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Schoolhouse Rock

Fourteen music lessons from the summer of ’95: winners and losers, trends that fell flat, artists who should go away, and a decade that came back

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At the beginning of the season, a few things seemed to be givens: new Michael Jackson songs would be blaring from radios for the foreseeable future, the spirited dispiritedness of alterna-rock had wrapped itself around society like a grungy blanket, and bluegrass would never stick it out on the Billboard 200. Shows how little we know. The season has proven to be even more instructive than usual, for reasons both good and bad. With Labor Day upon us, it seems a good time to reflect on the music lessons of the summer of ’95.

There may be a sucker born every minute, but he or she doesn’t always buy records. Michael Jackson’s HIStory was not an utter commercial flop, but the indifferent public response to it, even with a publicity blitz that would shame the return of Christ, made it feel like a dud. How gratifying to know that despite what record companies think, the public isn’t always so gullible.

Forget the country boom — let’s talk bluegrass! Before now, the idea that a bluegrass album could go platinum and top 20 was about as likely as solving the Bosnia conflict over lunchtime peace talks. But that was before fiddler Alison Krauss and her band Union Station accomplished just that with Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection. It helped that Krauss has enough of a pop sensibility to cover the Beatles and Bad Company, but she still manages to preserve bluegrass’ high-lonesome style — an accomplishment in itself.

Classic rock may be reaching the end of its long and winding road. As long as there are boomers and commercials, ”Light My Fire” will always have a home. But the drooping ratings of classic-rock radio stations (some of which switched over to ”adult alternative” in desperate attempts at survival) and public apathy toward recent Rod Stewart and Steve Winwood offerings were major blows to this once indomitable format.

That ’80s revival is finally kicking in. In its relentless attempt to be taken seriously, VH1 has nearly turned itself into VH-’81: ”The Big ’80s” rivals Sheryl Crow videos in airtime, and an amusing-in-retrospect 10th-anniversary Live Aid special scored big ratings too. Ironically, watching the network is sometimes akin to traveling back to the heyday of its sister station, MTV — you know, the one that actually shows a current music video now and then.

We have to start taking Canada seriously. Between Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, and the Tragically Hip, it’s no longer so easy to comment snidely that being ”big in Canada” means about as much as ”a pretty good Michael J. Fox movie.” Damn — making fun of derivative Great White North rock was always such fun.

New York hip-hop is back on track. Although the West Coast-based Montell Jordan and Tha Dogg Pound, and Eazy-E protégés Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, nabbed the headlines, East Coast rappers snuck up behind them and stole some thunder. With two pop top 10 hits, the Notorious B.I.G. was the hip-hop voice of the summer. Solo singles and albums by members of the Staten Island collective the Wu-Tang Clan featured a new rough-and-ready attitude and also went top 10. It may not be Public Enemy and Run-D.M.C. all over again, but it’s a start.