1990 in Music: The Wrap-Up

We have now revisited every No. 1 song of 1990 — all 26 of them — as part of our ’90s No. 1s Revisited series. Now let’s reflect on the year as a whole. It was a good year for music, largely defined by the mainstream popularity of Adult Contemporary, which would soon fall out of favor as Grunge and Gangsta Rap rose in popularity. The quality of the year’s No. 1 hits illustrated the transition from one decade to the next, as some sounded cheaply and hastily made, with corny lyrics and dated sounds (see: “I’ll Be Your Everything“), while others had a cooler, crisper slicker production that distinguished it from the decade prior (see “I’m Your Baby Tonight“). It was a year that tends to be grossly ignored by music historians and peddlers of ’90s nostalgia, as it preceded many of the trends we characterize with the decade. You’ll sometimes hear people mistakenly refer to these hits as ’80s music, in fact.

The year had some high highs, especially for female singers:

  • It was the year that introduced us to Mariah Carey, who sent her first two singles (“Vision Of Love” and “Love Takes Time“) to No. 1.
  • Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” continued to spawn No. 1 hits  (“Escapade” and “Black Cat“).
  • The late spring and early summer brought us a string of classic songs with females behind the mic: “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor,  “Vogue” by Madonna, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips and “It Must Have Been Love” by Roxette.

The men had some good moments as well, particularly in the R&B arena, with No. 1 songs such as “I Don’t Have The Heart” by James Ingram, “Close To You” by Maxi Priest and “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” by Stevie B. These songs today would be classified as Adult R&B, a category that didn’t exist by that name in 1990 because it implies that regular R&B was for kids, but in fact this type of music was appreciated universally as mainstream pop. The fact that you would hear a lovely song like “I Don’t Have The Heart” on your Top 40 FM station shows you how long ago this was.

There were some low lows in the No. 1 Club as well, and men were responsible for them: Tommy Page, New Kids on the BlockGlenn Medeiros and Vanilla Ice, all of whom would not have another hit after 1990. These fellas’ biggest hits were cheesy, boring and/or forgettable, and their talent (for singing, at least) was dubious.

Naturally, there were loads of noteworthy singles in 1990 that didn’t hit No. 1. There are too many to list here, but we wanted to highlight 10 of the dopest artists to make waves in 1990 but that didn’t score a chart-topper on the Billboard Hot 100:

  1. MC Hammer. His legacy may be divisive, but MC Hammer helped drive the mainstream popularity of rap with his “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” record. It spawned three big hits: “U Can’t Touch This” (No. 8), “Have You Seen Her” (No. 4) and “Pray” (No. 2). Two of these songs are great. You can decide which two.
  2. Bel Biv DeVoe.Poison” and “Do Me!” both peaked at No. 3, but ended up at Nos. 4 and 11 respectively for the year. Go figure. But these were supremely dope, groundbreaking R&B classics that paved the way for Boyz II Men later in the 1990s.
  3. En Vogue. This group debuted with “Hold On,” a sharp track that, as we mentioned previously, stalled at No. 2, blocked from its rightful place in history by the mediocre-at-best “She Ain’t Worth It” by Glenn Medeiros. But it bears repeating.
  4. Jane’s Addiction.Been Caught Stealing,”from their groundbreaking record “Ritual de lo Habitual,” was an ahead-of-its-time track with an iconic, wildly popular music video, all foreshadowing the Grunge frenzy around the corner. It topped the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
  5. Concrete Blonde.Joey” was a One Hit Wonder for this alt-rock band but it’s one of the best songs of the year. You may recognize it when you hear it, we hope. Just fantastic, elegantly simple songwriting. Reached No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and No. 19 on the Hot 100.
  6. Heart.All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You” and “Stranded” were gorgeous pop-rock masterpieces by an amazing band that had two No. 1 songs in the ’80s but none in the ’90s. Fantastic songwriting, vocal performances and storytelling.
  7. The B-52’s.Roam” is the embodiment of total joy, and by far The B-52’s best song, mostly because Fred Schneider is mercifully silent. It peaked at No. 3.
  8. After 7.Can’t Stop,” the group’s biggest mainstream hit, is one of the best R&B songs of the decade. Peaked at No. 6.
  9. Digital Underground.The Humpty Dance” was clever, fun and original hip-hop. It provided everyone with an opportunity to do the hump. It peaked at No. 11.
  10. The Outfield. This decidedly ’80s band happened to put out the very best song of the year, “For You,” a forgotten, under-valued masterpiece that peaked at No. 21. What was wrong with everyone?
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