It’s 1991. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the residual scent of hairspray leftover from the 80’s is all but gone, and jeans are migrating south of our collective waist lines. The cultural pendulum has swung, and as such, there are fresh sounds in the air.
Cobain, Vedder, Cornell – these men are about to cement their place in the annals of music history. As big as grunge was about to become, ’91 was about more than one genre. Best album lists are hard, but they serve a purpose. They offer a soundbite of a period of time. The following releases from 1991 are some of the most influential/popular/divisive/purely awesome albums from a decade that musically, by and large, was a bit shit.
Now they’re all 25 years old! I give you the golden child of the 90’s – 1991.
1. Nirvana, Nevermind
You all saw this coming, didn’t you? There’s not much you can say about Nevermind that hasn’t already been said. It’s the album most people credit for popularising the Seattle grunge movement and more broadly, alternative rock music. Released in September of ’91, the 12 track sophomore effort from Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl gifted us with generation defining music. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘Come As You Are’, ‘Lithium’, ‘In Bloom’; these songs are featured in countless Best of Grunge lists, and incredibly they all come from the the same album.
Nevermind is one of those frustratingly good albums that has sadly become somewhat clichéd. Maybe you’ve sat through one too many pub band covers of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Maybe you were the guitarist in one of those bands. Or maybe you’ve just forgotten how fucking majestic these dudes are. Do yourself a favour – sit down and listen to Nevermind again. It is, hands down, the best album from 1991. Maybe the best album from the 90’s. Maybe the best album…of all time? But that’s not what this list is. Don’t be selfish.
2. Pearl Jam, Ten
Ten was Pearl Jam’s first of ten studio albums. But even if they hadn’t released the other nine, they’d still be one of the best bands of all time. A masterpiece of grunge, Ten inspired countless young musicians around the world to sing like Eddie Vedder. However, it didn’t have the immediate success that you might expect. It was late 1992 before Ten garnered the popularity that has now seen it sell over 10 million copies, although it never reached number one on a major chart in any of the major markets. Hits include ‘Jeremy’, ‘Alive’ and ‘Even Flow.’
Best debut album of all time? It’s definitely, almost, probably right up there.
3. Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger
Badmotorfinger was Soundgarden’s third studio album, but their first featuring featuring bassist Ben Shepherd. Shepherd is the man credited (by the rest of the band) with redefining Soundgarden, which is pretty high praise considering they’d already released two critically acclaimed records by this point. Badmotorfinger achieved a rare combination of superior musical complexity and greater commercial appeal, surpassing the yardstick in both those categories set by Soundgarden’s previous two releases.
Weird time signatures on tracks like ‘Outshined’ and ‘New Damage’ set Badmotorfinger slightly to the left of Pearl Jam and Nirvana’s ’91 releases, but it is inarguably the third member of the grunge trio that typified the Seattle scene and, for better or for worse, thrust it into the limelight.
4. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the fifth studio album from RHCP. It was their first release with Warner Bros. after ditching EMI, and their first of five collaborations with Rick Rubin. Rubin initially turned the band away in 1987 due to their ongoing drug use. Recorded in The Mansion (Harry Houdini’s old digs), Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the album that took RHCP from a popular band to global rock stars.
‘Give It Away’, ‘Suck My Kiss’ and ‘Under The Bridge’ all received overwhelmingly positive responses from fans and critics alike, but the band’s new found fame was what eventually caused John Frusciante to quit for the first time, before returning in 1998. Blood Sugar Sex Magik has sold over 14 million copies, and propelled the Chili Peppers to become one of the biggest band of the 90’s.
5. Metallica, Metallica
Metallica’s self-titled release was the band’s fifth studio album. The Black Album, as it became known, spawned two of the most iconic rock songs of all time in ‘Nothing Else Matters’ and ‘Enter Sandman’. As successful as the album was, the recording of Metallica was typically dramatic. In-fighting and disagreements with new producer, Bob Rock are what characterised Metallica for the band, but the outside world lapped it up. Debuting at number one in ten countries, it spent a month at the top of the Billboard200 charts. It was a departure from thrashier times for Hatfield and co, proving that rock and roll could be an atmospheric, grumbling beast.
6. U2, Achtung Baby
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, U2 has been a part of some big moments in music history. Achtung Baby sought inspiration from a reunified Germany (much of the album was recorded in Berlin), and was the centre of the band’s redefining Zoo TV Tour. Their previous release, Rattle and Hum, signified the beginning of what is now a long running trend of anti-U2 sentiment. Achtung Baby was an attempt to paint the band in a less serious light. That attempt, 25 years on, can be considered a resounding success. Achtung Baby is regarded as one of U2’s best albums, and is their second most successful commercially (after Joshua Tree), with good reason.
7. A Tribe Called Quest, The Low End Theory
1991 was a big year for rock music. Maybe one of the biggest. But there was other shit happening, too. A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory in September of ’91 off the back of their debut effort, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (which featured ‘Can I Kick It?’). The Low End Theory was one of the first albums to fuse hip hop and jazz, which is pretty massive when you look at the success with which artists like Kendrick Lamar have done exactly the same thing.
You’re probably starting to get the picture. 1991 was a BIG year. There’s a lot of albums not on this list. It’ll probably make you angry and upset, but that’s OK. Tell us what you think we’ve missed!
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless
R.E.M., Out of Time
Primal Scream, Screamadelica
Guns N’ Roses, Use Your Illusion I & II
Massive Attack, Blue Lines
The Smashing Pumpkins, Gish
De La Soul, De La Soul is Dead
Michael Jackson, Dangerous
Dinosaur Jr., Green Mind