Books and Code · A Miscellany

A Rant about 90s Music


Note: This was extracted from a Facebook conversation with several college friends.

Honestly, I didn’t initially weigh in because I realize how atrophied my musical tastes have become and I weep for my old-fogie-ness! :-) I haven’t given the past decade a fair hearing. Do I think James is right in the assessment that the 90s had higher musical highs than that of the following decades? Yes. While there was plenty of crap grunge, the best of the modern era (dominated by indies) are largely throwbacks to 90s innovations. There is no post-90s equivalent to grunge–a significant shift in music style that resonates with an entire generation of people and influences all of pop music for years to come.

On 90s bands mentioned: First, as one who wore out his copy of Sixteen Stone back in the day, I have to say Bush has not aged well. Nostalgically fun to listen to now, but they are terrible: entirely derivative and lyrically incoherent. However, I always considered Live to be a forgettable 90s act, but Throwing Copper holds up very well. Rage Against the Machine is just clumsy, politically-stunted Beastie Boys. Pass. I saw a Chris Cornell solo show last year, and while I loved it I can’t help but admit that he too has devolved into yuppy nostalgic self-love. It was sad. The great bands of the 90s (in terms of their popularity & influence at the time and lasting impact on musical culture) are, in my opinion:

  • Nirvana
  • Pearl Jam
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers
  • Beastie Boys
  • Dave Matthews Band
  • REM
  • Nine Inch Nails
  • Radiohead

The best modern music I’ve found is hiding in niches that still cater to one or both of the following old-school ideas:

  1. the album as a unified piece of art, or
  2. the primacy of live performance.

Some post-90s stuff I’d call great (but not height-of-the-90s great) pretty much fall into #1. I agree on Mumford & Son, Iron & Wine, The Killers. I’d contest the implied Vampire Weekend denigration–their first album is very good and has something to say musically which is more than you can say about most bands. I’d add Death Cab For Cutie, The Format (Dog Problems), Okkervil River (The Stage Names), Arcade Fire, Fleet Foxes. All good stuff, but great? No. To be great you have to dominate and none of this does that. Today’s good stuff carries on a line of tradition from one of the aforementioned great 90s bands.

So if we’re stuck in a lull of good-but-not-great music, what do I think the next great revival in pop music will look like? I think it will be an overthrow of the current hyper-self-aware irony that pervades everything. Rock music in the 80s became so excessively self-aware that it crumbled under the weight of its own hair. Grunge reset that with a return to genuine expression. Now, those tropes that resonated in the 90s are overused to the point of self-parody (cough Nickelback cough). Pop music now resembes the poetry of the early 1900s–“moderns” like Ezra Pound & Gertrude Stein, et al. They did this really obscure or ironic stuff (mostly garbage) that ultimately led to a big fat dead end. It was the Beats like Kerouac, Burroughs, and Gingsberg that revitalized poetic expression by striving for genuine honest expression rather than navel-gazing.