When George Herbert Walker Bush took the oath of office on January 20, 1989, the Soviet Union was on its last legs and the Berlin Wall was about to come down; America was on the verge of winning the Cold War. Domestically, however, President Bush faced uphill battles with a rising deficit, climbing unemployment rate, and his own party members in Congress turning on him.
The music of the era reflected the growing pessimism. The ten albums on this list represent some of the sharpest expressions of cultural angst from a generation (Gen-X) that were being told that they were going to be the first generation to be worse off financially than the previous generation.
Honorable Mentions: Loveless, My Bloody Valentine; Temple of the Dog, Temple of the Dog; The Chronic, Dr. Dre; Goo, Sonic Youth; Ten, Pearl Jam; Metallic (Black), Metallica; Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos; Automatic for the People, R.E.M.; Dry, P.J. Harvey; Blind Melon, Blind Melon; Goat, The Jesus Lizard; Repeater, Fugazi; Ragged Glory, Neil Young and Crazy Horse; Unplugged, Eric Clapton.
10. Pretty Hate Machine – Nine Inch Nails
Using ingenuity, creativity, and a good old-fashioned work ethic, the one-man band Trent Reznor produced what was, at the time, the most successful indie album of all time.
9. The Low End Theory – A Tribe Called Quest
The Low End Theory combines jazz with the best of hip-hop. The album features an upright bass on many of the tracks that lays a smooth, laid-back groove to complement the hip-hop beats and rhymes.
8. Spiderland – Slint
If you’re a fan of post rock and math rock, you’re probably a fan of Spiderland. If you’ve never heard of those two sub-genres of alternative rock, you have probably never heard of Slint, much less their final album Spiderland. Themes of alienation are hauntingly delivered through a combination of singing and spoken word over sonically dynamic music.
7. Laughing Stock – Talk Talk
Free form and improvisation may not seem to go hand in hand with meticulous crafting and focused overdupping, but Talk Talk’s art rock masterpiece, Laughing Stock, defies categories. Thematically, the album is dark and religious; sonically, the album captures the navel-gazing angst of a world facing the end of the Cold War.
6. Achtung Baby – U2
Stunned by the backlash to their documentary and accompanying live album Rattle and Hum, U2 almost called it quits. Thankfully they didn’t, and the band produced Achtung Baby. The album was their most musically varied and darkest production up to that point.
5. Fear of a Black Planet – Public Enemy
It Takes a Nation of Millions demonstrated that Public Enemy had grabbed the sociopolitical torch of the folk music movement for the hip-hop community. With Fear of a Black Planet, the group solidified not only their artistic prowess but their willingness to be the voice of African-Americans.
4. The Stone Roses – The Stone Roses
With more than a nod to ’60s Britpop, The Stone Roses demonstrated that England had an underground and indie culture that was as capable of producing interesting, historically relevant, and artistically engaging music as their American counterparts.
3. Nevermind – Nirvana
Nevermind is possibly the most ubiquitous album of the last twenty-five years. Very few albums are as connected with a decade as Nirvana’s sophomore album is to the ’90s. Whether the album is loved or hated, it’s next to impossible to deny the musical and cultural impact of Nevermind.
2. Slanted and Enchanted – Pavement
While Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were loudly making grunge music popular, a band called Pavement was quietly (and not so quietly) releasing one of the seminal indie rock albums of all time. Slanted and Enchanted also happened to be Pavement’s debut album, and it launched the band into the consciousness of those who believed that Nirvana had sold out.
1. Doolittle – Pixies
Released in 1989, Doolittle is a surrealistic, musically jagged yet gorgeous album. With tight production highlighting the band’s love of dissonance and driving rhythms, the Pixies’ sophomore album set the standard for the alternative rock scene of the ’90s.