Now that '80s nostalgia is almost certainly, probably, quite possibly dead, done in by the twin coffin nails of the INXS summer reality show and the Bryan Adams-Def Leppard tour, '90s nostalgia was probably inevitable.
As a sort of cultural advance team, expert nostalgia peddlers Rhino Records -- responsible for the genius '70s box set "Have a Nice Decade" and the novelty-hit-heavy '80s collection "Like, Omigod!," have recently sent forth "Whatever: The '90s Pop and Culture Box."
A lumbering, seven-disc behemoth culled from various bits of fin de siecle flotsam, "Whatever" is an agreeable assemblage of the marginal, the mild and the only occasionally great. Prevented from using songs by most of the decade's landmark artists (such as, say, Nirvana. Or Pearl Jam, the Smashing Pumpkins, Jay-Z, Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair, Dr. Dre and Sheryl Crow, to name a few), "Whatever" might as well be titled "All of the Stuff We Could Clear." (Also MIA: Madonna, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and U2, whose combined '90s output yielded exactly one classic album, U2's "Achtung Baby," but are much missed anyway.)
Unlike its pre-iPod-era counterparts, the more glaring deficiencies of "Whatever" can be rectified by iTunes, which can turn even casual archivists into Ken Burns -- or at least the guys from K-Tel. These days, Rhino can't offer much besides packaging and context. The packaging is first rate (there's a nicely done booklet and an enclosed packet of coffee beans, though for $105.98 retail it should include its own barista), not so the context.
Arranged chronologically (instead of, preferably, by genre or theme), "Whatever" plays like the 130-song equivalent of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire." It's an unilluminating historic recitation offered with a minimum of discretion: This is what happened, it seems to be saying. Sort it out yourselves.
"Whatever" can't be an authoritative guide to '90s music, and thanks to the occasional Tasteful Selection (Joan Osborne, Bikini Kill, Spacehog. Well, maybe not Spacehog), it doesn't quite qualify as kitsch, either. But as a guide to one-hit wonders it's pretty useful, offering an endless roll call of great forgotten tracks ("No Myth," "Good," "If I Can't Change Your Mind," "Ladies First") and a touching devotion to dreck (Right Said Fred, MC Hammer).
"Whatever" takes such obvious delight in plumbing the depths of '90s cheese, it's hard not to give in. The aural equivalent of Stockholm syndrome kicks in somewhere around Disc 4, when all but the most hard-hearted listeners will find themselves thinking that the Gin Blossoms were actually a pretty good band, or expressing agreement with the timeless sentiments of Sir Mix-a-Lot. (Really, is there anyone who doesn't feel nostalgic for "Baby Got Back"? What about Dada's "Dizz Knee Land" or House of Pain's "Jump Around," both of which are included? No? Too soon?)
As the opening salvo in the battle for the hearts and minds of those old enough to remember Salt-N-Pepa, "Whatever" is a little spotty. But as a way to pass the time until the inevitable "Come as You Are: The Musical!," it's an entertaining time-waster. Or a really expensive doorstop.