It’s easy to write the ’90s off as underachieving, smug, and self-important. After all, the ’90s were underachieving, smug, and self-important.
Still, something big happened in music that decade. There was a paradigm shift, and suddenly it seemed like any shmoe with a guitar could become a star. This model had its own pitfalls, but at least there was a lot less spandex and hairspray and David Lee Roth than in the ’80s.
Because it needed (yes, needed!) to be done, here is each year of the ’90s, ranked from worst to best, according to musical merit, using highly scientific (though somewhat secretive and, well, slightly arbitrary) methods. The decade morphed as it went on, and though this far removed it seems like everything happened both in a vacuum and in a flash, it most assuredly did not.
THE GOOD: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Blur’s fantastic self-titled effort, Daft Punk’s Homework, and Wu-Tang Forever. The White Stripes formed, as did Destiny’s Child.
THE BAD: Third Eye Blind vomited its debut into existence. The Spice Girls’ Spice was inexplicably the year’s best-selling album. And on March 9 the Notorious B.I.G’s life was cut far too short in Los Angeles, a murder that remains unsolved.
THE VERDICT: It’s like we all collectively said, “Everything will be different in 2000,” then realized, “Wait, that’s still three years out.” So we proceeded to half-ass everything for 12 months. Unequivocally the worst year of the decade.
THE GOOD: The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, the Roots’ masterpiece Things Fall Apart, and Wilco’s Summerteeth all gave the decade a nice sendoff. The revolutionary, still-controversial, now-defunct Napster launched on June 1. Broken Social Scene formed in Canada.
THE BAD: We had to endure Eminem’s Slim Shady LP (sure, people loved it, but, in retrospect, it was bad for progress in so many ways) and Santana’s Supernatural, which was genuinely super-terrible. On July 3 Morphine’s Mark Sandman died, way too young, onstage in Italy. Pavement called it quits.
THE VERDICT: We wanted 1999 to be the year a new millennium dawned, ushering in a culture of flying cars and houses in the sky. But we mostly decided to steal music, piss off Metallica, and listen to the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium instead.
THE GOOD: We got some bona fide classics in OutKast’s Aquemini, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Jay-Z’s Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life, and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Both Doves and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club formed. And on February 5 Rob Halford came out of the closet on MTV, a big moment for gay visibility.
THE BAD: The nonstop thumping rattle of Fatboy Slim’s vacuous You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby and the godawful Titanic soundtrack threatened to ruin everything. A Tribe Called Quest gave up the ghost.
THE VERDICT: 1998 was really boring while it was happening, but the bullet points were interesting to look back on. Basically, it was like every single business meeting you’ve ever sat through, except it was a year long and somehow the musical Annie was cool again.
THE GOOD: DJ Shadow’s formidable debut, Entroducing….., Tupac’s All Eyez On Me, Beck’s Odelay, and Stereolab’s bizarre, endearing Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Belle and Sebastian formed in Glasgow; Drive-By Truckers turned the key in Georgia.
THE BAD: Bush followed up their affliction of a first record with Razorblade Suitcase and Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill sold a mountain of records, making us look at Uncle Joey from Full House in a much different light. Tupac was shot in Las Vegas after the Tyson-Seldon fight on September 7. He died six days later.
THE VERDICT: 1996 had some great highs, but some grim, dark lows. Everyone seemed to be waiting for everyone else to do something cool, while simultaneously trying to look cool by not doing anything. In other words, maybe the most quintessential year of the 1990s.
THE GOOD: Both Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest dropped now-classic debuts, with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. And “college rock” started its second act as “alternative rock” with Sonic Youth’s Goo, Pixies’ Bossanova, and Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual. On January 21 MTV debuted its ’90s staple Unplugged with Squeeze as the first guests. Pearl Jam played their first gig -- somewhere near the woods, most likely.
THE BAD: M.C. Hammer took a weedwhacker to hip-hop’s roots with Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em. It sold a bajillion copies, made Rick James relevant again, then made him a joke again -- a feat Dave Chappelle would also achieve a dozen or so years later.
THE VERDICT: It’s weird: 1990 was still clearly the ’80s, but looking back you can now easily see the map of where the ’90s were headed. Also weird? M.C. Hammer’s pants and casually talking about a band called Jane’s Addiction. All of which seemed normal by 1991.
THE GOOD: Smashing Pumpkins released their bloated, semi-brilliant Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, trip hop crossed the pond with Tricky’s Maxinquaye, Dave Grohl started his recovery process with Foo Fighters, and GZA hit us with Liquid Swords, the best Wu-Tang solo effort. Air and Semisonic got gigging.
THE BAD: Ska somehow got worse with No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, and Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View inexplicably won big as the sound of every North American strip mall. Eazy-E died due to complications from AIDS on March 26. Bad Brains and Sugar both broke up.
THE VERDICT: 1995 seemed more interesting that it actually was – and it still does. It was sneaky like that. The stuff that happened in ’95 seems pretty cool at first glance, but, much like PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love (not-so-coincidentally released this year), it retroactively gets too much credit.
THE GOOD: Nirvana’s In Utero dropped. PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream defied the sophomore slump, while Bjork’s Debut and Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) weren’t just fantastic debuts but benchmarks in each artist’s catalog. Oasis played their third gig at an improbably named Glasgow club called King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut on May 31, and Creation Records honcho Alan McGee signed them on the spot. At the Drive-In played their first shows in Texas.
THE BAD: Radiohead started out inauspiciously with Pablo Honey and Aerosmith began their descent into irrelevancy and annoyance with Get a Grip. Korn formed in California. Pixies and Echo & the Bunnymen broke up.
THE VERDICT: The ’90s grew into their own distinct shape. Wu-Tang ushered in a new era of hip-hop, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins dragged alternative into the mainstream, and metal slipped away for a good long while to regroup.
THE GOOD: The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head unlocked the secrets of Paul’s Boutique, Dr. Dre made pot seem cool(er) with The Chronic, and Pavement released the lo-fi masterpiece Slanted and Enchanted. On January 24 Kurt married Courtney atop a mountain in Hawaii. The groom wore pajamas. On February 18 Guns ‘n Roses released “November Rain,” which is still kind of the coolest video ever, even though it’s not.
THE BAD: Billy Ray Cyrus’ best-selling Some Gave All (quick, name a second song on that record), and R.E.M.’s morose, pretentious Automatic for the People. The Sugarcubes and Boogie Down Productions threw in the towel.
THE VERDICT: 1992 was the year the ball really got rolling. The hip-hop got both weird and magical and the guitars got both fuzzy and sludgy. There were still mullets and achy breaky hearts to dodge here and there, but once that passed we knew we’d never have to hear from the Cyrus family ever again, right?
THE GOOD: NIN released the emotionally battering The Downward Spiral, Sugar’s File Under: Easy Listening was a buzzsaw to the heart, and Soundgarden’s Superunknown shook out as the ’90s version of Dark Side of the Moon. And, of course, there was Nas, with Illmatic.
THE BAD: Green Day’s Dookie foisted upon us the worst fake British accent in rock and Bush released Sixteen Stone, which should have been simply terrible but was somehow worse. Nirvana played their final show in Munich on March 1; Kurt Cobain was found dead 38 days later.
THE VERDICT: The year the script flipped. It was all heading in one direction, but a shotgun blast in Seattle cast a pall and sent everyone back to their corners to regroup. Heavy? Yes, it was. But it was another defining, pivotal year for the decade. It would test our mettle and we would persevere.
THE GOOD: Nirvana’s Nevermind defined the decade. Smashing Pumpkins began with Gish. Trip hop broke through with Massive Attack’s Blue Lines. Soundgarden made Badmotorfinger a cool word to say for the rest of eternity and Pearl Jam’s Ten was the voice of hope. On July 18 Lollapalooza launched in Tempe, Arizona, and would become a rite of passage for many Gen-Xers in the years to come.
THE BAD: Metallica ruined everything with the "Black Album" and Mr. Big’s Lean Into It was even dumber to listen to than it looked. Guns ‘n Roses released the generally bloated Use Your Illusion I and II, which was sprinkled with moments of genuine inspired brilliance, but not nearly enough of them. On November 24 both Freddie Mercury and KISS’s Eric Carr died.
THE VERDICT: 1991 was the first year that seemed different. The new breed of rock stars looked like normal people. Several albums from bands in the newly branded “alternative” music scene (including many debuts) became classics that transcended the genre. The rest of the decade lived and died directly due to everything that happened within these 12 months.