Musically, the '90s boil down to this: In January 1992, Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 position on Billboard's album chart. And for the next eight years, alternative was the word, and the airwaves were unusually diverse.
Taken one tune at a time, the just-released Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box is filled with tracks that radio overplayed to the point of obsolescence. But strung together 19 at a time over seven CDs, these 130 songs create a mesmerizing time warp.
Since they didn't record for the Warner Bros. family, most major grunge and hip-hop icons elude the Box. And this space is way too tiny to allow us to draw a full road map of the decade's musical landscape. What follows, then, is Shrapnel's compass rose of the '90s, songs from Whatever that establish the four cardinal directions music has traveled to get where it is today.
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Kris Kross, "Jump"
Where and When: America, summer 1992
Significance: Dr. Dre, the No-Limit Army, Tupac, and Biggie aren't here -- so we're left with Kris Kross. The duo's success shows that the nation was so hungry for rap, we'd follow it anywhere. Just listen to rap radio today -- we still do.
Where and When: Keg parties and professional wrestling events, 1992 through now
Significance: Leading to Ozzfest and the ongoing metal renaissance, Pantera kept metal alive when Metallica was writing bad ballads.
Ani DiFranco, "Not a Pretty Girl"
Where and When: Predominantly female liberal arts colleges, 1995
Significance: DiFranco was the yin to Kurt Cobain's yang. Running her own indie label (Righteous Babe), she resisted the major-label brass ring and blazed a noncommercial trail for streams of other artists to follow.
Ash, "Kung Fu"
Where and When: Bedrooms of bored, guitar-owning teenagers, 1996
Significance: Deviating Ramones-via-Green Day three-chord formula for pop-punk, similar groups began incorporating arena-rock conventions like hand-clap refrains and hooks you can hang a side of beef on. Stocked with this kind of band, the Warped Tour still draws sold-out crowds across the country.