The World Didn’t End on December 31, 1989: The Best Music of 1990

A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.”  In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never do for any other decade.

After all, I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down.

Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s.  Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s.  I came of age in that rather incredible decade.

Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.

1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music.

The chances are quite good that you’re not reading this post because you want to know my career choices or why I made them.  So, I’ll confine myself to the music that I loved that year.

I owe almost all of my good fortune to three very great guys, Ron Strayer (now, a high up with Microsoft), Kevin McCormick (now, justly, a progarchy editor), and Craig Breaden (now, happily, one of progarchy’s editors).  Ron introduced me to what would very soon be called “alternative” but was then being called “college rock” or “modern rock.”  Kevin sent me recommendations, including the rather insistent demand to purchase cds by World Party and The Sundays.  And, finally, Craig introduced me not only to neo-psychedelia but also to psychedelia from its original age.  It was Craig who introduced me to Van Morrison, Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, and Traffic.

I’d loved prog and New Wave all of my 22 years at that point, but my vision was pretty limited to only these genres by the end of 1989.  Well, this isn’t quite accurate.  I also knew classical and jazz fairly well.

With the help of three friends, 1990 opened up huge musical vistas for me in the non-jazz, non-classic genres.

FFKT, 1990.
FFKT, 1990.

Richard Thompson, as a part of French Frith Kaiser Thompson, wrote two of the best songs I’ve ever: “Peppermint Rock” and “The Killing Jar.”  Folk acid psychedelia by guys who had been there before there was a need for a revival.

Her third album.  Folk-pop perfection.
Her third album. Folk-pop perfection.

Suzanne Vega’s third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, came out that year, and it’s still one of my favorite albums.  Vega has always produced gorgeous pop and folk in the vein of XTC and others.  If this is pop, it’s very high pop.  Importantly, she never became political like so many of her counterparts.  Rather, she gracefully let the music and lyrics remain art.  Her breathy vocals–weird and yet captivating–only add to her appeal.

Yes, Ian is AWOL, but that doesn't mean this isn't a wonderful album.
Yes, Ian is AWOL, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a wonderful album.

Echo and the Bunnymen’s almost totally forgotten and (when remembered) maligned album, REVERBERATION, is a slice of pop-rock perfection.  Yes, it’s missing Ian McCulloch, but this only lets Will Sergeant soar.  Frankly, their sound hit its height with OCEAN RAIN and fell flat on the follow-up album.  This one, REVERBERATION, reveals an effective rebirth of the band.  The new vocalist, while not possessing the cancerous gravel of McCulloch’s voice, captures the spirit of the lyrics perfectly.  Word play and cliché become clever and, indeed, addictive.  There’s not a dud song on the album, but the employment of psychedelic Indian musicians really works rather perfectly on “Enlighten Me” and on the Doorish “Flaming Red.”  The former  is one of the finest songs the band ever wrote.

California psychedelic shoegaze.
California psychedelic shoegaze.

Mazzy Star.  Hardly anyone remembers this California psychedelic folk and navel-gazing band that emerged from the underground band, Opal.  Too bad–as 1990’s SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY is a thing of disturbing beauty.  Walls of sound, clever lyrics, and earnest production make this album a masterpiece of the neo-psych revival.

Not a single misstep on this basement-made masterpiece.
Not a single misstep on this basement-made masterpiece.

“Is it too late, baby?”  World Party.  What to say about this about that hasn’t been said by a million others?  While Karl Wallinger continues to make interesting music (despite severe health problems), he really threw every thing his soul possessed into GOODBYE JUMBO.  From the crazy Beatle-sque cover to the basement production, this is a gem.  All of the songs work very well, though they rarely reach beyond simple Beatle’s pop.  Taken as a whole, however, this is a prog-pop album.  Not that the individual songs are prog.  They’re not even close.  But, imagine a really, really, really clever Paul McCartney reworking side 2 of Abbey Road.  Then, you’d have GOODBYE JUMBO.  Thank you, world, indeed.

Mischievous and flirtatious pop.
Mischievous and flirtatious pop.

The Sundays.  Ok, so the lead singer is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.  This doesn’t hurt my opinion of the band.  But, really, it’s her voice.  That voice.  How to describe it?  There are no words, really, that could capture it.  She’s playful.  She’s earnest.  She’s flirtatious.  She’s so utterly sincere.  Oh, Harriet.  At one time, you were my Beatrice.  Her husband, David Gavurin, knows exactly how to write music to match his wife’s voice.  What a team.  And, they did the album merely for the fun of it, which makes it even more enjoyable.  If you don’t own this or if you’ve never heard of The Sundays, treat yourself.  You’ll never regret this purchase.  Promise.

It's the drums, the drums, the drums!
It’s the drums, the drums, the drums!

Charlatans UK.  SOME FRIENDLY.  I know next to nothing about this band, but I absolutely dug their sound when Ron introduced them to me.  I’d never quite heard drumming like this (though, The Cure would use the exact same style on their 1991 album, WISH).  The drums, the keyboards, and the bass make this one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard it.  While I wouldn’t place it up there with the previous albums I’ve mentioned in terms of outright excellence and staying power, it’s still really good.

house of love
Album title? Not a clue.

House of Love.  Album title?  I’m not sure, as there’s none listed.  Just the band’s name with a butterfly.  Some of the album fails, but when it works, it works in a stellar fashion.  The album is worth owning for the first two tracks alone—”Hannah” and “Shine On”—which really blend into one continuous 10-minute track.  Great build up and perfect execution on these two songs.  From what little I know of the band, they were a bunch of really raucous and idiotic druggies.  Still, some amazing talent there.

heaven or las vegas
The best for last? Yes.

Cocteau Twins,  HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS.  The best for last?  I’m not sure, but, sheesh, do I love this album.  Aside from LOVELESS by My Bloody Valentine, no album reaches as close to shoe-gaze perfection as does HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS.  This album simply never ages.  It’s so weird and yet so continuously captivating.  I assume the artsts behind Cocteau Twins wield some special instrument to speed up or delay time, but I can’t verify this.  Listening to this album is NEVER a casual experience.  It demands full immersion, but you re-emerge not as one drowned but as one baptized.

6 thoughts on “The World Didn’t End on December 31, 1989: The Best Music of 1990

  1. SO with you on HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. I just got the 24bit/96kHz offering at HD tracks and man it’s amazing. Also, I’m particularly fond of The Sundays “Folk Song” from their third album. Lastly, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, “Rusted Pipe” and more are just great. I saw her so many times live back then. A friend of mine always mentions Suzanne Vega as an influence when reviewing 3RDegree music. Strange.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Robert, I can see that. I wouldn’t have put it together myself, but I can definitely see the connection. And, yes, Rusted Pipe is amazing. So is the song that Philip Glass co-wrote.

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  2. Totally with you on World Party and Heaven or Las Vegas! I admit I’m not familiar with many of the other albums in this list. One of my favorites from 1990 is Toy Matinee, featuring Paul Gilbert, who was involved with early Spock’s Beard.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Harry Blackburn

    You are one multi-facetted individual, Brad! I have tried to be as open to all types of music as possible but always come back to my prog sensibilities… in the 80s I got Echo and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles and also listened to some Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil, The Cure (love Seventeen Seconds), OMD, Landscape and a handful of more obscure releases bought on the strength of reviews I had read – the Norwegian Fra Lippo Lippi (Small Mercies – the reviewer described it as “music for slitting your wrists to” and it is, indeed melancholy), Fad Gadget (Incontinent), TV21 (A Thin Red Line). It was certainly a very fertile period!

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