This edition of The Cutout Bin departs from the usual format, as it responds to SeanRamblings' recent provocative article, "Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation (‘s Music)." He poses an intriguing question: Are the 1990s remembered for lasting music or too many one-hit wonders and throwaway singles? Other than Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Sheryl Crow, Green Day, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, the Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, and Mariah Carey, SeanRamblings argues, few artists made an impact that lasted into the next decade.
After reading this article, I wondered: Was '90s music really that disposable? Yes, plenty of instantly forgettable songs emerged ("Macarena," "How Bizarre," or "Barbie Girl," anyone?), but digging deeper into the decade reveals some noteworthy artists that produced quality work. The following list details some of the best artists of the 1990s. Following SeanRamblings' rules, I have not included musicians that debuted on the charts in the 1980s.
Beck: One of the most original artists in the recent music scene, Beck continues to amaze with his experimentation and incorporation of various genres into his albums. His major-label debut, 1994's Mellow Gold, spawned the hit "Loser," a half-rapped track that contained such loopy lyrics as "And my time is a piece of wax fallin’ on a termite/Who's chokin’ on the splinters." Unfortunately critics initially pegged him as a spokesman for the "slacker generation," Generation X, due to the seemingly apathetic attitude of the song, exemplified in lines like "I'm a loser baby/So why don't you kill me." But then came 1996's Odelay, a masterpiece that further explored hip hop, rock, and even '60s psychedelia. Tracks like "Where It's At," "The New Pollution," and "Devil's Haircut" still sound fresh with their unusual beats and Beck's ironic delivery. He further incorporated his avant-garde interests on 1998's Mutations, then ended the decade with Midnite Vultures, which saw Beck delving into R&B with funky tracks like "Sexx Laws" and "Mixed Bizness." Today Beck has produced extraordinary albums like Guero, introducing more world sounds into his compositions.
Erykah Badu and Maxwell: This late-nineties movement promoted seventies-era R&B, when Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, Roberta Flack, and Donnie Hathaway ruled the airwaves. Erykah Badu kicked off the trend with Baduizm, which cushioned her Billie Holiday-esque vocals in jazz tinged with hip hop. Her 1997 debut sparked numerous other releases that celebrated old-school soul. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite combined modern beats with romance, similar to Gaye's Let's Get It On. Maxwell's followup, 1997's Unplugged, proved that he was a real talent, even lending R&B takes on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" and Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." While his third release, Embrya, did not sell as well as the first two albums, it demonstrated his willingness to experiment outside of soul music and utilize unusual instruments such as the ukulele. Maxwell and Badu continue to record today, most recently releasing the strong efforts BLACKsummers'night and New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), respectively.
Seal: Defying easy categorization, Seal has combined pop, rock, dance, and soul into a unique mixture. His debut, 1991's Seal, spun off the popular single "Crazy" (not to be confused with the Gnarls Barkley tune of the same name), a hard-hitting dance song that still held rock appeal. Today, the entire album exemplifies intelligent dance music. His 1994 followup, Seal II, sold even more due to the huge hit, "Kiss from A Rose," also featured on the Batman Forever soundtrack. Like the first album, Seal II contained elements of dance, folk, and rock, all anchored by Seal's smooth yet soaring voice. 1997's Human Being did not fare as well, being widely panned by fans and critics for its uneven quality. But he returned to form in 2003 with Seal IV, an underrated collection of dance and rock that solidified his reputation as an original artist who possessed a broad appeal.
Lauryn Hill: Her 1998 solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, resounds today, with cuts such as "Ex- Factor," "Doo Wop (That Thing)," and "Nothing Even Matters" still receiving radio airplay. Fresh from the groundbreaking rap group The Fugees, Hill took on the daunting task of writing and producing much of the album herself. Her gospel-tinged voice, rap capabilities, and ability to combine a variety of musical elements into a fresh, modern sound made her a force in late-'90s music. She even produced other artists such as Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston, giving them slight hip-hop makeovers that never overpowered their distinctive voices. Fans continue to wait for her followup, although she released Unplugged No. 2.0 in 2001.
Fiona Apple: Looking slightly dangerous yet fragile, Fiona Apple tantalized audiences with her haunting voice and provocative videos. Her 1996 CD Tidal yielded two memorable singles: "Sleep to Dream," an angry tirade against an unknown protagonist, and "Criminal," a creepy plea for forgiveness to her lover. Her singular singing style and deeply personal lyrics indicated a new type of singer-songwriter—one not afraid to show aggression and reveal her inner angst. 1999's When the Pawn… (shortened from the original title, which filled the entire cover) involved Apple expanding her sound, particularly on the intriguing "Fast as You Can." Rapidly changing tempos and mood, the track showed Apple pushing her voice to its emotional limits. After undergoing personal changes, Apple resurfaced in 2005 with the critically acclaimed Extraordinary Machine, reemerging as a creative force.
Stone Temple Pilots: Admittedly, I was not a fan of grunge in the early '90s. I like only a handful of songs by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, plus Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun." But Stone Temple Pilots, originally branded Pearl Jam wannabes, turned out to be a solid rock band that shrewdly utilized Scott Weiland's powerful, brooding voice. Their 1992 CD Core featured the dark "Sex Type Thing"—it may have disturbing lyrics, but the hypnotic crunching guitars almost mimic Weiland's gravelly voice. The album also spawned the hit "Plush," which I did not fully appreciate until I heard an "unplugged" version. Weiland's soaring vocals and the band's ability to transform the hard rocker into a quiet ballad convinced me of the band's authenticity. 1994's Purple showed a band that had transcended its "wannabe" status, with hard-hitting songs like "Vasoline" and "Interstate Love Song." The followup, Tiny Music…Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, injected some pop melodies into their hard rock sound, with catchy tracks like "Big Bang Baby" and "Trippin' on a Hole in a Paper Heart." Unfortunately Weiland's drug problems sidelined the band, although they released a fourth album, aptly titled No. 4, in 1999. Successful singles such as "Sour Girl" proved that the band had staying power. But due to Weiland's issues, the band broke up in 2003; Weiland then experienced success with another band, Velvet Revolver. After leaving that group, he then reunited with his Stone Temple Pilots bandmates in 2008, eventually releasing their self-titled comeback album in 2010.
Mary J. Blige: Often dubbed this generation's Aretha Franklin, Blige possesses an astounding voice that can adapt to rock, soul, hip hop, and gospel. She incorporates her personal struggles with drugs and abusive relationships into her work, forging a strong bond with her audience. The 1990s saw her transform from an edgy hip hop artist into a mature, multifaceted one. Her debut, 1992's What's the 411?, established her as what producer P. Diddy called "The Queen of Hip Hop Soul," with singles such as the pounding "Real Love." At the same time, her cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan's "Sweet Thing" displayed her reverence for old school soul. Her followup, 1994's My Life, emerged from her struggles with depression and a souring romance, and is one of her strongest efforts to date. The title track, which samples Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine" effectively, contains one of Blige's greatest vocal performances, where she convincingly details her life struggles: "If you looked in my life/And see what I've seen," she croons, pleading for understanding. "Be Happy" continues this narrative, stating that, "All I really want/Is to be happy/And to find a love that's mine." Who can't identify with those sentiments? 1997's Share My World was her most polished album to date, featuring collaborations with various producers, including Babyface and Rodney Jerkins. "Love Is All We Need" signaled more positive changes in her life, with lyrics like "so let's make a new beginning and have some fun" exuding optimism. "Seven Days" and "Not Goin' Cry" (the latter being featured in the film Waiting to Exhale) showed her ability to wring every last drop of emotion out of a ballad. 1999's Mary solidified her reputation as a first-class singer, and saw her collaborating with Eric Clapton and Elton John, among many other artists. This album began her full crossover appeal, and she continues to record critically acclaimed work today.
This list represents just a sampling of quality artists from the 1990s. The next Cutout Bin will further explore the decade, spotlighting more noteworthy music. While some fear the 1990s will be best remembered for Right Said Fred, MC Hammer, Vanilla Ice, and the Backstreet Boys, digging into the vaults reveals songs that left a legacy on current music.
Do you have suggestions for 1990s artists that deserve more attention? Feel free to name your picks in the comment section