By Paul Laird @mildmanneredmax
Tied to the Nineties
Looking backwards can be such a riot but, very often, our ability to see things from the past clearly and honestly is interfered with by the echo chambers we all inhabit online. We create a vision of ourselves based on a desire to be seen as part of a club…we define ourselves through the narrowest of influences in the hope that we find favour with others.
I doubt it.
I have taken a look back over each year of the nineties to try and see clearly what I was listening to then and what still thrills me now. No revisionist history, no genre limitations, no scenes or scenester credibility.
Just the music that mattered most.
Here they are then, the albums from 1990 that thrilled me then and that thrill me still. One from each month of the year.
The Sundays “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic”
Indier than thou.
The debut album from The Sundays introduced us all to something delicate, beautiful, literate and emotional. A world away from the darkness of post-punk, more polished than the C86 bands, less boisterous than the nascent Madchester noiseniks and more confident than the introspection of the shoegaze that would soon arrive.
In Harriet Wheeler they that rarest of things in popular music, a genuinely unique voice. Alongside David Gavurin she wrote all ten songs on the album and each of them revealed a talent of the sort that we uncover only once or twice in a generation. The outstanding track on the album is “Can’t
Be Sure” which is a hymn to happiness, longing, desire, love and England. In a better world it would be the national anthem if only for the lines “England my country, the home of the free, such miserable weather, but England’s as happy as England can be, why cry?”
The Beautiful South “Welcome to the Beautiful South”
From the ashes of one of the greatest pop groups of the eighties and, arguably, the only act from the eighties to come close to matching what The Smiths committed to vinyl came The Beautiful South. Where The Housemartins had worn their politics on their sleeves along with their hearts (“Take Jesus, Take Marx, Take Hope) The Beautiful South proved themselves to be something more cynical and less political but just as wonderfully romantic and humorous.
The tone was set by the front cover which features a woman with a pistol in her mouth alongside a man lighting up a cigarette. Suicide is painless. Quick death, slow death but death is coming. The first single from the album was a sweet and tender hooligan of a long song, “Song For Whoever” taking aim at the anodyne M.O.R likes of “Lady In Red” and delivering a shotgun blast to their insincerity and saccharine vision of love.
This album was the soundtrack to my first love, unrequited of course, and the South were the first band I ever went to see with a “date”. That ended just about as badly as one would expect. Happy hour again? Not really but I’ve still got the tears I wept.
Depeche Mode “Violator”
Let me show you the world in my eyes.
Depeche Mode were the first band I ever claimed as my own and, along with The Smiths, they played a pivotal role in creating the person/persona/personality that delights and dismays everyone who encounters it right up to the present day. From the giddy electro pop thrills of “Just Can’t Get Enough” to the introduction to the darker side of love, lust and life with the likes of “Strangelove”, “Master and Servant” and “Blasphemous Rumours” they turned me on to all sorts of things I had no right being turned on to as a nice Christian boy.
Personal Jesus? Certainly “Violator” acted as some sort of sonic saviour to me. This was the album when they perfected their new pop vision, a dark, brooding, sexual, lust filled and blasphemous suite and bitter symphony. Blacker than their collective souls and embracing the furthest reaches of electro, dance and pop to create an album that would fill stadiums around the world and shut up the doubters once and for all.
Public Enemy “Fear of a Black Planet”
Arguably the most important album of the year…quite probably of the decade. Public Enemy were more than a rap act, bigger than a collective of musicians and writers, they were a revolutionary force.
“911 is a Joke”, “Anti-Nigger Machine”, “Burn Hollywood Burn”, “Fear of a Black Planet”, Fight the Power”…these were manifestos. Statements of intent. A call to arms. The voice of a people who could not be heard, who had been demonised, marginalised and disenfranchised and who were not prepared to take it for a single second longer.
There are those who say “It doesn’t say anything about my life” to which the correct response, of course, is to demand that they see a psychiatrist to work out why they lack empathy. This is, of course, the sound of a black America that those of us outside of that experience have no true understanding but it is also the sound of the oppressed, the poor and the angry of every colour and creed.
Eric B. & Rakim “Let the Rhythm Hit ‘em”
The third album from the duo and one which marks a shift in tone. More aggressive, deeper and darker than what had come before. It is still instantly recognisable as B and Rakim but there is an injection of anger that perhaps reflects the rising racial tensions in America at this time as well as the emergence of gangster rap (earlier in the month Ice Cube had released “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted”).
While certain voices in the world of indie took a dismissive attitude towards hip-hop the truth is that several of the most vital, the most political and the most influential albums of the nineties didn’t come from boys with guitars from Hulme but, instead, came from disenfranchised, disillusioned and distraught voices from different streets.
Teenage Fanclub “A Catholic Education”
From the remains of the brilliantly monikered “The Boy Hairdressers” was spawned a band who would go on to be one of the most cherished, and influential, of the next thirty years. “A Catholic Education” is different in tone to much of what followed it but it still contains many of the things that make the Fannies the Fannies.
West coast harmonies (California not Carntyne), melodies and a sense of romance. The title was provocative, particularly for a band from the West coast of Scotland but it was also an attempt to state, from the outset, that they would be eclectic and not hemmed in or pinned down by some artificial list of acceptable influences.
While some critics might argue that the album suffers from some level of inconsistency the truth is that this is part of its charm. This is the sound of a band discovering who they are, how to record, how to write and how to be the best they can be.
2 Live Crew “Banned in the USA”
Important as much for it’s cultural impact as for the quality of the rhymes, beats and breaks “Banned in the USA” is a seminal moment in pop music. Enraged by the groups relish and willingness to rap about anything and everything a certain type of person decided that they were paddlers of filth and an obscenity. The old argument about not listening when you don’t like something was lost on the prudes and the pricks against whom 2 Live Crew were kicking.
The album was the first to feature the RIAA “Parental Advisory” stickers. On the title track the band make one of the most compelling arguments for the First Amendment and the principle of freedom of speech ever set to vinyl. All credit to Bruce Springsteen for granting the band permission to interpolate his “Born in the USA” for the track.
Marc Almond “Enchanted”
More of the usual unusual from Almond.
“Enchanted” is violently modern and defiantly retro at the same time and, often, at exactly the same moments. With an orchestra of traditional musicians and Almond’s show stopping, showtime, show me the money vocals it is a deeply layered album filled with treats and tricks.
Few other acts in pop manage to transcend the limitations of that and become something else, something more and something grander. Patti Smith is a poet and an activist, a writer and an inspiration. Kevin Rowland is a chameleon, a soul singer, a troubadour and a fashion icon. Artists. Almond is one of this elite band of brothers and sisters.
Cocteau Twins “Heaven or Las Vegas”
Frou-frou foxes in Midsummer fires.
Pitch the baby.
Dear God, the titles alone are enough to leave you gasping for air. When you hear Elizabeth Fraser’s voice drifting in from some other place…closer to Heaven than Las Vegas and then bathe in the dream pop delights of Robin Guthrie’s soundscapes it is impossible to accept that this is the work of ordinary people. This is pop music as ethereal dream.
Few albums since, certainly none before, sounded quite like this and it remains something to cherish.
Pet Shop Boys “Behaviour”
Any album that contains the best single in the history of English pop has to be included in a list of the most important albums of the year that spawned it. And so here it is. The fourth album from the best singles band in British music history.
Can you hear that noise?
It’s the sound of thousands of bucket hats being flung to the floor in fits of rage. Calm down boys (and it is very definitely boys who are doing the flinging) nobody is saying that Oasis aren’t excellent or that Ocean Colour Scene aren’t great…but it is a statement of fact that Pet Shop Boys have released more consistently brilliant pop singles than any other British band.
“Being Boring” is better than everything else you are thinking of right now.
Run D.M.C “Back From Hell”
And it goes a little something like this.
Walk this way, just a little bit further to the left of your dad’s Beatles records and your mum’s Rolling Stones albums and you will discover a whole world of funky, profane, vital, political and life changing breaks, beats, rhymes and raps that will change your life.
Introducing new jack swing into the lexicon of popular music as well as more naughty words than on any of their previous four albums “Back From Hell” is a key record in the story of hip hop and pop music.
At the time of release it was given a fairly rough ride by the critics. The tide was turning towards the West Coast roar of the likes of Ice Cube, Ice-T and the gangster rap sounds. But listening back now “Back From Hell” is a thrill.
Various “Now That’s What I Call Music 18”
No stocking would be filled satisfactorily without a “Now…” compilation album and “Now…18” was a cracker.
The Beautiful South, Wilson Phillips, Sinead O’Connor (with THAT one), INXS, PIL, The Las’s, Pet Shop Boys, Soul II Soul, The Cure, Neneh Cherry, Kylie, Betty Boo and little Jimmy Somerville. What more do you want from a nineties compilation than that?
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