The Best ‘90s Indie Rock… on a Major-Label Debut

Over the past few years, 1990s nostalgia has assumed many forms: Twin Peaks reboots, Trainspotting sequels, Tupac holograms, the ubiquity of A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde on hipster-taco-joint playlists. But while we’ve grown accustomed to 20-year retro cycles reviving the sounds and iconography of our youth, there’s one seemingly outmoded 1990s phenomenon that’s made a surprising comeback: All your favorite indie-rock bands are signing to major labels again.

The great promise of the internet was it rendered the traditional music industry unnecessary and irrelevant. Independent bands could mobilize their audiences online, while small labels could get music out to wider audiences than before. Certainly, the early-2000s ascent of bands like Arcade Fire and Spoon seemed to reinforce the idea that ambitious artists no longer had to trade up to a major record label in order to connect with a mass audience. The internet—and all the alternative media and new distribution channels it introduced—could provide a back road to stardom that allowed bands to bypass the usual soul-destroying music-industry machinations.

Fast forward to 2017 and it seems that line of thinking has gone the way of the mp3 blog. Arcade Fire’s latest album, Everything Now, was released through Columbia Records, whose roster also now includes ex-indie darlings LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend, and Amber Coffman (formerly of Dirty Projectors). The War on Drugs’ A Deeper Understanding bears the Atlantic Records logo. Death From Above 1979 just released Outrage Is Now!, their second record for Warner Bros. Grizzly Bear left Warp Records for RCA. So why are established indie acts more willing to make the leap these days? The most plausible explanation is these artists need major-label resources to retain visibility in the streaming era, just as their ’90s forbears needed them to land rack placement at Walmart. But if the end goal—greater exposure and, ideally, revenue—is the same as it ever was, one aspect has changed: These days, when a beloved indie-rock band signs to a major label, no one bats an eye—if they even notice at all.

Thirty years ago, signing to a major label wasn’t a mere gamble; it was an ideological purity test. By its very definition, indie rock drew a line in the sand between those who were committed to a self-sustaining musical ecosystem free of corporate interference, and those who were willing to ingratiate themselves to the marketplace. In courting a wider audience through a major-label deal, an aspiring band would effectively have to say goodbye to a chunk of their core fanbase, who would reflexively write them off on principle. Tellingly, writer Michael Azerrad’s ’80s indie-rock-history bible Our Band Could Be Your Life concludes the chapters on its major-label-bound subjects once they trade up, reinforcing the widely held belief those artists made their best music while on indies.

However, Sonic Youth’s 1990 signing to DGC effectively heralded a new era where upgrading to a major came to be seen as a savvy, insurrectionary career move (and Steve Albini will never forgive them for it). Among the bands to follow their lead was, of course, Nirvana, and after their 1991 DGC debut, Nevermind, became the biggest rock album in the world, the hand-wringing over corporations co-opting the underground only turned more intense, as more and more major-label A&R reps infiltrated clubs to hand out business cards—and more and more indie bands actually called them back. To read the alternative-music press in the 1990s was essentially to be subjected to an endless series of articles featuring artists mulling over the choice between selling out or staying put. Before long, holdouts like Fugazi, and Superchunk were vastly outnumbered by the peers who signed on the dotted line. And if the majors couldn’t sign Pavement, they’d just scoop up a band that sounded exactly like them (hello, Sammy!).

Sure enough, none of these ‘90s major-label hopefuls came close to putting up Nirvana numbers. And predictably, many of their stories proved to be cautionary tales—following their one ‘n’ done stints on a major, bands like The Jesus Lizard and Archers of Loaf unceremoniously returned to indie-land and never regained their footing, before eventually petering out. For the likes of Superdrag or Hum, the best they could hope for was to score their 15 minutes on 120 Minutes (or 30 in the case of Urge Overkill). Others, like Texan psych-rockers Sixteen Deluxe, simply went from obscurity to, well, even more obscurity.

But in hindsight, there’s as much reason to celebrate the ‘90s major-label feeding frenzy as bemoan it. The moment yielded generational touchstones (Hole’s Live Through This) and cult classics (Drive Like Jehu’s Yank Crime) alike. It saw bands acquiring the means to boldly embrace their true calling—see: Cornershop’s evolution from Merge Records noise merchants to the sitar-psych visionaries of Woman’s Gotta Have It, or Shudder to Think stepping out as a math-rock Queen on Pony Express Record. For the likes of The Posies and The Melvins, it provided just enough over-ground exposure to nurture loyal fanbases that have stayed with them for decades. Or in the exceptional case of The Flaming Lips, it led to a long, wildly unpredictable evolution that continues on Warner Bros. to this day.

This playlist is a chronological collection of 50-plus major-label dice-rolls from ‘90s, perhaps the last moment in music history when A&R reps gazed upon artists as inherently strange as Ween and Daniel Johnston with dollar signs in their eyes. (Alas, some of the more curious artefacts of the era—like Boredoms’ Pop Tatari, or Royal Trux’s Thank You, or The Geraldine Fibbers’ Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home—aren’t available on Spotify.) The songs here span Sonic Youth’s Goo to Modest Mouse’s Sony debut The Moon and Antarctica—which technically came out in 2000, but feels like a perfect capper to the ’90s era that birthed them (and a prelude to the early-2000s web-abetted indie uprising that spurred their biggest success). So now, with all due respect to Sebadoh: gimme corporate rock!