15 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Rock Bands Of The 1990s

Written by Laura Macmillan
Last updated

The 1990s rock music scene paved the way for some of the most influential subgenres of rock music to date. During this time, many artists began changing their sound following the previous decade’s success with power ballads, while others were just getting their start on their road to the rock hall of fame.

Grunge, nu-metal, and punk-pop became the genres to listen to and somewhat surprising staples in rock subgenres. Rock music became a fantastic mash-up of different sounds throughout the decade that had a resounding effect on the generation.

So without further ado, here are 15 of the greatest and most famous rock bands of the 1990s. Read on!

1. Nirvana

Consisting of lead singer Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and original drummer Aaron Burckhard, Nirvana paved the way for the birth of grunge in the 1990s with their fusion of metal and punk sounds.

In 1991, their second album, Nevermind, boosted them with immense commercial and critical success. The single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” helped in making it a multi-Platinum album.

By 1992 Nirvana had topped the charts as #1 on the Billboard top 200 albums chart and had begun touring the EU after releasing their third and last album, In Utero, which was also a chart-topper.

Sadly, the group disbanded after Cobain’s death in 1994. However, they had, by this time, cemented their reputation as one of the greatest bands and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

2. Pearl Jam

Like Nirvana, Pearl Jam exploded into the grunge scene with their 1991 debut album, Ten. The album didn’t gain speed until the latter half of 1992, becoming known for its dark lyrics surrounding depression, loneliness, and suicide.

The band’s success continued throughout the decade as they released another four albums. Other charting songs worth noting are “I Got Id,” “Last Kiss,” and “Jeremy.”

Pearl Jam encountered a few changes in its lineup over the years and faced some controversy through the grunge scene with Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain.

Cobain referred to Pearl Jam as “a sellout” and implied that they weren’t truly an alternative band. However, the two bands did end up reconciling before Cobain’s death in 1994.

3. Soundgarden

Among the first in the grunge scene came Soundgarden, who were formed in 1985 but didn’t see much success until their album Superunknown came out in 1994.

They won two Grammy’s for their singles “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman.” The album included some of Soundgarden’s best songs, with “Black Hole Sun” becoming one of their first #1 hits on the Billboard top 200.

The band chose to disband towards the end of the decade in 1997 due to exhaustion. But thankfully for fans, they reunited in 2010 and continued to play for seven more years until leader Chris Cornell passed away.

4. Metallica

Heavy metal band Metallica’s legacy began in 1983 when they received its first record deal and produced the album Kill ‘Em All.

However, the band truly became a staple for American rock music after the release of their self-titled album in 1991, where they changed their sound from a harsh thrash metal to a softer, much simpler hark-rock style.

The self-titled album became #1 across the globe almost immediately, winning Metallica American and MTV music awards, as well as a Grammy.

Throughout the decade, the band released four more albums that sold millions of copies and included some of their most popular songs to date, including “Enter Sandman,” “Nothing Else Matters,” and “Until It Sleeps.”

5. Radiohead

Consisting of guitarist and singer Thom Yorke, guitarist Ed O’Brien, bassist Colin Greenwood, drummer Phillip Selway, and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, the band Radiohead was formed in 1985.

Originally named On a Friday, the group didn’t see very much early success until their name change and debut album Pablo Honey was released in 1993. It featured the single “Creep,” which quickly rose to #34 on the Billboard top 100 charts and #7 on the UK singles chart.

Throughout the ’90s, the band released two more albums, closing the millennium with their most iconic album of all, OK, Computer, which won them a Grammy nomination in 1998.

6. Weezer

Hailing from Los Angeles, Weezer formed in 1992 and saw almost immediate success after its first album release in 1994. The eponymous album, often referred to as the Blue Album, rapidly became their best-selling album and is now certified quadruple Platinum throughout the US and Canada.

Their single, “Buddy Holly,” which featured in the debut album, won multiple awards for best music video and became a hit worldwide.

Weezer continued releasing music ever since, with 14 more albums and 7 number-one hits in the US alternatives chart. Overall, they have sold more than 35 million albums.

7. Alice In Chains

Our next band, Alice In Chains, brought heavy grunge to the 1990s by incorporating more metal themes into their sound than other bands of the decade.

Alice In Chains originally came together in the early ’80s. It underwent many changes in lineup and names until the group finally settled on a band name in the late ’80s and began production of their first album released in 1990, Facelift.

They quickly became one of the biggest successes in grunge as their single “Man in the Box” became a regular hit on MTV’s music video rotation.

By 1995, they released three more phenomenal albums before going on hiatus in 1996 due to member Layne Staley’s battle with heroin addiction.

8. Guns N’ Roses

Formed by Axl Rose and Tracii Guns in 1985 with other members Izzy Stradlin, Rob Gardner, and Ole Biech, Guns N’ Roses is one of the most iconic 1990s rock bands.

The band went through a few lineup changes and experienced mass popularity and controversy throughout its early years, leading to threats of the members disbanding.

In 1991, the band released the albums Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, which quickly topped the charts, claiming both #1 and #2 spots.

Even though the band continued to achieve success internationally, they were also experiencing massive amounts of fighting amongst each other. By 1995, most of the original members were gone.

9. Red Hot Chili Peppers

Formed by Kiedis, Flea, Jack Irons, and Hillel Slovak, the Red Hot Chili Peppers began making music in 1983 and released their first album the year after.

However, they didn’t really hit the mainstream until they released their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, in 1991, which included the single “Give It Away” and brought them to #1 on the best modern rock charts.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers found much more success following the addition of guitarist Dave Navarro in 1994. He brought more funky, psychedelic guitar sounds to their heavy metal songs that is predominant in their album One Hot Minute and later Californication.

10. U2

By the start of the 1990s, U2 had already experienced massive success from their debut album, Boy, which came out in 1980.

Riding that wave of success, the band decided to change their sound at the turn of the decade. They went for electronic/industrial dance music and alternative rock that can be heard in their seventh album, Achtung Baby, released in 1991.

U2 released two more albums throughout the ’90s, making their electronic alternative sound classic for the decade. Then nothing new came until 2000, when they released two-time Grammy-award winning album All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

11. Foo Fighters

Drummer Dave Grohl formed Foo Fighters following the devastating loss of Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain.

Grohl recorded and produced the Foo Fighters’ self-titled debut album with the intention of it being a solo project in 1994. When it got so much interest from record labels, he decided to form a full-fledged rock band.

The Foo Fighters became a full band lineup and released their second album, The Colour and the Shape, in 1997.

The band quickly became a mainstream staple for rock music and closed out the decade with their Grammy award-winning album There Is Nothing Left to Lose.

12. Green Day

High school friends Billie Joe Armstrong and Mike Dirnt, along with other members, formed Green Day in 1987, but the band didn’t explode until the release of their 1994 album Dookie.

Their punk-pop sounds quickly became anthems for high schoolers across America, selling over 10 million copies and being featured as a regular MTV rotation.

In 1996, the band released their next album Insomniac. This album did not bring as many sales as their previous album, but it did earn multiple nominations for the American, MTV, and Grammy music awards.

The album Nimrod, released in 1997, also won a music award for its single “Good Riddance.” Their works earned them a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.

13. The Smashing Pumpkins

In 1991, the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins entered the rock scene with their first album, Gish. They featured a unique sound that mashed together heavy metal guitar themes with psychedelic and pop.

The band experienced some fighting among the members as they began recording their second album, Siamese Dream, which landed #10 on the Billboard 200.

Despite the band’s internal fighting, in 1995, they released their third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which earned them several Grammy nominations, including Best Album of the Year.

14. Blink-182

The wave of ’90s punk brought Blink-182 into the rock music scene in 1995 with their first album release, Cheshire Cat. Later that year, the band set off on its first tour in the states.

In 1996, Blink-182 released their second album, Dude Ranch, which became quickly mainstreamed on radio stations nationwide. And the following year, the band was featured on its first Warped Tour, becoming a household favorite among punk-pop and skater fans everywhere.

The band followed their success with their 1999 album, Enema of the State, selling over 15 million copies and reaching #6 on the Billboard top 100 chart. It contained “What’s My Age Again?” which landed on #2 on the alternatives chart.

15. Pantera

From Texas, heavy metal band Pantera was founded in 1983. However, they had some difficulty realizing its sound.

They did not truly find their place in the mainstream rock music scene until 1990, when they released their fifth album, Cowboys from Hell, which became the album that transformed the band’s sound from heavier metal into more of a mid-tempo thrash metal sound.

Pantera’s success took off as the decade progressed with the albums Far Beyond Driven in 1994 and The Great Southern Trendkill in 1996.

Both albums received nominations for Grammy awards. Wrapping up the decade came the band’s fourth Grammy-winning album, Reinventing The Steel, which became the band’s last one.

Summing Up Our List Of 1990s Rock Bands

The 1990s brought many phenomenal new sounds to the rock music genre. Many of these bands became household favorites and iconic inspirations for new-age rock moving into the early 2000s and even the modern day.

However, this list is far from complete. Who did we miss off that you think should be included? Let us know and we’ll add them in!

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Laura has over 12 years experience teaching both classical and jazz saxophone and clarinet. She now resides in California where she works as a session and live performer.