This is the first in the “Best Year in Music Series.” Over the next four weeks, the Fawkes contributors will make their case for the best year in music history. You can also read about 1977 here.
The 1990’s were a weird time for music. I mean let’s just look at what was popular at the start and end of the decade. In January 1990, at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 was “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins and the top performing album of that year was Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. Fast forward to 1999, where the best performing album was Millennium by the Backstreet Boys (one of the first albums I actually owned – up there with Get Rich or Die Trying and Who Let the Dogs Out?) and the top single as folks rang in the millennium (see what I did there?) was the classic “Smooth” by Santana and featuring the one and only Rob Thomas.
Just as with music, there was no clear soul of the 90’s. It was the beginning of the internet age and with it the start of the splintering of American culture. Meaning, that for better or worse, it was getting easier to ingest only what you liked and to hear only the opinions you conform to while ignoring things that did not interest you or that you did not believe or feel. People started getting in their silos in a way that was impossible before computers and internet was a thing, AKA before the 90’s.
I believe the year 1991 is the most significant symbol of this, especially as it relates to music. The year 1991 was more than anything a transitional one for music. The hair-metal craze of the 1980’s had lost it’s touch and was beginning to recede like many of the feathered frontmen of the periods hairlines, the influential D.C. punk scene of the 1980’s was passed its peak, and the pop music and boy band craze of the latter half of the decade had not yet taken root. This transitional phase created a type of vacuum in popular music that allowed alternative music to explode onto the scene. Even while alternative and grunge changed the face of popular music, legends of old continued producing music along the peripheries while hip hop enjoyed its golden age. 1991 offered music for any type of fan. The diversity and breadth of music that was released in this year is what not only makes 1991 truly unique but, what I believe to the best year in music ever.
I don’t take saying that lightly. I used to say it as a joke because three of my favorite bands (Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Red Hot Chili Peppers) released their three best albums (Ten, Nevermind, and, Blood Sugar Sex Magik) but then I looked over the music released in 1991 and I mean holy shit. The catalogue of music released in this year is astounding. Making a playlist that lasted less than a year was possibly the hardest undertaking of my entire life, considering the sheer volume of classics and culturally relevant music released. I mean, where do I even begin?
As I mentioned earlier, by this point the D.C. punk scene had lost some of its fervor from the 1980’s, but 1991 still saw releases from two of the scene’s strongest acts with Steady Diet of Nothing from Fugazi and 13-Point Program to Destroy America by Nation of Ulysses. Elsewhere in punk, a California band named Green Day released their debut album 1,039 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours that introduced what the next era of punk rock would sound like throughout the rest of the decade and into the early 2000’s.
While 1991 is most known for the alternative hits it produced, it was also set right in the midst of the Golden Age of Hip Hop and was a seminal year for the genre. Tupac released his first – and most politically outspoken – studio album 2Pacalypse Now. A Tribe Called Quest and Ice T both released arguably their best efforts with The Low End Theory and O.G. Original Gangster, respectively, and Public Enemy released Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back. N.W.A. released their second, and final, studio album Niggaz4Life, which made it all the way to the top of the Billboard Top 200 in 1991 signifying the breakthrough of hardcore rap into the mainstream, as it was the first such album to debut at #1 on the chart. Former N.W.A. member Ice Cube released his second studio album Death Certificate that produced the #1 single “Steady Mobbin” and De La Soul released their highly anticipated second album, De La Soul is Dead. That is all without mentioning the two rap albums with 1991’s most popular hip hop songs that anybody who’s ever turned on a radio will recognize. That distinction belongs to Music for the People by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch that featured “Good Vibrations,” which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and Naughty by Nature’s self-titled album with the hit single “O.P.P.” that sampled the Jackson Five’s “ABC”.
The year also saw several musical icons release albums, although for many it was not their best attempt. Still, Tom Petty scored one of his biggest hits with “Learning to Fly” off Into the Great Wide Open. U2 released one of their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful records Achtung Baby and Bryan Adams had the year’s biggest hit with “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” off his album Waking Up the Neighbors. Van Halen released For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (read that again and tell me what that spells – Van Halen beat Britney Spears’ “If You Seek Amy” to the punch by 17 years). By 1991, Guns N’ Roses were one of the most volatile bands in the world but kept together long enough to release two albums – Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II that featured hits “November Rain” and “Civil War” – and embark on a 28 month tour that to this day is considered the longest in Rock N’ Roll history. Two legends released their parting albums: Dire Straits released On Every Street and Queen released Innuendo. Sadly, Freddy Mercury would pass away a few months later on November 24, 1991.
In pop music, Paula Abdul released Spellbound and Michael Jackson – the King of Pop – released Dangerous led by the hit single “Black or White.” The R&B group Boyz II Men, who have had set records for time spent on the Bill Hot 100, saw their first album Cooleyhighharmony come out on Motown Records. While it was not nearly their moment in the spotlight yet, two future titans of pop music quietly released their debut albums, as Ricky Martin released his eponymous debut and Shakira released her first album Magia.
But even with all this great music released from other genres, the year belonged to alternative artists unlike any other year in the history of music. 1991 is the year that really put alternative music on the map and it’s lasting legacy is seen in any alt-college chart or alternative radio station that you find on your car’s radio. And it was one alternative band that changed the face of what was popular – and with it what was pop music – for much of the 1990’s. The list of great alternative albums to be released is truly something to behold: the Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album Gish; Dinosaur Jr. released their first album sans Lou Barlow with Green Mind; Morrissey released Kill Uncle; R.E.M. released Out of Time, which featured “Losing My Religion”; The Violent Femmes released Why Do Birds Sing? That had arguably their most popular song “American Music”; Hole released their debut album and the wildly important Bikini Kill self-released their introduction to the world with Revolution Girl Style Now on cassette; and the Spin Doctors released their biggest album Pocket Full of Kryptonite with the song “Two Princes,” that you may not know the lyrics to but you know damn well you’re humming along when it comes on your car radio. And that’s not even it. 1991 also saw new music from The Melvins (Bullhead), Pixies (Trompe Le Monde), and the Crash Test Dummies (Ghosts that Haunt Them). The unknown Alanis Morisette released her debut album but only in Canada. Slint put out Spiderland, which received newfound recognition after the turn of millennium while influencing many current indie and math rock musicians, like American Football and Exploding in Sound. The list of alternative albums is as close as it comes to being literally endless.
Across the pond, some of the most influential music of the era across all genres was being released throughout Europe. Indie rockers My Bloody Valentine released their best album, Loveless, and its influence over the 90’s underground cannot be overstated and is still heard and felt today. Primal Scream released Screamadelica, which brought their music to American audiences thanks to the hit single “Movin’ on Up.” English trip hop group Massive Attack exploded onto the scene with their widely acclaimed debut album Blue Lines, which is still a landmark of British rap.
But anyone who knows anything about 1991 knows that I’ve buried the lede under a mountain of old compact discs. 1991 saw four titans release their biggest – and best – albums.
Metallica released their self-titled album, now known as The Black Album, which currently has the 10th most sales of any record in United States history. The biggest single off the album, “Enter Sandman,” also ascended hit status to become part of folklore as another legend, Mariano Rivera, used the it as his walk-up song for most of his storied career as the closer of the New York Yankees.
Pearl Jam released their debut seminal album (not often you get to say that) Ten that featured hits such “Jeremy,” “Alive,” and “Even Flow.” Speaking of legends, Eddie Vedder today is a colossal figure in the music industry and he and PJ remain one of the few bands with the “grunge” label to still be releasing relevant and good music (Vedder’s Call of the Wild & Ukulele Songs are fabulous, as is PJ’s 2013 effort Backspacer).
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who’s up and down (currently way down) career peaked with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The album is the band’s only attempt that perfectly combined the ferocious p-funk style that characterized their earlier releases (tracks like “Funky Monks” & “Give It Away”) with the melodic, Hendrix-style guitar riffs of John Frusciante (“Under the Bridge,” “I Could Have Lied”) to create a bona fide masterpiece, although some of their later albums before Frusciante’s departure were pretty damn good too. The album also brought the funk to a new generation and the mainstream in a way that hadn’t happened in the past.
And that’s all well and good but 1991 – and the nineties as a whole – belong to Nirvana even if Kurt Cobain did depart this earth before the decade’s halfway mark. I am admittedly too young and frankly not knowledgeable enough to wax poetic about all of the history of music but I know this: nothing changed music – and culture – more abruptly or more radically than “Smells Like the Teen Spirit,” and Nevermind. The opening chords of that song are some of the most recognizable in the world; the cover art of Nevermind is one of the most iconic album covers ever; and in death Kurt Cobain has become ubiquitous for good and bad. Kurt was a champion for musicians such as the Melvins, Pixies, and Butthole Surfers before the type of music they released was accepted popularly – and even to a wide degree critically. I like to think he’s proud of the fact that his legacy is that bands like that were legitimized and underground scenes forever emboldened by Nevermind and the resulting hysteria – even if he hated that it let every grunger-adjacent band in the Pacific Northwest to pick up a record deal in the early nineties no matter how shitty their sound.
What more is there to say about a year that gave you “Good Vibrations,” “Black or White,” “Learning to Fly,” “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and everything in between? 1991 is the most diverse year in music. It was a landmark year for hip hop, pop, rock, and alternative genres; it produced some of the most influential albums ever and some of the catchiest, most recognizable tunes around; and it was the greatest year in music. Ever.
Check out my playlist above and see if you agree. You can also find other Fawkes Weekly Playlists on the FawkesCulture spotify. Be sure to let us know what we’ve missed and get involved with the conversation on the best year in music in the comments section below, on Twitter @FawkesCulture, on Facebook, or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Matt Atwell