Skim through the back catalogue of the past 60 years of popular music and it’s easy to find incredible, groundbreaking, oh-my-god-what-is-this-it’s-the-best-thing-I’ve-ever-heard albums at every turn. Well, almost. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the most shocking 12 months that the charts ever had to face; 1990.
The fact that 1990 was so damn terrible was made all the stranger by the fact that 1989 was extremely decent. 1989 – in fact – was killer. There was The Stone Roses’ debut, every smug Beastie Boys fan’s fave, ‘Paul’s Boutique’, De La Soul’s shimmering ‘Three Feet High and Rising’, Neneh Cherry’s ‘Raw Like Sushi’, Nirvana’s debut ‘Bleach’, Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’, Kate Bush’s ‘The Sensual World’, and, let us never forget, Prince’s Batman soundtrack.
It was records like these which drove so many nails into the coffin of the grotesquely flash 1980s. Here was a new, giddy kind of experimentation, helped along by the invention of grunge, hip-hop’s transformation into the most powerful genre in the world and a liberal smattering of ecstasy. Things could only get better. Or could they?
For some reason 1990 stalled at the first hurdle – the wet, British indie which had so ruled the 1980s with its trenchcoats and mothballed cardigans wouldn’t morph into ballsy Britpop for another year or so, with Blur’s 1991 debut ‘Leisure’ bridging the gap between baggy and the world-dominating scene that would come to define the UK until Pulp’s lavish fin de siècle masterpiece ‘This Is Hardcore’ bought an end to the party. Instead the alternative side of 1990 in the UK was defined largely by scuzzy grebo groups with names like ‘Ned’s Atomic Dustbin’. Unlike grunge, acid house and baggy, it’s a scene which has unsurprisingly never experienced a revival, not least because most people wash their clothes more than once a month these days.
Alongside the tie-dyed second hand army trouser wearing flocks of grebos, in 1990 the UK charts were flooded with half-arsed, self-indulgent solo records written by middle aged 1970s rockstars who seemed to be only putting these unnecessary albums into the world so they could get a new conservatory and settle out of court with their second wife.
1990 was the year that Iron Maiden’s frontman Bruce Dickinson literally released an album called ‘Tattooed Millionaire’. It was the year that Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, Robert Palmer, Steve Winwood, Paul Simon, Hall & Oates, Van Morrison, Jeff Lynne and Robert Plant all released their most forgettable records. There was even a Ringo Starr live album. Who on earth needs a Ringo Starr live album? The dreary ‘Behind The Mask’, the first Fleetwood Mac album since Lindsey Buckingham left the band for the first time – a trick he’d repeat in 2018 – also came out in 1990. What won the Grammy for Record of the Year? Phil Collins’ ‘Another Day in Paradise’. We rest our case.
There are of course exceptions, but these only help prove the rule. So thank you to Public Enemy for ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ and Happy Mondays for ‘Pills Thrills and Bellyaches’, which gave the cursed year’s music lovers something to prove that not all hope was gone, music to prove that maybe, one day, decent records would find a way again.
And they did. By 1991, equilibrium was restored. People did their best to forget that they’d been subjected to Vanilla Ice’s debut album and instead found solace in ‘Nevermind’, ‘Screamadelica’, ‘The Low End Theory’, ‘Blue Lines’, ‘Pretty on The Inside’, ‘Loveless’, ‘Cypress Hill’, ‘Naughty by Nature’, ‘Electric Landlady’, ‘Use Your Illusion Parts I and II’ and, we’re gonna say it, Enya’s ‘Shepherd Moons’.