I mentioned a few weeks back on my Twitter feed that I’d finally found a song that had been eluding me for nigh on THIRTY years. This is by far the oldest and most elusive song I’ve been looking for to add to my collection, and now it has pride of place in my mp3 library.
What is this song, you ask? Well, after the band’s self-titled second album that dropped in the summer of 1989 (which featured the great underrated single “Accidentally 4th Street (Gloria)” and a fun cover of BTO’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”), they recorded a track that sounded quite different from their usual poppier style: darker, moodier and heavier.
“Evil” seems to be about An American Werewolf in London from the werewolf’s point of view, though it’s never quite made clear, other than passing references and a “waah-hoooo yeah” near the end hinting at the ubiquitous Warren Zevon song. It also samples a few lines of dialogue from Hitchcock’s The Birds which, per vocalist Anthony Kaczynski in a brief email chat I had with him back in the mid 90s (!!) was the reason it was never commercially released as they could not get the clearance.
I’d only heard this song on WFNX, its demo delivered personally by the band to the Boston area alternative rock station, and I never had the chance to tape it when it came on. I’d also heard it once live when they played for free at the Hatch Shell in the summer of 1991 as a double bill with The JudyBats. (Kaczynski was shocked that I remembered that show when I mentioned it to him.) Other than that, it showed up once as a track on a cassette-only “unsigned bands” promo. I distinctly remember seeing it once at Nuggets in Kenmore Square and stupidly never picked it up.
…and for thirty years, I looked everywhere for it. On Discogs, where that promo tape was for sale at a ridiculous price. On YouTube, where no one had posted it. On questionable mp3 download sites, none of which had it. Every now and again I’d do a passive sweep, never expecting to hear it again.
Until a few weeks ago, when I found that someone named Dave Stawecki had ‘remastered’ it with the band’s permission back in 2021. I played the video, and the memories came flooding back: listening to it in early 1991 while at Emerson, living in the Charlesgate dorm and trying in vain to record it and missing it every single time. Sitting on the grass on the Charles River Esplanade, handheld cassette recorder in hand in an attempt to get a live recording. Going to a few record conventions and none of the vendors knowing anything about it.
And now, thanks to a quick visit to a site that rips audio from video into mp3, I now have it in my music library, where I can hear it any time I want.
I still have a list of songs and albums that have eluded me over the years, but I have to say this one was high on that list and I still can’t believe it took me three decades to locate it. That’s one song to finally cross off my bucket list!
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”.
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!
This one’s a long one, kids, even if it is just two months’ worth of music! We’re rolling off right to the end of my sophomore year and already things are changing. I think around this time I’d finally trunked my Infamous War Novel (for the time being, anyway) and started playing around with different story ideas. I’d written a short fun script for a film class, I’d shot the first of a few 8mm films (all of them terrible, btw) and a bizarre home video with a few of my dorm friends (probably my best work at the time, btw), and I’d gotten so much better at guitar and bass playing. And somewhere between all this, I had this crazy little idea about writing a Gen-X novel entitled Two Thousand. Things were indeed changing. Maybe for the better…?
Lenny Kravitz, Mama Said, released 2 April 1991. I remember buying this cassette at Planet Records in Kenmore Square on spec — I’d heard maybe two songs off it — and I was absolutely blown away by how brilliant it was. While his debut Let Love Rule leaned more on the funk and hippie rock, he decided to go full-out Flower Child on this second record. The funk was still there, but the psychedelia was a lot more up front. It’s still my favorite of all his records.
Massive Attack, Blue Lines, released 8 April 1991. When “Unfinished Sympathy” hit the alternative airwaves early that summer, the resounding response was whoa, what is this?? Most people I knew equated techno and electronica with clubs and hi-NRG dance beats, but they’d never heard this kind: moody and atmospheric with much darker tones and lyrics…yet still irresistibly danceable. The Bristol UK trip-hop scene had arrived. [Also, this video was indeed the one that inspired one for the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”.]
The Crash Test Dummies, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, released 9 April 1991. A few years before their unexpected hit with “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”, these Canadians dropped a curiously odd yet heartfelt album of sad folk and clever humor, and had a minor hit with “Superman’s Song”. It’s a lovely record that often gets forgotten.
School of Fish, School of Fish, released 9 April 1991. “3 Strange Days” ended up being the theme song of my first summer away from my hometown. The semester was over, the summer months had begun, and I knew almost no one in town. My college friends had all gone home, and considering this was pre-internet, it wasn’t as if I could chat with anyone else without incurring a ridiculously high phone bill. Strange days indeed, but it also gave me a lot of time to get my shit together. This album, of course, was one of my soundtracks for it.
Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings, released 23 April 1991. If I was going to go it alone, I was gonna need some music that I could crank the f*** up when things got tense, and “Sunless Saturday” was the heaviest song on my playlist. The whole album is a wonder of senseless fun, inner city turmoil, pain and injustice, and everything in between. It was Fishbone’s heaviest album to date (both sound and message) and it still blows me away.
Inspiral Carpets, The Beast Inside, 7 May 1991. The Carpets’ second album dispenses with the sixties-influenced pop and leans a lot heavier on the chunky grooves and jams. This is by far one of my favorite Britpop records because of it, by proving they weren’t just a scene or a passing fad with a grindy Farfisa organ.
This Mortal Coil, Blood, released 13 May 1991. The third and final TMC record doesn’t quite capture the reverb-heavy cathedral-like mood of their previous records — the 4AD label had already started expanding past its original signature style — but it still contains some absolutely lovely and tender covers and originals, including Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly’s take on Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister”.
Curve, Frozen EP, released 13 May 1991. Not that long before the brilliant single “Fait Accompli” and debut album Doppelganger, Curve dropped three solid EPs (later to be collected on 1992’s Pubic Fruit) and the single “Coast Is Clear” that introduced many Americans to their strange yet alluring mix of sultry vocals, rumbling percussion and imposing walls of guitar.
EMF, Schubert Dip, released 14 May 1991. Like Jesus Jones, their hit single (in this case, “Unbelievable”) eclipsed everything else from the record it came from, but this truly is a fun, irresistible and addictive record. It was also the album of the summer, with several singles hitting the WFNX playlist and getting several repeated plays during a weekend trip to Maine with a few high school friends.
The Wonder Stuff, Never Loved Elvis, released 27 May 1991. This third album brought the band in a new direction, toning down the nutty humor of Eight Legged Grove Machine and the too-serious pop of Hup and letting them return to their more folksy roots. This record almost sounds like a Waterboys record, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Electronic, Electronic, released 28 May 1991. The idea of Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr recording together sounded like a brilliant plan: two Mancunians with a deep love for guitars and dance music. It takes the best of each musician — Sumner’s gift for melody and Marr’s ability to write amazing riffs — and turns out a bright and powerful summer record.
The Smashing Pumpkins, Gish, released 28 May 1991. Long before their forays into White Album-like excess, weird goth chic, multi-album navel-gazing themes and several drug-related dramas, this band put out a supremely mind-blowing album of grunge-meets-psychedelia.
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.
It was summer of 1991 and I was living in a rented top floor dorm room on Beacon Street facing out over the Charles and the Esplanade. I was working in the drafty basement of the Emerson College library during the day and staying up way too late at night, trying to figure out far to many screwy things in my life.
My musical tastes could have gone either way, really. Most of my friends were digging the guitar-heavy sound coming from Seattle, but I found myself veering more towards the music that was coming from across the Altantic: Britpop and shoegaze. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the swampy, heavy rock of Soundgarden and Nirvana and all those other bands (I may not have gotten along with my freshman year roommate at all, but he did introduce me to some fine Pacific Northwest bands)…I just found myself drawn more towards the, shall we say, more positive sounds coming from the UK. I was a huge fan of Jesus Jones, EMF, Inspiral Carpets, The La’s, Lush, and all the rest of them.
Primal Scream’s “Loaded” was already all over the place since the single dropped way back in February of 1990, with its ‘Hey Jude’ chord progression and Stones-y grooviness, not to mention the great opening salvo, a quotable sample from The Wild Angels. It was a blissed-out remix of “I’m Losing More Than I’ll Ever Have” from their 1989 self-titled second album and it caught on like gangbusters on both sides of the pond. I couldn’t go a day without WFNX playing it and raving about it.
By September I’d moved in to an off-campus apartment with my friend Lissa and scraping by with the library job, but somehow I was able to save up to buy a few albums here and there when I wasn’t furiously dubbing other peoples’ collections. There was a ton of great UK music coming out at the time and I wanted as much as I could get.
I remember first hearing Screamadelica at the basement Strawberries in Harvard Square over in Cambridge. It was one of the first times I spent an extended time in a record store for the sole purpose of listening to an entire album, it was that phenomenal. Primal Scream had been a semi-psychedelic indie band for a few years by then, but for this album they’d shifted in the direction of house and techno. The mix of the two genres worked perfectly for the MDMA-soaked rave scene blossoming in the UK.
“Movin’ On Up” is a wonderful opening track for the album, stating its case with a celebratory gospel chorus. It’s a simple ‘all you need is love’ song full of positive vibes, but it does its job perfectly. We’re going on a trip, and it’s going to be amazing.
It’s followed up by a beat-heavy headtrip cover of Roky Erickson’s “Slip Inside This House” originally from 1990’s Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye tribute album. This also sets the tone for the rest of the album, with the tracks bouncing between fun and funky guitar-centric songs and extended techno beats.
A few tracks later I’d be blown away by one of the most gorgeous, head-trippy tracks I’d ever heard and still one of my all-time favorite songs of that era, “Higher than the Sun”. It perfectly captures the sound of 1960s psychedelic rock and intertwines it seamlessly with the LSD-laden dreamlike feel of rave.
The first side of the US cassette ends with a unique mix of another fun uplifting track, “Come Together” (which samples, of all things, Sex, Lies and Videotape!). [The UK version of this track is a different longer mix.] It’s a bookend track similar to “Movin’ On Up” both in its positive mood and message, and finishes off Side One on a pleasing, celebratory note.
Side Two opens up with the now-popular “Loaded”, and the rest of the album starts veering towards the after-party comedown, with slowly drifting tracks like “Damaged” before returning with an extended experimental retake of “Higher than the Sun”. It all ends with the quiet contemplation of “Shine Like Stars”.
Screamadelica is a record for partying and after-partying, but it’s also a record for sitting down and listening, and that’s one of the main reasons I gravitated towards it. Andrew Weatherall’s amazing co-production work on it makes it pleasurable whether you’re grooving to it on a crowded dance floor or kicking back on your bed with headphones on.
I highly recommend getting this record into your collection if you don’t have it already. [The 2011 twentieth anniversary version provides a great extended review of this album, including numerous mixes, remixes and b-sides.]