Has it really been 20 years since 1991? That year that never seemed all that long ago until now is unequivocally one of the landmark rock album years, a 12-month span whose voluminous output of brilliant records places it in the same hallowed ranks as 1967, 1969, 1977, and 1984. This was the year that gave the world instant classics including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album”, U2’s Achtung Baby, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica as well as flawed-yet-still engaging works by R.E.M., Guns ‘N Roses, and the Smashing Pumpkins, not to mention revered cult favorites by My Bloody Valentine, Teenage Fanclub, and Fugazi, just to name a notable few. Even without getting into singles, it’s clear that any fan of rock music should investigate at least a good dozen releases from this year as part of his or her formative musical education.
What makes 1991 such a memorable year in rock is not just that it packed so many fantastic full-lengths into its span (which it undeniably did), but that those releases were (explicitly or not) emblematic of seismic generational and cultural shifts. The key event of 1991 was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the Cold War, finally putting an end to the collective dread of nuclear annihilation that had cast such a shadow over and informed baby boomer culture the world over in so many profound ways. Meanwhile, a younger generation of restless rock fans only just discovering what daring music existed just outside the mainstream was both looking for icons of its own while chaffing at the previous year’s dominance by dance pop and hip hop. Whether it was by overthrowing the old guard, engaging in self-reinvention, or by modernizing a particular approach for the new decade, change was a concept that imbued many of 1991’s seminal rock albums.