College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 4 – 1


4. Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U”

The tip-off about the identity of the songwriter in there in title. When Sinead O’Connor released “Nothing Compares 2 U” as the lead single from her sophomore album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, the quick presumption was that Prince penned the song just for her, something he was known to do if a found a performer appealing in one way or another. Instead it was one of several tracks written the Minneapolis maestro for the self-titled debut of the Family, a band comprised of former members of the Time. Released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records label, the album went nowhere and the Family’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” was barely noticed. It likely would have been forgotten altogether if O’Connor’s manager, Fachtna O’Kelly, hadn’t brought the song to the Irish artist, convinced it was a perfect match for her powerful voice. Since it was a single, “Nothing Compares 2 U” needed a music video, and that’s arguably what made the most significant impact. Director John Maybury planned on a more conventional clip, with generic shots of O’Connor wandering around Paris. Instead, the bulk of the video is comprised of a close-up of O’Connor singing directly into the camera, complete with a tear running down her cheek as the song reaches an emotional apex. “I didn’t intend for that moment to happen, but when it did, I thought, ‘I should let this happen,'” O’Connor told Rolling Stone. O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” topped the Billboard chart for four weeks in 1990, displaced from the top position by the freight train that was Madonna’s “Vogue.”

This cut holds its position from the previous chart.


blue sky mine

3. Midnight Oil, “Blue Sky Mine”

In the late nineteen-thirties, in the Western Australian town that would be called Wittenoom, a mining industry got underway. An entrepreneur named Lang Hancock started a business to mine blue asbestos, a substance in high demand in the years leading up and including World War II. Eventually Hancock sold the business to Colonial Sugar Refining Company, which ran the mines with a notorious lack of concern for the safety of worked, even as it became increasingly clear that deleterious health effects were a highly likely result of extensive exposure to blue asbestos. The mines were eventually shut down, making Wittenoom a virtual ghost town and leaving behind devastated individuals. By some estimates, a full quarter of the people who worked the mines will die of causes directly related to that work. For Midnight Oil, that is the stuff of great, angry music. Coming off of the hit 1987 album Diesel and Dust, which was preoccupied with the plight of Indigenous Australians, it was natural to merge compelling rock hooks with insurrection op-ed statements. According to producer Warne Livesey, the song “Blue Sky Mine” came together fairly quickly in the studio, with everyone contributing. The song served as the lead single and almost title cut for Midnight Oil’s 1990 album, Blue Sky Mining.

This cut holds its position from the previous chart.



2. Peter Murphy, “Cuts You Up”

Deep was Peter Murphy’s third album as a solo artist, following a famed tenure as the lead presence in Bauhaus and a decidedly less-revered stint as the frontman for Dalis Car. Released as the album’s second single (following “The Line Between the Devil’s Teeth (And That Which Can Not Be Repeat)”), benefited immensely from the dueling senses of menace and drama that Murphy infused into practically everything he did. Officially co-written with guitarist Paul Statham, Murphy reportedly brought to the Deep recording sessions a demo version of the song that was basically replicated for the final release. The repeated reference in the lyrics to brutalizing experiences — being cut up, being chewed up and spit out — reflect Murphy’s view of the tumultuous quest for inner peace. “The path of discovery, self-knowledge, wisdom… once you feel you have it,” Murphy later explained. “Then the path will spit you out or off the way and ruin your assumptions of this path. In fact, a great mighty necessity for those spiritual seekers or so-called ‘holy state’ desires when getting arrogant.”

This cut holds its position from the previous chart.



1. They Might Be Giants,”Birdhouse in Your Soul”

They Might Be Giants were recording their third album, Flood, in New York City in the summer of 1989. Pummeled by a heat wave, the duo had the Lovin’ Spoonful hit “Summer in the City” in mind when they launched into the creation of the song that would become “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” The music might crib from a more straightforward rock song, but They Might Be Giants developed the lyrics according their own esoteric shared sensibility, essentially recounting the emotional journey of a night light shaped like a blue canary. Given the lyrical pile-up of other details and references — including Jason and the Argonauts and the Longines Symphonette — studious college programmers could be sent into a speculative tizzy trying to parse the more complex meanings and deeper subtexts of the song. In the case of “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” that was a sucker move. “‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ is a song about a night light. That’s it,” John Linnell, one-half of They Might Be Giants, later noted. “It’s written from the perspective of a night light serenading the occupant of its room. The thing is, there are so many syllables in the songs that we have to come up with something to fill the spaces. So it ends up being kind of Gilbert and Sullivany.” The track served as the lead single from Flood, helping the album dominate the college charts through the first months of 1990.

This cut holds its position from the previous chart.


I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.

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