Popular myth tells us the nineties arrived when Kurt Cobain first struck the opening riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. A look over the previous year’s best albums tells us otherwise. Much of what would define nineties rock—its grrl power, grunge, Brit pop, irony, angst, DIY inventiveness, and uncommercial commerciality were already brewing while Michael Bolton and Bon Jovi were still dominating the charts. Really, the best nineties rock—Nirvana notwithstanding— never dominated the charts, so that may be an irrelevant distinction to make. Nevermind all that though, because even if the term “alternative rock” was not yet on the lips of every trend-hopping A&R turkey, 1990 was still when MTV dropped groups as weird as They Might Be Giants and Jane’s Addiction into regular rotation. Branching further into the pop culture landscape, it was also when television finally got cinematic and profoundly artistic, as one of the decade’s best albums commemorates. All this innovation started well before Nevermind. It started in 1990.
10. Up In It by Afghan Whigs
After self-releasing their debut, Big Top Halloween, Afghan Whigs landed with Sub Pop and put out the album that saw at least half of their persona in place. By Frankensteining grunge and the seemingly antithetical sounds of Philly soul, Greg Dulli and the gang created a unique new monster. The half still missing was consistently great songwriting, though some of the material on Up In It is definitely memorable: the boiling “Retarded”, the lurching “Southpaw”, the grinding “Hey Cuz”, the stumbling “You My Flower”, the bluesy, groovy “Son of the South”, and the almost Byrds-like “In My Town”, which is especially cool since the band would never do anything so jangly again. When the songs aren’t great, the Whigs slather on enough intensity that it almost doesn’t matter. Even though he had yet to transition from cut-off sweats and combat boots to three-piece suits and wing tips, Dulli already had his Bad Motherfucker act down, talking shit on “Retarded”, waxing inelegantly wasted on “Hated” and “Hey Cuz”, calling out good ol’ boys on “White Trash Party”, and of course, engaging in stormy sexual politics on “You My Flower”, “Son of the South”, and “Sammy”.
9. Soundtrack from Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti (with Julee Cruise)
Break “Twin Peaks” into its components and it doesn’t seem like a show that would revolutionize TV. It’s a bit of a cop show, a bit of a soap opera, a bit of a sitcom, a bit of a who-done-it, a bit of a high school drama, a bit supernatural, a bit sexy— nothing uncommon to the small screen. However, the way David Lynch, Mark Frost, and their mass of collaborators assembled the series completely disassembled the vast wasteland. The same could be said of the soundtrack, which toyed with in such boring genres as cocktail jazz, fifties MOR, white blues, and new age. The way Angelo Badalamenti executed this music—with its eerie melodies (sometimes cooed by Julee Cruise) and unexpected developments—subverted the genres it simulated. Superimpose that incredible music over Lynch and Frost’s incredible images and you have two incredible entities inseparable from each other. Hearing “Laura Palmer’s Theme” without picturing the doomed character grinning back from her prom photo is just as unthinkable as watching Audrey Horne sway around the Double R Diner without hearing “Audrey’s Dance”. No nineties show changed television the way “Twin Peaks” did, and Angelo Badalamenti’s music played a starring role in that development.
8. Goo by Sonic Youth