The 411 Music Top Five 12.09.13: Top 5 1990s Acts
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 12.09.2013
From Nirvana and Tupac Shakur to Metallica, Janet Jackson, Nine Inch Nails and more, the 411 staff counts down their top 5 1990s acts of all time!
THE TOP 5 1990s ACTS
Criteria: The 411 Music Zone continues its trip through the decades of popular music on into the '90s! The 1990s were a decade in which a seismic shift took place in the music industry, both in terms of sound (pop toward rock & rap) and in technology (casettes to CDs to MP3s). Many of us grew up were children of the '80s and as such, the 1990s was incredibly impactful on our musical tastes today. This week we're looking at the best acts to exist during that decade.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Skid Row: Laugh if you will but Slave to The Grind is a beast.
Soul Asylum: Two great albums, one very disappointing one. Dave Pirner is one of the decades best songwriters.
Marilyn Manson: Had Golden Age... been released during the 90's he would have made the list proper. Really good stuff though.
Nine Inch Nails: Loved Pretty Hate Machine. Dropped out after everyone started swinging from Reznors nuts.
Soundgarden: Badmotorfinger is one pf the best albums of the decade. Never got Superunknown or Down... Good singles. Poor albums.
Pantera: Love Cowboys... and Vulgar... couldn't get into the sludgier stuff. Nonetheless RIP Dime.
Alice In Chains: Great metal band. Facelift and Dirt are two of the decades best.
5. Marvelous 3
This selection is pure masturbation for me. Meant to please no one but myself. By 1992 MTV had convinced American teenagers that feeling miserable and staring at your shoes onstage was what rock music was all about. For a brief moment in time though, at the end of the decade, a group of bands decided that music should be fun again and they traded their heroin for cocaine and pussy and all was right with the world. The greatest, and unfortunately least well known, of these bands is the Marvelous 3. Rising from the ashes of underrated hair band Southgang (and morphing through Floyds Funk Revival and The Floyds) the Marvelous 3 combined pop rock sensibilities with an Elvis Costello-esque vulnerability. They had one "hit" song from their second album Hey! Album but their legacy survives. Head honcho Butch Walker launched a moderately successful solo career after the bands breakup following their 2000 release ReadySexGo. But he's really found his niche writing and producing hits for other artists (everyone from P!nk and Taylor Swift to Sevendust). They are simply my favorite band - possibly ever. So like I said, pure masturbation.
4. Bad Religion
I never bought into the fact that you had to be miserable listening to music. However that didn't mean that music didn't have to stand for anything. Jeremy recently posted his top 8 punk bands and there was some debate about old school versus new school punk, but the funny thing is that the one band that gets talked about in both conversations is Bad Religion. They really hit their peak during the 90's both creatively and commercially. The end of their Epitaph run (Generator,Against the Grain, and Recipe for Hate) built upon the groundwork laid by their late 80's classics like Suffer and No Control. Sure they may have "sold out" by signing with Atlantic but that really didn't effect the music. Stranger Than Fiction is certainly more of a "punk" album than Recipe For Hate. Mr. Brett left and shit started meandering for a little bit (although there are some great cuts on The Grey Race), but without Bad Religion's early 90's output there is no NoFX, no Green Day, no Blink 182. Plus what other band is using words like "obsequious," "sartorial," and "moiety" in their lyrics? A BR album is like one of those "word of the day" calenders wrapped up in neat little 2 and a half minute punk songs.
By now you all know the background of Dave Mustaine getting booted from Metallica and all that jazz. After forming Megadeth Dave went through guitarists and drummers like a newborn goes through diapers, It wasn't until he became clean and sober and invited Nick Menza and, more importantly Marty Friedman to join the band that Megadeth reached their commercial peak. While their late 80's output certainly rocked harder, their 90's output was more consistently great. Starting with the classic Rust In Peace from 1990 though 1997's Cryptic Writings Dave and Co. rarely took a misstep (of course the less said about 1999's Risk the better). You would be hard pressed to find a metal band that was as consistently good as the "classic" Megadeth line up was during the decade. I'm sure Robert Cooper will have plenty more to say about the 'Deth should he choose to contribute to this column.
2. Pearl Jam
Interesting personal fact : I purchased Pearl Jam's Ten and Extreme's III Sides to Every Story on cassette on the same day. And while the Extreme album was okay (it certainly has grown on me since it's release) it was the Pearl Jam cassette that got the instant second listen. Rising from the ashes of the brilliant Mother Love Bone ("I'm Captain High Top the love commander. Hide your moms, control your sisters!") Pearl Jam really is the last great American rock band. They really did try to do what was best for the music and for the fans. They shirked music videos when such a thought was heresy in the name of preventing overexposure. They dared take on the crooks at Ticketmaster in an effort to keep concert prices down (a battle they unfortunately lost.) But all that means nothing if they don't have the songs. And boy did they have the songs in spades. Releasing albums like clockwork throughout the decade, Pearl Jam maintained a level of constancy their fellow "grunge" artists couldn't touch. Is their any other song this side of Jeff Buckley's "Hallelujah" as beautiful as "Black?"
No other band dominated the musical landscape of the entire decade like Metallica did. The "Black" album not only spawned 6 hit singles and sold 16 million but it kicked down the door for other metal artists to enjoy similar mainstream success. After the "Black" album hit traditional metal artists, normally relegated to Headbangers Ball were seeing their videos put in heavy rotation at MTV. Megadeth, Anthrax, even Slayer were suddenly heard in rotation on hard rock radio stations across the country....Then they cut off their hair, and everyone went bat shit crazy. To be fair the sounds on Load and Reload are completely different than say Ride the Lightning or even the a fore mentioned "Black" album. Still there are some pretty damn good hard rock/metal songs on those discs - maybe not two whole albums worth, but more good than bad generally. They closed out the decade by releasing the tremendous Garage Inc. - a double album of cover tunes and the live album S&M, both to enormous success. Metallica was the band of the 90's for those of us that think heroin and a shot gun does not make a musical legacy.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Green Day, Hole, Metallica, Fiona Apple, Madonna, Michael Jackson
If it wasn't for Nirvana and the ensuing grunge era, there wouldn't be many bands exploiting that sound today (looking at you Nickelback). They, along with Pearl Jam shifted what the popular "Rock & Roll" sound was. Call them overrated, but you can't deny their success. Also, Dave Grohl.
4. Alanis Morissette
My favorite female rock star blew up in the 90s thanks to the edgy and angsty Jagged Little Poll, which has sold over 33 million copoes worldwide . I still listen to that album to this day, because of what Alanis had to contribute to music. Her follow up Supposed Former Infatuated Junkie, though not as successful, was as equally moody and thoughtful, and allowed her to truly define her personality.
3. Mariah Carey
I wouldn't become a fan of her until a decade later, but you can't deny the success of Mariah Carey. When she released her first song in 1990 pop was so formulaic and beat-driven that you didn't even have to know how to sing to become a star. With the help of musical peers Celine Dion and Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey was able to change that and put the focus back on the voice.
2. Nine Inch Nails
I am a big fan of what Trent Reznor was able to do in the 90s. I'm always willing to listen to "Reptile" or "We're in This Together" whenever the mood hits me. The Downward Spiral is a great album that didn't rely on the grunge sound to sell millions. Nine Inch Nails only released two albums during the '90s (also the EP Broken), but they were damn good and made them household names. Sometimes for the wrong reasons (Bush)
1. Janet Jackson
Again, this is me being biased. Wherein the '80s she was the girl next door who relied on her last name to get somewhere, in the '90s she dropped the Jackson and simply became Janet. It helps that she was always more athletic and a better dancer than her brother Michael. Her music became smoother and she was able to incorporate genres like rock and trip-hop to her sound. Long before Britney Spears' "Toxic", Janet had already used a violin in "The Velvet Rope". She knew what sounded good, and sold millions because of it.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
Testament and Overkill deserve a slight mention here.
Deceased: They are one of my favorites of the underground metal scene, the 90s were their coming out party and their album, "Fearless Undead Machines" is one of my favorite albums of all time.
Mayhem: I'd be remiss if I didn't include them here somewhere, theywere one of the first black metal bands, and while their legend proceeds them, I feel that their legend is backed up with quality music.
Immortal: They get in based on the fact that they put out a ton of albums in the 90s, and they were all great, so that helps.
Cannibal Corpse: A large part of some of their best material came out this decade, and that is a LOT of material.
Alice in Chains: Out of all of the bands on this list, they are tied for releasing the least amount of albums (though they did have an EP that went #1), but their impact on the music of the decade is undeniable, I'd say that commercially, they were one of the biggest and best of the decade, rock/metal wise.
Darkthrone: When going through all of the bands that I could think of that were in the prominent among the extreme metal bands that became legends in their subgenres. This band was the one that caught my eye the most. I had forgotten that they had put out SO many albums in the 90s. Seven of them are among the best that black metal has to offer, with their first album being their one death metal offering, and one can say that it was probably one of the best death metal offerings from a black metal band in history.
This is a pick that I have surprised myself with its' placement, I honestly didn't consider Emperor to be a Top 5 pick when it came to the 90's. But then I looked and listened through their albums in preparation for this and I felt that I could not afford to leave them off of the top of the decade. In terms of the big four of Black metal, I feel like they are probably the most best in this decade, which was really the heyday of black metal, in my opinion. Sure, I think that Immortal are better overall band, Emperor did the most with the limited amount of time that they were around. If you need one album from them to prove their worth, go find, 'In the Nightside Eclipse'.
I find it fitting that on the ninth anniversary of the death of Dimebag Darrell (I'm writing this on the 8th of December), I get to write about Pantera. The 90s were the playground of Pantera, and they made the most of it. The groove metal era (that most people remember, because the band wants you to) of the band was one of the few metal bands in the 90s to have any sort of real commercial success by the end of the decade, which is pretty damn impressive in and of itself. But sales aren't enough to land you on my list, oh no, the band managed to give the listeners a reason to come back with great fucking metal. While I feel that the band peaked musically with their masterpiece, 'Vulgar Display of Power', I think that their last album of the decade, 'The Great Southern Trendkill' was probably the best album besides that, it had many different facets to it, and honestly was their most musically different album. I know the band gets a bad rap sometimes for its' fan base is a bit douchey and obnoxious, but I feel like their music stands above some of those assholes.
Remember how I said that I felt that sales don't get you on this list? I meant that, and that is why this band isn't all the way to the top. Because when you look at the amount of records the sold, and the money they made, they deserve the number one spot. But when you compare their music from the 90s to the 80s, it's like night and day, and while that isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's not a great thing, either. I find their self titled album (the black one) to be defining for them, because that album broke them out big time and cemented them as one of the few bands that were breaking out in the 80s that manged to keep that momentum. After that, they released, 'Load', and 'ReLoad', which are two good albums that together could have been a great album. They did release a great covers album, as well as the awesome, 'S&M' in this decade, but I really feel like this was their slow decline into being a lesser band than they were. That being said, they were very successful so that does count for something.
Just as my fellow writer, Josh Syvertsen predicted, I will have plenty to say about Megadeth. Out of all of the metalheads that I know, I would have to say that I am one of the biggest Megadeth fans that I know, and I do prefer them to Metallica, and this decade is one of the reasons why. For most of the decade, Megadeth emulated Metallica's career path, with a little more of a metal edge, at least until 'Risk'. But before they did that, they released what is in my eyes, the PERFECT album, 'Rust in Peace',is the best thrash album of all time in my eyes, and it is my favorite album of all time, which should probably be of little surprise to anyone who has read anything involving Megadeth that I have written. After that, they released, 'Countdown to Extinction' is another great album by Megadeth, and I feel like in terms of accessible albums by thrash bands in the early 90s, it is the second best one behind Testament's, 'The Ritual'. It was a damn good album, and its' follow-up, 'Youthanasia' was just as great. They weren't thrash any more, but they were a damn good heavy metal band, and after the good 'Youthanasia', they released a bad that I find to be incredibly underrated in, 'Cryptic Writings'. Sure, it wasn't the greatest of all time, but i was a damn fine album with a few solid thrashers like, "The Disintegrators". After that...yeah, 'Risk' isn't as bad as some other ex-thrash duds to me, but it was a weak album from a band I will mostly defend to the end. I think perhaps why they managed to keep up a constant quality for the most part is because they had an amazing line-up for this decade, you had Dave and David joined by Mart Friedman (who is one of the best guitarist ever) and the awesome Nick Menza on drums. I feel like while they were almost the opposite of Metallica here, they didn't make as much money, but they were (for the most part) very good music wise.
Oh look, the inevitable, me putting Death at the top of a list! Yeah, this was going to be at the top no matter what. They are my favorite band, and unless a band sweeps me off my feet like this one has, they will probably be at that band for life (I know, how idealistic of me). I feel like they had probably the best decade in metal in terms of creative output and musical quality. While I love their old school death metal with the gore lyrics, the technical and progressive edges that they had in every song off of all 4 of their albums just make everything THAT much better. Starting out with a sound that sounds influenced by the session musicians of Cynic fame, they managed to get more progressive until their swansong, the awesome, 'The Sound of Perseverance'. This was the last decade that Chuck Schuldiner made music, and I'm glad that this is the body of work that he left us. Every song off of every album is worthy of a greatest hits album, but if I were to give an album that is the best out of all of theirs it would be, 'Symbolic'. It is tremendous, wonderful, and a great adventure, if you haven't listened to that album go and join the perennial quest, nothing is stopping you!
Honorable Mention: U2, Concrete Blonde, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Mariah Carey
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 fans 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