I have a little theory about getting older: The decade you came of age in will always be your favorite decade. If that’s true, my sweet spot is probably from 1996 – 2006, a decade spanning my teenage years until the year I turned 21. Those were good years.
A couple weeks ago my boss — Jarret Myer, the co-founder of UPROXX and Rawkus Records — challenged me to a little Facebook game where you count down your seven favorite songs of the 90s. He nominated a couple other bloggers too, like Dustin Rowles over at PAJIBA, which inspired this post. He knows that (a. I really love jam bands and (b. the ’90s were the beginning of post-Grateful Dead jam bands being a cultural force, so I’m pretty sure my nomination was really just a test to see just how much of a granola-loving stereotype I actually was back in the day.
Turns out, in terms of musical taste, I’m pretty damn stereotypical.
Music has a wonderful way of causing synapses to fire neurotransmitters associated with emotions and memories, so the ’90s challenge turned out to be a fun memory recall experiment. It forced me to dust off the cobwebs on how certain jams inevitably shaped my interest in music at an early age.
The best thing about the ’90s challenge — and music tastes in general — is that it’s completely subjective. No two lists are the same. For the sake of conversation, here are the seven songs from growing up in the ’90s that shaped me the most.
Play it with your friends and/or list your top 7 in the comments. Or, better yet, hit me up over on Twitter.
“Run Around” — Blues Traveler
Best songs of the 90s day 1 of 7. 1994. Cracked Rear View is all the rage. The world is Hootie’d the f– out. Then John Popper and Blues Traveler hits MTV/rock radio in Central PA and dropped the harmonica-solo-sent-from-heaven that the world so desperately needed.
I was nine. It stuck. Cracked Rear View might be one of the first albums I “owned” sans a couple Michael Jackson mixes, but Four is the first album I reallllllly loved as my own, independent of outside peer influence.
“So Much To Say” — Dave Matthews Band
A couple Thursdays ago I attended a gallery opening at the Morrison Hotel Gallery celebrating 25 years of Dave Matthews Band. Great way to revisit a band I don’t listen to a lot these days, but still respect for the place in the great ’90s Birkenstock-music cannon. The first DMB album in the Wenerd household as a kid was Under the Table and Dreaming, which my mom bought to play her middle school music students. She brought the album home that summer, where it frequently got play in a boombox in our screened-in porch. The second was Crash, which I bought in seventh grade in a buy-seven-cds-for-$5 Columbia house music club promo.
Favorite songs of the 90s, day 2 of 7: The opener on that album. LeRoi Moore (rip!) throwing down ’70s horn funk licks on the baritone sax with Dave’s signature acoustic guitar licks. It was a very popular sound amongst the Gettysburg College counselors at Camp Nawakwa, which — now that I think about it — had a powerful influence on my music taste at a pretty young age.
“Garden Grove” — Sublime
I was in seventh grade the first time I heard Sublime, one year after Bradley Nowell died. A friend’s older brother preached the gospel of Sublime’s self-titled album and we cranked it quite loud on a recently-acquired stereo in the Critchfield catalog. It was the first burnt CD I ever owned; It took a friend roughly four hours to burn on a very primitive CD-R, if my memory serves me right. I played it until the scratches on the disc made it unlistenable.
“Is this punk? Is this reggae? WTF is dub? Who the hell is Lou Dog? Dat bass line…” Peak Attitude Era in the WWE and SoCal punk bands like Sublime and Pennywise were a fleeting obsession, along with Jncos and drawing with white out pens on Five Star Trapper Keepers.
Fav songs of the ’90s, day 3 of 7: “Garden Grove” by Sublime. There are probably better songs in the Sublime catalog (i.e. “Pawn Shop” — always a fun one to play), but for a teenager, it painted a fun yet gritty image of a group of dudes Bro-ing out in sunkissed Southern California.
“Interstate Love Song” — Stone Temple Pilots
Back in the day, the radio options in Cumberland Valley were limited to the following: Adult contemporary top 40 (zzzzz), country, Classic Rock (lots of Skynyrd), a gazillion Christian Rock channels, and low-dial NPR out of Harrisburg and D.C. No hip-hop. When a community-minded alt-rock station with a small transmitter started in the ’90s, it was revolutionary — finally the music of MTV/VH1 had a home on the rural airwaves.
Favorite songs of the ’90s, day 4 of 7: A song from a band I never really heard until that station opened — “Interstate Love Song” by Stone Temple Pilots. It was a frequent request I called in to that radio station, which I imagine now is owned by some conglomerate like Clear Channel or Westwood One.
When you really listen to the lyrics of this STP classic, it’s a bluesy, heart-aching road song in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Dylan, complete with a Martin acoustic strum and some clever ’90s grunge-tastic stomp box use.
“Intergalactic’ — Beastie Boys
I vividly remember the afternoon Carson Daly debuted the Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic” on TRL. The Japanese monster movie music video was perfect — I was at that smart-ass middle school age when the Power Rangers were mockable. This song was my introduction to the Beastie Boys, which led into a pretty deep dive into hip-hop beyond what was charting regularly on MTV in ’97-98.
There’s a wonderful MCA mural in my neighborhood that I walk past all the time.
Intergalatic is always the song that pops into my head, even though there is way better wordplay in other Beastie Boys’ songs. Can’t shake the memory of hearing something for the first time.
R.I.P John Berry and Adam Yauch.
“Hypnotize” — Notorious B.I.G.
6/7 of my ’90s countdown: A song relatively SFW enough to play at every school dance, from middle school to ’05, probably followed by Steve Tyler’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” I never owned a copy of The Notorious B.I.G.’s Life After Death, but damn if it wasn’t everywhere.
In those pre-TRL days, I experienced “Hypnotize” as a music video on MTV before hearing it anywhere else. Hard to believe the director wasn’t Michael Bay because the whole thing feels like a mini-version of Bad Boys. How apropos.
“Stash” — Phish
Day 7/7 of the ’90s countdown.
Phish. I first time I heard Phish I heard *of* Phish. By that, I mean I heard *of* Phish through friendships and relationships before I listened to a solitary note of music created by Phish. I still think it’s the most meaningful way to discover the music that you care the most about — through conversation, through a friend telling you “I think you’ll like this.” It was what I now describe as “older brother music” — middle school friends talking about how it was what their college-age older brothers or sisters spent their summers doing. Plus, the members of the band were an archetype that was easy to identify with: Part Bros who liked to hang and goof around, part dead serious music nerds. When you’re (a. the oldest and (b. a malleable adolescent with two music teachers as parents (hi, Mom and Dad), that combination of serious live music + adventure + grassroots mystique tends to anchor itself in the imagination. So before I loved Phish, I loved the idea of Phish.
The first Phish I ever heard was download on Napster and played in WinAmp. I’m 65% sure it was a very lousy audience recording from the “1999” Prince cover from the 12/31/1998 MSG show that circulated heavily on Napster in the early days. From there, it was a slow build of downloading various audience tunes in the catalog, including that damn “Gin and Juice” cover that never *quite* sounded right. Downloading audience recordings that were 15+ minutes long took a frustratingly long time on a 56k modem… sometimes days. So that Christmas, I asked and received a copy of the band’s official live release, A Live One. Finally getting to experience recorded live Phish in 1411 kbps put me pretty firmly down the rabbit hole.
“Stash” is track #2 on A Live One. I remember listening to it on Christmas night on a Discman with headphones on, enthralled after the sixth or seventh “mayyyybe so, mayyyybe notttt” when it opens into a jam on a minor jazz chord progression. Four musicians improvising together in the great jazz tradition, equally exploring each other’s cacophony without a single player standing out. Even Fishman holding it down on the drums. That was the eye-opening moment for me.
We listened to a lot of jazz as a family in the Wenerd household, so I remember making my dad — a music teacher — listen to it. His puzzled look and deadpan response with headphones on still cracks me up.
“This is the whitest thing I’ve ever heard.”
I bit the hook and, 17 years later, Trey, Page, Mike, and Fishman still have me on the line.