As millennials relive the ‘90s in all its glory, it’s hard not to celebrate the ups and downs of music over the course of the decade. As technology and the political climate changed so did fans appetite for genres like gangsta rap, grunge, new jack swing, punk, and pop. These different styles of music helped usher in new artists, like Mariah Carey, Nirvana, BoyzIIMen, Spice Girls, and Puff Daddy, that would go on to become mainstays of the ‘90s.
As with any nostalgic music post, things need to be ranked and, in this case, we ranked each year based on selection of music and events to happen over the course of the ‘90s.
With alternative rock producing some of the best albums of the year, Nirvana introduces the first glimpse of grunge and R&B makes a go at the singles charts. The year is a bit all over the place in terms of genre and style.
What happened? Whitney Houston sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl and laying the groundwork for every performance of the anthem to follow. Janet Jackson signs a $30 million record deal with Virgin Records and her brother Michael signs a $1 billion contract with Sony. BoyzIIMen makes it so hard to say goodbye to yesterday. Perry Farrell launches the first Lollapalooza festival tour. Metallica releases “The Black Album” — one of the most successful albums of all time. Guns N’ Roses sell 1.3 million copies of their sophomore album in one week. Every major single — “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You,” “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” “I Like the Way (The Kissing Game),” “Because I Love You (The Postman Song),” “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” — features parentheses in the title. Kenny Rogers launches the restaurant chain, Kenny Roger Roasters.
Notable releases: Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey, Nevermind by Nirvana, Ten by Pearl Jam, Metallica by Metallica, The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest, “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” by Bryan Adams, “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C+C Music Factor, “Rush Rush” Paula Abdul, “One More Try” by Timmy T
The first year of the decade was a transitional year with a number of late-'80s acts spilling over and music seeing a noticeable shift away from '80s pop and hair metal. Music tastes are a bit all over the place as alternative rock firmly establishes itself as the genre of choice.
What happened? MTV’s Unplugged makes its debut. (Although, it was with the forgettable new wave band, Squeeze.) Public Enemy releases one of the best albums of the year, Fear of a Black Planet. The Go-Go’s reunite — for the first time since breaking up in 1985 — to play a benefit concert. While still named Mookie Blaylock, Pearl Jam plays their first show. Janet Jackson lands atop of both the Billboard Hot 100 and Mainstream Rock chart with “Black Cat”. Two different songs of the same name, “Hold On,” — by Wilson Philips and En Vogue — top the charts. Vanilla Ice samples “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie in “Ice Ice Baby.” Celine Dion makes her English-language debut. Madonna takes her Blond Ambition on tour and gets banned by MTV. Mili Vanili admits to lip-synching and later return their Grammy award for Best New Artist.
Notable releases: Rhythm Nation 1814 by Janet Jackson by Janet Jackson, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette, “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor, “Poison” by Bell Biv DeVoe, “Vogue” by Madonna, Fear of a Black Planet by Public Enemy, Goo by Sonic Youth, Bossanova by Pixies, Ritual de lo Habitual by Jane’s Addiction
With the start of the Soundscan era, the charts explode with a mix of pop, hip-hop and R&B. Nothing really feels groundbreaking although there's plenty of fun to be had.
What happened? Whitney Houston spends 14 weeks atop of the charts with her cover of “I Will Always Love You.” Janet Jackson becomes the first female artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard album charts in the Soundscan era. Prince changes his name to an unpronounceable symbol becoming The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. Natalie Merchant goes solo, leaving 10,000 Maniacs after 12 years with the band. Wu-Tang Clan enters 36 chambers. Ace of Base releases their debut featuring a cover of Tina Tuner, “Don’t Turn Around.” Meat Loaf will do anything for love except for that one thing.
Notable releases: “Whoomp! (There It Is)” by Tag Team, Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins, Debut by Bjork, janet. by Janet Jackson, “Weak” by SWV, “Informer” by Snow, “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) by Wu-Tang Clan, “The Sign” by Ace of Base
With the grunge movement established, Kurt Cobain becomes the voice and face of a despondent '90s generation. The year feels cohesive if not slightly serious as acts like Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth follow in Cobain's shoes.
What happened? Nirvana establishes the grunge movement with the success of Nevermind. Guns N’ Roses releases the world’s longest single, “November Rain,” which clocks in at 8 minutes, 57 seconds — the music video also costs a record $1.5 million to make. Eric Clapton pens the emotional — and chart-topping — tribute, “Tears in Heaven,” to his late son, Conor. Sinead O’Connor rips up the Pope on Saturday Night Live. Queen re-releases “Bohemian Rhapsody” when the song appears in Wayne’s World. Madonna gets erotic on wax. BoyzIIMen spend 12 weeks atop of the Billboard Hot 100 with “End of the Road.” The bee girl becomes the most popular video vixen in Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” Whitney Houston makes her film debut in The Bodyguard and covers Dolly Parton for the soundtrack. Vibe magazine launches. Dr. Dre ain’t nuthin’ but a ‘G’ thang, baby. Mariah Carey covers The Jackson 5.
Notable releases: “End of the Road” by BoyzIIMen, “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-a-Lot, “Jump” by Kriss Kross, “Save the Best for Last” by Vanessa Williams, “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred, “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus, The Chronic by Dr. Dre, Automatic for the People by R.E.M., Rage Against the Machine by Rage Against the Machine, 40 Oz. to Freedom by Sublime
Following a directionless '93, the next year enjoys a revival of punk and witnesses the beginnings of new jack swing.
What happened? Green Day throws dookie everywhere and launches the punk revival of the mid-‘90s. Kurt Cobain is found dead after committing suicide. Weezer introduces themselves to the world with “The Blue Album.” Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes sets fire to her then-boyfriend Andre Rison’s home. Red Hot Chili Peppers perform in light bulb costumes at Woodstock ’94. Alicia Silverstone stars in Aerosmith’s music video for “Cryin’.” Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley awkwardly kiss on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards. TLC creeps on their men.
Notable releases: “Don’t Turn Around” by Ace of Base, “I Swear” by All-4-One, “Hero” by Mariah Carey, Definitely Maybe by Oasis, Illmatic by Nas, Weezer by Weezer, The Lion King Soundtrack featuring Elton John, CrazySexyCool by TLC, “Longview” by Green Day, Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G.
Following years of alternative rock, grunge, and punk dominating the radio and TV, music begins to shift as hip-hop goes mainstream.
What happened? Madonna steps into Evita’s shoes. Rent makes its debut off-Broadway. Kiss reunites with the original lineup and makes first appearance — in full makeup — together since 1983. Tupac releases the first ever rap double album, All Eyez on Me. Take That splits up. Pop-Up Video debuts on VH1. MTV 2 is launched. Mariah Carey and BoyzIIMen sit atop of the charts for 16 weeks with “One Sweet Day.” M.C. Hammer files for bankruptcy. Phil Collins leaves Genesis, Slash leaves Guns N’ Roses, and Sammy Hagar leaves Van Halen. Spice Girls release their debut single, “Wannabe,” going number one in 31 countries. Aaliyah collaborates with Timbaland on One In a Million. Whitney Houston sings backup for Brandy on “Sittin’ Up in My Room.” No Doubt airs their dirty laundry amid breakup tensions in the music video for “Don’t Speak.” Jamiroquai creates a virtual insanity.
Notable releases: “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and BoyzIIMen, “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey, “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman, “You’re Makin’ Me High” by Toni Braxton, “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette, “Loungin’” by LL Cool J, It Was Written by Nas, Falling Into You by Celine Dion, All Eyez on Me by Tupac, The Score by The Fugees, Space Jam: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture featuring R. Kelly, One In a Million by Aaliyah
Following the revival of pop, mainstream radio finally hears a variety of music that lay the groundwork for the iPod generation.
What happened? Madonna freezes in a desert in the video for “Frozen.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers fires Dave Navarro. VH1 gathers music biggest divas — Aretha Franklin, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and Mariah Carey — for one night. Aerosmith goes number 1 for the first time in 28 years together with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Geri Halliwell leaves Spice Girls. Lauryn Hill goes solo with The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Total Request Live (TRL) debuts on MTV. Britney Spears releases her first single, “…Baby One More Time.” Brandy and Monica fight for the same guy. Goo Goo Dolls spends 18 weeks atop of the Billboard Hot 100. Cher introduces the world to auto-tune. Courtney Love and Hole go glam for Celebrity Skin. The still hyphenated Jay Z samples Annie. Alanis Morissette rides the subway naked.
Notable releases: Before These Crowded Streets by Dave Matthews Band, It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot by DMX, “Doo Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill, Ray of Light by Madonna, “The Boy Is Mine” by Brand and Monica, “Nice and Slow” by Usher, “Getting’ Jiggy With It” by Will Smith, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life by Jay Z, Aquemini by Outkast, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby by Fatboy Slim, Hello Nasty by Beastie Boys, Mutations by Beck, “Closing Time” by Semisonic, “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer
Thanks to Spice Girls and Hanson, fans' taste for pop are reignited and country has its mainstream moment thanks to artists like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. Meanwhile hip-hop continues to explode with acts like Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, and The Notorious B.I.G.
What happened? Daft Punk makes their debut with Homework. The Notorious B.I.G. is shot dead ahead of the release of his double album, Life After Death. Puff Daddy and the Family and Sting pay tribute to Biggie with a performance of “I’ll Be Missing You” at the MTV VMAs. Hanson and Spice Girls usher in a new era of pop music. Missy Elliott can’t stand the rain. The ladies of rap — Angie Martinez, Da Brat, Left Eye, Lil’ Kim, and Missy Elliott — unite on “Not Tonight.” Sarah McLachlan launches the first Lilith Fair. Both LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood record the same song (“How Do I Live”) and release their versions on the same day. Close to a million people show up to Garth Brooks free concert in Central Park. Fleetwood Mac reunites on The Dance. Elton John pays tribute to Princess Diana with a re-recording of “Candle in the Wind.” Shania Twain becomes the biggest country star to crossover to mainstream with Come On Over. Now That’s What I Call Music collects the year’s biggest singles on one compilation album.
Notable releases: “MMMBop” by Hanson, “Barbie Girl” by Aqua, "Something About the Way You Look Tonight" / "Candle in the Wind 1997" by Elton John, “Foolish Games” by Jewel, “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind, “Hypnotize” by The Notorious B.I.G., Come On Over by Shania Twain, Spiceworld by Spice Girls, The Velvet Rope by Janet Jackson, OK Computer by Radiohead, The Colour and the Shape by Foo Fighters, The Fat of the Land by The Prodigy, “Bitch” by Meredith Cole, “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, “No, No, No” by Destiny’s Child, Big Willie Style by Will Smith, "Honey" by Mariah Carey
In a year when basically anything could happen just about everything did. The last year of the decade — while disjointed at times in terms of taste — had something for everyone has a new generation of spending power came of age.
What happened? Britney Spears and boybands kick off a new era of pop thanks to the success of TRL. TLC don’t want no scrubs in their life after returning with their first new album in five years. Sugar Ray ditch funk metal for pop rock on 14:59. Jennifer Lopez makes her musical debut and helps usher in the Latin explosion. Napster is launched. Women dominate the Grammy Awards with Lauryn Hill, Madonna, Shania Twain, Sheryl Crow and Garbage (fronted by Shirley Manson) all up for Album of the Year. The Red Hot Chili Peppers reunite the original lineup for the release of Californication. Carlos Santana collaborates with Rob Thomas, Lauryn Hill, and others for Supernatural. Mariah Carey lands her 14th number 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Heartbreaker.” The ladies of R&B put men in their place with “Bills, Bills, Bills” (Destiny’s Child), “Bug A Boo” (DC), “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” (Whitney Houston), “No Scrubs” (TLC), and “Where My Girls At?” (702). Music “dies” at Woodstock 1999 when the festival is plagued by sexual assaults, poor conditions, excessive heat, and fires and protests.
Notable releases: “Heartbreak Hotel” by Whitney Houston, Faith Evans and Kelly Price, Fanmail by TLC, The Slim Shady LP by Eminem, “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas, Ricky Martin by Ricky Martin, Millennium by Backstreet Boys, Fly by Dixie Chicks, “Genie in a Bottle” by Christina Aguilera, “What’s It Gonna Be?!” by Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson, “If You Had My Love” by Jennifer Lopez, “Bills, Bills, Bills” by Destiny’s Child, Rainbow by Mariah Carey, “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega
No other year felt as cohesive as '95. R&B dominated the radio with most of the year's biggest singles and some of the decade's most now-classic albums were released. Fans were done with the dark undertones of grunge and looking for more optimistic (and danceable) sounds.
What happened? TLC chases waterfalls and then files for bankruptcy. Tupac scores a number one album, Me Against the World, while in prison and later signs with Death Row Records. Robbie Williams quits the boyband world. Offspring and Rancid extend Green Day’s punk revival. Cher releases her first new album in four years. Coolio gets Michelle Pfeiffer to star in his music video for “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Janet and Michael Jackson scream at each other and spend a record $7 million on the duet’s accompanying music video. Seal delivers a kiss from a rose and wins all the awards at the Grammys. Hootie & the Blowfish score the best-selling album of the year. New jack swing takes over the airwaves thanks to acts like TLC, BoyzIIMen, Monica, and Adina Howard. Alanis Morissette seeks revenge on Dave Coulier with Jagged Little Pill.
Notable releases: “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey, “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)” by Monica, “This Is How We Do It” by Montell Jordan, “Freak Like Me” by Adina Howard, “Waterfalls” by TLC, Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis, The Bends by Radiohead, Post by Bjork, “Macarena” by Los del Rio, Tragic Kingdom by No Doubt, Pieces of You by Jewel
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