Major Surprises

After Nirvana exploded from the underground into popularity in 1992, ushering a wave of so-called “alternative” bands, major labels began haphazardly plucking up every indie band in sight in hopes of finding the next band to blow up into the mainstream. Most of these signings resulted in instant turds from underdeveloped and uninteresting bands, or they marked the decline of once-relevant indie groups that were suddenly being marketed with the cheesy sheen of the Backstreet Boys and Celine Dion to the fickle masses. However, there were a few notable exceptions. The following records were financed and/or unleashed by major labels and were actually as good, if not better, than their releases on indie labels. With the recent and welcome rash of indies reissuing back catalog releases once put out by dying or dead major labels, it’s interesting to recall a handful of the great albums buried among the major label heap of the 1990s.

Boss Hog – Boss Hog (Geffen, 1995)
As great as their AmRep releases are, Boss Hog really hit their stride with this major label debut. While Cold Hands sounded like Big Black on a bender and the Action Box double 7″ and other early releases were basically Pussy Galore 2.0, this eponymous ripper had all the snarl of their indie output with the solid production and refined songwriting of a major label release. Their next album, Whiteout, charitably released on the top-notch indie In The Red label, ironically served as their major label-sounding turd — it’s soulless butt boogie and the weakest release in their catalog.

Drive Like Jehu – Yank Crime (Interscope, 1994; Swami, 2002)
It’s funny to think that there once was a time when this band’s name wasn’t constantly being dropped as a major reference point, and when a band as challenging and ahead of its time as Drive Like Jehu would have a major label release that equaled or perhaps surpassed the quality of their indie label output. After a solid LP on Headhunter and a single on Merge, this swan song LP was released with small fanfare and no one seemed aware that it would soon be a highly sought-after classic of post hardcore that’d go out of print and quickly fade away from the used stacks. Band member John Reis (Pitchfork, Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, Night Marchers) finally got a proper version of this masterwork back in print on his Swami label in 2002 and the band’s legend continues to grow.

JawboxFor Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994; Dischord, 2009)
Jawbox shocked the indie world when they jumped from the stalwart DC label Dischord to a mega major. Zinesters foamed at the mouth bemoaning this unholy transition from the pinnacle of earnest punk independence straight into the belly of the corporate beast, and it was puzzling to any Jawbox fan why a major label would have any interest them and moreso, why Jawbox would have any interest (or delusions) in becoming rock stars. It was a surreal time to be sure, but forgetting about all the debate and vitriol of the day, the fact of the matter was that this album didn’t find Jawbox softening their sound or catering to any marketing ploys, and this album remains one of the best in their catalog, with a lush, deep production framing their solid postpunk songwriting and bombast. Evidently the universe has corrected itself: since Dischord put out a lovingly-packaged rerelease of this classic last year.

Jawbreaker – Dear You (Geffen, 1995; Blackball, 2004)
I never was much of a Jawbreaker fan during their heyday. Unfun and 24-Hour Revenge Therapy were adored and played by my friends constantly, but I never really got as excited about them as everyone else seemed to be. Strangely, that all changed with their major label debut. It’s hard to pin down why the songs on Dear You did it for me while their previous records just didn’t. With this record I finally heard what everyone was so amped about: Blake Schwartzenbach’s raspy vocals, pure pop punk hooks, poignant lyrics, tight musicianship etc. It wasn’t the slick production that did it for me. In fact, I usually go the opposite way when it comes to fidelity — just look at some of the bands I champion on this blog! No, there’s just a quality to this record that has always wins me over. As much as I wish it were the other way around, my favorite Jawbreaker record was their major label release, Thankfully I can now get the indie reissue on Blackball Records and clear my conscience.

The Jesus Lizard – Shot (Capitol, 1996)
Like Jawbox, Chicago’s Jesus Lizard were subjected to a lot of shit for bailing on their longtime indie label Touch & Go. And while I would consider this record to be one of their least essential (all the T&G releases are fuckin-A required listening and essential if ya didn’t know) it’s still leagues above the majority of “alternative” shit major labels and indie labels were putting out by the ton at the time. While the legend of The Jesus Lizard would be tarnished with their next and final release, Blue, Shot serves as the last great album by one of the decade’s best underground rock bands.

Steel Pole Bath Tub – Unlistenable (Zero to One, 2001; Permanent Records, 2010)
Okay, so this is sort of a cheat, since this album was never actually released by Slash Records on account of being deemed “unlistenable” by some A&R geniuses after it was recorded in 1996. What did they fuckin’ expect from one of the noisiest of the ’90s noise rock bands? Although Slash never put this mangled beast out, the band finally regained ownership of the maligned album and released it themselves on CD in 2001, and just this year, Chicago’s sage label Permanent Records saw fit to press this monster up on vinyl. Of the band’s discography, this LP is the most abrasive and extreme, a warbling Butthole Surfers-like codeine haze with vocals so buried or processed that only the slightest sliver of a tune can be unearthed upon repeat listenings. A decade ahead of its time, it hints towards the mutation of noise rock that would result in bands like Black Mayonnaise, Rusted Shut, Slices.

5 Responses to “Major Surprises”

  1. noisejoke Says:

    What was that Royal Trux record produced by the Neil Young producer for DGC? Ugh. I’m forgetting everything. I even talked to that guy once. Anyway, it was fucking awesome and a great version skewed Rock n Roll version of the band. Great songs, playing, Neil solos. I suppose I could Google all this shit, but it’s late, and I don’t care enough.

  2. Doug Says:

    I was only a casual fan since a lot of their songs were a bit too meandering and pointless, but it looks like “Thank You” from 1995 (thank you internets and might be worth a listen. I did love their track on the Matador “New York Eye & Ear Control” comp. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Doug Says:

    Just thought of another major label LP that could go on this list: 1994’s “Pony Express Record” by Shudder to Think. Probably not my favorite when measured up with their Dischord output, but still a shockingly original release from the major label alternaturd era…

  4. Doug Says:

    The always amazing Aquarius Records email update compiled a nice list of major label releases here:

  5. Doug Says:

    Add another one to the list: Candy Machine’s “A Modest Proposal” from 1994. Read more about it here:

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