50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music — Alternative Rock
In the early ’90s, the vibrant indie- and punk-rock underground of the preceding decade exploded into mainstream consciousness via what would come to be called “alternative rock,” though most musicians hated that term only slightly less than they despised “grunge.”
Seattle was of course first and most famous. But Chicago followed a close second.
As the title of the documentary put it, 1991 was The Year Punk Broke, thanks to the unexpected but phenomenal success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But by the summer of ’93, the now nearly extinct major-label music industry was searching for “the new Seattle,” and it descended in force on what the Smashing Pumpkins called “the city by the lake.”
Chicago was “the new capital of the cutting edge,” proclaimed a front-page story in Billboard magazine, the Bible of the old music industry. And thanks to the international attention garnered by the Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, Liz Phair and others, corporate talents scouts descended on Our Town en masse brandishing platinum credit cards and recording contracts.
“Chicago is going to explode this year,” Bruce Pavitt, co-founder of Seattle’s influential Sub Pop Records, told me in August ’93. “It’s been percolating for a long time, with Wax Trax and then Touch and Go, but things are really coming to a crescendo.”
As indie-rock ethicist Steve Albini long had warned, the business side of the story did not have a happy ending for most of these Chicago rockers. But the best music they produced endures and deserves recognition on our list.
Perhaps because I covered this period in-depth as a journalist and critic — with much of my work compiled in the 2003 book Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the ’90s — choosing these bands was difficult.
Of course, I had to consider massive commercial accomplishment, so the Pumpkins are here for the same reason Survivor was. But the strength of the music and its influence on the sounds that followed matter just as much, if not more.
Sadly, in the effort to hone to the arbitrary number of 50, there is no Tortoise (despite that group’s huge influence on the art-rock underground), or Red Red Meat (a personal favorite for the way it forged a unique and psychedelic new sound from this city’s great blues legacy). There’s no Local H (mostly because, as with Cheap Trick and Rockford, the duo initially was so connected to Zion), and there are no second-wave faves such as Figdish or Loud Lucy.
Sorry, one and all. But six of the seven artists that follow I intensely love to this day.
37. Eleventh Dream Day
“If it wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t do it.” — Rick Rizzo
Our first two entries here epitomize — and to some extent were hurt by — the shift from ’80s indie-rock to ’90s alternative.
Guitarist Rick Rizzo and drummer Janet Beveridge Bean moved to Chicago from Louisville in the mid-’80s, and here they linked up with bassist Doug McCombs and early guitarist Baird Figi to forge a sound best CliffsNoted as Neil Young and Crazy Horse dragged into a punkish present, most memorably on the indie Prairie School Freakout in 1988.
That album drew the attention of Atlantic Records, and the band was one of the first among its peers to sign to a major label — too early to sync with the alternative moment, as it turned out, but it did yield a partnership with Bettina Richards, whose Chicago-based indie Thrill Jockey Records still is the band’s home.
The group’s latest album, the appropriately titled Works for Tomorrow in 2015, is every bit as strong as its first. The current lineup performed and talked about that long and rich career on Sound Opinions last April.
38. Material Issue
“We’re serious about making music. I just want to rock.” — Jim Ellison
Like Eleventh Dream Day, Material Issue was ahead of its time, but it was as good as the ironically marginalized genre of power-pop ever has gotten.
After moving to Chicago from Addison, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Jim Ellison became an important mover and shaker in the city’s indie-rock scene in the mid-’80s, booking the club Batteries Not Included. He linked up with bassist Ted Ansani at Columbia College Chicago, and together with drummer Mike Zelenko, forged an exuberant sound that won its biggest success with the debut album International Pop Overthrow, released by Mercury Records in 1991. Alas, a very different sound soon emerged from Seattle.
For my money, the trio’s next two albums, Destination Universe (1992) and Freak City Soundtrack (1994), are every bit as good, if not better. But they failed to win mainstream success, the label dropped the group, and the band came to an end as tragic as Nirvana’s when Ellison committed suicide in 1996. That event still is so painful that many in Chicago’s music scene can’t talk about it to this day. The music, however, survives.
39. The Smashing Pumpkins
“You can't underestimate band chemistry.” — Billy Corgan
What is there to say about the Pumpkins at this point in time, more than two decades after their heyday? For me, their music has aged far worse than the sounds of everyone else in this installment, for the same reasons it was troubling at the time: the often flatulent bombast of the grand musical constructions; the annoying whine of Corgan’s voice; the sophomoric solipsism of many of his lyrics, and the messianic, rock-star attitude that permeated nearly everything he ever did, which was and still is very un-Chicago.
Still, the auteur his sometimes friend Courtney Love called “the pear-shaped boy” burst out of the western suburbs with an enormous chip on his shoulder, linked up in the shadow of his beloved Wrigley Field with often marginalized guitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and proceeded to sell a ton of records.
Though the dwindling and nostalgic few who still hold them dear disagree, the Pumpkins were best when they were paring back and giving us less, most notably on the less ironic, more heartfelt Adore in 1998. But that album probably is the least popular of their initial releases, so as with Survivor or Chicago the band, what do I know?
40. Urge Overkill
“Urge is our baby and we are its parents, and we want our baby to grow up to be as healthy and happy as it can be.” — Blackie Onasis
Ah, Urge. So cartoony/shticky. So reviled as careerists. So very ’90s. But, at its best, so unexpectedly brilliant.
Guitarists-vocalist Nathan Kaatrud (a.k.a. Nash Kato) and Eddie “King” Roeser (vocals/guitar/bass) migrated to Chicago from the Twin Cities and linked up with each other as well as with Steve Albini at Northwestern University circa 1985. In one of those silly insider feuds so ubiquitous in the ’90s, Albini turned from best buddy to mortal enemy after Urge split from the local indie Touch and Go and took a boatload of money to sign to Geffen Records.
With Beverly native Johnny “Blackie Onassis” Rowan joining on drums, Urge (or session musicians hired Monkees-style to fill in for them) slickened up their earlier sound and won fame for Andy Warhol’s euphemistic 15 minutes thanks to the 1993 album Saturation and the placement of their cover of Neil Diamond’s super-schlocky “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” on the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.
Then it was all over, except for the occasional reunion and the opening gig for the Foo Fighters at Wrigley Field in 2015, thanks to still-a-fan Dave Grohl. That night as back in the day, Naked Raygun was much, much better. But even now, only a black-hearted curmudgeon could listen to “Sister Havana” and fail to smile broadly.
41. Liz Phair
“I am a feminist, and I define myself: Be yourself, because if you can get away with it, that is the ultimate feminist act.”
In order to celebrate Winnetka-raised, Wicker Park-championing Phair today, we have to separate the avalanche of hype that hailed her as a “post-feminist” heroine at the time, all of which she gleefully embraced. In fact, no Chicagoan since Hugh Hefner has so fruitfully pandered to the male hegemony or sent so many mixed messages about female empowerment.
Phair still sparks endless debate for the few who care about all that, fueling endless culture studies term papers. Mine is a class in music, however, and the biggest reason to care, as well as to include her here, is that she wrote a whole heck of a lot of great songs.
True, she often delivered them in a voice that was monotonous, to be charitable. She always was an embarrassingly amateurish act on stage. And, at least for me, her best work came on albums two and three, not the much-lauded debut “answer record” to the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Exile in Guyville, which took its name for what Urge Overkill called Wicker Park.
Who cares? I still love “Supernova,” “Cinco de Mayo,” “Polyester Bride,” and a dozen others I’ll gladly include on a mixtape with the best of Urge, as now seems only appropriate.
42. Veruca Salt
“When we met, I knew it was something serious… It wasn’t like falling into it for me. This is the dream of my life. I always wanted to make really good records.” — Louise Post
Split the difference between Courtney Love’s Hole and Liz Phair, add a big dollop of Material Issue’s power-pop sensibilities, and you have Veruca Salt, which of course took its name from the bratty girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The daughter of a Chicago attorney, Nina Gordon famously first heard St. Louis native Louise Post play guitar over the phone, thanks to a local pal who knew both were looking to form a band. The magic of the group always was the soul-sister partnership of these two guitarists, vocalists, and songwriters. The union propelled the 1994 debut American Thighs (which landed on Geffen after the single “Seether” started to gain traction on Chicagoan Jim Powers’ Minty Fresh Records), and continued through an Albini-helmed EP and a second album. Then it exploded.
My money went with Post, who released another great post-Nina Veruca album in 2000 called Resolver. Meanwhile, Gordon’s solo bow Tonight and the Rest of My Life was a wretched attempt at bland Stevie Nicks. Now, like so many other alt veterans, the two have reunited. But as with new-millennial Urge or everything Corgan’s done in this century, it just ain’t the same.
“I don’t think you can be good in life without acknowledging the part of you that isn't good.” — Jeff Tweedy
In contrast, Wilco, like Eleventh Dream Day, remains a vital and ongoing concern, at its best when it takes the most risks, but never exactly veering into the “dad rock” detractors claim when playing things straight, thanks to the strength of bandleader Tweedy’s songwriting.
You want the history? Read my partner Greg Kot’s fine biography Wilco: Learning How to Die. Suffice it to say here that from those earliest post-Uncle Tupelo gigs on stage at Lounge Ax, the legendary club that Tweedy’s wife Sue Miller ran with Julia Adams, to the festival-headlining present, the group never has stopped evolving or holding a well-deserved spot among Chicago’s greatest.
About this series:
In my “other” role as an assistant professor at Columbia College Chicago, I was asked in the fall of 2015 to develop one of several “Big Chicago” classes intended to introduce first-semester students to the rich and diverse culture of Chicago. “Music & Media in Chicago” has made me think long and hard about the passions that have consumed my life. Last summer my editors at WBEZ said, “Hey, we should highlight your overview of Chicago music here!”
In comparison to smaller cities such as Nashville, Memphis, Detroit and Austin, Chicago pays woefully little attention to its musical history, doing little to trumpet the past or celebrate the present for residents or tourists. Mind you, this and every installment of “Chicago Music History 101” is just one critical fan’s take on what is most in need of recognition from our long and rich sonic legacy.
Limiting the series to “50 Chicago Artists Who Changed Popular Music” is completely arbitrary — it could have been 100, or 1,000 — and I’m leaving other genres such as jazz and country to other critics and fans. This overview also is entirely subjective: Every reader and listener can and should have their own list. This simply is a place to get the conversation started.
Special thanks to ace director and videographer Andrew Gill, online majordomo Tricia Bobeda, and former digital intern Jack Howard for all of their help.
Click here for Part One in this series, the Blues.
Click here for Part Two in this series, Chess Records and Early Rock ’n’ Roll.
Click here for Part Three in this series, Gospel.
Click here for Part Four in this series, Rock in the ’60s and ’70s.
Click here for Part Five in this series, Soul and R&B.
Click here for Part Six in this series, House Music.
Click here for Part Seven in this series, Rock in the '80s.