The 411 Music Top Five 07.10.12: The Top Five Artists of the 1990s
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 07.10.2012
From Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers to Pearl Jam, Notorious B.I.G. and more, the 411 staff ranks their top 5 artists of the 1990s!
THE TOP 5 ARTISTS OF THE 1990s
This is the decade that I truly discovered music in many of its disparate and wide ranging forms. My teenage years were largely spent inhaling music from all over, though admittedly it was British and American indie that received the most attention. I could list hundreds of bands, some mainstream, some more obscure, that were important to me across the 90's for a multitude of reasons but this is a Top 5, not a Top As Many As You Can Think Of (I wish it were the latter, there were so many other bands I wanted to include). The 90's was a decade that exploded musically into so many genres as well, so obviously some of you will no doubt be disappointed that your favorite has not been included. That's why we have the comments section, so you can offer alternative opinions and explain why, though it does appear to be used mostly for ‘your opinion is different to mine, you are the king of fail', each to their own I guess. I just ask that you be respectful of my choices, which in all honesty have changed a number of times over the last week as I thought about who to include, and why I have included them. These are not necessarily going to be the best bands but the ones that meant the most to me at the time, and still do.
As with any decade, there are a couple of bands that stand out as being the headline makers and/or main players; I'm talking, of course, about Nirvana and Radiohead. As important as Nirvana were it can be argued that they were simply the most popular exponents of a movement that included a number of equally talented bands and, for me, Radiohead didn't really start to become the influential and groundbreaking group we know today until the late 90's/early 2000's. With that in mind, I will not be writing about them but I fully understand and appreciate why they, for many of you, would be the top 2 picks in the decade.
My first choice is a deeply personal one and one that I fully expect to have 99.9% of you reading and saying, ‘why'd he choose them?', well, I'll tell you. Belly was my first ever live gig; at the Junction in Cambridge in the early ‘90s (support was from The Cranberries, back before they hit the big time, they were rubbish). I'd seen Belly perform "Feed The Tree" on Friday night ‘youth TV' show, The Word and thought they were great. I went out and bought the album, Star and fell in love with Tanya Donnelly's soft vocals as they contrasted with the sharp guitar sound. Such was my enthusiasm that I got a bunch of mates together to go see them. I was blown away by the experience of seeing a band like that live, the rawness of the sound, the proximity of the group to and the interaction with the crowd and of course, the crowd reaction, jumping up and down, dancing and singing along with each of the songs. I was hooked. So, I put Belly in my personal Top 5 for the fact that it was them that opened the gig-going door for me, that and the fact that the music was actually really good and hasn't dated that badly either (I still recommend Star to people today). Hate as much as you like, but this was my band of the ‘90's.
4. Pearl Jam
The other Seattle band. They faced criticism from some of their contemporaries (Kurt Cobain included) for being too commercial and for relying on too many ‘guitar leads' to be classed as an alternative album in the same way Nirvana, Soundgarden etc were. Whatever, they rocked the house. Ten may not have been as groundbreaking musically as Nevermind but it was every bit as good and perhaps even its equal as far as long-term significance goes. It was far from an upbeat record either, covering a number of dark subjects with rip-roaring rock sounds and Vedder's anthemic vocal style.
As well as producing awesome, must have rock music (Vs and Vitalogy were pre-orders for all my friends and played at every party/gathering we went to), Pearl Jam would fight for their fans and took on Ticketmaster for adding service charges to their ticket prices. I wish someone would be strong enough to try that again.
Like most of the entries on my list, Pearl Jam were at the forefront of my record collection throughout the 90's, garnering repeat listen after repeat listen. It must also be noted that, "Nothingman" remains one of the most moving songs I have ever heard.
I'm not entirely sure how it happened, but James was ubiquitous in my life across the 90's. From the anthemic "Sit Down" (which admittedly was released in 1989 but got a re-release in 1991) at the beginning of the decade to the rousing social commentary of "Destiny Calling", with countless others (including "Laid", "Tomorrow" and "Sometimes") in-between, James pretty much soundtracked my decade. Life at school, holidays, work, university, football (soccer); their simplistic indie-pop followed me around and attached itself to my memories. I can't imagine not having had them in my life and to this day my wife still comments on the amounts of times The Best of… makes an appearance on my mp3 player.
With Madonna concentrating on being in rubbish films and slutting it up at every opportunity, the music scene was crying out for a strong, intelligent and entertaining female singer. Enter stage leftfield, Bjork. I'd been vaguely aware of her from her time in The Sugarcubes but I, like much of the rest of the world, really sat up and took notice of her in 1993 when she released the eccentric and often ethereal Debut. There quickly followed a number of collaborations with a number of artists, including Plaid (another of my favorites) and David Arnold on the track "Play Dead" which barely left my stereo for weeks. Her soft Icelandic/English accent was/is hypnotic and her unconventionality was a real breath of fresh air at the time. Her success gave her the freedom to experiment and evolve musically as the pop sensibilities that remained from her time in the Sugarcubes were gradually thrown off across the albums Post and the amazing electro-strings masterpiece, Homogenic. Not only was she musically innovative at the time but her love of the visual led to the production of equally stunning videos to accompany the music, including the Chris Cunningham directed promo for "All Is Full Of Love" (which, Kanye, actually is the best video of all time) which became the first ever DVD single in the US. She is, quite simply, one of the greatest female artists and she will still be spoken about as such for years to come.
1. Red Hot Chili Peppers
I remember, as a kid, some friends and I would take the piss out of a mate of mine for listening to the Chili Peppers, "Red Hot Chili Peppers? Red Hot Chili Peckers more like," then they released Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the piss taking stopped immediately. Even today it remains a breathtaking album of unnerving quality throughout and it justly catapulted them to worldwide superstardom early in the decade. A position they regained at the end of the decade with the release of Californication, a very different but also outstanding album. OK, so there was a bit of a blip in the middle with the somewhat middling One Hot Minute but it was still better than many of their peers were producing at the time.
The funk/rap/rock of Blood Sugar… was so fresh and infectious that all of my friends and I had it and played it, all the time. Those of us who played would model ourselves on the respective member of the band (musically, not lifestyle – no heroin addictions for us thank you) that played the same instrument, though none of the bassists could get close to Flea, and many a dreadful cover version would be attempted. Having previously been so dismissive of them, the Chili Peppers taught me to be more open to different music and not so quick to judge, from that lesson I have found so much more music that perhaps I never would have so I owe them a real debt of gratitude. Hence, they are my #1 band of the 90's.
Honorable Mention: U2, Concrete Blonde, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine
5. Tupac Shakur
When you mention the 1990s there are a few genres that immediately come to mind. Grunge, hair metal, bubblegum pop, girl power and of course rap. Rap music saw its rise in the 1990s and Tupac Shakur was a big part of that. In the 1980s most rap that mainstream radio really played was gimmicky stuff for the most part. It was cute, it was fun but that's about as far as it went. The West Coast scene then rose up and force people to take the genre seriously. It brought a ton of criticism along with it to be sure, but underneath all that controversy was a grittier reality; it was similar to the rise of grunge to combat hair metal. Tupac's lyrical stylings were undeniably influential in that fact and for me, there are few people that embody the rap scene of the 90s like him.
4. Nine Inch Nails
Another genre that became mainstream during the '90s was industrial music. With bands like Killing Joke, Skinnypuppy and Ministry paving the way, the genre began its rise before Trent Reznor took it straight to the top. Reznor's work was transcendent to me; once I heard The Downward Spiral for the first time, I just wasn't the same anymore. Reznor almost perfectly embodied the era and much like other genres, he tapped into the disaffected feeling among people at the time to create an instant connection. Nine Inch Nails is still going strong but much like my other group on this list that is still around today, I think of his 1990s stuff first when I think of NIN.
3. Notorious B.I.G.
The eternal battle: Tupac vs. Biggie, who do you prefer? Obviously you can see where I stand but it's a pretty thin damned line. I'm born and raised on the West Coast but I always liked East Coast rap more and the preference to style is probably the only difference-maker. Biggie was such an incredibly story-teller and while he was indisputably controversial, he also spoke with a level of sincerity in his music that you had to respect. I loved the music of both men; I just liked B.I.G. a touch more.
2. Tori Amos
I've spoken about my love for Tori Amos before; she was one of the first acts I really grew to love in the 1990s. Amos has always been a force to be reckoned with but no one would deny that the 1990s were her heyday, when she was angry and inspired to write biting, painfully honest songs. I've never seen a musical artist with the fearlessness of Amos. Sure, lots of people cover controversial topics in music, but they usually play to a crowd that doesn't mind. Rage Against the Machine would never be heard on adult contemporary radio and Cannibal Corpse won't be soothing the airwaves anytime soon. Amos' sound was geared toward a more traditional radio crowd, but her topics challenged that and made her an alternative to the soft rock of the late 80s and early 90s. She's still going strong today but almost all Tori Amos think of her '90s era work most fondly.
Hate away, guys. I know there are a ton of people who consider Nirvana to be the most overrated band in the history of rock, Kurt Cobain being nothing but a waste of space, et cetera, ad nauseum. Respectfully, I disagree and the band's impact on the world, both musical and non-musical, is both tangible and profound. .The band helped bring forth the rise of rock in the mid-1990s and while grunge certainly has its haters, it beat bubblegum pop back down the charts for a little bit. The band's influence on the music scene is undeniable and the songs still resonate with disenfranchised youth twenty years after the fact. That's usually the sign of a classic right there.
The Final Word
As always, the last thoughts come from you, the reader. We're merely unpaid monkeys with typewriters and Wikipedia. Here's what you need to do: List your Top Five for this week's topic on the comment section using the following format:
5. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
4. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
3. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
2. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it
1. Artist - "Song": Why you chose it