January 28, 2013

The "Do not never ever buy" list: '90s music revisionism

From here, a Chicago used record store's list of stuff that employees are instructed never ever to buy because the stuff just does not sell.

I doubt there's much of a supply side to the story, like there are just too many of these albums already on shelves. Yeah, for a few of the mega-sellers, but not for most. And then there are mega-sellers from the '60s, '70s, and '80s that are still mega-sellers. This list seems to reflect audience tastes, namely that this music is not worth the money.

I only see a few popular '70s and '80s groups in there -- John Mellencamp, the Eagles, Men at Work, Journey, Foreigner, Boz Scaggs, and Kiss. Edie Brickell, Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston were popular in the '80s and '90s, so I'm not sure which albums are brought in that never sell. The very early '90s, pre-alternative, aren't going to have many groups listed just because we're only talking about a 2-year period. Still, only Technotronic and C+C Music Factory are listed. EMF, Paula Abdul, etc. -- they must at least be able to sell at the minimum store price.

Then make way for just about every major and not-so-major '90s act -- Melissa Etheridge, 10,000 Maniacs / Natalie Merchant, Big Head Todd, Perry Farrell / Porno for Pyros, Tanya Donnelly, Spin Doctors, K.D. Lang, Veruca Salt, Tripping Daisy, Collective Soul, Alanis Morrisette, Jewel, Soul Asylum, Sting, Stone Temple Pilots… and there's an explicit mention that "Most 90s Bands" are never to be bought, rather than list every one of them separately.

I'm guessing the rest is dorky 2000s indie / emo / etc., although Jessica Simpson is mainstream. I'll bet the pop music of most 2000s bands will wind up on the Never Buy list before too long. There are two great lines that include "obscure punk comps" (compilations) and "everything 'Pitchforky'' - (just getting everyone prepared for the 2010's)". Pitchfork being one of those music nerd websites that try to hype up unlikable noise, dated to the 2000s.

Now, some of these don't deserve their no-love status -- like all the '80s stuff. Whether it's your favorite band or not, it's not never-buy music. But it's also a shame that no one wants to enjoy the Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum, and even 10,000 Maniacs, groups that were the last dying breath of lively music left over from the '80s college rock scene.

Yet the majority of the list has gotten what it deserves. Perhaps the defining feature of '90s music is how over-hyped it was. By now, everyone on the production and consumption side realizes how boring new music is, but at least they aren't aggressively marketing it as a fundamental break with the past that'll blow away all those lamewads who listen to music from 10 years ago.

Go look through Amazon reviews of early-mid-'90s alternative albums, and about half of the ones that include The Historical Context will whine about how everything was Bon Jovi and Poison in the late '80s, and thank god Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden came along to clean house and deliver us into a brave new world of alternative and grunge. Sorry, but those guys were the beginning of the end of the guitar solo, definitely of other instrumental solos like sax, synth, or penny whistle that you heard in the '80s, and of musicianship in general. Not to mention the flat, occasionally agro emotional delivery.

It was all attitude, with little underneath musically or lyrically, just like punk -- another incredibly over-hyped style, verging on affectation. Sure, as the '90s and 2000s wore on, even the raw attitude would evaporate, leaving nothing at all. So I guess Soundgarden wasn't as bad as Nickelback, but they still ultimately sucked.

And anyway, in the late '80s it wasn't just Bon Jovi and Poison. College rock bands became hit sellers -- U2, REM, the B-52's, the Cure. Not to mention less enduring but still popular groups like Fine Young Cannibals, Love and Rockets, Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians, and Suzanne Vega, all of whom landed on the year-end Billboard singles chart. There were still aggressive non-buttrock bands like INXS and Red Hot Chili Peppers well before grunge / alternative took over. And not even a faggot alterna fanboy would lump Guns N Roses in with buttrock. During the late '80s and early '90s, GNR was way more popular and representative than Bon Jovi or Poison.

All that stuff about how Nirvana, etc., were a breath of fresh air is utter bullshit. Only some 10 year-old dork who wasn't tuning in to the radio or MTV would've thought that hair bands were the only beat happening in the late '80s and very early '90s. How else could you have missed the groups listed above unless you were being fed your music pre-digested by someone else? I'm guessing the clueless crusaders were too young to be sampling music on their own, and had an older sibling who was 100% into hair metal. (That describes my middle school friend Andy to a T.)

I never bought that story at the time, A) because I had good memories of buttrock blasting over the car stereo when my babysitters or my friends' cool older brothers would take us for a spin, and B) because I remembered that college rock sound playing within recent memory. From the vantage point of two decades later, I made peace with that early-mid-'90s zeitgeist and put together a list of '90s music worth saving from a fire. Almost none of it sounds grungey, despite the slight-of-hand attempt at the time and even since to lump the life-loving, melodic college rock bands in with the distancing, bland grunge bands.

There is clearly a lot more that needs to be written about the death of rock music, when so much has been devoted to its birth. Hopefully this will provide a start.


  1. Used record stores won't buy stuff by The Eagles because everyone who might buy their stuff already did. Some of them twice (LP & CD).

  2. I lump GNR in with buttrock. And while Nirvana isn't a good source of guitar solos, I think you're giving Soundgarden and (perhaps to a lesser extent despite their two lead guitarists) Pearl Jam short shrift. A number of the grunge bands were just a regional style of metal band before "grunge" got big.

    Nirvana was a breath of fresh air to me years after the band ceased to exist, because I hadn't heard anything like punk before then. I had heard new wave and the more radio friendly post-punk of the 80s, and found it forgettable at best.

  3. "It was all attitude, with little underneath musically or lyrically, just like punk -- another incredibly over-hyped style, verging on affectation. Sure, as the '90s and 2000s wore on, even the raw attitude would evaporate, leaving nothing at all. So I guess Soundgarden wasn't as bad as Nickelback, but they still ultimately sucked."

    I think there was something real there, but it was mostly told from the point of view of people who were unhappy. So in the mid- 90s, when the culture began to become repressive, many young people became miserable and wanted to listen to sad/angry music. It wouldn't surprise me if cocooning happened somewhat earlier in the Pacific Northwest, which would explain the Seattle Grunge scene.

    I like some of the stuff from the early 2000s, when things were temporarily freer. For instance Outkast, a rapper named "Chingy"(?), etc.


  4. I'm probably one of the quasi-autistic losers you're talking about, but I always preferred the poppy 80s stuff to the grungy 90s stuff. I wonder if it was part of the reason I didn't get into music more as a teenager.

    I'll never know, of course.


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