Music

The 20 Most Memorable Songs of 1991

In a year when so much remarkable music was released, it's hard to choose just 20 memorable songs without a few omissions. Still, you'll be hard pressed to quibble with the picks of the PopMatters music staff and guest contributors.

Massive Attack and more...

Massive Attack
"Unfinished Sympathy"

That the title of Massive Attack's second, and perhaps still definitive, single frequently gets misread as "Unfinished Symphony" actually makes a lot of sense. Certainly, if the song feels at all symphonic, there is something incomplete and possibly even broken about it: melancholy strings laying the groundwork for a composition that, some light piano noodling aside, mainly seems to sputter and twitch rather than reaching towards any kind of grand crescendo. It's classical music crudely subjected to the overbearing late 20th century beast that is technology, every formal tradition reduced to cogs and microchips. Even Shara Nelson's powerhouse of a voice, once the very thing that opera divas were made of, is clipped and reserved here, no more or less a piece of this synthetic environment than that processed "hey hey hey" vocal refrain. Yet, as one of the early groundbreaking songs of the nascent trip-hop genre, Massive Attack's blend of the old and the new is much better realized as an olive branch handed between disparate styles, the warmth and emotional nakedness of traditional vocal and instrumental music casting its light upon the murky grime of the electronic underground just as much as the other way around. Maybe this is where the song's actual title reveals its meaning, sympathy not unfinished in the sense that it has been permanently severed, but rather still in the uneasy yet worthwhile process of being attained. Jer Fairall

 
Metallica
"Enter Sandman"

Metal music has long peddled in images of the macabre. The opening track from Metallica's 1991 self-titled LP decided to tell a more traditional tale, one that in comparison to the many dark and bloody tales told by metal bands seems completely innocuous. A step back from the progressive stylings that dominated Metallica's eighties records, "Enter Sandman" accomplished many things in its five-minute-and-30-second run time. The song's nightmarish lyrics turned a banal children's folk story into a terrifying, haunting reverie. The stylistic step back that it was for the band -- who up until that point had many of their successes in long, multi-part suites -- demonstrated that even heavy metal could be catchy. The now-classic guitar riff dominates the song, and it does so without a hint of guitar showmanship. It's just pure, simple metal riffing.

Metallica was neither the first nor the last metal band to tell a creepy story, with a little girl reciting a lullaby to boot. But no song has shown just how well a band could take a step back from complexity and utilize the power of a simple guitar riff as "Enter Sandman" did. Twenty years and more than one Guitar Hero spot later, "Enter Sandman" is still just as heavy as it was in 1991. Going to the Neverland described in the song may not be a peaceful journey, but it certainly is a memorable one. Brice Ezell

 
Nirvana
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Whether it's the ultimate irony or just the whims of destiny, the fact that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" counts as classic rock now is not something anyone would've foreseen in 1991. Back in the day, you would've sworn Nirvana was flying in the face of what came before it, from the abrasive opening riff, to Kurt Cobain's guttural howling, to the absurdist lyrics. But this initial step in Nirvana's unexpected and ultimately reluctant climb to the tippy top-of-the-pops prophesied the paradox of the band's fate, just the first case of things turning out spectacularly bass ackwards for the Seattle trio as it became bigger than anyone's wildest dreams. With the sarcastically delivered lines, "I'm worse at what I do best / And for this gift I feel blessed," Cobain actually foretells what was about to befall him and Nirvana once you decipher their meaning and significance by turning the literal lyrics inside out: Kurt Cobain became the best at what he hated the worst -- being the voice of a generation. That was, of course, a gift that blessed us as much as it ended up cursing him. Arnold Pan

 
Pearl Jam
"Alive"

During Pearl Jam's steady and unforeseen rise to prominence over the course of late 1991 and the better half of 1992, the Seattle-based grunge quintet was roundly derided by underground music fans and musical competitors as alt-rock opportunists, ably placed bandwagon jumpers who used the grunge look and sensibility to dress up outmoded classic rock mannerisms. The band did draw heavily from the template set by Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Led Zeppelin a generation before, but as "Alive" -- the lead single from Pearl Jam's first album Ten -- demonstrates, there was no reason to be ashamed of that. Though "Alive" barely made a splash upon its first few months of existence (peaking at number 16 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Charts and not even making a dent on the Hot 100 due to a lack of a proper U.S. retail release), it has justly since become an evergreen radio staple, as fondly remembered and culturally pivotal as Nirvana’s indomitable "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

Everything about the song is impeccable -- the unforgettable main riff, the dramatic F-to-C chord strum right before the first verse and leading into the choruses, the surging rush of the bridge section and the accompanying comedown of the third verse, lead guitarist Mike McCready's sprawling outro solo. However, the element that truly elevates "Alive" into one of the consummate rock songs of all time is Eddie Vedder's vocal performance. The ex-surfer-turned-reluctant-star's rumbling baritone is revealed here to be more dynamic and nuanced than his legion of blunt imitators would have people believe, and nothing displays Vedder's sheer talent better than the choruses, where he takes three simple words and wrings as much emotional weight and meaning as he can out of them. Even though Vedder's lyrics were drawn from the traumatic teenage experience of learning that the man he thought was his father was in fact not a biological relation, his soaring delivery of the line "I'm still alive" has, by his own admission and to his later satisfaction, transformed a song about questioning life into a triumphant hymn of survival for millions. A.J. Ramirez

 
PM Dawn
"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss"

"Set Adrift on Memory Bliss" by P.M. Dawn was steadfastly retro during the beginnings of a decade that steadfastly looked to the future. But P.M. Dawn wore its pop-schmaltz excess proudly on its hip hop sleeve, and "Set Adrift" is all silky vocals and melodic crooning that relied on samples from Spandau Ballet's 1983 hit, "True" -- Spandau Ballet's lead singer, Tony Hadley, even makes an appearance in the video for the song’s extended mix. For the two brothers who made up P.M. Dawn, Attrell and Jarrett Cordes, bliss is crafted entirely of musical and pop culture memories, including references to '80s pop hits like Wham's "Careless Whisper" and Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance", with shout-outs to Christina Applegate and A Tribe Called Quest. The straightforward sweetness of a familiar melody was a comfort in unfamiliar, changing times. Wars ended in 1991 -- the Cold War, the Gulf War -- but the harsh glare of globalisation and neoliberalism seemed to include in its promise of "growth" the spectre of more diffuse wars to come. For our times, where sampling is as ubiquitous as nostalgia, the song is a reminder that, for better or worse, we're still finding ways to be set adrift on memory bliss. Subashini Navaratnam

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