1991 was a momentous year, to say the least. In many ways, it can be seen as the year where the new world broke off from the old and went hurtling into the future. The Soviet Union fell, effectively ending the Cold War that had been raging since 1947, and The UN coalition undertook operation Desert Storm to “thwart” Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The latter is widely hailed as an event that set the wheels in motion for the disastrous three decades Iraq has seen since.
In more positive news, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of the African National Congress and set about dismantling the system of apartheid that had subjugated black South African’s for generations. Mandela also confronted the past and attempted to reconcile the country’s warring factions – something hailed a groundbreaking at the time. Mandela’s efforts remain pioneering. A few belligerents in recently resumed conflicts could learn a thing or two from his work. Aside from the obvious, we’re also looking closer to home.
In other news, the Birmingham Six were released after sixteen years wrongfully imprisoned, the Dead Sea Scrolls were unveiled, and music lost one of its brightest lights. A day after releasing a statement confirming his AIDS diagnosis, Queen frontman Freddie Mercury passed away on November 24th from bronchial pneumonia – a complication of his debilitating illness.
It was only right then, in that specific moment, that the music released in 1991 would be as earth-shattering as the socio-political events. The amount of unbelievable music released in 1991 is staggering. As the world had unleashed itself from the shackles of old, music and culture entered a frenzy-like state, pulling in a number of different, yet significant directions. The impact of 1991’s music is embodied by another of the year’s major events, the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.
The most famous of these musical revolutions is undoubtedly the grunge movement. The scene that started in Seattle, Washington, had spread like wildfire via a scattering of Sub Pop releases from the back end of the previous decade. It spawned countless guitar bands all over the US and further afield. Apart from the usual suspects from the Northwestern city, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Melvins, this all-encompassing scene would breed Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins and Hole to name but a few.
Consequently, 1991 was the year the kegs of gunpowder that were long stored underneath the ivory tower of music would be detonated. Thanks to grunge, all the excess and decadence of genre’s like hair metal would be blown to smithereens.
It wasn’t just grunge and its swathes of Gen-X followers that would blow “the bloody doors off” either. Undoubtedly it was the most memorable sonic tremor. For three key reasons: The vast amount of hit albums it spawned in such a short time, the tragic suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and the legions of utterly terrible “post-grunge” bands it spawned.
Believe it or not, though, there were actually other artists who were more pioneering than grunge. In this respect, the whole grunge movement can be regarded as essentially a societally focused scene, channelling the discontent of millions of disenfranchised teenagers.
There would also be American rap that changed the game, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest both released seminal albums in 1991, as did Cypress Hill who became the first Latino-American group to find true commercial success. Even established hard rockers such as Guns n Roses and metal outfit Metallica would adapt their formulas and find mega success in 1991.
Shoegaze would also take off with the release of My Bloody Valentine’s magnum opus, Loveless. A sonic wonder, it took an extensive period of time to produce and nearly bankrupted the band’s label, Creation. However, it ended up being one of the most iconic releases of the decade and in music history.
Kevin Shields’ pioneering production and guitar work continue to inspire thirty years later. In fact, Alan McGee’s iconic label, Creation, would have a string of massive hits that year, including Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque.
The year wouldn’t stop there either. Dance music and electronica started to take off into space. Massive Attack released the gargantuan single ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and The Orb released Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.
There would also be a host of corny and downright surreal releases too. Chesney Hawkes released ‘The One and Only’ and Bryan Adams checked into the charts for an extended stay with the ballad ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’. Adams’ smash hit was released as the soundtrack for the ineffable Kevin Costner flick Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, featuring the late Alan Rickman in his campy, iconic role as the Sheriff of Nottingham.
To truly recount all the iconic moments 1991 gave us would take a lifetime. However, the standout feature of 1991 was the music. Without it, music today would be very different. So, on 1991’s 30th lap around the sun, join us as we list its 30 best tracks.
The 30 best songs released in 1991:
- Swervedriver – ‘Son of Mustang Ford’
- My Bloody Valentine – ‘Soon’
- The Clash – ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’
- Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff – ‘Dizzy’
- James – ‘Sit Down’
- The Prodigy – ‘Charly’
- Blur – ‘There’s No Other Way’
- Swans – ‘Blind’
- The Smashing Pumpkins – ‘Siva’
- The Shamen – ‘Move Any Mountain’
- Primal Scream – ‘Loaded’
- Teenage Fanclub – ‘Star Sign’
- Massive Attack – ‘Unfinished Sympathy’
- Slint – ‘Nosferatu Man’
- The Orb – ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’
- Soundgarden – ‘Jesus Christ Pose’
- Pearl Jam – ‘Jeremy’
- Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
- R.E.M. – ‘Losing My Religion’
- Red Hot Chili Peppers – ‘Under the Bridge’
- A Tribe Called Quest – ‘Scenario’
- De La Soul – ‘Ring Ring Ring’
- Metallica – ‘Enter Sandman’
- Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – ‘Kill Your Television’
- The KLF – ‘3AM Eternal’
- EMF – ‘Unbelievable’
- Cypress Hill – ‘How I Could Just Kill a Man’
- Guns N’ Roses – ‘You Could Be Mine’
- Talk Talk – ‘After The Flood’
- Dinosaur Jr. – ‘The Wagon’