The Bay Area is finally getting some precipitation! It’s kind of making me nervous about some of our plans over the next couple of weeks, but I can’t really complain all that much considering that it’s been very DRY these last few years. I remember when we first moved out here the winter months were always wet — when we moved out of our old place in October of 2009 the ground floor had suffered a bit of flooding from bad drainage — but after a few years it lessened. Here’s to hoping that we can turn that around in the future, yeah?
After all that fun with 1991, it’s time to return back to the present! Here’s some tunage that’s been on my radar since last month.
Radiohead, “If You Say the Word” single, released 3 September. One of the unreleased tracks for the upcoming KID A MNESIAC set due in November. To be honest I kind of like this one better than some of the tracks that made it to the two releases, but I’m not complaining.
Motorists, Surrounded, released 3 September. Kind of nerdy and goofy in that mid-90s slacker sort of way, but super enjoyable! They remind me a bit of Parquet Courts with their wonky-clunky melodies and Television-like vocal delivery.
Amyl & the Sniffers, Comfort to Me, released 10 September. Definitely in that Courtney Barnett pothead-punk type of sound but I love that they completely embrace that style and run with it. Props for having a great name that would make the 70s punk scene proud.
Andrew WK, God Is Partying, released 10 September. Andrew fully embraces…death metal? Didn’t see that coming at all, but hey, I rarely expect anything less than something bizarre and possibly somewhat destructive whenever he’s involved. It’s definitely a weird album even by his standards, but he pulls it off!
Low, HEY WHAT, released 10 September. Following up from their previous record, they once again add overmodulated distortion to their classic slowcore sound. It does take some getting used to, but it does work well with their style.
Saint Etienne, I’ve Been Trying to Tell You, released 10 September. It’s wild that I’ve been a fan since 1992’s Foxbase Alpha, and they’ve gone through so many different song styles between then and now, and yet they still come up with something new. This particular record leans heavily on meandering mostly-instrumental electronica that’s both relaxing and intriguing.
Sneaker Pimps, Squaring the Circle, released 10 September. This was definitely a “wait–when did they release this???” album that very nearly escaped my notice until I happened to hear KEXP playing one of its tracks one morning. This one may not have the 90’s triphop or the 00’s twitchiness of previous albums, but it’s just as dark and unsettling.
Sleigh Bells, Texis, released 10 September. I do loves me some Sleigh Bells, because they’re such a fun band to listen to with the volume pumped up! Guitar crunch so processed it’s crackling, perky vocals hiding darker images, and super catchy melodies.
José González, Local Valley, released 17 September. “El Invento” is such a lovely acoustic track that it completely sold me on checking out the rest of José’s album, and it most definitely delivers. He’s an amazing guitarist and a wonderful songwriter. Highly recommended!!
Public Service Broadcasting, Bright Magic, released 24 September. This time out PSB turns towards retro-disco and classical, and the end result is surprisingly entertaining and fascinating. It almost sounds like they’ve channeled Air on this album, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
Film School, We Weren’t Here, released 24 September. This is a band I never quite get around to collecting and I’m not sure why. They’re a California shoegaze band heavily leaning towards early Ride; sometimes dreamy and light and other times loud and powerful, but always interesting.
This was definitely a laid-back start to a fourth quarter, but then again, a lot of music this past year and a half has definitely been recorded piecemeal at separate home studios, incomplete due to temporary studio closures, and any other Covid-related reason. But I’m also starting to see a lot of releases — many singles and EPs at that — where things are slowly but surely returning to normal for musicians. Either way, glad to hear it all!
Taking today and tomorrow off from blogging to catch up on some work. See you next week!
It really is mindblowing to see just how many amazing records dropped in 1991…so many that either changed the face of rock or just made such a huge impact that they remain important albums to this day. And unlike most fourth-quarter releases, they didn’t just peter out into greatest hits and box sets (although there were many, just like always). We were served amazing records all the way until the very last day of the year!
While I lived off-campus and I still had a habit of sticking around at home, that didn’t mean I was that much of an introvert. I continued to hang out with a number of my friends from the latter half of sophomore year, most of whom were now living up the street at the dormitory on Arlington. After an exceedingly frustrating and confidence-shattering conversation with my student advisor (who, when I said I needed more hands-on filmmaking experience instead of just this continuing sludge of theory and history classes, said “well maybe you should have signed up for art school instead”), I decided that maybe filmmaking wasn’t my strength, but writing certainly was, and proceeded to fill the rest of my mass comm points with script classes. Best education decision I ever made, as that’s pretty much where I decided that writing would become a long-game career for me. And in the meantime, my radio was firmly stuck on 101.7 (WFNX) where I’d be constantly on the lookout for new releases.
So! Off we go with the last of 1991’s amazing run!
Chapterhouse, Mesmerise EP, released 1 October 1991. Just a few brief months after their amazing debut album, they squeaked out a four-track EP of great tunes including the lovely laid-back “Mesmerise”.
Lush, Black Spring EP, released 7 October 1991. After a number of mini-albums and a few singles, Lush returned late in the year with this EP as a teaser for their upcoming 1992 album Spooky. “Nothing Natural” is one of those great songs that really shows the band’s strengths, and yes, I do love that jangly breakdown near the end.
Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger, released 8 October 1991. I actually new of them from my freshman year roommate, but this was the record that first pushed them into the large spotlight, their second for major label A&M. They’d grown beyond the sludgy psychedelia of their early records and embraced a much harder metal sound. A lot of my college friends loved this record.
Erasure, Chorus, released 14 October 1991. This band just continues to be so much fun after all these years. “Chorus” got a lot of heavy rotation on my walkman, as did “Love to Hate You” from the same record. I loved that this wasn’t just a full-on dance record but a super smart one as well, in a year that had a lot of, well, terrible dance singles.
The Shamen, En-Tact, released 22 October 1991. This was the album a few of my friends used to listen to before they headed over to Landsdowne Street for club night. The band had gone full-on rave act by this time (though still hanging onto their psych-rock origins) and “Move Any Mountain” was a staple both at the clubs and on the radio. It blows my mind how many big-name producers are on this one: William Orbit, Paul Oakenfold, Steve Osbourne, Evil Eddie Richards, Irresistible Force, and Beatmasters, just to name a few.
Wir, The First Letter, released 22 October 1991. With their shift to samplers and drum machines, longtime Wire drummer Robert Grey left the band, and taking the “e” with him. This record tends to be widely ignored even by the band, but it’s one of my favorites of theirs. They retain their signature ‘angular’ sound with twitchy tracks like “Stop!” and “A Bargain at 3 and 20 Yeah!” but they also veer into heady electronica territory with the midtempo “So and Slow It Grows”, “Footsi-Footsi” (my favorite track) and “No Cows On the Ice”. I’ll still play this record every now and again.
Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend, released 22 October 1991. After two albums favored by critics but completely ignored by so many others, Sweet hit the big time with a bright and jangly album that dispensed with the quiet moodiness and went full-on guitar rock (thanks to Robert Quine and Television’s Richard Lloyd). Catchy as hell and unrestrained, this is an amazing and super fun record to have in your collection.
Del The Funky Homosapien, I Wish My Brother George Was Here, released 22 October 1991. This was another record my friends would listen to, simply because Del’s mixes were just so odd yet enjoyable. “Mistadobalina” was one of those easy crossover hits that would get play not just on the pop stations in Boston, but the rock stations picked it up too.
My Bloody Valentine, Loveless, released 4 November 1991. The record that nearly bankrupted its label, and the record that lay the groundwork for noise rock, modern shoegaze, and pretty much every other similar alt-rock subgenre. I remember my first reaction to this record was “I have no friggin’ idea what I’m listening to, but damn…” It just went in so many unexpected directions where it should not have worked at all, and yet it did. It really was that groundbreaking.
U2, Achtung Baby, released 19 November 1991. I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t own this record on day one. Pretty much everyone I knew was a U2 fan to some degree, and after the amazing Joshua Tree and the not-so-amazing Rattle and Hum, no one was sure what to expect. And it is a great album! Only one or two filler songs near the end, but for the most part this a solid record that set them off in a totally different direction and to even higher popularity. Moving past their folk and punk origins and influences and fully embracing the future was certainly a winning move.
Teenage Fanclub, Bandwagonesque, released 19 November 1991. The album known as the one Spin magazine voted as the best of the year over Nevermind, it’s very much one of those indie-stoner type of records that bands like Pavement would perfect just a few years later.
Talk Talk, Laughing Stock, released 19 November 1991. This UK band bowed out with such a strange yet stunning record that sounded nothing like their first few. It’s less a pop record than it is a jazz record, meandering and swirling and never quite picking up steam, but that’s its beauty: it’s a record so out of place it created its own.
Various Artists, I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, released 26 November 1991. Cohen has always been one of those amazing songwriters that’s either been lauded or been the butt of jokes (see The Young Ones), but he’s written so many superb folk and pop songs that are still covered today. This particular mix is of note due to its several alt-rock covers, and the amazing thing is that each band owns the song. “I Can’t Forget” sounds like the Pixies wrote it. “First We Take Manhattan” sounds like REM wrote it. That’s how influential Cohen could be.
Various Artists, Until the End of the World soundtrack, released 10 December 1991. I will always suggest this record to anyone looking for interesting soundtracks to listen to, and I will also suggest they watch the movie as well, as it is still one of my all-time favorites. (And yes, I have indeed sat through the Criterion 5-hour version.) Wim Wenders asked bands to write songs they thought they’d be writing in 1999, when the movie takes place, and each song works perfectly.
The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Where’d You Go? EP, released 12 December 1991. This single dropped a few months before their second album More Noise and Other Disturbances, but “Where’d You Go?” hit the Boston airwaves and became one of their signature songs years before “The Impression That I Get”. This particular EP is well worth looking for partly for the lead song, but also for its hilarious Aerosmith, Van Halen and Metallica covers as well! The Bosstones were another local band that everyone loved, and pretty much every college kid went to see once or twice. And they’re still going strong!
Live, Mental Jewelry, released 31 December 1991. Sneaking onto the airwaves on the last day of the year, Ed Kowalczyk and his school friends released a sometimes overly earnest (and sometimes preachy) but amazingly strong album that set them on a long career of great rock tunes. We’d see them reemerge a few years later with the even stronger worldwide smash Throwing Copper.
…WHEW. Yeah, that was a hell of a year, wasn’t it? I mean, most years just have maybe about a dozen or so bangers or groundbreaking records that stand the test of time, but 1991 really did have a bumper crop of albums that completely changed the face and sound of rock, didn’t it? Alternative rock may have been making major chart inroads by at least 1986 or 1987, and by 1989 we were seeing even more breakthroughs. If anything, I think 1991 wasn’t when the genre ‘broke’ but when the dregs of the outdated and increasingly embarrassing 80s rock styles finally faded away into the background and cleared the way for the 90s to fully embrace it with a clear conscience.
Would there be other years as groundbreaking as this? Certainly! They seem to pop up every five to six years: once a few years into a new decade and another coming close to the end, lining up quite nicely with the bigger changes going on in the world. This is why I always talk about my “2-8” music theory (great records always drop in or close to years ending in 2 and 8). But 1991 will always be seen as alternative rock’s initial break from semi-obscurity into chart and radio success.
September 1991 was when I moved in with L to a loft apartment on Beacon Street, just up the way from the Emerson campus. It was a surprisingly roomy place with a high ceiling so the loft itself wasn’t a stuffy narrow crawlspace. I really loved living there, even if L was the next-worst roomie in terms of cleanliness (that would be M, my good friend and sophomore year roomie, and he’d be the first to admit that). It was on the third floor and faced south, so we didn’t get the noisy street sounds but did get a view of the Prudential and Hancock towers. I still used the school cafeteria so I didn’t have to worry too much about food, though I was still barely scraping by moneywise, between the rent and other things. And despite having to deal with some of my worst personal and emotional problems around then, I also had some absolutely fantastic times there as well. Oh, and we shared a pet ball python that we named Kipling!
Onto September, which was absolutely bloating with great new releases! Which, y’know, fourth quarter and the kids coming back to school and all, just waiting to be an epic release month. No wonder I was always broke!
Slowdive, Just for a Day, released 2 September 1991. A favorite of many shoegaze fans, Slowdive’s debut record introduced many to the quieter and dreamier side of the genre, clearly inspired from similar mid-80s post-punk atmospherics like Cocteau Twins.
Trip Shakespeare, Lulu, released 3 September 1991. Years before Dan Wilson introduced us to his wonderful songcraft with Semisonic and the near-ubiquitous “Closing Time”, his previous band was a critic and cult favorite with their special brand of super fun pop and folk.
Tribe, Abort, released 10 September 1991. Tribe was the Boston band everyone loved. They wrote amazing songs you danced and sang along to, their shows were extremely popular and exciting, and Janet LaValley was voted best local singer of the year in the Boston Phoenix multiple times. I originally had this one on tape and I don’t think I’ve ever stopped listening to it since.
The Ocean Blue, Cerulean, released 10 September 1991. They may not have had nearly as much popularity as most alternative rock bands, but they wrote such sweet and lovely songs that they were hard to forget. “Ballerina Out of Control” still gets airplay now and again!
Billy Bragg, Don’t Try This at Home, released 17 September 1991. This isn’t Bragg’s first record with a full band, but it was one that broke him onto the commercial alt-rock scene and featured a who’s-who of famous musicians like Kirsty MacColl, Peter Buck, Michael Stipe and Johnny Marr. “Sexuality” was a bold song to release back then, but I distinctly remember many of my LGBT+ friends loving the song because it was so positive.
The Golden Palominos, Drunk with Passion, released 17 September 1991. This was a band I’d always wanted to get into but could never find until this record. Its cover by 23 Envelope’s Vaughan Oliver hinted at its dreamlike 4AD-esque sound (which sadly had gone straight over the heads of many critics who were bored by the record), and it’s one that demands constant attention. It’s a record you happily get lost inside. I’d gotten a copy of this from a friend and ended up buying the cassette, which nearly wore out from so many plays. It’s still one of my top favorite records of that year.
Guns ‘n Roses, Use Your Illusion I and II, released 17 September 1991. Sure, you could easily make fun of GnR and their ridiculously over the top epic videos that felt like they were three hours long and cost millions. You could say they’d fallen deep into their own navels (and lost a few original members along the way) by releasing what is essentially a way-overlong double album, but in truth, there’s a lot of great stuff here too. They certainly proved they weren’t just a cheesy late 80s hair metal band on this twin release.
Primal Scream, Screamadelica, released 23 September 1991. This is such a brilliant record because it has so many different styles and parts to it that fit so seamlessly as a whole. It’s got the mood and feel of cheerful mid-60s British pop, the weirdness of psychedelia, the blissful grooves of 90s house, and it was the perfect soundtrack for the GenX club scene thanks to the brilliant production of Andrew Weatherall. It’s so relentlessly uplifting it became my go-to whenever I needed to listen to something positive.
Pixies, Trompe Le Monde, released 23 September 1991. Their (then) last album seemed to be a mix of Doolittle‘s angular weirdness and Bossanova‘s catchiness but with a gloss they could finally afford, and even if they did have somewhat of a bitter breakup at the time, it was a hell of a great way to go. I of course had a particular love for “UMass”, dedicated to a college just a short distance away from my hometown.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, released 24 September 1991. I tend to prefer their previous album Mother’s Milk, which had been their almost-breakthrough record, but this one shot them into the stratosphere. I have a particular love for “Breaking the Girl”, which had a video but alas never really got all that much airplay.
Blur, Leisure (US version), released 24 September 1991. One of the bands that would become the face of Britpop, they were such a wonderful, fun and strange band from the start and wrote so many memorable songs and melodies. Just out of college, these four boys brought such a refreshing and distinctively British blend to alternative rock. Still one of my top favorite 90s bands.
Nirvana, Nevermind, released 24 September 1991. I’ll admit I’ve never been the biggest Nirvana fan (I had a grudge against them for for stealing the riff of “Come As You Are” from Killing Joke, for a start), but I’ll admit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is indeed one of the best GenX anthems out there. It was one of the first songs that hit so many of us square in the gut and had us responding with “yeah, that’s us.”
MC 900 Ft Jesus, Welcome to My Dream, released 24 September 1991. Who knew an army brat from Kentucky would become one of the strangest obscure hip-hop musicians of the 90s? And more to the point, who knew his biggest hit would be a super catchy (and creepy) rhyme about a serial arsonist? “The City Sleeps” is one of those songs you don’t hear all that often but when you do, you’re blown away by just how groovy and spooky it really is.
Swervedriver, Raise, released 30 September 1991. On the other end of the shoegaze spectrum was the visceral noise attack from walls of effects-laden guitars and soaring drones, with often-dreamlike lyrics on top. Swervedriver came from the My Bloody Valentine mold, never quite hitting any heights in the US but getting some decent alt-rock station airplay with the excellent “Rave Down”.
Just a few more months to go! Stay tuned!
Summer 1991 was a change season for me. Here I was, on the top floor of a Fisher College dorm overlooking the Charles River. I set up my typewriter at one of the desks, borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar, and set my TV on top of one of the bureaus. I worked full-time at Emerson’s Media Center in the always-cool basement of the library up the street. [This, of course, was back when the school’s campus still centered around the intersection of Berkeley and Beacon Streets. They’d sell all those properties by decade’s end.] I was dead broke and hungry most of the time, but I somehow managed. I spent most of my free time listening to music, watching the evening news, writing new songs, and watching the free movies and concerts at the Hatch Shell. I did a lot of deep thinking, chased away some old demons and let myself embrace a few things I’d been avoiding. I was still far from perfect emotionally or mentally, but I was getting there.
ANYWAY. On with the music! There’s a LOT of it, all within the span of three months!
Siouxsie & the Banshees, Superstition, released 10 June 1991. I was a huge fan of 1988’s Peepshow and this was a great follow-up; they’d grown out of their post-punk sound and had fully embraced more radio-friendly alt-rock by this point.
Seal, Seal, released 11 June 1991. I absolutely love “Crazy”. It’s an amazing song, up in the top five of my favorite songs of all time. His first record focuses a bit more on the British dance scene than the soul he’d lean towards just a few years later, partly due to it being helmed by Trevor Horn (whose production albums often end up being “a TH record featuring the band”), but it was a fantastic debut for a long and incredible career.
Big Audio Dynamite II, The Globe, released 16 June 1991. BAD has always been kind of an odd band with a revolving membership, and its second iteration featured none other than an ex-Sigue Sigue Sputnik drummer! (This isn’t as odd as it sounds; Mick Jones is a close friend of SSS mastermind Tony James.) “Rush” and “The Globe” get most of the airplay nowadays, but nearly every song on this album is great.
Raindogs, Border Drive-In Theatre, released 25 June 1991. This Boston band never quite got the push it needed even though they were known to put on a blistering live show with a raucous Celtic feel to it. “Dance of the Freaks” got some significant airplay on WFNX at the time and I’ve always liked it.
Chapterhouse, Whirlpool, released 25 June 1991. This is probably the album where I really started leaning heavily on Britpop, and one I equate most with the signature sound. A dreamlike groove that mixes both the indie 4AD reverb echo and the beats of Madchester. Their sound was less about partying at the Hacienda and more about kicking back and letting your mind wander.
Sarah McLachlan, Solace, released 29 June 1991. Before she hit the big time with “Possession” and Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (and a lot bigger a few years later with “Angel” and Surfacing), Sarah came out with a strange yet alluring second album that went all sorts of interesting places.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, God Fodder, released 2 July 1991. Two bassists in the band? Sure, why not? Ned’s was your classic weirdo British band that refused to fit into any set format. They weren’t grunge, but they weren’t Britpop either. They were just noisy and jumpy as hell and a hell of a lot of fun. Definitely worth checking out their other albums!
Crowded House, Woodface, released 2 July 1991. Originally created to be a record featuring Neil and Tim Finn, it ended up being their third record and broke them into the mainstream. Because of this there’s definitely a shade of wackiness and quirkiness that their previous band Split Enz was known for. It also contains some of CH’s beset songs as well, including the lovely “Weather with You”.
The Psychedelic Furs, World Outside, released 30 July 1991. The (then) last Psychedelic Furs record of their original run, This one tended to be forgotten due to its lack of promotion but I think contains some of their most mature songs. “There’s a World” remains one of my favorite songs of theirs.
The Orb, The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, released 1 August 1991. I remember hearing “Little Fluffy Clouds” on the techno show on WFNX well before it achieve renewed fame in a 1998 VW Beetle commercial (and also referenced in a scene in the comic The Invisibles) and this record was always spoken of with glowing reviews and late night plays.
The Wolfgang Press, Queer, released 5 August 1991 (UK). I actually didn’t pick this up until some months later when it was released in the US with a slightly changed track listing, but it remains one of my favorite records of the early 90s. TWP was known as a kind of weird band even by 4AD standards (one of its members was actually in Rema-Rema, one of the first signed to the label back in 1980) but by the latter half of their career they became more melodic and introspective. Queer does retain a bit of their weirdness, but it’s also catchy as hell. Highly recommended.
PM Dawn, Of the Heart, of the Soul, and of the Cross: The Utopian Experience, released 6 August 1991. This record was totally not in the same kind of genre I was listening to at the time, but “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss” was inescapable (even WFNX played it!) and I grew to love it.
Toad the Wet Sprocket, Fear, released 27 August 1991. This record got a lot of play on my Walkman at the time, as I really loved “Walk on the Ocean” at the time. I’ve always been a fan of the band since the Bread and Circus days and this breakthrough album is extremely enjoyable.
Pearl Jam, Ten, released 27 August 1991. I’ll admit I preferred Pearl Jam over Nirvana (who I thought were good but derivative), Alice in Chains (who felt like metal-lite) and Soundgarden (who were great but impenetrable at times). [Note: I grew to love each one of those bands anyway as the decade wore on.] PJ had that perfect blend of great melody and smart songcraft and weren’t showing off or trying to prove a point. They felt like the Beatles of grunge to me — doing their own thing and being freakishly brilliant at it. They still remain an “I will buy every album they put out” band on my list, and last year’s Gigaton proves they still have it, so many years later.
Daaang. That was one hell of an amazing summer of music. But wait! There’s more to come!