Nineties music worth saving from a fire
[Updated with comments on songs, except for '92 and '93,
It was only the beginning of the downward spiral, so there were still some good songs being made, especially if the group had cut their teeth during the high-point of popular music from the previous 15 or so years. This is not meant as a Best Of list, but more as an exercise to show that cultural change usually is not a 100% overnight thing, and to show that although it was a dark age, it wasn't completely without its little joys.
Regardless of what you'd add or subtract, it does look like the overall pattern is one of steady decline after 1993. By the end there's only a couple of chick songs really. I'd say that little of this would stack up in a look at a broader period -- I just mean that this is the good stuff compared to the rest of the '90s.
This period is the junk I heard new as an adolescent (born in 1980), so I remembered a good deal off the top of my head; to fill in gaps I've consulted the Billboard Year-End Hot 100, and the weekly #1s for Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock / Alternative. Not exhaustive. I'm leaving out 1990 because that year is so '80s. It's really '91-'92 when things are grinding to a halt and changing direction. Years listed are when they charted, not necessarily when they were recorded (so some pre-'91 songs may sneak in here).
For now there aren't any comments on the songs, although I'll edit it later and say a word or two about each. Just want to finally get this thing up first.
"Unbelievable" by EMF. This took the early '90s minimalist dance music like C+C Music Factory, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," etc., and gave it enough of a melodic vocal line to make it fun to follow along with, where the rest (derived from rap) were more spoken or shouted like some lame slam poetry reading.
"Losing My Religion" by R.E.M. Great melody, and it manages to use slow instead of breakneck pacing to keep you a little tense and on the edge of your seat. Plus a prominent, yet surprisingly non-pretentious use of a mandolin, rooted in the not-so-well known about peak of folk music in the later half of the 1980s.
"I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls. How did they make a song about masturbation without coming off as campy or self-conscious? Turn the focus outward onto the person they're picturing, and the power they have over the singer. Even the moaning climax during the bridge sounds about as chaste as abandonment possibly could because up to that point, she's told about how much she wants a real connection, so that she's only resorting to wasteful self-love as a last resort.
"Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, remixed by DNA. More minimalist dance music that acquires life from the breathy lilt of a capella singing that's been sampled into the mix.
"Something to Believe In" by Poison. One of the best power ballads, for not focusing so much on a rift in human relationships, but on a feeling of heartbreak between man and a seemingly aloof deity. Still, it's a yearning like in "Higher Love" for a connection with God, not a bitter atheistic resentment nor glib dismissal of the idea of a divine protector.
"Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak. Great contrast in vocal delivery, mellow during the verse and more uncontrolled in the chorus. This feeling of chiaroscuro shows up in the darker counter-melody on the bass, contrasted with the more shimmering sound of the guitar. A wonderful way to evoke through sounds the lyrics about a person's facade vs. their inner self. (The music video adds another dimension to it through use of high-contrast black-and-white lighting.)
"Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite. Like "Unbelievable," it wakens up the minimalist dance music with a little melody, and this time some good syncopation on the bassline. The last time we'd have a good disco groove that sounded of-the-moment.
"Under the Bridge" by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"To Be with You" by Mr. Big.
"Black or White" by Michael Jackson.
"Finally" by CeCe Peniston.
"It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" by Boyz II Men.
"Mysterious Ways" by U2.
"Friday I'm in Love" by the Cure.
"Drown" by Smashing Pumpkins.
"Not Enough Time" by INXS.
"Can't Help Falling in Love" by UB40.
"Dreamlover" by Mariah Carey.
"Show Me Love" by Robin S.
"Runaway Train" by Soul Asylum.
"Two Princes" by Spin Doctors.
"Come Undone" by Duran Duran.
"All That She Wants" by Ace of Base.
"Hey Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms.
"Livin' on the Edge" by Aerosmith.
"Are You Gonna Go My Way" by Lenny Kravitz.
"No Rain" by Blind Melon.
"Today" by Smashing Pumpkins.
"Mr. Jones" by Counting Crows.
"Creep" by Radiohead.
"The Sign" by Ace of Base. Lots of pleasant building up and release of tension in this infectiously charming dance hit. It could've used a little more intricate of a beat, but it's still well before techno / electronic music bifurcated into march-step rhythms or un-coordinateable complex ones.
"Because the Night" by 10,000 Maniacs. Another cover, but distinct enough, and the emotional delivery feels genuine, not like the overly emo mainstream of the time and after.
"Linger" by the Cranberries. Very melodic, with a nice Celtic level of vocal inflection and vocal harmony.
"Found Out About You" by Gin Blossoms. Great gradual, dramatic build-up and release of tension. This may be the last song that has an accusatory tone of voice that is meant to ultimately reconcile a rift in a relationship, not the bitter whining the comes with passive acceptance, nor the see-through indifference that goes with junking someone you still care for.
"Spin the Bottle" by the Juliana Hatfield Three. The bouncy tempo and boy-crazy lyrics give it a child-like feeling, not like an infantile regression, but also not like a brooding fixation on how awkward or painful puberty can be. It's about the anticipation and thrilling unpredictability of that age when you first start playing kissing games (back when kids still played them, I mean). You can't write a catchy song like this about detached, at-a-distance "activities" like sexting or posting on your crush's Facebook wall.
"The More You Ignore Me, the Closer I Get" by Morrissey. This is from a transition period from when gays were more in the closet and had to appeal to normal people, to when they came out in all their hideousness. If recorded today, it would probably sound like the epitome of clinging queer-ness. But it's more restrained emotionally -- just a basic unreciprocated love song -- as well as vocally (no paroxysms like in some of his Smiths songs). Very catchy and melodic, fitting the "don't ignore or forget me" lyrics.
"Basket Case" by Green Day. About as melodic as pop-punk ever got, not mindlessly repetitive, a nice upbeat take on the "I'm such a weirdo" song.
"Fade Into You" by Mazzy Star. Along with Smashing Pumpkins, Mazzy Star is about as far as you can go into the '90s trippy, sound-scapey heroin jag music and still be able to pick out a melody and riffs to catch your attention and ground your memory. Otherwise you just float off into the landmark-free void and feel different sound textures washing over you, like one of those lazy river rides at the water park, remembering nothing afterward.
"I'll Stand by You" by the Pretenders. Most power ballads came from already very expressive hard rock bands, but here's one from a group with relatively lower-key college radio roots. ("Eternal Flame" by the Bangles is another, earlier example.)
"Misery" by Soul Asylum. Upbeat, lean-on-me tune about loneliness that I find impossible not to sing along to with a smile when it plays in the supermarket.
It seems like "Cruel Summer" by Ace of Base should have been good -- great original song, and not a bad group to cover it. But it's lifeless, the syncopated bass sucked right out of it.
"...Baby One More Time" by Britney Spears. Catchy enough, not annoying like all other late '90s music, and the lyrics are those of a torch song rather than an "I'm so hot, get out of my face, scrub" kind of song.
"Kiss Me" by Sixpence None the Richer. Only picks you up during the chorus, but still pleasant, and like the Britney Spears song it's got a boy-crazy rather than bitchy or mousy tone of voice.