The Year That Was: 1991
Alternative Breaks Out, Or, The Year Of The Landmark Album
by Benjamin Ray
In the 1980s, rock had become forgotten as a viable means of change. Pop acts like Madonna and Michael Jackson dominated the charts, surrounded by a slew of one-hit pop wonders and cheesy hair-metal bands. Occasionally, a talented band would break out -- Metallica, R.E.M., Guns 'n' Roses -- but by and large meaningful rock struggled to become popular again.
Then 1991 hit, and things were back to how they should have been, at least for a little while.
Famously, 1991 was when Nirvana's Nevermind was released, knocking Michael Jackson off the charts in 1992 and effectively beginning the mainstream alternative revolution. More than any other, that album and Pearl Jam's monumental Ten were both critical and commercial successes and became soundtracks for the then-undefined generation. Both meaningful lyrics and stellar musicianship blended, and for a while it was wonderful.
1991 also saw Soundgarden release the grunge/heavy metal blend Badmotorfinger and U2 came roaring back to life with Achtung Baby, a radical reinvention the band's sound blended with Euro-pop and interesting lyrics. What U2 lost in political gung-ho they made up for in musical diversity and catchy songs, which would carry them through most of the 90s.
One cannot underestimate the influence of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' landmark Blood Sugar Sex Magik album either. The Peppers and Faith No More would inspire legions of half-assed copycats, but none came close to matching the Peppers' funk/rock/pop blend, and producer Rick Rubin helped lead the band from obscurity to stardom. Nearly 80 minutes long, BSSM is still the band's best work.
On the harder rock front, Alice Cooper released the mediocre Hey Stoopid and Metallica, after five years of waiting, put out their self-titled "black album." The fact that this sold several million copies and spawned several singles aside, Metallica turned out to be that band's most successful and accessible release, cutting down the indulgences and speed-freak thrash and upping the emotion just a little bit. No matter what else they do, "Enter Sandman" will be the song the band is forever remembered for. Also in 1991, Guns 'n' Roses released the Use Your Illusion albums, of which one-quarter of the songs were brilliant.
A year and two months after his death, Stevie Ray Vaughan's The Sky Is Crying hit the shelves and quickly went platinum, capping off a brilliant career that ended far too soon. But another career was beginning -- Garth Brooks' second album No Fences was becoming popular and the same year, Ropin' The Wind was released, both blending country with rock and folk and adding a whole new audience to the country genre that would not have cared otherwise. Britpop guiding light Blur also hit the scene with "She's So High."
Elsewhere, R.E.M. released the mediocre Out Of Time, which happened to feature the band's best-known song, "Losing My Religion," and also one of their dumbest, "Shiny Happy People." The Pixies, Fugazi, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Fishbone, Elvis Costello and the Smashing Pumpkins also had releases in 1991, helping push alternative into the spotlight, though the best of these was Jane's Addiction's Ritual De Lo Habitual. Matthew Sweet also released Girlfriend and Massive Attach helped start the electronica phase of the decade with Blue Lines. Also of note is My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Sebadoh's III.
In classic rock, Tom Petty released Into The Great Wide Open and Ozzy put out No More Tears. Van Halen also released an album, but nobody cared. Of course, a few acts were still holding on to their reins, such as Genesis, with their We Can't Dance album that was a sort-of return to the Genesis of old, with longer songs and real instruments, but which still featured a lot of ballads and everyday lyrics. Queen, while no longer the quirky hard-rock band they once were, released their final album with Freddie Mercury, the average Innuendo, while Canadian rockers Rush tossed off Roll The Bones, which is, well, just another Rush album. Yes also released the dreadful Union; that's all that needs to be said there. Live kicked off their career with Mental Jewelry, which had no hint of the arena rock success the band would later have.
It wouldn't have been the 90s without a few one-hit wonder pop singles; these included EMF's "Unbelievable," Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)," Jesus Jones' "Right Here Right Now," Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy" and Seal's "Crazy" (not a one-hit wonder, but a great song). The Spin Doctors also hit it big for a while with Pocket Full of Kryptonite and Suzanne Vega came out with "Tom's Diner."
But for every mediocre album in 1991 there was a good one, and the sheer number of landmark records makes it a year worth mentioning. Alternative would grow, of course, but it would become marked by singer-songwriters and rap/rock hybrids and lose the sense of fun and experimentation it had in 1991, a year marked by high-water points and the beginning of some of the decade's most successful careers.