I recently saw a sign in a bar that said “You must be born before this day in 1995 to be served alcohol.” 1995 was the year that I graduated from high school, so, this coming May, I will be able to buy my high school diploma a beer.
Even though the year I was born barely puts me in Generation X, I’ve always identified as such, so, I’m given to a fair amount of nineties nostalgia, particularly for the music. When I look back on the nineties, I instinctively hear – and picture, in that pea soup green cardigan sweater on the set of Unplugged – Kurt Cobain. I’m not even a huge Nirvana fan (I gravitated more towards Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam) but I’m unable to divorce the image of Cobain from what I think of as the 1990’s. And I never actually never listened to Pavement or Sebadoh in the nineties but they scream nineties to me now. Slackers and Seattle and flannel and grunge. You know, the nineties.
Except that’s not the whole nineties.
I heard a woman at a storytelling show say she was a nineties kid with regards to listening to NSYNC. NSYNC? Are you kidding me? They came out in… Jesus. “Tearing Up My Heart” came out in 1997? That can’t be possible.
But it is. I’ve taken enough “You Know You’re a 90’s Kid When…” online quizzes that feature Britney Spears and Boy Meets World to realize that the nineties were a long decade. During the late nineties, I was in college and either I wasn’t paying much attention to pop culture or I already had my tastes formed and self selected the things that I wanted to hear. (Pretty sure it was the latter.)
But there’s a third version of the nineties, too, the actual nineties. Memory is a funny thing and we often find ourselves crafting an image of what we liked to have happened instead of what actually did happen. If I honestly look back at the nineties, there are a lot of songs that were really playing in the soundtrack of my life at that time.
So, here’s a sampling of the songs that I think of when I think of nineties, which, I guess, is really just the early nineties.
Nirvana, “Come As You Are”
You didn’t think I was going to pick Smells Like Teen Spirit did you? I always liked this track better anyway.
Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”
I realize that Billy Corgan may have recently turned into or may have always been a douchenozzle but this song, its album, and the album proceeding it – Gish (honorable mention: Rhinoceros) – are classics.
Beastie Boys, “So What Cha Want”
I was too young for License to Ill and, when this song came out, Paul’s Boutique was still considered so Check Your Head was the first Beastie Boys album that really resonated with me. And this video,with its weird exposure and with Yauch in the wool hat and Mike D exhibiting the Grand Royal style that was to become so popular, manages to find the overlap between grunge and hip hop.
Luscious Jackson, “City Song”
This song is great but it’s the style of this band and of this video that made me want to move to New York. It just looked so cool and so unlike anything in Rochester, NY. Luscious Jackson also had cred for being on the Grand Royal record label.
Weezer, “Undone – The Sweater Song”
Dissonant guitar riff at the beginning, absurdly banal lyrics, still cashing in on the slow verse/loud chorus song stylings. It’s almost a perfect song. This song wasn’t in the soundtrack of My So-Called Life but it sure as hell should have been. (That song you’re thinking of is “Late At Night” by Buffalo Tom and it’s wonderful.)
Pavement, “Cut Your Hair”
This is the closest Pavement ever got to a single and I’m sure it was on 120 Minutes all the time but I wasn’t cool enough to watch that in high school, so, I probably saw it on Beavis and Butthead. Like the band itself, this video is bratty and brilliant (and, I believe, filmed in Beauty Bar when it was still a barber shop).
And then, I just don’t know what happened. The airwaves were filled with ska and rap rock and swing music, for Christ’s sake! (I love you, Swingers, but damn.) Was it a sudden shift or had it been building all along?
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “The Impression That I Get”
It was even included in Chasing Amy, a movie that I loved who’s New York (okay, fine, New Jersey) style and indie sensibilities feel very early nineties to me. I enjoyed this song at the time – and I kind of still do – but I think it might have paved the way for more crap.
Hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate. Dear Lord in Heaven, how I hate this song.
Sugar Ray, “Fly”
I’ll say this: Kurt Cobain never lived to hear this song and I’m a little jealous. The title of this article from Rolling Stone about lead singer Mark McGrath speaks volumes.
Smashmouth, “Walkin’ on the Sun”
This song was prominently featured in Can’t Hardly Wait (which, yes, I liked – high school AND rom com? I’m a sucker). The name of the album that features this song is Fush Yu Mang which comes from them doing an impression of Scarface saying “Fuck you, man” during recording which I find hilarious. But that’s the most redeeming thing about the band. Late nineties, you’re killin’ me.
Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, “Zoot Suit Riot”
Oh for Christ’s sake… I was either going to post this one or the Squirrel Nut Zippers but I dislike this one slightly more.
Limp Bizkit, “Faith”
It’s just bad when your best single is a cover and I never thought I would say this but how dare you disrespect George Michael? Rage Against the Machine’s bass player Tim Commerford climbed on the stage and refused to come down during an MTV Awards after they lost out to Limp Bizkit. It seemed so bratty and self indulgent at the time but, years later, he would explain that he did it because he was so frustrated with the whole rap rock thing that Rage has ostensibly started. I kind of respect him now.
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time”
This song came out in 1999. It was the spring semester of my senior year in college and I remember thinking, as a twenty-two year old, “goodness, how old is that girl?” And thus, we went from grunge from a suicidal rock poet to pop of the highest order. Indeed, ten years is a long time.
And then there’s the music that I know I actually listened to. So much of this comes from parking myself in front of MTV for hours on end when MTV still played videos. Not all of these songs scream nineties but they were for me.
Dave Matthews Band, “Ants Marching”
I can’t lie. I loved me some DMB. Any of my friends from high school know that, in reality, I listened to so much Dave Matthews band it was almost compulsive. On a trip to visit colleges, as I drove and controlled the music and thus curated a DMB mix, my mother, pushed to her limit, said, “Christ, can we listen to something else?” This is isn’t my favorite track off of Under the Table (that would probably be “Warehouse”, fyi) but it’s the single. This album and its successor Crash made up a big part of my life’s soundtrack for about two-three years. They lost me with Before These Crowded Streets and my love affair with Dave was over but listening to these songs now is like listening to high school.
Hootie and The Blowfish, “Only Wanna Be With You”
You listened to this song. “No I didn’t.” No, I didn’t say you intended to listen to this song, nor did I say that you wanted to listen to this song, but if you were alive in 1995 and not in a coma, you listened to this song. We all did. God dammit, we all did. I have to include it here because it just reminds me so much of senior year of high school.
4 Non Blondes – What’s Up
I swear, I logged more time watching this video by not changing the channel from MTV when it was on that it needs to be mentioned. While this video looks like an out of touch television producer’s approximation of Ani DiFranco, it was still kind of catchy.
Blind Melon, “No Rain”
Come on, the bee girl! I still love this song. I don’t know what you would call it – pop, perhaps? But it’s very evocative of sitting in front of the television watching MTV, i.e. high school ennui. Blind Melon’s next album (which would also be their last due to lead singer Shannon Hoon’s overdose) Soup is actually worth a listen. It’s darker and more complex and had some of my college friends saying that Blind Melon was one of the best bands of all time. (They smoked A LOT of pot.)
Coolio, “Fantastic Voyage”
Maybe Coolio makes you think of “Gangster’s Paradise” but “Fantastic Voyage” was such a huge hit or at least it was played so much on MTV that it was just burned into my brain. And I’m just noticing that it’s a poppier version of the West Coast “gangster rap” sound of Dre and Snoop that came out a year or so before. Bonus points to anyone who remembers Jimmy the Cabdriver on MTV saying “how are we gonna get from day ‘hood to day beach?”
Skee Lo, “I Wish”
You love this song. Don’t lie. There’s a Forrest Gump reference in the first second of the video. How can you not love this song? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
The Black Crowes, “Remedy”
I heard this song recently for the first time in perhaps twenty years and rememberd, holy shit this was a good album. I wasn’t a huge fan their first album, Shake Your Money Maker, with “Jealous Again” or “Hard To Handle.” But their sophomore effort The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion was the real deal. Chris Robinson is a true Jagger-esque rock ‘n roll front man, skinny and weird, kind of sketchy, and frighteningly charismatic. This album sounds like seventies anthem rock but, nope, there it is, released in 1992, right in between Nevermind and In Utero.