Looking back on the '90s, there are a whole bunch of ways we can remember the decade's musical identity -- the G-Funk decade, the TRL decade, the Right Said Fred decade, whatever. First and foremost, however, it was the alt-rock decade: the decade where 15 years of post-punk underground rock music finally bubbled over into the mainstream in a way that few could have predicted, and which turned the record industry almost entirely upside down for the remainder of the 20th century. And 1991 was the year where that quasi-revolution happened in earnest -- the year, as Sonic Youth said in their tour documentary from that period, that punk broke.
I'll elaborate on that further in a bit. But 1991 was also about a whole lot more than that, so let's take this item by item and break down just why this year cast a shadow over the whole rest of the decade to follow.
THE CLASSIC ALBUMS
1991 was one of the greatest years for classic LPs, not only of the '90s, but of the entire rock era. Consider this: The website acclaimedmusic.net aggregates reviews and lists of the best albums from just about every conceivable critical source, and uses them to compile something close to a consensus list of the greatest albums ever. Of AM's top 100 albums of all-time, five of them come from 1991. No other year in the '90s can claim more than two, and four of them don't even have a single one.
What's more, the five albums, while all highly beloved albums that have still sound great today, are far from inarguable as the five best albums of the year. Maybe you count Massive Attack's trip-hop gold standard Blue Lines (#37), My Bloody Valentine's shoegaze-defining Loveless (#63) or Primal Scream's Stones-go-acid masterpiece Screamadelica (#89) among your favorite albums ever. You're equally likely, however, to feel that way about Slint's post-rock tour de force Spiderland (#290), The Orb's ambient-house classic Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (#517) or Teenage Fanclub's perfect power pop LP Bandwagonesque (#575), among many others.
The year was full of such innovative and unique albums, many of which we'll touch on as we go on here. Of course, the Grammy for Best Album for that year ended up going to Natalie Cole for her covers album "Unforgettable...With Love," but we'll try to let that slide.
If 1991 is remembered for one thing, it's for the grunge. Though the genre wouldn't totally explode into the mainstream until 1992, the fuse was definitely set in '91 with the release of three canonical albums: Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, Pearl Jam's Ten, and (especially) Nirvana's Nevermind. Those three albums would go on to set the direction of rock music (and a good deal of youth culture in general) for the '90s to follow. By the end of '91, Nevermind was climbing the charts, poised to take over the top spot on the Billboard 200 from Michael Jackson's Dangerous in a semi-symbolic coup the next January.
The three were also just awesome rock albums, spawning any number of alt-rock radio classics that have endured to this day: "Rusty Cage," "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose" from Badmotorfinger, "Alive," "Jeremy," "Even Flow" and "Black" from Ten, and just about every one of Nevermind's 12 tracks, most critically the blockbusting "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The songs would become iconic, as would the videos, as many of them -- particularly "Jeremy" and "Spirit" -- quickly emerged as MTV staples, going on to be among the most played and discussed clips of the '90s.
And as if all that wasn't enough, 1991 was also the year of Temple of the Dog, grunge's first and greatest supergroup. Formed from members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, united to pay tribute to the late Andrew Wood (frontman of Jam precursors Mother Love Bone), TotD gave us their lone album in '91, which included "Hunger Strike," the definitive grunge power ballad and a classic karaoke anthem for the vocally ambitious.
THE ALTERNATIVE OLD GUARD
In addition to ushering in the new with breakout acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, 1991 was an incredible year for alt-rockers of the previous decade to reinvent themselves and set themselves up to achieve even greater success in the decade to come. The most pronounced example of this was U2, who responded to the backlash against their overcooked and self-serious "Rattle and Hum" project from the late '80s by embracing irony, post-modernism and European club music for '91's Achtung Baby. The album, which also managed to contain some of singer Bono's most personal and affecting lyrics to date, was a smash, spinning off megahits like "Mysterious Ways," "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and the signature ballad "One."
Meanwhile, U2's American peers R.E.M. were also preparing to level-up in their careers with their own radical departure of an LP, Out of Time. The album, a mostly stately and somber affair that turned down the volume and energy from previous releases, still managed to spawn a pair of gigantic pop hits: the cartoonishly bubblegum "Shiny Happy People," and the singularly immaculate "Losing My Religion." "Religion" in particular broke the group into a new rock strata, becoming their biggest chart hit on the Hot 100 and probably their best-remembered song to date, with an arrestingly gorgeous clip to accompany it that all but swept the '91 VMAs, and became one of the iconic videos of the era.
And on the other side of the country, California's long-suffering '80s funk-punk heroes Red Hot Chili Peppers would finally get their first taste of true crossover success with the release of their greatest LP, BloodSugarSexMagik. The set contained plenty of the group's distinctive freewheeling, free-associative hippie jams, but also showcased the group being equally capable of tender balladry like "Breaking the Girl" and the immortal '90s lighter-waver "Under the Bridge." It established RHCP as one of the world's biggest rock groups, a status they've held onto pretty much since.
ALTERNATIVE RAP AS WELL
Though it's the underground, off-kilter rock stuff that made the biggest impression in '91, it was also a crucial year in the progression of alternative hip-hop. Alternative rap was never particularly cohesive as a genre and most of its greatest artists would probably shudder to hear themselves referred to as such, but there's no denying that in '91, there were tons of notable rappers who took a much different, usually more intricate and cerebral path to hip-hop success than the MC Hammers and Vanilla Ices ruling the charts at the time.
A Tribe Called Quest were probably the definitive group of the moment, releasing their classic The Low End Theory in 1991 to tremendous critical acclaim, with the trio's clever rhymes and dense, jazz-sample-heavy productions on singles like "Scenario" and "Check the Rhime" showing a new path for an entire generation of hip-hop fans. Fellow New York trio De La Soul, previous bastions of the "D.A.I.S.Y. Age" with '89's kaleidoscopic 3 Feet High and Rising, went much darker in '91 with sophomore effort De La Soul Is Dead, featuring tales of drug addiction and child abuse along with poppier fare like "Saturdays" and "Ring Ring Ring." The album, which featured a symbolic broken daisy pot on the cover, was a commercial flop, but became a cult classic, and today enjoys a critical reputation alongside that of 3 Feet.
On the West Coast, Cypress Hill was taking more closely after their geographical brethren N.W.A. -- who also released their final album in '91, the nihilistic (though unexpectedly Billboard 200-topping) Niggaz4Life -- with their self-titled 1991 debut, heavy on tales of drugs and violence. Cypress Hill set themselves apart with similarly layered production, obscenely catchy hooks, and some then-largely-unheard accents on rap records, as Cypress was the first Latino-American hip-hop group to find true commercial success. Their debut had suburban teenagers across the country singing along to songs like "How I Could Just Kill a Man" and "Hand on the Pump."
Despite all these legendary groups making waves, the biggest crossover alt-rap success of '91 came from a far less-remembered source: New Jersey brother duo PM Dawn, who scored an improbable #1 on the Hot 100 with their Spandau Ballet-sampling "Set Adrift on Memory Bliss." Though PM Dawn would quickly become dated hip-hop punchlines after the mainstreaming of G-Funk made them look tissue-soft by comparison, "Adrift" remains a gem of blissed-out yacht rap, as smooth and agreeable as the best Hall & Oates and Steely Dan productions, and a clear influence on terminally chill modern day dance-pop producers like Lemonade and Goldroom.
MONSTERS OF ROCK
Even with the burgeoning takeover of the grunge set, and the strong showing from the '80s alt-rock acts of yore, there was no arguing about the two biggest rock acts of 1991 were: Metallica and Guns n Roses.
Metallica had built a nationwide following throughout the '80s with little radio support and only one specifically made music video. In '91, they finally went for the brass ring with their eponymous LP, commonly known as "The Black Album." For the album, Metallica not only courted an arena-ready sound with the help of producer Bob Rock, and released several of their most concise and radio-friendly singles, but even filmed a whole spate of music videos, including cinematic and high-budget clips for "The Unforgiven" and "Enter Sandman." The album alienated some longtime fans but won millions more with its massive-sounding crunch and unprecedented, accessible hooks, establishing Metallica as the biggest and best metal band of the '90s and becoming the best-selling album of any kind in the Soundscan era.
As big as Metallica was clearly aiming to be in '91, their ambitions were easily dwarfed by those of Guns N' Roses, who put out two whole double albums--a combined 152 minutes of music--on the same day in September, with the Use Your Illusion I & II set making for a record-release event the likes of which rock audiences had never seen before. The albums were sprawling, uneven, intensely revealing, highly flawed but often jaw-droppingly brilliant. The albums spun off singles for the next two years, including the scorching "You Could Be Mine," the tortured "Estranged" and the epic to end all '90s rock epics, "November Rain."
After Nirvana, Pearl Jam and their arc would redefine the mainstream for '90s rock, neither Metallica nor GnR would experience similar success again. Really, though, you could argue no band since has ever been as sheerly huge as these two were in the pre-grunge '90s.
FLUKE HITS AND ONE-OFFS
Of course, 1991 wasn't all about the blockbuster albums and rock megastars. Like any musical year worth a damn, it was chock full of great pop hits that came out of nowhere, and artists who flirted with the mainstream before quickly disappearing back to the underground (or just disappearing altogether).
The Divinyls, longtime stars in their native Australia, finally hit U.S. paydirt with the ultimate pop paean to self-pleasuring, "I Touch Myself." Queensryche's concept albums and album rock radio hits had established them as something of a Pink Floyd for the hair metal set, but their only crossover hit came in '91 with the lovely prog-rock lullaby "Silent Lucidity." Three longtime punks, Mick Jones, Siouxsie Sioux and Iggy Pop, all had welcome surprise top 40 hits with Big Audio Dynamite II's "Rush," Siouxsie and the Banshees "Kiss Them For Me.” and Iggy's own Kate Pierson-featuring "Candy."
It certainly wasn't just the old rock dudes crashing the top 40, though. Dance-pop one or two-offs infiltrated the charts in '91, from R&B-tinged acts like Londonbeat ("I've Been Thinking About You") and Natural Selection ("Do Anything") to the more rock-based U.K. outfits EMF ("Unbelievable") and Jesus Jones ("Right Here, Right Now"), all of whom hit the top two of the Hot 100 and all of whom had hits that were disturbingly addictive. There was room for a little seriousness, too -- singer/songwriter Mark Cohn set an ode to Elvis over an exquisite piano riff for his sole crossover hit "Walking in Memphis," while Chris Isaak's haunted crooning about a doomed love story made "Wicked Game" his signature torch ballad (with some help from Helena Christensen in the music video).
The list goes on from there. Rhythm Syndicate's "P.A.S.S.I.O.N." LaTour's "People are Still Having Sex." Enigma's "Sadeness (Pt. 1)." Seal's "Crazy." Jomanda's "Got a Love for You." All totally ephemeral, and all totally fantastic.
POP-RAP AND DIVA HOUSE
As much work as Tribe, De La and their ilk were doing to expand the musical and thematic boundaries of hip-hop, a trio of 1991 singles reminded fans that rap was still just as powerful in the pop arena. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince created the warm-weather anthem of a generation with the peerless "Summertime." Naughty By Nature spawned one of the genre's all-time catchphrases (couched in one of its all-time call-and-response choruses) with "O.P.P." And speaking of invented hip-hop vocabulary, Digital Underground and Humpty Hump introduced their fair share of new terms to the lexicon with the every-line-a-classic "Humpty Dance." All three songs remain guaranteed party-starters to this day, and among the fondest-remembered hits of any genre from their era.
In dance, the diva house breakout of 1990 -- house beats with pop hooks, wailing female vocals and the occasional guest rap verse -- continued strong into '91, ruling the radio. Eurodance hitmakers Black Box followed up "Everybody Everybody" with "Strike It Up," a crowd-inciter that still gets played at about half the sporting events in the world. U.K. pop pranksters The KLF crashed on US shores with the siren-like "3 AM Eternal," their biggest international hit. But the year really belonged to C&C Music Factory, who rode an unforgettable Martha Wash exhortation to #1 with "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," one of the most un-killable dance-pop songs in history.
Though '91 may be defined in our memories by the alt-rock acts that emerged and/or took over that year, these were the songs that really represented the identity of popular music at the time, and we were just as fortunate to have it as such.
From Nirvana to Naughty By Nature, from Guns n Roses to "Gonna Make You Sweat," it's pretty clear that 1991 is the year that all other years of the '90s should be measured against. No other year that decade boasts the same canon of great albums and unforgettable hits, and no other year was as important in helping to define the rest of the years to come.