To many 1991 is one of those great landmark years in music, and I feel the same way. However, I did not find 1991 to be as deep as 1977 or 1982 for that matter. But, the sheer quality of the albums on this list is undeniable. Of course, those of us who were around in 1991 remember the earth-shifting shock of an up-and-coming band called Nirvana dislodging the mighty Michael Jackson from the #1 position on Billboard. That moment opened the floodgates for the influx of alt.rock and grunge artists into the commercial mainstream. It was as if punk rock had finally made its mark in the States.
Hip hop also made huge strides artistically and commercially. Britpop and shoegaze were gaining momentum, and MTV was still influencing youth culture. It was a dizzying moment in rock music. Here are my favorites for the year.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory (1991). The strides made by Eric B. & Rakim, De La Soul and Jungle Brothers came to fruition on this outstanding album. It was a welcomed change that A Tribe made to the rap palette by embracing the whole jazz aesthetic on this outing. The obvious smooth rapping of Rakim influenced the deliveries of Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Now, the world is completely open to hip hop for use and influence.
Guns ‘N Roses – Use Your Illusion I and II (1991). These two albums cannot be separated. When GNR burst onto the scene in 1987/1988, the world was ready for their sleazy mix of Sex Pistols, Aerosmith and Rolling Stones, but now these guys were ready to push beyond their original sound. So, as if they could become any more decadent, these guys decided to indulge upon every sound and substance within in their grasp. Both of these albums ooze with overindulgence, which is what makes them so compelling. To this day, “November Rain” remains one of the greatest power ballads, something of a “Stairway to Heaven” for the crack era.
Ice-T – OG: Original Gangster (1991). Long before Ice-T became an acting icon, he was one of the premier rappers of his generation, and this album is his defining moment in gangsta rap. T had made quite an underground reputation in the rap world but had yet to put everything together on an album. Well, he did it here with ripe beats and his unparalleled tales of being a gang member on the streets of the West Coast inner city. Now, gangsta rap was poised to take over the music world.
Matthew Sweet – Girlfriend (1991). Power pop seemed to spring up in the early-Seventies, only to crawl back underground and re-emerge in the late-Seventies during the New Wave era. Once again, the movement, much like metal, went underground again, occasionally making noise throughout the Eighties (Marshall Crenshaw, The Bangles, The Go-Go’s, Crowded House all spring to mind). Then, Jellyfish sounded the power pop alarm, and the floodgates opened once again. Sweet, an artist who had be percolating during much of the Eighties, finally found his sound by fusing the sweet melodies of Rundgren, Badfinger and Cheap Trick, but added a fuzzed out guitar to make the sound modern. This album is a near-perfect power pop album, not to mention one of the best examples of Nineties power pop. Many more artists will follow.
Metallica – Metallica (1991). While GNR were indulging on their two simultaneously released albums, thrash metal gods Metallica were joining forces with producer Bob Rock to streamline their sound and up their bottom end. The results were an explosion of metal, musicianship and force that is still influencing the sound of metal albums today. Many of the great artists have an album in which everything comes together, and it happened for Metallica because they pulled back on their desire to fill their songs with an over abundance of crazy guitars. This is the sound of a laser-focused band maturing right before our eyes.
Michael Jackson – Dangerous (1991). Personally, I felt like this album was something of a letdown from Jackson’s Eighties peak. Yet, this was the sound of state of the art pop and R&B in the early-Nineties. Jackson, like Madonna, ever the trend discoverer and exploiter, immediately enlisted LA Reid and Babyface to do for his music what they did for Bobby Brown by adding touches of New Jack Swing and some hip hop into his trademark sound. Unfortunately, Jackson’s music will never be this good again, as the weight of his personal problems were beginning to eclipse his musical genius.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991). In the mid-Seventies, Lou Reed made what many consider to be the most unlistenable album ever released called Music Metal Machine. It was full of guitar noise and unstructured “songs.” But, it seems like a small coterie of guitarist may have been influenced by it. Thus, the shoegaze music scene was born. These people loved to play their guitars as fuzzy and feedback-laden as possible, only they never forgot the song’s melody. The Jesus and Mary Chain started the movement in 1985, and by 1991, there were several bands fighting for recognition. My Bloody Valentine became the band that rose to the top of the heap with this flawless album of ear-ringing guitars laid over pop melodies. This album is just a beautiful juxtaposition of sound and song.
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991). To many, this is THE album moment of the Nineties. Kurt Cobain, Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl discover the magic sound of Beatles meets Sabbath meets Pixies. I really don’t know what I can say about this album that has not been said before, except “Classic.”
R.E.M. – Out of Time (1991). This album has always seemed to me as if the band were playing a little of everything they had ever recorded before as if to flex their musical muscles at us. Then, of all things, they did not tour behind the album, playing only a few acoustic dates, including the legendary MTV Unplugged performance. Over the years, I have tended to neglect this album as if I had heard it all before, yet it is just that quality that makes it a much more exciting retrospective than any of their compilations. This album continues to stand the test of time.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991). I waited forever for the RHCP to make this album. I loved them from the moment I heard them for the first time in college. Then, they went through drummers as if they were Spinal Tap or Pearl Jam before settling on Chad Smith. And, we all know their troubled relationship with guitarists, losing Hillel Slovak to a heroin overdose, then having John Frusciante on and off over the subsequent years. But, RHCP are at their finest with Frusciante, as they proved on this album. This album remains the band’s Led Zeppelin IV, with “Under the Bridge” being the band’s “Stairway.”
Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (1991). Okay, here is my favorite album of the year. This Scottish band seemed to pop out of the sky to me, like the second coming of Big Star, only with shoegaze-influenced guitars, only not so dominating. I was totally hooked by the band’s way they could meld Nineties sound and attitude with the power pop of primo Big Star and Cheap Trick. Unfortunately, while they will go on to create some fine music, Teenage Fanclub will never reach the heights of this album. This remains a lost Nineties classic.
Temple of the Dog – Temple of the Dog (1991). In 1990, the Seattle grunge scene lost a major budding star when Andrew Wood of Pearl Jam-forerunners Mother Love Bone died of a heroin overdose. So, Wood’s roommate and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell wrote a loving tribute with fellow Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, former Mother Love Bone and future Pearl Jam members guitarist Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Mike McCready, and introducing Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder. This supergroup ended up creating one of the classic grunge albums of all time. Want proof? Just listen to their left-field radio hit “Hunger Strike,” as Cornell and Vedder trade verses.
U2 – Achtung Baby (1991). Well, just as the world was tiring of U2’s earnestness, the band did the unthinkable and embraced the irony of the Nineties to create what I consider to be their second best album. The band pushed themselves to the limits with their near-industrial soundscapes while never losing what truly separate the band from the pack. Now, this was a refueled U2 ready to tackle the Nineties’ changing soundscape. And if anyone has rewritten as good of a ballad as “One,” then, somebody please tell me.
And that wraps up 1991. My entries are getting smaller, but the wallop of the albums remain. Peace.