1989 was one shitty year for popular pop music. Man, did we need someone to come and shake up a scene mired in shitty adult-contemporary (Chicago’s “Look Away” was the number one song of the year!), shitty R&B (Bobby Brown was at number 2 with “My Prerogative”), and shitty, shitty, shitty hair rock (the shitty Poison was at shitty number three with shitty “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”). It was the year of Milli Vanilli and Richard Marx and Will to Power and Debbie Gibson and Warrant and Roxette and Bon Jovi and New Kids on the Block and Mike and the Mechanics and Great White and Bad English. If you were anything like me, it was a year that might have sent you scrambling back to the great records of the sixties and seventies. If you were just a little older and/or a lot savvier, you were hip to what was happening on college radio where the majority of the worthwhile new music of ’89 was being made. As we shall see, a couple of elder statespeople did manage to wade into the mainstream that year, but the big news was with relative newcomers like The Stone Roses, The Pixies, and Nirvana, all of whom were, indeed, shaking up that shitty scene in ways that would become universally apparent after the eighties slumped into the next decade.
10. Bleach by Nirvana
Bleach doesn’t sound like the arrival of a generation-defining band. The playing is stiff, largely due to the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time chops of original drummer Chad Channing. The songwriting is not there yet either, and it’s telling that most of Kurt Cobain’s efforts are outclassed by a Shocking Blue cover that isn’t even “Venus”. That he would put together an LP’s worth of material as strong as Nevermind just two years later is unbelievable. Yet there are indications of Nirvana’s greatness here. After wearing out a copy of Meet the Beatles! Cobain had unlocked the secrets of pop songwriting effectively enough to write the disarmingly simple “About a Girl”, though he hadn’t yet figured out how to marry that sensibility to the squall that consumes the rest of Bleach. Krist Novoselic snakes out his first great bass line in the opening moments of the record, and “Blew” is further indication that Cobain could really write a song. His obsessions raise their misshapen heads often in the ones that follow: the hateful underbelly of Small Town USA (blackly hilarious “Floyd the Barber”), the crushing of teen spirits (“School”), his own perceived freakishness (“Negative Creep”), and his troubled upbringing (“Mr. Moustache”). This is the raw material of a really important and really fucking good band. The pieces haven’t been completely fastened together yet, but they would be soon enough.
9. The Sensual World by Kate Bush
Kate Bush hit a career peak that couldn’t be followed when she unleashed The Hounds of Love in 1985. Four years later she followed it with The Sensual World, a less consistently adventurous record but one just as well crafted and just as thematically tight. Bush immerses herself in the title realm, ruminating on love and lust for everything from the usual sex partners to her computer. Because the sounds are so in line with those of The Hounds of Love—tempestuous drumming, quilts of overdubbed vocals, squealing guitars (occasionally supplied by her mentor, Dave Gilmour), and freeform structures—The Sensual World feels like a belated bookend to that masterpiece, much to its credit. For that same reason, it also feels like a mere great album instead of a great groundbreaking album. Not that big of a shame when The Sensual World is home to such essential songs as the Ulysses-inspired title track and “This Woman’s Work”, a harrowing piece some have interpreted as the fear of a new father whose wife and child face life-threatening difficulties in the delivery room and others as the regrets of a man who already lost his wife. Either way, it shows that Bush still had some unsolved mysteries in her book of spells.
8. The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses is an album with such a looming reputation that it’s a little surprising to hear what a slow burn it is on first listen. Just as “I Wanna Be Adored” takes its time creeping up from total silence, The Stone Roses may take some time to creep into your consciousness. Ian Brown is not an especially distinctive singer, and his totally offhand delivery is initially underwhelming. The hooks bob up and down adrift in a sea of ghostly atmosphere. The songs tend toward the repetitious. The album’s influential nature, however, is immediately apparent. This is the birth of Brit Pop. It is the missing link between The Kinks and Blur, The Beatles and Oasis, The Rolling Stones and The Charlatans (UK). And with repeated listens, the beauty—most of it tripping off John Squire’s guitar strings— snuggles more and more under your skin. The offhand becomes the cool. The underwhelming becomes the overwhelming. The hooks start to hook you. The repetitious becomes the anthemic. The idea that this is the best British album ever made—or the best album ever made (as NME voters crazily voted it in 2006…though to put some perspective on this poll, they also voted albums by Oasis, The Sex Pistols, and The Arctic Monkeys ahead of Revolver!)—will probably be hard to swallow for anyone who didn’t spend 1989 drugging and raving while playing “I Am the Resurrection” and “Fool’s Gold” on repeat. Taken under more reasonable consideration, The Stone Roses still stands as a lovely, enveloping, and genre-defining album.
7. Disintegration by The Cure
Poor Robert Smith. He seemed to be doing so well. After a run of unbelievably gloomy albums in the early eighties, the seemingly incurable mope suddenly started infusing some color into The Top, The Head on the Door, and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. You’d think his increased use of hallucinogens might have kept the rainbow arching. Instead, Smith disappeared into himself and came up with a dozen dark, languid demons guaranteed to doom his unwanted newfound success. The plan backfired and Disintegration became The Cure’s biggest smash yet and their defining statement. This does not necessarily mean it is their best album, though many Cure fans do testify to that conclusion. I personally find the musically and tonally varied (though equally expansive) Kiss Me, Kiss, Me, Kiss Me to be the top Cure album. But it just doesn’t define the band’s dark rep as thoroughly as Disintegration, which does make the smart move of strolling more into commercial vistas than the equally bleak early records from Seventeen Seconds through Pornography. The Cure even accomplished the unthinkable by coming just one spot shy of the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 with the atypically contented “Love Song”. That song’s romance is less of an anomaly on Disintegration, which swoons even when shuffling through emotional muck. The burst of synths and wind chimes that launches the album is astonishingly enchanting. Then follows the record’s most concise and accessible numbers, four of which became big hits on the modern rock charts. The back end of Disintegration is more samey, logged up with expansive dirges, but even these feature interesting elements to keep the ears dazzled: the relatively upbeat tunefulness of the title track, the bluesy piano licks of “Homesick”, and the funereal harmonium of “Untitled”.
6. Spike by Elvis Costello
After the Attractions era shuddered shut in 1986 with Blood & Chocolate, Elvis Costello found himself a new label, Warner Bros., and a new writing partner, Paul McCartney, and scored the biggest U.S. hit of his career with their collaboration, “Veronica”, a song about his grandmother’s bout with Alzheimer’s. The accompanying album, Spike, extends such unusual concerns across songs that deal with capital punishment, the treachery of Margaret Thatcher, and the almighty’s disappointment with all the crap his spawn created. The diverse concerns of Elvis’s lyrics are matched in songs that ping pong from the Byrdsy jangle of “This Town” (with Byrdsy guest star Roger McGuinn), the Kinky gloom of “Let Him Dangle”, the Beatlesque “Veronica”, the jazzy “God’s Comic”, the funky “Chewing Gum”, the folky “Tramp the Dirt Down”, the very-late-eighties adult pop “Satellite”, and other areas in between and beyond. All of this lyrical and musical flittering results in an album of songs that don’t really sound like they belong on the same album, especially as there is equal inconsistency in Costello and T-Bone Burnett’s production, which finds the musicians messing with synths one moment and acoustic arrangements the next. This is a striking shift from Costello’s previous albums with and without The Attractions, most of which were downright thematic. Spike hangs together strangely— and going on for over an hour, it is also a victim of early compact disc-era sprawl— but the individual songs are mostly great. It might take a few listens to digest. As he so often does, Elvis Costello rewards the effort.
5. Dum-Dum by The Vaselines
A lot of the best records of 1989 tended toward the doomy and epic. The Vaselines did not. Former BMX-Bandit Eugene Kelly and new cohort Frances McKee played pithy, peppy pop with touches of punk speed and psychedelic accoutrements. After a couple of excellent EPs (which is where you’ll find all those songs Nirvana covered) they made an LP almost as succinct and just as delectable, though not with any shortage of feedback floods and provocative topics. On Dum-Dum, diabolical cats, assholey friends, addiction, head-in-the-sand conservatives, stupidity, Jesus’s uptight attitude about sex, and big motherfuckin’ acid trips are fair game for the gleeful twosome, who receive exciting support from rhythm section Charlie Kelly and James Seenan. Eugene and Frances’s exorbitant melodic gifts keep these out-there songs totally within reach. The climactic masterwork of Dum-Dum kind of flies in the face of all these positive attributes. “Lovecraft” is epic, not particularly melodic, and lyrically obscure. It’s ostensibly a tribute to the purple prose of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. What the sparse words have to do with him are lost on me. Nevertheless, the track pushes forward like a psychedelicized rocket ship into a wash of cosmic debris. A big motherfuckin’ trip.
4. Hunkpapa by Throwing Muses
The common take on Hunkpapa is that it’s a let down after Throwing Muses’ first two albums. Yes, it’s a bit slicker and poppier than the abrasive eponymous debut and the askew architecture of House Tornado. What Hunkpapa may lack in freaky adventurousness it makes up for with strong songwriting and full-tilt energy. “Bea” and “Mania” are explosive, Dave Narcizo pummeling foundations of crumbling rock for Kristen Hersh to banshee howl over. The major revelation of Hunkpapa is her comfort in more conventional pop landscapes. “Dizzy” is the Muses at their catchiest, a single that could have been a hit with a major label push. “No Parachutes”, “Fall Down”, and “Santa Claus” are further evidence of Hersh’s growing knack for pop songwriting, while the more naturally pop-inclined Tanya Donelly keeps developing the skills she’d fully exploit in a few years with Belly on her two fine additions, “No Parachutes” and “Angel”. If there’s anything to gripe about with Hunkpapa it’s that “Take” doesn’t really go anywhere over five minutes, and its horns don’t really belong on a Muses record, and that phenomenal bassist Leslie Langston doesn’t get as many moments to break out and blister as she did on the previous albums. She’d be gone before the next one, where Hersh and Donelly’s pop sensibilities bloomed fully, winning over even the blinkered critics who unfairly dismissed Hunkpapa.
3. Floating into the Night by Julee Cruise
As part of his first gig scoring a David Lynch film, Angelo Badalamenti had to find a vocalist with feathery enough technique to do justice to an ethereal ballad called “Mysteries of Love”. Badalamenti asked his friend Julee Cruise, a self-proclaimed “belter” who’d played Janice Joplin in a revue on the NYC stage, if she knew of anyone who fit the bill. When the search proved fruitless, Cruise suggested she give it a whirl. Coming down from her comfort zone, she discovered she could do dreamy just as well as manic. This led to a fruitful relationship between Cruise, Badalamenti, and Lynch that culminated in another NYC stage production, Industrial Symphony #1, in which Cruise dangled from wires in a prom dress while singing a half-dozen remarkable songs with music by Badalamenti and lyrics by Lynch. That same year, the trio gathered all that material and more onto Floating into the Night, the starkest and most sincerely beautiful record of 1989. Much like Lynch’s then current film work, the album is an uncanny collision of fifties pastiche (recalling the square pop of people like The Fleetwoods and Shelley Fabares), eighties fashions (synthesizers dominate), and the avant garde. Hear how dissonant, jarring passages invade otherwise placid pieces such as “I Remember”, “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart”, and “Into the Night”. Lynch’s lyrics are skeletal forests of the most direct sentiment and the most teasingly spare poetry. All of this reaches a draining climax with “The World Spins”, which would be used to devastating effect on a key episode of “Twin Peaks”. Several other songs on Floating into the Night would also be used on Lynch and Mark Frost’s landmark series in the early nineties (scrubbed of Cruise’s vocal, “Falling” would be its theme song), but these songs first found a home on one of the most underrated albums of the late eighties. Isn’t it too dreamy?
2. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia by Guided by Voices
It took a few goes for Guided by Voices to become Guided by Voices. On their debut mini-album, Forever Since Breakfast, they were R.E.M.— all jangly guitars, twangy accents, and slick studio polish. On Devil Between My Toes, they were groping for consistently fine material. On Sandbox they lapsed back into over-polish. All of those albums had their great moments (and despite not sounding a whit like GBV, Forever Since Breakfast is pretty much all-great). Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia gets everything right: the songs and the sounds. Robert Pollard and the gang embrace their lo-fi destiny and roll out enough pristine pop to let you know they could be very good at being normal if they wanted to (“The Great Blake Street Canoe Race”, “White Whale”, “Crux”), enough pure weirdness to let you know they’d rather not be (“Slopes of Big Ugly”, “The Qualifying Remainder”), and an onslaught of the twain meeting to let you know what they’re best at. “Navigating Flood Regions”, “An Earful of Wax”, the Sabbath-esque “Chief Barrel Belly”, and “Radio Show (Trust the Wizard)” are quintessential fist-and-Rolling-Rock-in-the-air anthems. “Paper Girl”, “Trampoline”, “Short on Posters”, “Dying to Try This”, and “Liar’s Tale” are among Pollard’s prettiest miniatures. Man, can that guy write a song! He’d write more. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots more. He’d written his share before Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, but this is the album that marks the beginning of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices’ golden age, and that is no small thing, brothers and sisters.
1. Doolittle by The Pixies
There isn’t a damn thing about The Pixies that makes sense. Four unbelievably ordinary people make nightmare music. Black Francis’s primal screams don’t seem to rip from a place of anger, as they did for John Lennon or would for Pixie-worshipping Kurt Cobain. They seem to stem from insanity, though Francis, for all his mercurial behavior, seems relatively sane, even academic, as when he shrieks about the Cinema 101 staple Un Chien Andalou. So are these screams of irony? Maybe mischievousness is closer to the mark, because as the sheer violence and decaying imagery might be the first things about The Pixies that hit you (and I found them really, really off putting at first), their humor becomes apparent soon enough. So do Francis’s pop powers, which transformed Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa from endurance tests into compulsively listenable classics and made Doolittle one of the greatest Rock albums, period. One incredible song follows another, each in line with The Pixies’ unique arena but dashing from a different edge of the field. “Debaser” is dance club music for drooling nimrods. “Tame” is new wave for the deranged. “Wave of Mutilation” is surf music for cretins who’ve never stepped into the sun. “I Bleed” is a power ballad for the monstrous. “Here Comes Your Man” is Beatle-esque pop for those who think “I know the dirty beard hangs” is a perfectly acceptable pop lyric. Everything that follows is equally fractured and equally fabulous, superball bouncing off the jaws of Biblical anthems (the sublime “Monkey Gone to Heaven”), spaghetti Western soundtracks (“Mr. Grieves”), punk (“Dead”), smarmy lounge lizard rap (“La La Love You”), prog meter-shifting (“No. 13 Baby”), goth moodiness (the extra-sublime “Hey”), and music for riding a mule (“Silver”). Doolittle is Revolver for kids with cracks in their skulls. It’s a tasty treat for coprophagists. It’s abnormal, asymmetrical perfection, the greatest album of 1989 and plenty of other years too.