There’s a boring, comic-strip version of music in the 90s, and it goes like this: In the first years of the decade everyone listened to grunge, had lank hair, and was miserable. Then Blur recorded ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, Stuart Maconie invented the word Britpop, and overnight the entire male population rode Vespas, sported feathercuts, and started slapping their arses to ‘Wake Up Boo!’.
At some point Geri Halliwell wore a Union Jack dress, Radiohead played Glastonbury, Jarvis Cocker waggled his bum, and everything was absolutely brilliant, right up until the moment Oasis released ‘Be Here Now’ and Noel Gallagher met Tony Blair, at which point everything immediately became shit. The party was over and there was nothing to listen to apart from Shack and Campag Velocet. The end.
Needless to say, the reality is more nuanced, and about a billion times more interesting. We hear a lot about Britpop, because it was orchestrated/chronicled by people who have gone on to become media gatekeepers (broadsheet rock critics, 6 Music DJs etc).
Yet the 90s was also the decade of shoegaze, trip-hop, boy bands, nu metal, drum and bass – and superclubs. Dance culture dominated in a way that’s totally alien to us now. Far more people spent the decade necking pills and gurning at Gatecrasher than they did bellowing along to ‘Tracy Jacks’.
But that’s a cliché too: ‘dance’ wasn’t just about people cardboard-boxing it to Carl Cox. If you’ll excuse the yawnsome observation, artists who’d lived through the 80s acid house revolution went on to forge endlessly interesting subgenres in the 90s, from the high-minded ambience of Aphex Twin to the stadium psychedelia of The Chemical Brothers.
The best of these rave culture-spawned albums, Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’, is effectively unclassifiable. Indeed, you could argue ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ is the quintessential 90s song: a hybrid of hybrids, far more representative of Britain’s modern racial mix than ‘Definitely Maybe’.
Pop, too, entered a thrillingly experimental phase in the late 90s – TLC, Missy Elliott, 5ive’s ‘Slam Dunk Da Funk’, that type of thing – although it’s worth remembering that the biggest-selling singles of the decade were all dismal, Steve Wright In The Afternoon-friendly ballads (‘Candle In The Wind’, ‘Love Is All Around’, ‘Unchained Melody’).
I’m not ashamed to say that I love the 90s. Music was exhilarating back then, partly because it had little concept of itself as “the nineties”. Pre-file sharing, the industry was profitable and confident, and the wider culture was less about nostalgia, reunions and endless lazy mash-ups of what had come before (apart from Britpop, obviously).
It’s instructive to note that, at the end of the decade, NME did not run a single feature looking back at the past ten years’ best albums and tracks. There were no thinkpieces on what the 90s had “meant”. Perhaps people were too busy looking ahead, rather than back.
Well, we’re different, obviously. We like looking back. Which is why we’ve been making lists of our favourite albums of that decade, like the tedious rock hacks we are. Add your own top threes below. Why the hell not, eh?
1. Ultrasound, ‘Everything Picture’
2. Rage Against The Machine, ‘Rage Against The Machine’
3. The Stone Roses, ‘Second Coming’
1. Leatherface, ‘Mush’
2. Buffalo Tom, ‘Big Red Letter Day’
3. Bis, ‘Social Dancing’
1. Spiritualized, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’
2. Nirvana, ‘In Utero’
3. Elastica, ‘Elastica’
1. Blur, ‘Parklife’
2. Gene, ‘Olympian’
3. Oasis, ‘Definitely Maybe’
1. Super Furry Animals, ‘Radiator’
2. Beastie Boys, ‘Hello Nasty’
3. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, ‘Spanish Dance Troupe’
1. Oasis, ‘Morning Glory’
2. Radiohead, ‘OK Computer’
3. The La’s, ‘The La’s’
1. Slanted And Enchanted, ‘Pavement’
2. The Flaming Lips, ‘The Soft Bulletin’
3. The Holy Bible, ‘Manic Street Preachers’
1. Slowdive, ‘Souvlaki’
2. Dinosaur Jr, ‘Where You Been’
3. Ride, ‘Going Blank Again’
1. My Bloody Valentine, ‘Loveless’
2. The Flaming Lips, ‘The Soft Bulletin’
3. Super Furry Animals, ‘Radiator’
1. Verve – ‘A Storm In Heaven’
2. Smashing Pumpkins, ‘Gish’
3. Wu Tang Clan, ‘Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)’