Remember the Times: The Returns from Different Corners of the Nostalgic ‘90s

S.E.S. had no need for a retrospective to be recognized as one of the most influential acts of K-pop history. Many girl groups followed their mold since the trio’s debut album in 1997, and their sound still echoes in present-day acts since their last full-length in 2002. Big news as it is, a new 20th anniversary album from the group might be a rather redundant work of nostalgia on paper given that their legacy has yet to fade away in the slightest. However, the trip to memory lane in the resulting album, Remember, proved not only delightful in its pop thrills but also perfectly time for a celebration of ’90s nostalgia.

Legacy artists and bands of the ‘90s from different music scenes returned to the scene at large with new music this year. Shoegaze greats Slowdive have been riding a successful reunion since around the same time as the 20th anniversary of Souvlaki, and their new self-titled album since 1997 was received with wide acclaim. Electronic music notably witnessed ambient techno veteran Wolfgang Voigt come back to his Gas project to release the fantastic Narkopop, a follow-up to his 2001 masterpiece Pop.

Great as their returns proved, successes seem preordained in their case. The stakes behind Slowdive or Gas are frankly much lower than S.E.S.’s. Shoegaze nor the ambient side of techno have changed too drastically since the decade each acts made music, and neither of their new records move too far away from the established familiar: fuzzy guitar riffs shooting for the stars in the former; a glazed, narcotic drone looping atop a phantom kick in the latter.

It’s a different story, though, for those in the pop sphere like Shania Twain, whose new album, Now, since 2002’s Up! arrives the same year as the 20th anniversary of her classic Come on Over. Her use of Top 40 techniques for her country music during her prime felt adventurous. But the novelty has worn out considerably during her absence with many stars bridging her home genre with the slickness of dance-pop. The icon’s takes on modern pop in Now — her tropical house number “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” for instance — does not compare to the bold experiments of the different mixes of her Come on Over singles. It’s no surprise to hear her more homely on a more conservative sound.

The rapid change in pop trends makes reclaiming youth via music a fool’s errand. Keigo Oyamada partly hangs up that chase for that youthful spark from pop for his new Cornelius album, Mellow Waves. The release marks his first since Sensuous in 2006 but also one two decades after his landmark classic, Fantasma, from 1997. The latter’s restless mash-up of crate-diggers’ favorites represented the best of what the Shibuya-kei scene offered, but that hunger to uncover music’s depths has seemed to naturally cooled off 20 years later in Mellow Waves. From the sound of the new record, perhaps it’s better for aging artists to settle down in one’s comfort zone than try to constantly ride the wave of the present.

While pop evolves faster than it did even a decade ago, S.E.S. chose to carry on with what they did during their prime in Remember. The mini album foregoes any current trends in favor of the memories of the trio’s reigning decade. “Paradise” took on New Jack Swing. “Hush” brought back the wistful shine of karaoke ballad staples. “Birthday” rode the pianos of classic ’90s house. The title itself believes in its own legacy perhaps too proudly.

But Remember also happens to arrive during a rather rare instance where pop has come full circle to a legacy artist’s reigning time. Mariah Carey songs got quoted almost wholesale while house music looked to Crystal Waters and Robin S.’s “Show Me Love.” Currently, the nostalgia turn more to the later part of the decade in music with more producers looking to the broken-beat R&B of Darkchild. The scene seems almost groomed for a return of an act like S.E.S., especially with younger acts referencing the group’s decade. If others aspire to recreate the trio’s work, why not have the actual three put out new music?

The group could’ve easily took advantage of the nostalgia and let their music be a parody of their early output. Fortunately, the material in Remember genuinely sounds like S.E.S. in 2017. The cyclical nature of pop nostalgia worked in S.E.S.’s favor for their 20th anniversary album as the sound of the present became not only the group’s comfort zone but their expertise. Not always does the pop timeline neatly eclipse itself like this. For some, the needle never moves forward. Others go too far ahead or get surpassed. S.E.S. was somehow right on time.

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