With Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary — celebrated most recently with Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam 20 — and last month’s love-fest over Nirvana’s Nevermind, it’s easy to remember 1991 as a golden age for music. And it sure was. On top of our grunge faves, there was Metallica and Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Use Your Illusion II. It was such a watershed year that most of us forget that things started off with a bad omen. Anyone remember who dominated the charts in January 1991? I’ll give you a hint: He’s no James Dean.
So yeah, it could have gone another way. But luckily, as the year wore on, we forgot about Vanilla Ice (well, mostly) and moved on to more important matters. And while Ten and Nevermind became huge– and helped turn radio back toward actual music– they’re hardly the only great albums turning 20 this year. It was a great year for rock, sure, but there was also plenty of great hip-hop and pop and whatever else you could want. It’s a full year of releases worthy of celebration. So here’s a short list of the other great stuff that came out, in chronological order by street date. And, as you can see, the fall of 1991 was loaded. Here we go:
Gang Starr: Step in the Arena (Jan. 15)
A great year in hip-hop started off right with Gang Starr’s finest album (matched only by Hard to Earn). Here Premier’s beats are smooth but mean, just enough street edge and spare percussion to keep things gritty — for all their jazz leanings and sampling, this really sounds nothing like A Tribe Called Quest — and Guru continues on his mellow grind. Songs like the title track and “Execution of a Chump” are classic rap boasts, with Guru taking down foes on all sides, but rarely does bragging sound this righteous. There’s something undeniably Zen about his flow, even as he tears people apart, that makes this record as menacing as it is mesmerizing. Step in the Arena was so great because the pair didn’t need to get heated to make their point. They were so high above everyone else, they couldn’t bother to be aggravated. They picked lesser MCs like splinters, kept their cool, and knocked us out with one great track after another.
Jesus Lizard: Goat (Feb. 21)
From minute one — those thundering drums and that single, slicing guitar note repeated on “Here Comes Dudley” — Goat is a force to be reckoned with. In just nine tracks, it manages dynamic riffage and off-kilter timing that would keep things surprising even if singer David Yow wasn’t one of the most unpredictable and exciting front men in rock music in the ’90s. Seriously, check his fiery yelps on “Seasick” against his wandering shriek on “South Mouth” and tell me that’s the same lunatic. Still, even with their crushing sound and Steve Albini behind the controls squeezing every decibel out of it and Yow’s part-madman-part-jokester antics, what makes Goat work is how nuanced moods leak their way through all that noise. For all its power, it’s the tangled, aching riffs and stunning shifts in texture and tempo that carry the day. Even with all the noisy boundary breaking that happened in music in the fall of 1991, Goat was a record too striking for anyone to be ready for. Twenty years later, we’re still try to wrap our head around its unruly edges.
Slowdive: Just for a Day (Sept. 2)
Apparently, some other shoegaze record came out in 1991, too. But I’ll just go ahead and say it: This one’s better. Okay, okay, it’s different (and better). Instead of relying on blunt force, Slowdive’s first record is all about gentle moods and space. The record is downright cinematic with all those airy synths barely whisping their way over these songs. See the breadth of epic opener “Spanish Air” or the otherworldly shimmer of “Waves.” These songs take their time, and take up a lot of space as they do. Slowdive would build muscle into their sound later, but Just for a Day shows the pop side of shoegaze can feel like gossamer but resonate just as deeply as the most grinding distortion. These guys would perfect their sound on Souvlaki, but though Just for a Day garners less attention these days, it’s a landmark album and a unique sound in a genre that has all too few of either.
Pixies: Trompe le Monde (Sept. 23)
How fitting is it that the Pixies’ final record came out the day before Nevermind? Talk about torch passing, right? And what a torch to pass. It’s the final step in the gradual streamlining of sound that was the band’s career, and the results are impressive. There’s a heft to these songs that rings out, but it’s their surgical precision — those crunching chords on “UMass,” or the angelic close to “Alec Eiffel” — that makes this record stand up just as well as its three brilliant predecessors. Even when things get weird, on “Space (I Believe In)” or “Subbacultcha,” the band seems wholly in control. Black Francis and Kim Deal are at their best as vocal foils, and Joey Santiago’s guitar work is simultaneous sharp and ragged. It’s sad that they ended so strongly — two decades later and this still sounds like a band hitting their stride here — but few bands go out as well as the Pixies did on Trompe le Monde, clearing room for Cobain to carry on their legacy.
A Tribe Called Quest: The Low End Theory (Sept. 24)
When you’re one of the best hip-hop groups of all time, and you make your best record, shouldn’t you be celebrated? Absolutely. If Nevermind was a sign of things to come, then The Low End Theory (released on the same day) was a culmination of what came before. There’s an old-school hip-hop ethos that informs everything that goes on with Tribe on this record. Musically, it reaches even further back than that, to jazz and soul and R&B and doo-wop and whatever else earwormed its way into Q-Tip’s brain. Everything came together here — Ali’s beats, Q-Tip’s samples, the interplay between Tip’s smooth flow and Phife’s fiery spitting — to make this album classic. Phife, long overshadowed in discussion of Tribe (much like Big Boi with Outkast), rips it on The Low End Theory. Between him and Tip not a syllable is wasted and, though their break-up years later got messy, this is the sound of a tribe united. Rarely does honoring tradition sound this fresh and, in saluting what came before, Tribe created something wholly new.
American Music Club: Everclear (Oct. 5)
American Music Club singer and songwriter Mark Eitzel can bum out even the saddest of bastards. On their initial run from 1982-1994 (they returned in 2004), American Music Club put out some of the most dramatically and unapologetically sad records ever. Everclear was their break out, though, following the cult hit California and the UK-only release, ahem, United Kingdom. Their 1991 album busted out for a reason, though: it condensed the band’s sound into a more potent dose. It’s one of their shortest records, and hits hard with every fleeting moment. From the AIDS-patient confessional of “Sick of Food” to the down-and-out barflies populating “Royal Cafe,” Eitzel delivers these tales of woe with a sweet croon and, when needed, a sinister smirk. Behind him, the band’s sound resonates outward with Eitzel’s gloomy vibe. If U2 had any restraint, they might sound something like what’s going on in Everclear. This record is compact and dense, but its parts are sweet as they are melancholy. Is there some melodrama involved? Sure. Could there be some sunnier moments? No doubt. But when the songs are this good, you’re willing to follow Eitzel down some darks paths. More than any other AMC record in the ’90s, Everclear rewards you for your trust.
Primal Scream: Screamadelica (Oct. 8)
How does something with so many disparate elements stitched together so sound smooth, so whole? Screamadelica, which basically reinvented a so-so indie rock band into Brit-pop legends, is first and foremost one of the most purely joyful albums from the past twenty years. But more than that, it is fascinating to dig into and explore, to pull out samples and borrowed riffs, to see the fragments of the past that became a vision for the future. How does the revival zeal of “Movin’ On Up” glide so effortlessly into the piano-y shuffle of “Slip Inside This House”? Why doesn’t the crystal production and gospel vocals of “Come Together” sound corny? How do they make it genuinely uplifting? In the end, Screamadelica raises so many questions its impossible to answer them all, and therein lies its brilliance. You can figure out all the pieces, break songs down into parts, but in the end how they come together is a bit of unexplainable alchemy. There’s no reason, no name for the emotional resonance of these songs. You just feel them, deeply, as much know as you did in ’91.
Del the Funky Homosapien: I Wish My Brother George Was Here (Oct. 22)
Consider this: Del was 18 when he made this album. 18. Let that sink in. Now, what’s perhaps even stranger is that he came up under Ice Cube. I Wish My Brother George Was Here bears little resemblance to what Cube was doing, and shows Del off in his own brilliant world. For an 18 year old, he seems pretty tired of slacker friends (“Sleepin’ on My Couch”) and plenty confident to take on other MCs (“Pissin’ on Your Steps”). Of course, he’s also obsessed with booty on the intro and “Dr. Bombay,” among other places, so he’s teenager enough. But his real maturity comes in his understanding and use of funk music on this album (that titular George refers to George Clinton, by the way). If Tribe weaved jazz into hip-hop in new and exciting ways, Del was their funky counterpoint. The result is an album with its own distinct groove — not grind, it’s too smooth — that’s as danceable as it is gritty. Del would make other fascinating albums, like No Need for Alarm or Deltron 3030, but this one, his clearest homage to the funk music he loved, is still the best.
Teenage Fanclub: Bandwagonesque (Nov. 4)
If the break out of grunge and indie rock didn’t also come along with a constant feeling of being alienated and annoyed, Bandwagonesque could have found the same audience Ten did. Well, maybe not that big, but close. Teenage Fanclub’s best record was a sunny counterpart (along with Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend) to the musty sound of grunge. Norman Blake and company could still bring the distortion, and these songs are unruly in their own way, but they’re also full of sweet harmonies and undeniably, unabashed pop hooks. Check the goofy sentiments of “Metal Baby” or the keening vocals on “Alcoholiday.” The band waved its nerd flag proudly, but could also rock with the best of them. This record resonates now because it isn’t at all dated, despite its tongue-in-cheek title. It’s got classic rock, jangle-pop, alt-rock, and even country sounds floating through it. Teenage Fanclub was the kind of band that just sounded like it knew what it was doing. While the Seattle scene was busy trying to pass themselves off as slackers, Teenage Fanclub came in sounding like a professional band, and blew away just about any competition it had in 1991. And they did it all without pouting or yarbling. Well done, fellas. Well done.
Drive Like Jehu: Drive Like Jehu (Nov. 5)
Yeah, the band is probably better known for Yank Crime, but Drive Like Jehu is one of the most refined, clearly executed debut rock records to come out in the ’90s. Rick Froberg’s perfect screech, John Reis’s seemingly chaotic guitar noise that straightens into punishing riffs, the rumbling percussion — it’s a perfect blend of jolting sound. The call and response between Froberg and Reis on opener “Caress” puts the band’s strengths front and center, and the album never looks back. From the lean “Spikes to You” to the nearly-10-minute “O Pencil Sharp,” Drive Like Jehu burns through nine songs with unrelenting energy and force. As 1991 drew to a close, this record was one clear reminder that things were going to get much louder going forward, before they ever got quieter. And, with that noise in the capable hands like Froberg’s and Reis’s, who wouldn’t mind going deaf?
So what are your favorite albums from 1991? Which of these do you love? What’s not on here that should be? Leave a comment and let us know. It was a big year with a lot of great stuff, so we want to know what album still gets to you 20 years later.