Yes, 1990 was a tough year for pop music.
From without, conservative forces rallied against song lyrics they found offensive through record labeling and the prosecution of 2 Live Crew.From within, pop threatened to eat itself, through lip-syncing, vapid neo-disco and an emphasis on videos at the expense of music.
As always, however, a lot of good music got made. Some of the most vital rap ever found a wider audience. Hard-rockers continued to develop a metal/funk/hip-hop fusion. Worldbeat mixed the exotic styles of different lands.
Roughly 3,000 pop albums were released in 1990, and I can't claim to have listened to all of them. Further, with so many choices, the inviolable number "10" seems meaningless. Why not 15 best, or 30? Still, you wouldn't go wrong spending time with any of the 10 recordings listed here in no particular order:
1. "Bedtime Stories," David Baerwald, A&M - Literate, fascinating, sometimes troubling songs with an L.A. flavor.
2. "Time's Up," Living Colour, Epic - An innovative, seamless fusion of metal, hip-hop, pop and funk. Vernon Reid is among the very best rock guitarists.
3. "Fear of a Black Planet," Public Enemy, Columbia - More than radical politics, Public Enemy means radical music - a dense collage of recycled sounds, provocative lyrics and Chuck D's peerless rapping.
4. "World Clique," Deee-lite, Elektra - Inventive sampling, sexy singing and a wacky sense of humor, from a band that helped put house music on the mainstream map.
5. "Ah Via Musicom," Eric Johnson, Capitol - In the present pop climate, a small miracle: An instrumental album by a rock guitarist with plenty of talent, but no flash or attitude, climbs the charts.
6. "Beauty," Ryuichi Sakamoto, Virgin - Ex-member of Yellow Magic Orchestra and contributor to "The Last Emperor" soundtrack, Sakamoto has a singular world-music style. West African highlife guitar, Beach Boys harmonizing, tablas and synthesizers mix and mingle. Daring? You bet. Better still, it works.
7. "The Rhythm of the Saints," Paul Simon, Warner Bros. - Simon employs African, Brazilian and American musicians for his first album since 1986's "Graceland." More delicate and mysterious than its predecessor.
8. "Spanic Boys," Spanic Boys, Rounder - Blazing twin Telecasters, plaintive vocals and classic songs - first-rate roots-rock.
9. "So Much 2 Say," Take 6, Reprise - A cappella jazz/pop/gospel. If the Christian message doesn't save your soul, the exquisite harmonizing will.
10. "Rubaiyat," various artists, Elektra - Admittedly an oddball pick. Elektra acts such as Teddy Pendergrass, Metallica and Jackson Browne recording songs from the label's rich past - and all the history, nostalgia and musical surprise that entails.
Honorable mention - "Stray," Aztec Camera, Sire/Reprise; "Edutainment," Boogie Down Productions, Jive/RCA; "Blazing Away," Marianne Faithfull, Island; "High Wire," Ernie Isley, Elektra; "Eterno Deus Mu Danca," Gilberto Gil, Tropical Storm/WEA; "Mama Said Knock You Out," L.L. Cool J, Def Jam/Columbia; "Blue Sky Mining," Midnight Oil, Columbia; "Child Bride," Katy Moffatt, Rounder/Philo; "Brother's Keeper," Neville Brothers, A&M; and "Lost Souls," the Raindogs, Atco.