The 1990s musically were very similar to the 1970s. They both started with tremendous rock music that was raw and meaningful, and they were both hijacked in the later years with garbage that overshadowed all of the wonderful things that happened earlier in the decade. (Disco, boy bands, Korn, get it?) When the average person hears the phrases ‘70s music’ and ‘90s music,’ the majority of people are going to think The Bee Gees and the Backstreet Boys. As gutwrenchingly sad as that fact is, it is nonetheless a reality.
The 1970s and 1990s also produced something else in the world of music; a market filled with so much great music that it was extremely hard for an artist to keep the attention span of the masses after one song. There was always the latest and greatest thing coming right down the pipeline. There was a lot of money to be made, and record companies capitalized. Due to this kind of market and a generation of listeners that had attention spans of 7-year-old children with attention deficit disorder, many truly great artists and bands fell by the wayside. They kept a match burning long enough to have a hit single and the rest of their catalogs were forgotten, shunned, or in some cases simply laughed at. As unfair as this was for many bands in the 1990s, it happened.
Some bands in the 1990s truly were one-hit wonders that deserved the title. Spacehog’s In the Meantime is a perfect example. It was a great demo song in 1995 that started a bidding war between record companies to sign them. They had nothing else to offer. The Flys in 1998 continued Spacehog’s tradition with their massive single Got You Where I Want You. It’s still a tremendous track that I still crank whenever I hear those first few bars. However I’d recommend not listening to the rest of that record. How could anyone forget HUM’s Stars? Just as soon as Beavis and Butthead questioned “Is it over?” when they were watching the video, it literally was. HUM had nothing, and came up with nothing to follow Stars.
What about those that did have something to follow up their one hit? What about those that literally have had album after album of quality rock music? There were many, especially in the 1990s. They just got hidden behind the aggro-rock/rap/chicken dance of Korn and Limp Bizkit and the bubblegum crap storm of Britney Spears and 98 Degrees. They faded into obscurity not because they weren’t making great music, but due to the times in which they were making music.
Seven Mary Three
Ever wondered where that band name came from? “C.H.I.P.S.” Yes, you have to dig deep for that one, but it’s true. Seven Mary Three exploded in the fall of 1995 with the single Cumbersome from their major-label debut album “American Standard” which went platinum. It was so heavily played on modern rock radio; I remember it being on 3 stations at once on a cold morning driving to school in Dobson, NC. So, what happened after that? Cumbersome remained a rock radio staple for years, but nothing else ever caught fire. Another single from “American Standard” entitled Water’s Edge didn’t capture the spirit of Cumbersome, but everyone had Bush and Live to listen to, so people tuned out. Seven Mary Three continued to make great music into 1997 with their album “Rock Crown,” which contained their best song to date entitled Lucky. “Rock Crown” was a mellower record, but what it lacked in fuzz distortion and anger, it didn’t lack in substance. Lucky has stood the test of time and has remained the band’s greatest artistic achievement in songwriting. They continued their tradition of great music with 1998’s Over Your Shoulder from their alum “Orange Ave” and 2001’s Wait from the album “The Economy of Sound.” Although they slowed a little with the release of Without You Feels in 2004 on their album “Dis/Location,” nothing has taken away from the great catalog this band has produced, whether commercially successful or not.
It’s hard to think of any artist more under-rated than Matthew Sweet. Everyone knows Matthew Sweet from his 1991 album “Girlfriend” and title track. With the help of MTV’s heavy rotation, Sweet made a name for himself quickly. As quickly as it happened, the mainstream popularity ended. A departure from 1991’s “Girlfriend,” Matthews Sweets next record “Altered Beast” was one that people just didn’t ‘get.’ It wasn’t happy-go-luck like its predecessor. It was intense, dark, and at times brooding. As people quickly forgot about Matthew Sweet, he was on the verge of releasing a poppy anthem of self-loathing that has yet to ever be topped. 1995’s Sick of Myself from the album “100% Fun” is, in this writer’s opinion, Matthews Sweet’s best and easily outshines Girlfriend. The single received modest radio airplay amongst the stiff competition of other rock music in the mid-1990s. Two years later, “Blue Sky on Mars” (‘Total Recall’ anyone?) was released along with its solid lead single entitled Where You Get Love. Sweet continued to record after this, releasing 8 more albums including the career retrospective “Time Capsule” and a deluxe re-release of “Girlfriend,” which included an alternate take of the song with a somewhat slower tempo. Matthew Sweet continues to write, record, and tour. Commercially, he never got the love, admiration, and credit he deserved, but he doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it.
Everyone remembers that weird song called No Rain with the kid dressed like a bee dancing around in the video that was on MTV constantly in the early 1990s (when MTV played music). Blind Melon was known for that song. It was quirky, uplifting, and without a doubt a massive hit. The song alone was the reason for their 1992 self-titled album selling 4 million copies. A modern rock artist can’t fathom one single being responsible for selling that many records, much less with it never reaching #1 on the Billboard Charts. What else did Blind Melon release that the public never caught onto because they were preoccupied with kids dressed like bees? How about another single from that sale album entitled Change? Change was a track that most accurately captured the sound of the band that fit perfectly with Shannon Hoon’s voice which was kind of like a folksy Axl Rose. Blind Melon also had tremendous tracks on compilations such as Out on the Tiles from “Encomium: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin” and Three is a Magic Number from “Schoolhouse Rocks.” The band unfortunately didn’t get much of a chance to grow further due to the untimely passing of front-man Shannon Hoon on October 21st, 1995.
How much would it suck if your band put out one of the most recognizable songs of the past 2 decades and then you didn’t get to keep any of the royalties from the song? We can ask The Verve how that feels. The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony was virtually inescapable in 1997. It was the string-driven anthem whose video featured front-man Richard Ashcroft obliviously walking down a chaotic street in London. The lead single from the album “Urban Hymns” was one of the biggest songs of the decade. No sooner than Bittersweet Symphony became a hit, The Verve became embroiled in a legal battle with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards over artistic license of the song. The Verve had received legal permission to sample 4 bars of an orchestral reimagining of The Last Time by The Rolling Stones. However after hearing the song, The Rolling Stones claimed that the song itself relied solely on the original melody of The Last Time. The Stones proved their point and The Verve were forced to relinquish copyright and all royalties to The Rolling Stones for Bittersweet Symphony. After a taking a hit such as this, one would think that The Verve was finished. However, “Urban Hymns” was more of a multi-dimensional record than most people realize. Tracks such as Lucky Man and The Drugs Don’t Work are bright and shining examples that this band could do more than simply sample The Rolling Stones. Although tensions ultimately led to the demise of the band, it’s clear that the career of The Verve could have went much more smoothly had they not began their mainstream success with a legal battle. Like a disease, a situation like that eventually gets the best of its host.
Better Than Ezra
“It was gooooood living with you” is how many people remember Better Than Ezra, a New Orleans band whose self-produced demo caught fire and went to mainstream rock radio immediately. That’s about as rare as someone winning the lottery and getting struck by lightning in the same day. Better Than Ezra’s debut album “Deluxe” was a smash hit hinged off of the lead single Good despite the production value. The audio was as far from the red on the VU meter as one could get. I remember when I was in radio having to adjust the output up considerably when broadcasting a song from this album. Little did many know, other than the single Desperately Wanting, that Better Than Ezra followed up “Deluxe” with one of the most solid records from start to finish of the decade entitled “Friction Baby.” From the opening riff of King of New Orleans to the lullaby-ish WWOZ, “Friction Baby” is as solid of an album of collective material as anyone released in the 90s. (Sorry Radiohead worshippers) It is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated records of the past twenty years. “Friction Baby” didn’t come close to equaling to mainstream success of “Deluxe.” However the band’s third record was the nail in their mainstream coffin. Although cleverly titled, “How Does Your Garden Grow” was one of those records in every artist’s career where they have to look back and say; “what the hell were we thinking?” (Kind of like Chris Cornell’s “Scream” or Pearl Jam’s “Riot Act”) As Mr. Mackey on South Park would say; “It’s bad…um’kay.” Unlike Chris Cornell and Pearl Jam, Better Than Ezra never got a chance to really redeem themselves. After a bankrupt record label dissolved the release of the fourth album entitled “Closer,” there was no promotion behind the record, therefore sales and airplay greatly suffered. It barely saw the light of day. The title track, Closer, remains one of the band’s undisputed masterpieces (didn’t that sentence sound like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho?) Better Than Ezra is still touring (though with not all of the original members) and making music including a great record entitled “Before the Robots” in the mid-2000s. They haven’t lost their songwriting touch. Taylor Swift even elected to cover the track From “Before the Robots” called Breathless for a benefit cause in 2008. A bad album followed by the failure of a label sent Better Than Ezra on a spiral straight out of stardom in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It took them a while to re-surface, however the addition of a new youthful fan base has eluded them. Those who remember the greatness of “Friction Baby,” “Deluxe,” and “Closer” still make it out to their tour dates regularly and aren’t ever disappointed.
Detroit-based Sponge released their debut album “Rotting Piñata” in 1994 and the album quickly became a staple on not only rock radio but a staple for the early to mid nineties generation of combat boots and flannel shirts. Any band that had a song featured in the film “Empire Records” was doing pretty well at that time. Aside from muddy production, “Rotting Piñata” was a classic record that included the singles Plowed and Molly (Sixteen Candles). The musical sound Sponge possessed only existed in the mid-90s. It never came up before and hasn’t since. Those songs are songs anyone can hear and immediately pick out when they were made (which is a good thing). Sponge’s career was similar to that of Seven Mary Three being that they never quit making good music. The issue was the diminishment of their audience due to the mega-stars of rock at the time and ever-changing stylistic musical movements (or fads). Sponge struck the iron at the right time because their sound was the sound of their time period. After “Rotting Piñata,” they followed up with “Wax Ecstatic.” It was a great record in its own right, but not as strong as their debut. Singles such as the title track and Have You Seen Mary gave the album modest fanfare , but wasn’t strong enough to compete with No Doubt, Bush, Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, and Live. Sponge quickly faded after the success of Have You Seen Mary. Many would concur that Sponge never released anything after that, which is incorrect. Although they’ve had a few personnel changes, Sponge continues to make music and tour to smaller audiences. They have never tried to compromise their sound to keep up with the times by experimenting with drum machines and dub-step like so many bands sadly do from time to time. They have remained true with what got them their first listeners and fans. Several years back, Sponge’s label at the time, Idol Records, released a compilation entitled “Vital Idol.” It contained a live version of Molly (Sixteen Candles) recorded live at New York’s legendary venue CBGB. The sound was incredible (much better than the studio cut) and was a great reminder of how great this band really was and still is.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
They’ve been doing it since 1989 and are still going strong. Did they ever want to be mainstream? For the money, sure they did. For the label of being a one-hit wonder, I’m sure they didn’t. Boston’s favorite sons (With apologies to the Dropkick Murphys), the Bosstones created their own sound. Hard rock infused with a horn line, or ‘ska-core’ as they deemed it. This band was around and making great music years and years before they hit the mainstream by accident. With the release of “Devil’s Night Out,” “Ska-Core, the Devil and More,” “Don’t Know How to Party,” and “Question the Answers,” the Mighty Mighty Bosstones gathered a huge underground following nationwide. They weren’t radio or MTV stars simply because before 1996 or 1997, what could one classify them? It was a raging heavy metal band, that delves into reggae, has a horn line, and some guy who plays no instrument and just dances around the stage. Once bands such as No Doubt broke out big on radio and people heard a few horns, something caught on. The 1996 to 1998 ‘ska movement’ had begun. Bands with horn lines and up-tempo songs were getting signed by major labels faster than women with giant heathing breasts willing to do anything getting signed to porn contracts. Combine that with the lucky timing of the release of the band’s undisputed greatest album, “Let’s Face It,” and the rest is history. Everyone who wasn’t hiding in a hole during 1997 remembers The Impression That I Get, which may or may not be about the fear of taking an STD test. It was catchy, up-tempo, and had a hook that everyone could sing along to in the scratchiest voice they could muster. But did anyone listen to the rest of that record? Not many people, but they should have. Every single song from start to finish is well written, well polished, and performed spectacularly. The band’s prior albums all had some great songs, but also some so-so tracks. “Let’s Face It” was a complete work of genius with no low points musically or artistically. There could easily have been 6 or 7 solid radio singles on that album had they caught fire like The Impression That I Get. As quickly as the Bosstones hit the limelight, they disappeared from the limelight. Although a great record in its own right, the follow-up to “Let’s Face It,” entitled “Pay Attention” was far from a commercial success. It was the last album they made on a major label. The disappointing sales weren’t due to the fact the record wasn’t good. It in fact was very solid. The issue was it was 2000. All anyone wanted to hear was Kid Rock and Creed. The short-lived ‘ska revolution’ was over. The band wasn’t though. They continued on indie labels such as Side One Dummy and have enjoyed the same underground success as they did in the early years. Seeing them live, it is evident they are still enjoying every minute of it.
It’s pretty simple really. If as their first single a band writes one of the best heartfelt ballads every recorded, it’s kind of hard to ever live that down or top it. Musical premature (well, you know) so to speak. The Nixons’ Sister remains one of those songs that people just can’t turn when it plays. It is so meaningful, so revealing, and so what everyone wishes they could say to someone they truly miss but can’t get out the words to articulate it properly. The remainder of the Nixons’ debut album “Foma” had its ups and downs. Tracks sure as Wire and Passion were other high points, but none that could possibly live up to the public’s expectations after hearing Sister for the first time. The release of their second album, which was self-titled, proved that they had more in them. “The Nixons” was a tremendous record. The opening riff of the opening track Baton Rouge made it clear that they could do a little more and be much harder than what they were known for, Sister. This record would be their most solid collective effort. It had a bit of everything, the loud and the soft such as Screaming Yellow, The Fall, and December. Due to its similarities to Sister sound-wise, The Fall received generous airplay. After that, the Nixons faded out of mainstream despite of that fact they had a tremendous record out. Their next effort entitled “Latest Thing” was also a great piece of work. Although radio completely ignored it, it was great from start to finish with standout tracks such as Blackout and Don’t Cry. It wasn’t long after that The Nixons officially disbanded. Front-man Zac Maloy is still in the music industry. In the 2000s he continued his string of tremendous songwriting with two solo records “Life” and “Saturday is Gone.” Maloy still works primarily in Oklahoma and Texas as a producer working with bands such as Bowling for Soup. Chris Daughtry also optioned to release his own version of Maloy’s song Used To (From “Saturday is Gone”) on one of his albums. Although Zac Maloy and the Nixons are no longer in the forefront, their legacy lives on through these examples.
Hootie & the Blowfish
No band, not even Creed, has had to put up with more sudden and undeserved hatred for no apparent reason than Hootie & the Blowfish. Their debut album “Cracked Rear View” was so huge, so massive, such a juggernaut, that it went platinum 16 times, becoming the 15th best-selling album of all time. It’s safe to use Wayne Campbell’s quote in the film “Wayne’s World” when he was referring to “Frampton Comes Alive.” He said; “Do I have it? Of course! If you live in the suburbs you were issued a copy. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.” Everyone had a copy of “Cracked Rear View” in the mid-1990s. It was simple a great southern-rock record. The songs weren’t musically complicated, but most well written songs aren’t (I don’t care what the hipsters who read Pitchfork say). Combining this with one of the best-sounding front-men in the history music, Darius Rucker, and you’ve got gold. He is part Otis Redding, part Scott Weiland, part Chuck D, and part Tom Waits. He has the whole package. The album produced an incredible amount of hit radio singles: Hold My Hand, Let Her Cry, I Only Wanna Be With You, Time, etc, etc, etc. So the question remains, how did a band with millions of fans suddenly become the recipient of so much hate and backlash to the point they finally just quit touring and making music 10 years later? There are a couple of reasons, all of which are as logical as a bi-polar woman menstruating while on cocaine. To begin, people never got the band’s name. It was a funny-sounding name that initially grabbed people’s attention. Hootie & the Blowfish never signified Darius Rucker as ‘Hootie’ and the rest of the band as ‘Blowfish.’ The band was actually named after two guys the band knew in college at South Carolina; a guy with fat cheeks and a guy with big eyes. Their nicknames became the band name. Hootie & the Blowfish never recovered from their band’s name. It sounds silly to even discuss bad band names with bands out there like Panic! At the Disco and Vampire Weekend. Another reason is psychology. The music was so good and transcended so many universal feelings that their fan-base covered most every demographic. What I am getting at is simply this: when a teenager hears mom or dad listening to the same CD that they have and are enjoying it, then it suddenly is NOT cool and that music should die a sudden death. Young fans quickly ran for hills. Nobody treated this band more unfairly than the mainstream music press. It got to the point that you could almost feel bad for these guys even though they had made a mountain of money. These guys could have made one of the best records of a given decade after “Cracked Rear View” and they would still get shunned and laughed-off. And you what, they did. In 1998 they released a brilliant record entitled “Musical Chairs.” Although very few people bought it or even paid attention it to it because it had the name ‘Hootie & the Blowfish’ on it, it was simply one of the best albums of the 1990s. From I Will Wait, to Las Vegas Nights, to Desert Mountain Showdown, to What’s Going on Here, “Musical Chairs” was a record they took their time with and it turned out flawless. They continued to make music including a self titled album and then their last, “Looking for Lucky” in 2005. Both albums had their high points and were extremely well done. Through all of the backlash, smaller and smaller audiences, and poor record sales, Hootie & the Blowfish always kept a happy disposition. After all, four friends traveling around playing music together is a pretty cool thing. They poke fun at themselves throwing in rap lyrics to Freaks of the Industry in their song Old Man & Me at their live shows. The strength and energy of their live shows, along with the un-matched vocal performance of Darius Rucker on any song in any style is what built the band. It is also what sustained them as long as they wanted to tour. Darius Rucker has since released two successful country albums on his own as well as a lesser-popular R & B album. The rest of the band has been involved in musical ventures of their own. It would be a breath of fresh air to see Hootie & the Blowfish writing music together again and touring. Let’s hope they do. As Jay-Z said; “F**k the critics.”
Dustin M Pardue