Depending on who you ask, popular music of the 90s either heralded the birth of new and influential genres and direction, or marked the beginning of the end for quality pop music. Whatever your stance, the 90s had a very definitive and specific music culture and marked the golden age for at least one music genre.
Popular Music of the 90s - Major Genres
Lines between genres of music were clearly drawn in the 90s like never before, and that distinct separation is evident in the music made today. Some of the genres that ruled the airwaves in the 1990s - or even actually first appeared in the 90s - were:
The 90s is considered by many to be the golden age of rap and hip hop. At the end of the 80s, a wave of politically-driven rap music appeared and moved the genre away from the somewhat more simplistic party song format that it had embodied before. From the politically-charged music grew another subgenre of rap that would go on to earn the name "gangsta rap." This subgenre told gritty stories of life in the inner cities and drew almost instant criticism for its language, violent imagery and sexual lyrics.
As the 80s became the 90s, a storm of negative press surrounded the rap genre, but an explosion in popularity of the music followed. Many of rap's biggest stars and most influential artists released their music in this decade, and it also became the decade of peak sales for the genre.
Along with rap, grunge was the genre that defined the decade. Pearl Jam is the group that took grunge mainstream (and to the cover of Time magazine), but it was really an explosion of the indie/underground/college radio scene in the late 80s that opened the door for grunge music. A few major labels had moderate success working with some indie scene stars, like Sonic Youth, which in turn set off a major label signing frenzy. Nirvana was scooped up during this time and their Smells Like Teen Spirit - which sounded like nothing else on the radio at the time - is the song that is credited as not only starting the grunge music phenomenon but as the first official "90s" song. The death of Kurt Cobain meant that Nirvana never quite reached the sales figures and mainstream success of Pearl Jam - but they probably were just fine with that anyway.
When the indie grunge kids went mainstream in the 90s, there were plenty of indie acts to take their place. The indie music industry really came into its own in the 90s, when bands like Pavement, The Magnetic Fields, Slint, Yo La Tengo and more became real sales competitors to many major label acts, even if they were never really involved in things that had major label trappings, like Billboard charts and Top 40 radio.
Country music went pop in the 90s like never before, with a long list of artists who had major crossover success. Garth Brooks not only ruled the charts in the 90s but became one of the best-selling artists of all time, and his fellow country musicians like Alan Jackson and Shania Twain followed in his wake. Country music traditionalists were less than pleased - and indeed new subgenres of country music like Americana were born to please those who like a more true country sound - but it is country-tinged pop that made cowboy boots cool in the 90s.
Grunge may have come along and knocked sugary 80s pop off the charts, but it didn't take long for pop music to have a rebirth. The Spice Girls were the first girl pop group to tackle the Billboard charts, but they soon inspired a long list of other pop acts - boys and girls. Towards the end of the decade, it was the boy groups that really succeeded, with the likes of The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC ruling the airwaves.
Female pop artists tended to do better as solo artists in the 90s - just ask Britney Spears, Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera.
R&B music had a rebirth in the 90s and started selling like it hadn't since the 1960s. Artists like Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly and Toni Braxton all helped breathe new life - and sales potential - into the genre.
There was another wave of the so-called British Invasion in the 90s. Oasis, The Verve, Blur, Pulp and others traveled across the pond and started impacting US music in a big way.
Most Popular Songs of the 90s
The 90s Billboard charts offer some clues to the popular music of the decade. According the Billboard charts, the top ten songs of the decade, based on radio play, were:
- Iris - The Goo Goo Dolls
- Don't Speak - No Doubt
- One Sweet Day - Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men
- Macarena - Los Del Rio
- I Will Always Love You - Whitney Houston
- I'll Make Love To You - Boyz II Men
- Candle in the Wind 1997 - Elton John
- End of the Road - Boyz II Men
- The Boy is Mine - Brandy and Monica
- Smooth - Santana featuring Rob Thomas
Your Favorite 90s Tracks
Of all the popular music of the 90s, which tracks are your favorite? Leave a comment and share your favorite 90s hits.