At the dawn of 1991, no one would have dreamed that alt-rock would dethrone the King of Pop. Of all the developments that occurred during that seminal year for pop music, none is more celebrated or dissected than the popularization of the alternative rock genre, a style previously marginalized to music’s underground trenches. This was the year that the United States’ leading college rock band R.E.M. became a global top-tier act, the inaugural Lollapalooza festival plopped myriad abrasive sounds upon the doorstep of suburban America, and, like some storybook dream, a grungy trio from the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest named Nirvana leapt from obscurity to worldwide fame with its major-label debut Nevermind, a feat that would be capped by the shocking displacement of pop’s biggest name, Michael Jackson, at the top of the US album charts in January 1992.
Nirvana’s breakthrough LP wasn’t alone in ‘91, as equally-important alterna-blockbusters by Pearl Jam (Ten), the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Blood Sugar Sex Magik), and R.E.M. (Out of Time) flew off record store shelves as often as anything by MC Hammer or Guns N’ Roses. Even without getting into the acclaimed cult favorites and pivotal releases by the Smashing Pumpkins, Primal Scream, Soundgarden, My Bloody Valentine, Slint, the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., Teenage Fanclub, Hole, and more that shared calendar space during that 365-day span, it’s clear that the genre was a driving force in making 1991 one of the most impressive years ever for the LP format.
Funny enough, some journalists like to refer to 1991 in shorthand as “the year punk broke”, a title drawn from a Sonic Youth tour documentary of the same name released the following year. It wasn’t—that would be 1977 or 1994, depending on which country you come from. Commentators often take the name at face value, not realizing that “The Year Punk Broke” was the official name of Sonic Youth’s tour—it was inspired by the group seeing the promo for Mötley Crüe’s “Anarchy in the U.K.” cover and joking sarcastically that in ‘91 punk would break into the mainstream—and not a name dreamt up after the fact. The Ramones aside, that bill lacked the sort of short, speedy three-chord rockers that still thrived in punk scenes around the globe, instead offering Sonic Youth’s very post-punk guitar deconstructionism (the band after all started out as a No Wave Johnny-come-lately, the very antithesis of conventional punk), Dinosaur Jr.‘s wanky lead licks and stoner/slacker attitude, and Nirvana’s marriage of equal parts Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and the Pixies. Furthermore, much of alt-rock’s frontline at the time—R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction, Morrissey, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, etc.—had precious little to do with punk stylistically.
Some would argue that certain bands shared a socially-conscious, do-it-yourself philosophy of musical independence that was “punk” in attitude, but then again punk does not have a monopoly on indie-label frugalism, grassroots career-building, or independently-sustained regional music scenes. Anyone who thinks so is overlooking that these same methods were employed not only by post-punk (a concerted attempt to destroy punk’s spent corpse in glorious fashion), hip-hop, and underground metal in the 1980s (newspapers made a big deal of thrash’s jump from the indie-label ghetto to the majors in the late ‘80s before it did grunge’s), but also allowed Western mainstream pop/rock of even the most mundane variety to spread behind the Iron Curtain prior to the end of the Cold War.
No, on a sonic level, we aren’t talking about punk storming the charts in 1991—we’re talking about a genre/movement I like to handily summarize as “post-post-punk”. After the first wave of punk petered out at the end of the 1970s, those left standing either took the post-punk/New Wave route of breaking down genre parameters in an anti-rockist mission, or the hardcore/Oi! road that preserved punk by toughening it up into a stripped down, purist form (not unlike the path undertaken by the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and subsequent headbanger genres during the decade). A few years later, both these approaches had become largely spent creatively, and alternative rock was born of the intersection of hardcore kids outgrowing that scene’s rigid sonic parameters and backsliding post-punkers rediscovering the joys of classic rock.
Pioneered by a few key artists—R.E.M., the Smiths, Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements, chief among them—united in their rejection of hardcore and post-punk/New Wave for reconfigured sounds from the 1960s and pre-punk ‘70s, the disparate-yet-likeminded sounds of early alternative rock congealed into a broadly definable genre as the decade wore on. Often swathed in patchwork, thrift store fashions out of economic necessity, these artists filtered rockist signifiers of the past—jangly arpeggios, fuzzbox distortion, heavy metal riffs, fringe haircuts—through a collegiate, postmodern sensibility that rejected macho swagger and technical spectacle, the sort of thing that actually dominated popular rock music from the end of New Wave until 1991. As Simon Reynolds once said, alternative defines itself as pop’s other, and thus ‘80s alt-rock largely shunned advances in production and technology for an at times Luddite disavowal of the sounds of cutting-edge pop, rock, and R&B. Naturally, the genre didn’t sell very well back then, and was mostly confined to the racks of mom-and-pop record shops and the college radio airwaves.
Despite its separation from the pop world, alt-rock had inched progressively closer to the mainstream by the dawn of the 1990s, as critical plaudits grew and major labels began signing more and more artists. Observers anticipated a broad breakthrough would occur soon, but in the meantime had to content themselves with the occasional breakout success. At the start of 1991, alternative’s flagship group was Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M., a quartet touted as “America’s Best Rock & Roll Band” by Rolling Stone. R.E.M. had already scored top ten hits on the Billboard Hot 100 with the singles “The One I Love” and “Stand” in the late ‘80s, but ‘91 would be a banner year for the ensemble as its seventh album turned it into a household name. Trading in R.E.M.‘s typical collegiate jangle-pop sound for mandolins and clearly-enunciated vocals, Out of Time debuted at number one in both the US and the UK, spawned the restless lament “Losing My Religion” (and the less-fondly remembered but equally sizable hit “Shiny Happy People”), and garnered seven Grammy Award nominations including Album and Record of the Year.
Out of Time‘s sales of 4.2 million copies domestically and upwards of 12 million units worldwide over the next few years would signal the start of R.E.M.‘s imperial phase, when it was a serious contender for “biggest band in the world” status. Key to Out of Time‘s appeal was a gentle, song-focused pastoralism that was inviting to folks reared on adult contemporary sounds; the most threatening thing about the group was its by-the-book liberal politics. R.E.M.‘s long, steady journey from an indie label single issued a decade earlier to pop stardom with integrity and creative control intact was a model to be admired and followed by those seeking similar rewards. Yet in practice, R.E.M. was more of an anomaly than an easily replicated template for how other musicians could break through the glass ceiling separating most alt-rock from the mainstream. More often than not, alterna-rockers would either score a freak pop hit and then fail to deliver a follow-up feat, buckle under the pressure and disastrously tone down their sound in vain hopes of radio play, or slog it out on a major label selling next to nil until they were dropped from the roster.