College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1996, 88 and 87

88. Pearl Jam, No Code

Pearl Jam was probably poised to be the biggest rock band in the U.S. in the mid-nineteen-nineties. After their 1991 debut, Ten, built into a sales juggernaut over the course of a couple years of relentless touring and promotion, their next two efforts, Vs. and Vitalogy, were both immediate smashes, each crossing into platinum-selling status within the first week or so of release. They were able to ride the wave of attention paid to Seattle bands following the success of Nirvana, but were delivering a far more straightforward (and therefore palatable) brand of music than the angry gloom of grunge. Then the band decided to take on a cause, railing against the significant service charges tacked onto every ticket sold by Ticketmaster. It was ultimately a noble endeavor (it even appeared prescient as Ticketmaster fees truly got out of control a few years later), although arguably handled in a way defined by a bumbling mix of sanctimony and stubbornness. The band refused to play venues that utilized Ticketmaster and seemed unable to identify such venues across the country, meaning that they barely toured in the States. Bassist Jeff Ament later conceded the choice “pretty much killed us, killed our career.” That may be overstating it, considering they still enjoy a consistent enough fan base that every new studio album is guaranteed to at least go gold, but there was surely a significant drop-off from their heyday, and that began with No Code. There was some band discord during the making of the record and a general atmosphere of just getting some new material out there, letting it be experimental rather than fully formed, a choice that likely further alienated the already perplexed fan base. Many songs pushed too hard against expectations, and the band was down to a smaller core audience of die-hards, just like that.

87. Alice in Chains, Unplugged

MTV Unplugged was a pretty good idea for a show that wound up having a lot to answer for, including a legion of mediocre live albums from too wide a range of acts. When the program debuted in 1989, the cable channel was already suffering from a perception it was unduly favoring style over substance (a complaint that seems quaint now that there’s no substance whatsoever left on MTV), making an outlet for performers to deliver stripped down versions of their music seem like a nice corrective. From humble, unassuming beginnings, it morphed into just another bloated showcase on the network, with bands jockeying for the privilege of an appearance and, not coincidentally, repeated airings of what amounted to hour-long commercials for their music. Alice in Chains was basically inactive when they played Unplugged in April 1996, undoubtedly seeing dollar signs thanks to immensely successful CD release of MTV Unplugged in New York by Nirvana roughly a year-and-a-half earlier. While that album represented a vital valedictory for Kurt Cobain, the Alice in Chains effort simply exposing the thudding mediocrity of their songs when dug free from their shell of studio muscle. Thanks largely to lead singer Layne Staley’s significant drug abuse, this was basically it for the band, at least in this iteration, though there were various archival efforts undertaken and released to keep the name out there. The band reformed with new lead singer William DuVall after Staley’s death from a drug overdose at the age of 34, in 2002.

An Introduction
–90 and 89: Antichrist Superstar and Three Snakes and One Charm

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