25 Essential Rock Albums Turning 25 in 2016
The year 1991 was a tumultuous one in the geopolitical world. It saw the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union broke up into 15 sovereign countries, the continuation of the controversial Gulf War… and much, much more.
Out of the global conflict and uncertain nature of the early '90s rose an incredible arsenal of rock music. 1991 saw an amazing list of debut albums from Pearl Jam, Temple of the Dog, Blur, Smashing Pumpkins, Massive Attack, Hole, Kyuss, Spin Doctors and Mr. Bungle.
There were also a slew of established bands who rolled out memorable LPs including U2, R.E.M., Guns N’ Roses, Rush, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Yes and Queen -- not to mention breakthrough albums from Nirvana, Metallica, Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus.
One could argue that there hasn’t been such a great year for rock music since. It saw the beginning of a huge shift in the landscape of the industry with the rise of the alternative, grunge, shoegaze and post-rock sub-genres, which would go on to influence a generation of musicians and artists.
Now, 25 years later, we're shining a light on one of the best years in rock as these LPs celebrate a quarter of a century. We dug out our flannel shirts, stonewashed jeans, Doc Martens and dusted off our CDs to bring you the 25 Essential Rock Albums of 1991.
Pearl Jam -- Ten
Pearl Jam released their debut album Ten in August of 1991. The album didn’t make a big splash immediately, but slowly built over the rest of the year and exploded in 1992 peaking at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 chart. The effort spawned the hit singles “Alive,” “Even Flow,” “Jeremy” and features the band’s set list staples “Once,” “Black,” “Porch” and “Why Go.” It has sold over 10 million copies and is the band’s best-selling album.
Ten, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind, helped bring alternative music to the masses and shone a massive spotlight on the Seattle music scene, which was brilliantly covered in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles.
Watch the video for “Alive” below.
Nirvana -- Nevermind
Nirvana released Nevermind in September of 1991. The classic LP contains their breakthrough single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as well as “Come As You Are,” “Lithium,” “In Bloom” and fan favorite “Territorial Pissings.” The album almost single-handedly killed the hair metal scene, which peaked in the late 1980s. The effort has gone on to sell well over nine million copies in the U.S.
Watch Nirvana’s video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Soundgarden -- Badmotorfinger
Soundgarden released their third album Badmotorfinger in October of 1991. The breakthrough LP featured the hit singles “Outshined,” “Rusty Cage” and “Jesus Christ Pose” -- all of which received a generous amount of airplay on the radio, and the videos were a mainstay on MTV. The album made the band a household name.
Watch Soundgarden’s video for “Outshined.”
Metallica -- Metallica
Metallica made waves when they released their eponymous self-titled fifth album, also known as The Black Album, in 1991. The monumental effort saw the band step in a more melodic direction than their previous thrash metal sound and helped garner a more mainstream following for the band. It is by far their best-selling album, moving over 16 million copies in the U.S., making it the best selling album of the SoundScan era (1991 to present). It spawned the singles “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Wherever I May Roam” and the first Metalliballad “Nothing Else Matters.” It also features some stellar deep cuts like “The God That Failed” and “My Friend of Misery.” The album won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 1992, beating the likes of Anthrax, Megadeth, Motörhead and Soundgarden.
Watch Metallica’s video road warrior clip for “Wherever I May Roam.”
U2 -- Achtung Baby
U2 surprised many when they released Achtung Baby in November of 1991. The album was a true departure from the signature sound that made them one of the biggest groups of the 1980s. Achtung Baby was recorded in Berlin and features a dark and introspective sound that drew on alternative rock, industrial and dance music influences. The album features the hits “The Fly,” “One,” “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” “Mysterious Ways” as well as incredible tracks like “(Ultraviolet) Light My Way,” “Acrobat” and “Love is Blindness.” The album has sold over five million copies in the U.S.
Watch U2’s video for “The Fly.”
Red Hot Chili Peppers -- Blood Sugar Sex Magik
The Red Hot Chili Peppers released their breakthrough album Blood Sugar Sex Magik in September of 1991. The Rick Rubin-produced masterpiece features the band’s classic songs “Suck My Kiss,” “Breaking the Girl,” Give it Away,” as well as “Under The Bridge,” the band’s most successful single to date. The track peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and pushed the band into the stratosphere.
Watch the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s video for “Under The Bridge.”
R.E.M. -- Out of Time
R.E.M. hit the jackpot in 1991 with their seventh album Out of Time. It followed 1989’s Green, which put the group on the map with tracks like “Stand,” “Orange Crush” and “Pop Song 89.” Out of Time features the Athens, Georgia band’s biggest single “Losing My Religion,” as well as “Radio Song,” the catchy “Shiny Happy People” and the powerful “Texarkana.” It won the band three Grammy Awards in 1992: Best Alternative Music Album, Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal and Best Short Form Music Video for “Losing My Religion.”
Watch the R.E.M.’s video for “Losing My Religion.”
Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I & Use Your Illusion II
At midnight on Sept. 17, 1991, Guns N’ Roses simultaneously released their albums Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. Following the band’s huge 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction, anticipation was at a fever pitch when the band finally unleashed the two LPs. Use Your Illusion II debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, while Use Your Illusion I bowed at No. 2.
Use Your Illusion II is generally accepted at the superior album thanks to the hit singles “You Could Be Mine,” “Civil War” and their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” The effort also boasts “Yesterdays,” “Pretty Tied Up” and the epic nine-minute track “Estranged,” which showed off the band’s versatility.
Meanwhile, Use Your Illusion I scored the hit single “Don’t Cry,” as well as the power ballad “November Rain,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album also features GNR’s cover of Paul McCartney and Wings’ classic “Live and Let Die,” as well as “Right Next Door to Hell” and the epic track “Coma.”
The two albums mark the last original music from Guns N’ Roses featuring guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, as well as bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Matt Sorum in the lineup.
Watch Guns N’ Roses’ video for “November Rain” from Use Your Illusion I.
Watch Guns N’ Roses’ video for “You Could Be Mine” from Use Your Illusion II.
Temple of the Dog -- Temple of the Dog
Temple of the Dog released their first and only album in April of 1991. The supergroup -- comprised of Chris Cornell, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron, with Eddie Vedder contributing to some songs -- scored a huge hit with “Hunger Strike,” which helped pave the way for both Badmotorfinger and Ten, which arrived later in the year. The effort also boasts “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” “Pushin Forward Back” and “Wooden Jesus," which Chris Cornell still performs regularly at his solo gigs. The album was recorded as a tribute to Mother Love Bone’s frontman Andrew Wood, who died of a heroin overdose the year prior.
Watch Temple of the Dog’s video for “Hunger Strike.”
Primus -- Sailing The Seas of Cheese
Primus released their second studio album and their major label debut Sailing The Seas of Cheese in May of 1991. The breakthrough effort features the band’s signature songs “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat.” It also boasts fan favorites “Here Come the Bastards,” “Sgt. Baker,” “American Life,” “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” and the progressive gem “Eleven.” The album epitomizes the band’s avant-garde and innovative sound led by pioneering bassist and vocalist Les Claypool.
Watch Primus’ video for “Jerry was a Racecar Driver.”
The Smashing Pumpkins -- Gish
The Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album Gish in May of 1991. While the effort isn’t nearly as popular as their later albums like 1993’s Siamese Dream and 1995’s epic double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the band’s energetic debut, co-produced by Butch Vig and frontman Billy Corgan, laid down the foundation for the band with tracks like “Rhinocerous,” “I Am One” and the moody “Crush” and psychedelic “Suffer.” The album captures the band’s youthful hunger on “Bury Me” and “Snail.”
Watch The Smashing Pumpkins' video for “Rhinocerous.”
Rush -- Roll The Bones
Rush released their fourteenth studio album Roll The Bones in September of 1991. The effort featured the radio hits “Dreamline” and the title track, which is the band's first and only foray in hip-hop -- the pitch of frontman Geddy Lee’s voice was lowered for the rapped verse. Roll The Bones also features some great songs that truly stand up to the band’s legacy including “Bravado,” “Ghost of a Chance” and the killer instrumental “Where’s My Thing? (Part IV, “Gangster of Boats” Trilogy).”
Watch Rush perform “Roll The Bones” on their R40 Tour.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers -- Into The Great Wide Open
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers released Into the Great Wide Open in July of 1991. The album, which was produced by Jeff Lynne, was the follow-up to the hugely successful album Full Moon Fever. Into The Great Wide Open continued Petty’s knack for crafting great rock songs with brilliant storytelling. It’s apparent on hits like “King’s Highway,” “Out in the Cold” and “Learning to Fly,” which topped Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart for six weeks. The effort stands up to Petty’s vast catalog with great deep cuts including “Makin’ Some Noise” and “All The Wrong Reasons.”
Watch the video for “Into The Great Wide Open,” which stars Johnny Depp, Gabrielle Anwar and Faye Dunaway. Tom Petty also makes appearances as the Roadie named Bart and a reporter. Also look for cameos from Terence Trent D’Arby and Matt LeBlanc.
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble -- The Sky is Crying
Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fifth and final studio album was released in November of 1991. The effort, aptly titled The Sky is Crying, was released one year after SRV’s untimely death on Aug. 27, 1990. The brilliant guitarist and singer died in a helicopter crash after a concert.
The album, which was compiled by Stevie’s brother Jimmie, features ten previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1984 and 1989. It highlights Vaughan’s versatility and incredible guitar virtuosity on the Grammy-winning and chill-inducing version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” and an equally poignant version of the Elmore James’ classic “The Sky is Crying.”
It also features a different version of “Empty Arms,” which originally appeared on his 1984 album Soul to Soul. The opening line of the speedy shuffle features Stevie singing, “You’re gonna miss me little darling / The day that I’m gone.”
The album concludes with an amazing solo 12-string acoustic version of Doyle Bramhall’s “Life by the Drop.”
Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”
Dinosaur Jr. -- Green Mind
Dinosaur Jr. was at a turning point in 1991 when they released their major label debut Green Mind. The album was the first without founding bassist and vocalist Lou Barlow and features J Mascis taking over nearly all musical duties. Green Mind features Mascis stepping into his role as noise rock guitar hero on tracks like “How’d You Pin That One on Me,” “The Wagon” and “Thumb.”
Watch the video for “The Wagon” below.
Blur -- Leisure
Even though frontman Blur Damon Albarn once called Leisure “awful,” we still had to include the debut album from the U.K. alt-rockers. The LP lays the foundation for a stellar career that’s still going strong. The Britpop legends were just getting their feet wet at the time but show their potential on standout tracks like “She’s So High,” “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang.”
Watch Blur’s video for “She’s So High.”
Slint -- Spiderland
Slint’s Spiderland is an oft-forgotten landmark album. The six-track album paved the way for post-rock with repetitive and hypnotic grooves, incredible dynamic shifts and use of unusual time signatures. Frontman Brian McMahan’s lyrics range from spoken word to full on shouting, while the guitar work both he and David Pajo lay down is hypnotic and masterful. While it wasn’t popular among the masses, the effort inspired many artists and has a sounds all its own.
Listen to “Good Morning, Captain” below.
Kyuss -- Wretch
Kyuss, which was co-founded by future Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, released their debut album, Wretch, back in 1991. The record didn’t make a lot of noise that year, but it serves as a solid foundation to a huge musical legacy. The band only release four albums of their brand of stoner rock, but out of the ashes came the aforementioned Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures and the Eagles of Death Metal. Wretch is chock full of head-banging riffs and has a boundless energy and intense hunger that leaps off the record.
Listen to “The Law” below.
The Pixies -- Trompe Le Monde
Trompe Le Monde is the fourth album from The Pixies and their last for 23 years. It features their popular cover of Jesus and the Mary Chain’s “Head On,” which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart. The effort is a return to their noise rock roots and got the notice of U2, who tapped the band to open on their inaugural Zoo TV tour. Besides riding that high, the band split in 1993 but reunited in 2004, releasing the album Indie Cindy in 2014.
Watch The Pixies video for “Head On” below.
My Bloody Valentine -- Loveless
My Bloody Valentine released their second album Loveless back in 1991. While the record failed to make any commercial waves when it was released, it is widely considered to be the band’s best and one of the musical highlights of the decade. The defining shoegaze effort has influenced an entire generation of musicians ranging from Billy Corgan to Radiohead to Trent Reznor.
Watch the video for “Only Shallow.”
Prince & The New Power Generation -- Diamonds and Pearls
Prince’s 13th album, Diamonds and Pearls is an early '90s gem. The album dropped jaws with songs chock full of sexual innuendo including “Gett Off,” “Cream,” “Willing and Able” and the memorable title track.
Watch the video for “Cream” below in all its colorful '90s glory.
Hole -- Pretty on the Inside
Hole released their debut album Pretty on the Inside in September of 1991. The bombastic and gritty effort, which was produced by Courtney Love’s noise rock idol Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, put the band on the map with shocking songs like “Teenage Whore,” “Garbage Man” and a surprising take on Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds."
Listen to “Teenage Whore” below.
Primal Scream -- Screamadelica
The soulful sounds of Scottish rockers Primal Scream got people moving in the early '90s. Their third album Screamadelica was a departure for the band, fusing house music to their indie rock sounds and spawning dance-rock hits like “Loaded,” “Come Together," and “Higher Than the Sun.” The record was a huge hit in Primal Scream’s homeland.
Watch the video for the gospel infused track “Movin' On Up.”
Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque
Bandwagonesque is the third album from Scottish rockers Teenage Fanclub. It spawned singles such as “Star Sign,” which peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart, as well as “What You Do to Me” and “The Concept.” The effort famously was named Album of the Year by Spin, topping all the others on this list.
Watch the video for “What You Do To Me” below.
Talk Talk -- Laughing Stock
Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock is another masterful album that helped create the post-rock genre. The British pioneers truly experimented with various influences, using an ensemble of musicians on the monumental effort. The heavily layered and technical effort is their most ambitious and closes the book on the band as their final album.
Listen to Talk Talk play with musical dynamics in “Ascension Day” below.