This is as peak “Poppy Bush Interzone” as it gets
My colleague Alfred Soto came up with the term “Poppy Bush Interzone” to describe this era in popular music, and nowhere is it more in force, or focus, than on the Modern Rock charts of the early 1990s.
18 of the 30 acts on this chart are from Great Britain, with Australia tossing in a few others. There’s only one U.S. act in the top 10, for pete’s sake. And you know what? It was better that way. Also: look how fast this chart moved. Only three songs had spent even double-digit weeks on it! Starting with…
[this week, last week, weeks on chart, title, artist]
VIDEO: Peter Murphy “Cuts You Up”
1 1 (10) CUTS YOU UP — Peter Murphy (7 weeks at #1) — Billboard’s top Modern Rock track of 1990 (about to cede the top spot to the song immediately below it). Parent album Deep, produced by former Fall member (!) Simon Rogers, slickened up Murphy’s goth-rock just enough to get him onto MTV (“Cuts” was a huge Buzz Bin hit) and even all the way to #55 on the Hot 100 and #44 on the album chart. But yet this never loses the essential Murphy-ness of it all, and is thus a triumph on all levels for the past and future Bauhaus leader.
2 3 (7) NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — Sinead O’Connor — Every element of this single is perfect, from Nellee Hooper’s stately production to Nick Ingman’s string arrangement to, of course, O’Connor’s devastating vocal. She took a Prince song and went to an entirely new place, actually adding gravitas to it. (Not something that often happened with his songs.) Utter genius.
3 2 (6) BLUE SKY MINE — Midnight Oil — Shut up with that goddamn harmonica already.
4 4 (4) METROPOLIS — The Church — O’Connor, the Oils, and the Church all released follow-up albums to their U.S. breakthroughs at roughly the same time. O’Connor’s pushed her, both artistically and commercial, into another realm entirely, whereas both the Oils and the Church basically treaded water. This is fine, and has that guitar chime you want from the Church (wait — were they the Aussie R.E.M.?), but doesn’t exactly kill.
5 9 (3) ENJOY THE SILENCE — Depeche Mode — The most perfect distillation of the Mode into pop? Quite possibly.
6 8 (7) HELLO — The Beloved — Ebullient synth-pop, cheeky-smart and made for both dancing and sing-a-longs.
7 6 (7) DELIVERANCE — The Mission U.K. — I don’t often think of goth as sounding triumphant, but that’s exactly what this song does. (OTOH, the Mission’s “parent band” Sisters of Mercy often did, so…) Wayne Hussey at his most gloriously over-the-top is a great thing.
8 7 (9) BIRDHOUSE IN YOUR SOUL — They Might Be Giants — TMBG’s third album, Flood, may have only gotten to #75, but it eventually went platinum, in no small part thanks to this (relatively speaking) smash, which was Buzz Binned by MTV and reached #3 on this very chart. (And it went top 10 in the UK!) Their first three albums, including Flood, are all killer, very little filler, funny w/o being too jokey, and all too musically clever. I mean, the bridge alone on this kills me.
9 5 (10) HEAD ON — The Jesus and Mary Chain — Did they invent shoegaze? Maybe. “Head On” further forces their shoegaze guitar attack into pop, reminiscent of the Velvet Underground on a lot of amphetamines (I know, I know).
10 11 (4) I DON’T KNOW WHY I LOVE YOU — House of Love — Shoegaze with a Primal Scream shimmy-shake to it. So satisfying.
11 14 (6) BITING MY NAILS — Renegade Soundwave — How’s this for shocking? This early breakbeat/dub classic is actually a cover of a 1974 song by Genevieve Waite, produced by her husband, John Phillips. Trust that apart from the lyrics, the two couldn’t sound more dissimilar. Leader Gary Asquith has the perfect detached vocal technique for this record, which still has the power to astound, especially on a big, loud, excellent soundsystem.
12 12 (4) FURY EYES — The Creatures — If you always thought, “I like Siouxsie Sioux’s voice but wish it were paired with a marimba,” well, you’re in luck.
13 16 (8) THE DOWNTOWN LIGHTS — The Blue Nile — Ambient art-pop with grace and style.
VIDEO: The Blue Nile “Downtown Lights”
14 19 (8) RESPECTFULLY KING OF RAIN — The Rave-Ups — Every chart with “rock” in its title requires some uber-generic rock music, so allow me to present to you the Rave-Ups. Five years later and they could’ve been opening for Counting Crows.
15 20 (3) BIKINI GIRLS WITH MACHINE GUNS — The Cramps — Every chart with “rock” in its title needs some perfectly trashy rock music, and this chart’s lucky enough to have some in the form of the Cramps. Their long-in-the-coming “breakthrough,” and most deserved. I mean, that title alone! And Lux Interior’s sleazy delivery! “This stuff’ll kill ya” if you’re lucky, I say.
16 NEW (1) FOOL’S GOLD — The Stone Roses — The finest single-song encapsulation of Madchester there is, and possibly the Roses’ apex as well.
17 29 (3) THIS AND THAT — Michael Penn — He’s no Aimee Mann.
18 15 (4) WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT — Oingo Boingo — Clattering, chaotic, like about 5 songs going on at once. Unfortunately, none of them are very good. Elfman was wise to move into film scoring.
19 10 (7) JEALOUS OF YOUTH — The The — This one-off single is reminiscent of the prior year’s “Gravitate to Me,” and just about as triumphant. Matt Johnson was nearing the end of a five-year run in which he was, artistically, pretty unstoppable.
20 22 (3) KISS THIS THING GOODBYE — Del Amitri — This band predated the existence of “Adult Top 40” as a format, but they needed it desperately.
21 17 (7) THE DEVIL IN ME — John Wesley Harding — He thought, as did many of his fans, that he was as a) clever and/or b) musically interesting as Robyn Hitchcock. They’re all wrong.
VIDEO: The Smithereens “Yesterday Girl”
22 18 (8) YESTERDAY GIRL — The Smithereens — Crunchy power pop/rock of the variety that I normally eschew, but for some reason, these Jersey boys got to me from their first EP in ‘86. This particular single is a smidgen more Beatlesque than I like, but Pat DiNizio (RIP) can get away with almost anything. I especially respond to the backing vocals on the second verse, so smartly arranged.
23 24 (2) LIFE IN DETAIL — Robert Palmer — From the Pretty Woman soundtrack, this is Palmer going for loud and clattery and not really pulling it off, halfway between Riptide and the Power Station.
24 26 (2) SUN COMES UP, IT’S TUESDAY MORNING — Cowboy Junkies — If these easy-going Canuck country-rockers came out today, they’d be celebrated as Americana gods, especially with these lyrics that think they’re much smarter than they actually are. Their (potential) influence on Norah Jones needs to be driven home more strongly, too — she’s a little jazzier, but the through-line is there.
25 23 (5) I’M NOT SCARED — Raindogs — Kinda like the Blasters with Celtic influences, only not as interesting as that could sound.
26 NEW (1) YOU KEEP IT ALL IN — The Beautiful South — Never would’ve picked Paul Heaton as the Housemartins member who’d still be hitting #1 in the UK in 2020, but there he is. His metier post-’Martins has been twee ‘60s pop with clever (or “clever,” YMMV) lyrics, and it began with the Beautiful South.
27 13 (10) GETTING AWAY WITH IT — Electronic — One of the year’s most perfect singles, this duo of New Order’s Bernard Sumner and ex-Smith Johnny Marr, with added vocals from Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, has it all: wistful lyrics, one of Sumner’s finest vocals, a perfect harmony foil in Tennant, a kind of New Order-lite production that suits the song well, and that Marr guitar, the one every fan of his work wants to hear. If the best singles rank a 10/10, this one’s a 15.
28 25 (3) ROOM AT THE TOP — Adam Ant — The only song in this chart produced by former Prince band member André Cymone! Putting Ant in R&B-pop drag was surprisingly successful, this once.
29 NEW (1) LET IT BE ME — Social Distortion — “We can rock! Hard! We’re almost punk-adjacent!” Yawn.
30 NEW (1) DRIVING — Everything But the Girl — This one’s a surprise to see, as by 1990 EBTG had moved fairly exclusively into Adult Contemporary pop, but I’m guessing their heritage had them still getting modern/college spins. My favorite take on this is a 1996 remix by Masters at Work (made/released after “Missing” became a global smash) that’s deep house perfection.