Was the 90s the greatest decade in music?
There was no 90s sound.
Not just one, anyway. To say it was all about the fuzzy guitars and fiery screams of grunge is to discount the slinky synths of West Coast hip hop and the thumping, anthemic big beats of the decade’s best dance music.
The beauty of 90s music was both its diversity and the way artists took the styles of previous decades, refined them, then added a sonic dimension and attitude that matched both the optimism and, at times, despair of the decade.
Grunge extinguished the raging fire that was late-80s hair metal. Featuring its ferocity but none of its pomposity, this new breed of rock’n’roll hit at the core of disaffected teen angst.
It was easy to play, too. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was genius, but you could learn its four chords in minutes. As dozens of raw and impassioned grunge anthems exploded out of Seattle, a wave of similar acts soon emerged from garages around the world.
As grunge crossed over, bands with loud guitars, shabby hair and flannel shirts drew the interest of major labels with fat cheque books. That’s how three teenagers from Newcastle went from a regular, unassuming high school life to playing the world’s biggest stages. Silverchair’s monumental success led to an explosion of signings in the Australian underground and a proliferation of brilliant alternative rock.
Rave culture and the rise of big beat put fresh rhythms and colour – not to mention drugs – into electronic music and gave us anthems that still resonate today.
People danced all night, not just in clubs, but in warehouses, factories, and even country fields. The mobility of a DJ setup democratised the process of throwing a party and meant anyone with a big enough sound system could do it.
DJs became superstars. Not content to just remix and play other acts’ classics, these crate diggers injected their own musicianship into the mix. Soon the likes of Fatboy Slim, Moby, The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy were headliners at festivals worldwide.
And what about those festivals. Following the lead of Lollapalooza, the Big Day Out started in 1992, closely followed by Falls and a swarm of others ready to attract the now feverish crowd of new music fans.
Have we forgotten Madchester? What would the 90s have sounded like without acts such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses? It came and went as fast as an E, but fed the frenzy that became Britpop.
Inspired by those Mancunian legends, as well as 60s UK icons like The Beatles and The Kinks, the battle of Oasis vs. Blur grabbed the headlines. The movement however extended far beyond just that rivalry with acts like Elastica, Supergrass and Pulp achieving many moments of brilliance.
Hip hop got harder, heavier, scarier, and even more vital in the 90s. Following early superstars like Run DMC, Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and N.W.A., young artists saw rap as a way of telling the world what was happening in their neighbourhoods. While the feuds were notorious, the music was unbelievable. The likes of Tupac, Snoop, Biggie, Dre, Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan will forever be legends in music history.
Was the 90s really just one decade?