Never in music history has there been such a dichotomy in sound than 1991. On the one hand, you had the glossiest of eighties hangovers in the form of Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’, Cher’s ‘The Shoop Shoop Song’ and Chesney Hawkes’ dodgy disco signifier ‘The One and Only’ propping up the singles chart. Then, you had R.E.M.’s fresher than lemon juice sound of Out of Time and Nirvana’s indelible impact of Nevermind setting up the guitar sounds to come.
It was a hodgepodge year of the 1990s finding its feet with dodgy haircuts and goatees aplenty. While Jeffrey Dahmer, the dissolution of the USSR and the politics of Saddam Hussein blighted the news. In short, things were strange and unsettled and whilst things influences were established that made a seismic impact at the time, very little remained once the millennium descended, including, sadly, jelly sandals.
Below, we’re looking at the gems amid the wreck and rubble of this creatively tempestuous year, by seizing upon the songs that got crowded out by either fuzz-pedals, leather trousered ballads, or maybe just bad timing. The collection itself shows just what a smorgasbord of a year 1991 proved to be, and as ever we’ve wrapped up the genre-defying collection in a handy playlist at the bottom of the piece.
The 13 underrated gems from 1991:
13. ‘The Wagon’ by Dinosaur Jr.
With the eighties throwing the notion of lead guitar onto the ash heap for anything other than a blitzing tremolo solo, Dinosaur Jr. helped to bring raucous noise back to the forefront.
Aside from the seminal stylings, J Mascis’ songwriting also propagated something new onto the scene. ‘The Wagon’ is candid and catchy, coupling the polar reverse of singalong lyrics with a melody toe-tapping melody that fills the void of a conventional chorus.
12. ‘Dalliance’ by The Wedding Present
Following the success of the albums George Best and Bizarro, The Wedding Present decided to change tact and teamed up with Steve Albini for a moodier, raw album that captured the visceral edge of a break-up with the darker sounds that would define an era.
‘Dalliance’ is the opener that epitomises what follows. The song swerves through transitions in a serpentine wave of melody and energy. Coupled with the raucous spirit of the track is the candid lyricism of David Gedge, who takes on heartache with anger and acquiescence in equal measure.
11. ‘Dizzy’ by Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff
Sometimes the brilliance of a song is in the narrative. For Dizzy, what we gladly rejoice in as listeners is Vic Reeves realising his dream to be a pop star in a dallying departure for the comedy and art world for which he was truly destined.
With the help of The Wonder Stuff, he managed to capture the manic sound of a dream coming true and that sounds as fresh now as it did back then, with a healthy dose of ironic fun.
10. ‘Car Wash Hair’ by Mercury Rev
Mercury Rev were a band who knew their craft down to a tee. Although, the pop perfection of songmanship wouldn’t fully come to the fore until the later years of their career ‘Car Wash Hair’ exhibits what was to come and couples it with a raw playfulness.
Horns enter this song at about the two-and-a-half-minute mark and it is one of the finest production moments of the era. The song doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s happy to have you know that without ramming the point home in a juvenile pitch.
9. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ by Saint Etienne
For all the grunge that was beginning to break through, Saint Etienne’s Foxbase Alpha is perhaps the most transportive record back to that era. There is something that is ineffably early nineties about the sound that is both dated but definitive in equal measure.
Ultimately, the song does something indefinable about music, which is to bring forth memories that aren’t even attached to the song. In the discourse of music, it would be hard to imagine the journey of the ’90s without tracks like this.
8. ‘Lucinda Williams’ by Vic Chesnutt
Vic Chesnutt’s stream of consciousness songwriting style might not be to everyone’s taste, but there is undoubtedly something charmingly disarming about it. It has the outsider music feel being welcomed into some private creative world, but in Chesnutt’s case, it has the chops not to be maddening.
You couldn’t call this song an ode as such, but more of an autobiographical backstory to Chesnutt’s relationship with the folk-country icon Lucinda Williams. It is scratchy and wayward, but its heart is always firmly in the right place.
7. ‘Laurie’ by Daniel Johnston
Speaking of outsider music, Daniel Johnston is an artist who embodies the craft. When you listen to Daniel’s bedroom-bound ballads, you get a real sense that his music would exist even in a world without a mainstream, and even with an audience of one.
‘Laurie’ is an ode to his eternal muse. Albeit, the real-life Laurie insists Johnston’s narrative of the duos brief frisson was always fantastically embellished for artistic reasons, that doesn’t make it any less sincere, as this song will no doubt attest.
6. ‘The Person You Are’ by John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Harding is a name that remains in closest association with Bob Dylan’s iconic record, which shows how underrated the artist of the same name was. Harding fused his early influences of folk stars like Dylan with Elvis Costello-Esque melodic realism and lyrical invention. Sadly, with only around 6000 monthly listens on Spotify that hasn’t resulted in notoriety.
‘The Person You Are’ ticks all the boxes of the ’90s. It has a catchy hook, a depressing narrative, and a catchy chorus, what’s not to like here.
5. ‘Feel So Sad’ by Spiritualized
‘Feel So Sad’ was many peoples first glimpse into the world of Spiritualized and it beguilingly beckoned them to jump in and chill out in the floating stream. The soft cloudy tones are almost otherworldly amongst all the grunge the heaved up around them.
The song is what some call a ‘healing song’, it creates a separate little space for itself in the howls of the hectic world where escapism is king. The band might have achieved notoriety after this track, but it is a lesser-known gem that heralded the gentle wave that was about to crest the shore.
4. ‘Blind’ by Swans
Swans have forged an identity over the years as one of the most fearlessly uncompromising bands in the business. Their constant evolution has simultaneously alienated and endeared in equal measure, and often at the same time.
‘Blind’ sees the band at their most considered. Wrapped up in the tranquil and nostalgic soundscape of melodic plucking and electronic overtures are lyrics like: “I was never young / Nothing has transpired / But when I look in the mirror / I feel dead, I feel cold, I am blind.” Michael Gira, uber-bleak words couple with sweet music to form a snapshot of a life with depth and dimensions.
3. ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ by Bonnie Raitt
The sound of ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ might be quintessential ’90s, but the production has something of the seventies soul about it, and lyrically it is as timeless as they come.
Some chorus’ hit the nail on the head so sweetly that they make a mockery of subtlety, as though the millions of other unrequited love songs have skirted around the edges in a failure to hit the mark. And what’s more, this poignant message is rammed home in Raitt’s one-woman choir of a vocal performance.
2. ‘Pearl’ by Chapterhouse
1991 seemed to be the year that everyone fled the influence of the eighties, but not Chapterhouse. They took what was redeemable from the wreckage, all that upbeat sanguine mush, and they gave it one last chance to shine on.
There is a lot going on this secretly seminal track as a melee of influences and sounds crash about in a mix as hectic as their career. Somehow, however, it ties together in a coherent whole ideal for a road trip.
1. ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ by Richard Thompson
Amid the mix-up of the music scene in 1991 Richard Thompson’s song stood out as a call back to a different era, but as opposed to being a throwaway novelty it showed off the brilliance of a narrative songwriting style long forgotten.
The song might first prove arresting because of his distinctive vocals, but thereafter it whisks you into a tale that many songwriters, including Bob Dylan, have saw fit to cover. With heart, sincerity and ferocious guitar plucking skill, Thompson beguiles anyone who’ll listen into a fiction that crams more into five minutes than many a Netflix series.