Every decade takes a couple of years to feel like itself, but the 1990s, in particular, had a soft launch. While 1991 would bring a bumper crop of era-defining albums from the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, and Red Hot Chili Peppers that would set the tone for alternative rock for the rest of the decade, the music of 1990 often feels like an outgrowth of the previous decades. Even the year’s biggest rock debut that was positioned as a contrast from hair metal was the decidedly retro Black Crowes.
Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, which had just been launched in late 1988, was still dominated by established British bands like The Psychedelic Furs and Gene Loves Jezebel. Depeche Mode and Sinead O’Connor became the year’s unlikely crossover stars. Observe the chart in the last week of April 1990, when the top 10 featured artists from England, Ireland, and Australia – and not a single American act.
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Still, 1990 was an auspicious year for alternative rock, as the American underground crept closer to the mainstream. Jane’s Addiction released their biggest album, Ritual de lo Habitual, which they’d support the following summer by permanently altering the concert industry with the first Lollapalooza tour. Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants, and Social Distortion released their major label debuts, while Fugazi and the Pixies released watershed indie albums. Here’s a look at 30 other albums turning 30 this year that might not get lavish anniversary media coverage, but still deserve a moment of remembrance, with a Spotify playlist of tracks from most of the albums.
Adrian Belew – Young Lions
King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew released his most successful solo album while he was playing arenas around the world as the musical director for David Bowie’s Sound+Vision Tour in 1990. And that album, Young Lions, featured a duet with Bowie, “Pretty Pink Rose,” that reached no. 2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. Five years later, I heard this album in middle school when one of my middle school friends bought it for reasons I still don’t understand.
The Charlatans UK – Some Friendly
The Charlatans debuted in 1990 and remained on of Britain’s biggest alternative groups for the rest of the decade, bridging the baggy and Britpop eras. In America, though, they had to release music as Charlatans U.K. since a San Francisco group had the same name, and never quite sustained their initial success with Some Friendly and singles like “The Only One I Know.”
The Chills – Submarine Bells
Slash Records, an L.A.-based indie label distributed by Warner Bros., was an instrumental pipeline in bringing alternative rock to the mainstream throughout the ‘80s with bands like X and Violent Femmes. In 1990, Slash brought the Chills, already one of the biggest bands in their native New Zealand, over to the other side of the world, with the aptly titled “Heavenly Pop Hit” being their U.S. rock radio breakthrough.
The Cowboy Junkies – The Caution Horses
The Cowboy Junkies rose to fame in the late ‘80s with two albums that were both recorded live with the Toronto band huddled around a single microphone. After one unsuccessful attempt to record their third album with the same all-I-need-is-one-mic philosophy, they made The Caution Horses in a proper studio with multiple microphones. The more conventional sound turned off some purists, but Margo Timmins’ voice continued to cast a spell over listeners.
Dead Milkmen – Metaphysical Graffiti
The Dead Milkmen were the clown princes of ‘80s college radio, with hilarious cult classics like “Bitchin’ Camaro” and “Punk Rock Girl.” Their fifth album, with a title and cover that spoofed Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, didn’t continue the group’s string of breakout novelty singles. But it’s still a deliriously entertaining album, with songs like the surrealist Dick Van Dyke Show ode “I Tripped Over the Ottoman.”
Devo – Smooth Noodle Maps
Devo’s steady commercial decline over the course of the 1980s finally hit rock bottom at the beginning of the ‘90s with Smooth Noodle Maps. The satirical undertones of the band’s lyrics were still ever-present on songs like “Post-Post Modern Man,” but the avant-garde leanings of their early work had been almost completely sanded off. After touring the album, Devo went on a hiatus – they wouldn’t perform together for five years, and wouldn’t release another studio album until 2010. Even today, Smooth Noodle Maps remains the hardest Devo album to find.
John Doe – Meet John Doe
On the heels of his unlikely Hollywood breakout success in the 1989 films Great Balls of Fire! and Road House, X singer/songwriter John Doe signed to Geffen Records and released his first solo album. And his voice sounded perhaps better than expected without X’s Exene Cervenka harmonizing, with the album spinning off the minor radio hit “Let’s Be Mad.”
Duran Duran – Liberty
Duran Duran’s sixth album was the former MTV heartthrobs’ least successful album to date. But they’d be back on the charts soon enough: the Liberty deep cut “First Impressions” became the inspiration for “Come Undone,” a major hit for the band in 1993.
Flaming Lips – In A Priest Driven Ambulance
The fourth Flaming Lips album, In A Priest Driven Ambulance, was a pivotal moment when they became closely entangled with another likeminded band. It was the first of two albums with Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue on guitar, and the album where another member of Mercury Rev, Dave Fridmann, became Flaming Lips’ permanent go-to producer.
Happy Mondays – Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches
Manchester’s Happy Mondays were already established stars of the Factory Records stable when acid house took over the U.K. in the late ‘80s, and remixes of songs from 1988’s Bummed became rave staples. So they hired one of their remixers, Paul Oakenfold, to produce their next album and it became, alongside the Stone Roses’ 1989 debut, one of the defining albums of the Madchester scene. Their dance-rock sound made a significantly smaller commercial impact in the U.S., but “Kinky Afro” topped the Modern Rock chart in early 1991.
Hindu Love Gods – Hindu Love Gods
Hindu Love Gods was the name that the members of R.E.M. used in the mid-‘80s to play casual sets of cover songs, occasionally with Warren Zevon. And when Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills backed Zevon on his 1987 album Sentimental Hygiene, the quartet logged one drunken late-night session as the Hindu Love Gods, covering mostly blues and folk standards. The recordings sat in a vault for 3 years as R.E.M. got bigger and bigger, and Warner Bros. decided to release the accidental supergroup’s only album, with their rendition of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” becoming a minor Modern Rock radio hit.
INXS – X
X was INXS’s last hurrah as one of the biggest bands in the world, spinning off hits like “Suicide Blonde” and “Disappear” before American audiences began to view them as a dated ‘80s act. But it was a worthy follow-up to Kick, featuring “The Stairs,” a poignant deep cut that Michael Hutchence called “the most ambitious song I’ve ever written” and featured on the band’s Greatest Hits collection.
Little Feat – Representing the Mambo
Little Feat was one of California’s greatest cult bands under the leadership of founder Lowell George until his 1979 death. And his surviving bandmates revived the Little Feat name for 1988’s Gold-selling Let It Roll. The follow-up, Representing the Mambo, wove together blues rock, country, zydeco, and Latin rhythms, and topped the Album Rock Tracks chart with “Texas Twister,” but it would be their last album with longtime label Warner Bros.
The Lemonheads – Lovey
The Lemonheads’ major-label debut was a transitional record from their punkier beginnings to the jangly sound that Evan Dando would find greater fame in the ‘90s, lurching unpredictably from the heavy opener “Ballarat” to the twangy “Half the Time.” Lovey was also the last Lemonheads album to feature founding bassist Jesse Peretz, who went on to direct music videos for the Lemonheads and other bands, as well as TV comedies and feature films including Our Idiot Brother.
Living Colour – Time’s Up
Coming off of the multi-platinum success of 1988’s Vivid, Living Colour pulled out all the stops for their second album, blending genres with an impressive guest list that included Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Doug E. Fresh and Maceo Parker. But despite a Grammy win and great songs like “Love Rears Its Ugly Head,” sales stalled and the band wasn’t able to repeat its earlier successes.
David J – Songs From Another Season
One of the recurring themes of the first two years of Billboard’s Modern Rock chart was Bauhaus alumni. Love and Rockets and solo singles by Peter Murphy and David J all went to #1 on the chart in 1989 or 1990, with the dreamy accordion hook of “I’ll Be Your Chauffeur” launching David J’s most successful album, Songs From Another Season.
Jellyfish – Bellybutton
The best album of 1990 that had the worst cover art, the debut album from San Francisco band Jellyfish is a power-pop cult classic that married Beatles-esque tunes to Queen bombast. But founding member Jason Falkner for a solo career left soon after, and the remaining members only managed one more album before splitting up. The Bellybutton track “Baby’s Coming Back” belatedly topped the UK charts in 2007 when it was covered by McFly.
Mazzy Star – She Hangs Brightly
David Roback and Hope Sandoval’s indie debut album didn’t make the same waves as 1993’s platinum-selling So Tonight That I Might See. But She Hangs Brightly’s dreamy psych-rock sound had its fans, including Kurt Cobain, who included it on a famous handwritten list of his top 50 favorite albums. And in 1995, the album’s lead track “Halah” belatedly became a radio hit when re-released by Capitol Records.
Mother Love Bone – Apple
There was probably no band in Seattle at the dawn of the ‘90s that was more convinced they would conquer the world than Mother Love Bone. But the band’s story tragically ended before it began when charismatic frontman Andrew Wood overdosed on heroin in March 1990, just before their debut album’s release. Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard would go on to form Pearl Jam seven months later.
Iggy Pop – Brick by Brick
The Don Was-produced Brick by Brick was a bit of a comeback for Iggy Pop, with Slash and Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses playing on much of the record. Kate Pierson, fresh off of her own comeback with The B-52’s, helped “Candy” become his first Top 40 hit, while Beavis & Butthead professed an affinity for the song “Butt Town.”
The Posies – Dear 23
The Posies were among the first band’s from Seattle’s rock underground to sign to a major label, but the harmony-laden power pop sound on their Geffen debut was out of step with the music their city would soon be famous for. But Dear 23 still featured moments like Mike Musburger’s powerhouse drumming on “Help Yourself” and Jon Auer’s epic guitar solo on “Flood of Sunshine” that hinted at how much harder the band would rock on future albums.
Primus – Frizzle Fry
After Primus capitalized on their popularity as a live act in the Bay Area with the 1989 live album Suck on This, the oddball funk metal trio made their proper debut studio album. Frizzle Fry reprised four songs from Suck on This, including the single “John The Fisherman.” And in 2015, singer/bassist Les Claypool told Noisey that Frizzle Fry was his favorite Primus album.
The Railway Children – Native Place
The Railway Children were a British quartet on the rise in the late ‘80s, supporting R.E.M. on a European tour. Their slicker, more keyboard-driven third album and its single “Every Beat of the Heart” gave them a major pop hit in the U.K. and a Modern Rock no. 1 in the States. But the band broke up soon after, and frontman Gary Newby never regained momentum when he began releasing albums again under the Railway Children name in 1997.
Lou Reed & John Cale – Songs for Drella
Two decades after Lou Reed fired John Cale from the Velvet Underground, the two legends came together for their sole album as a duo, a tribute to their band’s mentor and benefactor Andy Warhol, who’d died in 1987. Their rekindled relationship opened the door to a full-scale Velvets reunion in 1993, but it never went further than a brief European tour after another falling out between the two.
The Replacements – All Shook Down
One of the greatest bands of the 1980s staggered into the ‘90s, worn out by alcoholism, lineup changes, and reluctant music industry compromises that had finally given the Replacements a Hot 100 hit. Their final album, All Shook Down, sounds defeated and exhausted, but there’s still bittersweet poignance to songs like “Nobody” that pointed the way towards Paul Westerberg’s solo career.
Ride – Nowhere
Creation Records was at the height of its influence in 1990 when they signed the Oxford band Ride and the band’s first three EPs and debut album all hit the U.K. charts. Singer/guitarist Andy Bell rejected the “shoegazing” label for Ride, though the band was openly influenced by labelmates My Bloody Valentine, and the shimmering guitar tones of Nowhere made it a touchstone for countless other shoegazer bands.
Shudder to Think – Ten Spot
Shudder to Think was the rare Dischord Records band that eventually moved to a major label and did their best work there. And while their second album Ten Spot, with original guitarist Chris Matthews, is still a tentative run at the sound they’d continue to refine, frontman Craig Wedren’s soaring voice and unusual melodies still made Shudder to Think stand out from their labelmates on their first Dischord release.
The Sundays – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
The London quartet The Sundays were an immediate sensation in their home country, but the jangly dream-pop of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic was a sleeper success in America. It didn’t go Gold until 1993, and the follow-up album, 1992’s Blind, took five years to go Gold.
Superchunk – Superchunk
North Carolina’s Superchunk burst onto the national indie scene with a self-titled album on Matador Records and the era-defining working-class anthem in “Slack Motherfucker.” But the hidden gem of the album is “My Noise,” which Ben Lee reworked imaginatively on his ‘90s alternative cover album Quarter Century Classix.
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression
The Illinois trio of Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy, and Mike Heidorn journeyed to Massachusetts to record their debut album with the same engineers and studio that Dinosaur Jr. used for Bug – Farrar even got to play one of J Mascis’s guitars. Within five years, Uncle Tupelo had broken up, but the seeds planted by the influential album would begin flowering: an alt-country magazine named after No Depression began publishing, and debut albums by Farrar’s next band, Son Volt, and Tweedy’s band Wilco.
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