What comes to mind when you hear the term “’90s music”? “C’mon Ride the Train,” perhaps, or “Mambo No. 5″? Yes, the decade certainly saw its share of one-hit wonders and novelty tunes. But is it fair to slap these labels on all ’90s music? This edition of The Cutout Bin further explores the decade’s best, following my previous column. These two columns respond to fellow Blogcritic SeanRamblings’ article “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation(‘s Music),” in which he argues that “the average music from this era is worse than the average music from any five-to-six-year portion of the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even the 2000s.” Following his guidelines, I look at noteworthy artists that first emerged in the 1990s (not including artists he already mentioned, such as Green Day, Sheryl Crow, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Alanis Morisette); many still enjoy success today, or have at least greatly influenced today’s music.
Massive Attack: Pioneers of the genre “trip hop,” Massive Attack combine hip hop, psychedelic elements, dance, chillout, and other forms to produce their unique sound. Debuting in 1991 with the classic Blue Lines, the group created the now well-known songs “Unfinished Sympathy,” “Daydreaming,” and “Safe from Harm,” among many others. The group also launched the careers of Tricky and Neneh Cherry, paved the way for bands such as Portishead, and worked with such luminaries as Madonna and David Bowie. Audiences may know them best for their 1998 tune “Teardrop,” currently used as the theme song for TV’s House.
Timbaland: This artist/producer first emerged in the public’s consciousness through his innovative work with Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (another influential ’90s artist) and the late Aaliyah. 1997′s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” still sounds hypnotic, with its offbeat tempo, Elliott’s distinctive rapping style, and her singing a sample from Ann Peeble’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” Timbaland also contributed greatly to Aaliyah’s career, using the sound of a cooing baby in “Are You That Somebody?” and chirping crickets in “One in a Million.” Ginuwine’s “Pony” remains a hip-hop classic since its 1996 debut, with its vocoder-enhanced bass lines and stuttering beat. Timbaland continued his success as a producer into the 2000s, reinvigorating Nelly Furtado’s career as well as producing singles for Madonna and Justin Timberlake (most notably on Timberlake’s second album). He has recorded his own albums, such as 2007′s Shock Value, but his contributions as a producer will probably be his greatest legacy.
Foo Fighters: After Kurt Cobain’s untimely death in 1994, the future of Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic were in limbo. While Novoselic kept a low profile, Grohl decided to step out from behind the drums and form his own band, the Foo Fighters. No one could have predicted the band’s massive success and Grohl’s emergence as a first-class musician, singer, and songwriter. Their self-titled album, which premiered in 1995, featured the hits “I’ll Stick Around” and “Big Me”; the latter’s straight-ahead pop and the former’s blatant hard sound demonstrated the group’s versatility and Grohl’s broad talents as a vocalist. Their second album, The Colour and the Shape, continued the band’s winning streak with “Monkey Wrench” and “Everlong.” 1998′s There Is Nothing Left to Lose spawned the Foo Fighters’ classic “Learn to Fly.” Overall, the Foo Fighters left their mark on the ’90s through their ear-catching rock and often humorous videos. Grohl has also become a statesman of rock, most recently performing at the White House for Paul McCartney’s Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song celebration.
R. Kelly: Yes, he cuts a controversial figure, but no one can deny that his work as a producer and artist left a large stamp on the ’90s. His first album, 1993′s 12 Play, struck a chord with its sexy lead single “Bump ‘n Grind.” Combining heavy beats with blatant sexuality, R. Kelly became an instant hit with other cuts such as “Your Body’s Callin’” and “Sex Me.” He demonstrated his other, softer side with “I Believe I Can Fly,” the inspirational song from the 1996 Space Jam soundtrack. While he continued to release innuendo-filled songs such as “Half on a Baby,” he would alternate them with gospel-tinged ballads such as “I’m Your Angel,” a duet with Celine Dion. But he also became an ubiquitous producer, working with such artists as Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and Michael Jackson, who scored one of the biggest hits of his career with the Kelly-penned hit “You Are Not Alone.” For a time, no one could escape the R. Kelly sound on the radio or on MTV.
Q-Tip: Technically, this rapper first appeared on the music scene in the late 1980s, and then became part of the influential group A Tribe Called Quest. But he struck out on his own in 1999 with Amplified, which contained the irresistible thumping tracks “Vivrant Thing” and “Breathe and Stop.” His laid-back rapping style, along with his intelligent and mind-bending lyrics, have made him one of the most distinctive rappers on the music scene. Due to label issues, he released his followup, The Renaissance, almost ten years later. But he still amazes listeners with his talent and willingness to incorporate other genres such as jazz into his art.
Diana Krall: With her deep, subtle voice and fluid piano playing, Diana Krall became a bonafide jazz star in 1993. Since her debut, Stepping Out, she has shown her ability to interpret the Great American Songbook as well as modern classics such as Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” or the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.” Due to her talent and love of traditional jazz, she has sung with everyone from Tony Bennett to Ray Charles. In the 2000s she has continued exploring other types of music, such as Brazilian jazz and straightforward singer-songwriter material, sometimes collaborating with husband Elvis Costello.
Weezer: Their self-titled 1994 debut displayed the sly humor and intelligence of this rock band, led by Rivers Cuomo. Through its Spike Jonze-directed video, the tune “Buddy Holly” fared well on the charts. Their followup, Pinkerton, failed to achieve equivalent success (although it has since become a cult classic), but they rebounded in 2001 with Weezer (also known as the Green Album), which showcased their maturity as songwriters and performers with such excellently crafted songs as “Hash Pipe” and “Island in the Sun.” Cuomo and the group continue to experiment with their music and producer ear-catching tunes such as “Beverly Hills,” proving that their 1994 success was no fluke.
Me’Shell Ndegeocello: While she has yet to experience massive mainstream appeal, her unique brand of funk, hip hop, rock, and soul stands out. With her androgynous voice and popping bass lines, she burst onto the music scene in 1993 with “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” off her first solo album Plantation Lullabies. Although it performed modestly, it still established her new and fresh sound, along with her vocal and bass playing abilities. Her second album, Peace Beyond Passion, courted controversy with cuts such as “Leviticus: Faggot” (a song decrying homophobia), but her soulful cover of Bill Withers’ “Who Is He (and What Is He to You)” exemplified her respect for old-school soul as well as her experiments with modern R&B and rock. While her own albums met with moderate success on the charts, her collaborations with other artists fared better. Her duet with John Cougar Mellencamp, a remake of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” reached number three on the Billboard charts in 1994. She also teamed with soul legend Chaka Khan on 1995′s “Never Miss the Water,” and could hold her own with the big-voiced Khan. She still records albums and songs for movie soundtracks (such as “Let Me Have You” from the How Stella Got Her Groove Back soundtrack). An artist of resolute individuality, she continues to forge her own sound and will surely enjoy a long-lasting career.
These artists represent just a sampling of excellent music from the 1990s; in future Cutout Bin columns I will spotlight more, since I simply did not have enough room to list them all. Looking at charts from previous decades, it can be deduced that every year contains its influential singles as well as its dreadful, justly forgotten tunes. Even the ’60s, which is constantly cited as spawning the best in music, had its clunkers (The Singing Nun and The Archies, anyone?). Characterizing an entire decade by a few singles unfairly dismisses talented musicians that left their mark on those years.
Who are your favorite, sometimes unappreciated, 1990s artists? List your selections in the comment section, and let’s continue the discussion.