After a somewhat disastrous first semester at Emerson, I came back from Christmas break with a clearer mind and a better idea of what I needed to do to avoid repeating the same mistakes. I reconnected with the new friends I’d made near the end of the first semester and started hanging out with them more, realizing I had a hell of a lot more in common with them than I did with my roommate, who I pretty much avoided and ignored from there on in. I may have been a bit let down that I didn’t connect with them on a musical and intellectual level like I had with the Vanishing Misfits gang, but really — who was I fooling, anyway? Try as I might to hide it, I was a blue-collar dweeb that had no further plans to attempt nonconformist hipness. Better to be myself than try to fit in, yeah? [To date, I am still in contact with two of those friends from then, and the only two from my college years that I still speak with. As for everyone else I’d meet those five years I was there…? For a college that focuses on mass media, I’ve somehow found it ironically impossible to locate any of them on today’s social media.]
I was still broke most of the time and could barely pay our phone bill whenever I wanted to talk with my long-distance girlfriend, yet somehow I did manage to find the pocket change to buy the occasional cassette at Tower Records up the street (or used at Nuggets in Kenmore!) as well as stock up on blanks to record tunes off the radio. I may have still been in a bit of a grumpy mood, but things were looking up. During this second semester I’d finally get my radio show: the 12AM to 3AM shift on WECB AM, and who the hell knew if anyone actually listened, but it was experience!
Peter Murphy, Deep, released 1 January 1990. Murphy’s third album dusts off a lot of the post-punk of his first album and the darkness of his second, leaving an extremely bright sheen. But it was also his breakthrough, with single “Cut You Up” hitting all the major radio stations and even getting airplay on daytime MTV. In my opinion it’s his most commercial, but also his most cohesive record, and it’s a joyful listen.
Inspiral Carpets, Cool As **** EP, released 1 January 1990. Another Mancunian band shuffles out of the club scene and onto American alternative radio, this one leaning heavily on a sixties garage band vibe complete with Farfisa organ. Not as sleek and groovy as The Charlatans UK, but just as danceable and fun.
The Telescopes, To Kill a Slow Girl Walking EP, released 1 January 1990. This British band took the burgeoning noise-rock sound that was gaining a following in the UK and went in all sorts of weird places with it, becoming one of the most loved yet least heard bands of the decade. Each release went in unexpected directions, so one never knew if they’d have a blissed-out groovy dance song, a J&MC-like wall of feedback or some spaced out jam.
John Wesley Harding, Here Comes the Groom, released 5 January 1990. Wesley Stace, under his JWH stage name, burst onto the scene in late 1989 with a few singles and an EP (which featured a quirky acoustic rendition of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, which got some airplay). His early songwriting was smart, funny, and intelligent and damn catchy, gaining a considerable fanbase in Boston. I’d see him play live twice, both times for free, while I lived in the city. He still records now and again, and is currently an author of four books. His 2014 novel Wonderkid was an inspiration for my own novel Meet the Lidwells.
Big Audio Dynamite, “Free” single, 5 January 1990. As the original BAD lineup began to splinter, Mick Jones recorded and released a final single for the soundtrack of the Keifer Sutherland/Dennis Hopper film Flashback. The movie itself got mixed reviews, but the song did get airplay on WFNX at the time.
They Might Be Giants, Flood, released 5 January 1990. TMBG’s third album literally bursts onto the scene with a bright and sunshiney opening theme (“Theme from Flood”, natch) before haphazardly switching to yet another fantastic earworm they’re known for, “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. Like 1988’s Lincoln, this album does feel a bit overlong and straining in places, but it also contains some of their absolute classics, including the ridiculous “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, the goofy “Particle Man” and more.
Various Artists, Super Hits of the 70’s: Have a Nice Day, Volumes 1 – 5, released 5 January 1990. And just like that, listening to cheesy AM classic radio is hip again. This series, which would stretch to a staggering twenty-five volumes, made it hip to hear those same songs you thought were corny and cringey just a few years previous. A few years later, Quentin Tarantino would take a page from this and insert 70s hits into his breakthrough movie Reservoir Dogs.
The The, “Jealous of Youth” single, released 19 January 1990. Before it showed up on the Solitude mini-LP in 1994, this outtake from the Mind Bomb album sessions had a standalone single release that couldn’t have come at a better time. Matt Johnson’s desperation to recapture a youth that’s not so much out of his grasp but perhaps already tainted by the pain of adulthood is stark, painful, and an absolute stunner. A perfect song for a Gen-Xer entering the last decade of the century.
The Black Crowes, Shake Your Money Maker, released 24 January 1990. The Crowes were always bluesy and gospely and they wore their influences for everyone to see. They did sound a bit 80s in their production but that didn’t stop them from becoming wildly popular for nearly the entire decade, always churning out great songs.
Next up: The year moves on, Britpop starts encroaching on US alternative radio, and something about the coolness of a certain deity.