The 5 Best Albums of 1990

Honourable Mentions: Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas, the Sundays’ Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, Pixies’ Bossanova

Why 1990?: I don’t have any particular strong connection to 1990; I, myself, was born in 1991, so it would make more sense to start there. Except, all of those critically acclaimed albums released in 1991 – NevermindBlue Lines, Screamadelica, The Low End Theory – they bore me, not because they’re boring, but because they’ve been written about, over and over again. I’m also a big advocate of some years being better than others, and 1990 wasn’t particularly wow-worthy, but the top three albums in this list. Aye, they’re something special and worth writing about.

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#5. A Tribe Called Quest – People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths to Rhythm

Less jazzy than what’s to come, but friendlier, funnier and more colourful. An afternoon to The Low End Theory‘s evening or Midnight Marauder’s (erm) midnight.

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#4. Sonic Youth – Goo

Wherein a defiantly indie band crosses over towards the mainstream by signing onto Geffen, collaborating with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and writing hooks. It remains defiantly indie, just with a bigger sound.

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#3. The KLF – Chill Out

It’s a cliche to call an album a trip, but this one certainly was; mixing field recordings with Kraftwerk’s ideas of locomotion on Autobahn and Trans Europe Europe to create an American ambient soundscape was the sort of thing that could only work once, so be happy the first people who attempted it did such a great job. It gets to the point that listening to Elvis Presley waft through the car speakers sounds just as poignant and listening to him properly.

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#2. Klara Kormendi – Piano Works (Selection) (Erik Satie)

This is my favorite single-disc collection of Erik Satie because it simultaneously does away with pesky notions about classical music and about Erik Satie himself. Breaking that down a bit: there’s been a lot of troublesome statements made about the genre by people who apparently care about music because the name implies high art and because the sheets imply technicality; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “serious music…”. None of these things are sexy, and more importantly, classical music doesn’t have to be high art, or technical, or serious music. (To say nothing of the implication from the OED definition that other genres are not serious.) Which brings me to Erik Satie, whose music encompasses “low art”, was often simple and was sometimes funny. (Which you might be able to gather from the titles, but he also embedded witty comments in the sheet music.) (On stuff that’s not visible to listeners, I’ve always enjoyed that the sheet music for “Gnossiennes” features no bar lines, which further lends them a feeling of eternity.) Not that you would know any of that, listening to (for example) the more popular collection by Reinbert De Leeuw (Gnossiennes; Gymnopédies; Ogives; Trois sarabandes; Petite ouverture à danser, 1995) which has an ethereal portrait of Satie (to match against the badassery of more-famous portraits of more-famous composers; the cross-armed Liszt and the stern-faced Beethoven) and captures only Satie’s melancholy. Frankly, I’m bothered by notions that reduce Satie as only melancholy meant for background listening (which partly stems from my distaste of consuming music passively, although I might as well plug here that I confess I under-rated Ambient 1: Music for Airports – obviously Satie-inspired – in my hot-headed years). If you only had Satie’s “Gnossiennes” and “Gymnopédies” (which are available here, in fine renditions though likely not their definitive ones; she’s a bit fast on the first “Gnossienne”), you would get none of the laser-show of “Veritables Preludes Flasques” (which works wonders as the opener here) or the fleet-footed “Celle qui parle top” or the hilarious satire of “Embryons desséchés de Podophthalma” (which mocks Beethoven in its ridiculous conclusion) or the busy street celebration of “Rag-Time Parade” (odd-note at the 0:54 mark?). I confess that after dozens of listens, it’s still hard for me to distinguish between the individual pieces of two sets of “Enfantines” (tracks 8-13; pieces written for children to play; the easiest of the bunch, which don’t invoke black keys or a lot of movement) that appear here other than the slow one (“Berceuse”) and some of the other short ones, but I’m still glad to have them at the end of the day. And the second movement of “Embryons desséchés” doesn’t do much for me, particularly because the theme recalls a heavier take of Claude Debussy’s “Brouillards” (written just before). What’s more: this 36-song collection doesn’t touch on one of the earliest (if not the earliest) instances of prepared piano (“Le piège de Méduse”) or pre-minimalism (“Vexations”), but Klara Kormendi’s four following collections help bridge the gap.

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#1. John Zorn/Naked City – Naked City.

This album might change your life, or at least, might change how you perceive jazz. It did for me, anyway: it opened my eyes to a new language and a whole new night-time. This album took my virginity. This is his best album, wherein Zorn reigns in his postmodern tendencies for flashes of melodies between his trademark attack. The results: a lot of humour (ie. the cartoon gunshots in “The James Bond Theme”; the way the keyboardist seems to slam his entire forearm on the keyboard in the same song); soundtracks for films never made (ie. “Contempt”); diversity (ie. “N.Y. Flat Top Box” shifts from country to freakout and back again and so on); exoticism (ie. “The Sicilian Clan”; “Latin Quarter”); etc. It’s all here, sometimes all packed in the same 1-minute song.

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One response to “The 5 Best Albums of 1990

  1. Total props for including Satie in your list! You remind me that my collection is sorely lacking more of his work. It’s been ages since I heard that Zorn, but you’re right. Gotta get me some more of that too!

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