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.
The biggest musical legacy of 1991 remains the widespread breakthrough of alternative rock. It wasn’t immediate, though. First R.E.M. topped the US and UK album charts early in the year with Out of Time (home to what is still one of 1991’s best songs, “Losing My Religion”), then the inaugural Lollapalooza tour that summer proved there was a receptive audience for the genre to be found among America’s suburban youth for abrasive artists ignored even by modern rock radio. Several of the now-legendary alt-rock albums released in the latter half of the year were gradual successes—Nevermind didn’t peak on most countries’ sales charts until early 1992, and Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten didn’t really start selling until nearly a year after its release, for example. The fact that the world didn’t instantly welcome alternative as the new dominant form of rock the instant these records hit the shops has long since been moot, however, for the cream of this crop remains among the very best work the genre has ever produced.
More than any other recorded released in 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind represents the changes wrought in rock music that year. With the arrival of Nevermind, rock-star posturing, songs about partying, and optimism were out, while angst, quiet verse/loud chorus dynamics, and a general discontent with the aimless post-Cold War world Generation X had inherited from the baby boomers were in. Yet Nirvana’s sound wasn’t necessarily cutting-edge. As Michael Azerrad pointed out in the conclusion to his American 1980s indie scene history Our Band Could Be Your Life, Nevermind essentially synthesized the sounds of scores of underground bands that had been ignored by the wider rock audience for years. That last part underlines the true importance of Nevermind: although well-informed hipsters were acquainted with the band’s influences and immediate forebearers ranging from Mudhoney to Sonic Youth to the Pixies, average Joe Rocker wasn’t, and Nevermind was his entry to a whole new world. Compared to the latest Genesis or Poison record, it was an invigorating fresh of breath air; for many, anything not Nirvana-analogous was instantly old-hat. Moreover, the quality of the music was superb, arguably better than anything any alt-rock ensemble had previously released. The guitar riffs were abrasive yet catchy, the lyrics tortured yet instantly memorable, and Kurt Cobain could deliver an agonized scream of inarticulate discontent that still stayed in tune. Young or old, MTV devotee or college radio junkie, Nevermind made one firmly aware that rock’s best albums weren’t the sole province of the 1960s or 1970s, as aging baby boomers would bemoan. Almost 20 years later, the specter of the third most-acclaimed album of all time is profound. To this day, there are music fans who pine for a “next Nirvana” to rectify whatever dreary state they perceive rock music has fallen into, thereby restoring the form to its early-‘90s glory.
In addition to declaring the arrival of an upstart generation of rockers for a new era, 1991 also saw key ‘80s bands U2, R.E.M., and Metallica cement their standing as rock’s newest stadium gods with the best-selling releases of their careers. Of the three, U2 had already enjoyed superstar status since the release of its 1987 album The Joshua Tree. But rather than be swept aside as old refuse alongside with glam metal and the less-fortunate cohabiters of the Live Aid spectacle, U2 cannily reinvented itself for its seventh album Achtung Baby. Crafted in East Berlin just as the iconic locale of Cold War divisions became unified once again with its long-separated western half, Achtung Baby was the most conscious expression of change to be found among the great rock albums of the year, even if it had to do more with the band’s desire to deconstruct the sound and image that had straightjacketed it by the end of the ’80s than with being a pointed reflection of changing times (which would previously have been a given for a U2 record). On Achtung Baby U2 re-envisioned itself as everything U2 was not: sexy, ominous, and oblique, rejecting the strident anthems of the past for vaporous elements of electronic music and forward-thinking alt-rock (My Bloody Valentine, industrial rock) to create tracks that were far more personal than political. The vibe was perfect for those numerous cynical souls becoming quickly enamored with an ironic worldview, further epitomized by the media oversaturation send-up that was the band’s supporting Zoo TV tour. Beyond the cultural context, what really sold this complete stylistic makeover was the quality of the songs: yielding singles like “Mysterious Ways”, “One”, and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” that were the equal of anything the band had produced before as well as numerous better-than-average album cuts, Achtung Baby was ultimately the best album the group had ever made, as much a record for the ‘90s as the majestic-yet-bleeding-heart Joshua Tree had been a complimentary record for the previous decade.
Standing right up there with Nevermind and Achtung Baby, Metallica’s self-titled fifth album completes the triumvirate of 1991’s best rock LPs. On the surface, slowing its tempos, streamlining its arrangements, and teaming up with Mötley Crüe producer Bob Rock wasn’t the most cred-friendly thing the thrash quartet could have done in a time when increasingly-irrelevant glam metal still ruled mainstream hard rock (and boy did many a punter express skepticism at first). The end result silences all concerns. Metallica is a weighty blockbuster of a metal album, more focused and accomplished than anything the group had done before. From “Enter Sandman” to “The Struggle Within”, the record just absolutely rocks. I remember someone once comparing the “Black Album” (referred to as such due to its pitch-dark album artwork) to a stealth bomber: leaner, meaner, and more powerful than what many ’80 metal holdovers still clogging the charts were churning out, it represented the metal genre’s newest advancement in development.
The long-term importance of Metallica lies primarily in its status as the touchstone heavy metal record of the 1990s, as it set the pace for metalheads who were as bored with the ruling class of headbanger bands at the time as alternative rockers like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain were. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that when alt-rock faltered in the face of nu metal at the end of the ‘90s, Metallica was elevated to the position of the most important rock band going. Before the “Black Album”, Metallica was too scary for commercial radio; afterward, the band achieved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before many of its heroes, and songs from that record are as much staples of radio setlists today as any classic rock anthem one could name.
Of course, there are many more great rock records worth highlighting from 1991, from chart-busting multi-platinum unit shifters to underappreciated underground gems. Every year produces its fair share of quality albums, but only a select few seem truly magical, where masterpiece after masterpiece was issued, and the essence and vitality of the period is so palpable through the music. Even now, the best rock albums of 1991 feel remarkably fresh, in large part because we are still living in the wake of how those records reinvigorated the genre for a new age back then. Twenty years later, it all still feels like yesterday.