THE 1990s IN REVIEW: ROCK AND POP - Samplers' paradise

Nothing was safe or sacred. Anything could be covered or parodied. By Nicholas Barber
The second-last number one single of the 1980s was "Let's Party" by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers. In case you are lucky enough not to remember it, "Let's Party" was the third in a series of novelty singles which pasted snippets from old Bill Haley and Glenn Miller recordings over perky rhythm tracks. The last number one single of the 1980s was "Do They Know It's Christmas", as revived by a gaggle of unmusical teeny- boppers who called themselves Band Aid II. Who would have predicted how large these two singles would loom over the following 10 years?

The 1990s were the decade in which the sampler became the most important instrument in pop. The methods pioneered by Afrika Bambaataa, among others, were standard practice: you made records out of earlier records. Portishead and Tricky created their best tunes by looping the same Isaac Hayes riff. The Verve and Robbie Williams built anthems on other people's string parts. The biggest hip-hop singles owed their sales to the melodies they lifted from the Police (Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You"), Stevie Wonder (Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise") and, again and again, the Bee Gees (Pras's "Ghetto Superstar").

It has been the karaoke decade. Pop ate itself, and sampling legitimised bands who were openly, deeply indebted to their heroes. At best, there was Britpop, an explosion of smart young guitar bands who countered American grunge with exaggerated Englishness; the "battle" between Blur and Oasis was front-page news, although the stylistic division between the groups amounted to which track on the Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake they preferred. At worst, the karaoke decade meant a deluge of cover versions performed by all the boy bands and girl bands and boy-and-girl bands who followed in the dance steps of Take That and the Spice Girls. Some wannabes went the whole hog and called themselves "tribute bands", only to achieve a bizarre kind of stardom of their own.

No wonder that a defunct band reformed every week in the 1990s. In some cases the reunions were welcome; more often the musicians were cashing in on nostalgia - going into business, in essence, as tribute bands to their younger selves. Some of the groups who buried the hatchet were Culture Club, Madness, Blondie, the Eagles, the Monkees, Kiss (the face-paint line-up), Fleetwood Mac (the Rumours line-up) and Led Zeppelin (almost). The ultimate reunions were the two which no one quite believed would ever happen: the Beatles and the Sex Pistols.

Alongside the sampler, the piece of technology that shaped pop this decade was the compact disc. In tandem with the proliferation of radio stations and TV channels devoted to yesterday's hits, the new format allowed old records to be rediscovered, re-issued and re-evaluated. Performers from Nick Drake to Noel Coward found fresh audiences. (The other effect of the CD was to add 15 minutes to the length of the LP. If I had to review every album of the 1990s in two words, those words would be "too long".)

The ever-accelerating hunt for something original to recycle - if that makes sense - has brought us to a place where anything goes. Easy listening, Seventies disco ... just pour on the elixir of postmodern irony and any pop corpse will twitch back to life. Not that I'm complaining. The trend has given us a decade of rich and varied music; any genre can be enjoyed if there is something enjoyable in it. Ten years ago, liking "world music" was sneered at as worthy and pretentious. Today, dancefloors everywhere resound to Cuban beats.

The rise of the compilation album can be seen as part of the same mix'n'match phenomenon. Instead of buying a whole LP by a band, the public now prefers to buy LPs comprising tracks by 20 or 30 different bands: no artist this decade has as many fans as Various Artists. And soon we'll all be compiling our own albums by downloading our favourite songs from the internet.

That isn't very different from what people who make records do already. Look back at the decade that looked back and you will see that if you wanted to be a pop star, you no longer cooped yourself up in your bedroom, practising your guitar - you cooped yourself up in a record store, digging out obscure funk LPs to sample. Fatboy Slim is a prime example of that. And more than one review of his last album compared Norman Cook to Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers.

NINETIES ROCK

1991 PRIMAL SCREAM: SCREAMADELICA

A remixer/band collaboration.

1991 MASSIVE ATTACK: BLUE LINES Each track provided lesser groups with careers' worth of ideas.

1991 NIRVANA: NEVERMIND

Rock is reborn.

1992 REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

American pop of peerless intelligence and dignity.

1994 BLUR: PARKLIFE

Britpop's unbeatable template.

1994 OASIS: DEFINITELY MAYBE

A blast - and the record that made it OK to copy the Beatles.

1995 ALANIS MORISETTE: JAGGED LITTLE PILL

Sold 25 million copies. Almost as many copycats followed.

1995/7 RADIOHEAD: THE BENDS/ OK COMPUTER

Hope for the future of the five-piece white male guitar band.

1996 BECK: ODELAY

Arguably, the album that exemplifies the decade.

1998 LAURYN HILL: THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL

Marries rap, soul and reggae - and makes it look easy.

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