1990 was the year when my fandom of Nonesuch Records exploded, a fact demonstrated by the top three ranking albums on this list.
All three albums have a lot of overlap — John Zorn composed for Kronos Quartet. Bill Frisell and Wayne Horvitz were members of Naked City, but both also appeared on Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut. Horvitz and Holcomb are, of course, married. That overlap got me curious about other releases on Nonesuch, which is how I ended up with a number of albums from Frisell, Horvitz, Kronos, John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the Bulgarian Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir. Many of those albums are my favorites to this very day.
I crunched some numbers with my music collection database, and Nonesuch takes up the most space with 60 titles. Most of that are Kronos Quartet albums. Speedstar comes in second with 56. Cocco accounts for most of that number.
Major labels are pretty much indistinguishable from each other, but Nonesuch has maintained a very recognizable identity in all the years I’ve been listening to them. I don’t buy everything the label releases, but I’m more inclined to check them out.
Musicwhore.org Favorite Edition 1990
Kronos Quartet, Black Angels
Just listen to the podcast.
Robin Holcomb, Robin Holcomb
Back in college, I wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t to be one exclusively. This album influenced that idea. Holcomb could probably whip out a string quartet, if she were so inclined, but she also works within the confines of the pop song. If the dissonances and oddly-rhythmic melodies of this self-titled debut are any indication, they’re not very strict confines.
John Zorn/Naked City, Naked City
I remember back in junior high, when my Duran Duran fandom was burgeoning, I was ragged on for not listening to "real" rock ‘n’ roll in the form of heavy metal. When I started listening to Naked City at the end of high school, I wondered what would happen if I met up with those old junior high nemeses (plural, of course) and played them Naked City’s self-titled album. They would probably still look at me weird.
Midnight Oil, Blue Sky Mining
Midnight Oil went through an incredibly fertile period from 1985 to 1990. Red Sails in the Sunset was over-produced in a way that suited the band, as did the stripped down sound of the two following albums, Diesel and Dust and Blue Sky Mining. The Oils’ songwriting was taut, their playing polished but still urgent. My only criticism of Blue Sky Mining is the lousy sound quality on the CD. The cassette sounded far better.
Sonic Youth, Goo
It probably wasn’t a good idea for Goo to be the first Sonic Youth album I listened to. The tunefulness of Goo set up some unrealistic expectations for me. I figured the band’s weirder work would only be slightly less so. Uh, no. Nonetheless, it was the first Sonic Youth to get a prominent display on store shelves, given its availability on a major label. I had read about Sonic Youth, but I didn’t think enough about them to dig for their music in the few places in Honolulu that might carry it.
The Waitresses, Best of the Waitresses
I try not to include retrospectives on these lists, particularly when I’ve heard the source material on their original albums. In the case of Best of the Waitresses, that was the source material for me. My parents objected to the use of the word "sucker" in "I Know What Boys Like", so there wasn’t a chance I’d convince them to get that record. (I was about 8 or 9 years old at the time.) By the time I was old enough to buy albums on my own, the Waitresses had long become a one-hit footnote, their albums out-of-print. Like Camper Van Beethoven after them, the Waitresses wrote some humorous ditties with some serious music. The Waitresses fit in with all the Nonesuch albums I was gobbling up at the time.
Geinoh Yamashirogumi, Akira Original Soundtrack
There’s a perception in serious music circles that soundtracks don’t have the creative integrity of thoroughly-composed pieces. The thinking is that the composer is subject to the director’s vision and not driven by their own. Personally, I find a lot of soundtracks too dependent on their source images to keep my interest. Director Ootomo Katsuhiro took an entirely different approach to the score of his dystopian classic Akira. He let Yamashiro Shouji take six months to write the score. The Akira Original Soundtrack, released in Japan as Akira Symphonic Suite, epitomizes cosmopolitanism. Eastern music mixes with western electronics, ancient and future colliding in a seamless present. It’s a terrifying work, as often beautiful as it is grotesque, and it’s a score that should put soundtrack naysayers in their place. I wonder if Alex Ross would dig it?
Madonna, I’m Breathless
This album is essentially one long commercial for the movie Dick Tracy, as which soundtracks are often treated by their labels. The idea of Madonna singing with a big band — even if it’s a Fairlight substituting for that band — is as unlikely an idea on paper as it is execution. But I give Madonna credit for venturing that far out of the club music environs. She gets far better mileage out of this performance than on Evita. And she certainly holds her own against what Stephen Sondheim could throw at her.
The Sundays, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic
Harriet Wheeler’s accent is so thick, sometimes I think she’s speaking some dialect that mashes up Gaelic and Welsh. At the time, I wasn’t familiar at all with the Smiths, so I couldn’t draw the inevitable comparison with David Gavurin’s guitar work. And honestly, I can’t say I really, absolutely love this album. At times, I find it inscrutable, and I get the sense more could be done with the music. But I also find it very comforting as is. I can come back to this album after a long spell of not listening to it and relish in that discomfort. It’s weird, really.
Living Colour, Time’s Up
Vivid rocked hard, but Time’s Up went for the true gusto. It could get a bit long-winded and perhaps too preachy, but the band played the living hell out of the album. And it offered much more musically.
1990 was also the year that broke the Star Trek pattern I gleaned since 1985 — it was an even-numbered year with more than its share of good releases.
- Duran Duran, Liberty This album didn’t sell well, but I think it’s one Duran Duran’s most underrated album. It’s far better than the last three albums they’ve recorded.
- Depeche Mode, Violator 60 percent of this album was single fodder.
- Sinead O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got The success of this album baffled me because The Lion and the Cobra was a far better offering, but in retrospect, this album is actually pretty good. It’s just not as good as everyone wants to make it out to be.
- Deee-Lite, World Clique I should really stop selling this album for cash, because I know I’m just going to end up buying it back again.
- Enigma, MCMXC a.D. I was listening to far more challenging stuff than this album, but it’s got its charms.
- Meredith Monk, Book of Days ECM New Series has not achieved the same kind of attraction for me as Nonesuch, even though both labels have a very strong sense of identity. I have to puzzle out why that is.
- Joan Tower, Silver Ladders/Island Prelude/Music for Cello and Orchestra/Sequoia I bought this album solely because it was a joint release between Nonesuch and the Meet the Composer program. I wouldn’t discover till I played it that these orchestral pieces are really quite good.