There are these viral games that go around Facebook; your friend assigns you a year and you’re supposed to list the ten best books/movies/albums from that year. My assignment, given by the venerable Jeremy Smith of Ain’t It Cool news, was to list the ten best albums of 1991. I thought to myself that it would be easy, and then I sat down and tried to make the list and was blown away by the depth and variety of amazing music released that year.
1991 is one of the great years in music history. It could be the last full on brilliant year since; while other years have given us great records and important artists, none have been as jam-packed with genius as 1991. What’s more, 91 was one of those culturally transformative years; the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind was the final crack in the dam that had kept quality music largely off the Top 40 charts. Rock had been either killed or rendered a joke by hair metal acts, and now it was back with a vengeance.
This is full of glaring omissions. I think you could make a case for REM’s Out of Time, their last great record. Or My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (I saw them tour for this album and during one of the long, droning parts the kid next to me just spontaneously barfed all over the people in front of him). Definitely Fugazi’s Steady Diet of Nothing, or De La Soul’s De La Soul Is Dead. Writing this up I was consumed with regret that I couldn’t find a spot for Urge Overkill’s Supersonic Storybook. If the albums I left off are this good, imagine what this list looks like!
It’s my list, by the way, meaning it’s hugely subjective and all about my tastes. Some of these you won’t agree with, and there will be albums you surely believe belong on any list of the ten best of this superlative year. List your own choices in the comments.
10 (tie) Slint - Spiderland/Public Enemy - Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black
Yeah, I already cheated. I ended up with a top 11 list, it turns out. But I couldn’t leave off either of these records. Apocalypse 91 is the last gasp of PE, and they went into the 90s strong and angry. Watch this video for By The Time I Get To Arizona - one of PE’s best and most radical tracks, with a fuzzy sound that fucking kills - and imagine Fox News talking heads shitting their pants if anything like it were playing MTV today:
Slint’s Spiderland is one of the most important records of all time - for a certain set of weird ass nerds. It’s considered the first real post-rock album, a genre that has the ethos of hardcore but not the aesthetic. Which isn’t to say that post-rock, or Slint, are namby-pamby; the hypnotic, sharp quiet parts of many songs give way to balls-out screaming sections. These songs are about tension and atmosphere, building up and exploding. Slint is one of the big bands to come from the Louisville scene, which later included one of my favorite groups of all time, Rodan.
Listen to Good Morning, Captain, based on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and hear the way the sparse, syncopated music grows into a full on meltdown at the end. Amazing music.
9. Mudhoney - Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Mudhoney’s second album is also their best. While other Seattle bands got all the attention in 1991, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge is maybe my favorite example of the garage punk/grunge sound. Loud, fuzzy and fun, this album is loaded with great songs from end to end. I love the messy, shambling sound of a bunch of guys just sort of hanging out and rocking. EGBDF was possibly going to be Mudhoney’s big label debut, but they opted to stay with the hometown label Sub Pop, and I wonder if that kept them from reaching Nirvana or Pearl Jam’s heights.
Choosing one song to embed here is actually tough, so let’s just Let It Slide:
8. The Pixies - Trompe Le Monde
The Pixies had to die so that Nirvana could be born. Trompe Le Monde is the final album from the seminal 80s group, whose loud-quiet-loud style would go mainstream with that aforementioned Seattle band. I can’t even begin to claim that Trompe Le Monde is the best Pixies album, as it’s pretty clearly one of their lesser ones. But even their lesser albums are better than almost anybody else’s best work.
7. Unsane - Unsane
It’s pretty likely you have never heard this album. It’s way out of print right now, and Unsane isn’t exactly a household name. Which is too bad, because in the realm of hard rock music there are few who are as good. This Lower East Side power trio laid a new course for noise rock, merging the aggression of hardcore with the off-kilter sound of art bands like Sonic Youth. Most hard rock was dudebro music, but Unsane was a vanguard band reclaiming driving, hard hitting music for smarter people. Later bands like Helmet would actually make this sound more commercial, but Unsane did it best.
6. Pearl Jam - Ten
Pearl Jam got lumped in with the grunge scene because they came from Seattle, but they never really were. They were always making classic rock, and Ten is one of the best classic rock albums of all time. Yeah, they were pop in a way that, in 1991, was profoundly suspicious, but there’s no denying the sheer infectious quality of the music. And Eddie Vedder’s lyrics were, for 1991, profound departures from the bubble-gum nonsense of hair metal acts. Finally, a band with some emotion! Ten remains the best Pearl Jam album, and it’s just about perfect from front to back.
5. The Smashing Pumpkins - Gish
Do we talk about this record enough? The Smashing Pumpkins’ second album, Siamese Dream, is a completely transcendent work, but their debut is equally awesome. A blast of grandiose psychedelia mixed with good old alternative rock, Gish sounded like nothing else released at the time. But it’s still exquisitely pop, with every song meticulously crafted to shine.
4. A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory
If Public Enemy brought the fury of rock to rap, Tribe fused hip hop with jazz, creating a driving, cool and beautiful sound that would set the course of ‘alternative’ hip hop for decades to come. Unlike boring hippie rappers PM Dawn, Tribe had a groove that got you moving and rhymes that were smart, deep and often cheeky. Put on headphones and play this album as you walk around your neighborhood - I guarantee you feel like the chillest, most awesome motherfucker for miles.
3. Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend
Sometimes an artist just gets it right, and Matthew Sweet got it exactly right on Girlfriend. From the front cover image of Tuesday Weld to the absolutely crystalline power pop of the music to even the prescient name-checking of anime, Girlfriend sums up the feelings of every forlorn, romantic, heartbroken dweeby guy throughout history.
2. Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
Trivia: in 1991 this was the record Spin named their album of the year. And it’s easy to see why - this record has more hooks than a bait and tackle shop. Wonderful indie pop in the vein of Big Star and indebted to the jangle and harmony of The Beach Boys, Bandwagonesque is the ultimate album to listen to while laying in a field next to a beautiful girl with pin straight hair.
1. Nirvana - Nevermind
The importance of Nevermind is clear; it’s one of the major impact points that changed the course of not just rock music and pop culture. It’s an album that belongs alongside Sgt. Pepper and Never Mind The Bollocks as historical events. But it’s also a great fucking record, utterly listenable and still as powerful 22 years later. Butch Vig’s production irritated the band, but the trapped-in-amber quality of the sound is half of what makes Nevermind work. It’s the full on collision of punk and pop, metal and melody. There’s not a bad song on Nevermind and yes, I’m including Endless Nameless in that statement.