9 Alternative Rock Compilations You Must Have

Start with these rad collections if you're new to the 90s

Looking for convenient one-stop shops for all your ’90s Rock needs? These compilations expose listeners to a wonderful array of popular and obscure music from the alternative era.

Lollapalooza Sampler (1994)

Green Day at Lollapalooza in 1994
Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

Though it omits some major acts—Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, George Clinton—this bite-size platter does pretty well. It offers two tracks from seven Lollapalooza 1994 performers, mixing the well known with the well on their way. Green Day’s unavoidable “Welcome to Paradise” and “Basketcase” were no-brainers, but it’s nice to see lots of female representation a la L7, Stereolab, Boredoms and the Breeders. Throw in a little mystical weirdness from the Flaming Lips and some gothic charm from Nick Cave, and you’ve got one epic summer outing.

DGC Rarities, Vol. 1 (1994)

DGC rarities cover

Alt-country minions and latter-day “Grunge Couples” will adore this 1994 comp. Some of rock’s hugest names (Nirvana, Hole, Weezer) contribute lesser-known songs— and some lesser-known bands get their day in the sun. Nirvana’s demo track, “Pay to Play,” eventually appeared on Nevermind as “Stay Away.” And Counting Crows’ “Einstein on the Beach (for an Eggman)” became a minor hit despite being left off their smash album August and Everything After. A true highlight is the ramshackle Beck song, “Bogusflow,” a goofy homage to Pearl Jam and Neil Young. He deteriorates into laughter, cracking the sometimes too-cool façade of alternative rock.

Generation X (1993)

Generation X Compilation cover

Melissa Bobbitt

You can’t get more divergent than an album that begins with the perky Belly and ends with the morbid Tool. But that was the beauty of alternative rock— it encompassed so many styles and variations. Between these two unrelated bookends were classics by Juliana Hatfield, the Lemonheads, Buffalo Tom and Violent Femmes. Goo Goo Dolls join in the fun, sounding practically foreign compared to their later, more melodramatic adult contemporary works. Inspiral Carpets rep the Madchester scene, with the moody “Two Worlds Collide.” 

No Alternative (1994)

No Alternative 1994 cover
The Red Hot Organization

Pieced together to bring awareness to the AIDS cause, No Alternative showed that Generation X had heart. The tentpole of the 19-track record is Patti Smith’s touching “Memorial Song,” a tribute to her dear friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Smashing Pumpkins’ weepy “Glynis,” honored the departed bassist of fellow Chicago outfit Red Red Meat. And another Windy City mainstay, Urge Overkill, offered the reflective “Take a Walk.” The album did infuse some levity, with Beastie Boys dropping the funky “New Style” and Pavement doing a rambling workers union anthem called “Unseen Power of the Picket Fence.” No Alternative was like the aural companion to MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, inspiring young adults to get politically active.

Alterno-Daze: Natural Selection - '90s (1995)

The Cranberries lead singer Dolores O'Riordan
Patrick Ford/Redferns/Getty Images

Heavy on the Britpop, Alterno-Daze combined crossover pop tracks (the Cranberries’ “Dreams”) with timeless mod shimmers (Material Issue’s “Valerie Loves Me”). It’s a bit more stark and obscure than many of the other albums in this list, but what it uncovers is priceless. It stuck inquisitive listeners right at the lion’s den as it unfurled Babes in Toyland and the Meat Puppets, two tastes that might have soured the less adventurous. The gem here is post-punk group Quicksand, with “Dine Alone” serving as a primordial ancestor to the screamo genre.

If I Were a Carpenter

If I Were a Carpenter cover

The name comes from a Tim Hardin song, but the songs come from the inimitable Karen and Richard Carpenter. Their sweet, elevator-friendly music appealed to the sensitive types in alt rock, thus was born this strangely effective compilation. Sonic Youth’s manic cover of “Superstar” became famous thanks to a quirky scene in the movie Juno, but there are plenty of strong tracks here. Shonen Knife’s kawaii take on “Top of the World” and Sheryl Crow’s heartbreaking version of “Solitaire” are worth repeat listens. And 4 Non Blondes’ “Bless the Beasts and Children” makes the case that Linda Perry’s band should have enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame.

Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box

Whatever 90s Pop and Culture Box cover

With Spotify and mash-up genres ruling these days, it’s hard to remember a time when music was more distinct. Pre-millennium, rockers tended to listen to rock; country fans kept to country tunes; hip-hop impresarios stuck to hip-hop. So lumping all the genres into one big blob of aural overload was a big deal. Blues Traveler nuzzled next to En Vogue. Aaliyah and Ween shared a CD. This compilation was multicultural and mind-blowing, chucking in long-forgotten nuggets (“Dizz Knee Land” by dada) with massive number ones (Everlast’s “What It’s Like").

Kill Rock Stars (1991)

Kill Rock Stars cover
Kill Rock Stars

KRS was an untamed circus of Northwestern punk, from Bikini Kill to Witchypoo. Bratmobile spread their "Girl Germs," while the Melvins recovered “Ever Since My Accident.” A note: The artist listed as “Courtney Love” isn’t the Hole front woman but rather a duo that consisted of Lois Maffeo and Pat Maley. Their music was tinnier and more reserved than that of Kurt Cobain’s widow.

A Compilation of Warped Music

NOFX at Warped Tour
NOFX performs at Warped Tour. Melissa Bobbitt

If you’ve been salivating over the lineup of punk revival festival It’s Not Dead, you’ll love this gift basket from the Warped Tour. These are the names that put Kevin Lyman’s yearly summer trek on the map: Bad Religion, NOFX, Pennywise, Swingin’ Utters and Lagwagon, just to name a few. The songs will conjure of memories of skanking on the blacktop, getting your first exotic piercing and finally growing your hair long enough for a decent mohawk. How we miss those lovely Dance Hall Crashers.