When most people think of music in the early 90s, usually they either mention the slow rise and dominance of the Grunge scene, or they think of the popularity of Britpop with the UK and American anglophiles. What’s often forgotten is that there was a brief time where straight-ahead alternative rock — the kind one often links with radio friendly bands like Collective Soul and so on — started making its presence known as well. It wasn’t as harsh or as emotional as Grunge and not as freewheeling as Britpop, but it was still full of strong melody and musicianship. [These bands, sadly, would be the first to feel the pain of losing label support and the goalposts of success shifting quickly out of their reach.] Still, it amazes me how positive most of this stuff sounded at the time. Perhaps it was the hope of a new decade, or the influence of uplifting pop, but either way, it brought about many new and exciting sounds.
Tribe, Here at the Home EP, released 1 February 1990. Tribe is one of my all-time favorite Boston bands, because they were such amazing songwriters. They embraced that autumnal post-punk sound — a collegiate pop, in a way — and always put on a great show. This EP was a local release that got the attention of Warner/Slash Records, who released two further albums from them before their breakup.
King Missile, Mystical Shit, released 1 February 1990. John S Hall is that guy down the hall in your dorm that was quiet and unassuming yet a little bit…odd. His music was simple and often repetitive, but it was the lyrics you had to listen to, because they were often hilarious (and not safe at all for work). A few years before his unexpected radio hit with “Detachable Penis”, he came out with a wonderful ode to the Son of God that became a college radio favorite.
The House of Love, The House of Love, released 1 February 1990. Not to be confused with their 1988 album of the same name (different album altogether), this one helped bring them into the conscience of US modern rock radio with hits “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” and “The Beatles and the Stones”.
Depeche Mode, “Enjoy the Silence” single, released 5 February 1990. A follow-up to their preview single “Personal Jesus”, this became a worldwide hit and remains one of their most famous songs ever. Hearing this for the first time, I remember thinking that they’d not just written a song better than any one of the tracks on 1987’s Music for the Masses, they’d just dropped their best song ever. [I also remember that my hipster roommate hated this song because it was popular.]
Midnight OIl, Blue Sky Mining, released 9 February 1990. The Aussie band’s follow-up to the mega-popular Diesel & Dust didn’t quite hit the same heights, but that really was never their intention in the first place.
The Fall, Extricate, released 19 February 1990. The Fall’s studio follow-up to I Am Kurious Oranj took them in an unexpected direction: catchy, radio-friendly pop. Mark E Smith might still have been growling about the frustrations and crankiness of British life, but there was a groove to it now, and it made songs like the super catchy “Telephone Thing” memorable.
Primal Scream, Loaded EP, released 19 February 1990. A year before the phenomenal and universally beloved Screamadelica album, the band dropped an odd EP featuring a song that was really just a hazy dub remix by Andrew Weatherall of their single “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have”. Tack a Peter Fonda movie sample at the beginning, and you have a ridiculously popular Britpop anthem that gets airplay to this day.
The Beloved, Happiness, released 20 February 1990. This electronic dance band had been around for quite some time in the UK, originally as a new-wave band, and you can still hear evidence of their origins on this relentlessly positive, groove-laden album. It’s one of my favorite albums of this period and you should definitely give it a listen.
Del Amitri, Waking Hours, released 20 February 1990. Quite a few years before their Beatlesque “Roll to Me” became their popular radio hit, this band was a favorite of AOR and Adult Alternative stations with their slightly-countrified-blues rock. “Kiss This Thing Goodbye” became their first big hit and got quite a lot of airplay in the early 90s.
The Church, Gold Afternoon Fix, released 22 February 1990. Even this band sounded rather chipper this time around, having dialed back the moodiness and heavy reverb a bit. This album definitely has that early 90s crisp production sound, which in fact worked in their favor, helping the single “Metropolis” get considerable airplay.
Lush, Mad Love EP, released 26 February 1990. This second EP brought out the band’s best qualities — the jangly guitars and off-center melodies — and made them shine even brighter, leading their label 4AD into a new chapter of dreamlike noise rock.
Listen in Silence III: The Singles mixtape, made 28 February 1990. My first mixtape of the 90s might look like it was basically WFNX’s playlist of the same era, and you’d be right. As much as I loved college radio, Boston College’s WZBC was just a bit too leftfield most of the time and my own college’s FM station a little too committed to ticking all the genre boxes. ‘FNX was my go-to station on my stereo, on my Walkman, and even on the radio at the library Media Center. There are a few quirks and deep cuts here, however, most of them either recent used record store purchases or favorite album tracks. Not one of my favorite mixtapes, but it did its job at the time.
So. Despite withering grades and annoying roommates and distant girlfriends, I was in a much better place by the time spring semester rolled around. I realized that the worst I could do is fall into yet another moody spiral. It was about this time that I’d started a new composition book for my lyrics and poetry, and being a bit less restrictive about it. A lot of the writing from this time came out in shards, sometimes a few lines and sometimes a full piece. The style had changed a bit from my gloomy Cure-influence phase into something just a little bit more worldly. I still felt terrible half the time, but I’d figured out a few workarounds by then.
Next Up: High weirdness and the birth of several alt-pop hits!