“Even Flow” by Pearl Jam (1991)

Pearl Jam are kind of the grunge equivalent of The Rolling Stones – not quite as popular as their peer superstar group (Nirvana/Beatles) that was more popular but who’s career ended early. Indeed Pearl Jam was among the most popular groups to break out of the Seattle scene but are still recording and remain very popular. Initially tapped as riding the grunge trend with a slightly more mainstream rock sound, the group has live a sort of neo-hippy ethic that remains anything but mainstream. The group consists of Eddie Vedder (lead vocals, guitar), Jeff Ament (bass guitar), Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar), and Mike McCready (lead guitar), and a series of drummers – most notably ex-Soundgarden Matt Cameron.

The group was formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone, when lead singer Andrew Wood died of an overdose. Gossard and Ament (who were in the seminal grunge group Green River) looked to form a new group and soon started practicing with McCready. Vedder was discovered thanks to a tip from former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons (Irons would join Pearl Jam in 1994).

The group’s debut album Ten was released in the summer of 1991, becoming one of the most mainstream early “alternative” albums. Though many songs had a mainstream rock sound, many of the songs dealt with dark subjects such as suicide, loneliness, and murder. The album built slowly, and broke through in the spring of 1992 with the release of the video for “Even Flow” – showcasing the group’s electric live show and very much set in the “plaid” wearing Seattle scene. The album has since sold more than 13 million copies.

Even Flow” started with a massive guitar riff and included lyrics by Vedder about a homeless man. The man in the song is mentally ill/insane. The song was the group’s breakthrough single, hitting #3 on the mainstream rock charts.

“Enter Sandman” by Metallica (1991)

Metallica‘s popularity grew during the 1980s and seemed poised for mainstream success approaching the release of their fifth album, the eponymous Metallica (often referenced as “The Black Album”, an homage to This is Spinal Tap). The band used producer Bob Rock, who helped the band craft a more streamlined sound for the album’s songs. Rather than epic length songs with changing tempos, the songs were shorter and straightforward. Yet, the band’s dark subject matter and heavy sound remained.

The lead single was “Enter Sandman“, which dealt with childhood fears – including a nursery rhyme during the bridge. The sound of the song used a “wall of guitars” and Kirk Hammett delivered one of his best solos. Singer James Hetfield’s “booming” voice was featured in a memorable scene from the music video and sounds menacing throughout. The single was even a Top 20 hit.

The Black Album was a huge hit for Metallica, hitting number one across the globe and selling over 15 million copies just in the U.S. (the best-selling album since the date it was released). After the success of “Enter Sandman” the album drew another five singles, “Don’t Tread on Me”, the mid-tempo “The Unforgiven”, the ballad “Nothing Else Matters”, “Wherever I May Roam”, and “Sad But True”.

“Under the Bridge” by Red Hot Chili Peppers (1991)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have built an enduring legacy of songs and maintained a high degree of popularity throughout four separate decades. The band has mixed funk along with hard rock riffs and have appealed to several generations of modern rock and alternative music fans. They are led by bassist Flea and singer Anthony Kiedis. Former members include Jack Irons (drums, later of Pearl Jam) and Hillel Slovak (guitars, now deceased). Each album from the group between 1989-2006 went Platinum or higher, despite years between recordings – often due to Kiedis’ drug use. The band changed lineups early, and nearly split when Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988. In their early period, the group was best known for appearing on stage wearing only socks covering their genitals.

The band’s breakthrough album was 1989′s Mother’s Milk, featuring a frantic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and the anti drug song “Knock Me Down”. ┬áThe group now included drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. ┬áThis led to 1991′s Blood Sugar Sex Magic which made the group superstars. Produced by Rick Rubin, the group’s mix of funk and rock elements sounded ever more contemporary, as hip-hop was influencing rock and visa versa. Though the Chili Peppers sound had not changed much they sounded fresh to maintstream audiences.

The lead single from Blood Sugar Sex Magic was the high energy “Give It Away”, which went to number one on the Modern Rock charts. The reflective second single about Los Angeles was “Under the Bridge“. The poignant lyrics about isolation were set to a mellow groove and an uplifting ending. The song was a monster hit, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100 and becoming a worldwide hit. Other hits from the album included “Suck My Kiss” and “Breaking the Girl”. The album has since sold more then seven million copies.

“Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak (1991)

Chris Isaak was born in Stockton CA and came up through the San Francisco music scene. His songs were embraced by modern rock fans, though they often contained easy-listening and rock’n'roll leanings. Early guitar-driven hits included “You Owe Me Some Kind of Love” “Blue Hotel” and “Heart Full of Soul”. In 1989, Isaak released Heart Shaped World with the lead single “Wicked Game“. The song was a minor hit.

In 1990, David Lynch used an instrumental version of the song in his film Wild at Heart. The song’s distinctive guitar riff (played by James Calvin Wilsey) was a key element of it’s inclusion in Lynch’s twisted fantasy. This renewed interest in the song, and thanks to DJs who pushed the record, Isaak suddenly found renewed life on the charts. The song went into the top 10 before peaking at number 6 in early 1991. The song’s music video was directed by Herb Ritts, often called one of the sexiest of all time. In addition to Wilsey’s guitar, the song showcases Isaak’s strong crooning voice. The song was used in numerous places in popular culture, from movies to soap operas.

Isaak continues to record and scored several hits after “Wicked Games”, such as “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing”. He has also appeared in movies and television (That Thing You Do! and Friends, among others). From 2001-2004 Showtime ran a show about a fictionalized sitcom version of Isaak’s life, The Chris Isaak Show.

“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel (1990)

Billy Joel is one of the largest selling musical artists of all time. Many of his songs have been mellow songs with heavy piano, Joel’s main instrument. One of his earliest hits was “Piano Man”, which evolved into Joel’s nickname. Many songs during the 1970s were ballads, such as “I Love You Just the Way You Are”. During the early, Joel’s songs were harder edge rock songs, such as hits from Glass Houses such as “Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “You May Be Right”. Later he recorded up-tempo but 50s inspired songs such as “Uptown Girl”, “Tell Her About It” and “An Innocent Man”. Later in the decade Joel visited the U.S.S.R. and recorded a high-profile live album from the former country.

In late 1989, Joel released Storm Front. The lead single was “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which went to number one and was still in the top 5 as the decade turned. The song includes allusions to historical events from 1949 to 1989, including references to famous people. The song is said to defend baby boomers’ societal turmoil, indicating that the “fire” has always been burning. The song was Joel’s last number one and has been included on several “worst songs of all time” lists.

Billy Joel still tours but hasn’t recorded a new album since 1993.

“Vogue” by Madonna (1990)

One of the biggest hits from Madonna‘s stellar career was nearly issued as an obscure B-side. But when the singer took the song to the record company they understood they had a potentially massive hit so they kept the song as the lead single for the upcoming album related to the Dick Tracy movie that Madonna starring in. Some lyrics were changed for family-friendly audiences, and the song’s spoken word section paying homage to famous actresses of the past fit with the period theme of the film.

Vogue” was a massive hit upon release, cementing the “house” sound common in dance clubs. The spoken word section was hip-hop-esque and the dance moves in the song’s music video (directed by David Fincher) made the song trendy as well. The song quickly went to number one for several weeks, and was ultimately the number one single of 1990 in the United States. The album I’m Breathless has since gone double platinum.

Vogue music video

“Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode (1990)

Depeche Mode followed the success of Music for the Masses with an even bigger album, Violator. The lead single was “Personal Jesus“, a unique mix of drum beats with a bluesy guitar riff – the first prominent use of guitar in Depeche Mode’s history. The song also continued Martin Gore’s lyrics related to religion and other dark topics. The song was a top 30 pop song and top 5 modern rock chart hit.

Violator would become the group’s biggest seller, topping three million copies sold in the U.S. and also becoming the group’s first top 10 album. “Enjoy the Silence” became the group’s second top 10 hit and propelled the group to further stardom. Other singles included “The Policy of Truth” and “World in Your Eyes” which also were met with success.

The group’s 1993 follow-up Songs of Faith and Devotion continued the trend toward organic instruments and was also a big hit. However, lead singer Dave Gahan’s heroin use increased during the tour, leading some to ponder whether Depeche Mode would ever make music again.

Personal Jesus music video

“More” by The Sisters of Mercy (1990)

The Sisters of Mercy are a gothic rock band from England who released three studio albums between 1985 and 1990 to moderate success. Since 1992, they have been at odds with their record company and have not released new material, though they continue to tour frequently. The group is led by singer-songwriter Andrew Eldritch and Doktor Avalanche on drums (Dokto Avalance is the name for a series of drum machines). The group is known for dark and moody songs that sometimes crossover onto the more mainstream Modern Rock and Dance charts.

The group’s early work was less commercial, with songs like “Black Planet” and “First and Last and Always”. The group’s second album contained the UK and Dance hits “This Corrosion”, “Dominion” and “Lucretia My Reflection”. The group’s 1990 album Vision Thing contained a number of popular songs such as “Doctor Jeep” and “When You Don’t See Me” and the group’s sound was slightly more “metal” sounding.

The group biggest hit was “More” from Vision Thing. The song was number one on the Modern Rock charts for five weeks, and clocked in at over eight minutes on the album. The song was cowritten and produced by Jim Steinman, an accomplished songwriter who previously worked with The Sisters on “This Corrosion” and also with Meat Loaf, Barry Manilow, and others. The song featured female backing vocals, which were unusual for the group.

The Sisters of Mercy’s last single “Temple of Love” was for their 1992 greatest hits album.

“Cherry Pie” by Warrant (1990)

Warrant were a popular group who rode the pop metal wave of the late 1990s to score several top charting albums. They also became the poster children for the changing tastes of rock music in 1992.

The group’s debut album Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich was issued in 1989 and featured the #2 single “Heaven”, a power ballad classic. The band’s charismatic lead singer Jani Lane was straight out of central casting – pretty, blonde, and a hearthrob for girls. The band did have musical chops though, driving the album to double platinum status.

The group’s second album Cherry Pie was an even bigger hit in 1990. It was led by the single “Cherry Pie” that was a strong rocker yet still made the top 10 on the pop charts. The song bore similarities to “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, both musically and lyrically (Lane wasn’t singing about a fruit-filled desert). The popular music video is now a classic of the “hair metal” genre. Cherry Pie also featured the popular singles “I Saw Red” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.

Lane once told the story about his experience with his record company. When the group came to the headquarters before Cherry Pie was released, they were greeted by a giant sign in the lobby “Welcome Warrant”. But just two short years later, when they made the return trip they were greeted by a sign that said “Welcome Alice in Chains”. The grunge trend was already happening and Warrant among others were the victims. Dog Eat Dog didn’t sell at double platinum levels but barely made Gold, with no chart singles.

Warrant has continued with changing lineups. Lane left the group and later became the lead singer of Great White. Sadly, Lane died recently of an overdose of alcohol and pills.

“Heartbreaker (at the End of Lonely Street)” by Dread Zeppelin (1990)

Ask any true music fan what the best album of 1990 was and Dread Zeppelin‘s seminal debut Un-Led-Ed will surely make the list. Unfortunately, the world is not run by true music fans but casual music fans, which probably explains why you’ve never heard of Dread Zeppelin.

The band started as a joke – Led Zeppelin songs played in a reggae style. With the addition of charismatic frontman Tortelvis (an Elvis impersonator), you suddenly had three separate and distinct musical touchstones to mine. And Dread Zeppelin combined those elements to aplomb. The group didn’t just play Zep songs with a rasta beat, they combined elements from several songs to create a interesting and unique blend of pop culture references.

Un-Led-Ed mostly pulled material from the first two Led Zeppelin albums, along with the Led Zeppelin 4 track “Blackdog” (including references to “Hound Dog”). The key track from the album was “Heartbreaker (at the End of Lonely Street)” that combined Zeppelin’s second album hit with Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”. The song showcased Dread Zeppelin’s musical chops, as the layered instruments combined for a full sound with wild solos and satisfying percussion.

The cover of Un-Led-Ed had to be changed due to request from the Elvis Presley estate. But Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant was a vocal advocate of the group, often seen wearing Dread Zeppelin tshirts. Later, INXS sought out Dread Zeppelin as the opening act for their tour.

Despite the power and urgency of Dread Zeppelin’s masterpiece recording of Un-Led-Ed, the group was seen as a novelty act. On their third album Tortelvis left the group and they went into a disco direction, to the ire of many fans. Since then, with Tortelvis back in the fold, the group has carved out an identity as a touring band with the occasional album release.