Several 90’s bands release new compilations
Perhaps realizing its formula of rise-and-fall sagas is wearing thin, VH1 has added a new wrinkle to Behind the Music: episodes devoted not to musicians, but to years. We’re not just talking about 1965 and Dylan going electric, either. Channel-surfing one recent evening, I stumbled upon Chuck D, Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, and Ice-T reminiscing about musical and societal upheavals — in 1992. Footage of the L.A. riots and Bill Clinton blowing sax on The Arsenio Hall Show made for narcotic television, but it was also inevitable: Yes, it’s already time for ’90s nostalgia. And judging by a spate of new releases, the record business feels the same way.
The music of the early ’90s, that netherworld between hair metal and grunge, felt dreary at the time, and on Wilson Phillips’ Greatest Hits, it still does. In one sense, these offspring of Beach Boys and Mamas and Papas were pioneers: Their steely-bland sound created a template for adult contemporary pop, and in hindsight, the homogenized harmonies on ”Hold On” and ”You’re in Love” seem prescient. Wilson Phillips were about being young, pretty, packaged, and culturally meaningless, and what could be more 21st century? Their story — one hit album, a follow-up flop, then oblivion — also mapped out the career arcs of innumerable acts to come.
In a way, Greatest Hits has to be admired for the perversely creative way it stretches the girls’ few airbrushed smashes into an album. More padded than a Craftmatic convertible, the disc includes banalities from the trio’s post-breakup projects, a Stepfordized concert version of ”Hotel California” (their delivery of ”This could be heaven or this could be hell” makes purgatory sound less like a hotel than a Motel 6 lounge), and an interview track in which they sound like zombies who were est teachers in another life (”We do feel a special bond with the people who share our music with us”). The gasp you hear is alt-rock preparing to rear its head in disgust.
Given the current glut of Latin novelties, rapping white boys, and synthetic radio fodder with a distinctly Swedish twist (not to mention a Bush running for President), sometimes it feels as if we’re still living in 1992. But even if the impact of Gerardo and Vanilla Ice has faded, the same can’t be said of Scandinavian confectioners Ace of Base. Their swooshing, utterly synthetic textures, with Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys producer-songwriter Max Martin at the helm, have become the dominant sound of teen pop 2K, making their Greatest Hits album something of a primer on the roots of modern music. Toothy hits like ”Beautiful Life” and the jauntily forlorn ”Don’t Turn Around” are preeminent Europop, all brassy hooks, rushing beats, and exuberant singing that brings to mind Swedish cheerleaders in an ABBA cabaret. ”Beautiful Life” particularly is first-class pabulum, as is the more recent ”Everytime It Rains,” the best song Celine Dion never recorded. They were also woefully inconsistent, dipping into the faux reggae of ”The Sign” and the bad Motown cop of ”Always Have, Always Will.” Still, there are enough guilty gilded pleasures here to make it the type of album for which MP3s were invented.
The hip-hop world of the early ’90s was wildly diverse and often directionless, albeit in the best sense of both words. The East Coast had waned, and the Dre-led West Coast sensibility hadn’t fully coalesced. Filling the gap was the stylistic buckshot captured on Unstoppable 90s: Hip Hop. Befitting an anthology from the urban-music division of K-tel, the album is dominated by a cavalcade of one-hit rhymers. But what an assortment: Here’s your chance to rediscover the growling charisma of Nine’s ”Whutcha Want?” (the rapper sounds like DMX’s father), the funky spring of B-Rock & the Bizz’s ”MyBabyDaddy,” the lickety-split rhyming of Fu-Schnickens’ ”La Schmoove,” and the techno-hop of Souls of Mischief’s ”93 Till Infinity.”
Toss in tracks by period stars like A Tribe Called Quest (the still-funny ”I Left My Wallet in El Segundo”) and Coolio (the call-to-dance ”[1, 2, 3, 4] Sumpin’ New”), and the result is a collection that emphasizes nimble wordplay, positive thinking, and ear-grabbing musicality, traits that have only recently resurfaced with Mos Def and relative veteran Common. I count only one ”bitch” and one gun-revenge fantasy on the whole thing, and one of the few handgun references amounts to Poor Righteous Teachers’ advice to ”keep ya pistol in ya pocket” on their genuinely unstoppable ”Rock Dis Funky Joint.”
A few Unstoppable tracks, particularly Arrested Development’s ”Tennessee,” are pleasant relics of the short-lived psychedelic rap. As silly as that concept sounds now — and as silly as pictures of gargantuan hippie rapper Prince Be look now — there’s no denying the gliding beauty of the best of The Best of P.M. Dawn. A footnote in these hardcore days, this New Jersey duo aimed for a beat-driven spirituality, and they nailed it more often than not. Little in contemporary hip-hop can match the succulent splendor of ”The Ways of the Wind” and ”Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.” Even if their later attempts at harder grooves didn’t always work, P.M. Dawn were the missing link between Johnny Mathis and Jay-Z. It’s hard to imagine many current rappers throwing themselves into syncopated love songs with titles like ”Sometimes I Miss You So Much.” The album is enough to make anyone long for the ’90s. Greatest Hits (Wilson Phillips): D Greatest Hits (Ace of Base): B Unstoppable 90s: A- The Best of P.M. Dawn: A