faded out soon after, with Richards ousted from the band in 2005.
Primitive Radio Gods — Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With My Money In My Hand
One of the most common threads in landfill alternative is a sort of world-weary intellectualism, the feeling like the band is too smart for this shit. California-based Primitive Radio Gods leveraged that on their 1996 single “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With My Money In My Hand,” which blended minimal looping percussion, a B.B. King sample and a world-weary ballad. The demo for this song got them signed to Columbia Records and landed the track on the Cable Guy soundtrack.
Pete Droge — If You Don’t Love Me (I’ll Kill Myself)
Hailing from damp hippie hideaway Vashon Island outside of Seattle, troubadour Pete Droge briefly looked like he was going to be another Seattle breakout artist — giving us the third track on this list from the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack — but his career never really got out of low gear. This song is an absolute time capsule of alt-rock trends in 1994, with its head-bobbing rhythm and ironic chorus. Post-90s highlights include a cameo performance in Almost Famous and a song in a Toyota Sequoia commercial.
Cowboy Mouth — Jenny Says
Almost completely forgotten today, New Orleans’ Cowboy Mouth were one of those groups that had a rabid local following. MCA picked them up in 1996 and had them re-record “Jenny Says” for the album Are You With Me? Even though they got dropped from the label a few years later, they’ve continued to soldier on, hitting that sweet spot where just enough devoted fans turn up to keep them financially feasible. In 2008 they tried a classic landfill alternative move — write a song about a famous person — and “Kelly Ripa” got them a live performance on Live With Regis & Kelly.
Jude — Rick James
Another Boston-born singer-songwriter, the mononymical Jude was a late-90s signee to Maverick, Madonna’s vanity label that dabbled in all sorts of genres with minimal success. His album No One Is Really Beautiful spawned a pair of late-term landfill alternative cuts. The most notable was “Rick James,” which paired skiffle guitar with processed, mechanical drums and Jude’s flat, nasal talk-singing. He left the label (after the third album was released on September 11, 2001!) and went into movie and TV music, including writing one of the DriveSHAFT songs for Lost.
For Squirrels — Mighty K.C.
It’s easy to divide the 90s in half with the death of Kurt Cobain in the middle. Grunge was already collapsing under its own bloat in 1993, but the next few years would see bands reckon with what it all meant. Gainesville, Florida was about as far from Seattle as possible, but indie band For Squirrels penned an ode to Cobain for their debut major label album, Example. Sadly, a van crash took the lives of half of the band just months before it was released, but “Mighty K.C.” charted.
Presidents Of The USA — Peaches
This Seattle-based band definitely surfed on the grunge wave to get signed to Columbia in 1995, but their sound was light-years away from the stereotype. Featuring irresistible riffage (swiped from Bad Company!) and deeply stupid lyrics, this was an unexpected hit when it hit the airwaves in 1996 and was even nominated for a Grammy. The Presidents put out five more albums before disbanding in 2015.
Buffalo Tom — Sodajerk
Boston’s Buffalo Tom had a solid indie pedigree courtesy of their friendship with Dinosaur Jr, but they quickly pivoted into catchy pop-alternative. “Sodajerk” was probably their biggest hit, landing them on the soundtrack for My So-Called Life, but they continued to have midlevel success throughout the decade. Like many of their contemporaries, they went into hibernation at the beginning of the new millennium but have popped up for a few new albums and tours since then.
Blind Melon — No Rain
The rain-soaked misery of Seattle grunge prompted a backlash shortly thereafter, and one of the biggest beneficiaries was poppy folk-rockers Blind Melon. “No Rain” took almost a year to chart after the album’s release, but once it hit MTV it was inescapable, buoyed by a charmingly weird little video featuring a tap dancing girl in a bee costume. Blind Melon definitely skirted the borders of landfill alternative, enjoying showy dual guitar work and a little too much self-confidence, but the track is an absolute touchstone.
The Cavedogs — Boy In The Plastic Bubble
Another Boston band that briefly flirted with bigger things, the Cavedogs boasted strong power-pop hooks and harmonies but couldn’t stand out in the early 1990s. Capitol dropped them after their second album, Soul Martini, failed to chart, but it did bring us “Boy In The Plastic Bubble,” which chugs along cheerfully while singer / drummer Mark Rivers uses the immunocompromised lad as a metaphor for modern love.
Dada — Dizz Knee Land
California trio Dada went heavy on the harmonies to bring this unexpected radio hit from their debut 1992 album. You can hear the obvious Michael Stipe influences in bassist-singer Joe Calio’s voice — R.E.M. were one of the biggest touchstones for an entire generation of these bands, and this could absolutely have been a Green B-side. By the time their sophomore album hit in 1994, label I.R.S. was on its way out of business. They continued to gig on and off and even reformed for a 25th anniversary tour in 2017.
Odds — Heterosexual Man
Canadian power-pop quartet Odds were one of many B.C. bands drafting off of the attention paid to nearby Seattle. They gigged like crazy through the late 80s and eventually got signed to Zoo, a label that was wildly prolific in the early 90s. The lead single from 1993’s Bedbugs upped the Can-Con by casting three Kids in the Hall in the video. This is a perfect example of landfill alternative: not terrifically proficient singing, snide lyrics, gimmicky guitar and an undeniable chorus hook.
Lemonheads — Mrs. Robinson
The semi-ironic cover was a key move in the landfill alternative playbook, and nobody leveraged it quite like Evan Dando. During the 80s Evan Dando and crew practiced a sloppy punk-influenced sound, but after being signed to Atlantic he decided to clean up his act and transformed into a chugging power-pop group that traded on his babyface charm. This Simon & Garfunkel cover was the breakthrough hit but, like most of the bands here, didn’t carry over into continued success despite Sassy magazine drooling over Dando every issue.
Gin Blossoms — Hey Jealousy
One of the purest distillations of the genre possible, “Hey Jealousy” has a classic landfill alternative origin story — it was on the indie debut, 1989’s Dusted, and when the major label follow-up didn’t have a hit, the Gin Blossoms re-recorded it while also firing lead guitarist and songwriter Doug Hopkins from the group. “Hey Jealousy” became a massive hit, Hopkins killed himself, and the rest of the band went on to become staples of movie soundtracks and late-night talk show appearances before breaking up in ’97. The song still slaps, though — great hooks, solid lyrics — and it’s a shame that Hopkins didn’t get to benefit from what he created.
Paul Westerberg — Dyslexic Heart
The Replacements were by no means LA, but when Paul Westerberg went solo with two tracks on the Singles soundtrack, he almost single-handedly established the genre. Acoustic guitar, strummed with moderate urgency. A non-verbal vocal hook leading us into the verses, which are too smart for their own good. Although Singles is best remembered as a tombstone for the grunge era, it also ushered in landfill alternative as a mainstream thing. The clues were all there on All Shook Down, the pseudo-Mats release from 1990, but it took Paul coming out under his own name to really cement it.
Thanks to Maura Johnston for consulting on this piece. If you enjoyed it, consider backing me on Patreon — a dollar a month gets you new content every day.