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Return of the '90s

Corporations, coffee ... 'Whatever'

By Todd Leopold

"Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box" comes out Tuesday.


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Eye on Entertainment
Ewan McGregor
Orson Welles

(CNN) -- The rule of thumb in our consumer society is that nostalgia kicks in after 20 years. The '70s featured a '50s revival, the '80s looked back to the '60s and the '90s dabbled in the '70s.

But Rhino Records isn't waiting that long to go back to the '90s. The label is releasing a new seven-disc box set, "Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box," on Tuesday.

The '90s, already? The decade isn't even a decade gone yet.

But Rhino is a master at mining old music -- and culture -- for its expertly assembled box sets. In fact, the packaging sometimes outdoes the music.

The label used a record cover of shag carpeting for its '70s box, "Have a Nice Decade." The '80s box, "Like, Omigod!", featured a rubbery cover of splotchy day-glo colors, interrupted by the occasional geometric shapes.

Both included dense booklets of liner notes covering the decade, its seriousness and silliness, and each song in the seven-disc sets.

And those don't even represent the pinnacle of Rhino's genius. A '60s soul box, "Beg, Scream and Shout!", came in a container designed like those that carried 45-rpm singles.

"Brain in a Box," a collection of science fiction music, came decorated with 3-D pictures of a -- yes -- brain. And "Hot Rods and Custom Classics," several decades of auto-inspired music, included a pair of fuzzy dice and stick-on decals. All came accompanied with excellent liner notes.

Other labels have also added to the music with top-notch packaging. Columbia/Legacy, in particular, has showcased Billie Holiday in a gorgeous package resembling an old 78-rpm album, Herbie Hancock in a see-through cube and Miles Davis in a well-constructed metal- and cloth-bound jacket.

Ah, but none of those smelled like coffee -- which "Whatever," whose cover (in its early editions, anyway) includes plastic-encased coffee beans, does.

Eye on Entertainment takes a whiff.


"Whatever" is also "sponsored" by a number of fake companies whose names and logos are as clever as the packaging:, Y2Que?, and Bratislava, "the six-dollar bottled water." (All are owned by Mega-Global, a corporation whose logo features a smiling skull and crossbones.)

As music, "Whatever" is a mixed bag -- just like the decade it attempts to summarize.

On disc two, for example, you have Queensryche, Kris Kross, the Spin Doctors, DAS EFX, L7 and the mildly obscure Seattle band the Gits. That's all too fitting for a decade that finally completed the splintering of radio; if the '70s box honored the last gasp of Top 40 AM and the '80s box tried to make sense of CHR, the '90s box tries to sample a little bit of everything.

That eclecticism has already earned it some catcalls from Entertainment Weekly's David Browne, who writes that " 'Whatever' aims to touch on any genre that infiltrated radio and MTV during the '90s -- and manages to botch nearly every single one of them." Browne wonders where PM Dawn, Tupac Shakur, and the boy bands (who, love 'em or hate 'em, were a key part of the late '90s) are.

He has a point, and it's easy to keep picking: The set is also missing Coolio, Sam Phillips and Fastball's "The Way." On the other hand, given licensing hassles and audience targets, the box does provide about as thorough an overview as you're going to get on a decade as mixed-up and muddled-up as the '90s were.

In the set's defense, it does include the Muffs -- and I thought I was the only person who remembered the Muffs -- and King Missile.

And -- thank God -- it doesn't include "The Macarena."

"Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box" comes out Tuesday.

On screen

  • Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are, in their way, perfect people. A little too perfect, we find out in Michael Bay's new movie, "The Island." And, yes, there are lots of explosions. Opens Friday.
  • Billy Bob Thornton tries on Walter Matthau's curmudgeonly, beery attitude in "Bad News Bears," a remake of the 1976 film. Directed by Richard Linklater, which should be a good sign. Opens Friday.
  • The reviews have been great for "Hustle & Flow," a film about a Memphis pimp who's trying to become a rap star. The movie stars Terrence Howard. Opens Friday.
  • Rob Zombie's latest blood feast, "The Devil's Rejects" ("a tale of murder, mayhem and revenge," the tagline says), opens Friday.
  • On the tube

  • After "Citizen Kane," Orson Welles decided to make a film of Booth Tarkington's novel "The Magnificent Ambersons." But the film was taken out of Welles' hands and brutally cut, with the missing footage never recovered. Peter Bogdanovich, who knew Welles, introduces the film on the Turner Classic Movies' program he hosts, "The Essentials," 8 p.m. EDT Saturday and 6 p.m. Sunday.
  • The SciFi Channel is airing Joss Whedon's legendary-but-canceled "Firefly," a true space Western, beginning Friday at 7 p.m.
  • Sound waves

  • Yerba Buena's new album, "Island Life" (Razor & Tie), is due out Tuesday.
  • Video center

  • "The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Second Season" is due Tuesday.
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