Below is a list of 20 of 1991’s most memorable songs, presented in alphabetical order by performer name. It is, by no means, an exhaustive list of the best songs from the year — it would be easy to come up with 20 more songs, then 20 more. While there are no doubt glaring omissions that might stand out more to you than some of the selections we’ve made, you’d also be hard-pressed to quibble too much with the picks made by the PopMatters music staff and guest contributors. Except in the case of U2, which had two iconic tracks quite different in style, we’ve limited one entry per band to cover as much ground as possible. As you can see, this list conveys not only how musically rich and diverse the year was, but also how much remarkable music was released in 1991, whether the songs chosen ended up being the cream-of-the-crop by flashes-in-the-pan or classics that have aged well by bands that have stood the test of time.
Boyz II Men – “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”
There is no better song that captures the tumultuous year of 1991 than Boyz II Men’s iconic cover of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”. The dolorous song, written in 1975 by Freddie Perren and Christine Yarian for the African American coming-of-age film Cooley High, is sung by G.C. Cameron, as teenage protagonist Preacher watches the burial of his best friend, Cochise. Fifteen years later, as a nod to the cultural impact of the film, Boyz II Men titled their debut album Cooleyhighharmony and included their rendition of Cameron’s song.
Their version of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” was hugely successful because it perfectly captured, in both lyric and performance, the emotion felt by anyone coming to terms with the difficult moments of life. The power of the song endures because trying times will always bring a longing for a simpler time. Although the melody and words of the song are easy to learn, Boyz II Men’s version is definitive because it is a perfect musical representation of the grief we all feel but rarely can adequately express. – Fredara Mareva
Cypress Hill – “How I Could Just Kill a Man”
Pre-The Chronic, rapping about crime could still be scary, rarely seeming like smoothed-out fun and games. On the more memorable half of its first single, the double A-side “How I Could Just Kill a Man”/”The Phuncky Feel One”, Cypress Hill’s funk was rugged fun, in a post-Public Enemy, sampledelic way, with DJ Muggs drawing from many American soul and rock sources, famous and obscure — Manzel, Lowell Fulsom, Jimi Hendrix, Music Machine, three James Brown tracks, Suicidal Tendencies — to create a track with depth that still stomped its rhythm hard.
There are strange little sounds in the mix, like static and a guitar whine (an especially PE-like touch) behind the chorus, “Here is something you can’t understand / How I could just kill a man.” Even with the melodic, circus-organ interlude two-thirds of the way through, there was a coldness in the sound that matched the content. The nasality of B-Real’s voice made him still seem creepy then, before their giant bong traveling circus had cemented the notion of them as cuddly potheads. The matter-of-fact way they rhyme about killing people at nary a second’s notice is meant to be chilling, and is. The year before the “Cop Killer” brouhaha, B-Real raps about killing a cop who tried to enter his home: “Didn’t have to blast out / But I did anyway / Young punk had to pay.”
The song is clearly aimed at people outside the group’s neighborhood, in that “hip-hop as CNN” way, and towards the end, he points his finger upwards towards the rich folk on the hill, telling them they can’t understand what they haven’t lived. In some ways, the bluntness of the song’s message seems quaint compared to the many brutal street narratives that have come after. But in other ways its simplicity is its power. It gets right down to the basic elemental question — how can a man kill another man? — and answers it with one word: survival. – Dave Heaton
Guns N’ Roses – “You Could Be Mine”
The first single from the hubristic Use Your Illusion albums, “You Could Be Mine” commences Guns N’ Roses‘ second phase when they were the biggest band in the world with an inflated, vitriolic singalong. Like “Rocket Queen”, “You Could Be Mine” has epic yearnings, which the band took even further with the famed trilogy: “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged”. Lyrically, “You Could Be Mine” is familiar paranoid territory, Axl bitching about some evil chick. The song’s most memorable lyric, a strange gibberish misogynist jive, showed up in Appetite for Destruction‘s liner notes: “With your bitch slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue, you get nothing done.”
“You Could Be Mine” is a major anthem, though not the best of this period, since its two bridges kill the momentum. But the song screams 1991 with its video tie-in to Terminator 2: Arnold, sent from the future to kill the band, suffers a “decibel overload” at one of Guns N’ Roses’ notorious stadium shows and decides that assassinating the band (Axl, in particular, with whom he squares off at the end) would be a “waste of ammo”. A young fan at the time could link the band and the movie in the budding metalhead, John Connor, played by Eddie Furlong. GnR promised freedom — an angry, adolescent liberty, the fantasy of fending for yourself.
Still, the song’s monolithic grandeur continues to exhilarate; Guns N’ Roses were the last dinosaur-sized rock stars, embracing excess without complication and actually having the chops to back it up. Summer began with this song and ended with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which back then didn’t seem all that different: an angry hard rock anthem by a longhaired band. – Scott Branson
The KLF – “3 A.M. Eternal”
The Kopyright Liberation Front, a controversial British group fronted by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, were known for their DIY punk attitude and sampling music illegally. But unlike US hip-hop artists (who had to clear samples with copyright holders as a result of the significant Grand Upright v. Warner Brothers lawsuit in 1991), they got away with it. Drummond and Cauty followed their own musical ritual based on their book, The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), which resulted in “3 A.M. Eternal”.
This now classic song is composed of unlimited hooks ranging from KLF chants to sampled bleeps to Maxine Harvey’s delectable “3 A.M.” vocals, which are saturated with simulations of live crowds. KLF’s postmodern music blended genres like hip hop, soul, rock, and dance in ways that appealed to people regardless of age and musical tastes. It provided insight into other musical genres, especially as the UK rave scene was dying. The song invited the audience to sing its most insinuating lines — “KLF’s gonna rock ya” — which is why this track feels eternal. Along with the song, we recall KLF’s obsession with sheep and an incident involving the burning of £1,000,000, though does anyone else remember Ricardo Da Force’s “brick” cell phone? – Shara Rambarran
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