1989 in [Music] Culture

A couple of online interventions lately have turned my thoughts to one of my favourite schemes, namely a journal that published reviews of books, music, films, and so on from a set interval in retrospect. None current, none still angling for awards or clinging to the last weeks of box-office receipts: all post-hype, based strictly on the staying power of what the work accomplished. Since no one has commissioned me to found the NME of retrospective reviewing, and since it’s on my mind, I’ll devote the rest of this blog post to a few comments on cultural production from the year 1989; if I’m satisfied with how that turns out, I’ll post further retro-views on a more or less fortnightly basis, working backward and forward from 1989. (I did this one time before, and never followed it up, ’til today.) I’ll talk about music today, and film tomorrow (if I remember).

1990 Grammies went to — whoa! — Bette Midler for ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, Bonnie Raitt for Nick of Time (both Album of the Year and Rock Vocal, Female), the Traveling Wilburys for their eponymous album, Don Henley’s ‘End of Innocence’, Living Colour’s ‘Cult of Personality’, and the Indigo Girls’ first album (Contemporary Folk Performance). 1990 was also the year Milli Vanilli got a Grammy, only for it to be revoked since lip-synching isn’t the same as musical performance. The Village Voice set the top five as De La Soul, 3 Feet High And Rising; Neil Young, Freedom; Lou Reed, New York; the Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon; and Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi. Rolling Stone chose Don Henley’s The End Of The Innocence as Album of the Year, with the Pixies Doolittle, Neil Young, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and The Rolling Stones’ – Steel Wheels as their top five.

If you had asked me to name my top albums from 1989 without priming me with the above, I’d have said:

The Pixies, Doolittle — speaks for itself, doesn’t it? ‘Debaser’, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’… That’s a top release from 1989 if anything is.

Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi — I’m a big Neneh Cherry supporter, and ‘Buffalo Stance’ is a favourite of mine.

Lyle Lovett & his Large Band (eponymous) — Lovett’s wry-Texas-swing-country sensibility hits several of my favourite points: his wit, the tight ensemble playing, the outsider/underdog perspective. LL&hLB includes some terrific Lovett cuts — ‘Which Way Does That Old Pony Run’, ‘I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You’, ‘Here I Am’, ‘The Blues Walk’ (!), ‘Good Intentions’.

The Beautiful South, Welcome to the Beautiful South — And not just because Paul Heaton namechecks our daughters Philippa and Jennifer in ‘Song for Whoever’. Cf. also ‘You Keep It All In’.

Bob Mould, Workbook — ‘Heartbreak a Stranger’, yes, but ‘See A Little Light’ is so wonderful a composition — and the album could only be by Bob Mould, you recognise it a mile away.

De La Soul, Three Feet High And Rising — If you were to play something from TFHaR for me — except probably “The Magic Number’ — I’d have to look it up and say, “Oh, that’s from Three Feet High, too?’ But a great upsurge of originality (in the good sense) from a formative interval in hip-hop.

Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique — I can’t single out particular tracks from this, but as a whole they put together a remarkably woven album.

The Connells, Fun & Games — Not just for North Carolina local band reasons, but I relish the Connells’ version of jangle pop, and on this album especially “Hey Wow’ and ‘Uninspired’. Speaking of which…

Trashcan Sinatras, Cake — The Trashcans’ first album, with ‘Obscurity Knocks’, leaning forward into their subsequent brilliant albums. And…

The Reivers, End of the Day — A terrific indie album, top to bottom. “Star Telegram’, ‘Discontent of Winter’, ‘Your Secrets Are Not Safe’, and ‘A Cut Above The Rest’, all very fine.

Lou Reed, New York — OK, it’s not Reed at his very best, but some of the cuts are a good reminder that even his just good enough work does a lot better than most performers’ best. However, his spouse…

Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels — I think ‘Baby Doll’ may have gotten the most airplay, but ‘Strange Angels’ breaks me open a little bit every time.

Indigo Girls, (eponymous) — I don’t hold the Grammy against them. If you can’t listen to ‘Closer to Fine’ one more time, there’s ‘Kid Fears’, ‘Land of Canaan’, and ‘Tried To Be True’ and ‘Love’s Recovery’.

That’s less soul and R&B than I’d have thought, but the late ’80s weren’t a generative time for the soul and R&B I love. Some hip-hop, but there would be more if I included late ’88 and early ’90.

3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I’m not sure of the rationale for Living Colour getting a 1990 Grammy for ‘Cult of Personality’ when the single was released 14 July 1988, according to Wikipedia. Maybe the Grammys were influenced by the deferred uptake of the band’s music video, and their mid-’89 appearance on Saturday Night Live.

    1. Looking at the 89 releases, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever might be the one with the most staying power and memorable songs.

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