Let’s play a little free-association, shall we? I say “Pope,” and you say, “Fight the real enemy!” I say “Andrew Dice Clay,” and you say, “Hell, no! I won’t go!” I say “National anthem,” and you say, “Sinatra’s gonna kick her ass!” I say “Childhood,” and you say, “Abused.” I say “Catholic?” and you say, “Yes. No! Yes. No … Yes! Who the heck knows?” Finally, I say “Sinead O’Connor,” and you say…

“Crazy. And bald! But mostly crazy.”

And that’s a shame, really — to think that, 20 years on, we have to unpack so much baggage before we remember the profound, and profoundly positive, musical impact of Sinead’s first two albums. She was quite unlike anyone else on the scene in 1988-92: a dramatic, often angry, and altogether riveting vocalist who could whisper like a nun and wail like a banshee. And she was one of the few acts of that era whose every move was so eagerly anticipated – first by the music press and Modern Rock radio, and then by the entire culture.

Besides, it’s not like we couldn’t see a train wreck coming as soon as she came steaming over the horizon. Her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, had featured songs referencing exotic stuff like African tribes and Helen of Troy, but also offering not-so-subtle hints about past personal traumas and a fragile psyche. As soon as she crossed over into the mainstream of popular culture, with the instantaneous success of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got after its release in March 1990, she began turning her interviews into therapy sessions – opening up about the abuse and neglect in her childhood, about her precarious relationship with her Catholic faith, and about her dysfunctional romantic life. She was TMI when TMI wasn’t cool.

Sinead wasn’t just a woman on the verge of a(nother?) nervous breakdown — she was up front about it. She was argumentative and self-promoting. She was arrogant. She was in our faces. In fact, for the greatest five minutes of her career – or 5,000, depending on how much you watched MTV that year – she was right in our faces, the music video equivalent of a “close talker.”

Or had you forgotten?

“Nothing Compares 2 U” was, at the moment Sinead got hold of it, a great lost Prince song – a tune he had bestowed upon his post-Time protégés the Family, who had recorded it for a 1985 album that sold few copies (for a Prince-related project) and was quickly forgotten. Once the song had been suggested to her by her manager/boyfriend Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, Sinead resurrected it in her own image, stripping away the odd time signature and jazz-funk-symphonic-fusion cacophony, and revealing “Nothing Compares 2 U” as a yearning, edge-of-madness ballad perfectly matched to her own persona.

Meanwhile, the video was a revelation in its austerity. Its long shots and tight close-ups couldn’t have been more different from the state of music-video art at that moment, as represented by Sinead’s closest competitor for MTV airplay, the David Fincher-directed clip for Madonna’s “Vogue.” The single tear Sinead shed at the end – a tear she found easy to produce, as she had broken up with O’Ceallaigh just days before the shoot – became one of the iconic images of MTV’s first decade, and we got to know her face so well that we could anticipate every shift of her glance, every crook of an eyebrow.

By the end of the song’s saturation-airplay run, we felt we knew Sinead better than we knew artists who had been around for years. Of course, it helped that so many of the other songs on I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got seemed to offer not just windows into her soul, but a microscopic glimpse into her psyche. The album begins non-specifically enough, with a tribute to the transformation affected by the addressee in “Feel So Different,” before she amps up the intensity with songs that (though they’re out of sequence on the CD) seem to tell of an intimate relationship gone horribly wrong. There’s the well-told tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” about a lover (and baby daddy) who was her only real influence at a time when she was surrounded by others telling her what to do; the dissolution of that relationship is portrayed in the remarkable “Last Day of Our Acquaintance” (“I will meet you later in somebody’s office/I’ll talk but you won’t listen to me/I know your answer already”); and she is left with a terrifying sense of single-parent isolation in “Three Babies.”

She also offered an ambivalent kiss-off to someone departed (her recently deceased mother?) in “You Cause As Much Sorrow,” and gave us an earful of her politics on the finger-pointing, anti-racist screed “Black Boys on Mopeds.” Heck, even the album’s other cover, a Celtic-funk rendition of the ancient Irish poem “I Am Stretched On Your Grave,” couldn’t help but leave the listener questioning the tightness of Sinead’s grip on her marbles.

The effect of all this was to encourage a far different relationship with her audience than most albums engender – and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got forged a lot of bonds, topping the U.S. album chart for seven weeks during the spring of 1990 and selling more than 7 million copies worldwide. “Nothing Compares 2 U” concurrently spent a month atop the Billboard Hot 100, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits. Remarkably, it remains her only Top 40 hit to this day; “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was the only other single from the album to gain any traction at all on pop radio, peaking at #60. She must be the best-known one-hit wonder in history – but that’s somehow fitting, considering the way her career imploded so famously soon afterward.

Looking back, much of the controversy that came to surround Sinead seems unfortunate, even unjustified. Her refusal to appear on a Saturday Night Live episode hosted by the meathead comedian Andrew Dice Clay seemed petulant to many at the time – but who would justify his misogynist humor today? Her later, infamous appearance on that show in October 1992, when she rewrote the Bob Marley classic “War” to deal with child abuse before tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II, seems less outrageous than prophetic in the wake of the sexual-abuse scandals of the past decade. Her insistence that “The Star-Spangled Banner” not be played before her concert at the Garden State Arts Center in August 1990, as American troops were massing in Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War, earns a bit more sympathy in the wake of more recent U.S. aggression in that region (and the similar derision that greeted the Dixie Chicks when they criticized the second President Bush). Sinead’s penchant for oversharing made millions uncomfortable two decades ago; today, she’d have five cable channels, Fox, and NBC begging to turn her life into a reality show. Even her shaved head, such a shock to the mainstream system in 1990, wouldn’t inspire a second thought in 2010.

The knock against Sinead that still sticks, all these years later, is the idea that she was and is an unreliable narrator of her own life. Over time she seems to have been willing to say to the press anything that might spark a new round of publicity, regardless of its veracity (or consistency with her previous remarks). She rejected Catholicism entirely at one point, then later was ordained as a priest by a renegade faction of the church … and then, even more recently, stated her mission is to “rescue God from religion.” She attended the MTV Awards and the American Music Awards in 1990, only to make a big noise out of boycotting the Grammys a couple months later. She may or may not have dated Anthony Kiedis later during the 1990s (she recently denied it, though it was common knowledge at the time); she has announced various forms of retirement (from pop music specifically, from showbiz in general) on various occasions, only to come back each time. In 2000 she outed herself as a lesbian – a “big lesbian mule,” actually – only to take it back soon afterward, and eventually profess to be bisexual. She told an Irish newspaper in 1990 that, when she finally met Prince after having a hit with “Nothing Compares 2 U,” he threatened to beat her and left her stranded on a roadside in the wee hours of the morning; she told Rolling Stone the experience had “spoiled the song completely for me.” Prince, of course, denies the event ever happened.

Speaking of Prince, his repeated attempts since 1990 to reclaim “Nothing Compares 2 U” have been screechy and rather pathetic – in much the same way that Daryl Hall’s efforts to take back “Everytime You Go Away” from Paul Young have been overweening and pretentious. Sure, Prince has enduring popular success, while Sinead lost her mainstream mojo long ago – but if even the Purple One is still haunted by the majesty of Sinead’s accomplishment, however brief her reign may have been, then we should pay occasional tribute as well. So blow the dust off your old copy of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and listen to it anew; you’ll find it retains all its old power, despite (and perhaps because of) all the baggage it’s picked up since its release.