10 Songs Of The 90s Every Guitarist Must Know
Some might say that the rise of the internet eclipses just about every other major development of the 1990s. And since this is an internet-based blog, we at Guitarhead can only give thanks for this particular technological revolution!
But you can't just ignore all the other momentous parts of this incredible decade. We saw the rise of multiculturalism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we cloned sheep and decided to re-boot Star Wars. And the music world saw the unassailable rise of alternative artists, whether in dance, rap or (hooray!) guitar music. So let's have a look at 10 moments that all guitarists should know about, going year-by-year…
More Than Words (Extreme, Pornograffitti, 1990)
Extreme are a band whose sound and style are, well, pretty extreme. Their fusion of hard rock, funk and glam metal had already gained them a significant following around New England, a record deal with A&M, and a tune featured in the 1989 movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. So absolutely no-one saw this song coming! More Than Words is one of the most iconic acoustic guitar ballads of the 1990s, with stunningly delicate playing by Nuno Bettencourt, who adds backing harmonies to the beautiful vocals provided by Gary Cherone.
Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana, Nevermind, 1991)
1991 is very, VERY tricky to write about in a list like this. So we have to offer apologies to many great bands who released iconic guitar music this year. Sorry to grunge pioneers Pearl Jam (the iconic 10 album), thrash metal stalwarts Metallica (the even more iconic self-titled 'Black' album), rock superheroes Guns'n'Roses (Use Your Illusion 1 AND 2), Queen (Innuendo was Freddie Mercury's last EVER album for heavens sakes...), Smashing Pumpkins (their iconic Gish was a masterpiece), Primal Scream (for the magnificently funky Screamadelica), U2 (one of their finest works is Achtung Baby) and particularly the Red Hot Chili Peppers who managed to release their masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magik on the same day that Nirvana released Nevermind. And Nevermind opens with Smells Like Teen Spirit. Which, to quote Rolling Stone magazine, is "The song that blew up the world. The song that defied all rules about how music worked and how much raw emotion you could cram into four cheap chords and a crummy guitar solo. The song that kicked the future in the teeth." The grunge era had undeniably landed - with just one tune, alternative music suddenly became the mainstream…
Tears In Heaven (Eric Clapton, Rush soundtrack, 1992)
Originally recorded for the Rush motion picture soundtrack, Tears In Heaven was essentially a cathartic composition for Clapton, written about the tragic death of his young son the previous year. It also features on his Unplugged album released later in 1992, and scooped a number of Grammy awards in 1993. One of the most beautiful acoustic guitar ballads of the decade, and perhaps all-time, this song is essential listening for any guitarist.
Loser (Beck, Mellow Gold, 1993)
Even by the standards of a decade where 'alternative' was the main buzzword in music, Beck managed to somehow remain an artistic outsider on many levels. His embracing of the anti-folk scene, his blend of country/blues and hip-hop influences, and particularly his talent for producing surreal tunes based on topics of contemporary mundanity (McDonalds, MTV, pizza etc) culminated in the masterpiece that is Loser. The song isn't particularly easy to categorise by any standards (rap-folk is one genre that's been suggested) which you'd expect from a piece featuring acoustic guitar, sitar, various samples and hip hop beats. But record companies didn't care - a bidding war soon broke out based on the sheer amount of airplay the initial release was getting throughout America. Loser feels like what country music might have become if Johnny Cash had access to a drum machine at Sun studios, or Bob Dylan had embraced beatboxing at Woodstock. An absolute classic by any standard.
Basket Case (Green Day, Dookie, 1994)
Punk Rock was a genre that enjoyed a massive resurgence through the 1990s, and Green Day were unquestionably the band spearheading this revival. Whilst earlier releases achieved underground success (in no small part due to their live shows and tours), it was the Dookie album that broke the band into the spotlight. MTV and radio stations went crazy for this energetic trio, with Basket Case remaining their most famous tune to this day. No finely nuanced guitar solo nonsense here; just good honest power chords, hammered out at a pace which would scare most drummers!
Wonderwall (Oasis, (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, 1995)
One fascinating development in the 1990s was a new music scene (Britpop) that emerged as a kind of reaction to another new music scene (Grunge). Strange but true. Britpop was brighter, catchier, and lyrically much less dark than its American alternative counterpart, embracing British culture wholeheartedly. Oasis were one of the main figureheads of this scene, and Wonderwall remains their most internationally successful hit. Noel Gallagher’s acoustic guitar foundation supports lyrics that beg to be sung-along with - you'll hear the entire crowd at Manchester City Football Club cheerfully bawling this one out from the stands following every victory by their team!
Bulls on Parade (Rage Against the Machine, Evil Empire, 1996)
If you want to get a message across, make it as loud as possible. This technique has been the foundation of Rage Against The Machine's success since their eponymous debut album of 1992, using their incredible brand of rap metal to deliver revolutionary political lyrics to adoring fans across the globe. The Evil Empire album built upon this success, debuting at #1 on the US Billboard, with the Bulls On Parade single charting worldwide. And it's essential listening for guitarists in particular due to the phenomenal skill of Tom Morello - his unique style places just as much emphasis on carefully crafted noise as it does notes. Melody Maker described this perfectly after a 1993 gig, observing that "Morello wears his guitar high up to wring every sound out of it. Falling bombs, police sirens, scratching - he can do them all."
Paranoid Android (Radiohead, OK Computer, 1997)
Harking back to the '60s and '70s glory days of prog rock composition, when bands would stitch together lengthy songs from many different sections, Radiohead produced this iconic six-and-a-half-minute masterpiece which became the lead single from their 1997 OK Computer album. The band themselves have always joked about the writing process which apparently involved much laughter, nonsense involving Hammond organs and glockenspiels, and resulted in an original version over 14 minutes long! But fans and music critics were blown away - the NME regard it as the best song of the '90s, not least of all due to the guitar work of Jonny Greenwood (whose solos stand out in particular) and Ed O'Brien.
Make No Sound (Gomez, Bring It On, 1998)
Gomez are a genuine rarity in the history of rock groups; a band with three singers, each taking lead vocals on certain tracks only, which makes listening to one of their albums feel like listening to a compilation of three very different, very talented groups. Bring It On was their Mercury Music prize winning debut album, and features possibly one of the most stunningly original yet simple acoustic guitar riffs ever in Make No Sound, supporting the baritone gravel voice of Ben Ottewell. It's blues reinvented for the '90s, and essential listening for any guitarist.
Learn To Fly (Foo Fighters, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, 1999)
One of music’s greatest tragedies was the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, effectively disbanding Nirvana suddenly and all too soon. But it also lead to one of music’s greatest successes, when drummer Dave Grohl decided to record fifteen of the songs he'd quietly written whilst on the road with Nirvana, and discreetly released them under the name of "Foo Fighters" (which he subsequently has described "the stupidest f**king band name in the world"). Such humility proved fairly pointless in the wake of ensuing public and industry interest, with Grohl having assembled a band and toured the world by the end of 1995! The band released its third studio album in 1999, with Learn To Fly serving as lead single - a finely-crafted, no-nonsense, honest piece of guitar rock, and an excellent finale to our look at this decade.
A truly phenomenal ten years for guitar music, we think you'll agree! I'm tapped out for now (might even go and relax with a bit of Gomez), so until next time...