1991 was an important year for music, a period of 12 months which set the tone for the rest of the decade. The public was fed up with the whitewashed plastic pop fluff that defined the worst aspects of the ’80s and things had boiled up to the point of spilling over into the mainstream. This was certainly the case with a new form of punk that began rearing its troublesome head, and many would argue that this is the best year of the decade for alternative music.
While Nirvana had broken into the mainstream with Nevermind, other prominent grunge bands such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden would make their mark as well. Together, the three bands alone would dominate the radio and, consequently, have a lot to account for in terms of influencing popular culture. The new decade would also reveal the return of a number of significant acts continuing to keep themselves relevant by redefining their musical output, such as R.E.M, U2, and Guns N’ Roses.
Meanwhile, in England, the era of Britpop began unfolding. Blur made their debut with Leisure, Primal Scream would finally breakthrough with their decade crossover album Screamadelica and My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive would set the scene for shoegaze. Some of these albums are the culmination of the heavy influence that The Stone Roses had with their first album in ’89.
1991 would also prove to be one of the saddest days of music as it ushered out one of the greatest living rock bands with the death of their singer. This is, of course, Freddie Mercury and Queen. In fact, many say that the 1991 album Innuendo was arguably one of their greatest creations.
The “alternative rap” scene saw some degree of progression as well, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low-End Theory to critical acclaim, while Cyprus Hill stormed the charts on the west coast to add yet more to the melting pot of transition within the popular music scene. It was this year that The Divinyl’s got their massive hit with the earworm ‘I Touch Myself’, Mick Jones’ post-Clash outfit Big Audio Dynamite would see some top 40 action and other significant impacts of the year would include pop star, Paula Abdul’s ‘Rush Rush’.
While there are plenty of other era-defining albums to choose from; 1991 was a great year, and it appeared as if there was a lot of promise for change in the air – something a little more promising and authentic than what the over-commercialised latter half of the ’80s churned out.
We focused on some of the newer bands of this time, as opposed to older bands that were well into their careers by 1991. There were a lot of heavy hitters of the year and tried our best to remain objective – but of course, with all things music-related, it is a personal matter of the heart most times; the best music is the stuff that doesn’t allow you to be too objective as its personal influence is undeniable.
The best albums released in 1991:
6. The Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
While grunge was being created from society holding a mirror up to its face, something else was happening in California. While I’m not personally the biggest fan of the Chili Peppers, they have always marched to the rhythm of their own beat. Guitar player John Frusciante was able to showcase his melodic songwriting capabilities on this one as they departed from the heavier riff-oriented material of the previous album.
Peaking at number three on the Billboard charts, this album was a game-changer for the peppers; it produced some of their best-known numbers, such as ‘Give It Away’, ‘Suck My Kiss’, and ‘Under The Bridge’.
5. Blur – Leisure
This is Blur’s debut album, and it nicely set the tone for their later albums, but it still gives you very little to no idea as to what else may come. Blur have always been spot on but, in the same sense, a very British band. However, they have done well in the States thanks to their ability never to pigeonhole themselves. The album did well in the British charts, peaking at number seven.
They were absolutely brilliant at creating tiny worlds within their songs; vignettes of small scenes found in all sectors of British society. Although this album is, in a way, derived from the Madchester scene that was winding down, Blur could be held responsible as one of the pioneers of Britpop. As an added bonus, all the members of the band have larger than life personalities.
4. Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
One of the key highlights of the blossoming Seattle grunge scene, Soundgarden, broke some personal ground on Badmotorfinger and made a household name for themselves by penning by a string of their most memorable numbers. A few notable songs include, ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’.
With this album, Soundgarden maintained their reputation as one of the leading grunge bands of the ’90s, while not compromising their heavy rock sound with elements plucked from the ’70s and the ’80s.
3. Massive Attack – Blue Lines
Formed in Bristol, Massive Attacked remain a famed electronic band with a unique approach to the genre. Their single from their debut album Blue Lines, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, charted well and solidified their rising status as pioneers of a new sound. The band’s output, comprised of fascinating textures and dynamics, would make it applicable to call them a great ambient band that doesn’t actually create ambient music.
The 1970s was a decade of making people rock, the ’80s was a decade for dance and the ’90s was a decade of music that specifically made people feel nostalgia; this is what made Massive Attack very relevant. Blue Lines features elements of rock, breakbeats, sampling, and rap.
2. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Along the lines of making people emote, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is another brilliant example of this. Extremely innovative, the band pioneered a shoegaze sound that alternative music fans had never come across before. More than ever, today’s bands are still trying to emulate what My Bloody Valentine accomplished. MBV did twice as much with three albums than many do with more.
Their music can be best described as merging dissonant guitar textures, “androgynous vocals”, and unique electronic manipulation in the studio and with live equipment. Loveless still remains one of the best albums in the alternative rock genre.
1. Nirvana – Nevermind
It should come as no surprise that Nirvana’s second album takes first place. Produced by Butch Vig, Nevermind is famously the first Nirvana album to feature Dave Grohl on drums, propelling the band into a new direction. Not quite as raw as their debut album Bleach, Kurt Cobain was developing his songwriting voice that would come to define an entire generation and even future generations; to this day, Nirvana’s songs help get people through their toughest of times.
The entirety of Nirvana’s material can be defined as containing the best aspects of the 1990s: the heavy guitars but indelible pop hooks, all the while playing a big part in shaping what would become known as the grunge sound. This album would prove to be what Nirvana needed for commercial success.