Rock in a Decade That Didn't
Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Preface: Among dozens of unpublished posts are a few worthy of the light of day but woefully out of date & step with most everything. Like this one, conceived sometime in mid-March and perhaps salvaged only by a timely addendum.
I caught Superchunk live last year. Not the first time. (And hopefully not the last.) Like many, I've been missing the ear-assault of live music. The sweat. The backache that sets-in between sets. Even the freakishly tall people inevitably pushed in front of me. Anyway, that particular Superchunk show was gleefully nostalgic as we scruffy members of the blank generation shouted the lyrics to "Slack Motherfucker," recalling a San Francisco with many more thrift stores, record shops, and greasy spoons.
The 1990s were not about rock. It was the decade that west coast rap answered its east coast counterparts. Any list of seminal albums from the decade has to include probably three Ice Cube records alone, not to mention PE, Outkast, Snoop Dogg, KRS-One... etc. That's the decade's sound.
And, yet, it was also when punk broke. Again. For instance, I was waiting in a left hand turn lane on Wilshire inside my future wife's Honda Civic when I finally heard a KXLU DJ back-announce my favorite song of 1993. I knew the title was "Everything Is." But all I knew of the band was that it featured "Hotel" in its name. Now, at a stoplight on a scorching day in LA, I added "Neutral" and "Milk" on the back of a receipt.
(This song is so significant, it serves as the framework of an incomplete book... but that's a different story.)
Super fuzz, right? This sound was everywhere. Overseas, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Billy Childish were making poignant stabs. Up north... well, you know. And riot girls. And Fugazi in DC Speaking of Dischord Records, Nation of Ulysses released "13-Point Program to Destroy America" in '91. I remember my roommate brining it home. So fierce. It's a record worth returning to. Around the same time that same roommate shouted at an altogether too complacent LA crowd packed into Jabberjaw, "C'mon people it's fucking Jesus Lizard!" That band's entire output spanned the 90s. Surely, The Jesus Lizard is a candidate for band of the decade.
Here in California, Green Day emerged from a ridiculously great Lookout! Records roster (sure, there were much better East Bay bands, but "39/Smooth" & "Kerplunk" were fun kick-offs to the 90s). At the same time, down in San Pedro, firehose released "Flyin' the Flannel", a record that stamped a Mike Watt copyright on the decade. So much greatness. Despite what Sub Pop might argue, I think two California songs epitomize the decade's sound.
Pavement's "Date with Ikea"
Rocket From the Crypt's "Ditch Digger"
This was not an easy (albeit, subjective) call. But those two are just such perfectly fuzzy anthems. Rounding out the top 5 would be songs from Unwound, Dinosaur Jr., and Superchunk. All told, a truly great decade for rock... it's just that the sound was crushed by an even more fertile decade for what has become the planet's most dominant genre. And that's fine. Our ears our big enough for both triumphs.
Addendum: Since writing the reminiscences above, I've decided to nominate a new winner: 1999's "Black Panther Song." Folk-punk brilliance from Florida's This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Seeing 'em live at The Parkside was thrilling and joyous and a reminder that most of the best songs from every decade are about fighting the good fight.
Mr. Black Panther Party, are you ready for me? After 25 years of silence, can you see me? I hate the cops about as much as you, and if you'll stand up for me, I'll stand up for you. We'll go marching arm in arm, we don't mean no harm, we're just protecting our rights from you know who. I'll bet my last dollar I can do more than holler, I can take a couple punches from those boys in blue. I bet that we can do it right this time.