Given the success of their box sets celebrating the pop culture and music of the '70s and '80s, it was inevitable that Rhino would release a set devoted to the '90s, so it was no great surprise when the label released the seven-disc set Whatever: The '90s Pop and Culture Box in late July, 2005. Some might say that 2005 is a little early to dive into '90s nostalgia, but six years into the '00s, just past the halfway mark of the Dubya administration and nearly a decade-and-a-half away from Nevermind, the '90s feel very, very long ago indeed, so this is as good time as any to start repackaging the '90s. The problem is, the '90s aren't quite as easy to pigeonhole as either the '70s or '80s. Of course, neither of those decades were quite what Rhino presented on either Have a Nice Decade or Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally), but both of those provided nice overviews of the sounds, trends, and fads of what was on mainstream radio -- or with the '80s, MTV -- during those decades. With the '90s, it's not nearly as easy to pinpoint what the sound of the mainstream was during those ten years, because the mainstream began to break down. Not just because of the changing tastes ushered in by the alternative rock explosion of late 1991-1992 (aka "The Year Punk Broke"), but because in the aftermath of the alt-rock boom, radio became more corporate (meaning tighter, stricter play lists), and MTV gradually shifted away from being a music channel to being a pop culture TV station. Add to this a pop audience that was becoming progressively niche-driven -- supported by a music industry that was eager to feed the niche and not cross-pollinate because it was easier to hit your target demographic if they all stuck together -- there wasn't a mainstream pop audience in quite the same vein as there was in the '70s and '80s.
This, of course, gave the producers of Whatever a problem, and they acknowledge this in Cory Frye's producer's note to the set, where he writes that the compilers decided to "(acknowledge) some of the decade's bigger mainstream explosions while also hopefully drawing the listener's attention to...the rumblings below that would eventually surface as the renaissance of our generation." In other words: all the alt-rock and indie rock that defined the rock culture of the first part of the decade and would run out of gas around 1996. Of course, during the years between Nirvana's 1991 Nevermind, the album that kicked off the alt-rock era, and Radiohead's 1997 OK Computer, the album that effectively killed it, nearly everything was tagged as "alternative," whether it was the Spin Doctors' hippy-dippy jam band, Candlebox's lumbering heavy metal, Digable Planet's jazzy hip-hop, Korn's rap-rock or acid house, punk-pop, neo-swing, or any number of off-shoots and hybrids that littered the landscape in the early and mid-'90s. The compilers decide to focus on what was alt-rock between 1992 and 1995 -- songs and sounds that formed the backbone of MTV's weekly Sunday night show, 120 Minutes and the songs that spilled over into their "Buzz Bin," plus a handful of edgier, noisier punk-based American guitar rock bands. These are balanced by several pop, urban, and hip-hop singles that were ubiquitous, but the way that the box is sequenced, the first disc contains the great majority of urban and mainstream pop songs, with alt-rock taking hold as the second disc comes around and then sticking around until the very end of the seventh disc. The ultimate effect is that the listening effect mirrors the experience of a white kid who spent the first year or two of the '90s in high school, went to college and discovered alt-rock, got really involved in music for about five years, and then slowly stopped paying attention by the end of the decade.
Inevitably, some listeners will complain that Whatever favors alternative rock too much and gives short shrift to rap and R&B. Well, that may be true, but they're hardly the only genres given the shaft here: electronica in all of its forms from acid house to trip-hop barely gets a passing nod, while Brit-pop hardly registers. But it's impossible for any seven-disc set to cover everything that happened in the decade, and at least the emphasis on alt-rock of 1991-1995 (lasting from disc two to midway through disc six) gives this box a focus, which helps make the set cohesive and even useful for some audiences. There are plenty of classic singles and tracks from the heyday of alt-rock -- the Sundays' "Here's Where the Story Ends," My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow," Screaming Trees' "Nearly Lost You," Sugar's "If I Can't Change Your Mind," Gin Blossoms' "Hey Jealousy," the Lemonheads' "It's a Shame About Ray," Dinosaur Jr's "Start Choppin," Pavement's "Cut Your Hair," Weezer's "Buddy Holly," Oasis' "Wonderwall" chief among them -- and there are some fun one-shots like Dada's smirky "Dizz Knee Land" and King Missile's "Detachable Penis" scattered throughout here, too. But even in terms of being a collection of alt-rock hits, Whatever is on shaky ground, since there are numerous questionable omissions and inclusions here. Such heavy-hitters as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Pixies, Jane's Addiction, Beck, Björk, the Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Green Day, Radiohead, Hole, No Doubt, and Nine Inch Nails are naturally missing -- that's just a question of licensing and points shouldn't be deducted for that -- but their absence isn't as bothersome as the other artists and songs from this genre that should have been on here. It's not even a question of arguing which well-known indie rock favorites -- such names as Superchunk, Sebadoh, Ride, Guided by Voices, and Mercury Rev, for instance -- over the Supersuckers, the Gits, Tad and the Muffs (all four are included here, all four are fine but rather generic, certainly not as distinctive as the aforementioned quintet). It's that such commercial heavyweights as Stone Temple Pilots, Bush, and Alice in Chains didn't make the cut, nor did such well-known, critically well-regarded charting acts as Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, and PJ Harvey. Electronica acts like the Chemical Brothers, Portishead, and the Prodigy -- who all had hits -- aren't here, nor are Happy Mondays and Primal Scream, or Blur, Suede, or Pulp, none of whom are hard to license. This could be discounted as mere American bias, but there are other great American alt-rock hits that could have been here, such as Cracker's "Low," Veruca Salt's "Seether," Everclear's "Santa Monica," Folk Implosion's "Natural One," or the Presidents of the United States of America's twin shots of novelty grunge, "Lump" and "Peaches." Or let's extend into the post-grunge years of the late '90s -- there's a bunch of one-shot wonders like Harvey Danger's "Flagpole Sitta," Nada Surf's "Popular," Local H's "All the Kids Are Right," or the Toadies' "Possum Kingdom" that could have been here, along with the entire retro-swing genre, represented by such acts as Squirrel Nut Zippers and Cherry Poppin' Daddies. There aren't such mainstream oddities as OMC's "How Bizarre," or, to stretch all the way to the end of the decade, the New Radicals' lone hit "You Get What You Give," one of the very best singles of the decade, is totally missing.
Such complaints are part and parcel for sets like this, but they're all the more relevant here because on Whatever, some of the included acts aren't represented at their best. Why is the Verve Pipe here with "Photograph" instead of "The Freshmen," which hit number five on the charts? Why is L7 here with "Sh*tlist" instead of "Pretend We're Dead," a bigger hit and better song? Why is Ween here with "Freedom of '76" instead of "Push Th' Little Daisies," the song that was featured on Beavis & Butt-Head and helped break the band to a wider audience? Why are the Barenaked Ladies here with "Brian Wilson" instead of their chart-topping single "One Week"? Who knows, but in this context such defensible substitutions as Belly's "Gepetto" over "Feed the Tree," or Urge Overkill's "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon" over "Sister Havana" (which may not have been as big a hit, but represents the band better) seem similarly misguided.
Even with all these significant flaws, Whatever is useful in rounding up a bunch of good singles. After all, it is nice to get Deee-Lite's "Groove Is in the Heart," Jesus Jones' "Right Here, Right Now," Naughty by Nature's "OPP," Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend," House of Pain's "Jump Around," Des'ree's "You Gotta Be," the Cardigans' "Lovefool," "Fountains of Wayne"'s "Radiation Vibe," and Len's glorious "Steal My Sunshine" in one place. But in the age of the iPod, it is a real question of whether it's worth buying a lavish box set or getting the individual tracks and assembling your own play list of the "Best of the '90s." That's why Rhino has gone out of their way to make Whatever into a distinctive package, assembling a book that features amusing essays by Jim DeRogatis and Joel Stein along with a bunch of pop cultural ephemera from the decade. But even here the set goes wrong: there's a picture collage of SubPop singles that contains a single from Beachwood Sparks, who didn't release anything on the label until 2000; of all the Lollapalooza tour posters to feature, they pick 1996, when Metallica headlined the tour, which nobody -- not alt-rockers, not metalheads -- liked; the Pulp Fiction toys weren't made in 1994 or 1995, when the movie was a hit, but nearly ten years later. Worst of all, Rhino has made the unjustifiable decision to use a vacuum-sealed package of actual coffee beans as the set's cover artwork. Not only is the package very fragrant (and not necessarily in a pleasant way), after only a couple of days it's already showing signs of wear, so who knows how it will hold up after a year or two of use. It may not be a practical package, but it is distinctive, which makes it appropriate for a box that has its charms, but doesn't come close to capturing either sound or spirit of the '90s.