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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