The 1990s had several big bands that staked a claim – obviously Nirvana even though they didn’t last longer than half the decade; obviously many people will want to say Pearl Jam because they started in the 1990s and released a few albums across that decade – and carried on from there. And Smashing Pumpkins is possibly a name that would come up – given Billy Corgan’s rise from the underground (almost) Gish across Siamese Dream and then the sprawling double, Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness. Heck, the band’s collection of b-sides and leftovers was better than a lot of the official albums that bands were releasing.
The rise of grunge was something in the 1990s – for better or worse – but most agree that the second and (particularly) third waves of grunge were an insult to all that came before, barely tracing around the grunge sound and soundtracking awful institutions like Friends – and the movies that the stars of Friends went on to appear in. Gah!
Well my favourite band from the 1990s – if I have to name just one, which is the point of this post – is Pavement.
Here’s a band that formed in 1989 and broke up in 1999 – they existed, perfectly, for the 1990s decade and came to exemplify the “alternative” if you like, all the while the music was completely accessible, tuneful – often it seemed a crime that it couldn’t be blasting out like a pop hit from a (non-college) radio station. But it was all the better for the fact that it wasn’t. It was music you had to go to – not music that came to you.
I was only mildly interested in Pavement to begin with – and I still regret working late and missing the band’s Wellington show in the mid/late-90s. I enjoyed Wowee Zowee – it was my introduction to the band, but it was 1997’s Brighten The Corners that I really took on board; that was the classic – for me – to start with. That confirmed Pavement as a band worth listening to; so many people had raved about Slanted And Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – now it was time to check them out. Perfectly angled/angular guitar hooks; quirky without ever losing steam and meandering too far from the goal of remaining a tight pop song.
And when Terror Twilight was released – as a swansong – it felt like that; a swansong. But in the right way – in the best possible way.
Slanted And Enchanted (1992) had roots in many things but it didn’t really sound like any one obvious antecedent was driving it. In a way it updates Brian Eno’s famous quote that “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”. As Slanted And Enchanted would go on to become one of the defining, pioneering and most influential albums of the 1990s it’s fair to say that (almost) everyone who bought it or heard it formed a band (or was already in one).
Stephen Malkmus was often imitated but never bettered as writer, player and singer; self-aware and never falling in to the traps when one is being overly self-conscious Malkmus stayed true – and the band stayed true – to the vision, to the blueprint. They did not change with the whiff of mainstream success, with the slight pick-up in sales or with the bands that started to sound like them.
Pavement was also a band that exemplifies the – shall we say – Other Nineties; never a big name, the group stayed true to the indie ethos and to the indie label, never signing with a major. Sure they had distribution, they had recording budgets, they had package tours, but there was never a giant – seemingly overnight – compromise of standards, songs, integrity.
That’s what I like about Pavement’s music; listening to it now it feels so correctly linked – still – to the 1990s; a band that was in and of its time. But it’s still there to be discovered now. Much like R.E.M.’s work from the 1980s.
Similarly, it’s a band not playing to fads, not trying to fit in with the style of the time and not working too hard to present a dramatic alternative to the style of the time. Pavement’s art was in giving a voice to the “slacker” subculture before it was even labelled as such; for making music for music’s sake. The band captured the spirit of its time without baiting the traps.
So with that, my vote for the greatest band of the 1990s goes to Pavement; the band that meant the most to me when I take in their entire body of work, the band that showed consistency across a handful of records and seemed to exist in a perfect space within that decade. Sure, they’ve reformed now; Malkmus has made solo records, there might be more to come from Pavement – but those five albums spanned that decade almost perfectly.
And though I’d recommend the albums – obviously – I have to say that the Quarantine The Past compilation cherry-picks pretty well for anyone looking for a starting point. But buy the lovely expanded editions of the first three albums. They’re worth it. And tell you more, put you closer to the ‘place’ than any one compilation.
So who would you pick as the greatest band of the 1990s. You can’t pick a band that started in the 1980s and carried on from there. You can’t pick a band – like Nirvana – that only had a couple of albums. Who can you think of with at least five records from 1990-1999 that spoke to its generation, that made great music; that has left a legacy that is still worth going back or discovering for the first time today?
Who do you think this the greatest band of the 1990s?