All over social media you’ll find memes reeling in the fact that the ’90s were 30 years ago! For those of us who can remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters in 1993, it may seem unthinkable. But on the flip side, there are so many things in our culture that have never left. With countless sequels, remakes and reboots of movies and TV shows, you can still see new Jurassic, Scream or Mission: Impossible movies in the theaters today.
This summer’s concert venues are also packed with reunion tours and nostalgic acts from the ’90s and before. But you don’t always need to buy tickets for those original bands to hear things that sound like the ’90s. Lots of current bands incorporate sounds (and looks) of the past. The way streaming services level the playing field of all music, current musicians are just as likely to sound like older bands as contemporaries. Here are three recent albums that kept me thinking about the ’90s without relying on nostalgia.
Despite forming in 2010 I don’t think Turnstile showed up on most radars until this third album. The Baltimore natives went through personnel changes before releasing Glow On to the best reviews of their career. Then the album landed on dozens of Best of 2021 lists, a spot on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, a Taco Bell ad and a nationwide tour. I can’t remember the last time a show sold out as quickly as Turnstile at the Granada in Lawrence. (I sadly missed out on a ticket.)
Best described as a hardcore punk band, Turnstile still defy easy categorization. At times they have the fast edge of D.C. punks like Fugazi but with a knack for ear worm hooks. Their vocals are shouted but never grating, and their lyrics are punchy and memorable. It makes perfect chant-along material to songs that can feel anthemic. After a listen or two, you’ll know the choruses just by hearing the opening riffs.
Turnstile often change gears too. A few mellow tunes with neo-soul singer Blood Orange, occasional surf rock guitar licks, and staccato vocal nods to rap mix things up. They’ve opened for several rappers like Slowthai as well as ’90s pop-punk idols Blink-182. Somehow they make those two sound natural in a hardcore setting, one foot in the past and one in the future.
Alvvays – Blue Rev (CD)
No, that’s not a typo – they’re pronounced “always” but spelled Alvvays. The Canadian band are also on their third album after about 10 years on the scene. While I liked their last album, it didn’t catch my ear the way Blue Rev did. It appears I’m not alone. This album made many Best Album of 2022 lists. Faster, catchier and more richly textured, the band is stretching their sound to more varied alt-rock styles and topics. Lead singer and songwriter Molly Rankin rises to the occasion. Her dream-pop vocals are full of reverb but always understandable. The cover looking like a ’90s Nautica clothing ad clues us into their era of influence.
The album opens with a bang: three singles of hearty guitar distortion and pushy bass lines, reminiscent of the best bands on the Sub Pop label. Lyrics stay relatably domestic (running into someone at the “Pharmacist” or dropping out of college in “Easy on Your Own?”) but are just open-ended enough to bring your interpretation to each. “Very Online Guy” relates a too-connected vain acquaintance we all know. While “Many Mirrors” is a much-needed affirmation of how much we have to offer despite going through changes. Its cute music video is by the one-man developer of smash video game Stardew Valley. The album’s full of tributes to Tom Verlaine of Television, Belinda Carlisle of The Go-Go’s and sounds of The Smiths – ’80s touchstones that belie how much this album sounds like it belongs on old MTV’s 120 Minutes.
Don’t let the band’s violent and contentious namesake throw you off. The War on Drugs are musical soul food of the highest order. Sounding like a fusion of the best “dad rock” ever, distilled into soaring arena ballads, they are my go-to highway driving music. They started in Philadelphia, originally with indie darling Kurt Vile as a guitarist, and have gained a reputation as a fantastic live band. That limber, no-nonsense drive of great performers comes through on the albums too. Albeit, while adding a professional studio slickness to the production. I practically wore the grooves out of their last album, A Deeper Understanding, which won Best Rock Album at the 2018 Grammys. This album from 2021 rises to match the last one.
Where A Deeper Understanding was an introspective but assured album of hope, I Don’t Live Here Anymore sees the rug pulled out from under singer Adam Granduciel. Having gone through a public split with actress and co-parent Krysten Ritter, this is very much a breakup album. But that doesn’t leave the album feeling bleak or angry, but searching and pragmatic despite the pain. Granduciel sings of “slowly disconnect[ing] from my own best friend” on “I Don’t Wanna Wait” and feeling like “I’m a stranger and I don’t know why” on “Occasional Rain.” However, the music itself paints a more hopeful picture, with soaring guitar solos and heartfelt harmonica interludes. Listening to the band is like playing a who’s who of influences, from ’90s era Petty, Springsteen, Dylan, Bryan Adams, Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd.
You can get with this or you can get with that…
When I keep an eye out for concerts coming to the area, I’m of two minds. Part of me wants to see older, established acts while I still can. The other part feels compelled to check out hungry, newer artists who need the support before they go huge. But any more, many newer musicians incorporate styles from every preceding decade into their music while forging their sound into something current and new. Sometimes I’ll hear people say, “I don’t pay attention to music made after the ’90s,” which is silly but understandable due to the explosion in numbers. Hopefully one of these bands can assure someone that the spirit of the dream of the ’90s lives on in music today.