The other day, for the umpteenth time, I saw a VH1 special on the ‘90s. Given that the network prides itself on repackaging pop culture ad nauseum and that so few years had passed between the show and its inspiration was the least of my concerns. Rather, what proved troublesome was seeing how, having barely graduated from that decade, the period has already begun to look nothing like the years I clearly remember living through. The relationship between music and politics, so imprecise when experienced real-time, becomes clear-cut once filtered through a television rigmarole that deals best with cause and effect scenarios. Same goes for musical styles, fashion, art, and war—a little editing and a lot of selective memory can package even the most chaotic epoch as a narrative. Indeed, the gulf between experience and how its retold grows wider and wider as the creation of memory increasingly outpaces the act of forgetting.
It’s unlikely that, if you were ever even a passing fan of “alternative” music, if you ever found flannel fashionable or used the term “poser”, if you watched 120 Minutes with delight and the proliferation of KROCK and Buzz FM radio with horror, that you’ve had enough time to forget the lyrics to any of the songs on Pure 90’s. Dubbed a tribute to “modern rock”, Pure 90’s mines the quarry of the nebulous genre and strings together a score of its most infectious and least offensive gems. Don’t expect to find your favorite under-the-radar find or grunge ditty; this compilation’s domain are the league of songs that could have been voted your senior class song, the kind even your grandmother thought had a nice melody. (Ahem, “Right Here, Right Now”?) In fact, that the music is so completely palpable and palatable—thanks to format radio, MP3s, and the ever-growing media tendency toward immediate nostalgia—is both the compilation’s greatest strength and most terrible weakness. There are no alarms and no surprises; maybe there’s no reason for this compilation to exist at all.
Those who nurtured their musical tastes on the abundance of “alternative Top 40” of the 1990s will find more than a few meaningful moments herein. Truly era-defining among the collection are tunes like Blind Melon’s “No Rain”, “Hey Jealousy” by the Gin Blossoms, and “Laid” by James; those songs, all from the early ‘90s, have begun to sound like precious heirlooms, infused with the rock-folksy, pop/not pop attitude that bloomed during those earlier years. With those songs as a cornerstone, later-dating inclusions—like Del Amitri’s “Roll to Me” or Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road”—sound remarkably well-chosen and cohesive. Less consistent but still deserving of their representation are songs that relied more on synthesized sounds and samples or otherwise disdained the decade’s au natural sensibilities. Standouts on this disc include EMF’s “Unbelievable” and Big Audio Dynamites “The Globe”.
Nonetheless, even though much of this collection focuses on songs that came out before or during 1995, the reminiscence of Pure 90’s still feels a little too soon to be a proper survey. Songs like Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun” have hardly gone out of regular rotation; songs like the La’s “There She Goes” may never go out of heavy rotation, proving to be as omnipresent (and annoying) as “I Will Survive” or “Come On, Eileen”. What’s more, listening to Pure 90’s and having a vivid memory of that decade’s nuances makes it difficult not to wonder about all the missing pieces that also fell into “modern rock” of that era—the grunge rock (Nirvana, Alice in Chains), the angry grrls (Hole, Veruca Salt), the British invasion (Radiohead, Oasis), and the pop pleasers (Counting Crows, Jeff Buckley), just to mention a few. The act of listening to Pure 90’s, in 2002, is as much about remembering what its producers seem to have overlooked, about forging one’s own personal journey through the sounds and celebrities of the era.
For certain, looking back without enough distance produces a myopia that’s difficult to circumvent. At the same time, the advent of MP3s pushes the decade compilation toward obselecence; after all, it only takes a few minutes to write your own soundtrack, making the act of “forgetting” music a thing of the past. If anything, Pure 90’s makes it crystal clear that I can be the master of how I’d like to recollect my own history. And personally, I’d prefer not having to listen to Blues Traveler while doing it.