Ann Powers

'90s Nostalgia Revisited: 6 Musicians We Miss

P.M. Dawn, sometime in the '90s. i i

P.M. Dawn, sometime in the '90s. Mick Hutson/Redferns hide caption

itoggle caption Mick Hutson/Redferns
P.M. Dawn, sometime in the '90s.

P.M. Dawn, sometime in the '90s.

Mick Hutson/Redferns

At the audio link hear Ann Powers and Morning Edition host Renee Montagne on defining '90s music and the reasons the sounds and artists of that era are re-emerging now.

1990s nostalgia has been bubbling to the surface, like a mastodon in a tar pit, for a while now. We all know what's most often excavated: Nirvana's roar (this week, the band's third album In Utero gets a super-deluxe 20th anniversary reissue), Biggie's cool murmur, the futuristic sigh of Aaliyah. But there's more to the decade than those obvious landmarks. Here we remember six artists huge in the '90s, who don't always get their deserved props today.

'90s Nostalgia Revisited: 6 Musicians We Miss

  • L7

    At this summer's excellent Sub Pop Records Jubilee celebration, I heard one absent band's name raised more than any other: L7. There's an intense craving for this all-female Los Angeles band to reunite, and for good reason: in its prime, it was the perfect grunge band, aggressive but always fun, heavy but able to thrash out a poppy hook, hilarious about very serious stuff. A little older than the riot grrrls, and fiercely independent anyway, L7 stood almost alone (there was Babes in Toyland, halfway across the country) as a feminist powerhouse in the bro-heavy early '90s rock scene. Nobody snarled and spit better than these women. They brought joy to the dangerous mosh pit.

  • P.M. Dawn

    Drake and Frank Ocean may currently rep for smooth in hybrid R&B/rap, but they're Muscle Milk-guzzling CrossFit maniacs next to Prince Be the Nocturnal, the melancholy meditator who took rap cosmic for a new generation. With his brother DJ Minutemix (their given names are Attrell and Jarret Cordes), Prince Be connected early electronica's sense of stretched time to New Age Music's soothing swoosh and adventurous R&B's stormy quietude to concoct a sound that made room for all kinds of surface-level soft, actually very complex emotions: passive longing, gentle earnestness, fatalism, spiritual hunger. Ideal for today's pixilated, endlessly inward-looking virtual reality, P.M. Dawn was truly ahead of its time.

  • Elastica

    Sometimes a band makes a perfect album the first time out. That's what Elastica did in 1995, showving a fist through the tinted glass ceiling of Britpop with its eponymous debut. Openly worshipful of its post-punk elders (some thought a bit too much), but made powerfully individual by Justine Frischmann's sneeringly sexual, determinedly independent voice, Elastica was exactly what was needed in a rock scene quickly getting bloated. The band's melodic yet noisy, brilliantly cutting songs rifled through modern life's rubbish with the defiance of young women refusing to keep themselves neat and clean. Unfortunately, fame wasn't what Frischmann and her bandmates needed — several years' struggle resulted in 2000's The Menace, the kind of risky follow-up that could have signaled a transition to more daring, mature work. Instead, it was the end. Frischmann's now a visual artist, creating work that, according to one critic, "employs the Low-Fi materials of a suburban hardware store to dig through the ash and rubble of Modernism." Hmmm, just like Elastica!

  • The KLF

    There's so much worth reviving from the early days of British rave/electronica/techno music that it's hard to choose one entity. Furthermore, they're all connected through collaborations and party scenes. But the KLF is foundational: from 1987 until 1992 the duo of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond arguably invented both ambient house and stadium house, taking electronica deeply inward and making it big enough for the masses. Two classic albums from the era's infancy, the moody Chill Out and the poptastic The White Room, show how smart, fun and endlessly explorable electronic music can be beyond the big beats and drops. Now Cauty and Drummond stay away from the revival-DJ circuit, both instead making conceptual art. Oh wait, they always did.

  • Trisha Yearwood

    On the cover of her 1991 debut album, Trisha Yearwood looks like one of John Hughes's heroines — from her big overconfident hair to her denim shirt and tentative smile, she's a young woman trying to figure out how to play her smarts and her heart right. Her voice, which started pouring out of country-tuned radios that year with the Bon Jovi-worthy anthem "She's In Love With the Boy," found that perfect balance between guts and vulnerability. Yearwood kept making powerfully accessible music throughout the '90s, and never really stopped working; after her relationship with longtime mentor Garth Brooks became public in 2000, however, she sought work-life balance in their home state of Oklahoma, and she's now as well known for her Food Network-worthy cooking as for her vocal chops. Her comforting presence remains worth seeking when nothing works like an intimate country song can.

  • Janet Jackson

    She's an artist for the ages, the queen of a musical dynasty, her influence spanning three decades. But the '90s Janet is definitely worthy of our praiseful longing. In this decade, Jackson found fertile subject matter: real sex, explored through songs that described no-holds-barred fantasies and reveled in sensual self exploration. Jackson's womanist eroticism created an ideal framework for her soft, intelligent vocals, and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis followed her beckoning lead into new territories of ambient R&B. Though she's lost popular ground since her 2004 nipple slip at the Super Bowl and is now spending time with her billionaire husband in Qatar, Jackson remains a historic groundbreaker — as adventurous as Madonna in her own more demure way. It's no wonder she's so often imitated by younger pop queens like Rihanna and still idolized by the guys — most recently, rapper Kendrick Lamar.

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