Critics have always had a love affair with 90s punk rock. The uncompromising vision of the genre, the tendency of choosing the underground over the mainstream, the focus on the message rather than musicianship, are all elements rock critics have embraced.
Last time we spoke about the best selling pop punk bands of the 90s. Today, we’ll look back on 5 of the most critically acclaimed punk bands of the same decade. Spoiler alert: No band made both lists.
First of all, what does critically acclaimed mean, actually? While it is hard to measure and define, what these bands do have in common is the fact that rock critics tended to praise their work. This often came in direct opposition to the public’s interest. Also, the difficulty with which the average listener could understand this type of music was, regularly, directly proportional to the rock scribes’ appreciation.
Hailing from Sweden and steadfast in promoting their left-wing politics throughout their career, Refused were one of the most influential hardcore bands of the 90s. Critics loved the group, not least of all for the Refused’s apparent insistence on remaining an underground group.
But, by the time 1998’s The Shape of Punk to come had been released, the group had inched their way into the rock charts. Naturally, they did the only thing that cult favorites can do and they split up. Their legend cast a shadow on many hardcore groups that followed them. All hype aside, Refused may truly be one of the top punk bands of the 90s. Their record still holds up despite a rather flimsy average of late.
The band has subsequently returned, is active today and continues to promote many of the same values. Critics still love them and many of their original fans have stuck around. Their single-mindedness and the influence they have had on many other groups, certainly warrant consideration as one of the greatest punk bands of all time.
If Nirvana dominated the 1990s showed just how much success rock and punk could enjoy, Sonic Youth did the same in terms of the critical praise a single group could receive. Focusing on texture, focused experimentation and wearing their numerous influences on their sleeves, Sonic Youth acted like a guide through rock’s underground.
Sonic Youth may have been loved by college students and people wh enjoyed a good chin stroke. But, the group had a sense of humor. Take, for example, their loving tribute to Plastic Petrand’s Ca Plane Pour Moi, a cartoonish punk-rock anthem. Or, Sonic Youth’s serious, but funny social commentary on Kool Thing, a tune about a rapper’s confidence in approaching the opposite sex.
Few 90s punk bands were cooler and more inventive as far as rock critics were concerned. In fact, the group’s sound is so far-reaching that simply labeling them seems an injustice, in spite of the fact that their philosophies were clearly in alignment with punk rock. Until their demise in 2005, the quartet of Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley danced softly between indie credit and mainstream acceptance.
Other pop-punk bands may have sold more records during the 90s, but few received the admiration of their peers and of the press as Bad Religion. The group recorded numerous well-crafted records, created their own punk rock record label and promoted their core political and religious values throughout their career.
By 1994 the band had even released a hit with the album Stranger than fiction. But, they showed little eagerness to continue crafting pop gems. Instead, they have released punk albums consistently, rarely straying from their vision. For this, the punk rock elite has never really changed its opinion of the Greg Gaffin fronted band.
The Nation of Ulysses
The Nation of Ulysses were a punk rock band that made little impact on the charts. Yet, by 1992, once their brief career had ended, they had influenced countless other punk, indie, and hardcore punk groups.
Formed by rock visionary Ian Svenonius, the band’s sound and ideology were already fully formed by the time of their seminal release 13-Point Program to Destroy America. The critics and the public never truly figured out how serious they should take the group. But, the mystery only helped their reputation. By the time some of the original members had formed Cupid Car Club and The Make-Up, The Nation of Ulysses were already a legendary act cited as direct influences by bands such as At the Drive-In or Jonathan Fire*Eater.
Possibly no other band throughout the adventurous history of punk rock has earned quite the esteem of Fugazi. Founder Ian MacKaye was already well-known in the American underground for his involvement in the groups Minor Threat and The Teen Idles, by the time he had helped form Fugazi.
MacKaye is a man who seems to be able to build interesting 80s & 90s punk rock bands seamlessly. His actions point to a man motivated for the love of the art, rather than for an attraction towards financial gain.
The new group played a blend of hardcore influenced as much by bands like the Bad Brains, the 77 CBGBs’ punk rock superheroes, as by the funk of James Brown. Their straight edge politics and their inflexibility of compromising their ideals for mainstream success helped nurture their notoriety as punk-rock purists. Perhaps no other punk group received as much consistent critical praise throughout the alternative 90s. By 2003 Fugazi had entered into a hiatus that has continued until the present day, leaving behind a nearly spotless discography.
Fugazi’s legacy has never diminished. Part of that is owed to the great, timeless sounding music they recorded. Part of that is likely due to the group members, Ian Mackaye especially, being present at some of punk rock’s key moments in its development.
While punk rock’s commercial appeal continues to vary from one era to the next, one thing is for certain. Quality punk rock music will continue being created and rock critics will continue singing its praises regardless, or in spite, of the public’s interest.