Was 1991 the greatest year for music?

All signs point to yes!

Photo by the author (copyright of album images remains with artists/record companies)

Every music lover most likely has a favourite era, be it the birth of rock n roll, the summer of love, the punk explosion or perhaps even the new wave of British heavy metal. But what about a favourite year? Is there one particular year that a music fan can say was greater than any other??

The year 2021 is the 30th anniversary year for a substantial number of brilliant, influential, and ageless music recordings. So many incredible albums were released throughout 1991. The sheer volume of quality material is just mind-boggling. And the influence of many of those records makes the year an incredibly important one.

Looking at the multitude of websites that rate or rank albums from any year, it wasn’t hard to determine just which albums had the biggest impact. There were so many great records but the obvious ones rose to the top in each list, and there should be no surprises!

I prepared an initial list of 89 records that I thought were worthy of consideration in anyone’s end-of-year list. I’ve trimmed that down to 45. Otherwise, we’d be reading for a month!

I have laboured over how to present the albums in this post.

By genre?

Impact, influence, or legacy?

Sales?

I went with impact first, then it becomes a blur (i.e. not really any particular order!).

I annotated most releases and included sales where significant. The notes are not comprehensive reviews, rather just signposts to send readers down rabbit holes of discovery!

So many of these records are essential listening, no matter your genre preference. Want to investigate any of these selections further? Easy. All albums are hyperlinked to their Wikipedia page. Get clicking!


Deep impact

There is no doubt about the fact that the albums below had a major impact on music around the world. The year was particularly marked by the explosion of grunge, which led alternative rock in the destruction of ridiculous hair metal and other overindulgences of the late 1980s.

Mainstream music was looking pretty tired, and disenfranchised youth finally had something authentic to grasp and own.

Nevermind’ by Nirvana
THE game-changer of the year, turning music on its head. The influence of this album is monumental. A multitude of articles and interviews over the last three decades attests to its legacy. You don’t need me to explain the obvious any further. However, I will share just a couple of interesting bits and pieces with you.

Cobain was a huge fan of Pixies and utilised their soft-loud dynamic style in his own song construction. He wanted his band to be as big as Pixies, obviously not knowing how much more popular Nirvana would get. Equally, Geffen Records did not expect huge success either, not producing enough stock in the first run, and expecting it to sell around 250,000 copies in total. When the album took the #1 spot in the US from Michael Jackson in January 1992, it was selling 300,000 copies a week.

Nirvana was booked in mid-1991 to play at the inaugural Big Day Out festival on 25 January 1992, in Sydney, Australia. The only other international act on the bill was the headliner, the Violent Femmes. Between booking and performance, Nirvana became the biggest band in the world. Around 9,000 people tried to get into the Hordern pavilion that holds 5,500 people, for a 53-minute set that started at 7:00 pm. Chaos ensued and it was brilliant!

Ten’ by Pearl Jam
A record often considered an equivalent game-changer to ‘Nevermind’, it actually may not have risen to those dizzy heights without the impact of Nirvana’s release.

Once ‘Nevermind’ turned music on its head, fans jumped at anything similar that took them into the alternative rock world, and ‘Ten’ was right there on hand. Having been a key driver in the explosion of alternative rock, pushing it into mainstream success, the album is now considered one of the great records of all time.

Again, you don’t need me to explain the obvious any further. Haven’t heard it? Do yourself a favour.

Bandwagonesque’ by Teenage Fanclub
Simply a masterpiece! One of the great alternative rock or power pop records of all time, which paved the way for other bands, and reintroduced names like Big Star into the vernacular.

Fuzzed guitars and sweet, dripping harmonies clearly referenced influences such as The Byrds and Dinosaur Jr. Three incredible songwriters produced an amazing collection of joyous, yet humble pop songs.

The record was voted 1991 Album of the Year by American music magazine SPIN, famously beating Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’. Kurt Cobain called them “the best band in the world”. The album was just one of several gems released by Creation Records during the year.

Loveless’ by My Bloody Valentine
Another landmark masterpiece! An astonishing album that perfected the shoegaze genre that they helped create (alongside acts like Slowdive, Swervedriver, and Ride).

It was more than just a shoegaze album though, as nothing sounds quite like it, and bands have been trying (and failing) to emulate it ever since. The album is a revolutionary recording of multi-layered, swirling, distorted guitars, whispered vocal melodies, and dense atmospheric textures that give a wall of sound for a collection of brilliant songs.

Reviewer Paul Thomas stated “Yes, it’s bold, loud, deep, unpredictable and impenetrable in places, but it is also achingly beautiful, timeless and continues to resonate and reveal itself listen after listen”.

The album was famously recorded in 19 studios, by multiple engineers, over two years, and almost sent Creation Records broke. Worth every cent.

Out of Time’ by R.E.M.
R.E.M. turned from indie/college/cult status to rock radio mainstays with their seventh album and the number-1-everywhere single ‘Losing My Religion’.

The band got creative and expanded their sound, with mandolin, harpsichord, and melodica amongst other instruments, and a cast of additional musicians added strings, brass, and pedal steel. Three Grammys and 18 million copies later, the band is a household name.

Metallica’ by Metallica
Producer Bob Rock slowed down the thrash metal masters, guiding them in the creation of the slow, deep, lead-heavy riffs that are the backbone of this record. Their sound moved away from the progressive thrash to more accessible songs including string-laden ballads. The album changed the band’s status from cult metal heroes to global superstars, pushing heavy metal into mainstream exposure.

Even non-metal music fans could get into ‘Enter Sandman’ and ‘Sad But True’. The album debuted at number one in ten countries and spent four weeks at the top of the US charts. An incredible 31 million copies have been sold.

Blue Lines’ by Massive Attack
Considered the birth of “trip-hop”, combining hip-hop with electronica, soul, dance, reggae, and dub. A review in the NME described the album as “the sleekest, deadliest, most urbane, most confounding LP 1991 has yet seen”.

The track ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ was hailed by BBC Music as “one of the most moving pieces of dance music ever, able to soften hearts and excite minds just as keenly as a ballad by Bacharach or a melody by McCartney”.

The Low-End Theory’ by A Tribe Called Quest.
Bridging a gap between rap and jazz, the tone for this record was built on a substantial catalogue of jazz samples, propelling it into the discussion on the greatest hip-hop albums ever.

The album has a big, atmospheric sound, created ironically through minimalism, which is the basis for powerful lyrics that incorporate social commentary and humour. The album’s legacy is substantial, it is considered one of the most influential albums in hip-hop history; reviewers called it the “Sgt. Pepper’s of hip-hop”, and “a consummate link between generations,” which “connected the dots between hip-hop and jazz”, both of which were “revolutionary forms of black music based on improvisation and flow”.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ by Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Wild 80s funk-punk stalwarts smashed their way into the mainstream, continuing the alternative rock explosion, with the release of their greatest album. Producer Rick Rubin, known for his work with hip-hop, rap, and metal artists, steered the band down the path of greatness. The album is a staggering blend of funk, metal, a little blues influence, mellow acoustic parts, soulful vocals, plenty of grooves, and sheer intensity.

Cypress Hill’, by Cypress Hill
The critically acclaimed debut, which went double platinum, launching them into popularity that would see a total of 20 million records sold. Their distinct sound with unique voices, brass and flute samples, and old-school funk set the tone for their success.

Achtung Baby’ by U2
The album was considered the band’s re-invention after the mixed response to ‘Rattle and Hum’. Self-deprecating irreverence replaced seriousness, and the band tried to avoid repeating themselves. The team of legendary producers Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, and Brian Eno managed to transform an ambitious and varied sonic palette into a cohesive, epic, masterpiece. The record debuted at number one on the US (and many other) charts, selling 18 million copies.


Just as influential or has an enduring legacy

Sailing the Seas of Cheese’ by Primus
The landmark second album from the experimental-funk-metal trio led by bass virtuoso Les Claypool. Plenty of riffs, delivered in prog-metal fashion, with goofy lyrics. Extraordinary musicianship, bringing the bass back to a lead instrument. Peerless.

Niggaz4Life’, by N.W.A. 
Debuting at #2 on the US charts, and moving to #1 the following week, this is the first rap album to top the charts. Obviously unprecedented, this achievement paved the way into the mainstream for rap and hip-hop.

Goat’ by The Jesus Lizard
Subtle as a sledgehammer, the band’s second album punched a gaping hole through mainstream hair metal and cock rock. Complex, raw, and explosive noise rock at its best. Cited as an influence by Kurt Cobain. The Jesus Lizard and Nirvana released a split 7″ single in 1993.

III’ by Sebadoh
A melting pot of various underground rock genres, the album is considered a key influence on lo-fi indie rock. The first record with Jason Loewenstein in the lineup.

Spiderland’ by Slint
Considered a cult classic. The recipe for post-rock, combining a tonne of noisy guitars, two measures of doom, a pinch of pysch, and a dash of hardcore. Reviewer Robert Ham, on the band occasionally reforming but not to make new music: “Even they know that any attempt to top this masterpiece will only result in disappointment”.

Girlfriend’ by Matthew Sweet
Another power pop masterpiece, this astonishing breakthrough album came after two records went nowhere and Sweet’s marriage failed. The breakup was fuel for the wonderfully crafted songs that reflect many influences without obvious mimicry.

Crunching guitar rock, heart-wrenching ballads, gentle country-rock, and perfect power pop are all on display, with gorgeous harmonies, and stunning guitar playing from Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. Timeless.

Human’ by Death.
Considered a pivotal and highly influential extreme metal album, ‘Human’ was more progressive and technically complex than previous records. A blueprint for the precision of technical death metal.

Use Your Illusion I’ & ‘Use Your Illusion II’ by Guns N’ Roses
An ambitious pair of albums released on the same day showed the band extending themselves, incorporating elements of punk, metal, classical, and blues. Power ballads next to hard rockers, with some nine and ten-minute epics.


More grunge

Badmotorfinger’ by Soundgarden
On the heavier, more metal end of the grunge spectrum, the band gained success in the burgeoning Seattle scene. The album was produced by Terry Date (whose credits include Mother Love Bone, Pantera, Prong). It charted well around the world, selling two million copies in the US.

Temple of the Dog’ by Temple of the Dog.
This outfit comprised members of Mother Love Bone and Soundgarden, along with a couple of friends (you know who they are). They banded together to make this album as a tribute to Andrew Wood, the singer of Mother Love Bone who died a tragic drug-related death.

It is an astounding, emotional record, made by close friends and members of a very close music community. Pearl Jam came together at the time this record was being made. Released in April, it was almost a sample or taste of what was to come with Pearl Jam.

Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ by Mudhoney.
The Seattle legends may not have had the multi-million sales like their friends, but they did make some incredibly influential music. Toying with releasing the album on a major label, the group opted to go with the independent Sub Pop. Around 50,000 copies later, the label stayed in business.


More rap and hip-hop

Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black’ by Public Enemy.
The critically acclaimed fourth album from the rap legends was recorded in a very short space of time, after material they had been working on for several years was stolen. To get this collection out after that sort of setback proves their genius. Highly ranked as one of the great records ever, hip-hop or otherwise.

2Pacalypse Now’ by 2Pac.
The debut solo record from one of the world’s most revered rappers featured significant and intense subject matter like racism, poverty, and police brutality. A review stated: “Tupac’s vitriol is carried by his sincerity and charisma, both of which would emerge as key traits of the figure that blossomed in the years to come”.

Death Certificate’ by Ice Cube.
His second record was both critically acclaimed and highly controversial. The politically and racially charged album debuted at #2 on the US charts and was highly ranked in the year, decade, and all-time lists.


A broad church

Alternative. Indie. Metal. Underground. Funk. Punk. Dance. Electronic. Yes, that’s a very broad church of genres! However, the aim here is to get these significant and influential records listed for your easy reading and reference.

Trompe le Monde’ by Pixies.
The late 80s alterna-gods, whose influence is reflected in some entries in this list of great albums, release their fourth record prior to their breakup. With their legacy sealed in stone in just a few short years prior, the band (albeit with a lesser role from Kim Deal) created a defiant, abrasive, and uncompromising noise rock album. Reviewer Michael Bonner described it as “one of the best albums that you may very well ever hear” and “a strong contender for best album of the 20th century”.

The White Room’ by The KLF
The fourth and final album by the UK acid house duo, who left the music business soon after. Three singles, ‘What Time Is Love?’, ‘3 a.m. Eternal’, and ‘Last Train to Trancentral’ were released, remixed, and became big sellers. A fourth song, ‘Justified & Ancient’ was crafted into the song ‘Stand By The JAMS’, with country music legend Tammy Wynette providing vocals, becoming a worldwide hit (#2 UK, #11 US, #1 in 18 countries).

1916’ by Motörhead
The band’s ninth album, their first to be recorded after relocating from the UK to Los Angeles. Lemmy called it their renaissance album. British music mag Select called the album “the most cohesive and downright ferocious record to appear under the Motorhead banner since the timeless blast of ‘Ace of Spades’ in 1980.” It was nominated for a Grammy, losing out to Metallica’s black album.

Schubert Dip’ by EMF
The UK group’s first album, which yielded the worldwide smash hit ‘Unbelievable’ (#3 UK, #1 US). Not bad for a debut single.

Steady Diet of Nothing’ by Fugazi
The legendary Ian MacKaye continues with his uncompromising musical output. He and Guy Picciotto go song for song on this album, the band’s second. Fugazi’s approach to music and ethics has been broadly influential on alternative music.

The Globe’ by Big Audio Dynamite II
An extraordinary blend of punk, funk, reggae and hip-hop, masterminded by Mick Jones of The Clash. Features the massive hit ‘Rush’ [“hmmm, I wish I could sing like that … ”].

Electronic’ by Electronic
The critically acclaimed debut from the legendary duo of Bernard Sumner (Joy Division, New Order) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths).

Screamadelica’ by Primal Scream
Seamlessly crossed boundaries of rock, dance, psychedelia, house, and electronica. Ranked highly in many year-end lists, and influenced future electronic music. It’s fun to take a trip!

Raise’ by Swervedriver
Sometimes lost in the crowd of the shoegaze scene, the debut released on Creation Records had a punchier, brighter sound than some of their contemporaries, which still stands up well today.

The Reality of My Surroundings’ by Fishbone
The third album from the LA band, which spawned three brilliant singles. Funk-ska-metal, featuring shredding guitar, rumbling, throaty bass, vocalists that play sax, trumpet, trombone, and lyrics on social issues, with a hefty dose of oddball humour. The record was critically acclaimed, and commercially successful, reaching #49 on the US charts.

Mr. Bungle’ by Mr. Bungle
The genre-bending debut featuring Mike Patton and produced by John Zorn. The album features multiple musical styles, including metal, ska, circus music, funk, and jazz, often combined in one song! A review called it “one of the most ambitiously random, fractious records in recent memory” and “one of the finest records of its kind”.

White Light From the Mouth of Infinity’ by Swans
The seventh album from the influential noise rock outfit is considered a turning point in their career. The record was more complex than those that came before, successfully incorporating their signature hypnotic guitar noise with acoustic rock and blues.

Green Mind’ by Dinosaur Jr
Essentially a J Mascis solo album, after Lou Barlow was fired, and Murph played drums on only three tracks. Melodies get to break out over the sludge and feedback. Brilliant.


Some major acts

Many widely popular artists released some of their biggest selling albums in 1991. They may not necessarily be the greatest, most influential, or ground-breaking albums, however, the people spoke with their dollars!

Dangerous’ by Michael Jackson
A staggering 32 million copies were sold. And that’s his THIRD highest seller behind ‘Bad’ at 35 million and ‘Thriller’ at 67 million copies.

Ropin’ the Wind’ by Garth Brooks
His third album, debuted at #1 on the US charts, spending a total of 18 weeks at the top spot in four stints, selling 10 million copies.

Luck of the Draw’ by Bonnie Raitt
Her biggest-selling record with seven million copies sold.

Diamonds and Pearls’ by Prince & The New Power Generation
Thirteenth album from His Purpleness, the first with new backing band The New Power Generation. Hits included ‘Cream’, ‘Gett Off’, and the title track. Reached #3 in the US, #2 in the UK, and the top ten in many countries.

Stars’ by Simply Red
Best selling record in the UK in 1991 and 1992. Sold nine million copies worldwide, 3.5 million in the UK alone.

Unforgettable … with love’ by Natalie Cole
An album of covers, including standards previously performed by her father, Nat King Cole. Hit #1 on the US charts, and sold well around the world, including seven million copies in the US. The album won two Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The track ‘Unforgettable’ won four more Grammys, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

Marc Cohn’ by Marc Cohn
Debut album, with the hit single ‘Walking in Memphis’, that made him a household name and earned him the Best New Artist Grammy.


Coda

There you go. A selection of 45 records from the greatest year in music. Phew!

So, it’s time for your input …

What records have I left out that you think should be included? There are bound to be many “I can’t believe you didn’t include … ” moments amongst readers.

Additionally, are some of the records listed above simply overrated and shouldn’t be there? Let me know in the comments.

Perhaps you also might like to share your ideas on other great years for album releases. For me, 1970 and 1984 come to mind.

I’ll sign off on a personal note. I was 22 years old in 1991, I was deeply into music, and, in hindsight, was so pleased and thankful to be able to experience the year as it happened.

Thanks for reading.

Anthony Overs
Canberra, Australia.


First published in The Riff at Medium.com, on 7 October 2021.

4 thoughts on “Was 1991 the greatest year for music?

  1. Great article Anthony, a trip down memory lane for me as well. I turned 18 in that year and enjoyed a lot of those albums when they came out. Some others that I enjoyed were Slave to the Grind by Skid Row, Gish by The Smashing Pumpkins, Arise by Sepultura, No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne and Clandestine by Entombed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks mate! All those you mentioned were in the 89 I started with. Gish just missed out on making the 45. It probably should have been in there

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Extremely interesting reading. Incredible well written. Although I am admittedly not familiar with the entire list, you certainly piqued my interest in hearing the ready of the list.
    Thanks Anthony!

    Liked by 2 people

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