First, some good news: my Spiderland book is pretty much done. I'll be sending my final edit back to Continuum this week and then it's off to the printer. It will be out in November (and it looks like you can already pre-order it!).
I've been working on this book in one way or another for almost two years now, going back to when the idea of the pitch first occurred to me at the end of 2008, to finding out I got the deal in spring 2009, to researching and writing that summer, then conducting my interviews in the fall, then writing, re-writing, and re-re-rewriting all winter and spring (taking into account one major distraction).
In thinking about Slint and the context in which Spiderland existed—both as a culmination of influences from the 80s and an influence itself in the 90s—my head has been fully re-immersed in the music of my teenage and college years for a while now. Not only have I been revisiting a lot of my personal touchstones (obvious acts like Fugazi, less obvious acts like Craw, etc.), but I've also been getting better acquainted with bands and albums that didn't resonate with me then but clearly loomed large for other people—Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, etc. None of this specifically factored into the book itself, other than to get me into what I felt was the proper headspace in which to write.
All of this is to say that looking back on the 90s has been on my mind for a long time now. Reading Pitchfork's Top 200 Tracks of the 90s list last week underlined for me something I'd already identified about myself—"my 90s" are not really the 90s that are being canonized. I mean, yeah, Slint was on the list and so were a lot of other bands I was into. But a lot weren't. And as far as Pavement topping the list goes, for me personally it just doesn't resonate at all. Yet I don't really want to argue it, in part because I think something Matthew Perpetua said last week is true:
I have been steeped in Pavement fandom for more than half of my life now and “Gold Soundz” always just seemed like the Pavement song, the one that really communicated what was so special about them. You can argue about what the best one is — it’s definitely not my personal favorite — but that’s the one that sums it up and always has a lot of appeal for casual listeners. I think it’s also the indie rock song. If someone is like “hey, what the fuck is indie rock?”, you could play “Gold Soundz” and they’d have a pretty good sense of it. So given that Pitchfork is ultimately an indie-oriented site, it makes perfect sense that the #1 song of the 90s is by the artist that will always define the indie rock of the 90s.
I could split hairs and maybe point to something by Sebadoh as the quintessential "indie rock" song, but at any rate this gets at something I felt even in the 90s. "Indie Rock" was both generic and specific. I listened to indie rock, but I didn't listen to Indie Rock, as described the way Matthew does above. I listened to post-rock, space-rock, and slowcore. My friends listened to emo—both the Mineral/Christie Front Drive variety and the Shotmaker/Indian Summer variety. There was powerviolence and all the San Diego/Gravity Records stuff. There was twee—Sarah Records, Trembling Blue Stars. There was straightedge and metalcore. Krishna-core! Pop punk, ska. There were weird prolific acts about whom I knew very little other than that there were super hardcore fans who bought it all: Coil, Azuza Plane, Muslimguaze, Namlook, Laswell. There was noise. There were awesome German labels like Haus Musik, Kollapse, and Payola—there was a whole scene in Germany that was like a doppleganger to the incestuous Chicago scene. There was IDM, drum and bass, illbient—illbient!—acid jazz. There were alt country giants like the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo. That doesn't even get at the stuff the Pitchfork list covered fairly well—alternative, hip hop, straightahead indie. And even still, there was more.
Even though it caused a little cognitive dissonance seeing Boyz II Men and Len on a list that also included Refused and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, I still grasped why Pitchfork's list was all over the map, and I commend them for trying to grapple with the layers upon layers of music, both mainstream and underground, in one catchall. I wouldn't think to put Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison" on a list for my 90s, but it certainly was pervasive when I was in eighth grade in 1990 and I definitely watched the video all the time, and to this day will sing, totally unprovoked, "smack it, flip it, rub it down"—so I guess that means something.
Still, the list can't help but fail if it's trying to identify all the different directions music went in during that decade. And the inevitable downside to that is that lots of music that belongs to genres that today, for now, aren't as in vogue, get pasted over.
I can't begin to paint a better portrait of the 90s, but I can offer up a playlist for you. These are twenty-five songs that meant something to me during that formative decade. Consider this a mixtape and not a ranked list. For that matter, these aren't my top twenty—I made a point to stick to one song per artist (with one exception), as well as to omit any artist who was included on Pitchfork's list, for the sake of variety. I also eliminated any songs that I happened to put on this playlist not long ago—though all of those songs should be considered here too (eg Craw, Karp, and Unwound). Lastly, if you want an even more in-depth look at my 90s, I recommend you head over to my currently dormant blog Do You Compute—start at the oldest post and go forward.
- Shellac: My Black Ass (from At Action Park, 1994)
- Camp Lo: Luchini (from Uptown Saturday Night, 1997)
- Blonde Redhead: I Still Get Rocks Off (from La Mia Vita Violenta, 1995)
- Pernice Brothers: Overcome By Happiness (from Overcome by Happiness, 1998) / Scud Mountain Boys: Grudge Fuck (from Massachusetts, 1996)
- The Sea & Cake: Parasol (from Nassau, 1995)
- American Analog Set: Magnificent Seventies (from From Our Living Room to Yours, 1997)
- Bedhead: More Than Ever (from Transaction de Novo, 1998)
- The Fugees: Fu-Gee-La (from The Score, 1996)
- Le Tigre: Deceptacon (from Le Tigre, 1999)
- Rodan: Everyday World of Bodies (from Rusty, 1994)
- Hoover: Electrolux (from The Lurid Traversals of Route 7, 1993)
- Seam: Road to Madrid (from The Problem with Me, 1993)
- Califone: Pastry Sharp (from Califone, 1999)
- Codeine: Sea (from The White Birch, 1994)
- Dazzling Killmen: Blown (Face Down) (from In the Face of Collapse, 1994)
- GodheadSilo: Multiple Organic (from Elephantitus of the Night, 1995)
- Nation of Ulysses: Aspirin Kid (from 13-Point Plan to Destroy America, 1991)
- Heavy Vegetable: I Owe You (from Frisbee, 1995)
- Dirty Three: Sea Above, Sky Below (from Ocean Songs, 1998)
- Photek: Smoke Rings (from Modus Operandi, 1997)
- Squarepusher: Vic Acid (from Hard Normal Daddy, 1997)
- Third Eye Foundation: Corpses as Bedmates (from Ghost, 1997)
- Low: Words (from I Could Live in Hope, 1995)
- My Morning Jacket: The Bear (from The Tennessee Fire, 1999)
- Drive Like Jehu: Luau (from Yank Crime, 1994)