Why 1990 Was the Best Musical Year of the '90s

Public Enemy, 1988.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X, S1W and Chuck D of Public Enemy pose for a portrait in a studio. 

After focusing on 1994 last week, now, we're wondering what the best year for music was of the '90s. Monday, we make a case for 1990 and 1991.


All right stop, collaborate and listen. It’s hammer time. Strike a pose, rock the cradle, and then enjoy the silence. If you can hold on for one more day, you might just get a slice of that sweet cherry pie. But be careful. You can never trust a big butt and a smile.

These were the mixed messages brought to us by the pop giants of 1990, a year of glorious highs, shocking lows, and a whole lot of Wilson Phillips. It was the start of the decade that pushed “grunge” and “gangsta” into the lexicon, and yet, according to Billboard’s year-end Top 100, the biggest rock and rap songs were by Billy Idol and Vanilla Ice, respectively. That is, unless you count Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” and MC Skat Kat’s rap on Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract,” which dropped in November ’89 but didn’t hit No. 1 for a few months. Either way, the bold new era just around the corner hadn’t quite arrived.

That's what makes 1990 the greatest musical year of the greatest musical decade not called the ‘60s or the ‘80s. It didn't bring truckloads of transcendent albums, like '91 or '94, nor did it delight with the mindless teen-pop and nu-metal pleasures of '98 or '99. It was a great big neon-colored New Jack mess, and before the ‘90s could really get swinging, the last vestiges of the ‘80s had to be swept from the room. It was such a scary and exciting time that we needed two songs called "Hold On."

Speaking of holding on, Wilson Phillips and En Vogue weren’t the only ones. Pop’s old guard was hanging tough but showing signs of wear. Phil Collins and Billy Joel loomed large with late-‘89 holdovers about being old white men, and taken together, their chart-topping singles left 30- and 40-somethings feeling simultaneously guilty about their wealth ("Another Day In Paradise") and blameless in instigating the world’s problems ("We Didn't Start the Fire"). Aging boomers must have been even more confused than teenagers trying to decide if Jane Child's ear-to-nose chain was a better look than Sinead O'Connor's shaved head.

Amid all the frivolity, there was Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy's multi-front sonic war against everything wicked, and Depeche Mode's dark and sensual Violator. If 1990 had only given us these two albums, it would be worth building a time machine to revisit. Produced by the aptly named Bomb Squad, Black Planet is 40 years of pop music and four centuries of complex racial politics packed into aural shotgun shells and blasted into the brain at point-blank range.

“I got so much trouble on my mind,” Chuck D raps at the start of “Welcome to the Terrordome," the disc's second single. His problems weren’t remotely similar to the personal issues plaguing Depeche songwriter Martin Gore, a man seemingly haunted by his desires, but both groups fused modern beats with bits of the past (the Bomb Squad’s beaucoup samples, the Mode’s traces of American roots music) to create songs that still enrage and seduce us 24 years later.

In 2015, Violator and Fear of a Black Planet will get loads of silver-anniversary love. MC Skat Kat probably won’t. But it’s like Paula sang: “One step forward, two steps back.” That was the dance of 1990. It made for an awkward, anticipatory feeling that’s never gone away. It must have been love.