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.