I never, ever thought I'd paraphrase from the soundtrack to Aladdin, but pop music in the first half of the '90s truly was a whole new world. There was nothing alternative about the big bucks generated by so-called alternative rock, while boomers raised on classic rock took solace in country. Both camps steered clear of the rap and urban dance music that pulled people onto the dance floors. Hitmakers came and went even faster than before: Milli Vanilli made way for Nelson who made way for Wilson Phillips who made way for Color Me Badd, and then they all vanished. One trend gave way to another before the first had run its course -- is it time for hip-hop jazz nostalgia yet?
During the same five years, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY got into the record business, sort of. As a way to hawk the magazine, our business folks began offering free CDs with subscriptions. Surely you've seen the TV ads, in which alarmingly clean-cut twentysomethings lip-synch or air-guitar to crass collections called -- gulp -- Killer Riffs and Pure Party.
We in the music department have nothing to do with them -- and usually cringe at the sight of both the ads and the albums. But a funny thing happened on the way to the remote control. For better or for worse, these albums can now be seen as barometers of the passing fancies of the last five years. Take EW's New Country (1992) and New Country II (1993): With their emphasis on Vince Gill and Alan Jackson, they trace the rise of the suburban, Young Republican style of Nashville that swept into office during 1991-92. A new, grinding, intense form of dance music, with elements of rap and techno music, defined the decade too, and a healthy sampling of it is on Hot Dance Mix (1994), with tracks like Cathy Dennis' ''Touch Me (All Night Long)'' and Technotronic's ''Move This.'' (What happened to all of them, by the way?) In 1994 subscribers got Arista's No Alternative compilation, which aptly reflected the conquest of the mainstream by such bands as the Breeders and Nirvana. Even the predictable collections of overplayed rock oldies, like Rock Box (1994), are signs of the times: The weathered but indefatigable likes of Eric Clapton and Neil Young have never been so revered.
Nostalgia in the '90s accelerated fast, and music was no exception. No sooner had the Black Crowes and their ilk brought back bell-bottoms than EW issued The Disco Collection (1993); oldies by Donna Summer and Chic offered a dose of healthy revisionism aimed at people who had once yelled, ''Disco sucks!'' One of the latest EW albums is 80's Explosion, a collection of Reagan-era hits that practically makes me nostalgic for this magazine's 1990 start-up.
If only a few of these albums appeal to you, or if you find the entire thing impossibly fragmented, welcome to the world of niche marketing. It's as much the story of '90s pop as the music itself. At the decade's midpoint, that situation seems to be changing. It's not unusual to find a country fan who likes Pearl Jam. And the sight of Cypress Hill and Aerosmith fans bonding at Woodstock '94 was a sign of a new breed of rock community. I won't hold out my hopes for an EW salute to horrorcore, that new blend of hardcore rap and bloodthirsty metal. But you never know what styles will come into -- or go back into -- vogue during the next five years. And isn't that half the fun?