Alternative rock still dominated popular music in 1993. This obviously begged the question of just how “alternative” something was if it was now on a major label and on the radio. Not necessarily a bad thing. After all, we’d never have to hear Whitesnake again.
Bottom end and distortion returned to rock record-making in a big way. The age of records mixed on a coke binge and sounding shrieky and thin—loaded down with synthesizers and gated reverb drums, getting compressed all to hell—was over. As such, loads of heavy-metal bands stopped washing their hair and bought flannel shirts and pre-distressed jeans at JCPenney, hoping punters would mistake them for the latest Seattle exports.
Major labels continued waving checkbooks at the underground, praying they’d find their Nirvana. The man who recorded the latter’s In Utero, Steve Albini, was gagging. He was so repulsed at the clear-cut avarice of the major labels and the wide-eyed naivety of talent preyed upon, he penned an instructive essay for that December’s fifth issue of art/culture/politics periodical The Baffler. Entitled “The Problem With Music,” it clearly yet sarcastically tallied every pitfall of dancing with the majors, right down to a typical ledger sheet for a be-flanneled signee. “The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month,” he concluded. “Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”
But for every band accepting that King Midas-in-reverse handshake, there were 10 more who spat in that feces-smeared mitt being offered. They continued going their own way, producing unrefined, untamed music full of life. Here’s some of the best, alongside the better bands gone major. Welcome to Alternative Press’ 15 best punk albums of 1993.
Nirvana – In Utero
Of course, the follow-up to the Album That Changed The World (aka Nevermind) was going to dominate 1993. The entire planet was on tenterhooks, waiting to see what Kurt Cobain was going to do next. Certainly, the breaths of his bandmates, management and record label were especially baited. A natural-born contrarian, Cobain would run in the opposite direction and try to make as uncommercial a record as possible. So which producer would be the anti-Butch Vig? Why, Albini, of course! The former Big Black mastermind made a niche for himself recording (he hated the term “producer”) loud rock bands in as vérité a fashion as possible—an audio snapshot that recorded the room as much as the music made within. This approach mocked radio’s standards for fidelity. In Utero was the most sonically abrasive of Nirvana’s three albums, likely hitting Geffen’s ears more like a demo than a finished record. Perfect for the downbeat, angry and depressed lyrical mood Cobain’s new songs summoned: “What is wrong with me?” he intoned repeatedly over “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”’s queasy guitars. Not that the final Nirvana album didn’t spin off hits. “Heart-Shaped Box” seemed to echo Cobain’s narcotized marriage with Hole’s Courtney Love: “I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap/I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black.” Most affecting was the album’s finale, “All Apologies”: “Everything’s my fault/I take all the blame.” An entire generation combed through these lyrics when Cobain killed himself the following year, looking for clues. They were there. Can you get more specific than the outtake, “I Hate Myself And Want To Die”? It ended up on a Beavis And Butt-Head soundtrack album.
The Muffs – The Muffs
Kim Shattuck and Melanie Vammen had left Los Angeles retro garage outfit the Pandoras in 1990 to play the former’s grimy melodic punk songs. The duo moved from bass and keyboards to guitars, Shattuck’s then-boyfriend Ronnie Barnett picked up her bass and Criss Crass (who’d served in a number of Seattle punk bands with Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan) assumed drum duties. Following a string of noisy, hook-infested garage punk 45s on several indie labels (which became the M.O. of the ’90s garage-centric underground), Warner A&R rep/producer Rob Cavallo coaxed them back into the studio for a glorious full-length that should’ve had a much bigger chart presence. Shattuck poured all of her angst over her breakup with Barnett into the album’s every track, screaming herself hoarse (yet in pitch) across gorgeous snarlathons like “Lucky Guy” and “Saying Goodbye.” She also showed an expertise in trash can guitar tones and a sick reinterpretation of the Johnny Thunders lead guitar method. And though The Muffs barely made a commercial dent, Cavallo’s involvement with this album was a crucial factor in Green Day signing with the Warners later that year.
The Devil Dogs – Saturday Night Fever
For the past four years, NYC’s Devil Dogs revved up the Ramones/Dictators/Heartbreakers Bowery punk ethic to near-hardcore velocity, right down to their forefathers’ yen for 1950s East Coast rock ’n’ roll of the Dion/Four Seasons variety. For their fourth LP, singer/guitarist/songwriter Andy Gortler (“The Fabulous Andy G.”), bassist/vocalist Steve Baise and drummer “Mighty” Joe Vincent booked a series of dates across the U.S., road-testing the 14 sizzling slabs they’d track in Seattle with the Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch at the controls. At Conrad Uno’s Egg Studios, Bloch applied a sonic crunch the Devil Dogs had never previously enjoyed, across rockers like the Gary U.S. Bonds-esque “Big Fuckin Party (Pts. 1 & 2)” and “Back In The City,” plus some choice covers like Gene Pitney’s “Backstage” and the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Not Easy.” Sadly, with their breakup one year later, the Devil Dogs’ best LP would also be their last.
Bikini Kill – Pussy Whipped
Since the 1991 cassette-only Revolution Girl Style Now dropped a neutron bomb in the pit, clearing out all the testosterone toxicity hardcore brought to punk, Bikini Kill went from strength-to-strength. Singer Kathleen Hanna, drummer Tobi Vail, bassist Kathi Wilcox and guitarist Billy Karren had developed into a tight powerhouse that tightened up the early Slits’ messiness without losing the chaos, adding a dash of Sonic Youth’s aural violence. Meanwhile, Hanna’s banshee wail on scorchers like “Star Bellied Boy” and “Hamster Baby” severed heads at 50 paces. Pussy Whipped also contained the third recording of their absolute anthem “Rebel Girl” released that year, though the single version featuring producer Joan Jett on guitar was the definitive take.
Rancid – Rancid
East Bay ska-punk heroes Operation Ivy’s neck-snapping crash and burn after their astonishing two-year rise to the top of the Gilman Street hierarchy left a void in guitarist Tim Armstrong and bassist Matt Freeman’s lives. As they skated through several attempts at a new band, Armstrong tried filling the hole with booze. Freeman formed Rancid with him and drummer Brett Reed in part to give Armstrong something to replace alcohol in his life. The first full-length effort—following an EP on Op Ivy’s old label, Lookout!—was their sole release as a trio. Ex-UK Subs guitarist Lars Frederiksen joined for the tour promoting Rancid and has been in place since. Brett Gurewitz clearly, cleanly captured a band enthralled with high-speed, noisy punk. Future Clash/reggae influences were absent. The true lead instrument was the bass, proving that Freeman was punk’s Jaco Pastorius. A crucial step in Rancid’s rise, which went thermonuclear in 1992.
Fastbacks – Zücker
Seattle’s eternal bubble-punk queens and king were now fully a Sub Pop act. Nothing really changed, except a hell of a lot more people could buy their airtight records filled with guitarist Bloch’s perfectly sculpted tunes about everyday ephemera. Hard to pick the best ones on the third Fastbacks studio LP. Certainly FBX standards “Believe Me Never” and “Gone To The Moon” debuted on Zücker. Every other element’s firmly in place—Bloch’s blitzkrieg six-string overplaying, Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo’s sugary vocals, even their penchant for indulging offbeat covers. This album’s: “Please Read Me,” from the Bee Gees’ 1967 album. Zücker received a Bloch remix last year, available at the band’s Bandcamp page.
Fugazi – In On The Kill Taker
The Kings Of Post-Core were finding their fiercely indie ethics eclipsing their music in their growing reputation. For instance, Atlantic Records’ legendary founder Ahmet Ertegün showed up backstage during Fugazi’s sold-out three-night stand at NYC’s Roseland Ballroom, trying to entice them onto the label. He offered “anything you want,” including their own Atlantic subsidiary and a $10 million-plus signing bonus. They politely declined, as they did a headlining slot on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour, due to the $33 tickets. They also declined Chicago sessions with Albini that were to be Kill Taker. Reconvening in the familiar environs of D.C.’s Inner Ear Studios with old pals Don Zientara and Ted Niceley, the emergent record was polished, with plenty of raw crunch. Songs such as “Facet Squared” and “Public Witness Program” seemed to be byproducts of William S. Burroughs/Brion Gysin’s cut-up methodology, be it in the seemingly random assemblage of several punk musical styles or the oblique lyrics. The third Fugazi full-length became their first Billboard chart entry.
The Humpers – Positively Sick On 4th Street
Fronted by Scott “Deluxe” Drake, younger brother of the Joneses’ wayward genius Jeff Drake, the Humpers swaggered outta Long Beach like the only records anyone needed to own were by the New York Dolls and MC5. After two full-lengths for Yugoslavian label Slušaj Najglasnije (Listen Loudest), Positively Sick On 4th Street brought them to Sympathy For The Record Industry, where they could rub elbows with other punk ’n’ roll contemporaries such as the Lazy Cowgirls and the Devil Dogs. Such crunchy beer-breath rockers as “Hey Shadow” and “Murder City Revolution” offered the finest Heartbreakers revisionism the ’90s had to offer.
Dwarves – Sugarfix
The reigning rajahs of sleazecore shot themselves in the foot in “promoting” their fourth studio LP. An ill-considered “practical joke,” the Dwarves issued a press release that guitarist He Who Cannot Be Named had died after sustaining stab wounds in a barroom brawl in Philadelphia that April. Frontman Blag Dahlia even provided an address to Sub Pop for sending flowers and condolences to He Who’s family. A memorial was added by the label to Sugarfix’s artwork upon its July release. Their faces egg-soaked after the band revealed He Who’s “death” was a hoax/publicity stunt, Sub Pop expressed their immediate displeasure, firing the Dwarves. Unfortunate, as the album represents many corners turned. The songs subtly transitioned from strict shock rock. The production mixed instrumentation and Dahlia’s vocals at an equal level. Dahlia also insists Sugarfix was the first punk album to feature samples, but Welsh glam punks Manic Street Preachers’ 1992 debut, Generation Terrorists, actually beat them to that innovation. Sugarfix has solely been available on a reissue pairing it with 1991’s Thank Heaven For Little Girls since 1999, its tracks beginning with No. 15, “Anybody Out There.”
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – Extra Width
Ex-Pussy Galore mastermind Jon Spencer played with Gibson Bros., Boss Hog and the Honeymoon Killers prior to forming the Blues Explosion with HKs bandmate Russell Simins on drums and Judah Bauer on guitar and vocals. They evolved a raunchy, experimental blues-punk, partly based on the primitive hip-shake of Hound Dog Taylor And The Houserockers and partly on anything from German experimentalists Can to hip-hop. Third LP Extra Width was their breakthrough. Tracks like single “Afro” and “Soul Typecase” sounded like one big house party encompassing everything from a Gospel tent revival to a porn soundtrack. At the center: Spencer’s primitive guitar, yodeled nonsense lyrics and occasional theremin abuse.
Buzzcocks – Trade Test Transmissions
Manchester’s pop-punk originators with an experimental bent reformed their classic Singles Going Steady in 1989 for a world tour. The world was Buzzcocks-less since 1981, when leader Pete Shelley had an international synthpop hit with “Homosapien,” a Buzzcocks demo. Now Shelley and co-guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Steve Diggle enjoyed a new rhythm section—bassist Tony Barber, who became key in future Buzzcocks albums’ production, and drummer Phil Barker. Fourth studio LP Trade Test Transmissions sounded like no time had passed since 1979’s A Different Kind Of Tension. It was a Buzzcocks album, all crisp guitars, busy drums, Shelley’s bitterly romantic tunes (“Innocent,” “Last To Know”) and Diggle’s more cynical fare (“Isolation,” “Alive Tonight”). It was good to have them back.
Cheater Slicks – Whiskey
Boston aggro-garage three-piece formed in 1987, centered around guitar-playing Shannon brothers Tom (who also sang) and Dave, plus singing drummer Dana Hatch. Following a succession of bassists, including ex-Real Kid Allen “Alpo” Paulino and G.G. Allin’s brother Merle, they followed the lead of the classic Cramps lineups, centering on two guitars and drums. But boy, could Cheater Slicks make a racket! Their third LP bears loud witness—Hatch’s bug-eyed caveman rhythms and the Shannons’ wall-of-filth guitars backing Tom’s pitchy yelp shored-up some surprisingly catchy songs such as “Thinkin’ Some More.” Thus it’d be forevermore, amen.
The Queers – Love Songs For The Retarded
The Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based Ramones-core three-piece formed in 1981, arriving at prime punk-pop label Lookout! Records in time for their second LP. By now solidified in their classic lineup of Joe King (aka Joe Queer) on guitars and vocals, drummer Hugh O’Neill and bassist Chris “B-Face” Barnard, Love Songs cemented the general Queers blueprint: 1. insanely catchy songs that greatly boosted the Beach Boys quotient in the basic Ramones sound; 2. harmonies worthy of Brian Wilson and his brothers; 3. nice, loud guitars; 4. juvenile humor that occasionally tips over into the politically incorrect. But for every “I Can’t Stop Farting,” there was a solid gold gem like “Debra Jean.”
Bad Religion – Recipe For Hate
Melodic thesaurus-core’s sole practitioners’ seventh studio album became their Epitaph release for nine years. Reissued several months later by new label Atlantic, apparently licking their wounds with Bad Religion following Fugazi’s rebuff, Recipe For Hate was the band’s first U.S. hit, debuting in 14th place on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. “American Jesus” and “Struck A Nerve” soon hit FM playlists hard. Bad Religion, meanwhile, were experimenting all over the place. “Man With A Mission” cried with steel guitar, while “Stealth” resembles musique concrete in combining angular music with a President George H.W. Bush speech, proving the Dwarves hardly innovated sampling in punk.
Leatherface – Minx
Sunderland, Tyne and Wear U.K.’s finest crossbreeders of Hüsker Dü and Motörhead scratched a lot of heads with their fourth studio long-player. The production was definitely sparkly, but no more so than the Hüskers’ Candy Apple Grey. But singer Frankie Stubbs’ and Dickie Hammond’s ultra-distorted guitars now had a previously unheard homogeny. The former’s razor-blade gargle also seemed to feature far less rough edges. Nevertheless, Leatherface‘s new songs like “Fat, Earthy, Flirt” and “Do The Right Thing” wouldn’t have been out of place during the Dü’s jangle-punk period, say, nestling “Makes No Sense At All” on Flip Your Wig.