Theory Teacher's Blog

Most Important Albums of the 1990s

Yesterday, out of curiosity, I asked my students what they thought the most important albums of the 1990s were. And I guess I asked for two reasons. First, because I went to college between 1990 and 1994, so I’m curious what their generation thinks of my generation. Second, because my own appreciation of 1990s music has actually changed as I’ve grown. For instance, now I might include The Writing’s On the Wall (1999) by Destiny’s Child, not only because its hit single “Say My Name” (below) is totally brilliant, but also because the album was important for the fusion of hip hop and R&B. But back when the album actually came out, I was less open-minded and would have been scornful of such mainstream pop.

The question, of course, as I’ve discussed before [here], is what criteria we use for defining “most important.” Is it some ineffable aesthetic quality? Its originality, innovation, or guts? Its influence on the music industry or the broader culture? Its enduring popularity? For instance, as I mentioned in my blog before, Madonna’s hit “Like a Virgin” had a huge effect in 1984, but I rarely hear it on the radio anymore compared to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” which came out the same year and which is still very popular (and which I totally love, though I wouldn’t have admitted to liking it so much back when it came out.)

In my view, Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind would be the number one most important album of the 1990s, because it single-handedly ended the reign of hair-metal and brought indie-rock into the mainstream. Also, every song on the album, not just the two hit singles, rocks, and it remains popular with younger generations today. But at the time, I was much more into another album that came out the same year, Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, which I would argue should be included. And other members of my generation might fondly remember R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People (1992) and Beck’s Odelay (1996). I would also argue that Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders (1993) should be at the top of the list for its brilliant poetics, jazz riffs, and serious themes. Perhaps because of those qualities, I think it did more to bring hip hop to a white, college-educated music consumer than any other hip hop album (kind of like what Bob Marley did for reggae.)

One of my students suggested Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (1995), and though I never would have thought of that, I have to agree. I had just started a teaching position at a summer program for Japanese and Korean exchange students, and they all loved it. And globally, Ace of Bass’s Happy Nation (1993) was huge, as was the Spice Girls’s Spice (1996). There are some other groups such as Radiohead, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wu Tang Clan, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dog whose albums (one might argue) should be added, but I have to confess that I never personally got into their stuff. (I was more into the obscure indie-pop of Beat Happening and Sebadoh when I was in college, and am now more into the ethically and intellectually astute hip hop of Mos Def.)

Interestingly, the album that I listen to the most right now is The Score by the Fugees (1996), but I only started listening to it a couple years ago. “Ready or Not” (below) is one of the best songs ever, and quite a few women have told me how meaningful Lauryn Hill’s brilliant presence on — and departure from — that album was for them.

Someone asked me about the next decade, 2000 — 2010. I have in the past asked students about what they consider is their generation’s contribution to the development of popular culture. I know what my generation is — indie and hip hop. (See Jeff Chang’s excellent book on the hip hop generation. I don’t know if there’s a similarly excellent book on the indie scene. If someone knows, please tell me!!!) My students have speculated about the effect of the internet, iPods, and the FCC’s deregulation of radio in 1996 on the production and consumption of music. For sure, the telecommunications act of 1996 assassinated radio, and perhaps that is why few of my students feel they can strongly claim a distinct musical contribution, but indie rock was mostly distributed by an underground hand-to-hand passing around of bootleg cassette tapes, not the radio. And I have to wonder why it’s even possible that some of my students would claim The Beatles as their favorite band. I don’t mean to argue that the Beatles weren’t great, because I find that argument silly and pretentious, but come on!!! How could your favorite band be the same age as your grandparents? Move on!!!

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October 3, 2009 - Posted by | music

7 Comments »

  1. You said “most important” so quality doesn’t matter–just influence, which thankfully is much easier to assess.

    On hip hop, you need Dre, though the album as a whole sux, you need some Dirty South (not my area), you need Wu-Tang Enter the 36 Chambers.

    For rock you need Radiohead’s OK Computer and PJ Harvey (pick one, they’re all great and important, but I might say To Bring You My Love). And you need Tortoise and some electronica like Massive Attack.

    You need some shit like Korn. You need some black metal, though you might put that off until the aughts.

    Oh, what about Ani DiFranco? Another manifestation/hybridization of punk.

    And the most important punk albums? The Bikini Kill, the Nation of Ulysses, the Green Day, and Offspring changed the world in different ways (the first two inspiring a billion underground bands, the latter changing the structure of the music business).

    And finally, the single most important album of the 1990s whose lasting influence is still reverberating, getting softer, then louder, then softer and then…louder again today…Slint Spiderland. As young Hank Shteamer of my intro to Europe class told me in 1997, every generation discovers Slint anew. He became a music writer, by the way. EMO EMO EMO.

    Comment by Eric Barry | October 4, 2009 | Reply

  2. And finally, Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane seems to be the album that younger indie lo-fi kids coalesce around.

    Comment by Eric Barry | October 4, 2009 | Reply

  3. In terms of influence, I’d add U2’s Achtung Baby (1991). The question about age/era and musical tastes is an intriguing one though. Many resist what’s marketed to them in their teens (why I, like you, couldn’t abide work that I can now respect in retrospect). The turn to alternative (lower-case “a”)work sometimes leads one to less-marketed work produced in one’s era, sometimes to older good things that were superb products of another era. To make the jump from one sort of lyric performance to another–Emily Dickinson remains gripping, and Sylvia Plath gets more teens into poetry than other contemporary stuff. Sharp work is to be savored whenever you find it. I came late to the Pixies, but I made up for lost time.

    Comment by mateo | October 4, 2009 | Reply

  4. I’ve been glad to see PJ Harvey popping up on people’s lists. Her albums from the ’90s are among my favorite from that era, and a few of them are among my favorite of all time– but I wasn’t sure whether she had the widespread popular appeal and influence I was thinking might be necessary to be considered “most important.” With “Live Through This,” one of my picks for “most important,” Hole helped make female anger and aggression (of the sort that was also being explored by PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, Ani DiFranco, and Liz Phair, among others) acceptable in mainstream rock. Also, it’s a very good album. And, as singer songwriters go, I think a similar argument could be made for Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes.” I have trouble believing that “Jagged Little Pill” would have become so wildly popular if those two albums hadn’t paved the way.

    Comment by Mandy | October 4, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thanks Eric, you know more about the music scene than almost anyone else I know. And I look forward to seeing your essay in print a few months from now when the book _Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction_, edited by Suisman and Strasser gets published by Penn. (And for all my theory students and colleagues, I hope you are noting the reference to Walter Benjamin in the title, and I really recommend Eric’s essay, the rough draft of which I read and think is really excellent.)

    And thanks Mandy for reminding us of the importance of PJ Harvey, Ani Difranco, and Liz Phair on later, more mainstream artists such as Morissette. And I would agree with you that all of them are better than Morissette, though less popular worldwide. (By the way, you forgot to mention one of my favorite bands of all time, Sleater Kinney, which I know you also love because you’re the one who introduced me to them.)

    But the thing that neither of you are addressing is how one’s sense of the past changes. That was the point of my blog — as Mateo points out in his comment, and that point can be applied to the difference between what poems a high school student likes and what poems an adult likes. So, Mateo, you’re definitely right about that. (You’re wrong about Achtung Baby, though. U2’s earlier albums War and Joshua Tree in the 80s, I would agree with, but not Achtung Baby.)

    So, we might say there are different ways of categorizing this stuff. Eric’s category seems to be “here is all the albums and bands I know about that seems to have had some effect on somebody, and I can trace that effect because I’ve mastered this knowledge.” This is the empirical work of a historian, and I appreciate Eric’s distinction between “influential” and “good,” since influence can be empirically measured and goodness can’t. As he rightly points out, Korn sucks, but they were very popular (though I’m not sure about their influence.) In contrast, Mandy’s category seems to be “here’s all the stuff I liked when I was that age.” I’m having trouble seeing any connection between Tori Amos and Hole except that she liked both of them. But anyway, I agree that the musical tradition of white-girl rage was not only very “influential” (using Eric’s criteria) but also very “good” in the early 1990s. (As a counter-balance to the white-middle-class-girl rage, I might add groups like Mazzy Star, which were part of the same musical scene, but were doing something very different musically.)

    I can’t help but suspect that our sense of what’s important is affected by the social locations we inhabited at the time. Theoretically, the categories “influential” and “good” and “original” aren’t so clearly distinct, and our sense of influence, originality, and goodness ought to be problemtized, not simply asserted. For instance, we tend to draw thematic and musical genealogies among the stuff we happen to like, as Mandy did between Hole and Tori Amos. So, in the 1990s, I listened to a lot of self-obsessed college rock, almost entirely white guys with overdeveloped senses of irony and underdeveloped musical skills. Back then, I probably would make arguments like Eric’s about the genealogy of this little family of musical groups and overemphasize their importance for the world at large, but of course a lof of them were probably influenced by stuff going on outside that obscure little family. So, how do we understand influence? As a counter-balance to the whiney, white boy music, I also listened to a lot of 1950s/60s jazz such as Coltrane, and to some macho black male hip hop like Public Enemy (which is well-known to be more popular with white suburbanites than black urban kids.)

    Noticeably, I wasn’t listening to any black women. Why not? Now, however, as I begin to reflect critically on my past, instead of nostalgically as Mandy seems to be doing, artists such as Lauryn Hill, Beyonce, and Aaliyah seem more important to me. We haven’t mentioned Aaliyah yet, but come on!!! Most pop music today seems to be doing what those three pioneered in the late 90s, but if I remained stuck in my own boyish, white indie-rock world, I wouldn’t even recall that.

    So, in other words, the point of this bloggy exercize is not to nostalgically assert my past, but to reflect critically and dialectically on what might limit my own perspective on what mattered and how it mattered.

    Comment by steventhomas | October 6, 2009 | Reply

  6. Of course, any discussion of which items in any category are “most important” raises a lot of questions about terms. Most important to whom or what? Most important in which ways?

    My thinking about this particular question in a somewhat nostalgic way was based in the way I was thinking about those issues… I don’t feel that I can definitively answer any “most important” questions, or even really understand what would be involved in being “most important” in a general/undefined sense. But I can offer some ideas based on my experiences, interests, and knowledge. Having a more complete sense of which nineties music was most “influential” or “good” or “original” or whatever, in a global sense, would require many different perspectives, I think.

    And if that global sense were literal as well as figurative, I imagine that the list would include far more diversity in terms of language, nationality, and genre,in addition to ethnicity and socioeconomic class, than has been mentioned here so far.

    Comment by Mandy | October 7, 2009 | Reply

  7. P.S.– I maintain that “Little Earthquakes” and “Live Through This” focus on many of the same themes, though in somewhat different ways. The narrators of the songs on the former could pass for the more introspective, literary sisters of the narrators of the songs on the latter, if you ask me.

    Comment by Mandy | October 7, 2009 | Reply


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