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Credit: Moby: Sonja Pacho/Retna

Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box

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Last year, in this very section, I griped that in the face of rampant ’80s nostalgia, I was prepared to prematurely revisit the decade that followed — anything to ward off those inane old Poison videos that had returned to haunt us. But now that I’ve waded through all seven discs of Whatever: The ’90s Pop & Culture Box, I’m starting to regret my words.

Whatever, all 130 tracks of it, surveys a decade that feels as if it just ended. The chronologically arranged set starts, as it should, with MC Hammer’s ”U Can’t Touch This,” and wraps up nine years later with another masterful use of sampling, Moby’s ”Natural Blues.” In between are more than enough hits to perk up any iPod. Me, I’m already prepared to compile a playlist with the Afghan Whigs’ burly ”Gentlemen,” Oasis’ shimmering ”Wonderwall,” Das EFX’s jumpy ”They Want EFX,” Joan Osborne’s saintly ”One of Us,” and, assuming I can play air guitar while biking, Matthew Sweet’s ”Girlfriend.”

But Whatever is also deeply flawed and, at times, unlistenable. Rhino’s previous multidisc tombstones devoted to the ’70s and ’80s had simple, direct goals: to replicate what it was like to listen to pop radio. The results were narrow yet remarkably consistent. Far loftier in its ambitions, Whatever aims to touch on any genre that infiltrated radio and MTV during the ’90s — and manages to botch nearly every single one of them.

Start with hip-hop and dance, styles whose obsessions with materialism and pleasure-seeking embodied the good-times vibe of the Clinton years. In the liner notes, one of Whatever‘s producers claims he and his cohorts had too much ”reverence” for the decade to dwell on kitsch. Then why is rap effectively reduced to a series of booty-chasing novelties like ”Baby Got Back” and ”Whoomp! (There It Is)”? Anyone expecting Biggie, Snoop, 2Pac, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Ice Cube — or earlier, daisy-age sparklers from Arrested Development or PM Dawn — will walk away empty-handed. The equally vital dance genre is virtually ignored. C&C Music Factory’s bludgeoning ”Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” is included, but where are CeCe Peniston’s ”Finally,” Corina’s ”Temptation,” and other club-diva smashes of the early ’90s?

Alt-rock heavy hitters like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Radiohead are predictably missing: Major acts rarely allow themselves to be included on these sorts of compilations. (Major period icons like Mariah Carey and Alanis Morissette are also MIA.) But even the prominent college-radio bands here are poorly (or mis)represented: R.E.M. with ”What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” over ”Losing My Religion”? Bikini Kill with ”Capri Pants” over the ferocious ”Rebel Girl”? L7 with ”S—list” instead of the far superior ”Pretend We’re Dead”? Did someone hit the compilers in the head with a Hacky Sack? At other times, alt-rock is reduced to camp: Nuisances by the likes of Cibo Matto, Ween, Green Jellÿ, and Primus crop up constantly. Whatever would have been far better served by some of the glorious one-shots that made one want to turn on pop radio: OMC’s loopy ”How Bizarre,” say, or White Town’s eerie ”Your Woman.”Such omissions are revealing. Whatever is afflicted by a serious case of rockism — the belief that white guys with guitars make the most valid and noble music.

By disc 7, after we’ve been subjected once again to the dreary likes of Meredith Brooks and Spacehog, we’re aching to hear anything zesty — and along come Hanson’s ”MMMBop” and LEN’s ”Steal My Sunshine” to save us, just as they did back then. Whatever’s journey into the pop renaissance that followed ends there, though. In yet another dunderheaded move, the producers opted not to include any Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney Spears, or Spice Girls, feeling that their hits (by the first three acts, anyway) were more representative of the following decade. Wrong again: ”I Want It That Way,” ”Tearin’ Up My Heart,” ”(You Drive Me) Crazy,” and ”Wannabe” (not to mention Christina Aguilera’s ”Genie in a Bottle”), irrepressible gems all, arrived when George W. Bush was still a governor, and they belong here. Sneering dismissively at pop (and denying the decade its true eclecticism), Whatever is obsessed with maintaining a semblance of indie cred, just as many alt-rockers of the time were. The musicians have gotten over it and moved on; it’s too bad Whatever‘s producers never did.

Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box
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