1991: The Greatest Year in Music?

I’ve resisted temptation for long enough and decided to join the swelling tide of music enthusiasts looking back at what is the greatest year in music history. Personally I’m now of an age where I can truly look back through my rose tinted glasses to appreciate the influence or creative output of musicians throughout almost every decade. But narrowing it down to a single year is of course the challenge now I present myself. I hope a good dose of nostalgia and research won’t go astray in helping me come to a decision. But like most things in life, our opinions are subjective and constantly evolving, as is the year 1991 in music as my starting point for the first of the deep dives of this new series.

If 1991 is remembered for one thing, it was the explosion of grunge, that anti-mainstream movement that led the charge against the old guard, in particular the overindulgence of glam metal of the late ‘80s. Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were all notably the faces of this punk metal rock revolution. Amongst its growing fan base were disenfranchised youth looking for something authentic to hold on to. Interestingly, as many of us set about embracing grunge, it gave rise to its own fashions and even its own festival in Lollapalooza launched by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction in 1991. Of course, it would be truly set alight the following year with some of 1991’s most influential acts like Ice Cube, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Cypress Hill all in attendance.

I’m in particular reminded of grunge’s growing importance when (if memory serves correct) Pearl Jam was the first of the Seattle rockers to have a significant feature on them in Rolling Stone magazine in late 1991. Everyone it seemed were interested in Pearl Jam’s incredible debut album Ten and its shy but intense frontman Eddie Vedder. More importantly, I also remember how Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit became the first anthem of the 90s or how Kurt Cobain as one of the movements so-called ‘ousiders’ accepted me with open arms without reservation or judgement, every time I hear the first verse of Come As You Are from Nevermind (1991).

While still on the subject of Nirvana, did you know their second studio album Nevermind which was released on 24 September, 1991, was originally limited to around 50,000 copies? It sold out so quickly that at first Geffen couldn’t keep up with the demand. Whether or not Nirvana’s new record label overlords Geffen Records had any faith in its release is stuff of legend now; as the album eventually went on to sell over a million copies by the end of 1991. (By the end of the decade it had sold over 10 million copies.) Interestingly, soon after its release Kurt Cobain complained about its sound, lamenting Butch Vig for producing a far too slick album than Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl had intended. Nonetheless, despite Cobain critique, the warped punk rock intensity of Come As You Are, Polly and Smells Like Teen Spirit have endured to this day as a rare feat of songwriting brilliance.

It’s fair to say the likes of Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain in their respective bands weren’t the only voices crying out to be heard. In many ways, hard rock and heavy metal were still one of the dominant forces of 1991. At the forefront were Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, who both dropped groundbreaking albums only a month apart from each other. First, in August, Metallica released their self-titled fifth studio album, also known as “The Black Album” to critical acclaim. It went on to eventually sell 30 million copies (15 million sold in the US alone.) Even I have to admit huge riff tracks like Enter Sandman and Sad But True felt strangely accessible to non-metal fans. Moreover Whenever I May Roam and Nothing Less Matters are epics in their own right, making everyone and I mean everyone, aside from hardcore thrash-metal fans, pay attention to the Bay Area metalheads.

Fans of hard rock/metal though were also in for arguably an even bigger treat in September, when Guns N’ Roses released two new albums simultaneously. Use Your Illusions Volume I & II would go a long way to help cement Guns N’ Roses as legends of hard rock. In short, both albums reinforced in spades their innovative style for balladry (November Rain) and blistering riffs and fast lyrics (You Could Be Mine).

Of the many great accessible albums of 1991, REM’s Out Of Time was held in high regard by critics and musicians alike for its innovative folk, rock and pop tinged sensibilities. In short it was a revelation, which afforded them crossover success with the sublime Losing My Religion and the goofy singalong Shiny Happy People. It won REM three Grammys, which included one for Best Alternative Album. Out of Time even briefly held the top spot on the US Billboard 200 until It was eventually knocked off its perch at number one by an unlikely adversary in the form of Compton, hip hop group N.W.A; but more on that later.

Interestingly, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, often describes as ‘California’s long-suffering 80s funk-punk heroes’ would finally break into the mainstream with the release of arguably their greatest album ever Blood Sugar Sex Magik. On a personal note, Give It Away, Under The Bridge, Suck My Kiss and Breaking The Girl were all massively influential songs that saw me not long after, embrace wholeheartedly the alternative rock explosion of the back-end of 1991.

It has been said that 1991 was also the beginning of a new era, where music genres continued to fracture, further blurring the lines of music’s landscape. Words like ‘genre-bending’ and ‘style-hoping’ come to mind when I think of two more of the biggest albums of 1991, Soundgarden’s Grammy nominated Badmotorfinger and Primal Screams’ Screamadelica. The latter would take home the first ever Mercury Prize in 1992 beating out not only U2’s Achtung Baby, but also one of the year’s least likely pop stars Saint Etienne’s and their seminal debut LP Foxbase Alpha; which featured the reimagined Neil Young song Only Love Can Break Your Heart as a dance track. It’s fair to say while others have tried since to cover Neil Young’s 70s song, all pale in comparison to St. Etienne’s inventive sonic version.

Typical of being one of the biggest bands in the world, U2 went for it in a big way in 1991. The defining moment could arguably be traced back a few days shy of the beginning of the 1990s, when Bono made what is now his famous ‘this is the end of something for U2…we have to go away and … and dream it all up again’ speech during their Lovetown Tour show at Point Depot in Dublin, Ireland. In hindsight I wonder how many fans were actually really paying attention to Bono that night? His gentle banter likely went over most fans head but Bono was genuinely hinting at something new coming. That night it could be said that the seeds were planted for U2’s Achtung Baby, which would become one of the most influential albums of 1991. It is occasionally even mentioned as the quintessential album of 1991 because of its daring scope and in the reinvention of U2 as a band. That said, U2 convincingly blurred the lines between pop, indie and dance music, all of which made for a heavier and endlessly emotional listen on Achtung Baby.

If you want to still talk about genres that defined the year (and the decade still to come), the same could be said for hip hop which took over the charts in 1991. While there are many theories that help explain hip hop’s rise, a key trigger point came in the introduction of Nielsen Soundscan, which began accurately collecting music data on which albums were really selling in America. And so it was, in late June 1991, that hip hop had struck a mortal blow to the ‘old guard’, whose unabated reign on the charts was about to come to an end with Nigga4Life by N.W.A., as the first rap album to claim the coveted spot on the Billboard 200. The first number one hip hop song soon after the debut of the Neilsen SoundScan was P.M. Dawn’s Set Adrift On Memory Bliss. It too was an unprecedented moment in Billboard history and one that arguably signalled the emergence of rap and hip hop into mainstream music.

With hip hop no longer relegated to the fringes of mainstream music, a wave of hip hop artists stamped their mark on 1991 with incredible albums. Notably among them were Cypress Hill’s self-titled debut, Ice Cube’s Death Certificate, Gang Starr’s Step In The Arena, Ice-T’s OG Original Gangster, Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91…The Empire Strikes Black, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead and A Tribe Called Quest’s The Low End Theory. The common thread that holds these albums all together is their examination of American society. Some of course do it better than others. Ice T for instance looks for answers to ghetto poverty, family violence and even speaks out against America’s drug culture on his album. A Tribe Called Quest also try somewhat to hold a mirror to American society focussing on social issues and racisms rather than a fixation on guns, untold wealth and girls.

While the class of 1991 helped change the sound of hip hop (spilling incredibly over into genres like R&B, pop, metal, punk and alternative rock during the rest of the 90s), the influence of dance music (house, techno and rave), also continued to seep into pop culture, breaking the shackles of its underground roots well and truly in the early 90s. The KLF were probably the definitive house music group of 1991, releasing their classic album The White Room to critical acclaim. With songs like What Time Is Love?, 3 A.M. Eternal, Last Train To Trancentral and Justified & Ancient, it opened the floodgates for fans to rejoice in a host of the year’s most influential dance tracks like Nomad’s Devotion, C+C Music Factory’s Gonna Make You Sweat and EMF’s Unbelievable.

We could continue to discuss the merits of how 1991 can be argued to be the greatest year in music until we all go blue in the face. So how about I leave you instead with my final thoughts on two of my favourite albums that are often overlooked in terms of their importance to the music landscape of 1991.

Like so many others I was a huge fan of John Mellencamp during the 1980s and when he released his first new album of the 1990s Whenever We Wanted in October of 1991, it was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Why? Because Mellencamp for his new album had all but decided to abandon for instance the accordion and fiddle, which were often seen as the centre piece of his heartland sound. Of course, there was nothing wrong with him changing direction, but the fact that he did it was so completely ballsy. For Mellencamp Whatever We Wanted would turn out to be a return to form. In hindsight now its fair to say, its old school guitar rock flew in the face of mainstream expectation, especially given the dominance of hip hop and the emergence of grunge. With tracks like Love and Happiness, Again Tonight and Get A Leg Up, Mellencamp showed that even an old dog still had new tricks.

Like Mellencamp’s indictment on American culture on his song Love and Happiness, Prince took aim at Bush-era America on Money Don’t Matter 2Nite, taken from his 13th studio album Diamonds and Pearls. It was a timely reminder that Prince was far from finished as a social commentator. While Money Don’t Matter 2Nite stands as one of my favourite tracks from the album, there is no denying that the lead single Gett Off (and its “23 positions in a one night stand”), Cream and Thunder re-affirmed the purple one as a cultural icon. Proving yet again that he was too big to be contained by just one genre, Prince effortlessly incorporated elements of funk, pop/rock, R&B and soul across Diamonds and Pearls; serving up as a reminder to all of us of his brilliant contribution to modern music. One could argue that Diamonds and Pearls was his last great album? If it was, how fitting that it was released in 1991 arguably the greatest year in music history.

Robert Horvat is a Melbourne based blogger. He believes that the world is round and that art is one of our most important treasures. He has seen far too many classic films and believes coffee runs through his veins. As a student of history, he favours ancient and medieval history. Music pretty much rules his life and inspires his moods. Favourite artists include The Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garbage and Lana Del Rey.

6 comments on “1991: The Greatest Year in Music?

  1. Greatest is a title that will always make others question the criteria… There’s perspective at play. ’91 was certainly a year that deserves to be in the conversation though. It was a year of massive releases in both the rock scene and the hip-hop/R&B scene. Releases that would define the next decade and beyond.

  2. Alas, for me at the time, 1991 began what I felt was a rapid decline in the overall quality of music that put me in a kind of dead zone that would last nearly two decades! Back then, I followed the Billboard charts religiously, and I distinctly remember how the Hot 100 literally changed overnight in the summer of 1991 (which I later learned was the direct result of Billboard using Nielsen Soundscan to curate their list). Suddenly, the chart was filled with rap and hip hop stuff I’d never heard of, and I hated it. I hated grunge too, as to me a lot of it sounded discordant and unpleasant. I thought Pearl Jam was OK, but hated Nirvana, and honestly never heard anything from Soundgarden or any of the other bands. I was obviously listening to the wrong radio stations, and just didn’t hear grunge or hip hop enough to learn to like it, as I believe that familiarity – along with an open mind – cause us to learn to like certain kinds of music we might not otherwise.

    I’m now an old man, and was already 36 years old at the beginning of 1991, so I just figured the newer music didn’t appeal to me because I was getting older. I now realize it’s was due more to the fact that I had developed a very closed mind. (Many of my contemporary friends remain stuck in the past in terms of their music tastes, which drives me nuts!) From my early childhood, I’d loved soul and R&B music, but I simply could not abide hip hop or rap, especially by Black artists. The lyrics, topics and sound of it just didn’t connect with me at all, though I did like some of the hip hop by white artists such as Eminem, whose 2002 hit “Lose Yourself” is one of my all-time favorite songs. This caused me to question my own belief systems – i.e. had I become racist? I’ve since come to more fully appreciate grunge and hip hop music, but it took a long time.

    For me, the best years for music are 1965-72, 1982-88, and 2013-2018.

    • There can be an argument made that fringe movements like punk metal and hip hop provided listeners with an alternative to the often repetitive and uninspiring pop that was produced in the late 80s and into the early 90s. I was into most things associated with ’80s pop, particularly the Eurythmics, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, The Beastie Boys and Madonna. All these artists though I felt were producing quality material. Others not so much. Interestingly, I’ve always had an open mind about music. But I have to admit hip hop often sits outside my comfort zone. Interestingly, in the last five years or so I’ve embraced genres I’ve often given little time to, like modern country and folk rock. For instance, I never imagined Courtney Marie Andrews would be one of my favourite musicians (of the moment). I hope to look at one of these years next – 1967, 1969, 1971 or 1984. We’ll see.

      • I now totally get how and why young people would have gravitated to the brutal honesty of grunge and hip hop. Had I been an angsty and cynical 17-year-old in 1991, I would have undoubtedly embraced both genres with arms wide open (I hated Creed BTW, as I think Scott Stapp has a horrible voice, but I digress…). When I now listen to the brilliant songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, many pop songs seem very pedestrian and silly.

        Having a blog has opened my musical mind considerably, and I’m now willing to listen to – and appreciate – many genres I once dismissed such as Country, death metal, rap, and progressive jazz. I still strongly dislike bro-country and mumble rap though.

  3. Great article. I’m glad you mentioned KLF as well, because they tend to get forgotten or overlooked a lot. REM also put out Out of Time in 91 – including the two timeless singles, Shiny Happy People and Losing My Religion. And I believe Temple of the Dog’s singles were mostly released in 91, including Hunger Strike. So yeah, what a year for music. Also, I think GNR’s Use Your Illusion I is a very underrated album, so I’m glad your included it here: it has their most meaningful music on it, I think (Use Your Illusion II, not so much). I also think Badmotorfinger tends to get overshadowed by Nevermind and Ten, which is unfortunate.

  4. A Tribe Called Quest and The KLF… Good call. For me, 1991 was also about the ladies. Lori Barbero remains one of the greatest drummers ever (Babes In Toyland) then there was Riot Grrrl, PJ Harvey, Throwing Muses, L7 etc. The sheer diversity of the early nineties was impressive.

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