Underrated Albums of the '90s -- Part 5

I started this series to shine a light on some stellar records from the '90s that may have been overlooked. Now that a few decades have passed, we can get some perspective and see how they've held up over the years. These are in no order but eventually this will make a great list. Here are the next five in the series:

21. Mike Watt -- Ball-Hog or Tugboat (1995)

Mike Watt made his mark as the Godfather of Punk Bass playing in the Minutemen, a SoCal trio that brewed up a musical flavor all their own. After the tragic death of singer/guitarist D.Boon in 1985, Watt formed Firehose and made four records before disbanding the group in 1993. After that, he concocted this all-star solo album in the mid-90s and got a huge and diverse roster of performers on board. Every song features a completely different lineup of musicians wrapped around Watt's propulsive bass lines, making it an eclectic adventure in the '90s all-star alt-rock universe. No matter how big the star power (Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl, Nels Cline, J. Mascis, Flea, etc) there's no egos here, just musicians paying homage to someone they most obviously respect. Though the songs are not radio-friendly hits per se (that was never Watt's style/mission) each occupies a special place of its own, as if this was a greatest hits collection and somewhere there was an album full of songs in the style of each single. Some of the highlights include Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner shredding his vocal cords on "Tell 'Em Boy," Eddie Vedder's plea against nostalgia on "Against the 70's" and Watt's charming "Piss Bottle Man," written about riding with his father in a delivery truck as a kid. Overall, this is one of Watt's most consistent and engaging albums and a treasure trove of alternative rock delights.

22. Brendan Benson -- One Mississippi (1996)

For a long time after releasing One Mississippi, Brendan Benson lay dormant, leaving fans of this most excellent record to wonder if he'd ever surface again. His more recent solo albums and work with Jack White in the Raconteurs proved us all wrong but this debut album stands as a testament to his talent and genius from the beginning. Balancing beautiful acoustic-based songs like "House in Virginia" and the excellent closer "Cherries" with more upbeat songs like rocker "Insects Rule" and the reggaefied "Got No Secrets," Benson's creativity in songwriting was on full display from the get go. His lyrics and storytelling are uniquely crafted, exemplified by the bugs-take-over storyline of "Insects Rule." Though it took him six years to release his sophomore album (Lapalco, 2002), it's this cult classic that made fans so anxious for Benson's return.

23. Fountains of Wayne -- Fountains of Wayne (1996)

If all you know of Fountains of Wayne is their 2003 hit "Stacy's Mom" (a catchy song no doubt), dig back to their debut, a near perfect rock record full of the kinds of hooks that stick with you long term. This is a great record to sing harmonies along with, as principles Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood know how to craft a melody that's both easy to sing and hard to forget. The one two punch of opener "Radiation Vibe" and "Sink to the Bottom" rock heavy yet are written with a timeless, classic melodicism that few bands (like Weezer) really nailed. Listen in further to excellent upbeat tunes like "Joe Rey" and "Survival Car" (the latter among the best rock songs about NYC) and mellower fare like "Sick Day" and "She's Got a Problem" and you'll hear all the elements of fine song craft, right down to the guitar melodies and drum fills. This is one of those records built to stand the test of time and occupy a special place in your collection.

24. Mother Love Bone -- Apple (1990)

The death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood in 1990 was a huge blow to the Seattle scene as well as his bandmates, though out of the ashes of their demise rose the juggernaut that is Pearl Jam. In the flamboyant showmanship of Wood, MLB had something that none of their flannel-draped, Doc Martin-clad brethren had: a sense of humor, fun and wild imagination. Indeed, Wood's personality had bubbled up in his previous band Malfunkshun and he took his Freddie Mercury-meets-Elton John influences to heart. He invented his own lyrical world, wrapping the proto-grunge riffing of future Pearl Jammers Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament with exuberance and outlandish wordplay. Hard rocking songs like "Captain Hi-Top," "Stardog Champion" and "This is Shangri-La" showcase Wood's outsized personality while heavy ballads like "Gentile Groove," "Stargazer" and the well-known "Chloe Dancer" exemplify Woods more sensitive side. It's hard to imagine what would have become of Mother Love Bone had Wood survived but his brief time in the spotlight left an indelible mark on alternative rock and roll.

25. Ween -- 12 Golden Country Greats (1996)

Casual fans may know Ween for their hit "Voodoo Lady" and for being, well, a little strange. Never the "hit" oriented band, Ween carved out their off-kilter brand of rock from an imaginative universe that sounded as if "brothers" Dean and Gene Ween experimented with more than a few psychedelics while making copious demos and recordings. But it is perhaps this record- their fifth- that stands apart from their usual fare by being more straightforward and applying their twisted sensibilities to the country music genre. Though a portion of their fans were non-plussed, the results have a lot of merit and cleverness. Legend has it they went to Nashville and hired the best session cats (including the Jordanaires who sang backup for Elvis) to record the music, hence some terrific chops and arrangements throughout. After all the tracks were laid down, they added the vocals and the songs took a NSFW left turn. "Piss Up a Rope" is a classic kiss-off song while the extremely seedy character painted in "Mister Richard Smoker" belies the toe-tapping swing of the music. From "Japanese Cowboy" on down, the music is so well done that the warped lyrics don't hit you over the head right away. Nothing like subtlety to make subversive lyrics palatable!

Read Parts 1-4 of this series and feel free to comment on these albums or your own personal faves from the era! Part six coming soon...