The 10 Best Albums of 1990

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


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In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1990s, I described nostalgia for the decade as “an idealized vision of a time when Bill Clinton was the fresh, young Democrat on the block, beepers were the hottest new tech items, and every major record label and Top 40 radio station was scrambling to discover the next big alternative to run-of-the-mill pop.” I went on to lament: “It’s human nature to look back on things with irrational fondness and nostalgia, overlooking the bad and romanticizing the good. But while the ’90s had its fair share of ’crap,’ it’s hard to deny that the ’good’ was exceptionally good.” So good, in fact, that we decided to dust off our lovingly curated list of over 400 albums to compile individual Top 10s for each year of the ’90s. Many of these titles are already widely—and rightfully—celebrated, but these lists also give us the opportunity to honor some typically overlooked gems. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: LL Cool J, Mama Said Knock You Out; The Sundays, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic; Enigma, MCMXC a.D.; World Party, Goodbye Jumbo; Galaxie 500, This Is Our Music; Jane’s Addiction, Ritual de lo Habitual; Cocteau Twins, Heaven or Las Vegas; Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory; Lou Reed/John Cale, Songs for Drella; Uncle Tupelo, No Depression

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


Fugazi, Repeater

Counter to the righteous-fury claustrophobia of Ian MacKaye’s earlier band, Minor Threat, he and Guy Piciotto’s guitar work on Repeater, Fugazi’s debut, feels expansive and free, creating a universe unto itself. While that certainly doesn’t mean MacKaye was done with his sociopolitical ranting (he rails characteristically against capitalistic greed throughout the album, including on, uh, “Greed”), it did allow him to tap into a broader and richer sonic and emotional palette than what can usually be attributed to hardcore. While the dive-bombing riffs of the title track, the shouted refrains of “merchandise!,” and Joe Lally and Brendan Canty’s urgent rhythm section provide more than enough evidence that MacKaye hadn’t gone soft, the manner in which the album straddles MacKaye’s hardcore past and then-burgeoning alt-rock is what makes it sound unique, even so many years later. Indeed, it’s on the slower tracks—the murky, unsettling “Shut the Door,” the slow burning highway rocker “Blueprint”—where Repeater finds both its emotional core and the reason why it stands alone in the punk canon. Jeremy Winograd

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


Sonic Youth, Goo

Rather than try to one-up Daydream Nation’s ambitious sprawl, Sonic Youth narrowed their focus on their follow-up, Goo, producing an album that’s tighter, edgier, and, yes, slicker. As the band’s debut for Geffen, Goo predictably caught flak from fans for its cleaner, more professional production style, which stood in contrast to the avant-garde noisiness of Sonic Youth’s indie days. But the album’s glossy production did nothing to diminish the captivating balance of melodicism and dissonance that defines Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitar interplay. In fact, the band may never have produced a better showcase for that interplay than “Dirty Boots,” which squeezes almost every defining facet of Sonic Youth’s sound—hypnotic chug; distorted swagger; slow, mesmerizingly lilting arpeggios—into just five-and-a-half minutes. And yes, “Kool Thing” may have been an MTV hit, but it’s still fucking weird, with its Chuck D cameo and Kim Gordon sneering about “male white corporate oppression.” Winograd

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


Ride, Nowhere

The early ’90s witnessed the rise of a new crop of artists whose grandiose sonic aspirations were tempered by serious introspection, bands capable of suffusing the strident sumptuousness of stadium rock with the quietude of lo-fi bedroom pop. Chief among these was Ride, whose thunderous debut, Nowhere, offered a packed roster of aggressive material cut through with an essential airy gentleness, songs which struggled to reconcile their reflective cores with a consistent impulse toward transcendent intensity. Epic in scope while humble in topic and tone, tracks like “Seagull,” “Polar Bear,” and “Vapour Trail” grapple with everyday problems by summoning up lyrical fantasias rife with eccentric imagery, an approach that bleeds over into the music’s majestic confluence of mumbling vocals and soaring melodies. Rich and bombastic, the album meshes sadness and elation in a twinned celebration of emotional expansiveness, evoked via slithery, sinuous rhythms encased within a wistful haze of shimmering atmospherics. Jesse Cataldo

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


Pixies, Bossanova

Despite the growing rift between Pixies frontman Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal, Bossanova united the disparate sounds found on the band’s first two albums, bringing back the garage-band rawness of Surfer Rosa while maintaining Doolittle’s increased emphasis on melodicism. For the first time, Francis wrote every song on the album, in some instances claiming to have scribbled lyrics onto a napkin in the studio five minutes before recording. Deal’s tempering backup vocal is relegated to an afterthought amid Francis’s power grab over the group, but her thrumming bass remains the pulse of tracks like “Is She Weird” and “Velouria.” At the time, no one juxtaposed quiet and loud like the Pixies, a groundbreaking approach that would go on to influence alternative rock throughout the ’90s, and Bossanova oscillates from chill surf-rock inflections to shrieking, distortion-laden fury. Despite the band’s acrimony, which would lead to a protracted hiatus within a few short years, Bossanova roils and quakes with the intense energy of a volatile band barely holding together its fraying edges. Josh Goller

The 10 Best Albums of 1990


George Michael, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1

That there never was a second volume of Listen Without Prejudice would speak poorly upon us all (e.g. we apparently failed to live up to the title, and weren’t deemed worthy of more), except that maybe the problem was that it was a summit George Michael found himself unable to match. Certainly few side ones from the first vinyl era compare to this one, from the widescreen torment of “Praying for Time” to the unapologetic swagger of “Freedom 90,” from the ballsy choice to cover one of Stevie Wonder’s most musically and philosophically uncompromising compositions (“They Won’t Go When I Go”) to the heady implications of “Cowboys and Angels.” A clear manifesto when it was released, the album’s truths only continue to emerge with time. Pray for more. Eric Henderson