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by Barry Walters

May 3, 2013

'90s Studio Rock

by Barry Walters  |  May 3, 2013

Musically speaking, the '90s will always be remembered for grunge and gangsta rap -- forms that favored angst and aggression over studio refineries. But while much of teenage America embraced armies of angry rappers and flannel-clad dudes wielding distorted and down-tuned guitars, the rest of the world embraced myriad forms on the opposite end of the sonic spectrum: house music, techno, shoegaze, Brit-pop, trip-hop, chamber pop, lounge music, Shibuya-kei and other styles that reacted against and sometimes even merged with rock.

The escalating popularity of home recording and easy-to-use synthesizers meant that more musicians were able to generate hi-fi sounds without the super-producers, expensive studios, session players and highly trained engineers of yore. The '90s generation of studio boffins who grew up with punk and synth-pop replaced the clean sheen of mainstream '70s and '80s pop with artfully messed-up and dirty sounds impossible to achieve with the old tools. Acts like Ween and Elliott Smith -- who both started out the decade lo-fi because that's all they could afford -- tackled the layered arrangements of progressive rock and baroque pop once they landed on the major labels emboldened by the Nirvana-lead alt-rock boom. Then there were bands like The Cardigans, who started out light and airy, but by 1997's "My Favorite Game," nearly every element of their essentially straightforward voice-guitar-bass-drums presentation is tweaked to the max.

The possibilities opened up by the new technological toys and the commercial success of "alternative" music meant that if an ascending act like Smashing Pumpkins wanted a 30-piece string section from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for "Tonight, Tonight," they got it. And rock bands had the budget to cover expensive samples: A record like The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony," which prominently samples an orchestral version of a Rolling Stones song, would today be cost-prohibitive for most acts. Digital recording platforms like ProTools meant that the extravagant overdubs once only within the reach of bands like Queen could be achieved by just about any band with a computer and an endless supply of time and patience. Here's the best stuff that resulted.

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