The 20 Most Memorable Songs of 1991

So much remarkable music was released in 1991 that it’s difficult to choose just 20 memorable songs without a few omissions.

Matthew Sweet – “Girlfriend”


There was little doubt that Matthew Sweet’s “Girlfriend” would’ve found an appreciative audience in the fall of 1991 — surely the same folks who picked up Bandwagonesque and Out of Time — thanks to Robert Quine’s undeniable guitar work and the full-throated shout-along chorus that sums up the feeling of every power-pop aficionado and sensitive teenage boy ever: “Cuz honey believe me / I’d sure love to call you my girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend”, though, also benefited from the heady post-Nirvana bonanza, having been released a scant month after Nevermind dropped, when nearly any catchy song with a loud guitar could be the Next Big Thing. The difference, of course, is that “Girlfriend”, compared to the pretenders from that era, deserves every accolade it has received. The title track from Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough third album about losing love and falling back into it with someone new, “Girlfriend” captured the rush of the latter feeling as well as any song ever has, before or since. Seriously.

And then there’s the music video. Sweet and “Girlfriend” video director Roman Coppola had the brilliant idea to compare the first flush of new love with the thrill of outer space adventure, intercutting footage of Sweet singing (and, of course, the headless body of Quine, who unspools “Girlfriend”‘s transcendent guitar solo), with clips from the early ’80s anime Space Adventure Cobra — which was, for many MTV viewers, their first exposure to Japanese animation.

Sweet rode the alt-rock boom to chart glory (#4 Modern Rock; #10 Mainstream Rock), but he was never quite able to duplicate that success, though the intervening 20 years have seen him release a slew of solidly enjoyable albums. Still, there are worse fates than being the guy who wrote the definitive power pop statement on girls. – Stephen Haag

Teenage Fanclub – “The Concept”


Famously, Spin magazine’s Album of the Year for 1991 went not to Nevermind but to Bandwagonesque, the third album from Scottish power-pop quartet Teenage Fanclub. Now, as then, the decision is not the egregious oversight it may seem, and “The Concept” is a prime example of why. Released barely a month after “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “The Concept” is songwriter Norman Blake’s ode to a girl who is simply portrayed with too much affection to be a groupie. Blake’s lyrics follow the timeworn tradition of painting a girl’s portrait by relaying her words in third person. “She won’t be forced against her will / Says she don’t do drugs, but she does the pill,” goes one of several unforgettable lines.

The affection comes in the form of Blake’s heartfelt “Oh yeah”s that punctuate each couplet. Musically, “The Concept” is like baroque slacker rock, harsh strumming giving way to crescendos and falling into a weeping coda that stretches the album version to six-plus minutes. Though not huge commercial hits, “The Concept” and Bandwagonesque nonetheless exerted a huge influence. Wilco would soon revisit self-aware power-pop, while the blistering guitar solos were certainly studied closely by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Still not convinced of “The Concept”‘s genius? Kurt Cobain himself was a big fan. – John Bergstrom

Temple of the Dog – “Hunger Strike”


“Hunger Strike” is chilling and unmistakable from the get-go. It lets out with Mike McCready’s tranquil electric guitar picking though a suspended chord. Chris Cornell delivers an initial line that is as enigmatic as it is unforgettable: “I don’t mind stealing bread from the mouths of decadence.” It’s an immortal lyric, part of a verse that’s just six lines of socialist poetry. A then-newfangled Eddie Vedder repeats it in his slow and low baritone, introducing what would become one of the decade’s most identifiable voices. In the duet, Vedder comes off assuring, while Cornell is burning.

As the song evolves, the contrast and distinction between the two voices widens. When they call-and-respond the declaration, “I’m going hungry,” Cornell’s high rasp is peaking and Vedder is building momentum on the low end. It is nothing less than haunting. “Hunger Strike” is paramount as a talent summit, with Chris putting his best foot forward as a lyricist and Eddie stepping out as a singer. While it’s all-too-relevant who the players were on “Hunger Strike”, the song itself has the legs to stand the test of time. – Kevin Curtin

U2 – “Mysterious Ways”


After unleashing “The Fly”– an ominous slab of lumbering dance-rock that was in essence a refutation and deconstruction of what U2 had represented during the 1980s — as the first single from its self-reinventing Achtung Baby, the Irish quartet then offered a shell-shocked public the more palatable “Mysterious Ways”, a tune that screams “monster hit” with every fiber of its being. Like “The Fly”, “Mysterious Ways” rejects the strident rockism of yore: bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. are allowed to shine for once as they lay down a sinewy and sexy groove, over which the Edge coats his exquisitely clipped funk riff.

Meanwhile, Bono sheds his pontificating activist persona to indulge his fleshly desires, baying the chorus with a heretofore unprecedented sensuality. The song’s apex is the bridge, where the music drops to the bottom-end depths and then ascends heavenward as Bono’s voice — light as air — imparts upon the song’s protagonist Johnny that “You could move on this movement / Follow this feeling.” While U2 has two decades later reverted back to stadium-rock-god form, “Mysterious Ways” will always be an infectious testament to the time when the band dared to dream up a dancefloor-filler that legitimately challenged pop regents Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince on their own musical territory. – A.J. Ramirez

U2 – “One”


From its distinctive opening riff to Bono’s plaintive whisper-to-wail vocals, “One” was a bridge between U2’s old style and the more experimental sound heard on Achtung Baby. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and, most significantly, in-fighting within the band about U2’s musical direction bore an impact on the song’s lyrics. Obviously, the quartet moved past their differences and in the 20 years since it was recorded, “One” remains irrevocably intertwined with the band’s legacy. Since, it has served as an anthem for numerous human rights campaigns with the band’s blessing.

When the song was first released in 1991, U2 donated proceeds from the single to AIDS research. It became identified with promoting education and tolerance towards those suffering from the disease. The ambiguous nature of “One”‘s lyrics lend themselves to so many scenarios on a wide scale. To one person, it can symbolize a lovers’ spat, while, to another, a man’s struggles with himself and his own ethical or religious beliefs. On a level pertaining to U2’s homeland, it could represent the ongoing civil war between Irish Catholics and Protestants. “One’s” haunting lyrics are so open-ended that they transcend time to offer personal meaning to those who hear it, decades after it was written. – Lana Cooper

This article was originally published on 2 October 2011.