Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1990

1990 is a big year for me. As in, it’s the year I was born. It’s also a year whose Top 5 reveals another major galaxy in my musical universe: power pop. Now, I love experimental music, progressive epics, synthesizers and sequenced beats, Wagnerian operas and Baroque inventions. But there are few better things in this world than a three minute pop song with chiming guitars and a big chorus. And the early-to-mid 90s, whatever its other musical shortcomings (read: grunge), was a great time for power pop: Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, the Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Adam Schmitt… You can expect to see more of it.

5. DEAR 23 (The Posies)

Dear 23

Ken Stringfellow and Jonathan Auer almost name-check the Beatles with album highlight “Golden Blunders.” Then, two years later, Ringo Starr would take that song, titled after a song he played on, in the style of the band he played in, and cover it on his comeback Time Takes Time. Surreal. On the whole, though, the Fabs’ influence is only felt indirectly, as is the case for most power pop. The likes of Big Star and Badfinger loom larger, especially in the ringing guitars and pitch-perfect harmonies.

4. GOODBYE JUMBO (World Party)

Goodbye Jumbo

Vocally, Karl Wallinger reminds me a lot of Jeff Lynne, and his songs, with their bold melodies and lush arrangements, definitely have a bit of an ELO feel to them. But you get quite a lot of the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan here as well, not to mention shades of Wallinger’s mid-80s association with the Waterboys. But his wry send-up of “Please Mr. Postman” in the midst of “When the Rainbow Comes” tells you everything you need to know: Wallinger is aware of, indeed, indebted to, the past, but he’s his own man.

3. ARMCHAIR THEATRE (Jeff Lynne)

Armchair Theatre

Speaking of ELO, Jeff Lynne was pretty much on top of the world in 1990.  Most of his energy since 1986’s Balance of Power seemed to have been channeled into producing and writing for/with pretty much every musician who’d ever influenced him. As it turned out, though, he’d also been writing some fine songs of his own, including the infectious “Every Little Thing,” the soaring “Lift Me Up,” and the truly gorgeous “Blown Away,” making for his best album since ELO’s Time.

2. ENLIGHTENMENT (Van Morrison)

Enlightenment

As you might guess from its title, Enlightenment isn’t exactly a radical departure from Van’s spiritually-infused albums of the 1980s. Perhaps the biggest difference is that here, paeans to God (“Youth of 1,000 Summers”) alternate with more corporeal love songs (“She’s My Baby”) and uptempo R&B shouters (“Real Real Gone”). Their common denominator? An intense, indefinable yearning that reaches its twin apotheoses in the majestic “Avalon of the Heart” and the nostalgic, imagistic “In the Days Before Rock n’ Roll.”

1. BELLYBUTTON (Jellyfish)

Bellybutton

It seems to me that Bellybutton, and its follow-up Spilt Milk, have exercised an influence that far exceeds their modest commercial success, setting the template for retro revivalists for literally decades to come – to call something “Beatles-esque” anymore often means “Jellyfish-esque.” For all its 60s trappings though–and there are plenty of them, from the technicolor cover art to the Beach Boys harmonies to the jaunty harpsichords–this is timeless pop music of the highest caliber. Whether it was released in 1966, 1990, or 2014 is irrelevant.

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3 Responses to Tom’s Top 5’s: Albums of 1990

  1. Great list. I own…and love…them all, none more than “Bellybutton.” I was fortunate to see Jellyfish on that tour, ironically in support of World Party. Jellyfish was so amazing, and World party so average, that I actually left 30 minutes into WP’s set. Not that they were terrible, but I was tired and still basking in the glow of the superior opening act. Also saw Jellyfish on their 2nd & final tour, with the revamped lineup. Different but just as good, and still the best live 4-part harmonies I’ve ever heard. “Timeless pop music of the highest caliber” indeed.

    • Tom Emanuel says:

      Ahh, don’t you hate it when the opening act blows the headliner out of the water? I had a similar experience seeing Bob Dylan live a couple of years ago. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan (even now that he kind of can’t sing), and he has a great band. But his opener was Mark Knopfler. Who’s pretty much my favorite guitarist on the planet. After being transported to Stratocaster Nirvana, even seeing the Dylan was a let-down. I also imagine this is how folks who saw Led Zeppelin open for Country Joe & the Fish back in ’68-9.

      • I like how you phrased it as “he kind of can’t sing.” I’m a big Dylan fan as well, but I understand why his voice (especially over the last 20 years) has been such a turn-off for so many people. Fortunately he continues to crank out some excellent albums this late in his career, and I seem to be one of the few fans who really likes his Christmas album.

        I only saw him once, doing a co-headlining show Santana. I don’t remember who played first, but as good as Dylan’s band was at the time (early- or mid-90s) they were no match for Santana who were always smokin’.

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