All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons
By Andrew Daly
For rock music, the 1990s would prove to be a decade steeped in duality.
With the ghost of the 80s staring record executives, and musicians alike in the face, one thing was clear: a storm was brewing.
Once lionized, the grandeur and outrageous decadence of the 80s was steadily replaced by a grittier reality based on punk ethos and DIY mentality.
For better or worse, rock was headed in a new and often exciting direction, with multitudes of “grunge” bands peppering the scene with dynamic, lyrical contexts and less complex instrumentation.
Still, not all the air had been let out of the proverbial balloon, with the earlier part of the decade still housing some good-time music that many devout fans had come to know and love.
In other sectors, the unsuspecting masses were treated to doses of 70s-inspired rock, aggressive thrash greatness, Philly’s finest, and NYC-bred “street metal,” the likes of which had never been seen and never again duplicated.
All in all, the music of the 90s had a lot to offer in terms of diversity, raw emotion, experimentation, and even a few unexpected wrenches thrown into the works for good measure.
While we’ve all got our favorites, below are 25 albums that I feel shaped the decade’s first year, 1990.
Bruce Dickinson – Tattooed Millionaire
Stand out track: “Tattooed Millionaire”
If nothing else, Tattooed Millionaire proved that Bruce Dickinson was capable of making a solid album without the influence of Steve Harris. While the album is brimming with quality music, ultimately, its greatest significance may well be that it gave Dickinson the confidence to vacate his post as Iron Maiden’s frontman eventually. While the journey’s results varied, Dickinson’s initial effort remains stout in retrospect. It’s also significant as this record began Dickinson’s working relationship with guitarist Janick Gers who would go on to join Maiden and remains to this day.
Deep Purple – Slaves and Masters
Standout track: “The Cut Runs Deep”
Fans of the mighty Deep Purple will remember Slaves and Masters as a true outlier within the veteran outfit’s catalog. Serving as Joe Lynn Turner’s only effort with the band, Deep Purple’s thirteenth record was not particularly well-loved upon its release in the fall of 1990. The passing of time has been kind to the album, though, and in my opinion, this dusty gem features some of Richie Blackmore’s finest fretwork in decades.
ZZ Top – Recycler
Standout track: “Penthouse Eyes”
The late 80s saw the formerly blues-driven trio diverge into synth-tinged territory. It’s hard to argue with the decision, as albums such as Eliminator (1982) and Afterburner (1985) were both smashing successes. As an objective listener, by 1990, it seemed that the band had grown weary of the format, and while Recycler debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 Chart, the album tanked critically. It came with no surprise that ZZ Top went on to drop the synths thereafter.
Black Sabbath – Tyr
Standout track: “Anno Mundi”
Steeped in Norse mythology and with Tony Martin at the helm, Tyr is often overlooked within the canon of Black Sabbath. Far be it for me to claim that Tyr is one of Sabbath’s best records, but still, to my ears, the record has its merits. You’d be disappointed if you were hoping for Ozzy or Dio stylings here. If you went into Tyr with an open mind, you might have come out pleasantly surprised.
Love/Hate – Blackout in the Red Room
Standout track: “Straightjacket”
Unfairly lumped in with hair metal, Love/Hate was significantly darker than most of their contemporaries. With an often incouragbale frontman Jizzy Pearl at the helm, Love/Hate polarized fans and critics alike. In the wake of Blackout in the Red Room’s release, fans and critics didn’t quite know what to do with the band, and as time would go on, critics didn’t help the cause, making Love/Hate shows out to be more about antics, and less about music.
Trouble – Trouble
Standout track: “Heaven on My Mind”
The influence of Trouble cannot be understated. Criminally overlooked in the 1980s, with Psalm 9 (1984), The Skull (1985), and Run to the Light (1987) being generally ignored save for the band’s devout cult following. While 1990’s Trouble would unfortunately not break that cycle, it did show the world what the fivesome was capable of given a proper studio setting. Upon further listening, Def American was a wonderful home for Trouble, and Rick Rubin elicited torrential sounds from Bruce Franklin and the original purveyors of doom.
Robert Plant – Manic Nirvana
Standout track: “Big Love”
Often remembered for its most commercially viable track, “Big Love,” Manic Nirvana would go on to amount to so much more for Robert Plant. After foggily moving through the 80s making solid, if not mediocre music, Plant seemingly entered the 90s with a chip on his shoulder, and with the release of Manic Nirvana, fans were treated to Plant’s best work since his days with Led Zeppelin. While Manic Nirvana remains an excellent record, its greatest significance may be that it saw Plant return to form. Some 32 years later, Plant never did come down from that newly established high.
Iron Maiden – No Prayer for the Dying
Standout track: “Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter”
By 1990, Iron Maiden no longer found themselves on solid ground. The sonic landscape of rock music was changing. In just a few years, Maiden had gone from standing at the top of the proverbial mountain to duking it out with younger and grungier types, who had little to no interest in the veteran band’s exotic theatrics. With Bruce Dickinson’s eye fixed on a burgeoning solo career, No Prayer for Dying now reads as a stark metaphor for a band gasping for life and grasping at straws.
Warrant – Cherry Pie
Standout track: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
It could be said that Warrant’s Cherry Pie ironically serves as the most duality-stricken record of the entire glam metal era. While Cherry Pie can be considered the glorified apex of an age, it’s easy to remember it as the beginning of the end. A mere 12 months later, bands such as Warrant and frontmen such as Jani Lane would be old news, out of style, and out of work. Still, Cherry Pie is one rager of an album.
Poison – Flesh & Blood
Standout track: “Something to Believe In”
In the wake of world-beating success, drug addiction, hard living, and wild parties with Flesh & Blood, Poison took a step back and seemingly matured with their flagship album of the decade. Flesh & Blood put the world on notice that Poison was more than mediocrity caked in makeup, and in doing so, for my money, Bret Michaels, Rikki Rockett, Bobby Dahl, and C.C. DeVille made what is still Poison’s best record.
Anthrax – Persistence of Time
Standout track: “One Man Stands”
After a Grammy nomination, a gold certification, and peaking at No. 24 on the Billboard Charts, it could be said that Persistence of Time needs no introduction. As one of Anthrax’s most sonically dense and lyrically mature records, the classic lineup of Frank Bello, Joey Belladonna, Scott Ian, Dan Spitz, and Charlie Banante delivered a powerful punch of thrash metal in an era that steadfastly called for alternative stylings. Anthrax’s defiance paid off, as Persistence of Time may well be the band’s finest hour and certainly its most critically acclaimed.
Dio – Lock Up the Wolves
Standout track: “Hey Angel”
After spending the 80s dominating stages across the globe, Dio’s patience with his longstanding and highly successful veteran band had grown thin. In an act of frustration, the singer jettisoned his entire band and moved to hire an entirely new and much younger outfit. While many were considered, Dio ultimately settled on Simon Wright, Teddy Cook, Jens Johansson, and an 18-year-old guitar prodigy, Rowan Robertson. The results were staggering, and in short: Lock Up the Wolves is both a defiant and defining moment for the legendary singer.
Heavens Edge – Heavens Edge
Standout track: “Skin to Skin”
Fronted by the effervescent Mark Evans, who was ably flanked by guitar virtuoso, Reggie Wu, Philadelphia’s Heaven’s Edge seemed a band primed for success. And while the band could have and should have been at the front of the commercial class, in the end, 1990’s Heaven’s Edge was criminally ignored by the masses. As with many from the era, Heaven’s Edge retains a faithful following and is said to be in the studio working on its long-awaited studio return.
Salty Dog – Every Dog Has Its Day
Standout track: “Come Along”
Bundled in along the masses, Salty Dog arrived along with the final wave of bands torridly signed by major labels in the late 80s and early 90s. Far bluesier and more of a throwback, Salty Dog possessed a charismatic front man in Jimmi Bleacher, an able six-stringer in Pete Reeven, and a booming rhythm section in Michael Hannon and Khurt Maier. Salty Dog’s debut was far less glam and much more blues-driven, Zeppelin worship. Those who have heard Every Dog Has Its Day know its heart-pounding nature. Still, far too many haven’t listened to this record. To this day, I will never understand why in the same year, The Black Crowes hit, and Salty Dog didn’t.
Judas Priest – Painkiller
Standout track: “Leather Rebel”
Mythical in nature and nearly universally revered, the backend of the 80s found Judas Priest in a slight downturn both creatively and commercially. When the group entered Miraval Studios in 1990, the fivesome stumbled upon the old magic and crafted one of the fiercest, primal, and evocative records of the band’s career. While Priest has reached a great many heights eternal, few of their records evoke the emotion and reach the decibel level of Painkiller.
Neil Young – Ragged Glory
Standout track: “Country Home”
Neil Young might have spent the 80s in a bubble of blissful experimentation, but at the dawning of the 1990s, never to be outdone, the veteran rocker returned to his grunge roots. To my ears, Ragged Glory serves as a stroke of ironic genius. My meaning? Well, while many musicians half his age laid claim to the genre’s prominence, in reality, Young had been laying grunge riffs to analog tape since the late 60s. I can confidently say that Ragged Glory is one of Young’s most exemplary efforts. It also was a stout reminder to his imitators that he was prepared to defend what he created.
Lynch Mob – Wicked Sensation
Standout track: “No Bed of Roses”
Many inaccuracies have been put forth regarding the Wicked Sensation sessions, especially regarding former Lynch Mob singer Oni Logan. Gifted with pipes that most musicians would kill for, still, Logan is a free spirit. He does as he pleases, and he chases the wind. This could be a bit frustrating for a man like George Lynch, whose motor is always running. The idea Logan made the sessions hard due to lack of execution is a false narrative. Bold as this may sound, in reality, Lynch’s self-loathing/perfectionist nature stalled the sessions. Regardless of the process, the result is that Wicked Sensation is a monster record. As for Logan, he teams up with Lynch as he sees fit and only when he feels like it. Make no mistake; Lynch’s best work is with Oni Logan. Lynch needs Logan, but Logan does not need Lynch.
King’s X – Faith Hope Love
Standout track: “It’s Love”
Disturbingly ignored and garishly relegated, King’s X is one of the true headscratchers in rock history. Possessing all of the necessary ingredients to dominate the world, for one reason or another, King’s X never quite hit its commercial stride. As for Faith Hope Love, well, as is the case with most of dUg Pinnick, Ty Tabor, and Jerry Gaskill’s output; it’s a tour de force in progressive metal mastery, mixed with a subtle pop sensibility and just a hint of craziness. When it comes to King’s X, if you know, you know.
Jane’s Addiction – Ritual de lo Habitual
Standout track: “Been Caught Stealing”
The Red Hot Chili Peppers may have started the trend of alt-rock meets funk meets metal, but in my opinion, not only did Jane’s Addiction do it better, they perfected it. Nothing’s Shocking (1988) served as the world’s introduction to Perry Farrell and Dave Navarro, but 1990’s Ritual de lo Habitual made them household names with good reason. With the first half serving funk-fused rock songs, and the latter half playing out as a concept record devoted to Farrell’s deceased girlfriend, Ritual de lo Habitual is a showcase for diversity and 90s alt perfection.
Mother Love Bone – Apple
Standout track: “Capricorn Sister”
By now, it’s well known that grunge would make itself a permanent fixture amongst the 90s rock scene, but in 1990, it wasn’t so obvious. Before there was Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and many others, Mother Love Bone was chipping away at the proverbial grunge stone, gearing up for greatness. Apple is an example of that greatness. If not for the death of wunderkind frontman Andrew Wood, Mother Love Bone may have been thought of in the same context as Nirvana; only they would have done it sooner. Sadly, it was not to be. Also of note, the band’s bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard would quickly move on to Pearl Jam after Wood’s death.
Megadeth – Rust in Peace
Standout track: “Take No Prisoners”
The debate as to who the greatest thrash metal band of all time is will rage on eternally. In my opinion, it’s Megadeth. As for the band’s best record, well, once again, in my opinion, that would be 1990’s Rust in Peace. The first album for what would come to be known as the band’s classic lineup, comprised of Dave Mustaine, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman, and Nick Menza, Rust in Peace shook the heavy metal world upon release and put the likes of Slayer, and Metallica on notice that the Megadeth were coming to rip their throats out, and as the decade progressed; Megadeth did just that.
ACϟDC – The Razors Edge
Standout track: “Thunderstruck”
After nearly a decade of commercial disappointments (comparative to Back in Back, at least), ACϟDC rekindled its old magic for The Razor Edge. I’ve always felt that the loss of Phil Rudd shook ACϟDC to its core, and while Simon Wright is an outstanding drummer, he wasn’t suitable for the band, and it showed. Bringing in Chris Slade to take his place proved wise, as did handing over production duties to Bruce Fairbairn. In the end, in The Razor’s Edge, ACϟDC was left with its second-best album of the Brian Johnson era and once again found themselves commercially viable in a way they hadn’t been since the early 80s.
Alice in Chains – Facelift
Standout track: “Man in the Box”
While Nirvana and Pearl Jam are often cited as bringing the grunge era to commercial prominence, Alice in Chains had both those bands beat by around a year. Facelift put grunge on the map and also put hard rock and heavy metal bands on notice, and sure enough, within a year’s time, many of those bands found themselves left out in the cold. One notable story saw Warrant frontman Jani Lane sauntering into Columbia Records offices one afternoon, only to find the long-hanging Warrant poster, which had adorned the lobby now replaced with; you guessed it: Layne Staley’s Alice in Chains.
The Black Crowes – Shake Your Money Maker
Standout track: “Twice as Hard”
Sure, the 90s would prove to be a decade defined by alt-rock and grunge, but not all of what was commercially viable and eternally meaningful fell under those subheadings. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, The Black Crowes, along with the previously mentioned Salty Dog, served as 70s throwbacks. With Georgia’s finest on the scene and Shake Your Money Maker populating the racks at local record shops, Seattle grunge had met its match in down-home boogie, with blues licks for days. It also didn’t hurt that The Crowes possessed one of rock’s finest lead vocalists in Chris Robinson and an ace songwriter in his younger brother, Rich Robinson.
Spread Eagle – Spread Eagle
Standout track: “Switchblade Serenade”
Forget Skid Row; Spread Eagle was, is, and always will be the east coast’s answer to Guns N’ Roses. Spread Eagle hit the scene in style with monster frontman and possessor of cavernous pipes, Ray West, virtuoso, Ibanez-slinging guitar hero Paul DiBartolo, cookie cutter rock star and consummate professional bassist Rob DeLuca, and thunderous timekeeper Tommi Gallo. Upon its release, 1990’s Spread Eagle should have crushed the competition, but sadly, MCA Record’s incompetence diluted Spread Eagle’s fortunes. The result? One of the decade’s finest bands and the decade’s nastiest rock album were left disgustingly underexposed. If you’ve not heard “Switchblade Serenade,” first, bask in that revelatory moment, and then try and tell me I’m wrong.