Anguish abounds on these classic records
If the 1980s emphasized the playful and experimental side of music, the 1990s took a turn in the opposite direction.
A new decade called for a new musical landscape — a landscape shaped by the darker, grittier attitude of Gen Xers as they entered adulthood. Grunge, a previously unknown genre born in Seattle, became the most important sound of the decade. Pop fell by the wayside as hip-hop diversified, creating a divide between the east and west coasts that would define the genre’s foreseeable future. A tumultuous time, marked by doomsday cults and “heroine chic” aesthetics, called for an equally tumultuous soundtrack.
1. “Whatever”, Nirvana (1991)
Nirvana’s debut album with a major label, “Nevermind”, was a global hit and a defining moment for alternative music. Grunge was a relatively new genre, considered unappealing to mainstream audiences. “Nevermind” not only exposed the general public to grunge, it encapsulated an era in a way that few albums truly have.
Kurt Cobain’s eerie and often brilliant songwriting combines with hauntingly familiar melodies and instrumentals to create something truly unique on “Nevermind.” A record full of volatile emotion, it pokes fun at the very audience it is addressing: “It’s him / Who likes all our pretty songs / And he likes to sing / And he likes to shoot his gun / But he doesn’t know what . it means,” Cobain laments on “In Bloom.”
The album’s influence is evident in the large number of grunge and alternative bands that hit the charts soon after its release. Without “Nevermind,” grunge, arguably the defining genre of the 90s, might never have gained the exposure it needed to have such an impact.
2. “The Chronicle”, Dr. Dre (1992)
The album that Kayne West called “the hip-hop equivalent of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Songs in the Key to Life’ songs” remained a classic for 30 years. In the late 80s, hip-hop was synonymous with its biting sound and graphic, unapologetic lyrics. The 1992 release of “The Chronic,” Dr. Dre’s first solo album, changed hip-hop forever. A laid-back record that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “The Chronic” proved that rapping could be fun. Snoop Dogg, who features on more than half of the tracks, helps promote the light, relaxed sound that has become synonymous with West Coast rap. Not only that, but it put Death Row Records, the label that would go on to produce many of the most iconic hip-hop albums of the decade, on the map. The album’s production, its sampling of ’70s and ’80s funk, and its clever puns contribute to a body of work unlike anything before or since.
3. “Lauryn Hill’s bad upbringing”, Mrs. Lauryn Hill (1998)
In 1998, after the Notorious BIG and Tupac murders, the future of hip-hop was uncertain. No one would have guessed that a 23-year-old woman would be the one to reshape the genre.
The rap was almost exclusively focused on the experiences of men, but Lauryn Hill’s lyrics were openly about motherhood, love and heartbreak. Despite the importance that “Miseducation” represented, or perhaps because of it, the record was a resounding success. The first hip-hop album to win album of the year at the Grammys, “Miseducation” broke down barriers in more ways than one. Her feminism is subtle but powerful. Hill recorded most of the album while pregnant, which no doubt inspired the song “To Zion,” an ode to her son. Hill took the foundations of hip-hop laid at the start of the decade and pushed them to their limits, creating something truly beautiful.
4. “Little Jagged Pill”, Alanis Morissette (1995)
If female rage and all its complexities could be condensed into a single song, it would be “You Oughta Know”, the lead single from Alanis Morissette’s third studio album. In the mid-90s, there were few other female singer-songwriters who wrote lyrics as ominously raw as “Every time I scratch my nails behind someone else’s back / I hope that you feel it”. While “You Oughta Know” isn’t the only breakup song on the album, “Jagged Little Pill” touches on everything from mental illness to aesthetic expectations placed on women and objectification. No matter the subject, Morissette’s lyricism and intentionally flawed delivery create a sense of brutal honesty. She desperately wants to be heard, but she doesn’t care what you think of her. Almost 30 years later, there is still something liberating about this record. It is undeniably one of the very first and best entries into the record canon by shamelessly angry women who would follow.
5. “Everybody does it so why don’t we?”, The Cranberries (1993)
In an episode of the cult teen drama, “My So-Called Life,” angsty high schooler Angela Chase collapses on her bed and blasts “Dreams,” one of the first singles from The Cranberries’ debut album. The scene seems to capture the essence of “Everybody’s Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”, a deeply adolescent record that enshrines the highs and lows of young adult life. While the subject matter – the uncertainties of a new relationship on “Sunday”, the sting of unrequited love on “Linger” – may seem trivial to some, the music itself should be taken seriously.
Today, dream-pop is a staple of mainstream music, but in 1993 the genre was still in its infancy. It was Dolores O’Riordan’s charming yet intensely emotional vocals that set the group apart from other pop groups of the time. Ethereal production and brutally honest lyrics complete the remarkably cohesive work that is ‘Everyone Else’. For a record that sounds like the sonic equivalent of flipping through someone’s diary, it’s hard not to see reflections of yourself in at least one of its twelve tracks.
Molly Hamilton can be contacted at [email protected]