In the iPod age, music buffs increasingly eschew full albums and even best-of collections in favor of multi-artist anthologies that load up on almost-forgotten one-hit wonders. And with just about every discount store in the U.S. offering a bin of under-$10 comps from every conceivable genre and era, what's the use of an expensive hodgepodge like Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box? In the liner notes, the compilers insist that this new set breaks from the pattern of Rhino's '70s and '80s boxes, because where the previous two focused on big hits from artists with little to no critical reputation, Whatever jumps from chart-toppers to songs that were never all that popular. This wide net—and the decision to follow a rough chronological order—forces strange track sequencing, like Social Distortion followed consecutively by They Might Be Giants, Mother Love Bone, The Sundays, and C&C Music Factory.
There's some admirable idealism in the way Whatever avoids the Grand Theft Auto soundtrack model of separate discs for separate genres, but the resultant set is so disjointed that it almost demands to be strip-mined for precious MP3s, not played straight through. It's also untrue to the decade. In the '90s, audiences fragmented, and even MTV carved up its programming into distinct blocks: an hour of rap here, an hour of hard-rock there, hours and hours of pop, and a precious weekly 120 minutes of alternative rock. Whatever stirs it all together with little logic, while barely touching on rogue genres like indie-rock, Britpop, hardcore hip-hop, electronica, and alt-country. Instead, the box overemphasizes the Seattle scene, dredging up grunge from the likes of Tad, Melvins, and 7 Year Bitch, while leaving the Chapel Hill, Washington D.C., and New York undergrounds essentially untouched.
The compilers did find room for My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, Pavement, and Wilco, but Whatever's overall vision of the decade is still fairly depressing, dominated by dreary arena-rock anthems and novelty rap. (Expect the '00s edition to be packed with 3 Doors Down and Baha Men.) The egalitarian, populist approach works on paper, but in the '90s especially, a lot of schlock became popular through the efforts of major labels that were actively exploiting the decade's more innovative sounds. Which means that, historically speaking, Whatever is fairly accurate. As music, though, it's horrifying. The story it tells is what the media mega-conglomerates willed into existence.