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 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 YouthDefiantly discordant, existentially experimental, Sonic Youth was an unlikely major label signee. But 1990 was when this kind of move, which would define nineties rock, really started happening. Sonic Youth apparently played the game with a set of songs commercial enough for DGC. Well, commercial for Sonic Youth. “Dirty Boots” was tuneful but its feedback torrents weren’t going to get it played alongside “Cherry Pie” on Z100. The single “Kool Thing” was even more immediately appealing, its bendy riff exerting more gravity than Jupiter, but Kim Gordon sneering “Hey, Kool Thing… are you gonna liberate us girls from male white corporate oppression?” wasn’t the kind of thing the audiences Wilson Phillips and Roxette numbed could digest. And what the hell would anyone make of Gordon’s hypnotic take on “Rock and Roll Heaven”, “Tunic (Song for Karen)”? Ironic subject matter, relentless noise, and confrontational politics would become more accepted after Nirvana blew open the doors in ’91, but Sonic Youth definitely set the stage with Goo.
7. Flood by They Might Be Giants
Flood is the album that introduced non-cultists to the quirky work of They Might Be Giants. In the final year hair metal was Rock’s unchallenged moron champion, there truly was nothing on MTV like “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, children’s songs for adults (and possibly, some children). The refreshing nerdishness of these two hits squirms all the way through Flood, a kooky hodgepodge of genre pastiches and teacher’s pet lyricism (history, science, and civics lectures are all on the lesson plan). Great tracks dominate—the singles, “Twisting in the Wind”, “Particle Man”, “We Want a Rock”, “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair”. John Flansburgh and John Linnell’s attempts to work in R&B forms don’t really work, especially when they try to force heavy-handed social commentary into phony funk on “Your Racist Friend” or lounge lizard crooning over awkward reggae in “Hearing Aid”. Much more interesting is the inclusion of a series of wacky miniature themes that show off what a fount of ideas these guys are. “Birdhouse”, “We Want a Rock”, and “Lucky Ball & Chain” also display a shockingly mature level of composition. Paul Simon must have been wondering why he didn’t write these songs first… at least until he listened to the lyrics about nightlights and prosthetic foreheads that only the Johns could have written.
6. Bossanova by The Pixies
The Pixies ended the eighties with a true masterpiece, but real tensions were starting to grow in a band that always seemed to be feigning intensity. Kim Deal was irked that Black Francis was getting all the CD space, and went off to form her own group (more on that shortly) in the wake of Doolittle. The Pixies were not over yet, but Francis and Deal’s relationship pretty much was. When the band reconvened to make their fourth album, Francis was basically running the show unchallenged, but he didn’t really have the material. That is apparent on the written-in-the-studio Bossanova, which is a significant step down from the greatness of Doolittle. Let’s not forget that Doolittle sits on a very high step though. Greeted as a bit of a disappointment, Bossanova is actually an excellent record despite some bits of filler toward the end (“Blown Away”, “Hang Wire”). Some of Francis’s best songs are here. “Velouria”, “Allison”, and “Is She Weird” drag The Pixies’ core weirdness into the pop toy box as well as “Here Comes Your Man” did on Doolittle. Bossanova also contains The Pixies two prettiest songs, “Ana” and “Havalina”, as well as one of their most assaultive, though “Rock Music” does feel a little lazy compared to earlier terrors like “Tame”, “Something Against You”, and “Nimrod’s Son”. Bossanova isn’t very intent on being scary though. It feels more like The Pixies bid for wider popularity. Considering that they may have tried to grasp that ring with songs about aliens, pigs, and Mose Allison, they were hardly selling out.
5. The La’s by The La’s
Britpop became a post-grunge phenomenon throughout the world in the mid-nineties. It had really been around before the decade began in the form of Pulp, who brought the wit and detached cool; Stone Roses, who brought the drugginess; and The La’s, who brought the sixties influences. In 1988, the latter band released their most famous single, and “There She Goes” managed to cover all those bases with a lyric that might have been about a girl and might have been about heroin and a jangle and swooning melody that might have been lifted off Rubber Soul. Two years later, that song found a home on The La’s, which also cut bits of The Kinks (“Son of a Gun”), The Who (“I Can’t Sleep”), and The Smiths (“Timeless Melody”) into the blend without diluting The La’s’ own distinctive features—namely Lee Mavers’s dirty rasp and immaculate songwriting. Every song on The La’s is excellent, though Mavers did not agree upon its release. Bassist John Power’s irritation with playing these songs caused him to leave the group, which pulled the bricks from the band’s foundation. They never made another record, though the one they did make has had serious legs. It would be hard to imagine the most identifiable Britpop sounds without The La’s. Oasis never did anything one-tenth as good.
4. Pod by The Breeders
So Kim Deal was getting antsy under the Black Francis regime and decided she needed a break from being a Pixie. Meanwhile, Tanya Donelly was having similar feelings in fellow New England combo Throwing Muses. Sharing their frustrations while touring Europe together, Deal and Donelly decided to start up a side project. Oddly, Tanya found less space for her excellent songs on The Breeders’ first album than she did on the Muses’ records, and she’d ultimately return to her original band to contribute two of her—and their—best songs before going off on her own commercially successful path with Belly. But first came Pod. Disturbed and sugary sweet, this was a worthier successor to Doolittle than Bossanova would be. Deal’s writing could be fragmented but it was never shapeless. In fact, the most fractured thing on the record was a cover of The Beatles “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”! The original songs are bubblegum pop singles through a fish-eye lens, sometimes brooding (“Metal Man”, “Lime House”, “Glorious”, “Oh!”, “Iris”), sometimes bouncy (“Hellbound”, “Doe”, “Fortunately Gone”, the Donelly co-written “Only in 3’s”), but always spot on. Steve Albini’s bottomless production gave it all elephantine power. On their next album, The Breeders would shoot pop through a Cuisinart and end up with a hit record shocking even in the anything-can-happen days of 1993. However, The Breeders’ first album is their most consistently great one.
3. Ritual de lo habitual by Jane’s Addiction
Jane’s Addiction crept out of the same Sunset Strip scene that farted out its share of devil horns waving hair bands. Unlike those poseurs, Jane’s Addiction exuded real danger with the creepy, drugged out, and weirdly hippie-ish Nothing Shocking. That debut also showed Perry Farrell, Dave Navarro, Eric Avery, and Stephen Perkins could write something as traditionally catchy as “Jane Says” without filtering their air of decay. On their second album (and last before an extended break up), they limited their established funky hard rock to an opening run of brief songs as good as anything on Shocking. The second side is totally different, a suite of brooding, extended tracks about personal loss. This is the greatest stretch of Jane’s Addiction music on disc, and some of the most stunning music by any nineties artist. With its enthralling lick and commanding string arrangement, “Then She Did” is a true landmark, though the throbbing “Three Days” and Eastern-psych influenced “Of Course” are tremendous as well. Aside from being a great musical achievement, Ritual de lo Habitual was also a massive success, penetrating the Billboard Hot 100 and going double platinum in the U.S., proving alternative rock was already a prominent boulder in the mainstream in 1990.
2. Same Place the Fly Got Smashed by Guided by Voices
As far as a lot of people are concerned, the Guided by Voices story didn’t really start until 1992’s Propeller… or even 1994’s Bee Thousand. Those folks are missing out on one of the band’s greatest achievements. In 1990, Robert Pollard (often with help from little brother Jim) composed a song cycle that was disturbing and depressing—a couple of descriptors not usually used on the fun-loving beer guzzler. On Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, Bob took a much darker view of alcohol. It all starts with a fleeting sound collage that vomits into two minutes of crazed bellowing and screaming. Now that all the fair-weather chumps have been cleared out of the room, the remaining gluttons are then bum-rushed into the abyss with the dirge “Order for the New Slave Trade”. From there, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed starts folding some treats into the mix: the popped up “Pendulum” and “The Hard Way”, the prayer-like “Drinker’s Peace”, the hammering “Mammoth Cave”, the euphoric “How Loft I Am?”, and “When She Turns 50”, a ballad that—no exaggeration—should have placed Robert Pollard in the same league as Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson—I repeat, no exaggeration. Interspersed amongst these shards of pop perfection are more uncompromising numbers like the groggy “Ambergris”, the chilling “Star Boy”, and the black-hearted epics “Local Mix-Up/Murder Charge” and “Blatant Doom Trip”. Same Place the Fly Got Smashed is simply one of the finest albums Guided by Voices ever made, which means it’s one of Rock & Roll’s finest albums.
1. Days of Open Hand by Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega was branded a folkie after her spare debut album and had a huge hit about child abuse on her second. She continued to confound with her third album, which often sidelined her trademark acoustics and storytelling for mystical songwriting and trippy vistas of synthesizers. Because of that, Days of Open Hand might seem a little too trapped in its era at first blush, but like Purple Rain or The Hounds of Love, it is an album that makes the most of its seemingly dated arrangements and is unimaginable any other way. Banks of pre-Nevermind synths are as integral to these songs as Vega’s cool voice and imaginative words about prognostication or the dehumanizing experience of voting. She also takes advantage of more organic sounds on the revolutionary romance “Room off the Street”, the cheerfully macabre “Men in a War”, the dramatic “Fifty-Fifty Chance”, and “Tired of Sleeping”, a song to which any new parent can relate. Whether trafficking in guitars or Fairlights, Days of Open Hand is always a transporting experience, especially once it soars past its poppy (and wonderful) opening quartet of tracks to rocket into the depths of space with “Institution Green”, “Those Whole Girls”, “Big Space”, “Predictions”, and “Pilgrimage”. On Days of Open Hand, Suzanne Vega created a sort of contemporary psychedelia. Well, contemporary for 1990.