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The Year in Music: Revisting 1993

July 29, 2013

Just a few days ago I was casually listening to a podcast[1]when the guest mentioned a movie that he termed a “period piece” in that it takes place in 1993. He noted that it would feature a soundtrack made up of songs from 1993, which both he and the host agreed was a great year for music. My initial reaction was to nod my head in agreement so forcefully that I got a small headache. Back in 1993 I was a teen listening mainly to grunge and Britpop, watching alternative become mainstream before my very eyes on MTV. I remember it vividly. Twenty years have passed and I am convinced that 1993 was a peak year for music … at least I’m pretty sure it was … I mean, I think it was … wait, was it? There are certain things I know about 1993 without looking them up: Bill Clinton was sworn in as President of the United States; in sports, Michael Jordan had a season for the ages where he was so dominant that he retired from basketball because he needed a challenge (minor league baseball) while Joe Carter hit the least-remembered World Series walk-off home run that ever was or ever could be; in film, a movie about dinosaurs became the highest-grossing film ever made (up to that time) and Robin Williams was wildly unfunny in drag; and in television, Cheers sadly came to an end and Oprah interviewed Michael Jackson at a place called the Neverland Ranch, which would be the beginning of the end for the King of Pop. But in music … was it really as great as I remember?

As I started to think about this a little more systematically I wondered how much I could trust that initial snap reaction. After all, in 1993 some legendary 1990s albums were already in our rearview mirror: Nevermind, Ten, Pretty Hate Machine, Ritual de lo Habitual. Others were still to come: Odelay, The Bends, Weezer (debut). I needed some way to confirm or deny my thoughts about this musical year. If this were sports, I’d check the stats. For example, Jordan averaged 32.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, led the league in scoring, averaged an NBA Finals-record 41.0 points per game in winning a third straight title, was first-team all-defense … you get the idea. Luckily, for music we have the KROQ Top 106.7 Songs of 1993 available for review over on Radiohitlist.com. Are these 106 songs necessarily the best songs of 1993? Of course not. But KROQ is as good a rock station as you’ll find and their top-106 is representative of what people were listening to twenty years ago. This is the music that made up the soundtrack of 1993, and is what you think of when you make statements like “1993 was a great year for music.” So without further ado, let’s check the stats in the most unscientific way possible, i.e. completely subjectively through my own distorted taste and memory.

The number 1 song of 1993 was (drumrolllllllllll……..) Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” (from the album Core). STP was considered by many a Pearl Jam ripoff then, and their reputation has only gotten worse with age. Rumor has it that after being kicked out of his own band Scott Weiland is now playing wedding and bar-mitzvahs. Plush is not a terrible song and Core is probably the most redeemable STP album, but if this is number 1 we may be in trouble.

Songs 2, 3 and 4 though indicate that perhaps STP was an aberration of a confused time. At #2 we get Radiohead’s “Creep” followed by Blind Melon’s “No Rain” and then Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.” Not surprisingly, Pearl Jam – which released their second album Vs. late in 1993 – is well-represented on this list. Creep seemed like a one-hit wonder at the time – the Radiohead debut album Pablo Honey from which it comes isn’t otherwise very good – but as we know Radiohead would go on to bigger and better things almost right away. Meanwhile, Blind Melon was a one-hit wonder – at least as far as commercial radio – but that comes with the asterisk of the death of lead singer Shannon Hoon plus one of the all-time most memorable music videos, No Rain’s dancing bumblebee. Yes, it is all coming back to me now. 1993 was brilliant. I can’t wait to see what comes next …

… Right, what came next is this: A significant part of early-90’s rock radio that I conveniently blocked out of my memory but that is represented in the next four songs on the list. Duran Duran made a shockingly successful (albeit brief) comeback with The Wedding Album, which spawned two ubiquitous MTV singles, “Come Undone” (#5) and “Ordinary World” (#16). If you’d asked me before setting down to write this piece to name the only band with two songs in the top 19 in 1993 I can assure you with a certainty normally reserved only for my hatred of the Philadelphia Eagles that I would not have guessed Duran Duran. Meanwhile, two sanitized Replacements-ripoffs (noticing a theme? Search for “ripoff”) take spots 6 and 8 with the Gin Blossoms’ “Hey Jealousy” and Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train”, respectively. They sandwich the Cranberries “Linger” which I won’t trash because, well, I secretly quite enjoyed the Cranberries.

At number 9 we have our first appearance of the Smashing Pumpkins, which is a little surprising seeing as their second (and breakthrough) album Siamese Dream, released in the summer of ’93, seemed like it was everywhere that year. “Today” is at 9, “Disarm” is at 26 and “Cherub Rock” is at 32, which is obviously a really strong showing. In fact, the Smashing Pumpkins is the only band with three songs anywhere in the top 50. I suppose that one way you could look at whether ’93 was a good year in music is to consider how you feel about two second-tier alternative bands – Stone Temple Pilots (songs #1, 23 and 102) and the Smashing Pumpkins. Like Jacko’s interview with Oprah, I see this as the beginning of the end of what was once something great. It’s just hard to believe that the great music of the ‘90s, as I remember it, was in many ways over by 1992.

At 10 through 17 we have a hodgepodge of songs that are pretty decent and for the most part hold up twenty years later. This includes the Red Hot Chili Peppers “Soul To Squeeze” (10), the Breeders’ “Cannonball” (11), Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing In The Name” (13), Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” (15) and Porno For Pyros’ “Pets” (17). Two utterly horrendous songs that make all “worst of the ‘90s” lists come in at 18 and 19 – Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” and Cracker’s “Low” – and suddenly thinking of 1993 makes we want to cry. Or hurl. Pearl Jam’s “Black” saves the end of the top 20 but then things really go off the rails.

A quick look at the next 20 makes me wonder how 1993 can possibly be considered a very good year in music, let alone great. Other than the aforementioned Smashing Pumpkins songs, and R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” (39), it would be difficult to characterize any song here as “great.” The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” is solid at #25, as is Alice in Chains’ “Rooster” (28) and New Order’s “Regret” (31). Other than those six good-but-not-quite-great songs you have a few awful offerings from Sting’s Ten Summoner’s Tales (at 22 and 37), UB40’s earworm “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (33), Depeche Mode’s gothic and cringe-worthy “I Feel You” (34), an Ace of Base song (27) and – I mention it only because I loved it – “Detachable Penis” by King Missile (29). And with that I am falling asleep.

It’s too bad though. Because mine (and the podcaster’s) memory was actually not all that bad. Despite the last 1000 words or so, the problem with 1993 wasn’t the music; it was 1993 itself. Somehow, even amongst us KROQ listeners (not an adult contemporary station by any means), we requested music by Sting and the Gin Blossoms and the Spin Doctors and … oh boy, I may have to hurl again. If only we knew then what we know now we would have mined a little deeper past song 40 and found some true musical gems. Here is the best of the rest of 1993, and why you too may remember it as a great year of music:

41. Porno for Pyros: Cursed Female – Not necessarily better than Pets, but I’m glad that this underrated Perry Farrell album is well-represented on the list.

42. Bjork: Human Behavior – Hard to believe that this is the 20th anniversary of Bjork’s Debut.

43. Depeche Mode: Walking In My Shoes – Unlike I Feel You, actually a very good song of the last good Depeche Mode album, Songs Of Faith And Devotion.

47. Dinosaur Jr.: Start Choppin’ – Still making good guitar jangles in 1993, still making good guitar jangles in 2013.

49. The Proclaimers: I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – Just an awful awful awful song. I’m not British but I really want to break out the term “bloody awful.” So why mention it here? I’m actually impressed that it comes in at #49 and not, say, #3. Even twenty years ago we knew a little something about taste.

51. New Order: World (Price of Love) – The last we’d hear from New Order in a long time, which is just too bad.

53, 56, 64 and 68. 10,000 Maniacs: “Candy Everybody Wants”, “These Are Days”, “Because the Night” and “Every Day is Like Sunday” – Impressive last stand for a quality band.

59 and 90. Pearl Jam: “Go” and “Crazy Mary

63, 80 and 92. Nirvana: “Rape Me”, “In Bloom”, and “Verse Chorus Verse”

73 and 88. The Lemonheads: “It’s A Shame About Ray” and “Into Your Arms” – Evan Dando may be playing the Wonder Bar and Knitting Factory because he can’t fill a living room within 100 miles of New York City anymore, but It’s A Shame About Ray is still one of the all-time great songs.

76. Beck: Loser – 76?? 76??!!

And there you have it. The reason why 1993 is at once a great year in music and yet one that must be retrieved from the brain using selective memory. It was the year that Beck’s “Loser” hit the radio … and landed more than 50 spots below Cracker. Nirvana’s In Utero – arguably one of the best albums of the decade – was a disappointment to people who expected to have their minds blown (again) after Nevermind, and so only one song from that album cracked the top 60, with three other languishing below forgettable singles from the Stone Temple Pilots. The Lemonheads exploded onto the scene, but still took an alt-rock back seat to bands like Soul Asylum. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Who knew Dickens was talking about the music scene of 1993?


[1] If you must know it was the BS Report with guest Bill Hader.

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