5 Kickass… Records from Chicago’s Past (The 1990s)

There’s no doubt that Chicago currently boasts one of the country’s premier music scenes. Luckily for us locals, that isn’t a recent development. The ’90s saw a surge of great local bands putting out excellent records. At a time when West Coast grunge dominated radio and MTV, Chicago bands seemed content to carve their own path rather than ride plaid coattails. Here’s 5 records from that scene that kick ass:

The Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream

Released in ’93 at the center of the grunge explosion, Siamese Dream was the second album released by the local rock-gods in The Smashing Pumpkins. Despite garnering the band praise as “the next Nirvana,” the record wasn’t really grunge; it bounced between shoegazey riffs, heavy metal jams and soft, dream pop-y ballads.

The album opens up with possibly the band’s most well known tune, “Cherub Rock”. The tune’s thundering drums and punchy guitars roll through Billy Corgan’s obtuse lyrics effortlessly. Buoyed by the equally punchy “Quiet” and even catchier “Today,” the first half of Siamese does nothing less than prove itself the quintessential ’90s alternative rock record. After about 24 minutes of defining the genre, The Pumpkins switch it up with “Disarm,” a chilly, driving acoustic number complete with church bells and violins. The cloud-like “Soma” follows with a warm, tangled opening melody before blowing up into headbanging territory. “Geek USA” and “Silverfuck,” both of which show off drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s chaotic talent,  yank the last bits of pure rock from the band before the record’s denouement. The brief, chime-y “Sweet Sweet” is followed by the soothing alt-love ballad “Luna.” Featuring lines like “I’ll hear your song/ If you want me to/ I’ll sing along/ It’s a chance I’ll have to take,” the song was built for ending that mix tape for your lumberjack-shirted sweetheart.

Rolling Stone named Siamese Dream one of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and it comes in at #3 on Chicago Magazine’s “Top 40 Albums by Chicago Artists.”


Liz Phair – Exile in Guyville

Liz Phair may be known now as a pop radio-friendly girly girl, but her 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville, couldn’t be farther away from garnering those kinds of labels. A lo-fi, guitar-driven collection of brutally honest ballads, Phair intended Guyville to be a direct response to the machismo rock of The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

“6’1″” begins with jangly guitars that could easily find their way onto a Stone’s record, but here they hold up defiant, woman-scorned lyrics that Jagger would never touch. “Never Said,” which remarkably garnered play on MTV despite the album selling only around 200,00 copies, makes up for its grammatically incorrect chorus with the genius line “So don’t look at me sideways/ Don’t even look me straight on/ And don’t look at my hands in my pockets, baby/ I ain’t done anything wrong.” The wandering folk song “Explain it to Me” shows off Brad Wood’s production, creating a perfectly thin layer of ambient sound around Phair’s soft guitar and some tip-toe percussion. “Fuck and Run” might be Guyville’s most radio-friendly tune, but the lyrics demolish any hopes of such exposure. The song details the morning after a one-night stand that both parties regret while still going through the motions, making plans to see each other again that neither will keep.

Exile in Guyville also appears on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” a few slots ahead of Siamese Dream, and is ranked at #7 on Chicago Magazine’s “Top 40 Albums by Chicago Artists.”

Ministry – Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs

Al Jourgensen’s band Ministry had been kicking around Chicago since the early ’80s, mostly putting in time as a synth-pop band. By the end of that decade the group was taking on a decidedly more metal sound, and Psalm 69 is the end result. Released in 1992 by Sire Records, the album scored regular MTV play with videos for “Jesus Built My Hotrod” and “Just One Fix.”

The record starts off with the doomsday-assault that is “N.W.O.,” a protest song aimed at the Persian Gulf war and then-President George H. W. Bush. The song ends on a series of crunching riffs that carry a sample of Bush announcing “a new world order” off into the silence. The next track, “Just One Fix” starts up with a B-movie scream and actress Chloe Webb’s line from Sid and Nancy, “never trust a junkie.” A remixed version of the song featuring cover art and vocals by author William S. Burroughs yielded a video that animated buffoons Beavis and Butt-head dubbed the “best ever.” The strength of the record lies in Jourgensen’s combination of rapid-fire drumming, speedy guitars and scathing lyrics. “Hero” and “Jesus Built My Hotrod” follow this formula expertly before the album ends with a series of slower, brooding industrial tunes. The album’s eponymous track is perhaps its creepiest; a nasal voice asks that his “congregation please be seated” and open their “prayer guides to The Book of Revelations, Psalm: 69” before what is essentially an end-times soundtrack blows up for five and a half minutes.

Psalm 69 has been certified platinum in the United States, peaking at 27 on the U.S. Billboard 200. In 1993 Ministry scored a Grammy nomination for “Best Metal Performance,” with “N.W.O.”

Material Issue – International Pop Overthrow

The story of Material Issue is right music, wrong time. Considered the definitive power-pop band of the ’90s, the group was putting out their best music when angsty grunge dominated the radio. It’s our loss, as International Pop Overthrow, their 1991 release, is one of the most kickass records of that decade.

The classic case of “I love this song but never knew who did it,” “Valerie Loves Me” opens the record with its warm, catch melody and bouncy drumming. A typical tale of unrequited romance, the song succeeds by not whining, and also by offering the listener the chance to shout the three word chorus with little fear of not hitting the right notes. “Diane,” the record’s first single, is another simple love song. Perhaps even more simple than “Valerie Loves Me,” as the chorus is just one word. Can you guess it? Lead singer Jim Ellison had to have been the kind of guy to crush on everyone. We all have one of those friends, though we might be less inclined to shake our heads at them if they all wrote songs like “Renee Remains the Same.” The dreamy ballad features the lines “I always wanted to get her affection/ I only got rejection anyhow,” material ripe for a John Hughes movie. The album’s title track is the rare Material Issue song not about a girl. Instead, the upbeat, Cheap Trick-ian rocker details life touring in a power-pop band, including a cute jab at their more “serious” contemporaries: “And all these other boys they’re just makin’ noise/ They don’t know rock ‘n roll/ They just need someone to have their picture taken with.”

International Pop Overthrow appears on Chicago Magazine’s “Top 40 Albums by Chicago Artists” at #25. The album and band also spawned the International Pop Overthrow Festival in 1998. The festival plays in Chicago, LA, New York, Liverpool, Vancouver and San Francisco, annually featuring the best in power-pop music.

Local H – Pack Up The Cats

Another band whose lack of fame is slightly boggling, Local H have been a staple of the Chicago music scene since the late ’80s. After scoring some much-deserved attention with their ’96 release As Good As Dead, Zion-bred rocker Scott Lucas and his partner in crime, drummer Joe Daniels, unleashed Pack Up The Cats on the alt rock world.

Within five seconds after dropping the needle on Pack Up The Cats, the listener knows exactly what to expect: catchy balls-out rock. “All-Right (Oh, Yeah)” begins predictably enough, with Lucas hollering his rally cry over a dirty riff and minimal drums. Like Material Issue, Local H seems to revel in playing alternative music without its almost requisite sadness and pissy outlook. From song titles like “Hit the Skids or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rock” to lyrical one-liners like “People seem to like when things are bad/ Things are good” in “Fine and Good,” Lucas comes across just content to be making music. “She Hates My Job”  sounds tense and haunting at the outset, as if some ominous Soundgarden chorus was waiting around the corner, but instead keeps its crunch while playfully complaining about the subject’s girlfriend’s dissatisfaction with his station in life. Pack Up The Cats’ big hit, “All the Kids Are Right,” not only features Lucas’ best licks and most entertaining lyrics, it’s also the song that captures what it was like to be in the middle of a crowd at Metro in the ’90s: sweaty bodies, smiling faces singing along and fun, catchy Chicago rock.

Rather than reissue their records two decades later in an attempt to make a buck, Local H are still putting out excellent albums and gigging frequently. Pack Up The Cats also made the Chicago Magazine “Top 40” at #38 and was named the 20th best record of 1998 by Spin.

Got a favorite that I missed? If they didn’t make the “Honorable Mentions” list, comment below and give ’em a shout out. Tell me why I’m a jack ass for thinking that record isn’t kick ass.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
  • Urge Overkill – Saturation
  • Veruca Salt – Eight Arms to Hold You
  • Liz Phair – Whitechocolatespaceegg
  • Kill Hannah – American Jet Set

Photo Credit

Gene Wagendorf III

About Gene Wagendorf III

Gene is a writer who has spent his entire quarter century of life as a resident of Chicago. When not exploring the city he can be found wandering flea markets and garage sales or having a cigarette between classes at Northeastern Illinois University, where he hopes to acquire a degree in the next quarter century. His favorite smells are old books and bowling alleys. His poetry (how embarrassing!) can be found in issues of Kill Poet, Ditch, Word Riot, O Sweet Flowery Roses and Vowel Movements.


  • bil
    July 19, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Cool article. Nice to see Kill Hannah’s AJS get a mention. All great records.

    • Gene Wagendorf III Gene Wagendorf III
      July 20, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks. I was never a huge Kill Hannah fan, but that record was pretty solid, and they were a massive part of the scene here in the mid-to-late ’90s. I just saw them a year ago, opening for The Pumpkins. Still sound pretty good.

  • Chris
    July 20, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Great list. I might’ve added Fig Dish’s “when shove goes back to push”, but a great list nonetheless.

    • Gene Wagendorf III Gene Wagendorf III
      July 20, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

      Mmm… almost forgot about Fig Dish. I do plan on doing a 5 Kickass for the 2000’s, where another Blake Smith project, Caviar, is sure to make an appearance.

  • December 30, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    glad you mentioned Kill Hannah. love the band, and AJS is one of my favorite albums.

  • December 30, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Great to see American Jet Set here. I love Kill Hannah, and AJS is one of my favourites :)

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