The 1990’s was a terrific decade for music, especially depressing music.
Although, being born in 1994, my memories of the decade are extremely slim, I can appreciate the music. From the raw emotions of Kurt Cobain, to the electrifying energy of Marilyn Manson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and to the britpop beats of Blur and Oasis, it seems there was something for everyone.
As a writer, however, depressing and angsty music makes a gigantic impression. That doesn’t mean all sad music is great. But when bands bother to be honest, lyrical and poetic, it does make a difference.
So in this blog post, I will list eight depressing 90’s music albums that will inspire great writing.
Note: I am biased, so expect alot of rock music!
Loveless by My Bloody Valentine (1991)
With the dreamy, lush sounds of “Only Shallow” to the melancholic “When You Sleep,” Loveless is the marriage between reality and a dreamworld. It’s also hauntingly beautiful: with “Sometimes” being a good example.
What makes Loveless so inspiring to writers is that it’s shoegaze experimentation, as well as the rumoured production costs, encourage any writer to aspire for more in their work. Loveless is many things, but never feels pointless. Rather- it’s revolutionary in its beauty and poise.
Your writing may feature characters at their lowest, or deal with dark themes. That’s fine. Yet it’s possible to write misery in fiction, without producing a work of fiction that only inspires misery. Great stories engage with all the senses, emotions and thoughts. That’s the great lesson I learnt from Loveless.
In Utero by Nirvana (1993)
The final album from Nirvana before Kurt Cobain’s death.
In Utero is raw, viseral and emotional. It’s also honest, and Cobain refuses to hold back with his music and lyrics. That is fantastic for writers, who also shouldn’t hold back with their ideas and imagery. Fiction is meant to be powerful, just as music is.
Nirvana are also inspired by literature, as “Scentless Apprentice” conjures imagery from Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer by Patrick Süskind.
Stand out tracks include “Heart-Shaped Box”, “Milk It”, and “All Apologies.” Nirvana had a knack for music that makes you feel nostalgic, regretful, and alert. Writers ought to think about what emotional reaction they want their fiction to incite.
In Utero is a marvellous album, and writers should study it.
The Holy Bible by The Manic Street Preachers (1994)
Richey Edwards was a lyricist like no other. Before his disappearance and presumed death in 1995, The Manic Street Preachers, a Welsh rock band, released The Holy Bible. With dark subject matter such as anorexia “4st 7lb”, the Holocaust “The Intense Humming of Evil” and self-hatred “Faster.” The track, however, that never fails to make me sad is “Yes,” a song about prostitution.
What makes The Holy Bible exceptional is the vast amount of subject matter it manages to cover. This adds to the sadness the album emits. But it’s also proof that you don’t lavish production values, high word counts, exceptional concepts, to have something profound to say.
No word feels wasted in The Holy Bible and every song is there for a reason. Writers could learn from that restraint.
It’s also an album that may take several listens to fully appreciate it. This teaches patience, which every writer, including myself, needs.
Ready To Die by The Notorious B.I.G (1994)
The life of Notorious BIG, or Christopher Wallace, will bring a tear to anyone’s eye. To put it in plain words, Wallace’s life was tragic. There is no denying his talent, his ferocity, his passion and his dedication.
And Ready To Die is the crowning masterpiece of Christopher Wallace. He juxtaposes emotional highs and lows with cool beats, his depiction of the ‘thug life’ feels more real and scary than luxury. I particularly love “Things Done Changed” and the brutal ender “Suicidal Thoughts.”
From that, writers should learn the power of their own experiences. If you are writing from a place of pain, and are honest and artistic, then you have the ability to create something remarkable. (Of course, don’t suffer for your art). After all, fiction and music often feel like cheap therapy. And maybe it is. But Ready To Die is a terrific album, and there is alot to learn from it.
It’s an album that changed my perception of hip hop and rap, and for that, I am grateful. I still have alot of research to do in the genre.
Grace by Jeff Buckley (1994)
As the only studio album by the deceased Jeff Buckley, Grace initally had poor sales and mediocre reviews. However, the legacy of Grace has changed with time.
What’s fantastic about Grace is its ability to get under your skin in a way that only art can do. “Last Goodbye” and of course, Buckley’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” further the album’s legacy. But I think what makes Grace stand out is that Buckley is unafraid to sound vulnerable and afraid.
I know artists want to appear strong in their writing, but it’s okay, and sometimes beneficial, to be at risk. Great writing, as I have said before, is true. I know it takes bravery to be authentic to yourself.
But Jeff Buckley shows us the benefits of doing so, and Grace is the ultimate argument of truth and beauty in the face of depressing despair.
Either / Or by Elliott Smith (1997)
Oh, Elliott Smith. My heart breaks. Like Buckley, Smith had the profound ability to fuse vulnerable emotion with poetic insight. Tracks such as “Rose Parade,” “Say Yes,” and “Cupid’s Trick” are bewitching and bitter. It’s the transformative beauty that Smith was such a master at.
Either / Or sounds like an old movie, and you can see how Elliott Smith inspired film director and artist Gus Van Sant with Good Will Hunting, also released in 1997. It’s also a philosophical album, with Either / Or being a reference to a work by Søren Kierkegaard.
What inspires me as a writer from Smith is his ability to bring innocence and even joy to the most depressive and dire situations. There is a weird strain of humour to his music that almost belongs in a Wes Anderson film. (Ironically, “Needle In The Hay” from another Smith album is in The Royal Tenenbaums.”)
It’s this rich irony and complexity that inspires my writing.
OK Computer by Radiohead (1997)
What can I say about this album that hasn’t been said already? OK Computer is genius. But like alot of Radiohead’s music, it’s depressing. Whether you listen to classics such as “No Surprises” or underrated statements like “Climbing Up The Walls,” there is alot to discover.
Yet what I find inspiring about OK Computer is its dystopian feel. It’s also an album of ‘sci-fi music’ with “Paranoid Android” playing homage to Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy character, Marvin. (Who I love.)
OK Computer feels like music from another planet, but also sounds too close to home. Such sad ironies fascinate the inner writer. I want my fiction to be a paradox of sorts, in the way Radiohead is.
Truly a masterpiece in the alternative rock genre.
Adore by The Smashing Pumpkins (1998)
It’s not the best album by the Pumpkins. That goes to either Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness or Siamese Dream. But for writers, I think Adore offers a rich point for inspiration. Particularly those interested in gothic or dark fantasy, because Adore is a twisted treat.
The lyrics are top-notch, with “Pug” and “Crestfallen” sounding like the passing words of a dying fairytale prince. It’s also strange in its optimism and light, with “Perfect” and “Once Upon A Time” playing like melodies to a future that might be pleasant. But more than that, Adore is theatrical.
Every song tells its own story, and if you watch the music videos, the imagery is arresting. So, although Adore never got the love of previous albums by the Pumpkins, it is still valuable in many ways.
For one, Adore teaches us the value of taking risks and showing imagination. Personally, when I read depressing fiction, I do appreciate weirdness and pecularity. Corgan happens to embody those things, and for that, and for many things, Smashing Pumpkins is my favourite band of all time.
So that’s it. Eight depressing 90’s music albums! What are your thoughts? Comment below, I’d love to find out! (Plus, share any music recommendations, particularly rap and alternative rock!)
Note: There were so many albums I didn’t have space to include. Such artists included Portishead and Björk. The 90’s had alot of great music!