We’ve done this before. Three times, actually: once in 1999, once in 2003, and then again in 2010. So, why battle over the “Best of the 1990s” again? Well, for the same reason any good music is worth revisiting: because our understanding of it changes the more we learn; because there is still a thrill in discovering something we didn’t know about (or quite get) before; because taste evolves and grows, enriched by the passing of time. Nevermind that our current cultural moment oozes ’90s influence and nostalgia. What are the albums and songs from the ’90s that our current writers and contributors find indispensable? That have made a lasting impact on the way music is made and how we listen to it now? And what just doesn’t hit the same way it once did?
The ’90s were a wildly exciting time for music. Hip-hop boomed, with regional styles laying the foundation for what would become the most popular genre of music today. Riot grrrl sneered at the punk canon, grunge became the voice of angsty teens, delightfully weird British experimentalists and women singer-songwriters reshaped what alternative and indie could be. Underground house music rose into pop prominence, and jungle, techno, and drum’n’bass gave way to “rave” as a lifestyle. Contemporary R&B flourished and the modern-day diva was born.
Pitchfork’s staff spent more than seven months poring over thousands of albums and songs in the making of this package, a series of lists and interviews that try to encapsulate some of our favorite music of a formative decade. The process included several rounds of voting between staff and contributors, and hours upon hours of “listening rooms” where the staff debated the merits of one song against another. There were more spreadsheets and impassioned Slack debates than anyone would like to admit, extensive conversations about the “critical pick” vs. the “fan favorite” vs. the “holistically beloved.” You try battling out Elliott Smith’s catalog, or OutKast’s, or A Tribe Called Quest’s, or Björk’s. (As your luck would have it, you’ll actually be able to do just that in a few days: Stay tuned for our ’90s Music Battle game and experience the agony of deciding between your own favorites.)
The result is a massive amount of incredible music, represented by hundreds of artists and carefully considered by 112 critics from our staff, contributor pool, and writers and editors who influenced the discourse around music in the ’90s in real time. Up first, you’ll find our list of the Best 250 Songs of the 1990s; tomorrow, we’ll publish our list of the Best 150 Albums of the 1990s. In the weeks to come, we’ll be sharing a lot more writing about the music of the decade, including deep dives into specific genres. We hope you come away with a refreshed perspective and appreciation, too.