If you, like me, grew up in the '90s, you're probably familiar with the dilemma of blocking out parts of that decade whilst embracing others. For every instance of President Clinton ripping into a sax solo on The Arsenio Hall Show, there is smooth-jazz circular breather Kenny G butchering the damn instrument. Another case in point: the Awl's profile on Dustin Mikulski, known to the world as the Dancing Baby from Ally McBeal. The fact that this man, once a cha-cha-ing child whose birth coincided with that of viral video, can still draw a crowd, proves our enduring love/hate relationship with that schizophrenic decade.
Whatever. Dancing Baby can oogachaka his animated ass outta here. It's one facet of the '90s I wish would disappear, like JNCOs and Beanie Babies. Now '90s music...that's a complicated one, encompassing both Kurt Cobain's suicide and 2Pac's murder. Then again, with 'Pac's hologram sharing the stage with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre at Coachella, the '90s have never felt so close. Below are a few songs that, to me, define the decade and its transitions between Kurt and that demonic dancing baby—but I'll be damned if I include Aqua.
1994: Nirvana, “Drain You” (live on French TV). Recorded just two months prior to Cobain's suicide, and his chill-eliciting scream still hits me hard. I was just a kid but Nirvana meant the world.
Late 1994: The Prodigy, “Voodoo People.” Charred breakbeats collide with a sampled punk guitar riff. If America could only predict dance music's ubiquity in the following years: just look at the damn commercials, like Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat" advertising Levi's or that Mitsubishi honey popping to Dirty Vegas' "Days Go By."
Late 1994: Lush, “Hypocrite.” I fell I love with a girl, and she was the Kool-Aid-coiffed frontwoman for Lush, Miki Berenyi. They and (London) Suede were sharp answers to the Britpop.
1995: Massive Attack, “Karmacoma.” The Bristol sound: suffocating sonics and sinister soul. Plus, Tricky (who released his superlative debutMaxinquaye that same year) shares the mic.
Late 1995: 2Pac, “California Love” (feat. Dr. Dre). Pac's comeback track was a sunny exhale of West Coast love, but it was shadowed by his untimely death less than a year later.
1996: Smashing Pumpkins, “1979.” Emo wasn't a widespread term in Texas back in '96, but this guitar-glistening anthem provided the emotional background music to my formative days.
1997: Roni Size/Reprazent, “Brown Paper Bag.” So technically this live clip is not from '97, but this Bristol-based drum-n-bass ensemble won the 1997Mercury Music Prize for their jazz-inflected tracks (beating out Radiohead'sOK Computer and Spice Girls' Spice, just to keep the whole thing in perspective). All you dubstep heads: this is how you bring the bass.
1998: Usher, “Nice & Slow.” Check it: 1998 is the year Dancing Baby debuted on Ally McBeal. It's also the year R&B phenom Usher dropped this breathy single. Just think what this track meant for a sensitive young high-schooler with a learner's permit. As Usher croons: "now here we are, drivin' 'round town. Contemplating where I'm gonna lay you down." Poetry, man. Grunge felt a decade away.