Wednesday, September 29, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1990

If I could sum up the year 1990 in two words, it would be adrift and synthetic. I would justify the adrift description in that the music and cultural marks of that year don't really fit into the '90s aesthetic, but it doesn't feel a continuation of the '80s either. The 20th anniversary of Earth Day was acknowledged at a huge rally in New York City that April, but earth tones weren't exactly the rage. From my own memory --keep in mind that I turned six that year-- 1990 was a rush of saturated neon colors, of hot pinks and mercury blues and UFO greens. I remember being really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles around this time, so much so that I dressed up as Raphael for Halloween that year and the next. I was mildly fascinated by glow-in-the-dark stickers, fueled by sugary cereals, and exhausting my household's supply of construction and drawing paper.

I was only vaguely aware of the musical trends that year, though I was obviously too young to appreciate what a potpourri of sounds 1990 proved to be. It was the year the audiocassette was finally eclipsed by the compact disc, as brisk sales of the Sony Discman pushed tapes into a lo-fi purgatory of demo recordings and concert bootlegs. The "Mad-Chester" music scene was a fascinating distraction, a shortlived novelty best remembered as the missing link between British New Wave and mid-90s Brit-Pop. American pop music finally had its fill of hair metal, as electronica, rap, and slick power ballads dominated the radio and records charts. Alternative and early grunge was still a viable college-rock staple, less than two years before Nirvana broke the dams with Nevermind. So anyway...


1. Violator, Depeche Mode. In his review on, Ned Raggett says it best: the Mode's seventh studio album is "goth without ever being stupidly hammy, synth without sounding like the clinical stereotype of synth music, (and) rock without ever sounding like a 'rock' band." An unexpected international bestseller, Violator is defined by its two hit singles, the bass-and-echo driven "Personal Jesus" and the dramatic ballad "Enjoy the Silence."
2. Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy. "Yeah, boy-ee!" Released after becoming the most notorious rhymers in the rap genre --and in the wake of Professor Griff's dismissal for making anti-Semetic comments-- Black Planet builds upon the anger and fire of their first two LPs and get a little more funky in the process. Even when he's utterly politically incorrect, Chuck D rhymes with an eloquence that is sadly devoid from most hip-hop nowadays, and the Bomb Squad achieve a career high with their seductive grooves, relentless beats, and clever sampling. It's urban decay you can dance to.
3. Ritual de la Habitual, Jane's Addiction. If 1988's Nothing's Shocking was a breathtaking introduction to a must-hear rock band, than Ritual is the prototypical follow-up: a similar blueprint, but more daring and unpredictable. Come for the tight, radio friendly tunes like "Stop!" and "Been Caught Stealing," stay for druggy epics like "Three Days" and "Then She Did." Maybe this is why Jane's disbanded after the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991-- they just couldn't top this album.
4. Goo, Sonic Youth
5. I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, Sinead O'Connor
6. Apple, Mother Love Bone
7. Pills n' Thrills And Bellyaches, Happy Mondays
8. Bossanova, The Pixies
9. Flood, They Might Be Giants
10. Goodbye Jumbo, World Party. Karl Wallinger had a pretty tight year in 1990. After leaving The Waterboys five years earlier, Wallinger subsisted as a go-to sideman (he appears on two tracks on the O'Connor album mentioned above) and as the brains behind the one-man band World Party. After a trial-and-error debut album, Wallinger honed his sound into a specific style that evokes mostly The Beatles, Motown, Merseybeat, and in one flukey instance The Grateful Dead (on "Put The Message in a Box").

Honorable Mentions: Facelift, Alice in Chains; Shake Your Money Maker, The Black Crowes; Pod, The Breeders; Heaven or Las Vegas, Cocteau Twins; Bloodletting, Concrete Blonde; Social Distortion, Social Distortion; Nowhere, Ride.


"Thunderstruck," AC/DC
"Epic," Faith No More
"Mama Said Knock You Out," LL Cool J
"Just a Friend," Biz Markie
"Suicide Blonde," INXS
"The Obvious Child," Paul Simon
"There She Goes," The La's
"The Power," Snap
"Pump Up The Jam," Technotronic
"Wicked Game," Chris Isaak


1. "Velouria," The Pixies. Walking down a cliff in slow-motion never looked so intense.
2. "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinead O'Connor. In the early 90s, Prince was in a state of creative decline that some would argue hasn't let up. Letting Sinead cover this obscure album cut, however gave him enough street cred to coast for a few more years.
3. "Vogue," Madonna. When "Glee" had their Madge tribute last season, spoofing this clip was a no-brainer.
4. "Birdhouse In Your Soul," They Might Be Giants. Surreal in a witty kind of way. Watch out for cyclists!
5. "Enjoy the Silence," Depeche Mode. Do you ever feel like a king without a kingdom? Dave Gahan takes that addage literally in this introspective clip.
Your thoughts?


  1. 1990 - Simpsons mania, and I mean ANY thing with Simpsons crap on it was hot; especially T-shirts, which I had 1 and a bunch of other crap. In Chicago, the two hottest radio stations the kids listened to was known as "B96" and "Z95" that played all the modern shit non-stop, including 4 of the most annoying, trendy songs I remember blasting solely to annoy my parents, and those songs were Ice Ice Baby (there was a hilarious Jim Carrey bit on "In Living Color" mocking Vanilla Ice where he said at the end of a mock dance & song, 'I'm not stupid, I just dope it!'), U Can't Touch This & Everybody Dance Now, & Pump Up The Jam and by 1991, I took refuge in Oldies 104.3 FM. I remember Z95 used to have these contests and was hosted by this jackass DJ who did some fake persona solely to mock B96 & its personalities & listeners.

    Marketing took to making everything "The '90s" an attitude and social consciousness to annoying proportions not seen since the 1970s, and AIDS was the 'hot' new disease of awareness, and Pepsi was trying to claim itself as the bonafide 1990s drink and ran commercials basically around the clock. Hey dude, it was Hammertime. Oh, and we all talked like surfers for some reason, dude. 1990 was a great year ... not.

    Breakfast sugar cereal >> children's Amphetamine.

  2. I like Dinar.and its revaluation of currency.