'Pop' the Question: How did Italian Pop Music Flourish in the 1990s?

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 08:00

[In the photo, left to right: Piero Pelù, Lorenzo Cherubini aka Jovanotti, Luciano Ligabue]

Mixing old and new, the 1990s kept the pop and rock scene in healthy shape. John Bensalhia travels back to the last decade of the 20th century to listen in on some of the top acts making it to the top.

[Read Part 1 - the 1950s herePart 2 - the 1960s herePart 3 - the 1970s here; Part 4 - the 1980s here.]

The decade of the 1990s is a curious one when it comes to music. It's a decade that ploughs ahead with the latest in dance, hip hop and trance sounds, but on the other hand, it's also a decade that looks back to the past for inspiration. Take the emerging grunge craze, for example. Bands such as Nirvana introduced a type of music that was heavy, loud, and melodic at the same time. In terms of image, the early 1990s saw a return to the late 1960s and early 1970s with long hair and baggy, hippy-style clothes being the order of the day. In the mid 1990s, bands across the world back-pedalled a couple of years to relive the days of bowlcuts and jangly Beatles and Byrds style pop.

In Italy, the music scene was also a hybrid of old and new in the 1990s. Some of the familiar faces from the previous decade achieved superstardom in the 1990s. Zucchero, for example, went from strength to strength, following his breakthrough in the late 1980s. Zucchero's reputation was such that he was finding himself collaborating with other big names both on stage and in the recording studio. In 1992, Zucchero performed at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert, delivering a version of Queen's 1982 song Las Palabras De Amor (from the Hot Space LP). In addition, Zucchero found himself working with the likes of Queen guitarist Brian May, Elton John and Sting. He collaborated with Paul Young to remake Senza una Donna in the early 1990s, while his 1992 album Miserere would see contributions from famous music names such as Bono, Elvis Costello and Luciano Pavarotti.

The 1990s would continue the run of success for Zucchero. Spirito DiVino, the 1995 album, sold very well both in Italy and throughout Europe. A more bluesy affair than of late, the album featured guests such as Jeff Beck and Prince collaborator Sheila E. The following album, Bluesugar, would see a return to more conventional rock and pop in 1998, and would feature guest collaborations from Bono and Steve Winwood.

Eros Ramazzotti would also find himself working with some big megastars in the latter part of the 1990s. It was the decade in which Ramazzotti established himself as a big player in the Italian music scene. His 1990 album In Ogni Senso garnered considerable media buzz, and the album sold very well both in Italy and throughout the world. Three years later, Tutte Storie sold a hefty six million copies worldwide, although this would even be out-performed by 1996's album Dove c'è musica, Ramazzotti's best selling album. It was the album that saw Ramazzotti take full charge of production, and it sold seven million copies worldwide, achieving pole position in Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Sweden. The single Più Bella Cosa also reached the number one spot in Italy that year. With a string of hits behind him, it was time for the customary compilation album and 1997's collection Eros included two re-worked duets with Andrea Bocelli (Musica è) and Cose della Vita (with Tina Turner).

Jovanotti was another act to extend his run of successful hit singles and albums. Italian number ones in this decade included 1994's Serenata Rap and 1999's Per te. In the Italian album chart, Jovanotti would reach the top with albums such as Lorenzo 94 (1994), Lorenzo 97 – L'albero (1997) and Lorenzo 99 – Capo Horn (1999). These would all sell over 500,000 copies, cementing Jovanotti as a mainstay of the music scene.

The hip hop, rap and dance music scene was proceeding apace in the 1990s. One of the first hip hop bands was Articolo 31, comprising J-Ax and DJ Jad. The Milan-based act would combine their love of hip hop with other musical strands such as funk and traditional Italian music. 1993's Strade di città kickstarted their career, and they would go on to make records such as 1994's Messa di Vespiri and 1996's Così Com'è. J-Ax would also later enjoy success as a solo artist.

One of the most acclaimed Italian hip hop records was SxM by Sangue Misto. The hip hop group included members Neffa, Deda and DJ Gruff. It was released in 1994, and remains a personal, sometimes dark and honest hip hop masterpiece. The record was well regarded in all quarters from the record buying public through to the music critics – today, it still stands as a landmark record in the Italian hip hop scene.

Kaos One was another regular face to be seen on the Italian rap scene. Having started out in the 1980s as a writer, Kaos One would go on to achieve hit records in the 1990s with albums such as 1996's Annoyance and 1999's The Warning.

From a dance angle, one of the most popular Italian groups in the 1990s was Corona, featuring Brazilian singer Olga Souza. Their monster hit arrived in 1993 with The Rhythm Of The Night which dominated the top spot in Italy for a whopping eight weeks. The record was a crossover hit in other countries, reaching America and the UK (where it narrowly missed out on the Number One slot). It also performed very well in other countries such as Switzerland and Japan. Baby Baby was the follow-up, and Italy again spurred it on to the top in 1995. Although they didn't reach the same heights, other follow-up singles still sold well – these included Try Me Out and I Don't Wanna B A Star. The albums The Rhythm Of The Night and Walking On Music also proved popular, taking the Number One spots in Italy.

One singer to find regular residence in the Italian Number One post was Alexia. Having sung in talent competitions and provided back-up vocal work, Alexia found herself taking centre stage in the mid 1990s. Me And You struck a chord with Italian record buyers in 1995, and it hit the top. Alexia scored her second Number One a year later with Summer Is Crazy, which was then followed by the hat-trick of the appropriately named Number One. By the time that Uh La La La scored her fourth Italian Number One in 1997, Alexia was now reaching out to other countries. Uh La la La also raced to Number One in Spain, while going Top 5 in Ireland, Finland and Sweden. Gimme Love and The Music I Like would also provide Alexia with subsequent Number One records, and her two hit albums Fan Club and The Party would also do very well – the latter sold 500,000 worldwide copies.

Another notable female singer to make an impact on the Italian charts in the 1990s was Laura Pausini. Singing was always on the agenda for Pausini, who had sung in church choirs during childhood. In 1987, she laid down tracks for a demo project, which was produced by her keyboardist father Fabrizio. Following this set of songs came appearances at festivals including Castrocaro and Sanremo Famosi, she finally won the Newcomer section in 1993's Sanremo Festival with a tune called La Solitudine. On the back of this appearance, La Solitudine provided Pausini with her breakthrough hit. It was part of a collection of songs on her debut eponymous album that shifted 400,000 copies in Italy and more than two million worldwide. The follow-up album, titled Laura, was also an international smash, particularly in Brazil, Belgium, Switzerland and Argentina.

1996's Le cose che vivi spawned no less than six hit singles that included the title track Incancellabile. By now, with a worldwide audience, Pausini was starting to record her songs in other languages such as Spanish, Brazilian and Portuguese. It was a gesture that resulted in subsequent successes such as 1998's La mia riposta, an album that sold four million copies worldwide. The track listing for this album included singles such as Un'emergenza d'amoreIn assenza di te and La mia risposta.

883, an Italian pop rock duo, comprising Max Pezzali and Mauro Repetto, also cracked the Italian charts on a regular basis in the 1990s. They encountered the top spot of the charts with songs such as Come maiSei un mito and Hanno ucciso i'uomo ragno. Although Repetto left the band, Pezzali pressed on with new recruits and wound up returning to pole position with the chart topper, Un giorno così.

It wasn't just the singles charts that gave Italian musicians recognition – the album charts were a great source for superb Italian musicianship. Luciano Ligabue, for example, would find that his albums were extremely popular – both in Italy and in Europe. Following the formation of a band called Orazero in 1987, Ligabue would go on to write his own songs. One such artist, Pierangelo Bertoli covered Ligabue's Sogni di Rock 'n' Roll, and in the wake of this, Bertoli introduced Ligabue to a record producer, Angelo Carrara. Although Ligabue would go on to have singles hits such as 1999's Una vita da mediano, his real niche was in the album charts. Albums such as Miss Mondo reached Number One and went 5x Platinum. 1995's Buon Compleanno Elvis was one of his best sellers, not only reaching Number One but going 10x Platinum in Italy. Ligabue also directed a movie in the late 1990s. 1998's Radiofreccia was based on his novel Fuori e dentro il borgo and received both positive feedback and three David di Donatello film awards.

The 1990s were a fruitful decade for the band Elio e Le Storie Tese. It's said that they were influenced by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and their quirky but musically gifted albums bear this out. The band covered all sorts of musical genres including rock, prog rock, disco and soul. Their albums include 1992's Italyan, rum, casusu cikti and 1996's big break album Eat the phikis. The 1996 LP includes La Terra dei cachi, a wry look at Italian lifestyles which was performed to huge acclaim at that year's Sanremo festival. The song also raced to the top of the charts in March.

Marco Masini's run of 1990s albums were also received well, both commercially and critically. Possessing a unique vocal range and a distinctive brand of tune, Masini hit the big time with 1991's Malinconoia, a subdued but effective collection of songs that cemented the singer with the Italian public. Future albums such as T'innamorerai and Il Cielo della Vergine would also sell well, but would also attract controversy over some of the language and the explicit nature of songs such as Bella Stronza. Masini would change tack for a harder rock style in 1998, although this wasn't to prove as popular.

Hard rock was, however, a popular change for the band Litfiba. Initially, the band had started out in the 1980s, with a sound that encompassed New Wave and rock. However, Litfiba elected to go for a more rootsy sound that debuted on El Diablo in 1990. The band was rocking harder than ever before, and with grunge bands like Nirvana proving popular in the early 1990s, albums such as TerremotoSpirito and Mondi Sommersi provided the band with a refreshed lease of chart life. Litfiba would also pen their lyrics with a greater emphasis on political and social concerns. Ironically, one of their best sellers saw a move to more commercial, less heavy sounds. 1999's Infinito sold a million copies – after this, singer Piero Pelù would leave the band.

The 1990s saw a mix of old and new in the Italian charts, but the one constant was that pop and rock music was still in a very healthy state. What would the dawning of a new century bring? Tune in next time...

In 1999, Jovanotti, Ligabue and Piero Pelù (JovaLigaPelù) wrote and performed the song "Il mio nome è mai più", an anti-war song spurred by the Kosovo War whose proceeds would be donated to the humanitarian NGO Emergency. "Il mio nome è mai più"  (translated as My name is never again) was the biggest selling single in Italy that year.