Why 1993 was the year that changed music forever

It was a year of violence, vendettas and a truly avant garde vibe, but pop music has never managed to hit the same high note since

American singer and actress Whitney Houston (1963 - 2012) stars in the film 'The Bodyguard', 1992. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)
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As we approach the final third of the musical year, it feels safe to say that few observers would describe this as a vintage era: at last count, the UK's best-selling albums of 2018 were the soundtrack to a critically mauled movie, The Greatest Showman, and an LP released more than a year earlier, Ed Sheeran's Divide – hardly the sign of a vibrant wave of new-ness.

Complaining about the sorry stagnation of modern music has been the armchair critics’ preferred pastime for decades, but today we no longer need to recall the halcyon 1960s or 1970s to get all misty eyed – a mere quarter century will do. A look back to 1993 serves as a bracing, cold-water slap around the face – a reminder of how much has been lost, and how things have changed.

A year of highs and lows

Indeed, 1993 might be sent up in popular memory as the last truly exciting year in music – or perhaps the moment when it all went wrong. It certainly seems that no 12-month period has made more of a mark, nor embraced more historic highs and titillating headlines, since.

All the ingredients were there – an optimistic surge of creativity, coupled with fresh technologies, fuelling new strands of sound – and more than a dash of media-fuelled melodrama.

Beneath the hits and headlines, the whole infrastructure of mass entertainment was imperceptibly shifting, changing the way we consume music for decades to come.

Television was still ascendant: In 1993 MTV’s Unplugged concept reached its apogee, the Superbowl half-time spectacle was all but invented for the modern age, while the inauguration of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame signalled the death knell of the genre it was celebrating,

For the existing musical order, the year 1993 sat at a crucial temporal fold – grunge was still relevant, Britpop was brewing, and hip-hop was still dangerous. Meanwhile the emerging electronic undercurrents began to command widespread audiences and serious appraisal.

Most memorably, Björk brought electronica out of the clubs and on to the airwaves with her peerless Debut – its dismissive two-star review from Rolling Stone a fitting badge of just how revolutionary it was at the time – while David Bowie came out of the cold channelling house and hip-hop on chart topper Black Tie White Noise, his first LP in six years.

Click to watch the music video for David Bowie's Black Tie White Noise: 

From stars to superstars 

The music then known as rap was enjoying a critical blend of exposure and inspiration – a recent Vibe magazine headline declared "1993: The Year Hip-Hop and R&B Conquered the World". The evidence is all there: Legend Tupac Shakur broke out with Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z ...  while Wu-Tang Clan made their historic debut with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers).

Released at the end of 1992, Dr Dre's seminal debut The Chronic, was declared triple platinum the following November – the same month the album's breakout star Snoop Dogg unleashed generation-defining debut Doggystyle, a pair of pivotal LPs that came to define the new West Coast hip-hop style. The year also gave birth to mature classics Midnight Marauders from A Tribe Called Quest and Black Sunday from Cypress Hill.

At the top of the charts, 1993's bestselling album was also a soundtrack – but this was a different calibre of cast recording. The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album went on to become the fifth best-selling LP ever and elevated Whitney Houston to uber-stardom, spawning at the time the longest-running Billboard No 1, I Will Always Love You.

Click to watch the music video to Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You:

But then fame was something different in 1993: It was the year that Prince confounded DJs the world over by changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. His only competitor for dumbfounding media spectators was Michael Jackson, who made headlines for all the right, and wrong, reasons.

A year of drama, gossip and titillation

Today, the Superbowl half-time show is officially the highest-profile musical engagement of the year, a 12-minute showcase that routinely reaches 100 million pairs of eyeballs. But before 1993 it was a forgettable blur of flag-spinning marching bands and patchy, themed tributes – before, that is, MJ's killer, hit-filled medley, which rehabilitated an ailing career and eclipsed the game itself. Soon after the King of Pop was hit with accusations of child abuse, which tainted his memory for ever.

Because 1993 was also a year of drama, gossip and titillation. Violence was in the air: Snoop faced a murder charge and Shakur was accused of shooting a police officer (both cases were dropped). The Housemartins’ drummer Hugh Whitaker was jailed after attacking an associate with an axe, Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva’s life was ended by a drunk driver, and Euronymous of Swedish death metallers Mayhem was stabbed to death by a bandmate.

Of less consequence, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder was arrested after a bar brawl, while his Nirvana counterpart Kurt Cobain was jailed after a domestic incident with wife Courtney Love. That both events were headline news speaks volumes about grunge's meteoric ascent, and 1993 was the movement's commercial peak, with key releases including Nirvana's In Utero, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream and Pearl Jam's Vs. – upon its October release the latter became America's fastest-selling album ever.

A few weeks later, Nirvana would enter New York's now-demolished Sony Music Studios and record their seminal, stripped-back Unplugged in New York – six months before Cobain would be found dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. They were in good company; in 1993 an appearance on MTV's flagship acoustic series was an established rite of passage for any serious elder statesman, the year also welcoming entries from Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Rod Stewart, while 1993's third best-selling album would prove to be Eric Clapton's Unplugged – later declared the bestselling live recordingto date. What this says about rock music's assimilation by corporate television is noteworthy.

Click to watch a performance of Eric Clapton Unplugged:

The start of a new era

While the term can be traced to the mid-1980s, "classic rock" as a genre arguably became institutionalised the day that Pete Townshend, Chuck Berry and, er, Billy Joel gathered in Cleveland to play the ground-breaking ceremony of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once-rebel Townshend struck another death-knell precedent when, two months earlier, The Who's Tommy opened on Broadway, setting a template for lesser rock musicals that continue to plague stages the world over to this day.

But guitar music was to enjoy one more bite of the cultural zeitgeist, on the other side of the Atlantic – Britpop. And in 1993 the currents were starting to flow: Suede's self-titled debut was a surprise No 1 hit, Slowdive revealed their masterpiece Souvlaki, while a little band called Radiohead became overnight stars with sleeper single Creep. The rest was yet to come – in May 1993 a newly formed Oasis were signed after a short support set, overheard by Alan McGee in Glasgow. Future rivals Blur had already achieved maturity with second album Modern Life is Rubbish.

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Ahead of the cultural curve was Depeche Mode, who in March 1993 became the first "alternative" UK act to top the Billboard charts with Songs of Faith and Devotion. Soon after, the band made what has gone down as the first online fan Q&A, via AOL – a telling forerunner of the internet-driven media world we know today. Music would never be the same again.