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1991: The greatest year for music ever

Every so often, there is a moment in time where culture shifts from one epoch to the next. 1967 was arguably the year of all things countercultural, 1976 is widely hailed as the year that punk broke and then the release of the fastest-selling 12″ of all time, New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ in 1983 is taken as the year that the ’80s really arrived.

Then we have 1991.

1991 makes a strong claim for being the most crucial year in music to date. Dance music had taken off, aided by the ascendancy of ecstasy and technology, guitar music had reasserted its dominance aided by the influence and spirit of punk, and culture as a whole was booming.

The events that led up to the year’s great music were also meaningful. Two years prior, the world had cast off the manacles of the past, and headed into what was regarded as the orgiastic future. The Berlin Wall fell, The Cold War came to an end, and the youth had taken part in the ‘Second Summer of Love’. There was hope in the air. This sense of optimism was also aided by the fact that two of the era’s most prominent villains, or heroes, depending on which side of the fence you sit on, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, had left the halls of power. 

That’s not to say it was all good, but we’ll leave the discussion of neoliberal economics to Adam Curtis and Mark Fisher. Regardless, things seemed to be moving in the right direction. The ’90s was to be the decade of the children of the baby boomers, they’d finally wrestled their parents off the wheel of the ship.

After the misery of the ’70s and the economic explosion of the ’80s, it was their time to shine. Out of the boredom and frustration that the era of Thatcher and Reagan had created rose youth culture. Zines, subcultures, club nights, you name it. Where culture finds itself now can in many ways be traced back to then.

Technology aided this cultural growth, and great strides in music had meant that a discipline that was once a shallow pool had now swollen into a deep ocean. Music took on the essence of the economic system that created it. It was now a vast, interconnected web that was not merely concerned with rudimental genres such as R&B or rock ‘n’ roll.

This is why 1991 was so important. The musical explosion was so enormous that it impacted everything. The future had arrived, and it was here to stay. Looking more tacitly, 1991 also saw culture move closer to its current destination of fluidity. The journey kicked off by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie was now being directed by the likes of Kurt Cobain, Massive Attack, A Tribe Called Quest and My Bloody Valentine. 

The rulebook was torn up and aided by the supremacy of MTV; music was leading the charge into the great unknown. Strangely, although the effects of 1991 were huge, there is an argument to be had that its momentum was halted, or at least diverted, by the biggest tragedy modern society as a whole has experienced, the September 11th attacks. After that, music changed, and the likes of The Strokes and Interpol were at the forefront of culture, but that’s a story for a different day.

If we briefly discuss some of the albums that were released in 1991, you’ll heed just how earth-shattering of a 12 months it was. There’s no better place to start than Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind. The effect this overnight hit had cannot be understated. A punk record at heart, just with the gloss of the major label music industry, the three members found themselves with a level of fame so significant that it mirrored The Beatles hysterical rise to fame.

Similarly, the effect it had on frontman Kurt Cobain is a story as old as time, and although he is no longer with us, he lives on through Nevermind, and the other Nirvana records, of course. The album fused pop and rock, using the dynamic formula taken from Boston heroes, Pixies, and established what a band could and should be in the modern era.

Nirvana (Credit: Alamy)

A defining moment for a generation, without the release of Nevermind, you could say goodbye to a lot of the guitar bands that followed, and in some cases, such as Nickelback and Creed, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but you get the gist.

Nevermind put alternative music back at the forefront of the collective consciousness, and in a strange way, even the likes of Oasis and Suede wouldn’t have had the room to flourish without its massive strides. It was a battering ram that broke open the gates of culture, with the hordes of Generation Xers following it, fed up of the pompous misogyny that hair metal and the like espoused in the late ’80s. In this sense, Nevermind was a cultural revolution, and by extension, so was 1991.

Legendary Fugazi co-frontman Guy Picciotto once said: “It was like our record (Steady Diet of Nothing) could have been a hobo pissing in the forest for the amount of impact it had… It felt like we were playing ukuleles all of a sudden because of the disparity of the impact of what they did.” This assessment speaks volumes. 

Usually, an album’s cultural impact takes a while to permeate and take a foothold, but Nevermind’s effect was instant. It was as if as soon as people had consumed it, they were bleaching their hair, adopting the grunge garb and starting budget imitations of Nirvana and their contemporaries. The lasting of Nevermind is delved into more deeply here.

Via huge tunes such as mega-hit ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Territorial Pissings’, Kurt Cobain and Co. had crafted a silver bullet using the furnace of rage that burned in the heart of every Gen Xer with an emotional compass, and single-handedly killed off the ’80s. 

It wasn’t just Nevermind, though. Another game-changer was September’s Loveless, by My Bloody Valentine. It’s an exciting record in the way that there’s an internal juxtaposition that characterises it. Loveless was the album that both made My Bloody Valentine and what culminated in their demise. Released via British label du jour, Creation, the story of the making of Loveless is also a tale seemingly as old as time. 

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It took two years to make, nearly bankrupted the label, and by many accounts saw the band’s mastermind and guitar hero, Kevin Shields, have what can only be described as a Pet Sounds moment. Sessions were spread across 19 London recording studios, and Dick Green, the second in command at Creation, had a nervous breakdown due to the stress caused by the band. One Creation staffer also alleged that Green’s hair turned grey overnight.

All this is extraneous, though, when you think of the music. Capturing the spirit of the time, it blended the flourishing dance and electronic scenes with guitar music under the broad umbrella of shoegaze. However, this wasn’t shoegaze in the traditional sense, in the withdrawn sort of beauty that the band’s labelmates such as Ride or Slowdive were known for; it was a different beast entirely.

Kevin Shields, who recorded the project pretty much on his own, strived so hard for perfection, and he got it. Loveless isn’t just an album, it’s an experience, and therein lies its true genius. Never before had an album been so visceral yet so serene. Even now, it retains a density that is unparalleled. 

Complex and enchanting, when one thinks of Homer’s ‘Lotus Eaters’, the sounds of Loveless come crashing into my thoughts. Listening to Loveless for the first time is an experience that nobody forgets. It’s an indulgent masterpiece that built on the possibilities of what a record could do, a similar concept to what the likes of Pink Floyd had pushed forward in the ’70s. 

We spoke to Adam Franklin, frontman of MBV’s brothers in arms, Swervedriver. Also signed to Creation, they released their own masterpiece, Raise, in September and supported Shields and Co. at the historic Town and Country Club on December 15th for the Loveless show. He recalled that the album’s closing track ‘Soon’ was the “gamechanger”, and we agree. 

Offering up some sage wisdom from someone who was right at the heart of that monumental time, Franklin called Loveless his favourite album of the year, and explained why. He said: “It was the perfect sound for that time, in particular, with the guitars and the rave culture elements colliding. ‘To Here Knows When’ is still mind-bendingly brilliant in the same way that ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ also is. Somewhere along the way, MBV became a genre, like dub.”

Following on from Franklin’s point regarding the convergence of dance and guitars, another groundbreaking album was released a week before Swervedriver’s debut, Primal Scream’s third album, Screamadelica

Capturing the hedonistic abandon of the time, it departed from the band’s earlier, more explicitly rock sound and incorporated the influences of the house music scene and drug culture. With the majority of the production helmed by legendary acid house DJ, the late Andrew Weatherall, Screamadelica also took cues from Pet Sounds

Primal Scream (Credit: Stephen Parker / Alamy)

It is a psychedelic journey that somehow managed to account for every single mode of music that was en vogue at the time. Even when listening to the record sober, you feel like you’re coming up. They showed that dance and guitars didn’t have to be separated and that when united correctly, they can be a real sonic force. 

If we list some of the other huge guitar albums that were released that year, if you weren’t there, you’ll turn green owing to the fact that every release by an alternative band of note seemed to be classic. Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish, Mudhoney’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Dinosaur Jr.’s Green Mind and Slint’s post-rock farewell Spiderland. Red Hot Chili Peppers even released their career-defining fifth album, the funk-rock masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magick.

That was just on the American side of the Atlantic. In the UK, Teenage Fanclub released their magnum opus Bandwagonesque, Talk Talk released the gorgeous Laughing Stock, Slowdive soundtracked the lives of every emotionally unavailable human with Just for a Day and the West Midlands ‘grebo’ scene was in full, unashamed swing with Neds Atomic Dustbin’s tie-dye classic God Fodder

Special mention also has to be given to Swervedriver’s Raise. It took the dovetailing guitars, and varied dynamics of Sonic Youth, and in borrowing “their tunings and their penchant for Jazzmaster guitars”, they created a guitar album that has never been matched. Visceral and unrelenting, one would argue that not only are Franklin and Jimmy Hartridge two of the most underrated guitar players of all time, but that Raise is one of the most consistently overlooked records of the decade. They augmented the sound that Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. established, and created something so refreshing, that after listening to it, you’ll never view the guitar the same way again. 

Outside of guitar music, electronic and hip-hop also came to life. A considerable mention has to go to Massive Attack’s debut, Blue Lines. Featuring the massive single ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, the Bristol band’s first studio outing is hailed as the first trip-hop record, but it is so much more than that.

The most stylish and fluid album from the year, it straddled the gaps between disparate genres, and tied them together, effectively creating the future of music. It went one step further than Loveless and Screamadelica in terms of fusion. The pioneering steps that Massive Attack took on Blue Lines is often overlooked in the mainstream, but its effect on culture both directly and by proxy has been vital. The cultural melting pot that 2021 is has a lot to do with this record—a mind-blowing feat. Even Chuck Palahniuk, the author of Fight Club, has cited the record as an influence on his work.

Over in New York, A Tribe Called Quest also released their second album, The Low End Theory. A departure from the band’s debut, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, it is widely lauded as a milestone in alternative hip-hop. Minimalist to the core, it utilised bass, drum breaks and jazz samples in a way that was so revolutionary.

Modern rap, particularly the jazz-inflected type that is huge at the minute, via the likes of Little SimzTo Pimp a Butterfly-era Kendrick, and even latter stage Tyler, the Creator, owes a lot to The Low End Theory. If you were to ask Mark Ronson his thoughts on this album, I’d wager he’d have a lot to say.

Other massive records released in 1991 were The KLF‘s The White Room, Swans’ White Light from the Mouth of Infinity, 2Pac’s 2Pacalypse Now, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black, De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead, Primus’ Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Hole’s Pretty on the Inside, and these are just a handful.

A year of game-changers, the volume of important releases in 1991 is unmatched, and one would argue that it will remain so. The year where the ’90s truly started, culture would never be the same again. Society had moved into a new chapter, and the potpourri of a juncture we find ourselves at now, 30 years later, can directly be traced back to then.

If we were to erase 1991 from the history books, culturally, everything following would also be deleted; that is the sheer gravity of its effect.