Heading into Bossanova, the Pixies were at an impasse. If 1988’s Surfer Rosa had made the band underground heroes, the following year’s Doolittle had landed them somewhere between real popularity and mainstream appeal two years later. (Interviewed for People magazine in 1989, a sign of the times in and of itself, Black Francis said he no longer had to worry about paying for a movie ticket but that his favorite place to write was still the bathroom.) They were touring a lot and fighting like it, too. Frustrated by her voice in the band (or lack thereof), bassist Kim Deal formed the Breeders—an equally great band—and for a little while, the Pixies were on pause. Compared to Doolittle, 1990’s Bossanova was superficially slight: The sound was smoother, the melodies sweeter, the band’s weird gothic heat put on ice. Black Francis’ religious preoccupations—Bathsheba and Uriah on “Dead,” Samson and Delilah on “Gouge Away,” the original sin of “Hey,” and the four horsemen of “Wave of Mutilation”—were fragmented into images that were both simpler and more mysterious: a girl on the beach (“Ana”), an animal in the distance (“Havalina”), the desert sky lit by a descending UFO (“The Happening”). But in the album’s spacey, offhand approach was a sense of discovery that made Bossanova stand out not just in the band’s catalog, but in underground rock generally. They’d never drawn so obviously on older music—from the surf rock of “Cecilia Ann” to the doo-wop of “Velouria” and blues of “Down to the Well.” And instead of looking back on the past, the band seemed to be standing inside it. Pretty girls, weird animals, outer space: These were kids’ songs, crackling with the dislocated awe that being a kid entails. With the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind a year later, the Pixies were effectively recast as forefathers to a new form of rock music—an honorific due in no small part to how often Kurt Cobain talked up Surfer Rosa. Here, you hear how things could have gone differently. The stories weren’t biblical anymore, but Bossanova was nothing if not a revelation.

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