I was listening to the early 1990s CD Girlfriend earlier today, and checked up on the All Music guide review of Matthew Sweet’s single and title cut. This led to an interesting review of the new Rhino box set Whatever: The ’90s Pop & Culture Box.
This is a 7-CD take on the nineties concentrating on alternative rock, and a cursory glance at the track listing reveals about 35% songs that I own, and about 50% I’ve heard, 90% I’ve at least heard of and 10% that slipped under my radar.
All well and good, but as reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine points out, the set essentially bypasses hip-hop, dance, Brit-pop as well as a good number of the most important alternate rock acts (Nirvana, Pixies, Sonic Youth, P.J. Harvey, Radiohead for example). That’s understandable given inevitable licensing restrictions, but as a record of the 1990s it misses the mark for me.
And it was probably inevitable that it would do so. As Erlewine perceptively points out the 1990s really saw the splintering of rock into self-contained sub-genres, categories so inclusive within themselves that is possible to become completely immersed and shut-out all the rest.
Much of the blame for this has to lie with the record industry, whose penchant for playing it safe reached epic proportions in the 1990s. Outside of a few glory years in the earliest part of the decade, can anyone say that there has been any truly memorable top-40 pop music since? I don’t think so, and with radio industry condensing into a series of genre and era-specific formats, all exhibiting woefully repetitive shrunken playlists, was there even any reason to listen to see there was something to hear?
No wonder file-sharing took off like a rocket once the technology became easy to use.
So I spent much of the latter ’90s exploring dance and Brit-pop, giving up completely on commercial radio and greatly reducing my interest in ‘alternative’, a genre which was running out of steam by 1995. I have always maintained an oblique relationship to hip-hop, dipping into very shallow waters there.
So a 1990s compilation that cherry-picks the best of those genres would be very interesting, and I dare say we will start to see them before too long.
But however splintered and difficult-to-follow the 1990s were, the 2000s has them beat. Half way through, and I still don’t have any clear sense of any movement at all! Perhaps the times for those are past.