The late 1990’s were a difficult period for rock and roll and the musical genre certainly ended the century (the millennium!) with a whimper.
By the end of the 90’s, Britney and Christina were being treated as serious artists, mall-pop music was ascendant and our Total Request Live-obsessed culture was encouraging embarrassing comparisons between the Backstreet Boys and the Beatles.
I’ve written before about how the dominance of silliness on the pop charts had been symptomatic of the roaring economy – and that we only really get great musical moments when the kids are out of work and angry.
Below is an infographic I created in 2009 as I told readers to cheer up about how terrible things were:
By the way – a cursory examination of the popular music landscape right now reveals just how bullish today’s bull market truly is – just about everything in the Top 40 sucks and almost none of it will be listenable in even five years’ time. Don’t even try to argue.
Anyway, between 1995 and the end of 1999, the economy was fantastic – corporations, employees and investors were all enjoying an upswing in their fortunes. Profits, paychecks and portfolios were booming and the Fed largely stayed out of the way as both the Internet and wireless communications exploded into the mainstream at the exact same moment.
As a result, what little rock and roll did make it onto the pop charts was extremely poppy and upbeat (Sugar Ray, Counting Crows, Smash Mouth, Hootie!), and it was all very childlike in its innocence; think early 1960’s Beatles – which came during another moment of nearly unrivaled economic prosperity.
This candy-coated pop-rock interlude was shadowed by something much darker, however. Bubbling beneath the surface circa 1996 was a hard rock movement called nü-metal – a subgenre so putrid that we still pretend it didn’t happen fifteen years later (white kids scream-rapping over an amelodic aggro-metal accompaniment). But then nü-metal broke huge with a pair of hits by Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, followed by the unholy fire-riot during the Woodstock thirtieth anniversary concert held during the summer of 1999. Bands like Papa Roach, Marilyn Manson, Limp Bizkit and Korn had so completely come to embody modern rock by the late 90’s that the radio had become utterly unlistenable.
And I won’t even get into the whole Creed thing – this is a family website after all.
But I don’t mean to suggest that there was nothing worthwhile in rock and roll during the period between Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 and the early aught’s triumphant garage rock rebirth (brought about by The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives – thank god). No, it wasn’t all bad. There were some worthy bands putting out better-than-decent music and regularly hitting the charts. The thing is that while the songs became modest hits, the bands rarely became famous. We never really knew much about them except if one of their lead singers dated Winona Ryder or something (Quick: Who was the bassist for the Gin Blossoms? What city did Third Eye Blind hail from? Who sang that Breakfast at Tiffany’s song? What about the Closing Time song – who was that? Didn’t think so.). There were approximately zero rock stars created between 1995 and 1999, unless you want to be extremely generous and give Fred Durst or Rob Thomas (Matchbox Twenty) their due.
And I don’t.
I will allow that the Gallagher brothers of Oasis probably got the closest to rock star-dom, but they were too stupid and out of control to appreciate the opportunity. Especially Liam.
The lack of rock stars aside, there were definitely some listenable tracks from the era that still hold up very well. And tonight, I’m pleased to tell you, I get a chance to hear a bunch of them live as the Summerland Tour makes its way to my island home. Summerland features four acts from the mid-to-late 1990’s rock scene that had enjoyed various levels of success but had each scored at least one legitimate crossover hit during the era:
Soul Asylum: A very big mid-90’s band whose hits actually came off a record from 1992 – Black Gold and Runaway Train were legit mid-decade radio smashes and helped us push forward over the post-grunge hump even as Stone Temple Pilots threatened to drag us backward.
Spacehog: a British band that formed in New York in 1994 – recorded quite possibly one of the most well-known tunes of all time that no one can identify by name, In The Meantime. You totally know this song, but you probably didn’t know who sang it or what it was called:
Eve 6: This group had a stupid name but wrote some great songs – including the ominous Think Twice, the millennium era’s Ur-prom theme Here’s to the Night and the ubiquitous Inside Out, which spent a month at number one on the modern rock charts and nine weeks at number two. It was the definitive rock song of the year 1998 and our only refuge from the girlie-men Goo Goo Dolls or the cringeworthy Barenaked Ladies’ Canadian rock-rap shitshow, One Week (which still gives me nightmares).
Everclear: Rounding out the Summerland Tour’s lineup tonight is a band I didn’t truly appreciate at the time but have since come to recognize as one of the decade’s best. Art Alexakis and Co. had an amazing string of hits during the mid to late 90’s and probably didn’t get the credit they deserved for their songwriting or playing chops simply because no one took them (or rock music in general) very seriously at that moment. 1995’s ‘Sparkle and Fade’ and 1997’s ‘So Much For the Afterglow’ turned out to have been two of the most hit-laden records of the 1990’s – with songs like Santa Monica, Father of Mine, I Will Buy You a New Life and Everything to Everyone playing almost as though they were on a continuous loop from radios across America. The name of the tour, “Summerland”, is actually taken from a track off of “Sparkle’. Here’s a couple of examples of Everclear at their best:
Anyway, I’m pretty excited to relive this obscure moment in the history of rock music with some of the best bands from the period doing their biggest songs. It also doesn’t hurt that the venue – the Paramount – is actually a bar masquerading as a theater. If you’re going to the show tonight, say hello. I’ll be the thirty-something guy with the beatifically nostalgic smile across his face.