On Rolling Stone‘s list of the best albums of the 90s, Achtung Baby (1991) comes in at #4. Granted, this is a list that puts Tom Petty’s Wildflowers ahead of Automatic for the People, Exile in Guyville, and 69 Love Songs…but still. You know where Achtung Baby lands on the Pitchfork top-100 list? Nowhere.
Really, I don’t know how the Pitchfork editors managed it. You really have to try to not appreciate this album. Even if you hold all Bono’s sanctimony against him (boner check!), you can’t deny the power of this sweeping collection. This album represents one of those perfect pop moments where songs, performers, and producers all come together at exactly the right place (Berlin) at exactly the right time (1990, a year after the Wall fell).
I observed earlier—and by no means was I the first to notice this—that the 90s were a weirdly dour decade in popular music. That made the 90s a rough slog, both at the time and in retrospect, but some of the decade’s best music found a kind of majesty in depression. Nevermind (which I’m saving for album #99 in this project) certainly did, and so did Achtung Baby, an album that was fueled by the contemporary music scene but ascends into its own realm.
There’s not a weak spot in these 55 minutes: brilliant, languid melodies pour out of Bono like water from a tap, with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno accentuating every syllable with layered, churning arrangements that build and build and build. The album is perfectly cohesive, and yet each song has its own distinct character. The drum loops and distortion that were then pervading new music are incorporated organically: like any great record, it’s both timeless and perfectly of its time.
I won’t go through the album song by song, because I don’t need to. The greatness of this album is encapsulated in one song, “So Cruel.” A perfectly paced opening, with stately piano chords and heartbeat percussion yielding to a slow, pulsing James Brown snare. The first verse floats past, and rising synths appear to underline the second verse as Bono’s voice becomes steadily more insistent. The chorus is a perfect release, from soaring wordlessness to a resigned, almost muttered, “You’re so cruel.” And that’s just the beginning—before the reverb-drenched guitar, the perfectly-paced bridge (is that a processed mandolin, or just a soundalike?), and the multi-tracked falsetto. It’s all so fucking majestic that you don’t even notice lines like, “Between the horses of love and lust, we are trampled underfoot.”
I’ve probably listened to as much U2 as the average person, but I’m hardly a superfan—according to Last.fm, they’re my 91st most-listened artist since 2007, behind even Of Montreal, who I kind of hate. U2, though, are ahead of the Beatles (#97), to whom I’ve apparently listened at the rate of only one song play every couple of weeks. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the Beatles—it just means that I don’t seek them out every day. Great music—from the Beatles to Achtung Baby—is like family. You know it’s there when you need it.
The 1990s Project is my attempt to give the decade’s music a fair shot at disproving my offhand assessment that the 90s were the armpit of modern musical history. The project started on my Tumblr, and has now moved to The Tangential. My goal is to visit, or revisit, 100 of the decade’s most acclaimed, popular, and/or interesting albums. Here are the albums I’ve written about so far.
1. Radiohead, OK Computer (1997)
2. My Bloody Valentine, Loveless (1991)
3. The Flaming Lips, The Soft Bulletin (1999)
4. Moonshake, Eva Luna (1992)
5. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
6. Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville (1993)
7. Erykah Badu, Baduizm (1997)
8. Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
9. Fugazi, Red Machine (1995)
10. Matthew Sweet, 100% Fun (1995)
11. Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
12. The Bodyguard soundtrack (1992)
13. Marcy Playground, Marcy Playground (1997)
14. 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden (1992)
15. Shania Twain, Come On Over (1997)
16. Dr. Dre, The Chronic (1992)
17. #1 singles of 1990
18. DJ Shadow, Endtroducing….. (1996)
19. Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill (1995)