The 90s was an incredible decade in music history. Not just rock but even hip hop and rave became prominent genres across the world. New sub genres like grunge and alternative rock came to the fore. They spoke about the current societal struggles, political unrest, the frustrations and rebellion of the youth.
The Grunge and Alternative Rock Era
“Here we are now, entertain us”
screamed Kurt Cobain.
The song, Smells Like Teen Spirit, is arguably the song of the decade. It became an anthem. Nirvana burst on the scene with their unique sound which was then labelled as grunge or alternative rock. Kurt with his fierce, crying for help, straight to the point lyrics and singing became the voice of Generation X. He would not categorise as a skilled singer but he delivered the message perfectly.
Another polarising alternative rock band to emerge in the 90s was Pearl Jam. Eddie Vedder wrote and sang about the plight of broken homes, depression, suicide and gloom. The songs didn’t paint a very pretty picture but that was the aim. Eddie with his powerful baritone became one of 90s’ most recognisable voice. With his wide vocal range, he could sing up to the 5th octave.
A vocalist who could sing the dictionary and make it sound great was Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. From volcanic screams to melancholic baritone, Chris had it all. The best examples would be ‘Black Hole Sun’ and ‘Spoonman’.
His vocal prowess was again on display in Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike”. Be it with Soundgarden, Audioslave and even his solo projects, Chris was one of the front runners to grab Eddie’s throne. He really needs to explain the album with Timbaland though.
The 90s also witnessed the rise of woman power in rock music. Over decades there had been some great female vocalists in rock music but 90s witnessed an upsurge.
With her style, rebellious attitude, and distinctive voice Garbage’s Shirley Manson rose to prominence with their first album. She joined Garbage after her earlier band Angelfish broke up. Her low vocals could convey a wide range of emotions without sounding melodramatic. Shirley could sway between being slick to sensual. Her vocals on ‘Queer’ are a perfect example of this.
Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries was the darling of alternative rock in the 90s. One could interpret her voice as powerful or loud as per preference. Singing with her thick Irish accent, Dolores’ voice could make even the softest song sound strong and the heavier ones could cause panic. Her wails and bleats in ‘Zombie’ still ‘Linger’ in your mind hours after you hear the song. Her fan following was largely split in two parts. The ones who liked ‘Zombie’ and the others who loved ‘Dreams’. The Cranberries remain one of the most influential alternative bands to come out of Ireland.
While Ireland gave us the anti-war/politics queen in Dolores, Canada produced the ‘Queen of Alt-Rock Angst’ Alanis Morissette. She began as a pop singer but failed to produce a commercial hit. Alanis began working with a new manager and released Jagged Little Pill in 1995, an alternative album. The album was a massive success and earned her numerous Grammy’s. Her unique and recognisable voice can be termed as ‘hard to tame’. It carried a natural rebellious tone and could change textures from lower range to husky at will.
That Gwen Stefani was a part of a punk/alternative band at a time would be hard to believe for the younger ones. Gwen became an icon with No Doubt’s album ‘Tragic Kingdom’. Her poppy and addictive voice added texture to the band’s music. Gwen’s colourful voice has more or less remained the same over the years and genres.
Vocalists and their traits
There were other vocalists whose characteristic traits set them apart from the rest. However they did not carry these traits at the cost of their vocal prowess.
Stone Temple Pilot’s vocalist Scott Weiland was known for possessing a throaty voice which reeked of vengeance. Scott played with multiple musicians over the years. He was known to carry a megaphone on stage and sing through it on the mic. Inspired by Kurt Cobain, Daniel Johns of Silverchair started out with grunge but ultimately went glam.
Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley’s melancholic voice created the quintessential sound of Seattle. Staley could be soft and soulful while not drifting away from the genre. Green Day is largely credited for the revival of the punk rock scene in the 90s. Billie Joe Armstrong has an amazing voice, and a distinctive ‘roar’ that is perfect for the band’s sound. Billie might not be the best vocalist but the uniqueness of his voice sets him apart. Then we had ‘crooners’ like Liam Gallagher the lead singer of the rock band Oasis, and later as the singer of Beady Eye.
The decade belonged to grunge and alternative rock. The heavy metal/rock bands of the past decades continued to enjoy fandom by reinventing their sound. The 90s is the last of rock music’s glorious run. By the turn of the millennium emerging genres like hip hop, electronic music and dance/pop gained ground. Hip Hop and Pop are currently the ‘most streamed/listened to genres’. Though pushed into the background in the new millennium, rock music reinvented itself and remained relevant. New genres emerged and classic bands still toured to packed houses.
According to figures in a Billboard report, the top 10 highest grossing tours of all time, features 7 rock acts. The rock stars may have grayed but their songs still make their fans jump like pre-pubescent youths.