Written by Dave Shumka
The ’90s were prime time for alt-rock side projects. “Hey man,” the dude in Dickies pants would say, “I take this band really seriously. I don’t consider it a side project.”
Regardless of what that musician-I-made-up may say, the decade produced tons of solo albums, supergroups and vanity projects. It’s only now, with 15 to 25 years of hindsight, that we can finally rank them all.
The list is laid out below, but first we have to decide on what constitutes a side project, so here are some criteria:
• The side project has to have existed while the artist’s primary band existed, and the artist was still a member (e.g. Foo Fighters aren’t eligible).
• The side project and the primary projects both have to have released at least one entire album during the ’90s (e.g. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton’s Mission Impossible theme don’t count).
• The side project has to have released its first album in the 1990s.
35. Three Fish
What: Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament and some other dudes doing some acoustic alt-rock with a world music vibe.
Standout track: “Laced.”
34. The Fireman
What: It’s ambient electronic experiments from Paul McCartney and Martin Glover? Oh, from The Hobbit and Sherlock? No, that’s Martin Freeman.
Standout track: Oh, I dunno. Let’s say “Watercolour Guitars.”
33. Pinhead Gunpowder
What: The other band Billie Joe Armstrong started in Green Day’s early days.
Standout track: “My Boot in Your Face is What Keeps me Alive.”
32. Knoxville Girls
What: Members of Sonic Youth, Boss Hog, the Cramps and more bands formed this bluesy, swampy indie rock group that did originals and country covers in the late ’90s.
Standout track: “Lowcut Apron/Sugarfix.”
What: You know those weird spoken-word Belle and Sebastian songs you always skipped? Those became Looper.
Standout track: “Impossible Things.”
30. Neurotic Outsiders
What: The mid-’90s supergroup made up of members of Guns N’ Roses, Duran Duran and Sex Pistols. Some real glitzy, punky stuff here, fellas.
Standout track: “Jerk.”
29. Free Kitten
What: Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Pussy Galore’s Julie Cafritz formed this noisy alt-pop outfit.
Standout track: “Teenie Weenie Boppie.”
28. James Iha
What: Dang, I really liked what I heard from the Smashing Pumpkins guitarist’s laid-back solo album, but when I said that out loud, my friends made fun of me. So that’s why it’s so low on the list.
Standout track: “Be Strong Now.”
27. John Frusciante
What: Like Red Hot Chili Peppers but with more ghosty guitar and less SoCal scat.
Standout track: “My Smile is a Rifle.”
What: The long-running, lo-fi, pretty great recordings of Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew.
Standout track: “Made For It.”
25. Robert Pollard
What: The Guided By Voices singer, like his band, has put out a zillion records since his 1996 solo debut.
Standout track: “People Are Leaving.”
24. The Minus 5
What: A supergroup with a rotating cast, but always featuring R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.
Standout track: “How Many Bones.”
23. Thurston Moore
What: The Sonic Youth guitarist released a bunch of albums concurrently with Sonic Youth, none better than 1995’s Psychic Hearts.
Standout track: “Psychic Hearts.”
22. Talk Show
What: While Scott Weiland was rehabbing and recording his solo album, the rest of Stone Temple Pilots recruited a new singer and released an album as Talk Show. It was a pretty solid STP sound-alike, but didn’t amount to much.
Standout track: “Hello Hello.”
21. Scott Weiland
What: That solo album, 12 Bar Blues, sure had its moments.
Standout track: “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down.”
20. Gilby Clarke
What: The one-time Guns N’ Roses guitarist released a pretty decent solo album in 1994, and more later.
Standout track: “Cure Me… Or Kill Me.”
19. Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel
What: I don’t really get what this guy’s up to outside of Primus. I don’t really get what he’s up to within Primus either, though.
Standout track: “Delicate Tendrils” featuring Henry Rollins.
What: Riff-heavy, semi-filthy hard rock band co-founded by Mickey Melchiondo, a.k.a. Dean Ween. They’ve put out a whopping six albums.
Standout track: “Second Hand Smoker.”
17. The Jackofficers/Drain/P
What: These three offshoots of Butthole Surfers were electronic, noisy and rocking, respectively. P featured Surfer Gibby Haynes and actor Johnny Depp, who were onstage at the Viper Room the night River Phoenix died outside.
Standout track: “Michael Stipe” by P.
16. Jerry Cantrell
What: The Alice in Chains guitarist released his debut solo album in 1998, and it sounded an awful lot like late ’90s Alice in Chains, but with a horn section. You can thank the swing revival for that, I guess.
Standout track: “Cut You In.”
15. Imperial Teen
What: Faith No More are considered the grandfathers of rap-metal, but when Roddy Bottum formed Imperial Teen in the mid-’90s, he went in the opposite direction.
Standout track: “Yoo Hoo.”
14. The Gentle Waves
What: Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell released her first twee solo album as the Gentle Waves in 1999.
Standout track: “Enchanted Place.”
13. Slash’s Snakepit
What: Early on during Guns N’ Roses’ hiatus, and before his departure, Slash released an album with his own newly formed band, which featured singer Eric Dover of Jellyfish.
Standout track: “Beggars & Hangers-On.”
What: Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard formed Brad with some friends in 1992, and released a bunch of albums with a mellower, more psychedelic sound than Pearl Jam’s. Yeah, man.
Standout track: “Screen.”
What: In 1992, Nirvana’s Dave Grohl released 10 songs on a cassette under the name Late!. The album never got a formal CD release, but became an underground success and hints at what Foo Fighters would eventually sound like.
Standout track: “Throwing Needles.”
What: Superchunk singer Mac McCaughan began Portastatic as a solo project in the mid-’90s, and it has since released about as much material as Superchunk itself.
Standout track: “San Andreas.”
9. Silver Jews
What: Technically a side project, thanks to the involvement of Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. Ultimately, this was David Berman’s own project.
Standout track: “Smith and Jones Forever.”
8. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
What: Members of NOFX, Swingin’ Utters, Lagwagon and No Use For a Name form punk’s greatest cover band.
Standout track: “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
7. Mad Season
What: Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, as well as a couple Screaming Trees members, put out an album in 1995, which was basically a druggier Pearl Jam.
Standout track: “River of Deceit,” which a kid in my English class once tried to pass off as a poem he'd written.
6. Folk Implosion
What: Lou Barlow’s side project from Sebadoh, Folk Implosion were a Sebadoh-ier version of Sebadoh, with hints of Sebadoh.
Standout track: “Natural One.”
5. Joel Plaskett
What: In 1999, Plaskett’s first album, In Need of Medical Attention, was the downtempo companion to Thrush Hermit’s final album,Clayton Park, and provided just a glimpse of the prolific career he would have as a solo artist.
Standout track: “The News of Your Son.”
4. The Rentals
What: Matt Sharp recorded the Rentals’ awesome debut album between the first two Weezer albums, and then left Weezer to pursue the Rentals full-time when their second album came out.
Standout track: “Waiting” or, yeah, well, “Friends of P.”
3. The Breeders
What: By the time “Cannonball” was a huge hit, the Pixies were over, but the Breeders’ first album, Pod, was released while Kim Deal was still in the Pixies and Tanya Donelly was still in Throwing Muses.
Standout track: “Hellbound.”
2. Elliott Smith
What: It feels weird to refer to Elliott Smith’s career as a side project, but when he released his first two albums, he was still a member of Heatmiser.
Standout track: “Needle in the Hay.”
1. Temple of the Dog
What: The one-off tribute to late Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood brought members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden together just as their primary bands were taking off. Better than Elliott Smith? Well, certainly more side project-y.
Standout track: “Hunger Strike.”