When looking at the pop charts for 1990, it’s hard to believe that the year Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer broke through, Jawbreaker and Samiam were releasing their first albums. While hair metal was on its way out, grunge was just beginning to form. Public Enemy and Ice Cube were changing hip hop forever. Adult contemporary dominated the charts, while shoegaze was ruling the underground. Here is what stood out to us from 1990.
In order to compose this list, I relied heavily on Discogs, Wikipedia, and Rate Your Music. I tried my best to verify that everything actually came out in ’90, and in many places the information contradicted each other. Apologies for any errors, please let us know in the comments if you are sure that something I listed here did not come out that year.
I listened to over 125 albums to compose this list, and though there were tons of other great albums that I considered putting on here, there just wasn’t enough room. Over half the albums on this list I had never listened to before, so I got to experience a lot good stuff that I’d overlooked for years.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Lance Hahn, Vic Chesnutt, and Sarah Kirsch.
When people talk about great Samiam albums, they are usually talking about Astray, Clumsy, or You Are Freaking Me Out. That is almost a shame, because these Berkeley, CA legends have never released a bad album. What surprises me about this record, is how fully realized the band sounds. By the time a band makes their mark, they typically don’t sound much like their first album. Yet this self-titled album sounds very much like the Samiam we know and love. Jason Beebout’s vocals are emotive and powerful. The guitars by Sergie Loobkoff and James Brogan are melodically sweet and crunchy when they need to be. Mark Mortinsen and Martin Brohm round out the rhythm section to drive every song continuously forward. There are two big drawbacks to this album. The production is a little dry and doesn’t allow the drumming and bass to stand out nearly as much as they should and at sixteen tracks, it drags a bit, even if the total time makes this one of their shorter albums. In fact, those two big issues are only minor as this is a pretty fantastic debut from a band that would later go onto to be one of the very best in the genre
I had always thought that My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive’s hazy downtempo music was what all shoegaze sounded like. I like both of those bands, but I was very pleased to discover that this is not really the case. Swervedriver (and to a lesser extent, Ride) showed me the fun side of shoegaze–that not all bands sounded like a melting day dream. Swervedriver were more energetic than their contemporaries, with their twin guitars churning out molten hot riffs. The pulsing bass and huge drums add to an experience akin to that of an erupting volcano. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was my first time listening to Swervedriver, as I had written them off as yet another dreamy British shoegaze band. Oh how I was wrong.
23. Bitch Magnet – Ben Hur
The band’s name had initially put me off this record, though fortunately Dylan talked me into giving it a chance. I am grateful to him for introducing me to this masterpiece of noise rock. This is a monster of an album that manages to sound way more current than a lot of the other albums from 1990. Formed in Ohio, later moving to North Carolina, this three-piece laid the groundwork for future math rock bands like Don Caballero, Slint, and Rodan. Ben Hur pummels you with angular guitar work, punchy drums, and sparse vocals; as well as Sooyoung Park’s jaw dropping bass tones. Unfortunately, this was Bitch Magnet’s last album. Souyoung would go on to form Seam, initially featuring Mac Macaughan of Superchunk on drums.
Meet John Doe is the first solo album by the former X bassist/vocalist, and begins his foray into country music. Fans of X probably were not shocked by this turn of events, considering that the band always had a bit of twang to them with their rockabilly influences. Country in the late 80’s was pretty atrocious and alt-country wasn’t quite a thing yet, so Doe is really dipping into roots rock here. Plenty of blues licks can be found all over this album, with occasional hints of Springsteen sprinkled throughout. Doe was always considered one of the best vocalists in punk, and this album gives him a chance to really let loose. Meet John Doe is the perfect soundtrack to a barroom brawl, a slow dance with your girl, or just a night drinkin’ with the boys; though people who dislike country might want to avoid this one.
What could possibly be said about Jawbreaker that hasn’t already? Not only were they one of the greatest punk bands of the 90’s, but Blake Schwarzenbach’s is considered one of the finest lyricists that punk and emo, perhaps even all indie music ever produced. Jawbreaker influenced an entire generation of punk bands and those effects are still being felt today. Unfun was their first full length, and much like Samiam’s debut, there are some rough patches. Blake’s voice isn’t quite as strong and the production is a little fuzzy, but there is no mistaking the power of songs like “Seethru Skin”, “Fineday”, “Want”, and “Busy”. Even for being one of the weakest releases in the Jawbreaker catalog, it still holds an important place in punk history.
While England was gazing at their shoes and stomping on pedals all year, Scotland’s Teenage Fanclub put out one of the best indie rock albums of 1990. Described as a “jangle pop” album (whatever that means), A Catholic Education is eleven tracks of wonderfully crafted melodies with infectious hooks. If I had to compare it to any other albums from the same year, it’d probably be the Lemonheads Lovey or Sonic Youth’s Goo, though it is so much better on so many levels. “Everything Flows” is easily the standout track for this album, and hints at what would come on their next album.
The NYHC scene in 1990 was going through a transition stage. While Judge and Slapshot were still huge, Quicksand and Shelter were releasing their first records. Emerging from the neighboring state of New Jersey, Rorschach were doing things a little differently. Blending hardcore and metal wasn’t a new idea, but instead of the crossover thrash sound that came before, Remain Sedate would turn out to be years ahead of its time. This album is a gnarly heaving beast, shuffling along towards its next victim. You can hear this albums influence on bands like Catharsis, Converge, and the pre-Jupiter Cave In records. Without Rorschach, it’s very possible modern hardcore would sound very different.
Tikki Tikki Tembo, No Sa Rembo, Chari Bari Ruchi, Pip Peri Pembo was the first full length by these Hawaiian pop punkers also released in ‘90. It’s a really fun album, but it definitely has its flaws. I chose this 7” EP because these four songs show the band distilled to their purist parts. Catchy and sugary sweet, Karin also sounds the most like Lance Hahn’s later work with J Church. For anyone curious about Lance’s roots, I highly recommend hunting this 7” down. The world lost an incredible musician when he passed away a few years ago. Rest in power Lance Hahn.
“Twin Peaks” was a massive hit in 1990. Though it only lasted two seasons, the impression it left on audiences was huge and continues to entertain newer generations of viewers thanks to streaming websites like Netflix. Part of the shows charm also extends to the soundtrack. Angelo Badalamenti has been a frequent collaborator with David Lynch on a number of his movies and he has scored a number of other films, but the Soundtrack from Twin Peaks will probably be what he is most remembered for. Haunting and dreamlike, every track instantly places you back in the show. Badalamenti composed the entire album, but it also features vocalist Julee Cruise on a few tracks. I usually don’t listen to soundtracks, but there is something magical about Twin Peaks that keeps bringing me back.
Glacial would be an appropriate word to describe Codeine. Frigid Stars is a pioneering album in the slowcore genre–even though most bands rejected the term in the same way emo and math rock have been. These ten reverb drenched tracks crawl by, but never once sound boring. Codeine avoided becoming monotonous with shifting dynamics and subtleties that force the listener to really pay attention without bending your ears with insistence. This album was only the first of three excellent works by the band and it still holds water to this day. Also worth mentioning, Bitch Magnet’s Sooyoung Park co-wrote the song “New Years” and the mathcore-turned-space-rock juggernaut’s Cave In lifted their name from a cut on this album.
Twenty-five years later, and this album still sounds as fresh as anything else in the psychobilly genre; though to be fair, the style hasn’t changed much over the years. But the timeless quality of Reverend Horton Heat’s first full length is probably due to the fact that the band recorded this album live in studio; as opposed to tracking each instrument individually. Smoke ‘em stands apart from other psychobilly albums, the way few others have and if there were one record from that scene everyone should hear it is this one. With tracks like “Bad Reputation”, “Psychobilly Freakout”, and “Bullet” it’s hard not to cut loose, have a little fun and see just how RHH has remained an enduring force in an otherwise stale and often reviled genre.
I completely understand that Shudder to Think is an acquired taste. Craig Wedren’s high pitched voice had a polarizing effect on listeners, not unlike Claudio Sanchez from Coheed & Cambria today. Ten Spot was the band’s first album on Dischord Records, which at the time must have seemed like a huge surprise to fans of the label considering how different their sound was to the rest of the Dischord roster. Shudder to Think’s music could be described as post-hardcore with a pop slant. Nearly every song on this album connects, especially “Jade-Dust Eyes”, “About Three Dreams”, and “On the Rain”. Ten Spot shows a band hitting their stride and carving out their own place in the punk scene.
I’m quite amazed at how long I’ve gone without listening to this album. As big a Lucero fan I am, you’d think I would have given a listen to their most obvious influence. I am glad that in 2015 I finally did, because No Depression is everything I love about alt. country. Songs about whiskey, work, and living in Middle America–trite topics even by 1990–are done so well to make many songwriters beg for this level of skill. The album goes back and forth between the two vocalists, Jeff Tweedy who would go on to lead Wilco and Jay Farrar of Son Volt. I personally prefer the Farrar lead songs, as his gritty voice lends a sense of authenticity. You truly believe he works ten hour shifts in a factory and enjoys his whiskey. So put this record on, raise your glass, sit back and relax.
The first Jawbox EP (sometimes called Tools & Chrome) shows a different side than most listeners are probably used to. These four tracks are more melodic than anything heard on later albums like Grippe or For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Released on Dischord Records, J. Robbins and company are playing a fast paced and poppy version of post-hardcore instead of adopting the Revolution Summer style that most of their label mates were playing at the time. Sonically, Jawbox sounds like they would have been more at home playing Gilman St. with Samiam and Jawbreaker than the 9:30 Club with Fugazi and Shudder to Think.
Out of all the punk albums released in 1990, none sounded more ahead of their time than Three-Chord Monte. Based out of Chicago, Pegboy influenced mid-western pop punk in a huge way. Dillinger Four, Off With Their Heads, The Slow Death, and hundreds of other Minneapolis bands owe a huge debt to Pegboy. Ex-Naked Raygun guitarist, John Haggerty formed the band with his brother Joe on drums, Larry Damore on guitars and vocals, and Steve Saylors on bass. Every song on this EP is a blast to listen to, my personal favorite track being “My Youth”. Interestingly enough, Three-Chord Monte was the first album released on Quarterstick Records, an off-shoot of Touch & Go, paving the way for other Chicago punk bands.
What combination of elements allowed They Might Be Giants to breakout in 1990? The popularity of the B-52’s and Weird Al possibly opened up doors for quirky and silly songs to sneak through to mainstream audiences. Whatever it was, Flood became the most successful TMBG album ever. Even if you don’t know the band very well, it’s safe to assume you’ve heard “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” or “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. Though the band has released a ton of records since, Flood is still considered one of the bands best albums and for good reason–balancing absurd humor, sharp wit and word play with a handful of more meaningful but upbeat tracks.
Rain were a little known band based out of Washington, DC who were part of the second wave of “Revolution Summer” bands along with Ignition and Soulside. Rain recorded this six song EP in 1987, though it didn’t see release until 1990 on Guy Picciotto’s label Peterbilt. Rain is notable for featuring former members of Youth Brigade and Gray Matter, and drummer Eli Janney later going on to form Girls vs. Boys. Despite their legacy, La Vache Qui Rit is a phenomenal album that brings to mind Rites of Spring, especially on album highlight “Snakeout”. Rain were woefully overlooked due to their short lifespan, but easily one of the finest emo bands to come from that period.
I have a friend who constantly raves about Mazzy Star, so when I was putting together a list of albums from 1990 I needed to listen to, it was a no-brainer to include this one. She Hangs Brightly was the debut album from this Santa Monica band, and features a style of alternative rock with major folk and neo-psychedelic influences. Hope Sandoval’s gorgeous voice intertwines perfectly with the rest of the bands sparse instrumentation. Many songs on the album have a 70’s rock vibe, a la Fleetwood Mac and the Doors, but tracks like “I’m Sailin’” is a straight blues track full of slide guitar. Mazzy Star combined many different sounds, yet maintained a sense of dreamy cohesion
The last few years have seen the former Misfits and Sahmain front man become the butt of many different jokes. Among all the viral pictures of Danzig purchasing cat litter, comics depicting him in a gay couple with Henry Rollins, videos of him getting punched out, and stories about demanding cream of mushroom soup, it’s easy to forget how talented Danzig really is. A listen to Lucifuge instantly pushes those memes to the back of your mind, and reminds you what you really liked about all those early Misfits albums. Danzig’s voice is incredible, and on his second solo album he’s at his strongest. This album is one of the four to feature the “classic” Danzig band lineups; Eerie Von, John Christ, and Chuck Biscuits. The band’s bluesy doom rock style was the perfect accompaniment to Danzig’s Elvis like vocals. Nearly every track on this album is a killer, with some of the highlights being “Snakes of Christ”, “Her Black Wings”, and the chilling “Blood and Tears”. For all his faults, let’s not forget how great Danzig really was in his glory days.
I’m probably one of the biggest Admiral fans you will ever meet, mostly because I don’t know how many Admiral fans there even are. They were an emocore band based out of Pennsylvania, who never quite made as big an impact as their peers in DC. This might have had to do with their location, coming a little late to the first wave of emo, or the fact that they never signed with Dischord Records. This three song EP was released on Soul Force Records, and while fitting firmly in the emo category, they were a bit more aggressive than many of their peers. Vocalist Sean Linwood (Navio Forge) has an emotional delivery that rivals that of Guy Picciotto. Also the guitars by Joseph McRedmond (Hoover, The Crownhate Ruin) are quite unique, and often times feature some acoustic moments that weren’t very common with other emocore bands.
Black Sheets of Rain was the second solo album by the former Hüsker Dü front man, and a return to form of sorts. Stepping away from the folk sound of his previous album, Bob Mould crafted a brilliant eleven track collection of songs that would have been right at home with Hüsker Dü’s best work. The seven minute title track starts things off with a mid-tempo pace, chock full of Mould’s buzzing guitar riffs. It becomes apparent by the time you get to the lead single, “It’s Too Late”, and the insanely catchy “Stop Your Crying” that Mould hasn’t lost his touch. This would be Mould’s last solo album before forming Sugar and moving on to the next period in his career.
This is where it all begins. While they released a couple singles before this, Repeater is the first full length album by the almighty Fugazi. Eleven tracks of brilliant post-hardcore from the minds of Mr.’s MacKaye, Picciotto, Lally, and Canty. The album kicks off with the one two punch of “Turnover” and the title track which demonstrate the masterful tension building and intricate rhythm they are known for. After the instrumental “Brendan #1” is “Merchandise”, one of Fugazi’s biggest anthems. I could do a breakdown of this entire album, but I probably don’t have to as the album could easily make a short list of required listening for any punk. Repeater is easily the most important album from 1990 and is as every bit as relevant today.
It’s hard to talk about Vic Chesnutt without bringing up the tragedy surrounding his life. At the age of 18, Chesnutt was involved in a car accident that left him a quadriplegic. He had some feeling in parts of his body but wasn’t able to walk. He soon discovered he was able to play simple chords on guitar. He began performing solo in Athens, GA, which is where he was seen by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe who went on to record this album. Little is a gorgeous album that consists of Chesnutt’s voice and acoustic guitar, with some minor keyboards and backing vocals. Most of the songs are about Chesnutt’s childhood, most evident on “Rabbit Box” and “Speed Racer”. Album opener “Isadora Duncan” is my favorite track here, with a gorgeously heartbreaking chorus. Little was the first in a very long line of albums by Chesnutt, until his death in 2009.
If there is any other band from 1990 as influential as Fugazi, it’s probably this UK punk band. Hot Water Music and Dillinger Four have gone on record citing the band as a major inspiration. Fill Your Boots is the second full length by the band, and a major improvement from their first record. Frankie Stubbs’ trademark gravelly voice sounds so harsh at times, it’s nearly impossible to believe that a person could sing that way. Though the vocals may standout the most, I can’t forget the impeccable guitar playing on this album. The tones are as harsh as Stubbs’ voice and the guitar solos bring a level of unusual intricacy to a somewhat straightforward punk sound. The album consists of only eight tracks and clocks in at twenty-two mintues, making it perfect for easy consumption. There are so many highlights on this album that it’s hard to imagine the band topping themselves, which they did one year later with Mush.
It may be a surprise to some that I placed the Bay Area emocore titans Fuel (not to be confused by the grunge band of the same name) number one on this list. But if one were to listen to their self-titled full length–sometimes called Monuments to Excess–side by side with say Repeater, it will become pretty apparent why I ranked them this way. Ironically, Fuel was jokingly referred to as “Fuelgazi” for their twin guitars and dual vocals, but that is about where the similarities end, because Fuel is simply a lot more fun to listen to. There wasn’t an album I listened to from 1990 that featured more passion behind it than this one. I get so pumped up when I listen to “The Name Is…”, “Remains to Be Seen”, or “Disengage”. I even nod my head uncontrollably during the slower songs like “Why You Can’t See”. Fuel was also most notable for featuring Sarah Kirsch who was known as Mike before coming out as transgender. Sarah played in Pinhead Gunpower, Fifteen, Navio Forge, Torches to Rome, Break and Circuits, Please Inform the Captain This is a Hijack, Baader Brains, and a ton more. Her impact on punk was undeniable, making her passing in 2012 due to a rare genetic disease that much more tragic. But don’t listen to this album just to morn Sarah, listen to it in celebration of a uniquely talented musician and brave human being. Rest in power Sarah.
As you can see, figureheads is back and what a way to do it! Feel like we missed something? Want to let us know what made your list for best of 1990? Tell us about it in the comments.