1990- a huge year for me. I fell in love, graduated high school, won a state championship in baseball experienced on again off again heartbreak and romance with said love and began college. It was a year filled with tons of fun, excitement, pain and new beginnings. It was also smack dab in the middle of underground revolutions in alternative rock, rap & dance music, which ended up leading to huge cultural and musical change. Although right in the middle of rap’s golden age and a year before (depending on how you looked at it) the “year punk broke” or the great grunge explosion of 1991, I consider it a weaker music year than both the few years before and after it. That said, there is plenty of stuff to dig into and being that I was 18 at the time most of 1990’s music is really in my wheelhouse.
Somewhere around the beginning of the decline of new wave in the early 80’s, college music began becoming an increasingly cultural force. Though most of the music didn’t sell in huge #’s, or get much terrestrial radio airplay the best bands were beloved by their loyal fan bases and toured their asses off, winning fans small chunks at a time. Many baby boomer rock heroes (though certainly not all) were making duller music as they aged and the pop metal/glam metal scene grew schlocky, tacky & vapid with each year. Outside of classic rock radio (still in its toddler years in the late 80’s) rock radio was a wasteland. And besides some notable exceptions- Prince, George Michael, Madonna, Janet Jackson, pop radio wasn’t offering much better. You had to be both lucky and curious to live near a good college radio station or to do the legwork to find out about these bands. It took awhile but the best of these small, cult-like scenes combined to forma vibrant underground during the 80’s and 1990 was really before the dam fully broke open and underground music seemingly overnight became the dominant cultural force in rock music for the first half of the 1990’s.
Bands who would become cornerstones on the grunge movement and year later were already thriving by 1990 but most were either marketed as punk or metal bands. Soundgarden had been releasing music since 1987 and Nirvana’s first album came out in 1989. Alice In Chains “Facelift” was released in ’90 and it’s lead single “Man In A Box” received major play on MTV. Fellow Seattle band Mother Love Bone released the first and only full-length album “Apple”. The group contained the unique and possibly destined for stardom single Andrew Wood who sadly died of a drug overdose in March of 1990. He would hardly be the last drug casualty of the Seattle scene. “Apple” is a fantastic album and still remains under heard and appreciated in the early 90’s grunge rock lexicon. Two Love Bone members, Stone Gossard & Jeff Ament went on to form Pearl Jam later that year. Some other non-grunge groups releasing great heavy alternative rock-style music in 1990 were Jane’s Addiction, the Breeders, Superchunk & the Pixies. Jane’s followed up their seminal studio debut “Nothing’s Shocking” with “Ritual De Lo Habitual” which ended up being their last release before breaking up. Lead singer Perry Farrell famously conceived and created the Lollapalooza festival in 1991, which remained the preeminent alt-rock festival for over a decade. The Pixies hadn’t fully broken into the mainstream, but their 1990 album “Bossanova” was their third classic album in a row. Despite a lack of huge sales or airplay during their own day, their influence grows with each passing year and to my ears they are one of the very best rock bands of the 80’s and 90’s. Bass player Kim Deal, who also sang and wrote for the Pixies was being increasingly shut out of both by lead singer Black Francis. She started the band the Breeders with Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses to act as her creative outlet outside of her main band. Their 1990 debut album “Pod” is an underground classic though they would achieve much more fame with their follow-up album “Last Splash” and it’s huge and still great crossover single “Cannonball”. Superchunk was the little band that could out of North Carolina. The husband and wife team also started the indie-label Merge Records to foster the growing alternative rock scene starting out of Chapel Hill. Their 1990 single “Slack Motherfucker”, receiving no crossover airplay for obvious reasons, is an anthem and one of the best examples of great heavy indie-rock. D.C.’s Fugazi which grew out of the early 80’s hardcore scene and mid 80’s emo scene was the leader of a absolutely stacked D.C. punk scene. Their debut full-length “Repeater” was released in 1990 and remains one of their best. Noise-rock vets from Hoboken, NJ, Sonic Youth, followed up their 1988 masterpiece “Daydream Nation” with a bit of a jump toward the mainstream with 1990’s “Goo” (no matter how weird this music still was).
Being in college in late ’90 I could feel there was a change in the air. Though albums by groups like Motley Crue, Kix & Skid Row were still ever popular, mainstream American hard rock was getting more stale by the month. No music scene captures lightning in a bottle- the circumstances of everything else surrounding it always factors in as well and that is no different for the 1991 alternative rock explosion- much of the groundwork for the breakthrough had already been laid prior to ’91. Some other notable heavy rock releases, which fell outside of the “alternative” tag include Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s “Ragged Glory”. Young, who had a disappointing run throughout the 80’s came out with a successful comeback record “Freedom” in 1989 which became a hit and made him relevant again. “Ragged Glory” was arguably even better and doubled down on the crunch cementing Young as one of the foremost baby boomer influences on grunge. Underground Midwestern band Uncle Tupelo released their debut album “No Depression”, and while most likely it wasn’t the first alternative country album, it does get credit for starting that scene. A 90’s magazine devoted to the scene even dubbed itself “No Depressions” after the album. Faces & Rolling Stones throwbacks the Black Crowes released their debut album to much airplay and sales. Though the group wasn’t doing anything new, it was still authentic roots rock n’ roll, which sounded great on the radio and was a breath of fresh air in ’90 to combat all of the glam poseurs.
While much of Heavy Metal was taking or about to take a nose dive groups like Pantera rose up as an up and coming alternative. Though they had been recording for several years they didn’t reach their stride until 1990’s “Cowboys From Hell”. They would go on to become perhaps the most important newer heavy metal bands of the 1990’s. 1990’s was probably thrash metal’s last moment in the sun. While other groups like Metallica and Anthrax would soon change their sound, Slayer released “Seasons In The Abyss”- the last in their great trilogy of records starting with 1986’s “Reign In Blood”. Megadeth’s 1990 record “Rust In Peace” is often considered their last great album.
Similar underground happenings were afoot across the pond in the U.K. Mostly due to the huge success of the great Stone Roses debut, which resonated far into 1990 and beyond, ‘Baggy’ music was now the latest craze. It combined alternative rock with dance oriented rave music. Outside of the Roses some of the bigger bands in the scene included the Charlatans, the Happy Mondays, whose great “Pills N Thrills N Bellyaches” album debuted in ’90, and the lamer and more commercial bands like Jesus Jones and EMF. AS an alternative to baggy, the shoegaze scene, mainly influenced by Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and music that was nearly impossible to dance to, was thriving as well. Groups like Ride, with their great 1990 debut “Nowhere” and Pale Saints were some of the movements best bands. Slowdive caught on a year later and similar bands just outside the shoegaze scene like Teenage Fanclub (a grungy dreampop) and Codeine (slowcore) were big in ’90 as well. The very underground twee sounding jangle pop of the Sarah Records was also very important and influential if not hugely successful, with their best bands being groups like The Field Mice, Another Sunny Day & Heavenly. They would go on to be major influences on the similarly twee-pop of the American Northwest’s K Records as well as later, more successful groups like Belle & Sebastian.
The biggest U.K. crossover hit to America in 1990 was Depeche Mode’s “Violator”. Though the Mode had minor hits in America and had been recording since 1983, and very well-known among the American alternative crowd, “Violator” was their first full out smash featuring four huge hits “Personal Jesus”, “Enjoy The Silence”, “Policy Of Truth” & “The World In My Eyes”. Modes’s success in 1990 was another precursor to the 90’s onslaught to come. Another synth-heavy dance pop Brit group the Pet Shop Boys experienced a great 1990 as well with their album “Behavior”. Great crossover dance music wasn’t confined to pasty white men in the U.K. Deee-Lite, a hip New York City collective combined disco, current club music & R&B to great results with their debut album “World Clique” and it’s world conquering lead single and still wedding staple “Groove Is In The Heart”. Female R&B group En Vogue released their debut album and great lead single “Hold On”. The faceless Italian DJ-driven Black Box had huge club crossover hits like “Strike It Up” and “Everybody Everybody” fronted by the great R&B/Soul belter Martha Wash. Madonna, one of the biggest pop stars on the planet at the beginning of the 90’s had released the huge “Like A Prayer” album in 1989. In ’90 she released her comparatively much lighter “Breathless” album (the soundtrack to The Dick Tracey movie) but it contained one of her signature dance songs “Vogue”. Later on in the year she released her great “Immaculate Collection” compilation album containing the very sexy “Justify My Love” single. The dominant sound in R&B at the beginning of the 90’s was New Jack Swing, much of which sounds incredibly dated and tough to listen to these days (like the hair metal I continue to lambast). A notable exception is the debut album by Bell Biv Devoe, whose three members were in the wildly successful 80’s boy band New Edition. Lead single “Poison” is one of the defining songs of the era and other songs like “Dope” and nearly as good.
Last but not least was rap music in 1990. Right in the middle of its golden era, rap was thriving and while still mostly underground it did achieve some pop crossover success in the later 80’s with songs by the likes of Young MC & Tone Loc and in 1990 with the musically weightier LL Cool J and tracks like “Expressions” by the all-female “Salt N’ Pepa and awesome party rap hits like “The Humpty Dance” by the still underrated Digital Underground. The biggest rap crossovers of 1990 were “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, a fairly embarrassing outright theft of the Rick James song “Superfreak” and the cheesy but admittedly fun “Ice Ice Baby” by goofy white Florida rapper Vanilla Ice, itself an outright theft of the great “Under Pressure” bassline of the 1981 Queen-hit. The biggest were certainly not the best in most cases and there was plenty of artistically great rap in ’90 and much of it received plenty of its own exposure through channels like MTV’s popular “Yo MTV Raps” program. Public Enemy, probably by favorite rap group of all-time, released the monumental political rap screed “Fear Of a Black Planet”, which contained some of rap’s all-time classics like the previous year’s “Fight The Power” and “Welcome To The Terrordome”. Gangsta rap progenitors N.W.A. released their “100 Miles And Runnin’ “ EP without head writer (and one of its main rappers) Ice Cube who went solo and got with Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production team to release his great debut “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”. Houston’s Geto Boyz released their debut album which would help put the “Dirty South” on the map and would also raise/lower the bar (depending on your take) on filthy lyrics. Formerly mentioned LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” is his best album ever along with his signature title cut. The Digital Underground’s “Sex Packets” helped bring heavy funk music to rap, paving the way to Dr. Dre’s G-Funk sound of the early 90’s. The newest group in the New York City conscious rap Native Tongues collective A Tribe Called Quest released their great 1990 debuts. They would go on the become one of the best and most important in rap history.
MOTHER LOVE BONE- APPLE
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THE BLACK CROWES- SHAKE YOUR MONEYMAKER
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DIGITAL UNDERGROUND- SEX PACKETS
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SONIC YOUTH- GOO
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HAPPY MONDAYS- PILLS N’ THRILLS N’ BELLYACHES
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UNCLE TUPELO- NO DEPRESSION
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PET SHOP BOYS- BEHAVIOR
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SINEAD O’CONNOR- I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN’T GOT
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A TRIBE CALLED QUEST- PEOPLE’S INSTINCTIVE TRAVELS AND THE PATHS OF RHYTHM
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DEEE-LITE- WORLD CLIQUE
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PUBLIC ENEMY- FEAR OF A BLACK PLANET
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ICE CUBE- AMERIKKKA’S MOST WANTED
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DEPECHE MODE- VIOLATOR
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LL COOL J- MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT
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ALICE IN CHAINS- FACELIFT
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NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE- RAGGED GLORY
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JANE’S ADDICTION- RITUAL DE LO HABITUAL
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THE PIXIES- BOSSANOVA
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