Five essential picks from ’90s Phoenix alternative rock

The ’90s is the decade that punk splintered into alternative, achieving a mainstream visibility as the spirit of the original punk diffused into an incredible diversity of styles across the world. Similarly, Phoenix punk transformed from the familiar punk sound of the ’80s into new sounds.

Forbidden Places (1991) – Meat Puppets

Meat Puppets hopped onto a major label for Forbidden Places — the ultimate gesture of ’90s alt-rock opportunism — with a successful elaboration of their country-punk fusion. They kick it off with “Sam,” which runs at about quadruple tempo to their earlier material, country at the breakneck pace of hardcore. “Open Wide” also buckles the band into a turned-up hard-rock speed with virtuoso guitar showmanship that comes as a surprise from the previously lackadaisical band. Other songs like “This Day” slow things down to a jangly, laid-back speed with an eye for the wide-open desert sky. Despite the major label bump, the band never quite took off in the age of grunge, even with the endorsement of superstar fan Kurt Cobain.

Sacrifice (For Love) (1991) – Greg Sage

Greg Sage is the driving force behind experimental punks The Wipers, a legendary Portland act whose first three albums are still recognized as pioneering examples of hypermodern, sleek post-punk. Sage was the undeniable auteur of these records and even envisioned The Wipers as a band that would only exist in the recording studio without any touring presence — a dream that was deflated by fans clamoring for live shows. Few that come to The Wipers’ original albums today know that Sage left Portland for Phoenix in the late 1980s. Sage’s solo album from the period, Sacrifice (For Love), completely embraces the mood of his new locale, from the cacti and smiling skeletons decking the cover to the sun-scorched, rootsy sound contained within. In Arizona, Sage left behind his previously uber-tight modernist aesthetic for swingier, open pop arrangements. Hearing Sage adopt the persona of a lonesome, western cowboy, equipped with only a drum machine, should be an exciting experience for both committed Wipers fans and newcomers.

330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda (1996) – Sun City Girls

This is where it gets weird. Avant-garde band Sun City Girls released two double-album opuses in the decade, 1995′s Dante’s Disneyland Inferno and 1996′s bafflingly titled 330,003 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda. On Crossdressers, the Girls indulged in their impressions of Southeast Asian and Indian folk sounds, free-form improvisation and psycho bugged-out jams for more than two hours. If this sounds daunting, well… it is. But the album is also one of the most rewarding experiments in rock music history, a frenetic display of what a band that is at once totally in control of their direction and yet completely off-the-wall unhinged can come up with.

A Fascination with Heights (1996) – Half String

Half String is one of a handful of shoegaze southwestern rock bands who adapted the British genre to the desert. Shoegaze, most associated with My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride, is a mix of dreamy pop and crushing layers of distortion, reverb and echo. A Fascination with Heights backs soaring guitar lines and mumbled vocals with powerful, propelled drumming. The band’s best-known alumna is Kimber Lanning, who owns Stinkweeds record store and Modified Arts and runs Local First Arizona. If you see her at Stinkweeds and want to make her day, pick up this album.

Clarity (1999) – Jimmy Eat World

Simply put, Jimmy Eat World reinvented the possibilities of emo for the 21st century on Clarity. Though its commercial failure would result in the band getting dropped from Capitol Records, Jimmy Eat World set the stage for their triumph on 2001′s Bleed American while simultaneously growing the scope and ambition possible on an emo record. Countless “third wave” emo took direct inspiration from the expansive palette of the album, which includes electronic beats and lush orchestration. Its position as a predecessor to emo’s popular breakthrough certainly warrants attention, but the album holds up as a classic across genre lines.

So, there it is: Proof that some interesting things were actually going on in 1990s Phoenix rock.