10 Best Albums From 1990
Modern rock was still a year away from the revolution that would change music in the ’90s. So in a way, 1990 was a leftover year from the ’80s, one more opportunity for alternative bands to thrive in the underground before bigger and better things were expected of them. It’s almost like they knew it. Only a handful of artists released their best work in 1990; for the most part, the records that came out that year sounded like placeholders between more career-defining material. The 10 best albums from 1990 merely hint at the takeover that was on the horizon.
These shoegazing Brits came from the same school of record-making as My Bloody Valentine: the woozier and dreamier the better. Their debut album is filled with luscious soundscapes that get deeper and bigger with each listen. Ride made three more LPs, but ‘Nowhere’ is their best. After they broke up, guitarist and singer Andy Bell joined Oasis as their bass player in the ’00s.
They Might Be Giants made their major-label move with their third album and got their most focused record out of the deal. Some of the duo’s ragtag DIY charm is sacrificed for more dynamic production, but ‘Flood”s 19 songs zip by with more confidence and a better sense of where things were heading for the growing group.
The synth-pop duo’s fourth album steers away from the usual subjects and sounds by taking a more old-school approach to the songs, which adhere to melodramatic and theatrical music forms. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr even shows up on a couple of tracks, lending some signature riffing to the Pet Shop Boys’ often-insular world.
Yo La Tengo’s fourth album is the wildest and sunniest they’ve ever made. Consisting of bright, folksy melodies and 11 cover songs that span the ’60s through ’80s with songwriters like Ray Davies, Cat Stevens, Daniel Johnston and the Flamin’ Groovies. The five original numbers aren’t bad either. A nice break from the trio’s usual weightier records.
The Pixies’ third album is their most complicated, a noisy, messy and occasionally abrasive mix of surf and indie rock wrapped in an outer-space theme that’s as perplexing as it is liberating. The push and pull of the band’s previous two albums yields to Black Francis’ vision, which dominates the 14 songs. The best of them ruled alt-rock in 1990.
The Replacements’ last album is pretty much Paul Westerberg’s debut solo record. He wrote the songs that way, and the other members of the band show up on only a few tracks. Westerberg had grown out of the notoriously rowdy group’s drunken persona by this point and was writing sad, perceptive songs about life’s bad choices. ‘All Shook Down’ doesn’t sound much like the Replacements, but it includes some of Westerberg’s most grownup songs.
After a positively electrifying debut, Jane’s Addiction got weird on their followup album, checking in with rhythm-fueled guitar clashes, 10-minute acid trips and a side-long set of songs about death. It’s weird and wonderful. A year later, the original band broke up. They’d reunite a few times over the years and release some records, but ‘Ritual de lo Habitual’ is their last great one.
Like many indie bands in 1990, Sonic Youth made the leap to the majors. The followup to the landmark ‘Daydream Nation’ isn’t as epic, but the songs are tighter and more focused. They even managed a modern-rock radio hit with ‘Kool Thing.’ But ‘Goo’ is mostly Sonic Youth doing what they do best, with fractured art-rock and lots of guitars leading the charge.
‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’
O’Connor was primed for stardom with her second genre-jumping album, a masterpiece of simmering sensuality, hip-hop beats, burning punk rage and intense pop melodies. Nothing else sounded like it in 1990. Buoyed by the massive hit ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ written by Prince, ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ reached No. 1. The controversial O’Connor would never be this great again.
After 10 years and six albums, Depeche Mode finally hit the jackpot with ‘Violator,’ a synth-pop classic that, while expanding the dark-mass sounds they were exploring in the late ’80s, influenced a generation of artists. The album became the group’s breakthrough, but more importantly it proved that album-length masterworks were possible in a genre best known for disposable singles. It hasn’t dated a bit.