Why 1995 Was the Best Musical Year of the '90s

Alanis Morrissette, 1995.
Michel Linssen/Redferns

Alanis Morrisette

After focusing on 1994 last week, now, we're wondering what the best year for music was of the '90s. We've already made a case for 199019911992 and 1993. Today, we look at 1994 and 1995.


Picking your favorite year in a decade of musical renaissance is a personally respective opinion. The first part of the 1990s expounded upon the framework of hip-hop, pop and rock set before it, twisting genre boundaries until they no longer resembled themselves. It's where we got classics like Nas' Illmatic, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, TLC's CrazySexyCool — albums that took what the world knew about music and smeared it like putty. And the latter half took a much more polished approach as studio techniques improved and aesthetic could become more futuristic. Music often felt less like an art form and more a commodity, in part due to changing distribution methods (demand growing, CD sales rising) and the hero worship that ushered in the raving celebrity culture of today.

But in the middle of the decade came not the best year for music, but one of the most important. In 1995, Mariah Carey began her run alongside Boyz II Men for an incredible stretch at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "One Sweet Day," lording over the chart for a record-breaking 16 weeks. Four records—Michael Jackson's "You Are Not Alone," Carey's "Fantasy," Whitney Houston's "Exhale (Shoop Shoop)" and "One Sweet Day"—debuted at No. 1 on that same chart, the most for any year in Billboard history. The year had plenty of hit singles — Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise," Shaggy's "Boombastic," Method Man and Mary J. Blige's "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need to Get By" — and notable albums, including No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom, Jewel's Pieces of You, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx and Radiohead's The Bends.

Let's be clear: If you're going by the calendar, the most innovative, and important, years for music in the 1990s were 1994 and 1999. 2014 has found the Internet in thinkpiece #TBT overdrive, mainly because those two years hit milestones where honoring albums released during them only seemed fair. Going by timeframes, they were the highest peaks in a decade filled with them. But to me, music isn't about a specific collection of days and what fits into them. 1995 was important because it was the year I had a musical awakening, through an album that still means the most to me.

In retrospect, my first musical embrace was neither cool nor expected of a nine-year-old boy whose hardest struggle, at that point, was beating Aladdin on Sega Genesis. My parents sent me away to summer camp in Massachusetts for eight weeks, a punishment for me and vacation for them, shipping me off with a portable CD player and one album: Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, which was released on June 13, 1995. A friend of mine had brought it to school and extolled its ferocity — probably tamer, vernacularly — and set me down the Pill path.

For a whole summer, the counselors in my cabin would flick the light switch and call lights out, and on Jagged Little Pill would go. It was the first album I truly loved, and taught myself to love, as a musically cognizant kid. The songs I didn't like, I ended up knowing every word by the end of the summer. It was one of the first times I could say I picked an album that wasn't pushed on me by my parents. (The following year, I would buy my first album with my own money, Dave Matthews Band's Crash, which I can honestly say I've never fully listened to.)

Jagged Little Pill defined and represented 1995 because it hit so many nerve endings, so well, in ways that Liz Phair attempted so bluntly, or Lisa Loeb struck so mildly. At the time, I was a single-digit aged, coddled suburban kid who had never experienced true pain, but had an idea of what was ahead. Listening to Pill articulated those emotions. That same anger and frustration you can imagine babies and animals feel when they know what they want to say, but can't figure out how to say it, is how I felt listening to the LP. I knew that she was experiencing true romantic and life challenges that would take me years to go through and understand and learn from. But the helplessness of being a kid and the desperation of not wanting to be one connected with the serrated tone of her voice. Being a kid is lonely, and oftentimes hurtful, because no one takes you seriously. Alanis knew that, and was expressing it on another level, in ways I could and couldn't comprehend.

As the years progressed, Alanis lost her edge and became more spiritual. Everyone deserves peace. But the themes and emotions of the album, as well as the song structures supporting them, emphasize a moment in time that few have repeated, or even built upon. Morissette found fame because she laid herself out in universal ways, be it when you're nine or just shy of 29. Listening back on the LP, it's dated, embodying a twangy '90s guitar-rock sound that only the '90s can authentically claim. But its messages sting, from the acid-tongued "wine, dine, 69 me" on "Right Through You" and declaration of wanting peace on "All I Really Want" to "never [being] quite enough" on "Perfect" and letting yourself go on "Head Over Feet."?

Now, the song that resonates most is the one that I never really realized would speak to me for so long: "Hand in My Pocket." It's a breezy, mid-tempo pop song, not offensive, not understated, and simply content with the contradictory nature of life, trying to make sense of it all. "What it all comes down to, is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet," she sings. "'Cause I've got one hand in my pocket and the other one is giving a peace sign." It's hat-tipping the chaos of life and accepting the challenges that uncertainty brings. I didn't know what life would bring, and now that it's here, I still don't. Life is full of question marks; you can deal with them in anger and resentment, as Morissette did on Pill, or you can sort through them, like she did on the same album. And waking up to music as a nine-year-old with an album that forces you to confront that years later is an album, and year, worth acknowledging.