Thirty Years On: 1991, Part I

The other day KEXP was celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of albums that had come out on 24 September 1991, particularly four albums that have become important classics of the alt-rock genre: Nirvana’s Nevermind, Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Pixies’ Trompe Le Monde, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

But there was SO much more than just hearing “Under the Bridge” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on extremely heavy rotation, as the modern ’80s, 90s and beyond’ iHeart playlists will lead you to believe. This wasn’t just the year punk “broke” (which even then I thought was a questionable boast), nor was it the year MTV decided that their 120 Minutes playlist would suddenly also be their regular daytime rotation. It was a year filled will burgeoning Britpop, electronica, college-rock inspired pop, and everything in between. And weirdly enough a ton of it had an extremely positive edge to it. As young Gen-Xers finally given the stage, we’d just entered the first year of the last decade of the last century of the current millennium. When the clock ticked over to 2000 (yes, yes, I know…stfu, no pedants allowed on WIS), we thought and hoped everything shitty and broken in our lives to date would have been fixed by then. We were hoping beyond hope that several painful years of destructive Thatcherism and Reaganism and the Gulf War Live On TV would wilt away and we’d finally get our own and make things better. [It of course didn’t exactly work out that way despite our best efforts, but for a while I’d like to think we had a good thing going.] And our music definitely mirrored that, especially in the early nineties.

Let’s see, where was I in 1991? In college! Finishing up my sophomore year at Emerson with a new circle of friends, getting ever so slightly better grades, still holding onto a shaky long-term/long-distance relationship and already planning not to return back to my hometown for another summer. I was going to stick around in Beantown one way or another. I was consistently broke af and I probably wasn’t in the most stable of emotional places at the time, mind you, but I was bound and determined to get out of that particular rut one way or another. I signed up to work the summer at the college library and rented out a huge dorm room from Fisher College down the block. By the time junior year started, I moved in with a friend on Beacon Street and stayed there until August of 1992.

So kick back, kids, this one’s gonna be a long one! [I should probably create a Spotify playlist as well, come to think of it…]

The Judybats, Native Son, released 16 January 1991. Perky, quirky and catchy as hell. This was always a fun band to hear on WFNX, back before they leaned so heavily on grunge later that year. This is a very early 90s sound that was everywhere then: kind of inspired by REM’s poppier side, lighthearted and extremely melodic.

Pop Will Eat Itself, The Pop Will Eat Itself Cure for Sanity, released 22 January 1991. The Poppies pull back considerably on their noisy ‘grebo’ sound this time out and entertain us with club grooves. The samples are still there, but they’re more intertwined in the melodies rather than just blasting out of nowhere.

Jesus Jones, Doubt, released 29 January 1991. “Right Here Right Now” might be played to death and is most definitely a product of its time, but Doubt really is a fantastic banger of a record from start to finish. It’s relentlessly groovy and beat-heavy and translates well both on the radio and on the dance floor. It also sounds amazing in headphones, considering they were masters at highly creative sampling and sound production.

Material Issue, International Pop Overthrow, release 5 February 1991. Another classic album of its time that takes a page from the Replacements with its mix of jangly and wobbly pop and punk. This could have easily been released a good few years earlier or a decade later and fit in nicely with other current sounds.

Throwing Muses, The Real Ramona, released 18 February 1991. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Muses. They could slide between awkward and hard-to-grasp tunes and gorgeously pop melodies — sometimes within the same song — and they were also sort-of local, which was always a plus for me. [Boston’s music scene in the 80s and 90s was flipping AMAZING and I really should give it its own blog entry soon.] “Counting Backwards” remains one of my favorites of theirs.

The Charlatans UK, Over Rising EP, released 25 February 1991. After their lovely, psychedelic debut album Some Friendly, the Charlatans chose to prove that they weren’t just a flash in the pan Madchester group. This EP might capture some more of that signature sound, but it also hints at a darker and heavier sound they’d capture the next year on their sophomore album.

The KLF, The White Room, released 4 March 1991. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing “3AM Eternal” somewhere on someone’s radio, in the club or in the car. The duo’s musical and political shenanigans never really translated to the US, but this song and album did make a significant dent in the psyche of kids just entering their 20s. Its production is freakishly trebly — the bloop-bleeps, synth stings and PP Arnold’s blistering vocals are all pushed into the red — but that’s how the clubs loved it.

Too Much Joy, Cereal Killers, released 12 March 1991. The TMJ boys were firmly entrenched in that ‘goofy punk’ style that had been a staple of college radio for most of the 80s, but thanks to a major label deal with Giant, for a few years they were able to sneak onto alt-rock radio with some super catchy and fun tunes like “Crush Story.” Later that summer I was able to see them live at the Hatch Shell!

REM, Out of Time, released 12 March 1991. After a super-long tour supporting 1988’s Green — their first major-label record — they followed up with an extremely glossy album that on one hand turned off more than a few IRS-era fans but on the other hand shot them straight into the stratosphere, all without a tour to promote it. Somehow a gloomy mid-tempo song with a strange southernism as its title ended up becoming their hugest hit to date…and still gets radio play to this day.

The Godfathers, Unreal World, released 12 March 1991. The last album of theirs to be released by Sony in the US, this album may not have gotten much airplay or promotion, but it was one of my favorites of that year and it got a ton of play on my Walkman. It’s not as angry as Birth School Work Death or as Johnny-Cash-bluesy as More Songs About Love and Hate; instead it leans more towards garage band psychedelia (including a powerful and badass cover of The Creation’s “How Does It Feel to Feel”) and it’s strong from start to finish.

Slint, Spiderland, released 27 March 1991. Considered one of the first important albums of the post-rock genre, this record was a hell of a headscratcher for some of us that had never heard this type of sound before, but those of us hanging out in the record stores and building up our college radio station’s library, it quickly became a staple. I used to play “Good Morning, Captain” some days during my WECB run because it was just so weird yet amazing.

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More to come soon!