Music

1991: A Landmark Year for Rock Albums

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.

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.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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