A new Rhino box set refracts the odd '90s

Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box
Label: Rhino
Rated: NONE
WorkNameSort: Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box

Ever been to a party where everyone's fighting over what to play on the stereo? The dork running the party wants to play the hits. The metalhead scoops some barely playable CDs from the floor of his car. The quiet, demure girl with the cutesy haircut clutches her favorite CD from some piano-playing chanteuse guaranteed to put the partygoers to sleep. The kid with the screwed-up haircut has a personal mix of dance tracks that might be semitolerable if anyone actually wanted to dance. And the hippie kids only want to hear songs that last no less than 17 minutes each. It's a good thing the neighbors called the cops when they did. It could've gotten ugly.

The 1990s – do I really have to summarize a decade only five years past? – were like that. But, to level with you, every decade has been like that. Marketing folks sharpening their pencils find ways to convince us otherwise. The '60s were filled with revolutionaries who changed everything. The '70s had goofy fashions, lite-FM, punk and disco. The '80s had MTV, loud colors and louder haircuts. And the '90s had grunge, hip-hop and Seinfeld. And now it has a seven-CD box set with 130 cuts to call its own from Rhino, the reissue label that's already given us Have A Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box and Like Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box, Totally. Except this time they altered to rules ever so slightly.

Y'see, the other sets focused primarily on the "hits" of the era, one-hit wonders and novelties that defined each period from its kitschiest perspective. If I may be a tad rude, they mostly comprised music for people who didn't really care, who likely bought few records and upon leaving for college or their first pad left those records in their old bedroom closet for their parents to store. They re-buy the music now because it reminds them of the first time they got drunk, high, laid or abandoned in a shopping-mall parking lot.

Avid record collectors sneer at much of what made these Rhino collections, but then turn up unpredictable weak spots of their own. (I'll fess up to absolutely loving "Brandy, You're a Fine Girl," "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" and "Karma Chameleon," lest you think I'm a snob.) Granted, the collections do feature some of the era's finer hits – "Freddy's Dead," anyone? – but that's not the intention.

For the '90s box, the compilers decided to cross the commercial/indie divide and include songs by artists who weren't successful in record stores and on radio, but were nonetheless a perverse part of the musical landscape. So, fans clamoring for "U Can't Touch This," "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and "MMMBop" " will also be subjected to such non-chart-toppers as "Leafy Incline" by Tad, "Birthday Cake" by Cibo Matto and "Cybele's Reverie" by Stereolab, none of which, according to Rhino's track sheet, dented any music chart, not even the dubious "Modern Rock" one that placed King Missile's "Detachable Penis" at No. 25, Fountains of Wayne's "Radiation Vibe" at No. 14 and Babes in Toyland's "Sweet 69" at No. 37.

No, this Rhino collection flows like a drunk DJ who got a mean streak going. Either that or like someone over at Clear Channel pranked the entire system with bogus entries, removing Boyz II Men's "The End of the Road" (though "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" is here) with the Melvins' "Revolve." Heh, heh, that'll show 'em.

Now, the '90s did have quite a few legit alternative moments, but it's assumed contractual reasons prevented their inclusion. (Nirvana are cited as such, but could the same be true for Veruca Salt's "Seether" or the Breeders' "Cannonball"?) And while bland rock acts such as Candlebox, Collective Soul and the Verve Pipe (not "Freshman" but "Photograph"?) are here, where, pray tell, are Sugar Ray, Matchbox Twenty and Creed? Holding out for a "better offer"? Good luck, chumps.

This is easily the most questionable of Rhino's "decade" boxes. I can understand the personal passion that goes into a project like this. The compilers get one shot and want to cram in their personal faves wherever they see fit. Given free reign, I'd have subjected everyone to such high-profile stars as American Music Club, Red House Painters, Ron Sexsmith, Vic Chesnutt and Richard Buckner. (And I wonder why so few friends come around anymore?)

As it stands, the moments that make the most sense to me are those I actually remember hearing on the radio, like them or not – Michael Penn's "No Myth," Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," for starters. And, worse yet, I never thought I'd hear myself asking this, but why isn't there any Sheryl Crow?

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