Rob Harvilla, ‘90s Authority, Picks the Best Rock Year of the '90s

I still go back and forth on the idea of the monoculture—the insistence that everyone was listening to Thriller in 1983, or that everyone was listening to Appetite for Destruction in 1989. In some ways it sounds like bullshit to me—but it’s true that whatever was on MTV was what was popular, and I just bought into it wholesale, and I feel a nostalgia for that. People say it was harder to get into music. You had to go out and find it and find the cool things and track down the imports or whatever. But it was also easier. You could just take whatever was fed to you and convince yourself you loved it, even if you didn’t, necessarily. But I think Jann Wenner, for example, recently sort of revealed the limitations of letting a precious few people determine your worldview when you were a teenager and the stuff you have to unlearn about that, even if you only learned it subconsciously.

The 90s do feel cohesive, though. I try and filter out my personal nostalgia and I try and filter out the whole pre-Internet element of it, but it does feel like the Macarena could only have happened in that moment, that “Achy Breaky Heart” could only have happened in that moment. Or “Smooth.” Every generation, every era, every year has its fluke hits and its out-of-nowhere sensations, but it all just felt different back then, and I’m still trying—after 110 episodes, after 600,000 words of monologuing, after 85,000 words of a book, I still can’t quite articulate why that is. The “explains” in the title has always been a joke and it remains very much a joke, but you’d think by now I would be able to explain it, even as a joke, and I still can’t. But I love it for that. I love the unknowing part of it.

When people talk about “The Nineties,” as an era with specific cultural signifiers, they’re really talking about the early ‘90s. It feels like there’s almost a generation gap within the decade, between the grunge ‘90s and, say, the Spice Girls ’90s.

The chart that I talk about a lot—and it freaks me out every time I look at it—is a list of the top 10 most-played songs on modern rock radio from 2010 to 2020, and they’re all from 1990 to 1994. It’s Green Day, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, maybe one or two others I’m forgetting. Of course this is classic rock now, and that breaks my heart, it makes me feel ancient—but it still feels like modern rock. It feels like that’s when rock peaked and or died, right in that little stretch. I don’t know if the dividing line is when Kurt Cobain passed, necessarily, but from there Green Day sort of takes over and you have this bright, happy pop-punk moment. The Offspring.

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