Music nostalgia is still what it used to be. The baby boomer bands — The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, et al — generally receive mainstream media praise even if they haven’t released a half-way decent album in decades.
The times they are a-changin’ though. The 20th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind has sparked a Generation X spate of nostalgia for all things grunge.
1991 wasn’t all about grunge. Looking back now it was a great year for music in general. Some of the albums released that year hold their own against any of the 1960s and 1970s releases regularly deified by the classic rock music press.
Here’s 10 of the best excluding Nevermind (in no particular order)…plus a personal choice.
Crowded House – Woodface: Crowded House may not be hip but Woodface is a great album. Look beyond the overexposed and overly repetitive Weather With You and Woodface‘s many charms are still alluring. It’s Only Natural, Fall At Your Feet and Whispers And Moans are brilliant grown-up love songs. Four Seasons In One Day wouldn’t feel out of place on a Beatles album. Even sadly departed drummer Paul Hester’s throwaway Italian Plastic snuggles into the track listing nicely. Unbelievably, Neil Finn would better this set with the follow-up, 1993’s Together Alone, but it’s Woodface, Crowded House’s third album, that was their commercial highpoint.
Metallica – Metallica: Metallica’s Metallica album also known as The Black Album — with its Spinal Tap ‘tribute’ cover — saw the thrash metal gurus suddenly erupt into the mainstream. Even many non-Heavy Metal fans couldn’t deny that the likes of Enter Sandman and The Unforgiven had enough melody amid the thundering guitar riffs and pounding drums to hook non-believers. Of course, Metallica subsequently blew it by suing their own fans for downloading their songs illegally (ironically, the band got their early momentum from giving away free tapes of their music at gigs before they were signed to any record label) and appearing in the Spinal Tap ‘tribute’ documentary Some Kind Of Monster which made everyone realise what a bunch of over pampered, self indulgent rock multi-millionaires they’d become. Of course, they’re not alone in that respect but revealing it to the world was a bad career move even if it was highly entertaining for viewers.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik: Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released at the tail-end of 1991 and was soon heard everywhere. There was no escaping the Red Hot Chili Peppers funky bass slap rap-rock mash up. Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and Breaking The Girl are seared into the brains of anyone who attended house parties in late ’91 and 1992. It seemed like everyone had this album. Under The Bridge was a good choice for the day after the party too.
R.E.M. – Out Of Time: R.E.M.’s 1991 album Out Of Time, the band’s seventh, was a monster that now tends to be overlooked in favour of 1992’s critically acclaimed rapid follow-up Automatic For The People. Losing My Religion‘s mandolin-driven effort was – in retrospect – rather an odd breakthrough song for the cult band. Michael Stipe’s criticism of Shiny Happy People also damaged Out Of Time‘s rep. Dig out Out Of Time now and it’s apparent it deserves a place in the higher echelons of the R.E.M. back catalogue. Bassist Mike Mills momentarily seized control of the band’s direction and steered R.E.M. towards a harmonic pastoral Byrds-ian vibe with Near Wild Heaven and Texarkana deft highlights. The maudlin Low and Country Feedback make this a darker record in places than you probably remember, too.
Ice-T – OG Original Gangster: It’s easy to forget how incendiary Ice-T (real name Tracy Marrow) was in the early 1990s now that he’s safely coasting playing a cop on TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. He was America’s worst nightmare at the time. A self-dubbed Straight Up Nigga with cash and a lawyer. A ‘trigger nigga’ with attitude with 1991’s OG: Original Gangster his weapon of choice. Much of 1990s rap has dated badly but OG still packs an adrenalin-fuelled punch, bi-atches. Hardly surprising then that white boys all over the western world began thinking they were down with tha New Jack Hustler‘s crew (launching Ali G’s career). 1991 saw Ice T’s star rise but 1992 was when his infamy broke big. His thrash metal band Body Count’s Cop Killer song even saw Moses (real name Charlton Heston) condemn Ice-T and use his influence to get the rapper kicked off the Warners Bros record label. 4 real.
Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I and II: OK, so technically Guns N’ Roses’ 1991 releases Use Your Illusion I and II were two albums but in most people’s mind they were one. As they really should have been since they’re a bit patchy in places. This was the last time the Gunners were anywhere near a functional band. Axl Roses’s obnoxious and confrontational Get In The Ring schtick was becoming tiresome (mostly because you just knew he was a bit of a wuss in real life). Slash was still a rock god though and its his guitar riffs that carry this rock folly to near glory. Forget GnR after he left the band. Everyone else has. Ultimately, how you feel about Use Your Illusion pretty much boils down to how you feel about November Rain. Inspired rock ‘n’ roll madness or overblown rock ‘n’ roll bollocks?
U2 – Achtung Baby: …and while overblown rock ‘n’ roll bollocks is getting a mention, here’s U2. Thankfully, Achtung Baby is a classic album. Oh yes it is. The Fly, Even Better Than The Real Thing, Zoo Station and Mysterious Ways saw U2 successfully reinvent their sound and give themselves a new lease of life after its moribund predecessor, 1988’s Rattle And Hum, saw the band lose their way in America. This Brian Eno collaboration saved their career. Much to the U2 haters’ ongoing distress.
My Bloody Valentine – Loveless: Also known as the album that almost sank Creation Records, the UK independent record label that went on to discover Oasis. Much to the Oasis haters’ ongoing distress. My Bloody Valentine’s singer/guitarist Kevin Shields infamously spent an estimated quarter of a million quid — no small amount of money at that time for an indie label — on trying to perfect the surging sounds in his head on to Loveless. Its reverb-saturated guitars accompany indecipherable vocals that effectively function as another instrument in the mix. Upon its release in 1991 The Cure’s Robert Smith declared My Bloody Valentine “the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us” such was its sonic majesty. Listening to Only Shallow‘s TARDIS vworp vworp-like brilliance and Soon‘s loopy clatter it’s hard to disagree.
Primal Scream – Screamadelica: Before 1991’s rave-rock-dance crossover Screamadelica Primal Scream were just another bunch of scrawny indie chancers with little to offer the world beyond singer Bobby Gillespie’s defiant against all odds self-belief. Screamadelica, another Creation Records release, finally saw Primal Scream deliver a set of songs to back up Gillespie’s mouthy proclamations of their genius. DJs Andrew Weatherall and Terry Farley bent the band’s rock shapes into dance friendly fodder via some unexpected excursions into dub and even gospel. Truly Loaded and Higher Than The Sun.
Pearl Jam – Ten: Pearl Jam were accused of jumping on the grunge bandwagon with their debut album but guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament had previous grunge form as bandmates in proto-grungers Green River. Kurt Cobain hated them so the die was cast, music press wise. Singer Eddie Vedder steered the band in a more classic rock direction on future albums shaking off the grunge tag and prolonging their career when the likes of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots had long ceased to be – ahem – Alive.
The Wedding Present – Seamonsters: David Gedge is quite possibly the best British songwriter you’ve probably never heard of. His Leeds band The Wedding Present had enjoyed moderate success in the UK with debut album George Best and second effort Bizarro despite some indie music press critics slamming their dour image and down to earth lovelorn lyrics that bemoaned the fate of the broken hearted. Gedge’s limited vocal range is divisive but his melodic aim is true, even buried beneath furious jangling guitar assaults. In 1991, The Wedding Present were ahead of the curve with Steve Albini — who went on to helm Nirvana’s 1993 third and final In Utero album — in the producer’s chair to add his distinctive raw recording style to Gedge’s compositions. Seamonsters is another example of a band using the loudQUIETloud song structure pioneered by the Pixies to devastating effect. As did Nirvana.
Feeling nostalgic? Listen to an earworm playlist compilation with songs from the above 1991 albums here.