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1990's best (and worst) music

1990’s best (and worst) music — Why we loved Sinead O’Connor and Jane’s Addiction, but despised Rick Wes and Carly Simon

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THE BEST

1. Sinead O’Connor
I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
Her visible uneasiness — apparent every time she does anything in public other than sing — belies her album’s title. But still the record is a spiritual victory, full of wisdom wrested from audible pain. Musically, it moves from one surprise to another. There are yielding songs, angry songs, intensely quiet songs, and even one number that is almost frightening — joined together by the raw intimacy of O’Connor’s sometimes surging, sometimes half-broken singing voice.

2. Paul Simon
The Rhythm of the Saints
Sheer beauty. You can argue all you want about Simon’s relationship with the African and Brazilian styles he incorporates — Does he honor them? Does he just rip them off? — but the proof of the music is in the listening. This is gorgeous stuff, spiritually potent, with its utter integrity nowhere in doubt.

3. Youssou N’Dour
Set
He came from Senegal, promoted to the Western world by Peter Gabriel, and, despite his urgent vocal appeal, seemed until now like a pop wanna-be. But not anymore. On this, his third album of new songs for a major American label, N’Dour left Gabriel behind and went out on his own with a multinational band, combining styles from African to salsa into some of the canniest, most gripping music of the year.

4. Jane’s Addiction
Ritual de lo Habitual
At first hearing, this L.A. band’s second album seems like a pretentious mess. But later, after the record’s wild, almost desperate passion begins to kick in, it becomes impossible to forget.

5. Prince
Graffiti Bridge
Well, it hit the charts. But Grafitti Bridge hardly made Prince king of pop again. And yet neither its success nor its failure (nor, for that matter, the amiable weakness of the film from which the music came) seems to matter. Prince may have now transcended pop; this album has a depth and a carefree complexity that make its commercial fortune completely beside the point.

6. Sonic Youth
Goo
Plenty of rock bands once deemed ”alternative” attempted to enter the mainstream in 1990, but few did it with such guitar-crunching quirkiness as this New York group. On their first album for a major label, Sonic Youth tip their hats to UFOs, Karen Carpenter, and groupies. Their music, built around the guitars of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, moves from lush, airy chords to brutalizing power riffing — the bristling sound of rock in the future.

7. The Silos
The Silos
Although they’re based in New York, the Silos don’t sound like Manhattanites. This album, their first for a major label after a string of releases by their own independent record company, is straight from the classic-rock heartland: billowy songs, wry lyrics about everyday life and love, homey vocals from leader Walter Salas-Humara, and guitar leads straight out of the Neil Young songbook.

8. Rosanne Cash
Interiors
Cash has spent her entire career bucking the Nashville assembly line; this sparely produced album of brooding confessionals is her most intense yet. Made up entirely of Cash originals and recorded with a small, primarily acoustic band, Interiors casts an unblinking eye on inner turbulence, marital strife, and outright depression. For a downer, the album is actually a real high.

9. Ernie Isley
High Wire
One of the year’s left-field surprises: Acting more or less as a one-man band, the youngest of the Isley brothers delivered a sleek, punchy collection of hard-rock R&B, with plenty of six-string pyrotechnics and solid songs that both Luther Vandross and Living Colour would kill for. Neither straightforward rock nor soul, it fell between the cracks at radio stations and, unfortunately, became one of the year’s lost treasures. But it’s a real find, especially for the uninitiated.

10. 808 State
Utd. State 90
808 State (named after a Roland TR-808 drum machine) may be trendy in their native England, but their brand of brainy dance music came as a complete surprise here. Who’d have thought dance could sound so tough-minded, and at the same time so irrepressible?

Best Country

The Kentucky Headhunters
Pickin’ On Nashville
A bodacious blend of country, bluegrass, and boogie, this exceptional debut recording by two sets of longhaired brothers and a cousin turned Nashville a little to the left at a time it was leaning far to the right. — Alanna Nash

Best Jazz

The Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra
The Hearinga Suite
Big-band music lives. Abrams’ suite stands as a splendid banquet of recipes from the avant-mainstream: rich orchestral voicings (sparked with synth), heady solos, dreamy ballads, weird chants. — Gary Giddins

Best Classical

Beethoven
Diabelli Variations; Alfred Brendel, piano
No other Beethoven piano piece is as rich in humor and invention as these brilliant glosses on Diabelli’s little waltz. Brendel’s virtuoso performance is a dashing display of pianistic art. — Michael Walsh

THE WORST

1. Rick Wes
North, South, East, Wes
This record — sung by a teenage Elvis clone — may well be the shallowest album ever made. What’s most amazing, though, is that it was produced by Maurice Starr, inventor of New Kids on the Block, who, if nothing else, is a seasoned pro. Nearly as astounding is that the record’s opening track is quite literally a commercial, a hype-filled promotion for the hapless music that follows.

2. Wilson Phillips
Yes, they come from a fine musical heritage: the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas. But that hardly redeems music so oily slick that the CD nearly slips out of its jewelbox.

3. The Luke LP, featuring the 2 Live Crew
Banned in the U.S.A.
Any rap group with boasts this lame normally couldn’t get arrested. In fact, the 2 Live Crew did — but that doesn’t make their unlively rap any better.

4. Andrew Ridgeley
Son of Albert
Aside from a few decent singles courtesy of George Michael, we barely needed Wham! and we need a solo album by its silent member even less.

5. Milli Vanilli
The Remix Album
What’s next — a live album?

6. Donny Osmond
Eyes Don’t Lie
His second comeback album is, amazingly, even blander and more anonymous than the first. Stubble and synthesizers do not, it turns out, make the man.

7. Harry Connick Jr.
Lofty’s Roach Soufflé and We Are in Love
These albums were released as a pair, as if one alone couldn’t satisfy Connick’s ambition. Lofty’s Roach Soufflé is jazz, played in a style that’s almost a carbon copy of the late (and much greater) Thelonious Monk. But the sudden pauses and knotty clusters of unexpected notes that were marks of Monk’s greatness sound, in Connick’s hands, like mistakes. We Are in Love is pop, of an old-fashioned sort, which Connick sings and plays with more than a little charm. But it is the charm of a used-car salesman who hopes you won’t notice how rusty the autos on his lot really are.

8. Carly Simon
My Romance
A lovely woman sinks under the weight of pop standards, which, to judge from the strain in her voice, are just too hard for her to sing.

9. Jon Bon Jovi
Blaze of Glory
Jon put on his cowboy boots and hat, strapped on his acoustic guitar, and cranked out an album of overwrought songs for the brat-pack Western Young Guns II. In comparison, his earlier Wanted Dead or Alive sounds like Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

10. David Cassidy
If Donny Osmond as king of the dance floor was hard to take, imagine the former Keith Partridge as ersatz hard rocker, the forgotten member of Journey. His heavy-metal remake of the ’50s classic ”Hi-Heel Sneakers,” with a bit of ”I Think I Love You” electronically sampled within it, is one of the year’s high-camp highlights.


Mix and Match

Faith No More merged rap and metal, DNA turned Suzanne Vega into techno-folk, and the 2 Live Crew incorporated Bruce Springsteen into one of their raps — just a few examples of the musical barrier-breaking that went on all year.


Least Likely Success Story

Fifty-two years after his death, seminal Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson cracked the Billboard Top 100 with a boxed set of his work, which sold more than 175,000 copies in the U.S.


Most Overhyped Debut

Mariah Carey. Sure, she can sing — with the earnest intensity of a newly hatched angel. But what she sings is another story. Can anyone remember even one of her songs?


Rock the Vote Award

U.S. Representative Jean Dixon, a Missouri Republican and the country’s leading proponent of government-sanctioned record labeling, lost a reelection bid to a real-estate salesman.


Worst Album Title

Various Artists, It Ain’t Over ‘Til She Sings ”She” being the fat lady of operatic fame. There’s nothing wrong with the contents of this record, which offers a collection of arias sung by eight leading divas. But the title (surely the crassest musical marketing concept of the year) is positively insulting. Did anyone at CBS care that one of the singers, Ileana Cotrubas, is notably slight, that another, Kiri Te Kanawa, is a willowy beauty — and that a third, Renata Scotto, fought a famously successful battle to reduce her weight?


Most Obnoxious Hair

Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, those long-maned, blond twins who front the band Nelson. They’re Ricky’s sons, and they’re the prettiest boys on MTV. At least they didn’t do a power-ballad remake of ”Travelin’ Man.”


Worst Rock Video

George Michael, ”Freedom 90.” The boy makes his second album and wants to shed his sex-god image. The last thing he’s going to do is show his pretty face in a video — he’s serious now, see? So he takes the song in which he says all this and makes a video that is lip-synched by five sleek models, caught in what look like outtakes from some erotic film. And we’re supposed to believe he’s rejecting their lifestyle?