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Last Updated on January 12, 2022
Two decades, two entirely different musical experiences.
The music of the 80s and 90s are not the same in style and tone, even while some artists and bands had careers that span both eras.
That said, it’s always important to compare and contrast, so we thought we would dive into a ‘battle of the decades’, where the music of the 80s squares up against the music of the 90s.
Hopefully, no one will get hurt.
So, what do we base our judgement on?
- The perfect mix of nostalgia
- Real musical quality
- … and best hair, of course.
- The 80s was a great time for music, pure and simple
- So, what about 90s music?
- The verdict
The 80s was a great time for music, pure and simple
It was also the era of power ballads, superstars and iconic groups who had success that went beyond the decade.
Madge breaks onto the scene
In the 80s, we had the arrival of Madonna. One of those artists who had fame well into the 90s, this singer is one of the few superstars of the 80s. Incredibly ambitious and capable of working very, very hard, she dominated much of the 80s music landscape.
Apart from her personality, the one thing that stuck out with regard to Madonna was the perfection of her music. The production was impeccable, and even today her back catalogue is one of the few examples of synth-heavy music that still sounds great.
Don’t believe us? Check out “Like a Prayer”:
The 80s also belonged to Michael Jackson and Prince
The two singers were rivals, although they had very different music styles. The rivalry was real, and it fuelled some of the most important and creative music of the 80s.
For Jackson we had Thriller, and for Prince we had Purple Rain. The two men were born two months apart, and would dog each other’s success throughout the 1980s.
The transformation of rock in the 80s
Rock music had a major change in the 1980s. Prior to this decade there were some dividing lines that created mini genres inside the ‘rock’ and ‘metal’ aisle of a record store. The 1980s brought about yet more ‘rock’ genres that widened the scope for music lovers.
The resurgence of metal music and it’s splintering into a number of sub-genres such as thrash, death and speed metal was a key aspect of the 1980s rock scene. Hard rock and arena rock absolutely exploded, with bands like Van Halen and ZZ Top bringing perfectly packaged rock music to millions.
Then we had the growth of alternative rock.
Largely connected with American acts, alternative featured bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements, boosted by College radio stations and their extensive airtime devoted to alternative bands.
Hip Hop explosion
It’s hard to imagine life before Hip Hop, but before the 80s it was still seen as experimental and outside of the mainstream. The 1980s brought Hip Hop to life, and this decade saw what can only be described as the true pioneers of Hip Hop. This meant the likes of Run DMC, Public Enemy and LL Cool J, to name just three major acts.
Hip Hop would never be as frantic and breathtaking as it was in this decade, and it would also never be as innocent and positive. Later Hip Hop developments meant that things became darker, and more commercial (and more authentic, but we will get to that later).
But back then in the 80s, you were looking at the best time to be a Hip Hop fan. It was all fresh and new. And it felt great.
So what else was important in 80s music?
Okay, so here’s the best of the rest when it came to 80s music:
- The Smiths. These guys started an indie movement that continued throughout the 80s. However, to understand their importance, you have to spend some time diving deep into their music. It wasn’t just different, it was an English band making music that was terribly, well, English. It was also beautifully written stuff, with some truly moving songs among the big hits. Later years would see Morrissey become an enigmatic and then, finally, a worryingly right-wing figure (at least according to the media). But back then in the 80s, he was a kind of god. A god with flowers sticking out of his jeans.
- Kate Bush. The 80s was her time, and when the Hounds of Love album came out, it was immediately seen as her best album. But this is a woman who started making chart-topping music in the 1970s. The 80s brought her huge mainstream success, and turned her into something of a recluse. But that one album alone showed how she could be incredibly creative and quite scary at times with that incredible voice of hers.
- Bruce Springsteen. Here was a man who, like Bush, had broken out in the 1970s, but met with his biggest success in the 80s. Born In The USA was an incredibly popular album, and it ushered in his reign as the king of stadium rock. Known for incredibly long shows that meant hours and hours of music (often very different from the album versions), Springsteen became a megastar in the 80s, and soon came to represent working class America (whether he liked it or not).
- U2. This band actually had something like a comeback in the 90s, but their best decade was the 80s. Stadium rock again, but this time bolstered by some anthemic tunes, and a voice like nothing you had ever heard before. Bono turned into something else entirely in the 90s and beyond, but back in the 80s, he had a voice that could make you stop in your tracks, and an innocence that made him seem like he was singing from the heart.
- The Beastie Boys. A truly surprising rap group, the beastie Boys hit the 80s with Licensed to Ill, an album that teased true rap genius in amongst the Frat boy junk music. Then Pauls Boutique came out soon afterwards and everyone suddenly realised that they were important, and were going to make important rap music. As the 90s arrived, they did just that. But the 80s brought them to us, and they are still the only white Hip Hop group to be truly successful.
Alright, so the 80s sounded cool
The 80s brought us some real legends in music, some of whom are still alive and making music today. Also, we had an era that brought in MTV, which is firmly in the background today, but showed us the power of music videos.
Oh, and if you need further proof that the 80s was simply a major part of music history, a little known man called John Lennon was sadly taken from us right at the start of the decade.
The 80s was actually a crazy yet rewarding time for music fans.
So, what about 90s music?
This was a decade when Rock became something entirely different.
It was no longer just about metal, it splintered into true stadium rock
This included bands like Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses and Metallica running huge tours. This was also the decade were Nirvana broke out with Nevermind, and became the voice of a generation until the death of Kurt Cobain.
Who doesn’t get warm and nostalgic listening to Kurt unplugged?
Grunge and the resulting music over the next few years was a truly important (and inspirational) phenomenon.
Pop music came into its own
Alongside this, you also had a time where manufactured pop music hit a new high (or low, depending on how you see it). Britney Spears dominated music for years, whether it was on her records, her private life or controversial videos.
The Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion and Michael Bolton all sold millions to the masses, and were very much carefully prepared and coached to become true pop icons. Whether you liked their music or not, you simply could not avoid it.
Women also had a much more positive time in the 90s. Singer-songwriters were everywhere, and a lot of these were women. This meant true empowerment was creeping up on the industry.
For example, within the space of a decade, we had Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann, Alanis Morissette, TLC, Aaliyah, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Sinead O’ Connor, Gwen Stefani, Jewel and lest we forget The Spice Girls, all of whom were not just women, but also the bearers of empowering messages with their music.
That was certainly not the case in the 80s.
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The Britpop civil war was real
In the UK Britpop became something real, and allowed the country to experience some truly rich, melodic music. Arguably, the winners of the Blur and Oasis race were Blur. And as their career continued, it soon became clear that they were writing music that transcends genres.
Hip Hop finally hit the mainstream
Eminem, white and as angry as any other rapper, blew up in the 90s. On top of that, he was seen as being a bad influence by the media. This made him a truly innovative and ever-so-cool rap artist.
Here’s the best of the rest of the 90s music landscape:
- NWA arrived. Angry, loud and using profanity like it was small talk, the group made a huge splash this decade. It’s arguable that something that incendiary could never last, but while it burned, the NWA phenomenon brought Gangsta Rap to the world, and was as ‘punk’ as rap could ever hope to be.
- New Jack Swing opened up the decade. Bands like Boys II Men and Bell Biv Devoe sang smooth, punchy music that transformed the R&B charts. It was a short-lived genre, but it was easy to dance to, and it brought us some great singers.
- Blink-182 brought us the anti-grunge rock movement. The songs were ridiculously short, and were actually a lot of fun. Sunny and melodic, these quiet moments of madness proved to be the happy antidote to the darkest parts of grunge music. Try watching the video for ‘What’s my age again’ without laughing. We challenge you.
- Louder alternative became another sub-genre that brought us some incredibly good music. We had the final explosion of Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that had been on the scene for years, suffered a lot of heartbreak, but still managed to make one of the best videos of the 90s with Give it Away. Nine Inch Nails became the loud industrial band you knew you always wanted, and we had Smashing Pumpkins straddling the indie and rock camps perfectly. Briefly, but perfectly.
- R.E.M. ruled the world. They really did. They were famous for having a huge album deal, and for not touring their most successful album ever, not even for one night (that was Automatic for the People). Michael Stipe was enigmatic and thoughtful, and the band sold more albums than seemed possible for four men from Georgia. Then the drummer got sick and retired. The band slowed down, but for those few years in the 90s, they were everywhere and loved by almost every single person on the planet.
Wow, the 90s are swingin’ some punches
Big music, and some major pushes forward in empowerment and diversity too.
The 90s also saw some genuinely good music that didn’t involve synths. In a way, it’s hard to imagine a band like R.E.M. being that huge in the 80s. Sure, they were popular in the underground, but here was thinking-person’s rock music, truly intellectual stuff, being chanted in huge stadiums around the world.
The 90s also saw NWA restart rap music so it was tougher, more honest and generally more real. NWA (and the groups that came after them, such as Wu-Tang-Clan) were simply not afraid of rapping about stuff that was painful to hear.
So it was a hell of a decade, but how does it hold up against the 1980s?
We need a verdict. To be honest, this is probably one of the hardest decisions we have ever made. Both decades had outstanding music. Both had pioneers.
However, there’s something about the 90s that makes it seem like it was just more important.
You had honest rap music. You had thinking bands like R.E.M and Smashing Pumpkins entering the charts and of course you had Grunge. And the fact that the decade allowed for more diversity than ever before makes it a vital era in music.
And let’s not forget that the big stars of the 80s, like Prince and Madonna, were still making good music in the 90s, and therefore just making it an even more awesome decade.
Yes, we’re calling it.
We think the 90s was the better musical decade. When it comes to variety, diversity and sheer musical quality, it is most certainly the better of the two.