April 20, 2017
It seems nostalgia for the pop culture of the Nineties is at an all-time high. With the twenty and thirty-somethings who grew up with it now plodding through in a poor economy, can you blame them for feeling sentimental about Nicktoons and “Space Jam?” The reminiscence extends to music, too, as many Millennials feel sentimental about everything from the era’s boy bands, to 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., to Alanis Morissette (isn’t it ironic?).
However, there are also tons of Nineties artists that didn’t receive as much recognition as they deserved in their day. The following is not a “most underrated” list, as these selections are generally respected by their niche audiences if nothing else. Rather, they are lesser-known selections that this writer believes are worth more attention.
Slint “Spiderland” (1991)
Though they were inspired by hardcore punk, these teens went their own way with technical musicianship, obscure time signatures and front man Brian McCahan’s vocals which alternate speaking with shouting. The group broke up after this album, but they helped defined the “math rock” and “post-rock” subgenres for the Nineties and beyond.
Atheist “Unquestionable Presence” (1991)
Some people probably think death metal is nothing but demonic growling over high-speed riffs, and this may be true of the genre’s more basic bands, but not Atheist. Their sophomore effort combined hard-hitting metal musicianship with inflections of progressive rock, jazz and Latin music. The vocals, while menacing, are cleaner than the Cookie Cutter roar of try-hard death metal vocalists.
Blink-182 “Cheshire Cat” (1994)
Most Nineties kids know all about Blink-182’s history from the time of their multi-platinum breakthrough in 1999 to the present, but only more dedicated fans will likely remember this release. The overall sound is noticeably less polished than their future releases, but this really adds to its overall charm. This is the sound of a young band finding their feet, but we see the beginnings of the energy and juxtaposition of humor and emotion which would come to define the band.
GZA/Genius – “Liquid Swords” (1995)
This album by a Wu-Tang Clan member was part of group leader The RZA’s “Five Year Plan” for solo releases. Albums from larger-than-life personalities Method Man and O.D.B., and Raekwon’s cinematic “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…” may be more talked about. But, Genius’ razor-sharp lyricism coupled with ominous, gothic beats produced by RZA, dialogue samples from the film “Shogun Assassin” and guest appearances from fellow Clansmen help to make “Liquid Swords” a powerhouse.
DJ Shadow “Endtroducing” (1996)
Some think that sample-oriented hip-hop and electronic producers aren’t real artists, but DJ Shadow has done a lot to negate that belief. “Endtroducing…..” is constructed from layers of audio samples from sources ranging from hip-hop and funk to heavy metal to cinema and spoken word. The effect is a cornucopia of sound which was hugely influential on the instrumental hip-hop subgenre.
Cap’n Jazz “Analphabetapolotology” (1998)
Many hear “emo” and think of an uptempo, pop-infused rock movement that captivated eye-liner-clad youth and MTV2 in the middle of the 2000s. However, in the Nineties the term was a blanket for a couple of movements. The “emo” term came from the “emotional hardcore” movement born out of the Washington, D.C. hardcore scene, while it also came to represent a certain strain of emotional indie rock from the likes of Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral. Cap’n Jazz exemplified a sonic middle ground between these two “emo” brands better than anyone and sounded great doing it. “Analphabetapolotology” compiles the entire too-short discography of the band.