For those who don’t want to read, or would like some musical accompaniment to this rant, please simply skip to the bottom of the page or click here for a Spotify/YouTube playlist of the best music from 1996. These will convince you of my argument in ways that my words cannot. 

For a person who pretends to be an expert on almost everything, from politics to economics to copyright law, you may have noticed that I don’t pretend to know anything about music. In fact, this is my 87th post, and only once in the previous 86 have I ever dedicated an entire post solely to music. I will admit it now, I am no authority on music, and I can prove it. For it was around this time of year 20 years ago, in early February 1996, when I bought my first ever music single. It was a time before Spotify, before iTunes, before Napster, before even the power of the mp3 format had been recognised by anybody except a small group of audio engineers in central Germany. The only way to listen to music was to either buy the album, buy the actual song (if it was released as a single), or to wait for it to be played on the radio (and possibly record this on cassette). That single I bought 20 years ago was none other than Babylon Zoo’s Spaceman, a song that was only popular because it was featured in a Levi’s commercial, and the mid 90’s was a strange period in history where Levi’s jeans were so popular they could literally be used as currency in some places. The song was ridiculed as trash even then, but I was so clueless that I genuinely liked it. I still listen to the song from time to time, but recognise now that enjoying it non-ironically is practically impossible.

From this inauspicious beginning however, I began to pay a bit of attention to what was happening in popular music. I regularly listened to radio stations in Ireland that played popular music, and through my friends at school and family at home I discovered music slightly under the radar (that phrase meant something else before the internet) also. This all culminated with me buying my second ever single a few months later: Three Lions by Baddiel, Skinner & The Lightning Seeds: a novelty single that was the anthem of England’s football team during the European Championships that year. It sounds silly, but I stand by that purchase.

So yes, these were the only two songs I bought in 1996, and after a brief foray into minidisc recording in the late 90s/early 2000s, only really began collecting music once it became free for anyone with an internet connection and relaxed morals. I soon had a collection of thousands of songs, which I would then on a regular basis curate into playlists of up to 100 songs for listening on a regular basis. Later on in the late 2000’s a troika of ubiquitous wireless internet, attention deficit disorder and the emergence of Wikipedia soon meant that I could now read the history of every song I listened to on a regular basis, and the curious thing was that so very many of them were released in 1996. Not just released in 1996, but were popular songs released in 1996. I realise that my nostalgia goggles are most definitely switched on, but I am here today to try and convince you that 1996 was the best year in modern history for popular music.

1996

When you think of popular music now, you think of things like Adele, Kanye West, One Direction, David Guetta or Beyonce. This type of pop music was also present in 1996 of course: for Adele, think Celine Dion, or for One Direction think Take That or Boyzone. However the mid 1990’s also allowed a certain mix of genres in popular music, and 1996 was the pinnacle of this. In spring 1996, switching on a popular radio station you could be confronted by Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio or Street Spirit by Radiohead. 1979 by The Smashing Pumpkins could turn up in rotation, as well as Return of the Mack by Mark Morrison. Stupid Girl by Garbage might get an airing, or even Firestarter by the Prodigy. All of these songs were top 10 hits in the UK and Ireland by the end of March 1996. In January 1996, Missing by Everything But the Girl was the biggest song in Europe. All of the mentioned songs I still listen to regularly, and all are unqualified classics.

In the summer, The Fugees would appear with Killing Me Softly, followed by several other classics from their album The Score. 1996 was also the year Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill blew up, and the year was scattered with single after single from that album. No Diggity by Blackstreet became a breakout hit in the winter, as well as Faithless capitalising on the success of the Prodigy by rereleasing Insomnia. Together with Children by Robert Miles and the remix of Born Slippy by Underworld, fresh from being immortalised in Trainspotting, 1996 was the year dance music gained credibility. At the same time, No Doubt were gaining traction with Just a Girl and the Foo Fighters released Big Me out of nowhere. 1996 was also a year of immortal one hit wonders, such as Deep Blue Something’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Joan Osbornes One Of Us, OMC’s How Bizarre, Fools Gardens Lemon Tree and Luniz’s I Got 5 On It. As I said, these songs didn’t just get released and went unnoticed, they were all extremely popular at the time. I could namedrop classic songs for another paragraph, but I think it’s best if you just listen to the playlist at the end of this post.

The defining point of music in 1996, in popularity as well as legacy, was none of the songs I mentioned here, and nothing positive at all: it was the emergence of the Spice Girls in late summer, with Wannabe. They followed that hit with a few more before Christmas, and became the biggest pop group in the world. Their manager was Simon Fuller. He would use the millions he made from the bands career to create the modern reality TV show, first with Pop Idol in the UK, and then American Idol, and followed closely by {insert nationality} Idol. This franchise and its offshoots not only dominates popular music now, but also popular TV in general, and subsequently Twitter and YouTube. There would be no Ken Lee without The Spice Girls. Without them, Donald Trump would not have had The Apprentice as a platform for over a decade to brainwash stupid Americans into thinking that he is a great leader.

It is thus where I acknowledge that as well as being the greatest year in modern history for popular music, 1996 also saw the sowing of the seeds that would later destroy it. While in the mid and late 90’s, bands like Blur, Oasis, The Smashing Pumpkins, REM, The Manic Street Preachers, Sheryl Crow and No Doubt could achieve success in the mainstream charts, the evolution of the music industry after The Spice Girls, reality TV, and online downloading meant that popular music would never achieve so much quality in a single year again. Of course, it wasn’t all good: I have gotten this far without mentioning that the biggest song of the year was La Macarena. It’s a terrible song, but it’s undoubtedly a classic terrible song. 1996 even did the bad stuff well.

The Playlists:

The Best Songs from 1996

For those without Spotify, here’s the YouTube equivalent:

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