Prince – “Gett Off”
If, as a freaky infant, rock ‘n’ roll was my religion, then the Pint-Sized Prancing Purple Pervert of Pop was most certainly the Pope. Paisley Park was our Vatican and the Revolution our funky Bishops. But in 1991, R.E.M. weren’t the only ones losing their religion. With Graffiti Bridge, the album and the, ahem, “film”, Prince had shockingly exposed himself. Not in that way (surprisingly), but exposed himself as — gasp — a mere mortal! It was a tad disheartening, akin to discovering the fearsome Wizard of Oz was just some lil’ old dude messin’ about behind a curtain.
Well, hurrah, indeed then for “Gett Off” and the other baubles and trinkets of the Diamonds & Pearls era! OK, it would prove to be the last time his Holiness could conjure magic for the masses and still convince us he was the (cough) Second Coming, but, dammit, if he was goin’ down, he was gonna go with an almighty bang and a salacious smirk. Flanked by two fresh playmates, “Gett Off” literally came out of nowhere, dripping with funk, filth n’ frivolity, and bursting with orgiastic screams, flutes and threats of “23 positions in a one-night stand.” Hallelujah! Our Saviour rises again! – Matt James
Public Enemy and Anthrax – “Bring the Noise”
I was recently listening to Public Enemy‘s Apocalypse ’91… The Enemy Strikes Black, and puzzling over how I could have loved such an “angry”, black album during my ignorantly happy, white youth. After all, its lyrical content damns America more thoroughly than a Fox News super-cut of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s juiciest sound bites. At the end of the album, though, is the collaboration with Anthrax, “Bring the Noise”. The song answers my questions, or at least drowns them out.
Before rap metal was a thing, the collaboration seemed revolutionary. Yet it sounded natural, as if it were meant to be. So monolithic is the ensuing wall of noise that one might wonder where the Bomb Squad ends and Anthrax begins, and it provides the perfect backdrop for Chuck D’s aggressive cadence. The only real surprise to “Bring the Noise” was that Scott Ian could rap. Otherwise, it made sense, and continues to serve as a tidy demonstration of what was so appealing about Public Enemy and Anthrax, hip hop and thrash metal. Disparate styles stomped on the common ground of swagger. – Lex Robertson
R.E.M. – “Losing My Religion”
R.E.M. set the tone for the rest of 1991 with the February release of “Losing My Religion”, the first cut off Out of Time. The bouncy, mandolin-infused single served as the catalyst for R.E.M.’s transformation from indie and college favorite to arguably the most popular rock band in the world. As songs go, “Losing My Religion” was a good, accessible tune by a solid band about to hit a streak of platinum sales, stadium tours, and worldwide notoriety. The breakout success of Out of Time proved all those college radio fans were right in worshipping Michael Stipe and the boys from Athens, Georgia.
What cemented “Losing My Religion” in popular culture and propelled R.E.M. to the stratosphere, though, was its video, which received heavy rotation on MTV. A four-and-a-half minute display of shadows, muted earth tones, fanciful symbolism, and Stipe’s piercing looks and voice, “Losing My Religion” made R.E.M. the first of many “alternative” groups to break big via MTV, leading to multiple Grammy Awards and MTV video awards. Although currently a little dated (and isn’t it wild to see Stipe with hair in the video?), “Losing My Religion” is the kind of song you may not yearn to hear, but will rarely turn it off if it comes on the radio. R.E.M.’s biggest hit still uplifts the spirit, particularly for a generation of (aging) listeners who grew up in the early 1990s. – Bob Batchelor
Red Hot Chili Peppers – “Give It Away”
There are few songs in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ repertoire that have turned out to be as canonical for them as “Give It Away”. It seems unbelievable now, but at the time Warner Brothers execs were turned away by radio programmers when offering the gem as the first single off of the band’s masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magik for lacking a melody. No matter. If you just looped Flea’s most classic bassline (second only, perhaps, to his contribution to Young MC’s “Bust A Move”) for ten minutes, it probably would have become a hit. When you add in Anthony Kiedis’ raps about Bob Marley being a poet and a prophet, John Frusciante’s backwards guitar solo, and Chad Smith’s chest-pounding snare-hits — the song was unstoppable.
By mixing lines about the dangers of greed with less-than-subtle innuendo, it even managed to make being generous sound sexy. Its ultimate message of selflessness seemed to kill the 1980s era of excess with kindness, while helping us see that there had “never been a better time than right now.” At a time when most of us are concerned with money struggles, the song’s message is as valuable today. Plus, it still totally jams. – Joe Medina
Siouxsie and the Banshees – “Kiss Them for Me”
1991: The year post-punk broke, courtesy of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ eerie erotic wonder (and modern rock chart-topping) “Kiss Them for Me”. First listen reveals an alluring day-glo surface and a perverse left-turn for the band that virtually invented goth miserabilism as a viable aesthetic strategy. At a moment in pop music history when studied evocations of morbid angst were earning lesser talents platinum records, Siouxsie Sioux fully embraced the slinky pop moves she and her pretty-boy bandmates had been flirting with for the decade leading up to their 1991 album, Superstition. But Siouxsie Sioux had always evinced an appreciation for glam affectations, mixing a Roxy Music-style talent for theatrical pomp with the shrieking, atonal menace of the early Banshee records, and “Kiss Them for Me” stands as Siouxsie’s most ecstatic celebration of her inner Bryan Ferry.
Still, all is not swooning splendor, as the song chronicles a Jayne Mansfield-inspired tale: With a title from a mediocre 1958 Cary Grant-Jayne Mansfield movie, it’s about the allure of glamour (“It’s divoon, oh it’s serene / In the fountains pink champagne”) and the inevitability of death (“On the road to New Orleans / A spray of stars hit the screen”). What we in fact have is a sexy, glittering memento mori. How very Siouxsie, just like the way she leaps into the chorus with an exuberant kewpie-doll voice that’s half steamy come-on and all lethal put-on. It was a new twist on the sexy-hostile-mocking phrasing that had always been Siouxsie’s great trick as a singer, and which influenced everyone from PJ Harvey to Karen O to too-few-others. In this fallen world overrun by pre-sexual twee indie sprites — hi Zooey! — and bored-unto-boring pop doyennes, Siouxsie’s delicious, joyous sex-death goddess act retains its purifying force. – Paul Anthony Johnson